It would have been a conversation with my boss like any other had it not been for the presence of the naked man somewhere over his right shoulder. I had been only dimly aware of him as we spoke, a shadowy figure passing back and forth behind the window of the building across the street as the light died on another winter’s day in Paris. He came into sharp focus, though, when he stopped at the window to look out. Right forearm leaning against the glass above his head, left hand passing a cigarette to and from his lips, he contemplated the narrow street. The light from a nearby street lamp illuminated his smooth, swollen gut so that it shone like a moon above the unsuspecting passers-by on the street. He continued staring, like a fat deity surveying his creation, apparently unmoved by the threat of discovery. I considered pointing him out to my boss, then thought better of it, and went home, forgetting all about it.
A few months later, though, this image came back to me during another scene at a window. I was in Neuilly, on the outskirts of Paris, a suburb steeped in wealth, where elderly ladies with small dogs walk along freshly-washed pavements with a fixed expression of distaste. It was one such lady who, while I happened to be passing, stuck her head out of her window to confront a scooter rider who, at the tail end of a long unmoving line of traffic, was pressing his horn with unrestrained zeal. This lady, perhaps woken from her late afternoon slumber on the chaise longue, was enraged. Her bony bejeweled fingers gripped the window’s edges, and her dangling gold earrings shook to the rhythms of her tirade. Down below the driver responded in kind, jabbing his oversized mitten in her direction, hurling accusations, his deep voice muffled by his helmet. Ahead of them, an orchestra of horns from the unmoving cars provided the backdrop. I joined the crowd which had formed to see this Romeo and Juliet exchange sentiments. As the scooter finally roared off, and the crowd whistled and muttered their ‘oh-la-la’s’, and the lady retracted her head, slamming shut the window, still shouting, I thought of the naked smoker, and of life which unfolds at windows.
It’s not only apartment windows. Witness the wild, gesticulating drivers of Paris who rise to apoplexy if the car in front fails to move the moment the traffic lights turn green. Behind the windscreen of a vehicle, a rational Parisian pedestrian can become a maniac. I once saw a van driver almost break his neck when, in anger at the lack of progress ahead of him, he began to bounce in his seat, beating his fists on the wheel, until he slammed the top of his head on the roof. A concerned passer-by who approached him was given the full force of this driver’s remaining venom.
Take a look through the windows of the Metro and you’ll see no less irrationality. I have watched desperate commuters perform the physically impossible by throwing themselves into a packed carriage and letting the doors do the work of squeezing them in, until their limbs are splayed in all sorts of unexpected directions. I grew up on a farm in southern Scotland, with wide open fields running for miles, all the way to the sea. I’ve spent most of my adult life in cities, and have accepted that I must live within more confined spaces. But to voluntarily let myself be squeezed by automatic doors into a mass of sweating bodies? That’s a step too far. I’ll wait for the next train, no matter how late I am. I watch these people through the windows with a mixture of awe and bewilderment, their faces pressed against the glass as the train pulls off.
When I think of people at work, I think of them at their windows. In the business district of La Défense, you are surrounded by windows, the huge glass towers rising like jagged teeth, light years removed from the elegant symmetry of central Paris apartments. During the day they reveal nothing of their inner workings, they simply reflect the light, but at night they tell a different story. I recently found myself walking late at night among these towers, gazing up at the lights still burning from the upper floor offices. I imagined the inhabitants of these glowing cubes, straining under the weight of their hours, getting up from their desks from time to time to look out at the city’s horizon and dream of their second homes in the hills of Provence. I imagine these are the same bedraggled spirits who I see in the metro late at night. I sit there among them, woozy after too much Côtes du Rhône, while they slump in their seats, workbags between their knees, squinting to peer through the heavily-scratched windows towards the night sky.
I’ve seen the joy and despair of people at Paris windows. The joy of the young friends hanging precariously from a balcony to see the 14th of July fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, and the despair of an office worker pacing the balcony of an upper floor office, smoking and slugging coffee with such an air of torment I had to turn away for fear that he’d jump. Has any of this given me greater insight into the French character? Probably not. I’d hate to think that a Frenchman who happened to see me pacing by my window at 3am would think that all Scotsman are sleepless neurotics (rather than just me being a sleepless neurotic). No, these window scenes, they’re nothing more than little flashes of human life, frames of film destined for the cutting room floor of memory.