Histoire de voisinage

Beware of bad neighbours. I suppose that’s the lesson to be learned from the terrible fire that took 10 lives, injured 33 and left dozens of families homeless in Paris a few days ago.

I’ve posted before about the French art of hating one’s neighbour. At the time, it was funny. Hilarious, even, if you’d like to take a look. But what happened on Monday night at 17 bis, rue Erlanger in the très chic 16th arrondissement of Paris was nothing less than tragic.

It began with a problem that is all too prevalent in French towns and cities where people live so close to each other. Noise. A woman who was playing her music too loudly, too late at night. A couple who had to work the next day. And so the woman dared to knock on the door and ask her neighbour to turn it down.

Did she know she was dealing with someone who had serious mental health issues? Hard to say. What is known is that the woman with the loud music made a rude comment and refused to turn it down. The couple ended up calling the police. At first they refused to come and deal with what surely seemed like a mild dispute between neighbours. Mauvais voisinage. When the couple insisted, they agreed to make the call but took their time getting there. The police showed up an hour later, attempted to reason with the woman, then left.

A few minutes later, the loud-music woman made a comment to the male neighbour, who happened to be a fireman himself, that as he was so good at putting out fires he would certainly enjoy himself. The couple smelled fire and realized she had actually set fire to the place. What happened after that is somewhat confused.

The building blazed liked a tinder box. A recent renovation of a 1970’s building, 8 storeys high, it had an unfortunate location on an inside courtyard, inaccessible from the street. That meant that the firefighters were unable to access it with their trucks or automated equipment. They had to drag their hoses through the inner courtyard and manually raise ladders from one floor to another. A dangerous operation at best. Still, they managed to rescue the 50 people trapped and who had taken refuge on the roof. Eight firefighters were injured in putting out the blaze. It took five hours and 250 pompiers. Neighbouring buildings were evacuated and the jury is still out as to whether the building can be saved.

All because of a bad neighbour.

The woman was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. She is 41, the mother of a 10-year-old boy (she does not have custody) and with a history of mental illness and setting fires. She had only just been released from a psychiatric ward.

This was the third deadly incendie to ravage Paris since the end of last year. It’s a horrific reminder that even rich neighbourhoods are vulnerable to crazy people. And cheap insulation (which is one theory as to why the fire spread so fast.)

Once again, kudos and gratitude go out to the brave firefighters, les pompiers de Paris.

The positive side is that residents in the local quartier have come together in a show of support. People are opening their doors to help those who’ve been rendered homeless, donating warm clothes and holding fundraisers. Perhaps people are finally getting to know their neighbours.

And it raises a question: how can we live together in harmony? In a society that creates more and more barriers and walls between people, in which each of us is increasingly isolated as we stare at our own screens, that is a tough question.

I’ve experienced before how it feels to have a neighbour dislike you on sight. It is not pleasant. The usual reaction is simply to avoid each other. That’s the easy answer. Pretend the other person doesn’t exist. Go about your business. Until an emergency happens.

Maybe we need to rethink our approach. Create more connections with those whose lives go on just beyond our doors.

Any thoughts?


  1. phildange · February 7, 2019

    I had to think seriously about this problem, and I came to the conclusion that the only guaranteed solution is to eliminate all people . Pursuing this vital goal I created an association of which, by force of circumstances, I am the only member . Fortunately, a few persons of good will, such as Donald Trump, Washington DC, appear to become useful helps to fulfill this ultimate Quest . For the sake of peace wish me good luck .

