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The public trashcans in Paris, the poubelles, never overflow. I am guessing there are two reasons for this, the obvious one and the other one.
Paris spends a fortune on cleanliness and places poubelles everywhere, so unlike Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew or Santo Domingo under Rafael Leonidas Trujillo it is not necessary to have public floggings for people who litter: it’s too easy to find a place to throw things away. And anyway, the poubelles, being plastic bags hanging from hoops, are easy to empty frequently, unlike the heavy metal or concrete barrels—some of them bomb-proof—you’ll find in Washington or New York. So much for the obvious.
But I suspect there is another reason. Parisians don’t walk around the streets of the city carrying food and drink wrapped up in cardboard and plastic. There are tabacs and cafés everywhere offering food à emporter ou sur place—eat in or take out—but Parisians don’t take to take-out and street-eating like Americans. And, when they do, the packaging is always more modest: the famous ham sandwich of Paris usually comes in a fitted wax-paper sleeve, not a Styrofoam box inside a paper bag along with more napkins than the messiest eater could ever hope to spoil—or simply throw out unused. The result is the supply of poubelles handily outruns by the demand of trash.
There’s more to it. A Parisian will eat, or at least drink, standing up, but it will be at the counter of a café where standing earns a discount, and the French are thrifty. It’s much harder to engage another human being when walking, even in lockstep, and Parisians seem to have this sense, or belief, bred in the bone. Sitting down is a much better way to take in another person—take-out just doesn’t lend itself to taking in—because you don’t have to use some of your attention on placing one foot in front of the other, avoiding the residue of dogs (the one area where la propreté de Paris remains imperfect), or walking into traffic.
It is not news that the French like food and drink more than we do—though not the quantities Americans enjoy. Maybe it is better to say they respect food more than we do: a Parisian will spend a much larger proportion of his income on eating and drinking than a Washingtonian (not including those on expense accounts) and will spend much more time in the acts of consumption because the moules, ragoût, or coq au vin, however ordinary, deserve to be addressed directly and at leisure—and with understanding, sauced with conversation, not dried out with the distractions of motion or overdone with superabundance. Walking while eating is disrespectful and isn’t good for the digestion either.
There’s even more, at least I suspect there is. The evidence at hand is Starbucks. In all of central Paris there are, at last count, ten of them. In neighborhoods on the West Side of Manhattan or around Dupont Circle in Washington, you’ll find as many in a radius of about 500 metres. Parisians go to Starbucks, but not the way New Yorkers, Washingtonians, or other urban Americans pack themselves in to grab a latte and go. Aside from not wanting to walk down the street coffee in hand, I don’t think Parisians care for the taste of coffee in a cardboard cup. It is possible to argue that the cardboard doesn’t change the flavor of the coffee—though this is a question that can start fights and end friendships—but giving up the smoothness and coolness of the porcelain or the earthenware for the tack and heat of cardboard changes the experience of drinking a cup of coffee.
The weight of the china cup in the hand tells the coffee-drinker something, something personal, your sense of what it means being different from his or hers or mine. It may be solidity or a sense that this is an important moment. It may be the knowledge that the coffee like the cup is not really disposable, not a commodity, but a pleasure. Or perhaps it’s an understanding that one cup of coffee is not exactly the same as any other, the time and place and circumstances of drinking it giving it its own definition. Coffee swallowed on the hoof from cardboard is fungible, but coffee sipped sitting down from china is a moment in time, a possession.
Maybe this is too romantic. Maybe the Parisians are greener than Washingtonians and worry about clogging their landfills and about all the energy used to make disposable cardboard, Styrofoam, and plastic cups. Maybe they fret about the backs of the men who have to empty the poubelles several times a day, a concern arising from the spirit of fraternité or the justified fear that the sanitation workers will go on strike—in either event not romantic at all. But there is something, romantic or otherwise—and we will know when this mysterious quality has faded and lost its power when the poubelles of Paris begin to overflow.
© Joseph Lestrange