Tag Archives: european inferiority

Pomme de plastic

In this post from about six weeks ago, in which I lamented the absurd plastic packaging that plagues me every time I visit the French supermarket, I gave the award for the most ridiculously, absurdly, infuriatingly, stupidly, selfishly wasteful package to…

these individually packaged slices of ham. Whoever buys these must be the laziest people in France, if not the world.

Yesterday, however, among the refrigerated produce, I noticed for the first time a package that one-ups even the individually boxed slices of ham. And so, I now re-award the the most ridiculously, absurdly, infuriatingly, stupidly, selfishly wasteful package to…

pre-steamed potatoes in a plastic box.

To me, the potatoes are an even worse offense, because unlike ham, it is possible to consume potatoes sustainably. Eating animals—especially mammals—is terrible for the planet, period. Meat production is outrageously wasteful and has a gigantic carbon footprint. (I say this without the slightest bit of self-righteousness because I do eat animals, albeit in great moderation, partly because it’s so expensive in France.)

Potatoes can be grown without much help from chemical fertilizers and pesticides just about anywhere in the world. They can be transported and stored at room temperature, no packaging necessary, which is a vast carbon savings over the giant, ugly footprint of the refrigerated trucks necessary to transport individually-boxed slices of ham.

As I stared at it, jaw agape, I picked it up, not really believing that French manufacturers would cater to such extreme laziness. And then I nearly blew up from anger.

Apparently, one layer of plastic isn't enough to preserve a food that does just fine uncovered at room temperature.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find this package in the U.S. of A. Lay’s, Pringles, and McDonald’s hash browns are even worse abuses of the potato. But I expected more of France. Something I’ve always loved about the French language is that potatoes are called pommes de terre, literally “apples of the earth.” Why would a culture that seemingly has such great respect for the apple of the earth suck the life out of it and vacuum-pack it?

On plastic packaging

I’ve been here long enough that I no longer trip over my jaw on the ground as I say, “Wowww, I’m in France!” The supermarket, however, is one place that continually reminds me that I’m American. I haven’t gotten over mentally comparing and contrasting American and French supermarkets: prices, products, people, but most of all, packaging.

When I shop for groceries, my highest priorities are price and the planet. I try to make the most eco-friendly choices I can afford. In my real life in St. Paul, my habits included:

  • biking or walking to the store
  • choosing items from the bulk section at the co-op to reduce packaging waste
  • buying milk from a local dairy in returnable glass bottles
  • choosing locally grown produce (this was the part where price often intervened)
  • choosing local, Minnesota-brewed beers

Here in Angers, few of those options are available to me. My current eco-friendly habits include:

  • biking or walking everywhere
  • buying French-grown produce at the Farmer’s Market and trying my best to intervene before the vendors automatically put each item in a plastic bag

I won’t give myself bullet points for choosing French wines and local cheeses, because, I mean, come on, that’s obviously no sacrifice on my part.

I don’t mean to be self-righteous. I’m far from perfect. I’ve made some simple, non-sacrificial lifestyle choices because I sleep better at night knowing that I’ve cut back slightly on the amount of carbon dumped into the atmosphere and trash dumped into landfills on my behalf. Recently, I’ve been very inspired by this blog on eliminating plastic from your life. (Readers, please take a look and figure out two or three or more pieces of plastic you can do without.)

So maybe that’s why I can’t sleep without medication here in France: because I would have to live off the grid for years to make up for the disgusting amount of plastic packaging I’ve used here in the past seven months.

The ridiculous plastic packaging here drives me nuts. I thought Americans were bad about that, so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the French are even worse. (One thing to be said for America’s obesity epidemic is that big packages result in less packaging overall.)

So how about a tour of my supermarket, eh? I’ll show you what I’m up against. (Incidentally, it will be an amusing glimpse at the cultural differences between French and American supermarkets.)

In the produce section, I’ve noticed that most French shoppers feel the need to put every piece of produce in a plastic bag. Seriously, they’ll put a single lime in a big plastic bag. Ironically, the French have been carrying reusable market bags to the supermarket years longer than Americans have, and I’m always tempted to stop strangers to say, “Don’t you realize it defeats the purpose if you put six plastic bags inside your canvas bag?”

