Saturday, November 13, 2010

Big world, little trashcan

In my daily life in France it can sometimes feel like I’m once again a pubescent fourteen year-old—I’m constantly knocking into things, misjudging ceiling heights, and generally struck by the feeling that I’ve suddenly become taller, ganglier and clumsier. This has to do with the fact that everything in France is much smaller than it is in the US. This can sometimes mean things are neater and more tucked out of the way, but just as often it can mean that spaces, such as rooms, are compressed, even though certain contents that cannot be economized anymore than they already are—toilets, for example—remain the same size. I’d just about had it the other day when, using the bathroom in the home of a friend in Paris, I banged my head on an exposed water heater, placed perfectly at tourist head-smashing level. To make matters worse, when I instinctively drew up a hand to nurse my wound, my forearm caught a framed picture hanging on the wall. (Thankfully I caught the picture before it fell, making my head the only damaged article in the room.) Walking out of the bathroom—the walls of which had seemed in the process to close in even tighter like the trash compacting room from Star Wars—rubbing the sore spot on my head, I praised my reflexes, which I’d never more felt were a result of my American genetic make-up. I will surely need those reflexes to survive in this dollhouse of a country.

And the flip-side is not as nice as it sounds. In fact, it’s often really infuriating as well. Take for example the absurdly miniature trash cans commonplace in homes and public buildings alike, such as the thimble-sized one above. (To my eyes, these tiny waste containers do not have the capacity to house the tissues of one single nose-blowing episode from a family of mice, let alone a day’s waste from a human being: the French generate a freakishly small amount of waste.) After locating, under a table in the kitchen, say, the Honey I Shrunk the Kids trash can—the location of which can be extremely difficult in and of itself, because not only is it normally not at eye level, it’s probably not at chest level, or even waist level, but probably at something more like ankle level—I find myself having to bend down to insert my trash in ways that my body, previously accustomed to human-sized trashcans, just cannot bend—are all French people gymnasts? At this point, after nearly pulling one or both of my hamstrings, I’m furious at this stupid, ridiculous, exasperatingly small trashcan. All I want to do is kick it, yell at it, and (not so) proudly walk out on it, knocked-over and defeated on its side.

These episodes would be much less infuriating and make a lot more sense if French people were considerably smaller than we are. But—fat jokes about Americans aside—they’re not really. (Ok Americans are bigger, but the point is trashcans and bathrooms have been bigger in the US since way before we became the diabetes nation.) For this reason it can feel, at times, like a personal rebuke to America’s large-and-wasteful-but-proud-of-it mentality. And so, even such mundane interactions as the trashcan episode kick my patriotism into gear. Of course, it’s not that—a personal rebuke of American culture—, but it makes me feel bad about myself nonetheless, like a neighbor who regularly recycles when you don’t.

These moments of exasperation with life in France—a fully First World country—make me feel spoiled and needy, and as a consequence moody and defensive of the reasons for my feeling spoiled and needy. What these moments of exasperation also lead to though, is the awareness of how much the tiny little cultural differences matter—the size of trashcans and of glasses of water at lunch, or the spatial arrangement of bathrooms—and how much I love and appreciate the way it is at home.

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