Zéro déchet in Versailles

Versailles.  Known to most folks outside of France as the bit of earth upon which stands that gaudy monstrosity of a castle.  However within France it’s also known for being a very conservative community.  Churches and convents abound.  There are two that offer Mass in Latin.  The resident citizens tend to vote on the Right side of the political spectrum.

So should you park your progressive politics and take off your Birkenstocks before entering?

Not at all.  Versailles is a good example of how political labels are deceptive.  This is hands down the greenest city I’ve ever lived in, and that includes my hometown of Seattle.   The public servants in Versailles have done an amazing job of making it so.

There is a municipal recycling program, of course, with weekly home pickup.  And a municipal composting program with home pickup of garden waste that returns to the residents in the form of  free compost.  There is yet another city sponsored program to put backyard chickens in the yards of homeowners.  At ten euros for two healthy, vaccinated gallus gallus domesticus, any resident can afford them.

In the parks, gardens, and green spaces you can see the results of a rethinking by the city gardeners.  There are more drought resistant plants, more mulch, and more trees.  The grass in the green spaces is mowed less often and some areas are left alone to form small meadows.  In the Domaine de Madame Elizabeth (sister to Louis XVI) a flock of sheep trim the grass.

A month or so ago I watched workers tear off the concrete on a traffic divider on one of our busiest streets in order to plant a very pretty, low-growing ground cover.  Last week I visited a relatively new park and shopping area called the Cour des Senteurs which has lovely gardens and a communal compost area for the nearby apartment dwellers.

What is the next frontier?   According to a recent mailing from the city, we now aspire to become a Territoire Zéro Déchet Zéro Gaspillage, known in anglophone world as “zero waste.”  You can download their handy guide here.

This initiative tackles the issue of waste, especially food waste.  It builds on existing programs like recycling, compost, and chickens, but takes it a step further with ecogestes to conserve water, reduce pollution, and minimize purchases and packaging.

Will people actually do any of these things?  Yes, they will for a number of reasons.  Zero waste is the perfect marriage between old and new ways of thinking – between old ideas about frugality and modern ones about “going green.”

Again, political labels are useless here.  Aside from any of the benefits to the environment, just the idea of saving a few bucks is very appealing even for the relatively affluent conservative voter.  I saw this with my grandmother in Seattle many years ago. Grandma became an avid recycler because she was able to trade in her big garbage bin for a smaller one that had lower pickup fees.

Zero waste also values an mentality still possessed by older residents who remember times of relative deprivation.  For someone who has vivid memories of World War II like my mother-in-law, all of this is very familiar and it’s stuff that she has always done:  reuse plastic bags, freeze leftover baguettes, save leftovers for the next meal, and so on.

So, if you want time-honored tips for going zero waste,  talk to your grandparents or anyone you know from that generation.  The act of asking your elders for advice is one of the best, concrete expressions of “family values” that I can think of.  And doing it is not likely to start a fight at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.

If you are interested in knowing more about zero waste in France, there is a podcast I enjoy called Mouvements Zéro which is in French.  For you anglophones, give  Practical(ly) Zero Waste a listen.

The Death of Local Commerce?

I walk my neighborhood at least six days a week.  Easiest way I know to stay fit, and probably the most pleasant.  Porchefontaine is lovely and there is always something to see and people to talk with.  A great antidote both for what ails me and for the social isolation that comes from being chronically ill and best friends with my couch.

Once upon a time this area was farms and wasn’t part of Versailles at all.  The developers came many years ago and since then it’s been a slum and later a modest working-class area with small houses like mine, but usually with two stories and not just one. Small footprints, big gardens.  City services like the sewer system didn’t arrive until 1928.  More recently, the city is finally getting around to burying the overhead power lines that you used to see on every street.

Gentrification has certainly has been a part of the life of the neighborhood in more recent years.  But it is happening slowly, I think because while the house are nice, they are not that nice.  Walk toward the castle and you will start to see some beautiful homes with named architects in what are, frankly, better neighborhoods.

Picking three words to describe this quartier I would pick “charming,” “modest,” and “practical.”  The last because of the best features of this area is a kind of village center – a couple of streets with small businesses.  I think this is what the British call a “high street.” I rarely go into the center of Versailles because so much of what I need is just a short walk away.