This is just the first of two cheese sections. It disgusts me that they are all sold on styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. If you're going to wrap them in plastic anyway, you could at least skip the styrofoam tray.

The French are thoroughly convinced that they will die for lack of protein if they do not eat pig products several times per week. Telling them that meat production accounts for even more carbon emissions than cars is a waste of breath. Further contributing to the waste is the outrageous way they package meat.

This is the deli section, where sandwich meats are packaged on a hard plastic tray, and sold in increments of 2, 4, or 6 slices (about a whopping half pound).

Nearly every supermarket in the U.S. offers a deli counter where your meat is cut to order. In that system, you can buy more at once, which saves packaging. (Added bonus: it creates employment.) You could even skip the usual plastic baggie by bringing your own container. My supermarket here offers no such option.

These 100 gram packages of bacon are handy if you're only feeding one person, but ridiculous if you're feeding a family.

In the second of two cheese sections, the preferred packaging is double wasteful. The wooden rounds are at least biodegradable--oh but wait, they're made of tress---and again, why use them at all when the cheese inside is wrapped in plastic anyway?

Shelf stable milk is a weird idea to Americans, but the French are very proud of having invented Pasteurization. I suppose they probably waste less milk this way, considering the store doesn't have to throw it out every 48 hours. Oh but wait--the biggest package is only 2 liters! If you're feeding a big family, you'd use a new plastic bottle every single meal. And if you prefer the organic variety, it only comes in 1 liter plastic bottles, which kind of defeats the ecological purpose of going organic...

Let’s talk about coffee. Coffee is one of the most wasteful items that I buy on a regular basis. (Chocolate and my occasional meat purchase are also really bad.) It can’t be grown locally, of course, so it has to be shipped from the tropics, which makes a gigantic carbon footprint. In Minnesota, I can cut back slightly on the waste by buying organic, shade grown coffee in bulk in paper bags from a local company that delivers it around the Twin Cities by bike. (First World white-guilted liberal triumvirate, right?)

American supermarkets offer coffee in bulk, of which at least one variety is often organic and/or fair trade certified. Here in Angers, there are a few artisan roasters around town that sell expensive coffee in bulk, but no such  option exists even in the bougie-est supermarket.

Of all of these coffees, I estimate that about 15% of them are fair-trade, of which about half are organic. Few if any of them, however, are labelled as rainforest safe. They all come in bags made of what I think is plastic-coated aluminum foil.

Only the poor quality juices come in 2 liter cartons. If you've got a big family (which many people in my area do), you could easily go through at least one plastic 1L bottle of juice with breakfast every morning.

Not a food item, but what I consider to be the most depressing and irritating use of dead trees that I’ve ever seen except for maybe junk mail:

pink toilet paper. It's pretty commonplace here. (Why, I don't know.) And black toilet paper? Just disturbing.

Ironically, there have been several occasions that I’ve wanted one small package of something and only found big packages. Ketchup, for instance, or

lemon. I don't have time to use up two bottles of lemon juice before I leave, yet for some reason, the option to buy one small bottle on its own did not exist yesterday.

One French habit that is definitely less wasteful than our American habits:

Fountain pens. Replacing an ink cartridge uses far less plastic than replacing a whole pen.

I’ve saved the very best (by which I mean worst) for last. The award for the most ridiculously, absurdly, infuriatingly, stupidly, selfishly wasteful package goes to…

individually packaged slices of ham. Whoever buys these must be the laziest people in France, if not the world.

Looking back over my entry, I realize it sounds very disparaging of French people. I don’t mean to accuse every individual French person of intentionally wasting big quantities of plastic. Au contraire, my point is the opposite. The French have many more ecologically sound habits and resources than Americans do: public transportation, extensive rail networks, and smaller homes, just to name the big ones. Thus, I’m sure that the vast majority of French consumers would be perfectly content to buy food less wastefully, especially considering it would save them money. So why don’t the options exist?

Whatever the reason, I know this much: the first time I go back to an American supermarket, everything is going to seem HUGE.

Whoops.

I spoke too soon. Or maybe I jinxed myself by saying anything at all. I’ll explain.

On Monday afternoon, I got a traffic ticket.

