Petits Compromis 23/12/2009Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris.
Tags: biologique, budget, consumption, ecology, france, internet, paris, recycling, shopping, socializing, waste
Sharing quarters is tough, but currently there are no alternatives. Three people in a two room apartment requires sacrifice, tolerance, understanding and consideration. My personality is hardly predisposed to communal living, and the situation here provides a constant challenge. Similarly, day-to-day instances demand behavioral fluidity.
Teetering on the verge of collapse he tried in vain to deposit the wine bottle. As I watched from the corner of my eye he realized the recycling bin was beyond reach and let the door close behind him. We stood outside in the freezing night refusing to acknowledge one another. It would have been no small matter for me to offer assistance, to take the bottle and deposit it on his behalf. As he wobbled towards the curb my mind raced for some way to have conveyed my intentions and the language wall held firm. If you say “ici” does that mean the same as if I said “here” meaning give me the bottle? Or is it strictly relegated to position? The old man returned to the door, keyed the code, and disappeared inside.
While I’m not extroverted I am typically capable of cursory communication. Now I pray that people at Monoprix don’t deviate from the minimum dialogue required to take my money. A woman is looking for Serge Gainsbourg and I don’t know how to explain she’s in the wrong cemetery. The man walking his dog comments on my daily morning coffee ritual so I smile and nod. “C’est ma terasse” only occurs to me later. The beautiful girl at the boulangerie and I share a moment of giggling but I have no idea what we’re laughing at, or how to act like something other than a baguette addicted statue.
Last year I embarked on a personal crusade to eliminate unnecessary packaging. Pickle jars and bulk bins played a key role in my strategy. Experiments in yogurt production failed miserably but I located glass jars from a local creamery and diligently returned the empties. I made my own salsa and carried camping utensils. The French believe in recycling, accommodating materials that even San Francisco relegates to the trash, but the concept of reduction has not gained traction. Where once I found it unconscionable to buy a plastic tub of yogurt now I readily purchase 2kg boxes packed with little 125g cups.
There is no alternative– the idea of a week’s supply contaminating the same container is repulsive here. My greatest success has been finding 1kg bags of museli to replace the 250g boxed bag cereal that I had been eating. I dream of reusing paper bags at the boulangerie but I’m afraid the people behind the counter would be offended were I to attempt this act of reuse. Besides, how can I explain to the beautiful girl that I would like to reuse the bag?
Paris has flirted with surcharges on grocery bags (I think) but this has evidently failed. Les Super Marches readily hand out plastic sacs for no additional coast and most stores are almost eager to distribute their corporate logo. One shining beacon of hope is the people running an alimentation generale on Ordener who thank me every time I refuse theirs.
Meanwhile I continue to consume coffee and tea at an extravagant rate. Back in the states it would be no small matter to buy beans by the pound, but here coffee comes ground in 250g quantities. I used to use a strainer but now teabags litter the trash. There is a purveyor down the street who open when they damn well feel like it, but I cannot imagine attempting to select a roast or leaf, exercise some serious numerology, and save the trees.
Once upon a time I was financially sound enough to forsake what is referred to as conventional produce. My decision was not based on the idea of protecting my body from pesticides or finding organic more flavorful but on principles related to industrial-agriculture’s effects on the ecology and economy. No organic green peppers? No peppers for me, thank you. Organic carrots are twice as expensive? I’ll gladly pay extra to do my part.
Here organic produce is referred to as biologique. You know it’s Bio because each eggplant and head of broccoli is individually wrapped in plastic bearing the Bio symbol. This is annoying enough without finding myself in the position of having to stay extraordinarily conscious of expenses. Now I shop by price tag, nothing else. If the price of organic apples is 50¢ a kilo higher, I am saving 50¢. I am walking fifteen minutes out of my way to haul 10kgs of couscous home, certain that chemicals and child labor aided in the production. Generic brands? Not only is Monoprix label Coulommiers the cheapest, it’s the only cheese available in 350g packages. 250g bags of their peanuts run me 87¢ each. My only wish is that coupons would work for things I might feasibly buy.
Sitting in the apartment all day everyday staring at the computer can suck. The desk is too far from a plug, the table has uncomfortable chairs, the coffee table and floor works well but then my roommate might want to sit on the couch which is also her bed. Sometimes people come over and I get distracted or feel rude. Sometimes people are talking or watching a movie and I can’t concentrate.
I have seen with my own eyes people using computers in public. While I would never consider bringing my laptop to a café there’s a little bar nearby that is decidedly less formal. People sitting in the back are using wifi and outlets. It is clearly socially acceptable to sit in the back using your computer and the establishment’s electricity.
But I have heard you have to pay. McDonald’s charges you, Starbucks charges you, everywhere charges you. Free wifi is strictly an American concept. And even if I were able to spend whatever extortion is charged, how the hell do you negotiate access to the server? How do you have a conversation about WEP and IP and duration? And pretending I could successfully acquire the internet, is it rude in France to leave your table to step outside? Do they want to charge you more, thinking you should be seated on the terasse? Is it okay to milk a single espresso for hours at a time?
These are all things I don’t know. My social graces extend to holding doors but it took weeks to realize I could say “de rien” instead of “je vous en prie”, thus being less of a twit. More weeks and I could use “pas grave” instead of waving my hand dismissively– although it’s still not an automatic response. While I buy museli at the local Naturalia store the produce is prohibitively expensive and the concept of bulk items eludes them. I secretly delight when I get two baguettes in one bag at the boulangerie. Small failures, small victories, feeling constrained and wondering how to break free. It’s like learning how to live all over again.