There are signs, however, that all is not well in the little world of Porchefontaine commerce.  The only presse (newspapers, magazines, office supplies) which has been around for many years closed  a few months ago.  The last butcher and florist are gone, gone, gone.  Newer businesses like the nail shop, a fast food restaurant, and the fancy cookie store also closed.  Yesterday, I talked to the local esthéticienne and she is retiring early next year.

That is a lot to lose in a very short period of time and residents are concerned about it.  As for the business owners, feels like mild panic to me.  They are organizing.

Do an internet search and you’ll easily find communities all over the world watching the slow death of local commerce.  Some blame the Internet which is surely part of it.  The other day during my morning walk I watched a truck pull up on a small street.  The driver got out and I saw him haul out a big pile of Amazon packages which he then distributed to different houses.  Yes, people here have Prime.

But the Internet can’t be all of the story.  Yes, we can wring our hands and moan about larger forces but the local and particular matter, too.  There are goods and services for which the rise of e-business is irrelevant. Let’s look past what was lost and consider what remains and is working just fine.  We have three bakeries, three food stores (one bio), three hair dressers, three bar/tabacs, two dry cleaners, two pharmacies, several restaurants, doctors’ and nurses’ offices here and there, and miscellaneous things like a home security business that sells alarms and shutters.  There is a farmer’s market twice a week.

What do they all have in common?  For one, with a couple of exceptions, they offer services or special products.  Amazon can’t cut my hair, dry clean my clothes or serve me a coffee.  If I buy a baguette from my favorite bakery in the morning, it’s fresh and still warm from the oven and goes perfectly with a couple of fresh eggs provided by my chickens. I don’t see how any e-entrepreneur can top that for quality, convenience, or price.  Furthermore, I don’t buy the cheapest baguette but what I do buy costs only 1.35 euros (USD 1.50). And when I am cooking for one, the bakers are happy to sell me half:  a demi-baguette.  Good bread for less than a dollar a day.

Service or what you can call the “customer experience” matters now more than ever.  Now, I know that France doesn’t have the best reputation in this regard. But it has always been the strength of the local and that’s just as true in France as it is elsewhere.  I certainly have no cause for complaint in my little corner of the Hexagon.

All the businesses I frequent have owners who know my face, and most know my name.  The owner of the bio store knows that I like a particular kind of little apple, and he took the time the other day to pick out the nicest, freshest ones for me.  I only bought three of them.  But he knows I will be back.  We always chat and it’s not just him.  In the local stores that receive my custom there are pleasant conversations and a sense that I am recognized as a human being and not just another random stranger with a debit card.

Lastly, what I think the successful businesses here have in common is what you could call “curb appeal.”  The windows are always washed, the entry and floors are clean, and there are attractive displays in the windows that change with the seasons. When possible some businesses spill over into the sidewalk with a nice presentation of fruits and vegetables for example.  You are rewarded for going inside with the smell of fresh bread, spices, fruit…  These are the businesses that make the entire street sparkle and shine.  This is why my morning walk almost always includes a stroll down the main street.

My take on it is that some of the businesses that closed were lacking in one or more of the above.  The services and services they offered just didn’t appeal to the folks here or there wasn’t enough business to support, say, three (instead of two) places that do nails. There was one place which I will not name where I picked up things from time to time but I hated going in there.  It was dirty, smelled bad, and it was so disorganized that it was painful to peruse the shelves.  Not worth it and, yep, everything they stocked could be had much cheaper on Amazon.

My perspective is that of a customer and a local resident.  Surely, there is more to it that I don’t see and I hope those of you who are business owners will forgive my ignorance.  I have no idea what the average rent for commercial spaces in the area is. I also have no idea what they pay in local and national taxes or the regulations they operate under.  I do appreciate that it’s hard to start a business here, hard to keep it going, and so easy to fail.   My greatest fear is not that local businesses are closing.  I worry more that people will give up and stop opening them.  Empty commercial spaces with fewer shoppers because “il n’y a plus rien.”  That would be the true death of the local.

