Love Thy French Neighbours
By Angie Ho Guyoton
I live in an HLM: 'Habitation à Loyer Modéré', which means lodging at moderated rent. There are approximately 4,700 subsidised flats in Paris, with an estimated 100,900-registered demand for them. HLMs are social housing for working class people: civil servants, single parents and families with financial difficulties, well, in theory. I do not fit into any of these categories; I am not even French, I am Singaporean. So how did I get such a housing privilege? I'll have to thank Virginie for it.
I met Virginie at a party in Singapore. Chestnut-haired, fair skinned and petite, Virginie is not a classic beauty, but she exudes an aura of sophistication, and has an aptness to captivate unneeded attention to herself and to those around her. She proclaimed that I was her first real Chinese friend; she had many virtual ones on Facebook, and she was happy to hang out with me during her brief stay in Singapore.
Six months after we met, Virginie returned to Paris and moved back into her wealthy parents' duplex, where its grand salon has a prominent view of the Eiffel Tower. But that was short-lived – her stay, not the view. Virginie moved out and rented a smaller flat on the eastern side of Paris and signed up to do a degree majoring in Asian Studies.
Shortly after Virginie's house warming party, the French government bought over her entire building and converted it into an HLM. As an old tenant, the government could not throw Virginie out even though her income status exceeded the financial threshold for eligibility. Soon, Virginie's neighbourhood became a melting pot of nationalities and immigrants; young working couples with small children and many struggling artists. Most of her old neighbours chose to move out and new needy ones replaced them. Virginie stayed on.
When Virginie learned that I was visiting Paris, she offered to let me bunk in at her place in exchange for Mandarin lessons – a deal that was too good to refuse then: free lodging and a personal tour guide. My one-month stint in Paris turned to three; I'm into my fourth month in the City of Lights and my euphoria on my free stay is getting dimmer.
Today marks my 100th day in Paris and I spend it doing grocery shopping with Virginie. The late afternoon sun is making way for evening when we finally have enough jostling with the maddening crowd and decide to return to Virginie's bachelorette pad. Virginie's flat is in a building located in a cul-de-sac that has an unobstructed view of greenery, flanked by a church and a small cemetery – a gem, in this poorer area of the capital.
"Argh! Not again!" I shake my head in disbelief as I stare at the notice stuck at the entrance: we are told to collect our mail from the Post Office. The postman couldn't enter our building to distribute our letters as his exclusive keyhole (for him to get in) is vandalised – for the third time this month. Someone has smeared what looked like cement into it.
"Encore! Don't they have better things to do," whines Virginie.
"It's okay, I need to go to the Post Office anyway to collect the package that my mum sent me," I say. The thought of having to deal with the long waiting queues and impassionate post office staff again fills me with dread. But I console myself. I imagine tearing open the huge box from Singapore, cuddling the kilos of foodstuff that I so missed and craved. That yields me a brief respite. I place my two bags of groceries on the ground and fumble in my backpack for my keys. Virginie zips open her rubis Hermès Polochon, fishes out her set of keys and opens the door for us.
"Thanks," I say, using one hand to support the door, I lug the groceries into the hallway where the letterboxes stand neglected.
"I can't understand why you always carry that backpack. Don't you have a proper bag?" Virginie asks, pushing past me without lifting a finger to help.
"A proper bag like a Hermès, no, I don't. Can you please punch in the code?" The second glass door that separates the lift and the main entrance is digi-coded, like most apartments in Paris. Only ours has its code changed every so often to deter strangers from getting in, and for keeping out flabbergasted residents like me who finds it hard to keep track of the changes.
"C'est 23B17?" Virginie asks. Her memory is worse than mine.
"It was 17B23, but they changed it to 1234A yesterday."
"How original," Virginie snorts, and she's right, like the bars and bistros in our area too: 'The Corner Bar' at the corner of the road, 'Bistro from the Metro' at the exit of the metro station and 'The roundabout Restaurant' at the roundabout, and so on. Virginie punches in the code and just when we're about to get into our secured building, the main door swings open and in steps Gérard, reeking of 1664.
