Monday, November 15, 2010


It's Monday Memory time again. This article was written a year ago and I still continue to admire the French way of living with less. There is one paradox I have since learned however. In spite of the fact that France uses, per capita, somewhere between half to one-third the amount of water compared to the United States, the French drink 3 times the amount of bottled water. That's a lot of plastic bottles going somewhere and a lot of oil used to produce those bottles. This one, I have yet to figure out. 

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.


I found the energy poster photo on photobucket...part of a campaign at Brown University. PERFECT!


  1. Delana, I just wrote you a long comment about dryers, Ireland, fake air and hot showers. I deleted it by mistake so suffice it to say, I agree with you and prefer the less waste lifestyle.
    happy monday,
    a x

  2. Another fun article! Thanks for sharing this and making my day a little brighter.

  3. While all of this is great and stuff I appreciate about France, I definitely don't think any of it comes from them having a higher ecological conscious than the Americans.

    They don't have dryers, nor air conditioning, turn the lights off, have hallway timers, etc tout simplement because electricity costs a fortune in France. Not to mention that a lot of people don't even have room for a dryer or an air-conditioning unit.

    They have small cars because 1)like you said the streets are small, but also because gas costs 4 times as much as it does in the US. Plus France is the size of Texas and can afford to have a widespread public transportation system. On top of that, your average French person doesn't drive long distances, so they don't need the big (more comfortable) cars because they don't live in them like most
    Americans do.

    They use rolling carts and reusable shopping bags because most stores make you pay for them if you don't bring your own.

    I'm not making any excuses for America - we obviously have a long way to go - just saying that a lot of France's differences come about because of economic measures, not because they were particularly eco aware.

    And PS. They drink a lot of bottled war because up until fairly recently, the French water supply wasn't that safe in some parts of France. So most of the 30+ generation has grown up thinking that tap water is not for drinking, even though now it's perfectly safe to do so.

  4. Don't remind me of lights that go off in the loo!

  5. Aidan, don't disappearing comments drive you crazy. I answered all my comments from the last post and they disappeared...again. I have had the energy to rewrite them. Yes, I'm content to live this way. And if and when I ever go back to the U.S., I will do my best to use what I've learned. I've been out of the loop on blog reading for so was nice to catch up on you today.

    Mark-I was back on your blog today. You know, I used your blog as a guide when I went to Paris in September. Trouble is, I couldn't get reservations at any of the places you talked about. Could it be because of you?

    Ksam-Welcome. I agree with's not a conscious's just the way it is...for cultural/historical reasons. When speaking to French people, I don't find them anymore aware. Probably less so. That being said, I still think we could do so much more than we are currently doing in the U.S. I mean, must we air-condition ourselves to death? Or leave all the lights on in stores and offices all night? We will never be able to have public transportation like they do here...our distances are too great. But there are other things we could do...we just have to be willing to change our lifestyle a little. I appreciate your comments. Come back, d'accord?

    Fly-I know. I'm always waving my hands around while sitting on the toilet so the light doesn't turn off. It takes a little strategy while squatting on a toilet with no seat and trying to find your kleenex in your purse because there is never and damned toilet paper!

  6. I agree - we Americans can't be blamed for our wasteful ways - this country grew up on a culture of abundance. So much wide open space, our resources plentiful and cheap. (Of course that's all over now.) But living in France, I just feel better wanting less. Don't get me wrong - I love to shop like any American would. But something's changed; I just know I need less. And you're right Delana -these days I sometimes find myself shocked by my fellow contrymen.

  7. It's amazing how quickly we adapt to the 'less wasteful' lifestyle. When I moved to Dublin seven years ago, it was right after the law was made that charged people for plastic bags at the grocery store. At first it felt strange to bring your own bags to the grocery store, but now it would feel weird coming home with a bunch of plastic sacks! And now that I live in France, I don't even think about things like not having a dryer, or air conditioner. It's all so normal now.
    (except when I go back to the states and stay with friends... I feel like I'm in luxurious heaven!!)


Talk to me!