I don’t want that to happen and I am assuming that the other residents of the neighborhood feel the same way.  That may not be true.  One person at church I spoke to claimed that part of the problem was the Catholic familles nombreuses who, for reasons of economy and in spite of having at least one parent at home, buy primarily in bulk on-line or at one of the major hypermarket chains. A quick look at the population stats for Versailles reveals that most people here work and many commute into Paris every day.  For them, Porchefontaine is a “bedroom community” like any other suburb. Five days out of seven, they are somewhere else and most only return late in the evening when the stores are closed.

So it feels like there is some combination of social, economic, demographic, technology forces behind all this.  A suivre and if you feel inspired I’d be very interested in hearing about the state of local commerce in your neighborhood and what, if anything, is being done if it is suffering.

My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière

Now that I am home full-time and working on my house and garden, I thought it would be timely to share this post from 2013 about my odd little abode which a friend here has christened la maison des sept nains (the house of the seven dwarves).

A topic that I am tenaciously investigating right now is my house.  It is a weird little house. Though there are many detached houses (pavillons) in Porchefontaine, mine does not resemble any other in the immediate neighborhood old or new.  The front facade is covered with a funny yellowish brick and each individual brick has “EBD” stamped on it.  I have seen exactly the same bricks used for early 20th century apartment buildings in other parts of Versailles.

Around the front porch are wood railings and decorative woodwork.  There is a small niche carved into a corner where two outside walls meet.  Decorative ironwork can be found around just one window (a garde-corps) and on the old door which has an opaque glass window that opens behind a grille like this one.

In the back and on the sides I can’t tell what’s there because it’s covered with what is commonly called crépi, a kind of cement/mortar that forms a protective layer on the exterior of many houses and apartment buildings (sometimes walls too).  The house itself  is elevated about one meter from ground-level and there are steps going up/down front and back.

The roof reminds me of old houses I saw in Tokyo and is, I think, a pyramid hip roof  because it has a peak sloping off into four corners covered with tile, not slate. And there is not enough room under the roof for an attic and there is no access from inside the house so it’s pretty much wasted space. To get under the roof you have to get a ladder, climb up, carefully lift off a section of tile and drop in.

What the fireplaces might have looked like

Inside the house the floor plan is interesting:  3 small rooms, a tiny kitchen, a closet with a toilet and a bathroom.   Smack in the middle of the house is a long corridor and there are doors off the hallway to each room with oval porcelain door knobs.  Once upon a time there were corner fireplaces (wood or coal) in at least three of the rooms and there was flat panel wainscoting (still visible behind one of the radiators) and crown molding around the 3 feet high ceilings.

What we call in the U.S. “French doors” with 8 clear glass panes separate the two largest rooms (living and dining) which means there is a lot of light – the sun rises on the living room side through the tall windows/doors that open onto the front porch, and sets on the dining room side (east-west orientation).

Here is the floor plan from my files and to give you an idea of the size, the biggest room in the house, what is shown here as the salon,  measures roughly 3 x 3 meters (about 10 x 10 feet).

The house is basically a 55 square meter (592 square feet) box plunked in the middle of a lot with a front courtyard and a big back garden.

Who built this house?  Why did they build it here?  What did it look like when it was first built?

I’ve been looking for answers to those questions and this is what I have unearthed so far.

From the documents the notaire gave us during the sale, I have a few names and a few crumbs of information that he passed along after his due diligence on the property.  The property was sold at a public auction in 1876 or 1877.  There were some interesting conditions to the sale:   the right to access the property with a horse or a car, for example.  And that owners assumed full responsibility for the “conduire des eaux de toute nature” from the property to the street at their own cost, risk, and peril. The owners were also responsible for a creek, called the ru de Marivel, that ran adjacent to the property.

The property finally passed to a Madame Wynhaut who sold it on September 3, 1929 to Madame Seitz who was, I presume, the builder of this house.

The city architect in a telephone conversation said that he knew the house well as an example of a maison ouvrière (working-class housing).  It is, he said, one of the last of its type remaining in Versailles – a style of architecture common in the late 19th/early 20th century in working-class neighborhoods like Porchefontaine, a quartier populaire on the other side of town about as far away from the Château de Versailles as you could get.  In the early years of the 20th century it even had its own slum called le Camp du Maroc.  The year this house was built, the city of Versailles was just beginning to put  in water, sewer and gas services.

