Thursday, February 16, 2006

Merde, Alors !: My least favorite thing about France

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.


Sideon said...

Your writing is wonderful :)

2007 may be the year I finally visit France. 2006 is all about paying off the furnace. 2005 was the Mediteranean cruise (Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey) and an addendum to Prage and Budapest.

Your stories of France are inspiring me to start looking at travel options again.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Sideon!!!

That Mediteranean cruise must have been fantastic!!! Did you post any pictures?

That would be cool if you came to France!!! Are you thinking of swinging by Bordeaux?

Stephen said...

My wife and I went to Paris last year for a week or so to celebrate our 20th and the place was amazingly free of dog poop. We walked everywhere that we didn't take the Metro (I lost four pounds) and we encountered dog products only once.

The strange thing was that we saw more blind people on the metro than we saw pregnant ones.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

You're right that Paris is much better than Bordeaux in this regard. I don't know exactly why -- if they wash the streets more often or if there are fewer dogs per capita or if the Parisians actually clean up after their dogs or what, but hopefully the same will happen here in Bordeaux. :D

As much as I love the metro, I also love seeing all of Paris on foot!!! It's a compact/dense enough city that it's practical to do all of your touring on foot if you're healthy and not afraid of a little exercise. If you're lucky enough to visit during one of the transit strikes, you'll discover this pretty quickly... ;-) Also very convenient for blind people, as you noticed...

I hope you and your wife had a nice visit!!! :D

AnnM said...

I feel silly even suggesting this title, given your genre and likeliness to be acquainted with everything therein, as well as the length of time you've been in France, but...

Have you read "Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong"? It examines the cultural differences between France and North America more academically than most of the American-in-France books, but is still written for a popular audience.

C. L. Hanson said...

I've heard of that one and I think I may have seen it in a local bookstore, but I've never read it.

Thanks for the tip -- next time I see it, I'll pick up a copy. :D

ashtanga en cevennes said...

La crotte is my least favorite thing about living in France, too. I'm in Montpellier. It's even better during the summer, when it's so hot and steamy... It's such a treat to be walking along, inhaling deepy of the flower stalls and the boulangerie on my block, and then catch a whiff of dog poo, warming in the sun.

My Frenchman and I had the same conversation about whether or not French people could be persuaded to clean up after their dogs... I'm for ticketing people who are found to be walking their dogs sans baggies. Why not? The public coffers could always use a little lining. (I love love the cushy social programs in France, too. So I'm not being facetious.)

I really enjoy your writing. I'm atheist as well, btw. And American. Well met, and all that. I'll be reading you often.


C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Joy!!!

I'm glad you found my blog -- it's cool to find another American atheist in France!!!

BHolmberg said...

Ive always wondered, "Why do the French say 'Merde!' for 'Good Luck!'". The closest thing in English may be "Break a leg!" Maybe it comes from that idea that stepping in that dog-doo with your left foot.