We awaken each day to the morning banter of our next-door neighbors. We have yet to see them, but we clearly hear their conversations coming from their apartment. Our one window and their kitchen window are just a few feet apart on perpendicular walls in the corner of the building’s courtyard. Because the weather has been so lovely, most of the windows, including ours, have remained open all day and through the night. We guess that our neighbors are an older French couple in their 60s and we hear them discussing the weather, their breakfast and plans for the day. It’s not a bad way to start our mornings. At the end of most days, we hear them preparing a late dinner (usually when we are climbing into bed) and discussing the day’s events. It makes me happy to hear them chatting.
The building’s courtyard is small and functional, perhaps 30 feet by 50. Our window is on the ground level of the shorter wall, so we have a good view of what is going on behind most of the apartment windows. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I enjoy trying to figure out the stories of the other tenants. Unfortunately for Joe, there has been no sighting of a “Miss Torso” dancer character or anyone who remotely resembles her. There is a “Mr. Lonelyheart,” however: a 30-something Asian man I often see looking out his window, always alone. While we’ve only had the occasion to say hello to one or two neighbors in the foyer, we’re aware of their activity in the courtyard and the sounds from their windows. There is neither garden nor benches in the courtyard enclosure. It’s simply a functional open area that allows windows to let in a bit of daylight, tenants to put their potted plants in the sun and trashcans to be stored in a gated shed. The space is impeccably clean but the concrete patio doesn’t entice you to go out for some fresh air.
Overall, our studio is very quiet, but we hear the daily comings and goings of our fellow apartment dwellers. There’s the young guy in his twenties who brings out a black plastic garbage bag every afternoon at about 5. There’s the older woman with the tubercular cough who periodically comes down to the garbage shed and whom we often hear hacking through her upper level window. If she’s home, she’s coughing. We’ve heard children speaking American English scurry past our door and up the stairs but we never hear them otherwise. There is one apartment from which the sounds and smells of cooking emanate most evenings; we see the shadows of whoever must be the cook, but we’ve never seen a face. Our noses tell us, however, whether s/he is having bouillabaisse, steak-frites or poulet au curry. On occasion, we hear a heated conversation from a kitty-corner window above. It’s hard to hear the specifics of what they’re debating and even harder to tell if they’re arguing angrily or are simply discussing. The French love to debate almost any subject you can imagine (the weather, the corner boulangerie or the latest political scandal), purely for the pleasure of a lively exchange of ideas. It’s a national trait, which has kept the café culture strong for so many years.
And then on one memorable morning, the sustained female cries of lovemaking emanate from the floor above us and echo through the courtyard. Are they aware that their window is open and that their private pleasure is now communal? Which of our neighbors might they be? We’ll have to observe those we pass in the hallway more closely to fathom this one. Well, this is France, after all, where love is everywhere and is often a community business. The public display of affection is abundant and it’s not just between the pretty young things. Young couples and old, glamorous and bohemian – all share kisses and embraces in public, many of them passionate: on the metro, on street corners, on park benches and in cafes. Ardent romance is for everyone, everywhere. Perhaps it’s because everything, including love, is better in Paris.