Most everyone dreams of an apartment in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower or perhaps the river Seine. But alas it’s only the “lucky few,” as they say, who get to live the dream. Ironically, my first apartment in Paris did have a view of the Eiffel Tower from my bedroom. Back then I took it a bit in stride, after all I was only supposed to be here for a couple of months and I was making the most of my experience living in Paris.
Well, now nearly ten years later, I am still making the most of living in Paris, but I have long ago left that apartment in the far corner of the 16th. Along the way, I lived on rue Montorgueil, a bustling market street near Les Halles with a view of the steeple of St Eustache. Just after, I lived in Place Dauphine, a charming little square hidden on the tip of the île St Louis. This apartment looked over the small tree-lined park and down to the grand entrance of the Palais de Justice. A beautiful view for sure, but what I didn’t have was many neighbors.
Not surprisingly, the apartments in the Place Dauphine were most likely owned by foreigners who rarely came to Paris. Mine was owned by a Belgian Count who insisted I include his title on the monthly rent check. Only about 10% of the apartments in Place Dauphine ever had the lights on in the evening. A pity really, I learned from one of my neighbors in the building. This woman had lived there for more than fifty years. She told me of the lively weekly market and all of the small bakeries, cheese and butcher shops that were there when she moved in. It was really a village square back in the 1950’s, catering to the growing families that lived there. It has also been the lovely Paris setting for many movies, and it was quite a treat to see my front door on “Sex and the City” when Carrie and “The Russian” walked by.
Now I live in a larger apartment, away from the river, across the street from a historic covered market. Unfortunately, its 19th Century iron and glass roof was removed and the market is now covered with an unattractive modern apartment building. At least there are trees along the street. In short, after all these years in Paris, I live like a typical Parisian. Since of course, the average Parisian doesn’t have a view of the Eiffel Tower, the river or even a small square with trees. It’s also rare that people here will get to know the neighbors living in their building. If you own your apartment, you certainly meet them at the co-op meetings, or worse when a leak in your kitchen floods their apartment in the middle of the night. (as happened to me a few months ago) But realistically, aside from a simple bonjour or bonsoir as you pass in the courtyard, there isn’t much interaction with the people in your building. Life at home is a pretty isolated existence which has no doubt spurred on the tradition of hanging out in cafés.
However, the neighbors in the surrounding buildings are a completely different story. Here is where the real-life tapestry of Paris sights unfolds before you and reveals one of the unspoken secrets of Paris – most Parisians, for lack of a better term, are voyeurs.
I was struck by this recently when one Sunday afternoon a few people came over to my place for tea and Galette de Rois, an Epiphany tradition in France. One of them had never been to my apartment, and while standing at the window asked, “Alors, les voisins, ils sont comment?” (So, how about the neighbors?)
She wanted to know about the neighbors and more specifically if anyone was interesting. I insinctively said no, but then with some thought, I then realized I could offer a quick rundown of the people whose apartments faced mine. My neighbors include a young family, an older couple with numerous grandchildren, a couple of university students and a plump middle-aged woman whose small studio apartment is decorated like a rose garden. She watches television from the moment she comes home from work and seems to spend every sunny day on her tiny terrace tending her plants wearing just her bra and enormous white underpants. Unknowingly, I had become a Parisian voyeur.
This lead to a conversation amongst my guests about their neighbors; as everyone it seems, shares this inevitable pastime. Many of the guests had a pretty good idea of who lived facing them, their general habits, who had gotten a new sofa or had a baby and a few mentioned how often they saw them in some state of undress. Of course, like with my neighbors, rarely are these people anyone wants to see in such a state.
There were stories of daily routines which stayed unchanged for years, television preferences, major arguments, and even a proposition. One told the story of daring young friend who was coming up the stairs of his building late one night and saw a beautiful woman gazing out the window of one of the apartments that faced his stairwell windows. A bit tipsy, he cheekily took a few moments to enjoy the view. The woman in the window noticed him and beckoned the handsome friend to join her for a drink, which he did! I guess sometimes people do meet the neighbors in their own buildings.
Someone else recalled a night when the people living across the courtyard from his bedroom window where having a big party. From the bedroom window, he had a view of their kitchen and bathroom, neither of which had much for curtains. The music was blasting out the open kitchen window, keeping him awake. When he finally looked though his curtains to see what was up, there was a couple (not the residents whom I suppose he would have recognized) but two party guests perched on the bathroom sink, in what could only be described as a compromising position.
Then one of the couples at my party said they live facing a Fire Station; a “détail croustillant” (In French, titillating details are crunchy not juicy) that produced some anticipatory excitement from the group. You see, firemen tend to be quite good looking in Paris and they have something of a reputation for availability – if you know what I mean. So you can understand the collective pique in level of interest when my friends mentioned the Fire Station. Well, true to form, it seems that despite being surrounded by apartment buildings, the large window in the showers of this fire station don’t have curtains or even mottled glass. You can imagine the rest.
Lastly, one woman had a story from the other side of the street, as it were. She told us about a time, one Sunday afternoon when she and her boyfriend were getting amorous on the sofa. As things were heating up, clothes began to fly. Then when they were well into the spirit of the moment, she glanced over the to realize that the curtains were open. As she looked out the window she saw her elderly neighbor across the street; sitting on a stool in the window of her kitchen, cup of tea and saucer in hand with a smile on her face, enjoying the show. Needless to say it was “curtains” on future performances.
These stories made me wonder about the cultural differences that exist in France. Were there any rules about this equally exhibitionist and voyeuristic behavior? Things became clearer toward the end of the discussion when a young French woman mentioned that she lives in a long narrow apartment where all the rooms connect along the front façade lined with windows. So even in her hallway she is in front of a window. She said she couldn’t be bothered to close the curtains. “Frankly,” she said, “If my neighbors don’t want to see me getting dressed, THEY, can close their curtains!” I wonder if they do…
Hotel Plaza Athenée
“Rear Window” ©Paramount Pictures