    • MELewis · February 7, 2019

      Mort de rire! Which may actually advance your cause… 😆

  2. francetaste · February 7, 2019

    Back in the ’80s, back in the U.S., I had a bad neighbor. She was gorgeous–looked like Kim Basinger (in the ’80s), and seemed to have a Hollywood wardrobe despite not working. It was a mansion cut up into four apartments, and hers was on the ground floor. Cars pulled up every few minutes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., her door (right under my bed) slamming as they went in, then five minutes later, went out. Too quick for even a quickie, so I figured it was drugs. She also played loud music during her hours of operation. Sometimes I would call the police. One day I came home in the afternoon and bumped into a bunch of cops coming out of her place. She wasn’t home at the time. Eventually the landlord kicked her out. My work hours at that time were 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., so I wasn’t happy about the party under my bed every night until 4.
    Here, we are very close to our neighbors. Carpools with the others who have kids. Our dinner party gang is mostly within a few minutes’ walk. When the nearby river flooded, our neighbors, whose house was nearly swept away in a flood 20 years ago, called to ask to take refuge at our place, which is higher. In the aftermath, everybody we knew came by to check on us. OTOH, all the houses are surrounded by high walls. Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors, and that could be true, but the downside is that unless we’re having a dinner party, I see my neighbors only if we happen to be coming or going at the same moment and pass on the street.

    • MELewis · February 8, 2019

      Certainly sounds like you had the neighbour from hell! 😬 Sounds like you’ve hit gold with the current group. It’s a bit of a crap shoot when you move anywhere. Who knows who will be right next door? I think sharing like situations (kids in school, similar interests and values) really helps with that. But even where we used to live, where we did have much closer relationships with our neighbours, there was always someone who couldn’t stand someone else, for apparently little reason. Walls and fences definitely help as long as we can keep talking over them from time to time.

  3. Caffe · February 7, 2019

    Terrible history….. I feel so sorry.
    I know that at Poland we have towns, when neighbours know each other, and towns that is similar to Paris. What we can do?
    I heard about neigbours Christmas Eve, on the holl of the block of flats – it is good idea to meet people living next door.
    Maybe some neighborhood picnics?

    • MELewis · February 8, 2019

      You are right! It’s hard to take that first step but well worth it to build bridges and discover the people on the other side of our fence.

      • Caffe · February 8, 2019

        Of course!! It is hard, and sometimes very difficult, but possible:)
        I hope….

  4. Yeah, Another Blogger · February 7, 2019

    What a horrible event. I live in the States and caught the tail end of a radio news report about it.

    Our lives are balanced on egg shells, in a very real sense.

    Neil Scheinin

    • MELewis · February 8, 2019

      So true, Neil! Events like this remind of that fragile balance, which is otherwise so easy to forget.

  5. Colin Bisset · February 7, 2019

    Such a terrible story, and my biggest fear about moving to an apartment. You never know who is above or below you or through the wall. Not sure what the answer is for apartment living where people want privacy, respect and respite from the busyness outside, but certainly every building needs to be checked for ease of evacuation and its flammability (as the Grenfell Tower in London also showed us).

    • MELewis · February 8, 2019

      I agree, Colin, and it is also a fear of mine as I look towards a future downsizing. However, I’ve had problems with the neigbhours blaring their music across the garden next door so even single-family houses are vulnerable to noise issues. The worrying thing about what happened this week was the building’s lack of access for emergency services. I wonder how many other apartments are built like that in Paris, with an entire new structure sitting upon an existing one, and access from an inner courtyard. Surely building codes today should prevent that kind of thing from happening? France clearly has a lot of work to do in that direction (and many others!).😩

  6. Susanne · February 8, 2019

    Bad neighbours don’t just live in apartment buildings. I’ve had my share in a quiet condo townhouse development of 71 families. I wonder if even the friendliest and most neighbourly situation would have made any difference in the circumstance you describe? Horrific regardless and tragic for all those whose lives were affected. The good news is the kindness of all the other neighbours.

    • MELewis · February 9, 2019

      I agree and also have had highly unpleasant experiences with voisinage in both towns and cities, in France and in Canada. I guess the only thing with people knowing each other might have been awareness that this person was ill, and potentially dangerous. Although individual privacy is important, and no one wants nosy neighbours! Probably she should never have been released from hospital but that comes down to over-stretched medical resources. I don’t have the answer, but I do agree that people’s kindness is the silver lining!

  7. Joanne Sisco · February 25, 2019

    This is a very tragic story. I hadn’t heard the full version of it … ie why she decided to set the building on fire. So many lives destroyed 😢

    • MELewis · February 26, 2019

      Yes, and what is also sad is that while the people who lost their homes and loved ones struggle on, the rest of the world has already forgotten. It is rare when we hear a follow-on story about such tragedies. I hope that woman is getting the help she needs.

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