Whenever I arrive in Paris, I expect to find two things: That more people will be smoking here than in New York, and that it will be just as noisy as it is in Manhattan.
You sort of get used to the smoky air in Paris, and of walking behind someone who leaves a trail of cigarette fumes in his wake. Although I never smoked, during my drinking days I spent too many hours in dank bars inhaling noxious fumes to complain now about people smoking on the street.
But I’m still trying to acclimate myself to Parisian noise. I find Paris to be as noisy as or even noisier than New York. It might be a matter of perspective: I’m accustomed to le bruit new-yorkais. But Parisian noise is another thing. Noise is part of any city’s metropolitan texture, and it’s different depending on the city. The constant hubbub of New York is not the punctuating din of Paris.
At restaurants, Parisians generally speak rather softly to each other, since it isn’t the custom to have music playing while people dine, and tables are often jammed up against each other, so you learn to modulate your voice and not put someone else into a position of eavesdropping on your conversation. Certain things must remain private in public. By contrast, at many New York restaurants, the music is so loud you can’t hear what your table-mates say, let alone the folks seated at near you.
I dined at a neighbor’s apartment in Paris not too long ago with her and her two children. Her college-age son Alexander had just returned with her from a brief stay in Manhattan. He didn’t like New York at all. Too much racket, he told me, with the hostile assurance of a young man who knows what he knows and doesn’t stand to be contradicted (or to think about context – he loved to play bass-heavy music at the highest volume whenever his mother wasn’t around). Paris is much more calm, he said.
Actually, it’s not. Now, New York isn’t quiet by any means, as anyone knows who lives near a building construction sight, a roadwork project or a bar. But Paris, apart from its sleepy Sunday mornings – at least if you don’t live near open-air markets that do business then – is equally loud or louder.
Streets in Paris are narrower than those in Manhattan, so you’re up against the source of the ruckus. Commotion can seem closer than it is. Sounds jounce between buildings and then take up residence in your apartment.
You hear drilling and hammering and salutations and arguments and even babies crying incessently (the French seem to let babies carry on wailing until they finally exhaust themselves into temporary silence).
You hear the clack of heels on sidewalks, the obnoxious vroom of motorcycles roaring down streets (there are thousands upon thousands of motorcycles in Paris), even the catarrhal purring of cars maneuvering into tight parking spots.
You hear the clanking cutlery of other people’s dinner parties, the clink of glasses at soirées across the street, the shrieks from down the block of impromptu gatherings of friends who bellow at each other over competing playlists or screech responses to shouted questions as they smoke at open windows well into the wee hours.
You hear what’s being ordered for dinner or drinks at the restaurant a few doors away, or what just happened during the meal when smokers step outside for a puff.
And you really can’t complain. The French pretty much fight for their right to party.
One evening, around midnight, as I was leaving a dinner at my friends’ Renaud and Odette, I heard the sudden blare of music and a piercing squeal of voices from across the street as a fête sprang up in the apartment that faced theirs across the street, about 10 yards away.
I asked Renaud, “Isn’t it a bit late for that?”
“You can’t blame them for wanting to enjoy themselves,” Renaud said, shrugging, resigned to having that night’s sleep disturbed by his neighbors.
In France, you’re expected to put up with the inconsiderate cacophony of nearby residents. They have a right to annoy you, and they expect you to leave them in peace while they do it.
It might be a reason that double-insulated windows are so popular here. Not only do they protect against the cold, but they insulate you from the clamor of the people you’re forced to live beside. It’s the cost of city life, perhaps.
“Les villes sont le gouffre de l’espèce humain,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Cities are the abyss of the human species.
I don’t agree, even as realize I’m sometimes too sensitive to noise to be fully urbanized or to forgive the festivities of obnoxious neighbors, despite being much more a city than a country person, having grown up in New York. It may be one of the many reasons I find Paris so comfortable – it’s like New York, but smaller and slower.
Just not necessarily quieter.