Have you ever noticed that an American street at 9:00p.m. is brighter and more full of life than a French street? If you have ever walked in sleepy suburbia or small town France, you know what I’m talking about. Curtains, doors, shutters, all French houses are closed and locked after a certain time – that is, at the time when the sunset brings down those last colorful rays in a pale sky making the atmosphere almost eerie yet intriguing. Well, the French are masters at making their streets creepier and gloomier than they already are when the darkness has settled thanks to their trusted shutters.
In case you don’t already know, Americans don’t use shutters and if you see some around windows, they’re fake! They are meant to be some sort of European-fairy-tale-decoration straight from Disneyland. It’s a style, or so they say. Now, what could be even more surprising (possibly disturbing?) to Europeans is that houses or apartment here are not guaranteed to come with blinds either – in France, if you live in a modern building without shutters, at least your place comes with pre-installed blinds that are built in the windows. Not so much on this side of the pond. While all of my previous apartments and condos had blinds when I moved in, the last two didn’t. For Europeans, the sight of no blinds or curtains attached to the windows is like a vampire’s nightmare. They’d burn and shrivel up right on the spot with agony knowing that the outside could see them in their home. Or maybe they’d sparkle, à la Twilight, in a more sophisticated Euro way.
Do the French secretly learn Gothic Homemaking tricks? Not quite. But they have mastered the creation of the perfect vampire house to keep eyes away from their personal lives. Americans on their other hand put their lives on a silver platter for everyone to admire and observe. Walking at night, you can see them eat, watch TV, doing the dishes, play cards, fight, laugh, host dinner parties and a million other things. Why? Because they never shut their blinds. Living in this country and understanding the concept of exposing one’s life to the outside world is a fun and sad mix of movie titles from Rear Window to I Know What You Did Last Summer. Yes, I know what my neighbors across the street did last weekend; they had a birthday party at 5:00p.m., I saw part of the festivities as I was reading on my couch. They can also probably tell you that I stopped reading after finishing chapter 9. Awkward!
The real explanation behind all this is simple: the French are very distrustful and will build their lives around that feeling (shutters, high fences around gardens and houses, clear separations between the house, the street and other houses) while Americans couldn’t care less and couldn’t be bothered the slightest by knowing that a stranger’s eye is peeking at their lives. This is why Americans wonder why French houses are protected as such and the French feel a certain nervousness at the openness of American houses. I used to shut my blinds right at 5 or 6:00p.m. when I first moved here and now I live in a place where there are no blinds in the living and dinning rooms. And I did not install any. Going from one extreme to the other? I’ve learned not to care as much – at least not as much as that one night back in the days when I realized too late that I had been cooking in my kitchen for an hour with the blinds open and noticed my neighbor looking and walking by. My instant reflex was to duck down.
One has to wonder if the French extreme use of shutters is a mere protection to prevent others from stealing their lives and privacy. It is interesting though that the word for “shutter” in French is volet, which homophone is voler meaning “to steal”.