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Sounds of the City of Light

Almost all the windows of my apartment face the street. The kitchen window and a small window in the toilet is on what’s called a “courette,” although it’s really just a shaft shared by one of the other buildings in my building. (I know that doesn’t make sense, but there are four buildings attached at the corners, all of which surround one courtyard. Each has its own stairwell, lettered, A, B, C and D. The lower left corner is where the shaft exists and where building A and D are shared, as are the windows.)

The courette, chez LeedsThe courette, chez Leeds

Buildings connect in the courtyardBuildings connect in the courtyard

Living room window which opens separatelyLiving room window which opens separately

The regular windows The regular windows

If my neighbors’ windows are open on the shaft, I hear everything they do or say if they are anywhere near them. I’m sure the same thing is true for them who must hear everything I do or say, at least while I’m in the kitchen or toilet. (This is not a very pleasant idea and fortunately, in the winter, when these windows are closed, our privacy is better respected.)

I’ve seen and heard some pretty interesting things coming from that shaft, including an attempted suicide from the top floor many years ago –– a woman who threatened to jump from the window, wailing and pleading to someone inside for seven long hours until the firemen came and rescued her. I hear pots and pans being clinked and showers being taken.

The windows on the street side are not double-paned. They are original handblown glass from the 17th, 18th or 19th-centuries (not sure how old they really are) with all their imperfections. Because of this, I refuse to change them for the newer, better insulated, quieter kind. On two of the four windows, one pane out of the four opens independently of the rest, something that might not be possible with new windows. I love this feature and don’t want to give it up. Open or not, I hear just about everything that takes place on the street.

When I first moved to rue de Saintonge, there were eight tailor shops in a row and a few small factories –– no restaurants or bars. Cars, motorbikes and bicycles came down occasionally, but the traffic was light. Garbage pick-up took place about 9 p.m. every night and that schedule hasn’t changed in more than 20 years. On the weekends, a musician would play a trumpet or accordion while walking slowly down, hoping for coins to come flowing from the windows. It doesn’t happen now as often as in years past, much to my disappointment.

Every now and then we hear the voices of the neighbors and sometimes during summer evenings when the windows were open to most apartments, we can hear occasional love-making. (I had one neighbor who was so loud, we affectionately called her “the screamer.”) When there’s a party in process, we all have the opportunity to party with them. Two nights ago I could have sung “Happy Birthday” along with a big group of people honoring a friend. It was loud and clear from several buildings down the street.

The sounds that come from the street have changed dramatically over the years now that popular bars and restaurants have invaded our tiny narrow Marais street. The neighborhood has become so “branché” (hip) that there are groups of young people who hang out on the street with drinks in their hands, smoking and talking loudly. On the weekends it can go on very late into the night. Candelaria, a Mexican restaurant (“taqueria”) with a bar in the back, causes most of the problems. Our “voisins” (neighbors) haven’t yet formed a formal opposition to the noise, but if they did, I suppose I’d join them, not so much because of the noise, but because there has been some unwanted aggression and brawls on my little one-time benign street thanks to their drunkenness.

None of these noises on the street seem to affect my sleep, however, or at least I don’t think so. The sounds of the city are just part of living in a densely populated metropolis and are part of the city scene. If I wanted quiet, I would be living in the countryside or have opted for an apartment facing a courtyard, instead of a street. In an ideal world, the living room overlooks the street, while the bedroom is on the courtyard. This way, you gain having the silence for a restful snooze without losing the life one finds on the street.

No offense to my fellow Americans, but they make more noise talking loudly on the streets than anyone else, or so it seems. They tend to scream at one another from far away, like “Hey, Mary, I’m over here looking in the window! Don’t you just love these shoes?”…when Mary is half-way down the street and can’t see the shoes at all. Perhaps my American ear is more acute to it, but unlike the French who learned to modulate their voices from a very early age, and who have a general respect for being quieter wherever they are, the Americans stand out from the rest. This is certainly true in restaurants where it’s even more obvious. (I have a theory about why that is, and I’m not the only one who agrees. For example, here’s just one such post about it, but Google it and you’ll find lots.

While I type this, I can hear a drill from construction happening somewhere close. A dog is barking. A car is coming down the street. One honks. A truck goes by and whatever it’s loaded with is rattling. Water is running; not sure from where. People are talking among themselves. Doors open and they close. A baby is crying. Someone laughed out loud. I like all that. It reminds me that there’s real life out there and I’m not alone in the City of Light. Others are doing their thing just like I’m doing mine, quietly or not.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - Paris, France

Adrian Leeds
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 P.S. On that “note,” check this out for an interesting read about “Eight sounds that tell you you’re in Paris

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