Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Parisian environmentalism

Paris is famously clean. Water is run through the streets at regular intervals, sweeping away all of the dust, dirt, and detritus of the city streets. It is one of the things that makes Paris a beautiful city to live in -- how can something so old be so clean?

Except dog poop, that is. People seem better about this than they used to be, but it is still somewhat unpleasant to walk out your door and see a cocker spaniel delivering a four-pound package on your sidewalk. But then you look up and see an immaculate park, maintained 40 hours a week by Djamel, who sweeps leaves from the walk and asks you if the city's free wifi is working.

It must be less obvious to hotel dwellers just how differently people in Europe actually live in relation to their consumption. When you walk into my building, the foyer is dark except for a few shots of light from an upstairs window. That's when it is daytime -- at night it is almost pitch black. You walk about 10 steps to a faintly glowing light, which turns on the stairwell lights for about three minutes. Run, 6th floor dwellers!

(Actually, there's an elevator, but people only take it when they have luggage. That's part of the environment too -- getting some exercise.)

The apartment too is designed to minimize consumption. You can shut off the hot water heater with a simple switch next to the front door -- and Patricia asked me to do this, daily. You can shut off the electricity to the entire apartment if you leave. You can see how much energy you are consuming every day on a meter right next to that. In Rome, I was able to calculate exactly how much my utility bill would be for the month that I stayed there.

The kitchen has a hot plate instead of a stove, and it can only be turned off by pulling the plug from the wall. The microwave is always unplugged when not in use. The small lamp that is temporarily replacing the overhead light only shuts off when unplugged. No vampire electricity use here.

The fridge is the size of two dorm fridges, and my God, the freezer area -- I can barely get my meaty paw in there without touching ice. Getting the tray out is like the world's worst game of Operation.

As a result, you shop more often and buy less stuff. Space in the fridge is a precious commodity that cannot be wasted with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Max from 2007. Drink it or dump it. There's recycling of course, and you only separate glass, which is nice.

Space in the apartment is limited of course. There are no closets, and only a few shelves. Thus anything you want to consume in the future has to look pretty when not in use.

Are Europeans better environmentalists than Americans? I don't think so, actually. I think they are nudged to be. Energy costs are simply much higher than in the U.S., and so people have looked for ways to reduce their consumption. Space is limited, and the culture values quality over quantity, not to mention living more of life in public spaces. (A wonderful topic for another post, actually.)

Europeans also generally have far less disposable income than Americans, due both to taxation and less income disparity in general. A new full professor in Paris makes only slightly more than I did as a new assistant professor, and this is considered only mildly regrettable. But they spend much less, both because of the consumption factor and because social security provides many things that Americans pay directly. (The welfare state is another fantastic topic.)

Americans are definitely moving in this direction, with their Smart Cars and house timers and solar doo-dads. But more change will likely come from simplicity.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Rain in France Falls Mainly on My Pants

Bonjour! I arrived in Paris on Friday, emerging from Charles De Gaulle with my luggage despite three flights on three different airlines. Sadly, Tina had to remain in Philadelphia, leaving me to sit next to a quiet young Irish woman for the transatlantic journey. When the pilot announced the in-flight entertainment, Hotel for Dogs, she was moved to say her only spoken words: “Oh, balls.”

I arrived on an amazingly beautiful day, low 70s and bright sun. I made it to my new apartment with no real problems and was greeted by my landlady, Patricia. Patricia is a lithe British woman, friendly but clearly thinking primarily about the Eurostar departure schedule. She was to the point: This is the apartment, hope you like it, and by the way: The neighbors are crazy.

The walls are fairly thin here, to be sure, but I was warned that the neighbors will take virtually any opportunity to knock on the door and ask me to be quiet. The night before I came, they knocked on the door at 11pm when she was reading a book in bed. And true to form, on my first night they knocked at 9pm, while it is still quite bright outside here, to ask if I could walk across the apartment more quietly.

My first thought was to formulate a response dripping with condescension (“Why do your people always have to go to sarcasm first?”), but Patricia had practically begged me to be nice and not to mention point out their nuttiness. So I smiled and muttered something unintelligible even to myself. (Something easy to do when someone is speaking to you in a foreign tongue -- you find yourself forgetting how to speak even your own language.)

The apartment is a one-bedroom in the 11th, about halfway between the Bastille and Pere Lachaise. I’ve been told that it is reasonably “fashionable,” which is apparently important. What I like is that I’m a block away from the bakery, the laundry, and the market. Diet Coke will flow through my veins once again! In general it’s quite a busy neighborhood, especially when it’s not raining. Except that it rains all the time, literally every day since I arrived. (“Oh, is Paris too rainy for you?”) Yes it is, and I’ll shut up now.

The apartment itself is about 1870s or so, and the building is fairly average for Paris – about six stories, ironwork on the windows, no balconies. The floors look 14th century to me, but apparently they are newer than that. They certainly creak like something medieval, but the patina is fantastic.

Most notable is the bathroom, as these apartments were built without a shower or a tub. (Seriously.) So a shower was fabricated by placing the head over the sink and a drain in the floor. So basically the entire bathroom is your shower, and you have two curtains to shield the door and the toilet on either end. After you take a shower, you use a squeegee to push the water into the drain. If you need to use the bathroom after, there’s a duckboard to stand on so you don’t have to pee while your feet steep in a thin layer of ice-cold water.

It’s quite amazing to consider how different this is from the U.S. You can only imagine the look of abject American horror on the faces of a House Hunters family when faced with my bathroom. How it would just be assumed that the entire room is a complete tear-down that must be rectified before even deigning to enter the apartment again. The kitchen would go with it -- the counters are essentially crafted with unvarnished two-by-fours, and the half-refrigerator sits underneath them so far you nearly have to get on your knees to get something from the back of it. But as a visitor, it’s all rather charming.

The thing is, you quickly learn that these are things that matter not one little bit. It’s all perfectly functional, just slightly more time-consuming and not as attractive. (Unless you’re handicapped, in which case I assume you’re paid to leave Europe entirely.)

This is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. I have a long list of “post-tenure purchases” I want to make for my house, and I’m not sure a single one of them has to do with a functional purpose. They’re just all things I don’t like. And if Oprah has taught us anything, it’s that our home is a special, sacred sanctuary that must be made perfect before our souls can thrive.

Not that Europeans have a monopoly on what really matters in life – this is a country, after all, in which no two people wear the same pair of jeans. It’s just that things are often inverted. The same American who can’t live without granite countertops happily wears sweatpants to work. A European must have a special place to hang her umbrella, but couldn’t care less if the mattress is 30 years old.

The mattress is something I’m finding a little less charming with each morning.