Burglars in France

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Paris is a fairly safe city – discounting the actions of anarchists that have marred several recent peaceful demonstrations. In general, though, you don’t face violent crime in most Parisian neighborhoods. Chances are good, however, that you or someone you know in Paris has been burgled.

That’s one reason you see so many shutters – or volets – closed at night. It’s not just to keep out prying eyes (though the French do like to shut themselves in against the outside). It’s to keep out prying hands.

The apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine in Paris was burgled a few years ago. Just after friends who were staying there had left for a dinner early one summer evening, thieves climbed up the gutters, broke open a window, undid the latch and slipped in. They stole euros but left the dollars and the computer equipment. They needed money fast, apparently. But no one outside on the street had noticed, although it was still light out, or if someone had seen something, nothing was said. This sort of breaking-and-entering is less likely to happen there now that the military is stationed all day before the faceless façade of a synagogue across the street from the apartment (still – nothing says potential target as effectively as having guards standing before your unmarked doors).

The apartments of other friends have been broken into as well. Paris being a low city, with most buildings no taller than five stories, it’s not too difficult for a fairly nimble thief to scamper about on the rooftops and let himself into the window of an unsuspecting dweller. But it’s not just Paris. The home of my French tutor in a suburb of Paris was recently broken into one morning. The thieves stole computers and my tutor’s passport, and fled after discovering, on opening an upstairs bedroom door they’d believed to be unoccupied, that they had awakened my tutor’s 24-year-old son. He was, luckily, unharmed.

During the weeks of painting and light repair work at my friends’ apartment in Paris, I asked the contractor to replace the old windows with something more secure. He found a supplier for new double vitrage windows – double-strength or double-thickness ones made of a glass compound with durable plastic frames – which he and his team installed in a day. They’re much safer than the old wood-and-glass ones, and you’re less likely to hear the sounds of the street or of partying neighbors. Streets being narrow in Paris, neighbors’ parties seem to take place in your living room. And while the French value the right to privacy, they value just as much the right for you to endure the noise they make while they party in private, even if the thumping music (for some reason it’s always thumping music, since the point seems to be noise rather than conversation) blares out into public spaces. Now that the windows in the apartment are soundproof and burglar-resistant, you’re much less likely to hear the unthinking revelry of smoking neighbors. It’s a generally quiet neighborhood, this part of the 17th arrondissement, so when partying breaks out you notice it even more than you would if you lived in a noisier part of town.

Still, I’ve often been struck by how Parisians (and, I assume, other people around the country) close themselves off from the night. In warmer climates in the south of France, the houses are shut off during the day to keep interiors cool against the baking sun outside. In New York, you’re used to seeing squares of yellow light shining from apartment buildings if you’re strolling around on an evening (you’re also used to hearing the hum of air conditioners in summer). In Paris, the open windows are usually at apartments where people are partying and where guests step to the windowsill to smoke, punctuating the night every 10 minutes with screeching revelers 15 feet from your living room. Otherwise, you assume that everyone’s gone to sleep at an early hour, since everything is shut off.

So in Paris, once night falls, the volets are closed. This can have something to do with staying safe, certainly, but also of holding the night at bay, as well as keeping drafts out (the French are fearful of drafts – thinking they cause illness; at the slightest breeze out come the wraps). I asked my friend Raoul once why he keeps his windows and shutters closed at night in his Parisian apartment, which is on the top floor of a building and generally free of prying neighbors. He said he needed absolute darkness in order to sleep. I wondered, “But what about a little breeze at night?” He shuddered at the thought of some noxious malady leeching in through the slit of a window while he slept. Not to mention burglars who might descend from the roof and somehow slip in to rob him.

His family home in Blagnac, outside of Toulouse, is a fortress when he leaves (and also when he sleeps). Enormous wooden doors shut over the interiors doors and have a daunting series of latches and posts, while the metal shutters on the windows are difficult enough to open from the inside. They’re probably impenetrable for thieves. When I slept there for a few nights one recent hot summer, I kept the windows opened – thieves be damned – otherwise the room would have been so stifling sleep would have been impossible.

For reasons known only to the non-French, I avoided catching whatever airborne illness the breezes off the Garonne river might have carried into the bedroom. Raoul looked at me with bemusement when I admitted the next morning that I’d kept the windows open at night. Not at the possibility that thieves might have entered through an inaccessible second-story window, but that I’d left myself prey to infestation from the cooling breeze. Sometimes you’re never really safe in France unless you’ve closed yourself off from any contact from the outside.

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