This article originally appeared on VICE France.
“Bzzzzz… Report to Kiki… bzzzz… I repeat, it’s happy hour, over.”
It’s 6PM on Friday, and French people can’t leave their homes. Paris and its surroundings have been in and out of lockdown since December of 2020, and a national curfew from 6PM to 6AM is keeping people indoors and isolated.
But here, on the fourth floor of “Villa Philosophe”, a large building nestled in a leafy Parisian suburb, my housemate Kiki has just woken up from a nap. Walkie-talkie in hand, the newly-unemployed finance graduate has summoned all willing housemates to join him for an “Apéro”, or a drink before dinner.
Four floors down, in a dark but spacious semi-basement, some of my roommates are hanging out. There’s Maxence* and Loupette (French for little wolf), both 23, both business students and part-time workers, plus François-Xavier*, a 29-year-old aerospace engineer looking for work. Meanwhile, Lou, 21, and Marie, 20, the youngest, are glued to a French reality TV show.
Before arriving at Villa Philosophe, I had lived alone in Paris for three years in a modest apartment, complete with scented candles and decorative seashells. But that was pre-lockdown. After a few months of watching my social life die in front of my very eyes, I was ready to relinquish small comforts to move into a 400-square-metre mansion with 21 strangers.
I came across an ad for one of the rooms online. After one beer in the garden with Maxence, Loupette and Kiki, I was in. No proof of income or guarantors needed. “In this house, we do things based on the vibe,” one of the two co-owners said.
In the early-2000s, a pair of twin brothers, who want to remain anonymous, decided to create the XXL flat-share. Originally, the house was their aunt’s, and it was supposed to go to their mum, who wasn’t too fond of their project. Eventually, the two convinced her to sell them her shares of the house, which they bought with inheritance money and their savings.
At the time, the then-25-year-olds were very concerned about their third brother. “He was bipolar and had attempted suicide,” one of the owners – we’ll call him Martin* – told me. “It wasn’t possible to take care of him while working full time.” So by renting out the rooms, they could kill two birds with one stone: have enough money to focus on their brother, while surrounding him with a “full house of nice people”. Sadly, their brother died by suicide a few years later. But the villa continued to welcome people.
Originally, there were just seven rooms. “We never thought it would get this big,” Martin said. “To accommodate more, we raised the roof and divided some rooms in two.” Twenty-two rooms at around €700 (£597) a month each make for quite a profitable business.
“Although I studied to be a lawyer, I’ve never had to work,” Martin admitted. Some rooms don’t have windows, like Lou’s, which is decorated with bright wallpaper to try to make up for a grim lack of natural light. “I spend as little time there as possible, and always hang out in the living room,” Lou said.
To make the daily coexistence more manageable, the space has been divided into three smaller flat-shares – one per floor – each with its own living room and kitchen. One of them has moulded ceilings and marbled floors. My floor is more modest and less spacious, with nine inhabitants. My living room is full of random, half-broken and forgotten objects, including a collection of beer bottle cap sculptures that is growing by the day. Over time, I’ve learned to live in organised chaos.
After spending ten years in the house, the twins have moved out, making space for a new generation of booze and fun-loving people. Lise*, a 28-year-old criminal lawyer, moved in after a painful break-up with an ex she also shared an apartment with. “The change was brutal – the first few days, you wonder what you’re doing here,” Lise said. “But soon enough, you create a new family – that’s why people come here.”
For Kiki, the highlight of his experience at Villa Philosophe was during the first lockdown. “It was one of our housemates’ mother’s birthdays,” he said. “We had Skype call all together with her at about 10AM.” Kiki got pretty drunk and shaved the first letter of her name on his head in her honour.
“We’re all going through a bit of a teenage crisis here,” said François-Xavier, the engineer. “I really started to fully experience it when both my girlfriend and I lost our jobs at the same time.” The house has an unspoken “no hookups rule”, but it still happens. During lockdown, one of the housemates’ sisters moved in and ended up sleeping with a few guys in the house. “It created some rivalries,” François-Xavier recalled. Since my arrival, four roommates have also paired up into two new couples.
All the fun aside, Villa Philosophe has seen dark days. A few years ago, two roommates died in separate road accidents. “Awful times, but beautiful too, because everyone showed up at the funeral,” said Martin. In the aftermath of 9/11 they also had an incident involving the RG, the French equivalent of the CIA. “They contacted us because a Tunisian housemate was looking at jihadist sites,” Martin said. At the time, there was also an Israeli girl living at the house. “I don’t think there have been such violent arguments since then,” he said.
“We don’t come here because we have things in common, but, in the end, everyday life brings us together,” said Clarisse, 23, who’s been here for two years. Sometimes, as different worlds collide, things can get heated in the house. “If we talk about feminism, we will probably clash,” Kiki said. “I’m right-wing, and the majority of the housemates are quite radical leftists, so, of course, that’s frustrating. I have learned to adapt my jokes.”
Personally, I think being around people with opposing views is the best part of Villa Philosophe, and something I’ve never experienced in my private life. Nobody stays here for long – maybe a year or two – before moving on. “It’s more of a transitory place,” said Clarisse. “You stay just enough time to have the full experience.”
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