walk at your own risk

In the last post I mentioned surprising areas in which French punctiliousness is absent. The one that immediately springs to mind--and to sight, and all too often to shoe-sole--is the attitude towards cleaning up after your dog. Which is, ce n'est pas nécessaire.  

Actually, although I've put this attitude in French, I simply cannot begin to understand it. Of course, some dog-owners do clean up after their chiens, I have seen them doing so--one or two. But judging from the appalling condition of the pavements, they are in a small minority. In a country that prides itself on appearances and presentation--and where the wearing of elegant shoes is de rigeur!-- this filthiness in the streets of otherwise beautiful towns and cities is extraordinary.

Many other writers have talked about this, most famously perhaps Stephen Clarke (A Year in the Merde) in his inimitably funny and acerbic way.  I cannot attempt to say anything new or better or funnier or more bitter, but I add my own lament to all the others. And I realise I'm breaking my own rule of shaping a post around a French word or phrase...this one is based on a French phenomenon.

One of the English-language French newspapers recently had an article about this ghastly mess, from which it's clear the phenomenon is not restricted to Lyon (or Paris, where Clarke lives and writes). The article explained that there are special pavement-cleaning machines to deal with this problem, and cited the number of tons of dog waste removed from France's pavements yearly--my numerical blind spot prevents my recalling the figure, but, believe me, it was staggering. And it's true that the urban clean-up crews are very efficient here, just as public transport is, and most other public services; every morning, the streets and pavements are clean, ready to be soiled all over again.

I live on a pedestrianized shopping street down which it should be an unmitigated pleasure to promenade. I'm not far from the cobbled, narrow lanes of Vieux Lyon, also traffic-free, where again one should be able to walk with a liberated and relaxed stride. Instead of which, one has to keep one's eyes vigilantly upon the ground ahead to avoid stepping into disaster.

Que faire? Do I dare accost every dog-owner I see leaving behind his pet's souvenirs? Strangely enough, one rarely sees it actually happening; but if I did, is my French good enough, am I confident enough, to say anything? And what kind of difference would it make, in the grand scheme of things?

We noticed that the little villages around Lake Como in Italy had scrupulously clean pavements and frequently-posted signs enjoining dog owners to be responsible about this. While we were sitting on a bench looking out over the lake one evening, a young boy with a puppy who had taken him by surprise came up to ask if we had any tissues. Young as he was, he knew he had to clean up after the dog. If only this understanding could be imported to all dog-owners in France.

je suis back

In my last post, written shockingly long ago, I said Italy was a delightfully nearby country. Recently we put this to the test, as we drove to Italy for a holiday. First we went, via the Fréjus tunnel and the Turin-Milan motorway, to Lago di Como, which is as lovely as they say and as pictures illustrate, but even more so. (It did take five or six hours, longer than we expected, to get there...but still, only about as much time as driving to the Dordogne). After that, Aosta, in the mountains and very close to France. The people there speak both Italian and French--a special French all their own--and often German as well. It's a fascinating place with many historical features including the well-preserved Roman city gate and walls; and the whole Val d'Aosta is a feast of dramatic scenery, ancient villages, and chateaux. (Now I sound like a tourist brochure; you had to be there).

We came home via the Mont Blanc tunnel, on the French-Italian border; the wait was half an hour for us, but an hour and a half the other way, and we'd heard the previous Friday evening that there was a two-and-a-half hour queue from France into Italy; so Italy isn't always as near as all that.

In Italy, at first, I had great difficulty in retrieving my once-fluent Italian; everything came out in French.  A good sign, I suppose, though it felt strange. And both my husband and I found ourselves automatically saying Pardon all the time, which shows how often this word is deployed in France--by me (quintessentially English even now) apologetically, but by many French, forcefully, as a weapon for making one's way through a crowd.

Rather than "quintessentially English"--and I suppose I have to add no offence was intended to the Welsh, Scots, or Northern Irish--perhaps I should have said So British, a phrase frequent in French journalism.  Like many other English language expressions, it's often used with a blithe disregard for syntactical function and even meaning. There's a fashion right now, especially in advertisements, of using English words with an appended asterisk pointing to a French translation at the bottom of the page. So we see phrases like must have and mon look and prix light throughout the French text.

Those two last examples are from a flyer from the discount shop Tati; I have to hand, as it arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Prix fous! Prix light! it proclaims, and by the word "light" there's an asterisk. A tiny note explains it means légers.  Not that we would ever say "light prices" in English, of course, but that's the charm of the thing.