Morning in Paris — the silence of August
It is just before 6 a.m. in Paris. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that we are growing familiar with our new neighborhood’s moods and manners, its habits and rhythms. We have only been here three days, and they have been such sweltering days, with temperatures reaching the mid-nineties, that we have found ourselves lethargic and out-of-sorts, alternately optimistic and anxious, waiting for the air to cool so that our lives here can begin in earnest.
Of course, one always hears that Paris is empty in August. I thought this would be a good way to approach the city — when it is at its calmest — but only after our arrival did it occur to me that Parisians leave Paris in August because the heat is oppressive.
The good news is that our apartment is astonishingly quiet. This, I did not expect. One of the biggest concerns I had about moving to Paris was simply dealing with the noise. I did not do well living in New York City, where the noise was a constant, maddening rattle and hum, bang and howl, sirens and construction and car alarms and a general cacophony that made me want to escape. I expected Paris to be the same. It has not been that way at all.
At first I attributed the quiet to the concrete walls of our Haussmann apartment building, but it occurred to me last night that this gift of silence is temporary. Last night we flung open the many windows to let the breeze in — the first breeze since our arrival. The night before, the temperature had still hovered in the nineties long past dark, the stagnant outside air providing no relief. Last night, as I stood in the hallway between two living areas, reminding my husband that we had to acquire new SIM cards for our phones (romantic, no?), a breeze whipped from the courtyard through the dining room, through the hallway where I stood, and into the living room, lifting the sheer white curtains. I stood there in awe and delight as the breeze passed over me. You forget how welcome a breeze can be until you suddenly have no access to a breeze. (In our canyon house in Northern California, the prevailing mood of the home, no matter the weather outside, is cool to chilly to cold. Because of the trees and the shelter of the hill in front of the house, it is always naturally air-conditioned, like a cave.)
Last night, peering across the courtyard, I noticed only two other sets of open windows, and hardly a light on anywhere. And that, surely, is the cause of the quiet: everyone has left. That is not to say that the building has been completely silent. On Friday night, upon entering our building’s inner sanctum near midnight after a long walk to and from the Batignolles for dinner, we heard notes of classical music, played on someone’s piano, drifting through the courtyard. Early that day, someone had been playing the flute. We used to have a fellow across the canyon from us in Silicon Valley who played drums at all hours. What he lacked in talent, he made up for in volume. He must have moved away a couple of years ago, because the drumming abruptly stopped, although it is a testament to the human tendency to adapt that, over the years, I’d almost ceased to register his drumming, as if my auditory receptors were somehow blocking the noise from reaching my consciousness. I’ll feel no need to block the sounds of that classical piano. It was beautiful and fitting, and after the long walk in the heat, it soothed the senses.
We’ve heard sirens a couple of times, of course, once or twice a moped zipping down the street, the sound of someone pounding on the other side of our kitchen wall. It reminded me of the ramshackle house I inhabited alone in Knoxville, TN, twenty-something years ago, before I met my husband. The old, Victorian, two-story home had been divided into two apartments — one upstairs, one downstairs. A glass door separated the downstairs apartment, where I lived, from the upstairs apartment, which was inhabited by a very private older couple. I liked the sense of other lives being lived in tandem, in close proximity, though we did not know anything about each other. Once, I passed through my living room and noticed that the curtain that had always covered the glass door on the other side was gone. I never knew why. I moved to another apartment in another town shortly thereafter, to pursue my dream of being a writer.
The sky is lit now, the outside temperature already rising. Before I get up to close the windows and draw the drapes, a feeble attempt to trap the cooler air, I will say one other thing: when we left California, I did not know what I would write in Paris, only that I would write, as I have always done, wherever I have lived and wherever I have traveled. Before we arrived, I imagined a novel set in Paris, and I imagine it still, but something else is nudging at the edges of consciousness, some other kind of story, not fiction but something else, something guardedly personal (guarded being my natural state). It has not yet taken shape. It is amorphous, blurry, difficult to catch. It is in this amorphous state, for me, that writing is most exciting, when I do not know what a thing will become…only that it will, eventually, find its form.