A Conservationist Abroad #8

by Emily Sloan ‘05

My quick guide to France in black and white
(because once in a great while, it’s okay to speak in absolutes)

After three months’ careful observation and reflection, I have decided that I really don’t care for several realities of French life:

Dog poop. On the sidewalk. Never cleaned up, so I can follow it from its initial deposition through its various stages

of decay. And the little yippy French dogs who put in there, who lunge against their cute pink leashes at my ankles as I jog by, who wear rain jackets and whose grooming costs more than my groceries, who make me long for huskies and Saint Bernards.

Public toilets. Call me close-minded, but I still cannot bring myself to use the Turkish-style squat toilet commonly found in public WCs here. It’s not so much the physics of the thing that turns me off as the squalid state of most public bathrooms, which often lack soap, toilet paper and a cleaning staff. And door locks. Is it SO hard to install working door locks in bathroom stalls?

Munster cheese. French folks to whom I’ve confessed my disgust for Munster either smile knowingly and say, “Yes, it’s strong,” as if the ability to eat something that smells exactly like feet is something to work towards, or else insist that I must have tasted poor quality Munster and should try again. I generally like a challenge, but this is one instance where I’m willing to concede defeat. Politesse? Forget it! I’m just saying NO to Munster cheese.

Communication difficulties. My French is not great, but it works. I can plod my way through just about any necessary interaction that comes along. But of course it is the unnecessary interactions that make life complete, the deeper discussions, jokes among friends, expressions of fears and accomplishments. And these are harder to come by when language is a barrier and you remain a relative outsider. Most of the time, I am confident in the natural progression of things, but am occasionally struck by my the separateness of being a lone anglophone in a French-speaking town. A girl I run with sometimes once leaves her shoes at my apartment by mistake. She says she’ll come tomorrow to pick them up, so, excited by our blossoming friendship, I leave a note in her shoe, thanking her for her contribution to my hallway’s odor, as if the stench provided by my own shoes wasn’t enough. It is a joke, and I’m sure she’ll take it as such, but when the weekend comes, she does not call and invite me to Strasbourg, though she said she would. I begin to wonder: Did I write something awful without realizing it? Did she not understand my attempt at humor? I am embarrassed to call and ask her and angry at myself for having alienated this potential friend. And then she calls, apologizing for her tardiness, saying that she postponed the trip on account of the lousy weather and how would I like to leave with her this evening around 5?

The lack of wilderness. I mentioned this before, but at least this part of Europe is awfully crowded. France’s population density is almost four times that of the States’, and it’s surrounded by countries with small areas and relatively large populations. This is hardly France’s fault, and yet there’s something about the existence of huge, undeveloped expanses in the Americas that is inherent to my sense of identity, and its absence here is, in some subtle way, unsettling.

And why I don’t just run off home:

Walking along the still-dark streets in the early morning, clutching a still-warm loaf of bread. Ripping off hunks of it because I can’t wait until I get home, and feeling that I’m in good company when I see other French folks doing the same.

Crumbs all over the table at breakfast time, when bread is ripped apart in hunks and jam spread without the nicety of plates.

The sometime humor of miscommunication, wherein the most ordinary interaction can take on elements of the absurd. At the post office, for example, I am mailing a Christmas present, a pine cone crafted into the form of a hedgehog. The postal clerk takes out a customs form. “Contents?” she asks. “A hedgehog,” I chirp, proud I’ve committed at least this French word to memory. Pause. “Not a real hedgehog?” asks the postal clerk, trying to conceal her alarm. “No, no!” I assure her, but cannot now recall the word for pine cone. “Um…” I stumble, before settling on “C’est artisanale,” meaning, “It’s handmade.”

My vendor at the marché. Despite my initial qualms about the price of produce at the open-air markets here, I’ve since reassessed the situation. For a town of 8,000 to even have such a market would be unusual in the States, and actually almost all French villages, no matter how small, do. This is what we should be aiming for, I think, local producers selling their products at prices perhaps slightly higher than those you’d find at your average supermarket but that allow them to continue working the land in a small-scale and sustainable way. So I’ve been frequenting the market for eggs, apples, cabbage, and various other vegetables, and I try to stay loyal to one particular vendor, for no other reason than that it’s nice to know your local farmer. He has a thick brown mustache and tallies up my bill on a little yellow notepad. He prefers Gala apples to the rest and seems amused by my accent and the stashes of plastic bags I pull out of my backpack and hand over for him to fill.

Trails. Everywhere. Marked with little symbols, carefully painted onto small metal signs: red circles, blue crosses, green rectangles. I bought a map, but have stopped taking it with me when I go for strolls; I know that there will always be a trail, and that it will lead to another which will eventually bring me home. Although signs of human impact are everywhere, the hundreds of kilometers of footpaths in the hills and valleys around town provide genuine solitude.

I’ve found ancient, abandoned farm buildings, pastures of cows and horses, waterfulls gushing down verdant ravines and windy hilltops with the Black Forest of Germany and the Swiss Alps distant on the horizon.

That’s all for 2006! Christmas vacation will take me to Vienna and northwestern Croatia, so I’ll be sure to report on that come mid-January. Happy holidays to all!