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Petits Compromis 23/12/2009

Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

See My Specs?

Étant Grossier:
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.


Consommation Remarquable:
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.

Les Halles de Montmartre

Agriculture Industrielle
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.


Le Wifi:
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.



1. jonnifer - 24/12/2009

This is a really funny, interesting post. I can identify with your feeling of having a million tiny questions about totally banal stuff. You can’t really ask it all, you just have to figure it out (i.e. the slow, perhaps embarrassing way).

I’m just a gauche American but here are some answers I can give:
– If you want to say “Here” in the sense of giving something to someone say Tenez or Tiens (“hold”). In this case, taking something from someone, I feel like you should add some explanation, like “Tenez, je peux vous le prendre.” But Tenez will do for basic understanding.
– I reuse bags at my lunch spots and no one acts weird about it. You can try saying J’ai deja un sac or Je peux utiliser ce sac SVP ?
– You can milk an espresso for hours. I used to order a cafe creme and spend four hours studying. And if they make you pay for Wifi then an espresso should definitely do.

Bon courage!

blaark - 09/01/2010

My learning curve would be much improved were I able to at least know enough to make embarrassing mistakes. Maybe my timidity has kept me from sticking my neck out as often as I should be running risks. Confidence enough to fail is a hard won commodity, it would seem.

Thank you for offering some advice. It’s gonna take me a while to get from just saying “tenez” and grabbing things from little old ladies to full sentences but maybe if they see I’m not running away with their garbage they’ll help me out by understanding.

Your reuse of bags is encouraging. I neglected to mention that when I’m at a grocery or supermarket I just dump everything in my bag which hasn’t shocked anyone. I can try this out on the bakery (with an older paper bag) but the fact that I don’t know what the beautiful girl is giggling about or that the kid behind the counter always thinks my une is deux makes this prospect a little less frightening that taking trash from my neighbors.

2. dee - 24/12/2009

This is roomie n°3, and I just happened upon your blog, which I didn’t even know existed, based on my impeccable internet stalking capabilities. I hope you are gaurding the homefront still for the next couple of hours before we both cross the frozen tundra and all three of us spend our Christmases in separate parts of the globe. Jean-Pierre is paying our humble abode a little visit this upcoming Monday, and I don’t know if you’ll be back by then. Please shoot me an e-mail ! Merry Christmas

3. crowhouse - 30/12/2009

i’ve been trying to respond to this for days, but the state of my internet has made it impossible to even read the whole thing through in one sitting. argh. i feel your very real and confused expatriate-pain regarding bulk items/organic produce/what the fuck are they wrapping all that shit in plastic for? i haven’t found bio (same word) produce in poland, but in prague it was the same problem — individually wrapped. there are other bio items in the store, but i haven’t seen produce. or tofu. maybe just not in my town. i am lucky to have a LOT of incredibly local produce from small farmers being sold from kiosks every five feet on my street, which is the next best thing. but i’m bringing back tofu from germany — tofu wrapped in plastic and then put in a box. argh.

as for wifi, are you sure they all charge? most places in poland don’t
(those that do list the prices in their menus) though they have a password that you have to ask for when you buy your coffee. then you just connect to their wifi network, and save the password. all i’ve done in places when i didn’t have the language was show them my wifi networks list and shrug and make a questioning face (or, here in dessau, i was taught the german word for “password” so i could ask for it) then they just pick the network and put the password in for me. and most of the places i’ve been in prague, and poland, and now germany, really don’t care if you sit there for hours on one coffee/beer. to make sure, i tip generously.

they also all charge for bags in stores, so you have to bring your own. you get sort of snarled at if you don’t.

i think you’re in the wrong country.

(i hope this is coherent, because i am writing this while listening to my friend sara have an argument about the fucked-up-gender-politics of the german language with a very confused german, who doesn’t understand the concept of “gender politics.” it’s a little distracting.)

blaark - 09/01/2010

Message received clear as a bell but I would like to know more about fucked up German gender politics.

It would surprise me greatly if Poland was ahead of the curve in regards to, well, anything. Maybe that’s just my prejudice against the former eastern bloc and impoverished nations. There’s plenty of little produce markets everywhere but it’s difficult to discern whether it’s from small, possibly less destructively cultivated, farms or giant whatevers. Since you’re a card-carrying member of Europe perhaps you could do something to fight back against all this senseless waste? And then get me a residency visa, will you?

The wifi situation has been explained to me, not actually confronted. I haven’t seen any listings on the tarif boards but I like this idea of learning the word for password and then hitting people up. The fact that it would be in horribly butchered French would probably indicate to my victim that it’s not worth trying to explain to me that I have to go pay for it…

Maybe I am in the wrong country, but only for particular things. Certainly struggling to survive on periodic injections of US dollars in a Euro country is a brilliantly stupid idea. Why couldn’t I have grown fond of some 3rd world place?

crowhouse - 14/01/2010

the scuffle over german-language gender politics is not as exciting as it sounds, and just the thought of attempting to explain is making my IQ drop.

I’m not getting you a membership card anywhere until you stop talking shit about Poland.

4. badnewslou - 09/01/2010

When I was living in Rome it was common for stores to not give me the correct coin change. At first I thought they were pettily robbing me of 13 cents and then someone explained to me that there aren’t enough euro coins in circulations in Italy (which really means Italians don’t like going to the bankt o purchase enough coins for their businesses). So what they do is round up or down to the 50 cent or dollar mark. Sometimes you lose someone and sometimes you gain some. But it was really confusing at the time. And I felt weird about making a stink over the money especially in broken Italian.

My favorite phrase that I learned was how to say “get lost” to pervy dudes (“Vattene”). Works way better than any other use of Italian because it shows you have an insider knowledge of Italian usage.

blaark - 09/01/2010

Great, correct change, an endless expanse of potential anxiety. Actually I think France is okay when it comes to the change game, or at least the places I go. Since not every store has the cash register prominently displayed I often have to rely on my quick wits and hearing ability to surmise what something costs. Plenty of cashiers have giving me back unnecessary bills they could easily have pocketed. And there’s no shortage of change– I’ve got a bottle full of 1 and 2¢ coins waiting for the stamp machine.

Fortunately creeps don’t give me any cause to say, “leave me along”, but it’s only a matter of time. I’ve actually found myself attempting to construct such a phrase in my head, expecting to be pestered and worried about how to react. Someone did teach me “shut your mouth” once but I’ve forgotten.

5. blaark - 21/01/2010

Crowhouse, I was going to defend my comments on Poland by replying to your reply but this site administration can’t handle too many layers of conversation. I’m sure where you’re located you can tier internet discussion to the nth degree, thus proving me incredibly wrong.

crowhouse - 22/01/2010

ha ha ha. so there.
(also, you can tell it’s from the local farm when, daily, you see a guy in a truck with the name of the farm on it pull up and unload right into your produce stall. once an agrarian economy, apparently always an agrarian economy.)

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