Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Saturday, 23 April 2011 11:48 UK

The Parisian apartment code of conduct

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Can the type of housing a city provides for its residents influence their behaviour, and if it does, should UK cities be learning lessons from their French neighbours?

File photo (2005) Commuters on a RER train in Paris
The Reseau Express Regional (RER) opened in 1977

The shibboleth is an amusing thing. As the Hebrew Bible teaches us, it is a way of distinguishing between two groups of people on the basis of an expression which only one group can pronounce.

I have always thought that for the French the perfect shibboleth is the Paris commuter rail system, the Reseau Express Regional or RER.

Except you cannot say RER as an English speaker would. You have to use the French phonemes, so it comes out like an inarticulate guttural snarl "Eerrurreerrr". After 15 years I still cannot do it properly.

A variant of the shibboleth is the culturally specific object that is incomprehensible to the foreigner. Marmite is a good British one. French people genuinely retch when they are persuaded to try a piece of bread and marmite.

And for the French, my vote goes for the round wax lump known as the Boule Quies, roughly translated as the "quiet ball".

No-one outside France - perhaps not even the most brilliant of linguists - knows what a Boule Quies is. It is the trade name for a brand of ear plug that has become so familiar to the French over the years that it now means "ear-plug".

If you go to a chemist and ask for a "bouchon d'oreille" - which literally means "ear plug" - they will not know what you are talking about.

It would be like going to a grocer in Britain and asking for a pot of black yeast paste. But ask for a box of Boules Quies, it is a good feeling, like you have cracked a code.

Knowing the rules

I am a regular purchaser of Boules Quies because they have become, for me, an essential accoutrement of apartment life.

Apartments in Paris
Today that spirit of social mingling - "la mixite" as the French call it - is very much alive

In apartments you learn to accommodate.

None of my neighbours is noisy - quite the contrary - but they are there. I sense them. And so when I sleep, I zone them out.

With my wonderful Boules Quies, the creaking floorboards, the washing machine, the dog two floors down, the energetic lovers... they all blissfully disappear.

Though as I say, it is not as if Paris neighbours are noisy. In fact people who are culturally accustomed, as here, to living in flats tend to be highly considerate.

Living in London I remember being driven mad by the music of neighbours and the bass beat pounding through the ceiling. Here in Paris, that is a much rarer experience.

Even in summer, with all the windows open, it is normally quiet. People know not to break the rules.

That is the point about apartment life. The rules.

In Paris, people have always lived in flats. In the old days, the houses were divided so that the wealthier you were, the higher you lived. The gentleman in the upper storey, the humble shopkeeper down below.

Today that spirit of social mingling - "la mixite" as the French call it - is very much alive, in theory at least, as every town-hall or "mairie" is by law obliged to ensure that there is a minimum proportion of social housing.

You have to give up a bit of liberty in return for a more social, communal life

And over the years, that proximity has led to codes of behaviour.

In apartments you get to know your neighbours much more intimately than perhaps they or you would like. So you learn to keep your relationship one of formal distance, respectful but not friendly.

You learn not to express your independence too readily by playing music late or having parties, or running a bath at midnight. And you learn that there are overarching institutions that decide things for you, such as whether to plant flowers in the communal garden or how much to pay the concierge.

In short, you learn to give up a bit of liberty in return for a more social, communal life.

Obviously this has an impact on society as a whole and I am certain that the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded, both less free and less individualistic, is linked to the habits of apartment living.

Though whether people live in flats because they are more communal-minded, or vice-versa, they are more communally-minded because they live in flats, is moot.

But there is a final thing to say on this subject, which is maybe the most significant thing of all.

In France, more and more people are not living in apartments. Travel in the Paris region today, and you will see hundreds of dormitory settlements building up.

Once typical rural villages are being transformed into commuter towns, not with tier upon tier of flats, but row upon row of bijou houses, each with its private strip of garden.

Maybe it is human destiny, but France too is going the way of the "ticky-tacky boxes" as the old protest song put it. It is suburbanising fast and heading into town on the "Eerrurreerrr".

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4:
A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
Listen online or Download the podcast

BBC World Service:
Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

France country profile
12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific