I've already told you about my favorite thing about living in France, namely that it's a pedestrian's paradise, at least in the cities. I love the metro and other public transportation, and I love the city centers that are compact enough that it's easy to go all over town on foot.
Today I'd like to tell you about my least favorite thing about living in France: the merde.
When I say "merde" here, I mean it quite literally. When I step out of my house and walk towards downtown, I have to dodge four or five piles (or smeared streaks) of dog feces per block.
What shocks me even more than the fact that the crap is there in the first place is the fact that everyone here seems to find it perfectly normal and acceptable. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that treating the public walkways as your dog's public toilet -- and then walking away without a second thought when he's done with his business -- is impolite and maybe even disgusting.
When my husband and I first moved here, I told him that they should try to train people to clean up after the dogs the way people do in densely populated areas in the US. My husband (who is French) assured me that French people cannot be trained to clean up after their dogs.
I told him that that was ridiculous. If people in New York City -- who aren't exactly famous for polite and considerate behavior -- could be trained to clean up after their dogs, then so can the French.
Over the past several years, there's been a huge amount of renovation in downtown Bordeaux to make the place even more pedestrian-friendly, including dramatically increasing the number of pedestrian-only roads and public places, and the installation of a tramway system. So along the lines of making the city more pleasant for pedestrians, the city government started an initiative to persuade people to clean up after their dogs.
As soon as I heard about this, I was all excited, and not just because it gave me an opportunity to say "I told you so!" to my husband. My husband refused to believe that anything would come of it. Yet just a few days after the publicity/persuasion campaign began, he and I were walking down the street and we saw a lady clean up after her dog.
"See?" I said, giving him a nudge.
His response: "She's probably German."
Of course my husband was right in the end. There were a few posters about it up for a few months, and there were some plastic baggie dispensers installed with little pictures of dogs on them, and then everyone promptly forgot about the whole thing.
That doesn't necessarily mean that things will never change. These things take time. The houses and buildings in my neighborhood are around a hundred years old, so they all have these iron rings installed near the doorways for people to scrape the horse-doo off their boots. So we can be grateful that at least we don't have to deal with that anymore.
Actually, I kind of hesitate to tell fellow Americans about this problem because they're likely to conclude that things haven't changed much in Europe since the days of the black plague. But that simply isn't true. Since those days, France has managed to rid the streets of the poo of every species except dog, and I have high hopes they will one day eliminate this last one as well.
In the meantime, the people here make the best of it. There's a superstition here in France that it's good luck to step in dog-doo with your left foot. I don't normally believe in superstitions, but I particularly don't buy this one since it's obviously just something they say just to make people feel better about something awful happening, like rain on your wedding.
Yes, stepping in dog-doo is like rain on your wedding. Isn't it ironic? Or something like that.
I think that the only thing it would take to change people's habits on this issue would be a few months of real enforcement with strict fines. The enforcement alone would get most dog owners to change, and the rest of them would be taken care of by the resulting social pressure as the good-behavior-enforcing citizens would get the idea that not cleaning up after one's dog is a dirty-look-giveable offense.
But even if sidewalk sullying is against the law -- and I don't even know that it is -- I have never seen any enforcement of it in France. I sometimes wonder if City Hall never made a real effort on this point because if dog owners really changed their behavior, then maybe some of those guys who drive the little street-washing trucks would be out of a job.
Really I'm a big liberal and I love France's social safety net and everything. But for some reason that doesn't stop me from inventing crazy conspiracy theories about the street sweepers' union.
So the moral of this tale is that when you're visiting France and looking up at the buildings admiring the architecture, don't forget to also look down at the sidewalk in front of you.
Unless you want to have lots of good luck.
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor January 30, 2006.