There are many differences between the furnished vacation rental we’re staying in while our home is being renovated, and our own apartment. One of the most striking is that this rental place is on the top floor.
Most buildings in Paris have only six or seven floors at most, and many rooftops are indeed iconic slate grey Mansard or Mansard-style. Tiny red brick chimneys spring out here and there like exclamation marks on a pencil-scribbled white page. Though the sixth or seventh floor isn’t high at all compared to apartment complexes in most cities, it still seems like I’m in another world.
We normally live on the fourth floor, which isn’t low, but is connected to what’s going on on the ground. In our apartment, we easily hear conversations of people on the street, songs from car radios, and warning bells from the buses when a pedestrian crosses in front of them. But in this place, it’s rare that anything from the world below is audible. Part of this is because we’re on a very small street, where there aren’t any buses or many passersby, and there’s also the fact that the cold weather and worries for our curious cat mean we don’t often open the windows. But these aren’t the only reasons.
The outside noises that are loudest for us now are wind and splatters of rain. One morning, I woke up to a steady sound of thousands of simultaneous staccato notes – a downpour. Here, more than anywhere else I’ve been, I’ve come to appreciate the rhythm of different kinds of rainfall. As for the wind, it sounds so loud up here – even frightening. But when you’re in the world below, you often discover that those same gusts you’ve been hearing are nothing but soft breezes. You feel as though we’re simply tolerated lodgers in the kingdom of the sky, where wind and rain have voices and far more animated lives than they do in the city streets.
Two of our apartment’s windows have broad ledges, where I leave out bread crumbs for birds. That, and the proximity of a lovely tree, means that birds are constantly nearby. Sometimes, the small window set high into the wall of our WC blows slightly open, and pigeons sneak inside and walk along the top of a shelf, cooing, before I come in and gently shoo them out. In this rental apartment, though, birds aren’t frequent visitors. There are no ledges on the windows here, and just below them are gutters. Sometimes, birds do still stop by. A crow will land on the rooftop across from us and strut around, driving our cat Ali crazy.
A pigeon pauses for a rest beside the chimneys.
The other day, a neighbor might have thrown some crumbs out into the gutter in front of her window; a little group of pigeons made a few trips there, pecking diligently. Unlike the birds who frequent the windows around our regular apartment, these avian visitors never make noise when they come by. It’s as though with all of the formidable noises of the elements, they have nothing to add – or else they’re showing respectful silence. They’re also residents of the kingdom of the sky, but that isn’t enough, just as it’s not enough for me or for any of us.
It would seem that the kingdom of the sky is a lifeless place, ruled by the rain and the wind, surveyed distantly by the moving clouds. But one thing that has surprised me is the flowers.
Despite the height, residents here seem to have no fear. They pile flowerpots outside their windows, and hook watering cans and smaller pots to the railings. When you see how hard the wind blows, it seems a dangerous enterprise; what damage could a falling watering can do to someone who happens to be walking on the street below?
The residents of the kingdom of the sky also have found ways to hang their laundry outside. Using specially adapted racks that attach to their window railings, they deftly lay out their sheets and shirts, securing them with a few clothespins. It amazes me that this system is a match for the wind, but it is; I haven’t yet seen any piece of fabric flying around up here, or spotted a piece of cloth lying crumpled, dead animal-like, in the courtyard or on the street.
An empty clothes rack (left) hangs over the rooftops.
Though they doubtlessly go about their days like the rest of us, top floor dwellers seem to live a slightly different life from other Parisians. In buildings without elevators, like this one, every return home is a climb up a small mountain. Ordinary activities like hanging up clothes to dry, or watering plants, could have dangerous results. In quiet moments, top floor dwellers are often murmured to by wind and rain. It makes me feel like they’re beings apart from the rest of us, like they have some sort of secret knowledge those of us who live closer to the human-filled world on the ground, lack. This probably isn’t always the case, but I can’t help but think that for many of them -- for people who’ve spent their whole lives in such an apartment, say, or are living in one in quiet old age -- maybe there’s something to my theory.
In my time in the kingdom of the sky, I doubt I’ll learn those secrets, but I have a feeling that the idea of their existence will continue to tantalize and intrigue me even when I’m back home, absorbed again in the lives of my bird friends, and the noises of the world below.