Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the moon is the best writing that I know of on the experience of being an American ex-pat in Paris. He maintains that the only really important difference between Paris and New York is the latitude: Paris is, in fact, so far to the north that in the wintertime, days are super-short here. For me, it’s the one and only problem with this place—the winter darkness is crushing, a weight that I often think I can feel physically.
In this city often called the City of Light, light actually is often an issue. If you live on one of the lower floors of the typical 7-story Hausmannian apartment buildings that make up about 60% of Paris, the sunlight only actually shines into your home for a short time every day, even in the summer—in the winter, it’s a sort of perpetual gloom, even if you have big windows, just because of the height of the surrounding buildings. Your windows are everything here, as far as I’m concerned.
Consequently, it’s always been a surprise to me to see things like you see in the photo to the left. You’ll notice that a number of the windows have been bricked up. In a city where sunlight is at a premium, why the hell would you do that?
A wonderful tour guide told me the answer: once upon a time, buildings were taxed by the number of windows. Brick up your windows, and you paid less in taxes. At the time, Parisians mostly rented their apartments (today it’s common to own your apartment), and from the landlord’s perspective, it made sense—if you didn’t think that you could make up the tax difference by charging more rent, you might as well brick up your windows, pay less taxes, and your renters be damned.
Interesting, but I was never able to find any documentation of the old tax rule that the tour guide had told me about, and I don’t typically write about things on this blog if I can’t find a source to cite. Fast-forward a few months, though, and I find myself reading Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. I was expecting a nasty cop trying to throw a guy in prison for stealing two loaves of bread; instead I’ve read chapters and chapters about a really nice priest. Is this book ever going to go anywhere? I have no clue. But, then I came across this. Remember: as I said, the priest is really nice. At one point, he gives this sermon:
« Mes très chers frères, mes bons amis, il y a en France treize cent vingt mille maisons de paysans qui n’ont que trois ouvertures, dix-huit cent dix-sept mille qui ont deux ouvertures, la porte et une fenêtre, et enfin trois cent quarante mille cabanes qui n’ont qu’une ouverture, la porte. Et cela, à cause d’une chose qu’on appellee l’impôt des portes et fenêtres. Mettez-moi de pauvres familles, des vieilles femmes, des petits enfants, dans ces logis-là, et voyez les fièvres et les maladies ! Hélas ! Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. Je n’accuse pas la loi, mais je bénis Dieu. Dans l’Isère, dans le Var, dans les deux Alpes, les hautes et les basses, les paysans n’ont pas même de brouettes, ils transportent les engrais à dos d’hommes ; ils n’ont pas de chandelles, et ils brûlent des bâtons résineux et des bouts de corde trempés dans la poix résine. C’est comme cela dans tout le pays haut du Dauphiné. Ils font le pain pour six mois, ils le font cuire avec de la bouse de vache séchée. L’hiver, ils cassent ce pain à coups de hache et ils le font tremper dans l’eau vingt-quatre heures pour pouvoir le manger. — Mes frères, ayez pitié ! voyez comme on souffre autour de vous. » — Victor Hugo, Les misérables
Hugo, a champion of the poor, had it right: search for impôt des portes et fenêtres and you’ll find the Wikipedia page on the subject. Turns out the tax was first instituted during the Revolution of 1789, but it comes from an older Roman tax scheme called the ostiarium. In effect until 1926, the original goal was to have a progressive tax, i.e. one that falls proportionally more heavily on richer people. As it turned out, it had a bad effect on the renters. From Wikipedia:
Cet impôt fut accusé de pousser à la construction de logements insalubres, avec de très petites ouvertures, donc sombres et mal aérés, et il conduisit à la condamnation de nombreuses ouvertures, ainsi qu’à la destruction, par les propriétaires eux-mêmes, des meneaux qui partageaient certaines fenêtres en quatre, ce qui augmentait substantiellement l’impôt. — Wikipedia
Sombres et mal aérés–exactly as Hugo described them.
On the plus side, the lack of any prolonged sunshine on my windows means that my apartment never gets very hot in the summertime. When the days get short, I pull a light box out from under my little water heater (which turns out to be related to another Parisian mystery, but more on that another time), and half an hour a day in front of that makes the crushing winter darkness feel less…crushing. Spring will be here before we know it.
Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. “God gives men the air, the law sells it to them.” What interests me about this is the double pronominal objects: le leur vend, “sells it to them.” I have a terrible time with that kind of double-pronominal construction, and as it turns out, a lot of French people do, too–ask someone how to say I give myself to you and you give yourself to me, and I’ll bet that they have to think about it for a minute. The most common answers that I get are along the lines of Je me donne à toi and Tu te donnes à moi, where the indirect object pronoun (in this case, the person to whom something is being given) is not placed in front of the verb, but rather after it, in a prepositional phrase–contrast those with le leur donne, where both of the pronouns are pre-verbal (before the verb). Native speakers, got any help for us anglophones here?