People had wells in their back yards and outhouses.  Almost all the roads were dirt roads with the exception of my street and that was only paved up to the train station.  There is a very good site here that has pictures of the area in the 1930’s.  Scroll down to the section entitled Le Halte and the photo right after the postcard  4. Avenue de Porchefontaine – Rue de la Ferme is an old picture of my street.  My house is on the right hand side (I think I see a corner of the roof).  The architect has no old photos of the house in his files but the day we decide to repaint, he said, he wants to come by so he can know what color the woodwork was when it was first built.

So looking back at the house as it is today what might we be able to deduce from the information presented so far?  Let’s have some fun speculating.

Madame Seitz might have been a person of modest means, perhaps a widow (this is the period after the sanguinary First World War).  She had some money because she could buy property and build a house but not enough to do so in the nicer parts of town.  She might have been a shopkeeper in the area or a rentier with a small income.

Or (and this idea came from a craftsman who passed by the other day) it was associated with the Truffaut gardens and housed a worker (and his family)  who was employed either in the show gardens or in the fertilizer factory.  The craftsman was very insistent that this house would not have been suitable for cadre (management) but he could see it being offered to a working-class family as part of a company policy of paternalisme industriel.

“But it’s so small,” I said. “How could you fit a family in this little one-bedroom house?”  He just looked at me and then patiently explained a little about the living conditions of the French working class in the early 20th century.  Even a very small house like this one, a single-family dwelling with room for a vegetable garden, he said, would have been a dream come true for a family in that era.

And there we have it – I’m looking at my house through late 20th/early 21st middle-class American eyes and I’m trying to put myself in the context of another world that had very different rules and conditions from the one I grew up in and the one I live in now.

Today’s world where we take for granted things like running water (hot and cold), where we can turn up the thermostat if we don’t feel like firing up the purely optional wood stove, where there is a minimum wage and standards for decent housing, and where a sick women recovering from a life-threatening illness can sit at a computer and type these words knowing that she is warm, doesn’t have to spend 70% of her non-existent income on food, and won’t end up sleeping in a tent in a bidonville.

Damn.  Kinda looks like progress, doesn’t it?

The Skinny and the Fat in France

The other day I picked up the much talked about  On ne naît pas grosse (One is Not Born Fat) by Gabrielle Deydier.  Some of the fuss is justified and some of it isn’t.  It’s a fast read and I didn’t think it was very well written.  The book itself will be forgotten soon enough.  What is notable about it is the discussion that has ensued from this very frank polemic over a subject that is relatively taboo in France:  women and their weight.

Deydier’s observations and experiences come from a life lived as an overweight woman in France.  Anything I have to add to the discussion comes from my experiences as a woman migrant in France where ideas about weight figure very prominently when one tries to integrate into French society.  Unlike other aspects of the culture which are implicit, the standards for how women dress and how their bodies should be shaped are very explicit.  Dress badly and there will be comments.  Gain weight and there will be even more comments and outright discrimination as Deydier recounts in her attempts to land and keep a job.

There is something in the French mindset that thinks this behaviour is entirely appropriate.  What women look like is a public concern, not a private one.  The condemnation of those who do not comply is extremely moralistic in tone. Being overweight is associated with sloppiness, laziness, and lack of character and discipline. For all that the French are pretty laid back about some things (and profess distaste for the donneurs de leçons) this is one area where they have remarkably little tolerance and behave in a surprisingly irrational way.  For really what rational mind would equate weight with a woman’s character or trustworthiness?

I have never cared for any of this but I have faithfully obeyed these standards and submitted to the meddling and moralistic commentary that goes along with it.  As Deydier points out (thus dispelling forever,  I hope, the myth of the effortlessly thin Frenchwoman) the lengths to which women go to in France to be a “normal” weight:  operations, odd diets, fasting, creams, special teas, and amphetimine-like drugs.

