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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

In loving memory

I have recently suffered a loss in the family; I don’t know if I can technically call it a being, but I do tend to “bond” with my material possessions to such an extent that they almost seem to have a soul. I know there’s a term for this (other than “insanity”). Ah yes, anthropomorphism. What did people do before Google? Seriously?

So the family member in question is my late Samsung E840 Candy Pink telephone, which I purchased back in the foggy, innocent days of spring 2008. At the time, I was looking to change mobiles and fell in love with the sleek lines and sexy color of this little slider. The fact that it was quite similar to G.’s own maroon version added a certain extra touch of “buy me” seductiveness. So I bought it.

Having tested multiple phone brands in the past, trial and error had proven Nokia to be the most worthy of living in my purse. Nevertheless, I took a chance on this Samsung because, well, it was so preeeeetty. Sadly, what it boasted in physical beauty it sorely lacked in inner depth. For one, it offered but a shadow of the gadgety personalization options I’d come to so appreciate from Nokia, and two, its texting configuration was an absolute disaster. It steadfastly refused to be taught any new words, and for my franglais texting needs, this was unacceptable. But it had a nice built-in camera and worked just fine as an actual phone, so in the end I figured it could stay.

For years, the two of us built up a certain complicity: Katrin and her fuchsia phone! Despite our rocky beginnings, we came to become all but inseparable. The phone’s memory stored my friends’ numbers and G.’s loving text messages; the calculator function made dividing up the tab after group dinners a breeze; the camera function had my back whenever my real camera ran out of power; the alarm function gently woke me every morning with the song “Paul Simon” by the Russian Futurists. On a side note, I would have preferred a song called “Russian Futurists” by Paul Simon, but whaddya do?

So life was bliss … until, on a Friday night just a few weeks ago, G. proposed that we see the movie “Inception” at the UGC cinema near Opéra. We settled into our seats and as usual, I put my purse by my feet. Now, I’ve always had a little voice in my head that has whispered, “Watch out, someone behind you could just reach under your chair and nab that purse right out from under it!” but I have always brushed off said voice because hey, what kind of an evil person would do THAT?

I’ll tell you what kind. The kind that slips into a theater at 11:00 pm and pretends to watch the movie when really, they just want to take your stuff. So the long and the short of it is this: some punk kids behind us managed to get their greasy little hands into my purse and steal my cell phone right out of it without my noticing a thing until they were long gone. I know this because when we called the number later on—you know, just to be sure—they answered. Morons. I’m lucky they didn’t take my whole damn purse, but that’s beside the point.

I’ve had run-ins with the Dark Side of Paris before, and each time I’ve come away thinking that the city loves me a little less, which is truly sad. It’s an awful feeling knowing that some ne’er-do-well has a cherished belonging that only minutes before was sitting safely in your care, even when it’s something as insignificant as a phone. I liked this little phone of mine, all the more so for the years of saved texts from G., virtual messages having long replaced the written love letter among us Gen Y-ers.

But let’s put this into perspective: it’s not the end of the world. I suppose I should take it as a lesson on the need for greater general awareness, or even as an opportunity for spiritual growth! Are we not supposed to store up our treasures in heaven, where thieves cannot break in and steal? Well, yeah, but … I’m an incorrigible materialist! It’s MY phone and as such, should be in MY hot little hands and no one else’s! Grrrrrrr.

However, time heals all wounds, and one week of mourning was really all I could give. Try as I might, I simply cannot lead a balanced existence without a phone/alarm/camera/converter/calculator. So I HAD to go out and get a replacement. Not considering myself to be “cool” enough for an iPhone (yet), I settled on the next best thing: a smart phone—by Nokia—which even pays homage to my departed Samsung with a nice fuchsia exterior. So everyone’s happy: my service provider, for coercing me into another 24-month contract in exchange for the phone; G., for once again being able to reach me during the day; and of course myself, for having what is quite frankly an awesome piece of technology AND just so happens to be beautiful on the outside as well as on the inside. But if you think I’m letting it out of my sight for more than 2 seconds, think again! No you can’t hold it! It’s mine, I tell you, miiiiiiiiiine!

R.I.P. - May 15, 2008 - September 4, 2010