Yesterday my jeans climbed off the chair, marched down the stairs and crawled into the washing machine. All by themselves. I swear. They were so dirty that they were able to perform this feat on their own…along with the rest of my dirty clothes that I had been saving until I had a full load. And I’m just a wee bit proud of my dirty jeans. They’re a symbol of some of my lessons learned.
When I lived in the U.S. I would generally wash my clothes after 1 or 2 washings. And I had a lot of clothes. As a matter of fact, I am quite sure my closet was bigger than at least one of my apartments here in Aix en Provence. When I lived in the U.S., I often left a light on all night. It felt safer. When I lived in the U.S. I would sometimes start my car and let it run until it was nice and warm before venturing out into the cold. And, of course, I used my car for everything...and then went to the gym! Sometimes I would take a long, hot shower, just because it felt good and my children, in spite of my grumbling, seemed to feel that long, hot showers were their daily right! My groceries were carried home in crisp, new paper or plastic sacks, which were eventually thrown away. In spite of this behavior, I really did consider myself ecologically aware.
I am proud to say, I don’t behave this way anymore.
We were having a conversation the other day in class about waste or gaspillage (I love that word!). It was one of those discussions that was meant to entice all of us into voicing our opinions in French. We were reviewing facts and figures about how much the French waste and how terrible it all is. I finally had to stop the dialogue and explain what real waste is. It is not my practice to spend time bad-mouthing my country, but in this particular case, I was not proud of some of our practices and had to say so.
Within the first week of living here, I became painfully aware of our nation-wide wasteful lifestyle. Aware, because things are done so differently here. I’m sure that our habits stem from a perpetual feeling of abundance that is naturally part of our national psyche but I think, in this case, we have some lessons to learn from our European neighbors.
The French consume, per capita, a little more than half the energy that Americans use. Dryers are not necessarily the norm, nor is air conditioning. Lights stay off during the day and the shutters are closed to keep out the sun. Clothes are washed much less and people have fewer of them. Of course cars are smaller (there is no choice, the damned streets are so narrow) and more fuel-efficient. Most people take their personal shopping bags or caddy’s to the grocery store or market. The lights in the hallways and corridors of buildings are off until someone enters and it’s up to the person entering to switch them on. Afterwards, they turn off automatically. When stores are closed, they are completely dark and often even seem dark even in the middle of the day.
The stores are not air-conditioned to the point of causing teeth-chattering (you know what it’s like to go to an American grocery store in the summer. It's almost essential to bring along your down parka!) And offices building lights are extinguished after business hours.
I’m not sure that these are things that have developed from a French national consciousness about ecology. I think the bad habits just never developed. Nobody misses them because they never existed. Mind you, I’m not saying France is a perfect world. Far from it. What I’m trying to say is being here has opened my eyes to the fact that living without certain things and particular niceties is no harder than living with them. Just different.
My friend Holly and I were laughing about this the other day. How our laundry has to fail the spot and smell test before it actually gets washed. And sometimes, even when it fails, we give it one more go. She spoke about traveling with an American friend who wanted to leave the air conditioner on in the hotel room while they were away so it would be cool when they got back. She was flabbergasted. We laughed about how freakishly weird we have become about turning off lights and leaving the house dark until we must turn on the lights at night. We laughed at ourselves because we remember how we lived before and are so happy to have learned such a valuable lesson.
Americans are not the worst energy consumers in the world. Saudi Arabia gets that honor. But we’re right up there. And in spite of our abundance, we are citizens of the world. And I hope we are capable (actually, I know we’re capable…willing is a better word) of enough change so that someday, some poor French person who is living in America and writing and for a little French newspaper, will describe how America has moved to the forefront in protecting it’s truly precious resources. And they are precious.