A traffic ticket?! you may ask, confused because I have not driven a car in over six months.

Yes, a freakin’ traffic ticket. Want to know why? Because I did not put my feet on the ground at a stop sign.

I tried pretending not to understand French, but it’s surprisingly tricky to make mistakes that were trained out of me in French I, and the cop who had waved me over was having none of it anyway.

“STOP,” she said. “It’s the same in the United States.”

I considered telling her it wasn’t the same in the U.S.

Instead, I started babbling about how I go through that particular roundabout several times per week and at least once per week one or multiple cars nearly kill me there. “So then you are seeing,” I stammered, “That I am always making attention to my security. I do not go if an automobile approaches because I maybe slapped.”

“How do you expect them to respect the rules when you don’t?” she asked, adopting a snotty tone far too familiar to kindergartners and foreigners, in which someone addresses you as if you’re a complete moron, which, much though my French may suggest otherwise, I am not.

The penance? 90 EUROS.

Yikes. This woman seriously wasn’t kidding around. It’s a good thing the transaction took place in French. If I had had native language advantage, I probably would have sassed back and that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere.

“Please!” I pleaded. “I’m sorry! But that is over 10% of my salary!”

That’s when it turned ridiculous.

“Fine,” she said. “22 euros.”

Point: thank God. Counterpoint: What kind of law is that flexible?!

“It’s for your safety,” she said. “The hospitals are full of bikers who got hit by cars.”

That’s when I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“If the hospitals are full of bikers, why aren’t you out here ensuring bikers wearing helmets?” I asked. “I’m the only person in Angers who wears a helmet!”

“It’s not obligatory,” she said.

“And why not?” I shrieked. “The rules are saying nothing to me. I know that I am a lot right because I am doing something for my health and for the planet. The cars, they do nothing! If the polices are making worries for bikers, no one is going to bike, and then the French will be fat as Americans and the planet suffers!”

Though I had trouble saying so in French—I probably could have explained myself better if I weren’t so irritated—I still maintain that I was in the right. The rules are the rules, sure, and yes, technically I should put my feet on the ground at every stop sign, but (1) I was making a righthand turn into a bike lane, at least 100 meters from even possibly being in anyone else’s way; (2) everyone knows that you shouldn’t come to a complete stop when you’re biking into a headwind because then you lose your momentum; and (3) charging a biker 90E —oh, JK, 22—for running a stop sign is an absurd waste of everyone’s time and money.

Ah, yez, go, go.

I just got lucky. By which I mean:

As I biked home from teaching this morning, I noticed several cops gathered around a motorcyclist I presume they had pulled over. One can’t help but rubberneck a bit; there’s schadenfreude in watching someone else get a ticket. That is, until you realize a cop is hailing you, too.

He gestured to his head, so I thought he was complimenting me on being the one young person in France who wears a helmet. So, like a dope, I smiled at him. He said something that I heard as “man on the ground,” so I said, “Pardon?”

As it turns out, I was being reprimanded for running a stop sign on my bike. The cop said, “[somethingsomethingsomething hon hon hon] c’est un STOP.”

“Oh?” I said, eyes wide, making my best Feel Sorry for a Foreigner face. “C’est un stop?

“Ah, bon. Yez,” he said and waved his wrist to be rid of me. “Go, go, go.”

I’m lucky I didn’t get a ticket and I have the French work ethic (slash frequent lack thereof) to thank. For once, it was really nice for me that someone couldn’t be bothered to repeat himself.

Merde alors

Whenever I feel frustrated by something here in France (usually an administrative process or a surly shopgirl) I try to remind myself that it’s neither better nor worse than the American system, simply different. It really irks me when foreigners in France go on and on about how things are so much better where they’re from. If it’s really so much better there, go home!

Americans are particularly bad about this, and I refuse to have anything other than the color of my passport in common with my countrymen who go to Paris seemingly just to complain at the top of their lungs—with one exception.

There is one little thing that makes Americans hands down, no competition, culturally superior to the French: dog poo. We pick up after our pups.

The way I see it, one picks up after one’s dog for two reasons:
1. Poop is disgusting so our streets should not be full of it.
2. Poop is disgusting so our streets should not be full of it because then we accidentally step in it. Shit!

