Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Won't you be my neighbor? Part I

Parisian apartments have thin walls. In the case of older dwellings, this often stems from the division at some point over the last century of what were once large bourgeois family apartments into multiple smaller, separate ones, which Parisian landlords today rent out for a small fortune each. Sound insulation between the now separate residences was—and has remained—virtually nonexistent. Thus, what goes on in the apartments on either side of one’s own is generally perfectly audible, and more or less easy to live with depending on who the neighbors are, what kinds of noises they tend to make and what time they tend to make them.

But the walls aren’t all; Parisian apartments also have thin ceilings. Coupled with the frequent presence of hardwood floors, what goes on above one’s apartment is almost as difficult to ignore as what goes on on either side of it. This all adds up to the average apartment dweller being exceedingly well aware of the most intimate details of the personal lives and habits of those who live all around him, while not actually knowing any of them. A kind of box, if you will, of uninvited intimacy with people who are just this side of strangers.

In Paris, apartment neighbors tend to not know each other from Adam, which is perfectly fine by them. I mean, why bother? You will NEVER see a Parisian knocking on a neighbor’s door to request a spare egg or a cup of sugar, or to pop in for a spontaneous chat. Instead, it’s the opposite: they pretty much avoid each other like the plague. Stairwell encounters are particularly undesirable. Thus, if you are getting ready to go out, and you hear a neighbor’s door opening, you wait. Once the coast is clear, and the risk of having to make pesky, time-consuming small talk is gone, then you can venture out. Not before. 

G. and I live in just such an apartment. We don’t know many of the other people in the building, despite its relatively small size, but this is obviously normal. Besides, the lack of intimacy between ourselves and 85% of our neighbors is more than accounted for by the extreme intimacy we cannot help but share with the remaining 15%. Take the couple living above us, for example: their lives are an open book of sound that never fails to draw our attention because really, what choice is there?

At 7:00 am, they(?) are in the bathtub splashing water about and brushing their teeth. We can actually hear the brushing. At around 9:00 am, clomp clomp clomp! The perpetually high-heel-shod girlfriend comes tramping down the wooden stairwell. At 7:00 pm, she comes tramping home, jangles her keys into the door, opens and slams it shut behind her, tromps over to what I assume is the bed, removes her heels, which she lets drop—BAM! BAM!—to the floor, and then, all is relatively silent. Until after dinner, that is, when either she puts the latest Mika single on perpetual repeat, or she and her boyfriend get into a shouting match. They tend to intersperse their shouting with what sounds like rearranging their living room furniture.

Then there’s our next-door neighbor, whose noises are almost as bizarre. He is an elegant Japanese man in his late 40s, very well-dressed and polite. But once inside his apartment, things get very weird. He has this answering machine whose volume must be set on “hearing impaired” because when the thing picks up, we hear the entire message as though it were being screamed through our wall. Then, the machine starts beeping at 5-second intervals to notify our neighbor that he has a message. In the beginning, when we had just moved in and hadn’t grasped that beep = answering machine, he left on vacation for an entire week. Lots of people called him during that time: BEEP BEEP BEEP, all week long. I thought he had installed some kind of heavy-duty medical equipment or an industrial security alarm. This neighbor is also in a “complicated” relationship ... with a 20-something Brazilian male fashion model, who spends his days drinking and slamming the front door. Sometimes I run into him in the stairwell as he staggers down, hiccuping. I really need to work on my neighbor avoidance skills.

Anyway, not to JUDGE or anything, but this is the reality of Parisian apartment life. And yeah, we certainly contribute our share of noise as well. I’d even be willing to bet that we’ve irritated the hell out of our neighbors on countless occasions with our tromping around, vacuuming, vibrating laundry machine, long phone calls in English and noisy dinner parties. Plus I’m a bit clumsy and have been known to drop heavy objects on the floor, sometimes in the middle of the night. This is why there is never any open conflict in the building: we all accept that being auditory witnesses to each other’s daily goings-on is normal. And in the face of the cold anonymity of city life, maybe it does us all some good to be somewhat in touch with other people, however bizarrely.


  1. Does this little story imply that there are no French secrets?

  2. Who's that awesome G you're always talking about ?


  3. I definitely relate to this post!! you know how I FEEL about les voisons.... and ear plug distribution....

  4. @Pa: plenty; just not in my building
    @Lily: oh no, yours are WAY worse. At least mine mean well (I think)
    @Anonymous: become a follower and we'll talk ;-)

  5. The neighbor situation in France is just weird. Paris seems to have its own weirdness but even out by Angers where I live, the neighborly interaction is worse than NYC, where I actually knew my neighbors! It's so strange. Now we're in a house and I know the older woman across the street and the rest can't be bothered. Even made their kids cupcakes and stuff but they don't even know my name. OH well, cultural difference I guess.

    1. I hear you, Diane! Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood evidently is not a part of French upbringing. That must explain it!