Gérard is our first-storey neighbour. He is unemployed and spends his days either at the bar down our street or at home in front of his TV. I know that because I pass the bar to get to the metro station every morning and I see him inside drinking. Sometimes I can hear his TV from Virginie's third storey flat when he leaves his terrace door wide opens. He lives with his wife, or girlfriend, I never found out how they are related. She takes the same metro line as me and always gets off after I do. We don't speak to each other; we just exchange polite nods. She seems to be a pleasant woman.
"Bonjour," I say to Gérard.
"Bonjour," Gérard snaps, spewing alcohol breath into our 6m2 confinement. Virginie mutters her hello, and like me, she's struggling to hold her breath. I pretend to check our letterbox so as to avoid getting into the lift with him.
"No point checking, didn't you see the notice," he says.
"Err, yes, annoying isn't it." Annoying it sure is; there's no escaping now. Virginie, who is leaning against the glass door, lets go of it and hastens to the lift. Gérard catches the door, holds it open and gives me a glassy stare that conveys 'after you mademoiselle' courtesy, or is it 'hurry up bitch' hostility? No matter. I march pass him to join Virginie, who's jabbing at the lift button as if that mere act would accelerate its arrival. The panel blinks '0' and the lift door opens. I still haven't figured out why ground floor in Paris is '0' and not '1'? The ground floor is still a floor – one floor. Anyway. We all get into the lift.
"Is your TV working?" Gérard asks.
"I'm not sure, I haven't been watching TV today," I reply. It was unusually stormy last night; the antenna must be affected. I wouldn't be surprised if there was no TV reception.
"There's probably no reception," I say, "caused by the storm."
"What do we do now?" Gérard exclaims, "The management office is closed, the problem won't be fixed till Monday. Dam! No TV? It's the weekend!"
"I believe there's an emergency number to call, but for urgent matters only, like…"
"No TV reception is an urgent matter," Gérard interrupts, "You call this number and I too, will call to make sure they get somebody's ass down to fix the problem right away. Dam it. I'll get the whole block to call."
I nod my head meekly and will open the lift door for us to get the hell out, but of course it doesn't. It takes ages to reach the first storey. When we finally get there, Gérard blocks the lift door with his six feet frame – for a man nourished on beer, he's in pretty good shape – and again commands me to call the emergency number. Then he steps out.
"This is the first time we have a conversation and it's about the TV that doesn't work," I whisper to Virginie, after the lift door closes.
"He was half-pissed most of the time, I don't think he was up to stringing a complete sentence."
"I'm not calling the emergency number, he can forget about watching TV tonight, and tomorrow." I decide.
We reach the third storey and step out of the lift. Waiting for us at Virginie's door was a Post-it Note saying: "This is the second time I'm at your door; I just want to know if your TV works." It is signed with a voluptuous 'B', and that has to be Madame Blanchard.
Madame Blanchard aspires to be a wealthy chic Bourgeois, and she fails miserably. First of all, the Wealthy do not live in HLMs, of course there are the rare exceptions, but not in her case. She also thinks that she looks chic with her cheap imitation of the latest fashion trend. Virginie says she should try harder; I think she should just give up. Madame Blanchard works as a cashier at the Franprix supermarket down the road and tells the world that she does that to pass time. Perhaps that's true. Her six years old daughter tells everyone that her Maman is a runway model, but it was her Papa who did a run-away: he ran off with the babysitter and the entire block knows.
I first met Madame Blanchard on the night of my welcome party. She had gatecrashed from her fourth storey flat, immaculately made-up, dressed in beige pajamas and lime-green crocs. Her look would have been perfect if not for the missing hair rollers. Nonetheless, before she could utter a word, I whisked her into the hall entrance in my tipsy state and offered her a glass of Veuve Clicquot – a generosity from Virginie's father: six glorious bottles to welcome me as Virginie's flat mate and to ensure that we, together with our four guests, got drunk with only the best. It was a small celebration with few people. At that time, I didn't have many friends. Well I still don't.
Gripping the champagne glass, Madame Blanchard finally revealed the real purpose of her visit: "Vous faites trop de bruit," she said. She then glanced at the fizzing bubbles with a mix of exasperation and pleasure. Really? The six of us could cause such a racket?
