There’s no Eiffel Tower from my window; no Arc de Triomphe, cobblestone street, or art deco Metro entrance. Rue Mouffetard Market – with madame proprietor of La Fontaine aux Vins who now greets me by name, the boulangerie clerk who’s still not forgiven my 50 euro faux pas, the rows of vendors with fruits and vegetables, shellfish and whole fish and filets, and smelly, creamy, hard and moldy cheeses – is just beyond my slightly neglected courtyard and heavy, creaky double doors (brass knobs in the middle, of course, obliterating any chance of graceful entry). From the map, I see that the Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden) is just around the next block and the Siene a bit beyond that.
My window onto Paris is instead, filtered through a canopy of young trees, a border of sorts it seems, between my cozy enclave and the sprawling 1970’s high-rise just beyond the pigeons and the limbs and the sprouting leaves. It’s jarring to think of architectural abominations in Paris. Surely these formal, refined French skipped that entire era, turning the other cheek with a harrumph as they ordered another coffee. Apparently not, unfortunately, since from my window the evidence looms, all dozen floors or so of identical balconies, metal-framed sliding glass doors, concrete pillars, and a flat industrial roof, presumably scattered with lounge chairs and potted plants to give it intimacy. No overflowing flower boxes, scrolling ironwork or imposing knobs-in-the-middle wood doors to be found.
View notwithstanding, I’m captivated by my window, and find myself transfixed there, with coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, or an occasional spread of fruit and cheeses midday. It’s the ever-changing landscape – not in views but in melody – that draws me back day after day.
It’s the extended family in the flat below, just out of sight, gathering on weekends and holidays, glasses clinking as laughter and conversation flows in beautifully fluid French, none of which I understand, who capture my imagination. They are artists and writers and teachers, I imagine, setting the cadence and the tone of the unfolding scene before me.
It’s the brilliant music, wafting from the buildings beyond, that compels me to throw open the windows and pour a bit more wine. Haunting a capella strains of the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America echoed through the late night air on July 4th, just another ordinary night in Paris. The concert pianist (or at least my imagination makes it so) practices each evening, just as the sun sets in the late evening sky. The operatic tenor hones his favorite piece late some afternoons, while the streets below buzz as families scurry home for the evening.
It’s the clashing and booming of fireworks for Bastille Day – and the days leading into it, as well as those thereafter, just for good measure – that remind me I’m a guest in someone else’s neighborhood. It’s their neighborhood bistro that revs up most evenings, the cheering and jeering and laughter wafting up through my open curtains late into the night. The beeping trash trucks, wailing ambulances, firetrucks and police cars that wander through only occasionally, shattering the still cadence with their urgency.
I visit my friends in St Sulpice, on Blvd St. Germaine, and on Ile de Cite and envy their urban energy. The street scene, the rows of cafes, dozens and dozens of chairs all spilling out onto the sidewalks, the eclectic buzz of the French and the tourists jockeying for position, the international mélange of noise and people and customs. “I’ll find a place near here next time I’m in Paris,” I think.
Then I slip down the steps under the art deco signs and into the tunnels, past the street art and streetlights and onto the train, heading home, back to the neighborhood. The cadence slows, and an elderly woman exits with me, chatting comfortably in French as we cross the street together, me trying not to let on I don’t understand. She smiles and waves slightly as we part company at the next corner. My small flashlight guides me through my darkened courtyard and up the stairs, the only sound my footsteps tiptoeing past neighbors’ doors as I settle in for the night.
The sun rises and the quiet, predictable patter again fills my window, the artists and teachers gathering below, the random left-over fireworks echoing in the distance on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning.
“Today we rest,” my neighbor tells me as we pass in the courtyard.
My neighbor, I realize.
I’ll continue to relish the visits with those friends and celebrate the noisy, chaotic buzz of life lived large along the banks of the Siene in trendy, fashionable Paris. I’ll soak up every minute of it.
And then I’ll come home to my neighborhood.