It is no easier for a Frenchwoman to be thin than any other nationality in a developed country.  It takes work and time and money.  No, you cannot eat at will from the boulangerie or the local market and stay slim.  A croissant in France has exactly the same number of calories as it does anywhere else; no magic occurs to make it “diet” when eaten in a bistro in the center of Paris.  And as women age, bodies change and the dieting becomes more frenetic, more desperate, and less efficace.

When I say “desperate” I am not kidding.  To live in a society that subjects women to powerful negative feedback about their appearance is sometimes sheer hell.  I used to refer to my slimness, clothes, makeup, and heels as my “armor.” It was the difference between being left alone (or a nice comment) or nasty remarks from complete strangers and even from friends and colleagues.  No reasonable human being wants to be subjected to that.

The number of Frenchwomen I know who denigrate themselves and their lack of willpower and fall for the most scandalous of get-thin-quick programs are legion.  Even my mother-in-law who is in her eighties worries about it and projects those worries onto her daughter and mine. She has failed somehow because her daughter and granddaughter are not pencil thin. (And I note here that a friend of mine here in Japan has exactly the same problem with her Japanese mother-in-law who made similar comments about how much her granddaughter weighs.)

Within her tale Deydier also has some particularly pertinent things to say about healthcare in France.  Access to healthcare is indeed universal in the Hexagon but the quality can differ according to income. She grew up in a low-income family and some of the treatment she received for obesity as an adolescent actually made it worse.  When she moved on to another doctor there was a different diagnosis and a different treatment.   All, so far, have failed and the fault, of course, cannot possibly be laid at the door of the doctors.  Or can it?

Some (perhaps most) French doctors genuflect before the altar of thinness to an extent that is, I argue, irrational.  There was the doctor in Paris who saw me multiples times for colds and angines and the like.  Every time I saw him he made approving comments about how thin I was.  At the time I weighed about 50 kilos and I measured 174 centimeters which was a BMI of 16.5.  That is underweight and it never seemed to have occurred to him that this might have had something to do with how sick I was all the time.

And lest you think that a cancer diagnosis would change this I can honestly reply that it did and it didn’t.  On one hand my oncologist is very happy to see that I have gained weight and am now a far more reasonable 61 kilos which is a BMI of a little over 20.  She is even happier that I run and lift weights.  For you see all those years of being skinny as a rail are to a large extent responsible (along with my cancer meds) for my osteoporosis.

52 years old and I have brittle bones.

And yet when I visited my GP in France and I mentioned that the little tummy I have annoys me, he tells me to go on a diet.  Not his finest moment.

So the obsession with thinness can and does lead to real medical problems.  And, as Deydier notes, it can do real psychological damage as well.   Are Frenchwomen subjecting themselves to all this because they want to be healthy?  I sincerely doubt that because part of being healthy is being fit and knowing that your body can do what it’s mean to do:  walk short and long distances, lift heavy objects, march up and down stairs, have good balance, sit, squat, and occasionally sprint.

Many Frenchwomen (and Japanese women) are indeed thin but the way they went about it had a lot less to do with exercise and good nutrition, and more about very unhealthy measures like fanatical calorie counting, smoking, diet pills, and fasting.  Some exercise gurus refer to them as the “skinny fat.”  The body doesn’t work as designed and the moment the diet stops all the weight (and more returns).  Contrast this with the “overweight” women I have seen in Crossfit classes who could deadlift one and a half times their body weight.  Impressive and a level of fitness I have not yet achieved.

Deydier’s work confronts the myths about thinness in France.  She exposes it for what it is: an attempt to control (primarily) women.  Weight does indeed have a lot to do with general health and too heavy or too skinny can lead to any number of problems.  But then so does drinking (even moderately) or smoking and yet I don’t see such vicious societal sanctions against those things.  No, the standards for women’s weight are presented as purely a question of aesthetics and morality and enforced  diligently.  It is open season on those who are perceived to be too weak to starve their bodies into submission or, worse, are openly defiant of societal norms.

If France really is a country that prizes gender equality, rationality and individuality then surely a woman can be whatever weight she is comfortable with and she can wear whatever she likes, and everyone will respect her choices and avoid trying to “fix” what was hardly broken in the first place.

Not so?

