Mystery solved: the Paris edition

Filled-in windows next to the gate of the Cordeliers campus of the École de médecine, Paris. Picture source: me.

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. 

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Google’s autocompletes when I looked for the origin of Paris’s nickname, “The City of Light.” Note: Paris is NOT dirty.

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.

Bricked-up windows, someplace or other in Paris. Picture source: me.

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.

Bricked-up windows overlooking a little café on the rue des Écoles. I accidentally learned the word “braguette” here when I walked inside to pay–with mine open. Picture source.

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.

French notes

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?

11 thoughts on “Mystery solved: the Paris edition”

  1. Apparently (according to Wikipedia, at any rate), the goal of the original Roman ostiarium was to avoid both the necessity of entering the owner’s residence, and to try to remove some of the arbitrariness from property value assessments.


      1. Depends when, I am referencing the Romans who settled beyween 27BC and 14AD when Augustus was emperor and he encouraged veterans of the Seventh legion to settle in our area of France (hence the old name Septimanie)
        My book is a new slant on time travel. I love Latin so it had to be in there somewhere,and it sits relevantly at the roots of the Romance languages of course.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hugo’s masterpiece is a HUGE book, filled with many stories that could be one novel each . The pop US versions are not Les Misérables .
    Personal pronouns … The weird rule -even for me- is the difference of treatment for the first/second persons opposed to the third ones . Let’s see “I give it to you” and so on . In French as well, “it” is the direct object and “you” the indirect . When the role of “you” is played by je, tu, nous and vous, the indirect object is placed first ” Il me le donne, il te le donne, il nous le donne, il vous le donne” . But when it is played by il/elle and ils/elles the rule is the opposite : ” Il le lui donne, il le leur donne” . I’m sure there is a philosophical reason at the root of this different rule .
    Now each time the indirect object is not alone but is introduced by a preposition it goes after the verb . You are right, “je me donne à toi, tu te donnes à moi” are the answers . A good question is “when are prepositions needed with pronouns ?” It could be long to enumerate all sorts of cases but in your rare example I’d say it feels weird and unaesthetic to say “Je te me donne” and “tu me te donnes”as it should be according to the rule above . It seems this rule can’t work when two of the three pronouns in a row (subject, indirect and direct objects) indicate the same individual and it becomes necessary to clearly mark the destination of the involved pronouns with at least one preposition .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re always welcome, though it was not really what I call grammar, rather a custom . I was a sort of grammar Nazi and when I can’t clearly explain the reasons of something I don’t feel I’m exactly explaining grammar .

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We recognise the importance of studying how French is actually spoken. My last teacher had to disabuse me of several “rules” that I had been taught at school that no longer apply in contemporary spoken French

        Liked by 1 person

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