"Et la musique!" She shook her head and proceeded to sip at the champagne with resignation. What was wrong with the music? It wasn't that loud, and Miles Davis is, mild! I was told that one could throw a blasting party into the wee hours and your French neighbours would be tolerant about it - apparently not. I apologised to Madame Blanchard and promised her that we would try to keep it down. She nodded her head sympathetically and drained off her glass. She then bid me 'bon soirée' and left. That was how we got acquainted. A week later, I returned Madame Blanchard's courtesy call when a leaking pipe in her bathroom flooded our ceiling. Since then, we have maintained our neighbourly relationship with periodic gripe.
I show Virginie the Post-It Note and as she crushes it up, the lift door opens and out sashay Madame Blanchard and Capucine: the six-year-old daughter whose ambition is to be beautiful and 'chic' like her Maman. Sadly, she doesn't stand a chance with her big head and bulging eyes. Capucine once attempted to introduce me the joy of playing with Barbie and Tea-for-Two, on one unfortunate occasion when I had to endure her alone at her place for five minutes.
"You look pretty today," Capucine says to Virginie. She then waits for the same compliment. Virginie brushes her off with a 'thank you', but Capucine is undeterred. She pouts her lips and continues to hanker for praise. I know Virginie can't bring herself up to expressing the same remark and I don't want to lie either, so I turn to Capucine and announce, "That's a pretty prink dress you're wearing."
Upon hearing this, Capucine shrieks with joy and spins herself around in glee, at risk of performing the Whirling Dervishes. I immediately fear that she might topple over from the sheer weight of her skull and ends up doing the head spin. Fortunately, her mum saves her from the stunt when she finally titters over to us in her 4-inch stilettos.
"Where are your manners, honey?" Madame Blanchard says to Capucine. She then shoves her aside and greets Virginie and me.
"Is your TV working?" she asks.
"No," Virginie and I reply in unison.
"Oh, then we better hurry to the DVD store honey, before all the good movies are taken," Madame Blanchard says to Capucine. We bid each other "bon soirée" and Capucine blows us a kiss before disappearing into the lift with her mum.
"Can't stand that kid," Virginie mutters, "in fact, I can't stand all of them."
"I thought you love the social mix and diversity of your neighbours," I say.
"Of course I adore diversity and I do believe in helping the poor. I'm not against social lodgings, but not in my building!"
"Nimby," I call out. Without saying a word, Virginie opens the door and gets into her flat. I know she's annoyed with me. When we're inside, she makes a show of having to take off her shoes.
I've imposed the 'no-shoes' rule because I've taken it upon myself to do the cleaning, since I don't pay any rent. Virginie says that I am anal retentive, but how can one possibly walk in one's flat after having stepped on not just dust and dirt, but dog shit, chewing gums, urine and what have you – it's so hideously filthy the streets of Paris! If I don't insist, the only time Virginie takes off her shoes is when she gets into the shower or into her bed. And don't even get me started on her personal hygiene habits!
I bring the grocery to the kitchen and start sorting the foodstuff into the fridge.
"Beurk! What's that stench?" Virginie asks.
"What stench?" I trace the trail to the bottom fridge compartment: buried underneath a bag of carrots is a packet of dried anchovies that I had brought from Singapore.
"Oh this," I wave the packet in front of Virginie's face, "dried anchovies, they are very yummy."
"Mon Dieu! It smells rotten!" Virginie pushes it away. I open the packet to investigate and sadly, Virginie is right, the dried anchovies have turned mouldy.
"Oh, they're spoilt," I say with dismay. I was looking forward to having them for dinner. "Let me see if I could salvage some good ones," I add hopefully.
"Oh no you don't, throw this revolting stuff away now!" Virginie says. I heave a big sigh and chuck the packet into the rubbish bin.
"Ah non! Pas dans la poubelle!"
"Not in the rubbish bin? Then where?"
"It's going to stink up the whole kitchen. Outside, downstairs, in the basement," orders Virginie.
Begrudgingly, I retrieve the packet from the bin and leave the flat. Mourning the demise of my dear anchovies, I take the lift down to '-1' for their eventual burial. The lift door opens: still dwelling in my misery, I walk out and crash into a dark figure standing outside.
"Oh shit! You gave me a fright. Whooh! Sorry, bonjour," I manage to say. It's the mystery man from the second storey; he lives with three other women who veiled their heads and faces. No one knows anything about them, not even their surnames. Mystery Man never says a word and I find that eerie. I greet him reluctantly when we cross paths; he greets no one.
"I'm here for my trash, no, I mean, to throw my trash," I say.
