A Conservationist Abroad #3

By Emily Sloan
Third in a series about daily life in a small French village

As promised, a few observations on the French relationship to the environment (based on a short stay as an ignorant American in one very small and possibly non-representative town in northeastern France). What the French seem to have down:

  • Households tote their own garbage and recycling to public drop-off points located around the town.
  • Grocery stores don’t give out plastic bags of any sort. They sometimes have heavy-duty plastic or canvas bags for sale, but most people either bring their own bags or transfer their groceries directly from the shopping cart to their cars.
  • The average car here is definitely smaller than is the average American mobile. I’ve even seen a two-seater minivan that looked as if the back end had simply been chopped off (but of course, that’s how it had been designed).
  • More people here seem to have vegetable gardens in their yards than in the U.S., even in this relatively urban area. On the edge of town, which is slightly more spread out but definitely NOT rural, some folks even keep sheep and chickens.
  • Laundry machines are small, and most people air dry their clothing.
  • The lunch break lasts at least one and a half hours, even for businesses. This isn’t necesarily an environmental observation, but the simple fact that people place more value on rest and relaxation than on earning money every second of the day says something significant, I think, about their priorities in life.

What rubs my American sensibilities in a different, if not entirely unpleasant, way:

  • Gérardmer is a touristy area, known for its scenery and outdoor activities. It seems to try to offer all options—biking, hiking, four-wheeling, downhill and cross-country skiing, rock climbing, boating, skydiving—but in so doing perhaps compromises the experiences of each individual one. What I mean is that the place feels crowded. I went hiking on Sunday and crossed many ski trails, passed families sojourning from their “backcountry” inn and was afforded many vistas into the quaint yet decidedly developed town below. Although I enjoyed myself, I never felt truly alone enough to appreciate the nature surrounding me. I know very well that the idea of “wilderness” is largely an American one, and a psychological one at that. While it certainly has its follies (plenty of middle-class Americans preach about the value of preserving National Parks while consuming a huge share of resources in their daily lives, for example), it is nonetheless ingrained in me and is not, I believe, entirely without value. I’m sure I’ll survive the year here, but I wouldn’t want to remain forever in a place without wild corners.
  • It seems to me that the average diet here is not exceptionally healthy. Not that I, as an American, have any right to find fault with other countries’ eating habits. But I do have to buy and consume grub here and so must figure out how to do so in a satisfactory and healthy way. White bread, pastries and white sugar seem to be the norm. I’ve had a hard time finding alternative grains, and the farmers’ market, although impressive, is extremely expensive. I guess I’ll have to report back after eating at a few folks’ houses.
  • The public bathrooms are revolting! I spent six months in Burkina Faso, and the WC’s in Gérardmer are on par with the ones there, the difference being that I was expecting different standards of hygiene in undeveloped Africa. Yep—there’s no toilet paper to be found, no soap at the sinks and squat style toilets—and this is a tourist town! I have not yet asked any locals about the toilet situation; maybe I will when I know people better and won’t risk offending them. Maybe I’m overly obsessed with cleanliness (I’ve often heard Americans charged with that claim), maybe I should start carrying TP and hand sanitizer with me wherever I go, or maybe I should just avoid public bathrooms altogether.