Yesterday. our cat Minouche had her lunch, strolled out of the house, installed herself in the sun on the stone wall between our apartment and the neighbor's, and then leaned over and threw up her Carrefour Bouchées Sauce in a discreet corner of the neighbor's patio.
I parsed my brain for the appropriate response to this and came up with nothing. I simply was not equal to the event since, I assure you, in nearly 20 years something like this has never ever happened. If there is a specific etiquette appropriate to the occasion, I don't know it. My French spouse was no help at all. When I told him what had occurred he simply said, "Thank goodness Minouche didn't throw up on our patio."
In the absence of any information from my main cultural informant , I fell back on the tried and true all-purpose response to any disagreeable and potentially embarrassing situation here - just pretend it didn't happen.
How to describe the relationship we've had with our neighbors over the years in all the different cities we've lived in in the Ile de France? The best analogy I can come up with is that it's like a faucet that is firmly closed in the beginning and is opened only gradually over a long period of time. It only start to drip when one is able to get past the crisp "Bonjour" and actually begin to exchange pleasantries. It is more or less open when real conversations (sometimes very short) begin to take place over the wall or in the entryway. It never, however, becomes an effusive flood. There has generally been a certain distance - an almost radical respect for (and defense of ) privacy. But it is always been an exquisitely polite distance. A greeting is always given when we encounter each other in the common areas and the children are never rude (their parents have them under strict control). Issues between neighbors tend to be solved in an indirect manner. When we moved in to the apartment here in Versailles, we heard a bit of grumbling about the garden which I started working on straightaway but a specific grievance (a tree that had grown so high that it was blocking the sun in the apartment overhead) was not brought to our attention by the neighbor directly concerned but by another who came across my spouse in the garage one day and casually informed him that the tree had become a nuisance and people were getting very annoyed about it. Operation "Kill the Locust Tree" started that very weekend and some months later we were thanked in a roundabout way by yet another neighbor.
This distant cordiality, indirect communication and respect for privacy hides something else however. Just because we all pretend to be oblivious about each other's affairs does not mean that we do not keenly observe each other's behaviour and activities. Amazing what you can learn indirectly about someone and their family when you've lived next to them for over 6 years even if you've only exchanged one or two words with them every few months. The very few neighbors I've come to know reasonably well over the years (and I can count the number on one hand with digits to spare) knew an astonishing amount about what was going on in our household. I learned to do the same thing and discovered that this indirect method (observation as opposed to direct conversation) is very effective and kind of fun once you get into the spirit of it. It's slow discovery fed by diverse sources. And once the ice breaks completely (rare but it does happen) there is the sheer pleasure of having one's deductions confirmed (or not) and things beyond your wildest dreams revealed. A few stories for your amusement:
The Concierges: For many years we lived in the city of Suresnes which is a small community on the outskirts of Paris. The apartment complex was managed by a couple from the countryside. When we moved in they were very helpful and we learned to rely on them for many things. If you needed something fixed, Monsieur was always up to the task and took care of it it immediately. The mail was always delivered on time twice a day since Madame knew exactly who lived where (not an easy feat since there were several hundred of us and much coming and going). Took me a few years to realize that they knew just about everything about everyone in the complex though they were very discreet about it. It took me even longer to learn their story and understand the level of their bitterness and discontent. They came from a small town in rural France where they were very happy, owned their home and had many relatives. They were the victims of a "plan social" when the local factory closed (they both worked for the same company) and they were too young and had too little money saved to retire. So they took a position as apartment managers in Suresnes and were simply biding their time until they could retire and go back to their hometown. They loathed Paris - even Suresnes was almost too much for them. Both had very sharp words for "mondialisation" (globalization) which they most definitely did not care for as they perceived themselves as the victims of it. We left Suresnes eventually for the city they despised (Paris) but I still think of them occasionally and I sincerely hope they were able to leave and are now happily living in their house in their region of origin surrounded by their friends and family. So much patient suffering deserves a happy ending.
The Couple from (or in) Hell: We never had a lengthy conversation with these neighbors in the public areas of the complex but we were party to many a private conversation between husband and wife. This couple lived directly above us and 99% of the time we heard not one word from or about them. It was the 1% that was sheer hell. Every so often the husband would disappear in the evening and not return until the wee hours of the morning. These little jaunts of his were apparently not authorized by his spouse since he always came back quite drunk and he was always met with a really pissed off wife. To those who might be harboring the illusion that the French are somehow more sophisticated and casual about such things, all I can say is that this Frenchwoman wasn't having any of it. He would come in at around 4 AM and the fun began. She would start shrieking, he would return the fire by yelling back, and the evening/morning would end with her declaring to him (and to the entire building), "Tu me trooommmmpeees!" (you're cheating on me) at the top of her lungs and slamming the door. Peace reigned after that. To my knowledge no one ever complained or discussed it openly - there was something so tragic and horrible about it all. Meeting them casually in the garage we all simply pretended that it never happened and exchanged our crisp and casual "Bonjour" with them and went about our business. Needless to say these were neighbors we did not miss when we left.
The Celibataire: One of the strangest but most interesting women I've ever met. It is not the custom here as far as I know to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood (or apartment building) but she did just that when we moved into her rather tony apartment building in the 16th district of Paris. I met her coming down the stairs (the elevator was very old and was often "en panne" (out of order) and she marched right over, introduced herself and the interrogation began. This was most unusual and I was a bit confused as to how to respond. It was even odder because she seem to understand that she was defying some unwritten rule about not being nosy because she asked very personal questions and then put her hand to her mouth and declared rather disingenuously, "But I am being terribly indiscreet, Madame." Once her curiosity was satisfied during our first encounter, she more or less left us alone but we met often because she lived in the apartment right across from ours. She was always very polite, very pleasant, but it was only after we had been there a few years that she started inviting me over to her apartment for a kir and a chat. Now, from my observations I deducted that she was either a widow or a spinster since she was quite old, lived alone, and went to Mass regularly (several times a week). I was wrong and it was over a couple of drinks that she finally returned my disclosures on that first day with a few of her own. She was in fact married, had been so for over 40 years, and her husband was still alive and well. They simply didn't live together and hadn't seen each other for over 20 years. This situation came about after they had been married for some years (no children) when her husband went on a business trip to China and brought back a girlfriend. Since they were both devoted Catholics divorce was out of the question so they came to an arrangement. She kept the apartment in Paris along with the summer house in the country and he provided her with a generous stipend to cover her living expenses. He got the girlfriend and avoided having to divide his property in a divorce proceeding. After the separation, they never ever met in person but they did talk often and quite cordially over the phone. When her car at the country house broke down, for example, she simply called him up and he took care of it for her. Of the two of them, I personally think she got the better deal though perhaps her absent husband would disagree with me. She was a lovely woman, charming and funny, and completely devoid of any rancor or bitterness. She led a very full life, had many friends, and lived in style and comfort. She was very old when I knew her and she is probably no longer with us but I think of her from time to time with great fondness and I hope, wherever she is, she is well and laughing. I simply cannot imagine her otherwise.
All of the above are old stories and I have named no names or given enough information for the people involved to be easily identified. I would not think of giving you more recent stories since I respect the privacy of my current neighbors and expect them to return the favor. We also haven't been here long enough for these kinds of conversations to occur (five years is not nearly enough). Give it time and perhaps in a few years there will be something interesting to savor and perhaps report but only after many more years have gone by and there is distance. If I may paraphrase a proverb? Wit, writing, or any other form of entertainment without discretion is a "sword in the hands of a fool." May I never be a fool.