Mystery Man walks straight past me into the lift with not a word. I step out quickly into the basement and turn the corner to where the bins are: both are filled to the brim, with trash bags strewn on the floor around them. I add my packet to the pile; then I pause, straining to detect the sound of the closing lift door. Nothing. Is Mystery Man waiting for me? I'm starting to get nervous. I don't' fancy being alone in the lift with him. Then, without warning, a low voice mumbles, "Is your TV working?"
"Huh?" I'm not sure if I'm shocked or relieved. "Did you just ask about my TV?" I turn to face the lift and say. Silence. I can see a stream of light casting out from the open lift, Mystery Man is in there for sure but he's not about to repeat himself.
"Err, no. I think there's no…" before I can finish my sentence, I hear a button being pressed: the lift door shuts, cables begin to squeak as they pull the lift and Mystery Man back to his solitude. He doesn't fancy being alone in the lift with me either.
Phew. I walk to the lift and stop. I look down at my toes, notice a discarded cigarette butt near my slippers and kick it away. Feeling assured, I call for the lift and wait. I glance at the littered floor and am reminded of the absence of Awah, our block's cleaning woman. She has gone back to her hometown in Senegal to visit her sick father. I wonder when she will be back, or if at all, to fill us in with gossip of our neighbours.
The lift arrives and once inside, I again hear the squeaky cables and hope that the lift is not about to break down - it is in the habit of doing so every week. There is a sudden jerk and the lift stops at '0'; its door swings awkwardly open, revealing a woman in a leopard-print dress and sheer purple stockings. She saunters in.
"Bonsoir," we greet each other and I almost choke when I suck in a whiff of her floral perfume. Instantaneously, we both reach for the '3' button, but she withdraws her purple-nail-polished finger and allows me to do the honour.
"So you're a friend of Felix's?" I blurt out. There are three flats on Virginie's floor: Virginie's is in the middle; on the right is Farida's, and she would have nothing to do with this woman. On the left, lives Felix, a middle-aged bachelor who changes girlfriends like he changes his flashy shirts.
"I'm here to meet Felix, but I'm not his friend." Amazing how her manages to say that without cracking up her make-up.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say.
"No worries," replies her husky voice and she gives me a faint smile. From the effort of it, I know she is sincere. I try to look at ease but I don't know where to position my gaze. Shall I cast my eyes away from her? I figure perhaps it's best to just keep smiling, or maybe stare at the corn on my little toe. She dispels my predicament when she lifts up her hand to gently brush back her hair from her shoulder; that's when I notice she's wearing a wig. And is that a prune stuck in her throat? When at last we reach the third storey, I graciously let her pass first.
"Please, after you," I say.
"Merci," she whispers.
She saunters out to the flat on the left and rings at Felix's doorbell. The door immediately swings open to reveal a grinning Felix enveloping in aftershave.
"Salut Felix," I call out. When he sees me lurking behind his lady companion, he quickly ushers her into his flat and closes the door behind him.
"Hahaha, salut. Ça va?" Felix says.
"Fine," I say, "and you?"
"Good, good, hahaha."
"Well, have a good evening then," I say, and walk to Virginie's door.
"Right, right, hahaha. Oh by the way, is your TV working? Mine doesn't seem to be getting any reception. Well, not that I'd be watching TV tonight, hahaha."
"Frankly, I haven't checked, but I think the storm must have knocked off the reception," I reply.
"Right, the storm! It was very stormy last night wasn't it? Hahaha, well, I better get going," Felix indicates his door, or what's behind. I give him an understanding nod and he sneaks back into his 120m2 subsidised flat. Felix is a teacher, he lives alone, and he has such a big flat because he declared to the administration that he has five children under his care. How he pulled that off, it's a puzzle.
I get into Virginie's flat; take off my shoes; go into the bathroom to wash my hands and head to the kitchen to join Virginie. A pan of tomato sauce is warming up on the hot stove and Virginie is chopping up some mushrooms. From the ferocity of it, you don't want to distract her. But I do, I can't wait to tell her what happened.
"You're getting good at this," I say. I've taught Virginie how to use a chopper.
"Thanks," she says and shoves the chopped-up mushrooms into the tomato sauce, splashing some gravy onto the tiled wall.
"Guess what? Mystery Man spoke to me."
"No! You're kidding."