Walking around Angers, I see at least one pile o’ poo every two blocks. More often than not, they’re smushed with a human’s shoeprint, the following meter of sidewalk smeared with the attempts to remove it from said shoe. (I haven’t stepped in any yet myself, but the way my life my life is going lately, I’m expecting it to happen the first day I wear sandals this spring.)

Now, I’m sure there are French people who do clean up after their canine companions, just as there are disgusting selfish Americans who don’t. But having observed the general attitude around here, I can draw no conclusion other than that Angevines fancy themselves too good to pick up <i>merde</i>.

Really, this is something I have in common with them. It doesn’t bother me to change the diapers of human children, but there’s something so very undignified about bending over to clean up after a lesser species’ bowel movements as to be insulting. I plan to adopt a greyhound someday, though, and because I am a member of a civilized society, I realize that a big part of what I’m signing up for is poo pickup. (Or maybe having human children to make them pick it up.)

I’d like to gather the local dog owners and ask them: doesn’t it bother you that the sidewalks here are smeared with poo? Don’t you realize that you could stop being part of the problem and be part of the solution?

Or, I could just go back to America, where there are fines for that shit.

Post not so hasty

Just an observation: something strange is going on between La Poste and USPS. I think they need to have a business lunch to sort it out.

Exhibit A:  I still haven’t received the Christmas package my parents posted on December 7. This is the 21st century, folks. The mail comes on airplanes, not the Pony Express. It shouldn’t take a month. It was très sad to come home from Morocco exhausted and sick, but looking forward to finding my parents’ Christmas package, only to realize that it will arrive long after Christmas is relevant.

Exhibit B: My boyfriend received a package I sent in November within 10 days. However, neither my parents nor my boyfriend have received the packages I posted on December 11.

Exhibit C: On December 16, I received a gift from our family friend Cathy which was postmarked December 10.

Exhibit D: Yesterday, January 4, I received the Christmas package my boyfriend posted on December 27.

Exhibit E: Today, January 5, I received the Christmas letter my boyfriend posted on December 24, leaving me perplexed as to how the box arrived so much faster than the letter…

Based on this sample, I can draw the following conclusion:
Letters sent between the U.S. and France arrive in a week, maybe two. Packages sent from the U.S. to France arrive in either under a week or over a month—no medium—or perhaps they disappear completely. Packages sent from France to the U.S. arrive in under two weeks or perhaps they disappear completely.

I’ve been to the local post office twice now to see if they might have any idea what happened to my parents’ box and even they think it’s ridiculous. Of course, in typical French fashion, it is not absolutely not their fault, but the fault of someone far away whom I cannot speak to, but they were nice enough to check their storage very thoroughly before disappointing me.

Moral of the story: if you feel moved to send me a present, don’t include anything perishable or valuable.

Update: The package my parents posted on Dec. 7 finally arrived on Jan. 6 but I still haven’t received a check that was mailed to me from another part of Angers on Dec. 23, and until I receive that check, I can’t even buy food. Thanks, France.

Queueing in Paree

Today I have to take a quick break from telling you about Morocco to tell you about my weekend, particularly a stupid vache with whom I will forever regret not having a shoving match.

I spent New Year’s with my roommate and her family at their gorgeous IKEA catalog of a home in the countryside outside of Paris. It was a lovely, relaxing weekend full of sleeping, reading, and simple homey pleasures that  I don’t have in my own crappartement, such as watching TV, using the internet in seated comfort, and hot showers.

To get home, I had to take one train back into Paris to catch another train back out to Angers, so I decided to make a day of it and visit the Musée d’Orsay.

The problem with any museum in Paris  is that you have to wait in a long line outside, especially the first Sunday of the month when they’re all free. (Any popular museum, that is. I could have walked right into the Museum of the Legion of Honor across the square). This was an intense line, snaking through the Tensabarriers, then through the square and around the block. I hadn’t realized how long I’d be outside and therefore hadn’t quite dressed accordingly.

I was feeling cold and impatient when things took a turn for the worse—the much, much worse—when a young couple blatantly, flagrantly, unrepentently cut in front of me.

The couple in question was composed of two strawberry blondes around my age. She, a French girl wearing items that may stylish on their own but came together as a train wreck, topped off with hair that clearly hadn’t been washed that day. Her accomplice, an English guy with a few days’ worth of scruff on his chin.

