It’s midnight, and rather than strolling the streets of Paris, I am ready to go to bed. I make sure my door is double-locked, turn out my dimmer-switch lights and settle into mon lit. But before I close my eyes, there is one nighttime ritual left:
I set my elbows on the sill of my room’s one window and look toward the courtyard below. Which lights are on tonight? I think. Which Parisians’ lives can I get a glimpse of before turning in? And with a few stowaway traces of night air on my face from the cracked window, I take a look beyond the tall windows lining the yard.
There’s a spooky gray light on in a kitchen that is usually occupied by a busy cook. The stylish unfinished wood counter is empty and the room is still. A person my age watches TV on the rooftop level, the cold light flickering as French voices hit the walls of her studio. Below her, plants stand tall in the grand windows, obscuring occasional shadows crossing the parquet.
Because I am a newcomer to this city, I tell myself that my love of looking into people’s houses at night is totally justified. People-watching during the day is widely accepted here, so why not the same thing, albeit in a way more intimate setting, at night? Surely that’s OK, right? (You may or may not agree.)
In reality, spying on people from across the courtyard is just me indulging in a guilty pleasure. But I pick up a lot of details about Parisian life in the process — perhaps even more than from running through the streets at dawn.
One thing I have noticed from my creep-a-thons is that a lot of nighttime scenes fall into two categories: ones that seem classically French — food-centric and reminiscent of another time; and ones that seem classically American yuppie — all about the technology.
Category 1: Across the courtyard next door, a family is finishing dinner. Their hands rest on a pale blue tablecloth as they sit deep in conversations long after their fruit and cheese have been cleared away. A bottle of mineral water remains to cool their talk-tired throats. They learn in close as they listen to one another, nurturing a conversation that could have started when everyone was eating and has gotten poignant now that it is midnight. In their kitchen (seen through the next window), the stainless steel sink reflects a few warm lights.
Category 2: In a different building, a man works at a desktop computer at 9 p.m., the last one in one of the many financial offices here. Someone’s studio apartment kitchen is decorated in sleek whites and silvers; their microwave ready for the frozen broccoli and carrot bol vapeur they bought from Picard and their Internet TV ready to be queued up.
Food or TV, food or TV. I think the two categories betray the age differences in my neighborhood, which is made up of mostly families and older people but houses some elegant crash pads for career-driven kids.
So for an outsider looking in, there is a lot to be gained from observing these Parisians’ midnight lives. Is it creeping? Yes, definitely, yes. But is it justifiable creeping?
Once again, I’ll let you be the judge of that.