"Yes! I bumped into him, literally, I walked right into him at the basement."
"And he said, watch out bitch?" laughs Virginie
"No, he asked me if our TV was working! Can you believe that?" I say. "Is your TV working?" I imitate Mystery Man
"Is that how he sounds?" Virginie giggles, as she opens the fridge to retrieve a block of Parmesan cheese.
"Yes, as if he was suppressing a burp. And that's not all." I tell Virginie my encounter with Leopard Lady and how Felix was surprised by me.
"Oh poor Felix, he must be so embarrassed," Virginie says.
"He seems alright about it," I say. I open a bottle of red wine and bring out two glasses from the overhead cupboard. After checking them against the light, I wipe the brim with a washcloth.
"Anal-retentive," Virginie says as she grates the chunk of Parmesan against the handheld grinder, sending bits of the cheese flying all over the kitchen table. I check the floor.
"Well I'm not, am I?" I protest, "My struggle to integrate into the inassimilable French society makes me that way."
"We're not that bad."
"No, just impossible to live with. Oh, don't step on that!" I point to the scattered crumbs of Parmesan next to Virginie's left foot. Virginie makes a face, steps over the cheese to the pot of boiling water and without much care, empties a box of Fusilli into it, splashing some salted water onto the hot plate. I watch the droplets jump and bounce, before slowly sizzling out. Then, someone rings our doorbell. Virginie looks at me.
"I'll get it." When I open the door, it is Farida, our other next-door neighbour.
Farida is a single mum who lives with her five months old baby and her 'comes-and-goes' boyfriend, whose peculiar way of calming the crying baby is to play the tam-tam. He also smokes the worst smelling cigarettes. At times, we're spared the noise of the incessant crying and tam-tam playing when Farida and her boyfriend replace those with their shouting matches. Their quarrels often send the boyfriend packing and leaving and back again a few days later.
"I'm sorry to bother you but my TV doesn't have any reception since this morning. I'm just wondering if you're having the same problem," asks Farida.
"No reception," I shake my head. If four neighbours have somewhat said so, then I'll take their word for it.
"Too bad then. Have a good evening."
"Indeed." I bid her good evening and close the door.
"Well," asks Virginie, when I get back into the kitchen.
"The TV, what else?" I say. Virginie rolls her eyes. We take our wine glasses to the living room and sit ourselves down on the sofa for a little aperitif while waiting for the pasta to cook.
"Oops! Guess you'll make me wash this off now," Virginie teases, rubbing the wine stain on the white fabric that we use to cover the sofa.
"Oh don't bother." I'll make a note to accept that Virginie will forever be a messy person. I lean back and look at the chandelier hanging above us – a gift from Virginie's father, who likes to relate the story of how he got it at a steal in Prague, for a mere 3000 euros. The exact same one in Paris would have cost him ten times more. Virginie and her chandelier look so out of place in this building.
My thoughts are punctuated by the sound of banging tam-tam from behind the adjoining wall. I expect to hear the baby, but no, she's behaving; Farida's boyfriend is not. Then we hear Farida shouts, her boyfriend curses and the tam-tam comes to a sudden halt – it is thrown to the floor if I deduce the crashing sound correctly. The baby finally cries and more shouting follow. It goes on for a while until a door slams, and Virginie and I discern heavy footsteps stomping off down the corridor.
"Finally, says Virginie. Yes, peace at last. We stay rooted on our sofa and watch the view through our two floor-to-ceiling windows.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Virginie says. Outside, the sky is tinted with splashes of amber and the setting sun is casting its golden rays on the whitewashed façade opposite, sending its walls gleaming. Fiery blend of coloured leaves rustle on the trees. It is indeed beautiful.
I walk over to the windows, throw them open and marvel at the magnificent sight. Summer is my favourite season, but now, I love autumn. I lean out of the window to embrace this fleeting moment. Then, all of a sudden: "Ra-ta-ta-ta! Ra-ta-ta-ta! Yo! Yo! Yo! Yo!" French rap music booms from the terrace below, instantly exorcising me from tranquility.
I look down to see Gérard at his terrace, holding a can of 1664, dancing to his blaring dreadful music. Keeping him company at the plastic table are three beer cans and a plate of chips, patiently waiting to be devoured.
I give up. I reach for the phone and dial the emergency number. Stoicism. Om.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011