To the horror of the neighbors, it turns out that Henri has been sitting in his apartment, dead, for the last 4 years.
Granted, nobody had seen him for awhile; he didn’t go out much anyway and largely kept to himself, as did his neighbors… In fact, other than some funny smells in 2008 and his strangely overflowing mailbox, nothing struck anyone as amiss. His bills were even up-to-date thanks to his direct deposited pension and his rent and utilities paid each month by direct debit.
Henri was discovered sitting on his bed, completely mummified, with his dinner dishes to the side, the remote control in his hand, the TV guide open to the night’s shows, and a sports journal on his lap. If an old friend hadn’t investigated a letter returned-to-sender thanks to the overstuffed mailbox, the 66-year-old retired bus driver could have stayed there like that for another… 10? 20 years?
It brings to mind a similar story in Paris last year when an elderly woman was trapped in her bathroom and banged on the pipes day and night for 3 weeks trying to get help. Instead of going up to inquire as to the cause of the strange sounds, the neighbors preferred to start an anonymous petition to stop the noise. Finally, after walking past a letter at her door that had been sitting there for 10 days, someone called the authorities and the woman was found on the floor, starving and in shock, but alive.
In France, this non-engagement is actually normal: neighbors usually stick to themselves, a tradition stemming from a general distrust of those outside the family circle. This wariness was exacerbated during the war when citizens were encouraged to spy on and denounce each other, which was often used as a way to retaliate for perceived slights and lingering grudges.
In an attempt to break this tradition of isolation, in 1999 a Parisian association created the Fete des Voisins (The Neighborhood Party!): a springtime apartment-dweller pot-luck, which, predictably, met with rather tepid response. It took the heatwave of 2003, when thousands of elderly French died alone, to get the government to really back the Fete des Voisins …but still the idea of snacks and forced gaiety among people with an ingrained distrust of one another has not exactly taken off…
As one of Henri’s neighbors confided in a masterful understatement: “Here in this building, we don’t really do the ‘Fete des Voisins’.” Hmmm… I wonder if they will decide to do it this year? June 1st, mark your calendar.
Photo credit: Photo by Richard Ray, courtesy of the Nice-Matin