Dog Poop and the French Existential Crisis

Following a flurry of orientations, information lost in translation, pieces of paper I’ll never look at again but should probably keep anyways, banks, keys, countless interrupted messages with disgruntled parents, and a week of a French intensive course in a classroom that looks like it comes straight out of a post-apocalyptic mental hospital (although in Université Aix-Marseilles’ defense, students only pay around 200 Euros per year to go there) I finally feel as though I’ve settled into everyday life in Aix-en-Provence.

On my way home, I often stop to pick up a baguette from the local boulangerie, or perhaps some wine, which in France is often cheaper than gum.  Winding the narrow cobblestone streets, lined with old buildings rendered in muted shades of yellow or orange or pink (like the sunset!), it’s easy to lose yourself in a maze of “cute” restaurants and bars, or cafés with terraces ideal for people-watching (in America we tend to people-watch for the ugliest, most grotesque sort of passerby, like dudes with stomach fat hanging out over their sweatpants or obese women in jean skirts; in France, that’s nearly impossible, because the ugliest, most grotesque pedestrian is the guy who happened to leave his scarf home by accident).

In a nutshell, my first impression of Aix is that it’s a bourgeoisie city disguised as a quaint town; indeed, people seem very wealthy here (it’s been said that Aix is where rich people from Marseilles come to spend their money) but they manage show it in a much subtler, less overt way than their American counterparts.  There’s little flash here, even less pizzazz, and the sartorial objective for women appears to be getting noticed without drawing attention to oneself.

Given the wealth, elegance and sophistication prevalent in Aix, it continues to baffle me that nobody picks up dog poop.  It’s like for Aixois, the biological notion that their dogs defecate simply doesn’t cross their minds, and oftentimes I’ve had to sacrifice the aesthetics of walking around the city for the wholly unglamorous job of making sure I don’t step in excrement (amazingly I haven’t yet, but keep your fingers crossed for me).   On a related note, most of the bathrooms here are extremely small; if I weren’t stationary, I would think I was using the toilet on a train or bus.   Even more shocking is that some bathrooms (like the ones at the university) don’t even have toilet seats, and that the men’s room in some of the bars I’ve been to don’t have toilets at all, or urinals for that matter, just a hole and two raised platforms for your feet (as if we wouldn’t know where to stand otherwise).  This wouldn’t surprise me if I were studying abroad in India or Thailand, or a decrepit Shell station, but any city that has like three Diesel stores on one block and an H&M the size of some small islands should really have higher quality restrooms.

All of which brings me to the tentative conclusion that the French consciously ignore poop, and the act of pooping, altogether.  Why, you ask?  Why would a country of beautiful, hair-gel wearing, leather-purse toting people block out an essential bodily function?  As Camus or Sartre or some other French existentialist would say (or wouldn’t—ya, let’s go with wouldn’t), it’s because neglecting poop means neglecting their own waste, which in a way means neglecting the inevitability of death.  The French are notoriously hedonistic: they’re sexually adventurous (although, admittedly, I have no firsthand evidence of this), they eat raw meat with no reservations (this I do have proof of—so delicious, and a wonderfully visceral experience with your food), and they drink wine and smoke cigarettes up the wazoo.  Perhaps in order to continue living like that, it’s necessary to ignore the wasteful bi-products that come as a result of being human, and focus instead on constructing the illusion of health and well-being with stylish clothes and really awesome boots.

Then again, what do I know?  I’m just an inexperienced American traveler, who’s only been in France for a week or so.  What I do know is that while I’m here I plan to adhere to the French lifestyle as much as possible.  And if that means ignoring poop, then by God, I’ll ignore the poop out of it.