I despise him with less fury than I despise her because he voiced some objection—”There’s a long queue!”—clearly surprised that she would jump it so brazenly. He should have had the spine (…and balls…) to stop her. She shrugged and weaseled her way in between me and the person whose head I’d been staring at for at least 30 minutes already.

It wasn’t that I missed the head I had been staring it. That one was covered in particularly hideous dreadlocks. If anything, this vache’s stringy, greasy locks were an improvement in the scenery. It’s the principle of the matter that enraged me.

The ability to wait in lines is one of the fundamental signs of our almost uniquely human ability to cooperate in civilizations. Ants and bees are also skilled at it; the French are not. The French are generally a delightfully civilized people, which is why I’m surprised to say that this is at least the tenth time since I’ve arrived that I’ve observed them behaving not like members of a society, but like elephants fighting for their place at the water hole after crossing the Serengeti. Apparently, in this country, one does not calmly take a place at the end of the queue; one joins it where one likes. If you happen to be corrected (which is unlikely), you mumble something about how you’re still right because you are French so you are always right, and then you cut the first person who doesn’t defend himself.

I was debating whether to say, “Don’t even think about it,” or maybe “Bitch, I will choke you,” or simply “No fuckin’ way.” I was even prepared to use the British “jump the queue” nomenclature…but if I opened my mouth, I would have to reveal myself as American.

I should take a moment to describe how much I hate Americans in Paris. Why are my people so categorically loud and obnoxious? Of all of the nationalities represented on a busy day at a Parisian tourist site, the only one louder than Americans is Australians. Of course, Americans hate to be second place in anything, so they overcompensate by complaining. On any given day, I’m willing to bet there are more Americans complaining loudly in Paris than there are even in Los Angeles.

I didn’t want to join my fellow Americans in complaining about the French, but it was too late, anyway. As I picked up my jaw from the sidewalk, the moment passed. I mean, you don’t tap on someone’s shoulder to fuss at them a full 90 seconds after they’ve jumped the line. Plus, it’s hard to shed the five years of training in passive aggressive resistance I was subjected to in Minnesota. A masochistic part of me would rather just quietly hate her.

A Sadistic part of me, however, really wanted to kick her in the ankle. Considering how numb my toes were at that point, I could have kicked her hard. She was wearing fuzzy boots, though, which would have deadened the effect on her end. Besides, whatever I did needed to look like an accident.

I was wearing a heavy backpack, so I thought about spinning fast on one foot in hopes of knocking her over. The trouble is, the center of gravity in a backpack is low, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be satisfied if she didn’t get a black eye. Plus, there was always the chance of starting a domino effect and I wasn’t mad at anyone else in the line.

After a lot of plotting, I decided that I would be content with tripping her. I spent the remaining half-hour in line standing awkwardly close to her, trying to stick my foot in front of hers—very tricky, considering I was behind her.

As I stood awkwardly close, I composed a mental list of reasons that I’m better than her:

1. My hair was clean.
2. I would never wear black, navy, grey, and brown in the same outfit.
3. Her skirt was ill-fitting; mine, on the other hand, made my booty look adorable.
4. My face is prettier.
5. Most importantly, I would never cut in front of people who had been waiting in line for thirty minutes!

Because I was standing so close, I could also hear every word of her conversation with her boyfriend. They were speaking English, which made it even easier for me to judge her, and I must say, I took great pleasure in the fact that they were fighting.

She: We go all over Paris and you never say if you like anysing!
He: I’m having fun.
She: Why don’t you say anysing?!!?

She may make a habit of cutting in lines, but her karmic payback is an unsatisfying relationship with an emotionally unresponsive dude. She may have a better place in line, but my boyfriend is awesome, so really, I’m beating her at the game of life. With clean hair.

Sadly, despite my best efforts, I never succeeded in tangling my foot with hers.

That’s why I’m calling on all of my readers to help. If you ever see this girl, in Paris or anywhere in the world, I am offering a reward of getting you plastered in the bar of your choice if you trip this bitch.

This is what she looks like from behind, which is how you will see her, because queue-jumping is her modus operandi.