Then explain to this lowly immigrant, please, how telling women what to weigh and what to wear is rational and compatible with respect for personal freedom, individuality, and the equality of men and women in France.


Grumbling about France and Japan

I think I have a new definition for “home”:  it’s the last place I lived and the one against which I measure the new place.   Today when I say that I want to go home I am talking about France, not the US.

Funny how some things that really irritated me about the Hexagon have become things I miss. For example, my neighborhood in Osaka has small stores (combini) that are open all day and night.  Need milk at 22:00?  No problem, just head down to the Family Mart where a tired clerk will happily take your money in exchange for what you think you desperately need at an unreasonable hour.  The only shop open at that hour in Porchefontaine in Versailles is an “Arab store” (yes, that’s what they are called) and even it closes at some point in the evening.  And in France it is not unusual for some shops to close for an entire month in the summer.  (Hey, shopkeepers need a vacation, too.)

What I discovered in Osaka is that I don’t need shops that are open 24 hours a day and I don’t frequent them outside of normal working hours.  Worse, having so many combinis everywhere just means that I spend money on things I don’t really need like sweets and flavored water.  Though, I must admit, I am always entertained by the line of gentlemen flipping through the pornography at the magazine stand.

Even the civility and sense of service here have begun to wear on me.  I used to grumble about the lack of both in France.  The French say what they think and have a real mean streak to boot.  They hand out unsolicited advice and publicly mock others in a way that is sometimes very cruel.  The service is inconsistent.  You have to take an entire day off from work to get your clothes washer fixed or your internet connection reset because the repairman won’t set a time for when he/she will arrive. You’re lucky if he tells you “probably sometime in the morning” and actually shows up before noon.  Pascal Baudry describes the place of the customer in the hierarchy in France: less than the gods. but more than the dogs.

Almost God
Not much
Less than nothing
Line of separation with the outside

In contrast Osaka folks are generally very pleasant in public.  People (even shopkeepers and sales assistants at shops) smile at you, and all the conversations I’ve been a party to were so non-threatening and utterly polite that my carapace has been set aside.  They are so pleasant in fact that even as I enjoy being higher in the hierarchy in Japan when I spend money, I  find their behavior to be very suspicious.  Surely, all that bland politeness masks something else?  Something not so nice?

Perhaps when I am back home in France I will miss this treatment.  But right now I kind of regret the casual surliness in France.  It’s a challenge and one that only time will overcome.  Keep going back to the same stores and you might find that the casual surliness is reserved for casual customers.  Why bother being polite to someone who isn’t coming back?  They save their energy for the repeat customers – people who live in the neighborhood.  Think of  good service as a reward for being a good customer.  (“Aren’t you a gooooood customer.  Good boy.  Yessss, you are….”)

As for public mockery and trickery another way to look at it is that you have to stay on your toes at all time in France and you can retaliate in kind.  You have to learn how to stick up for yourself (il faut savoir se défendre) and you get extra points for being witty or clever.  Someone makes a crack about your French, you can sneer at them for their lousy English.  I once sat in a meeting with two Frenchman who had decided for some reason that the American woman couldn’t possibly speak French.  So they used English in the meeting but they had side conversations with each other in the langue de Molière and they made a lot of stupid misogynistic comments.  I just bided my time and let them do it.  Then, sometime toward the end of the meeting a miracle happened and this American started speaking fluent French.  They were not amused. I, on the other hand, laughed all the way home that day.

In Japan I am deprived of all that fun.  Yes, I know that it doesn’t get my washer fixed or make going to  a new bakery a delight but it can be so exhilarating in France to play and (occasionally) win.

So I’m starting to see some of the negatives about “home” (France) in a new light.  The poor service, the public mockery and even the limited shopping hours can all be spun as positives.  (It’s hard to spend money in France which has done wonders for my savings.) Or it could be that I am preparing myself for the inevitable reverse culture shock and I’m considering my arguments for and against to soften the blow.

Happily, complaining is also a French cultural feature (not a bug).  So it’s perfectly OK to grumble about France when I’m in Japan and vice versa. None of that British “stiff upper lift” or silent suffering; the French let you know when they’re unhappy.

In other words, I think I’ll fit right in.