It’s been so sunny in Paris lately that I’ve been waking up early. When I got up this morning, a perceptible haze had set in. The sky was bright and there wasn’t a cloud in sight, but to the North and East, the sky was thick and brown.
It’s actually been remarkably warm here the past few weeks – I’d been warned all autumn what a terrible time February would be in the city, but the month passed in blue skies and sunny days. Today it was so warm that I didn’t need a jacket walking to class – a tee shirt and thin cotton cardigan were more than sufficient.
With beautiful days that stretch longer and longer by the week, comes the annual revelation that yes, Paris is a beautiful, but dirty and polluted city. Indeed, the view from the top of the basilisque de Sacre Coeur is a breathtaking panorama of the city, but more often than not shows a rather hazy view, with the outer arondissements fading into nothing.
The most polluted street in the city is rue des Saints-Pères – an address for one of the buildings of Sciences Po that I spend a good deal of time in. It’s something actually scientific to do with the height of the buildings and narrowness of the street, the amount of traffic each day and the wind direction, but I can’t imagine that there’s any section of this crowded city that is significantly better or worse in terms of air quality than any other.
According to my French politics teacher, there was an informal study done one summer by a journalist or professor or something, where the man spent an entire day breathing through a snow white handkerchief. He didn’t do anything special, just went through his daily activities – metro, work, lunch, grocery shopping, etc – all with this handkerchief clasped to his face. By the end of the day, the handkerchief was black.
This was a disturbing bit of information, but not at all surprising. My asthma has been worse here than ever before, and where I only ever used to need an inhaler for working out, I’ve taken to carrying mine everywhere.
Maybe I’m just spoiled by the clean air and mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest, but I find myself walking around thinking, “I’ll be okay, I’m only here for a year. How much damage can just one year of secondhand smoke, smog and uncooked meats really do to my health?” Then I pause and think about the fact that there are people who live their whole lives in this city and don’t seem to be worse off for it. The French are generally a pretty healthy people – at least diet-wise. As of yet, there haven’t been any proven health benefits of the country’s love affair with cigarettes.
All health concerns aside, this city just gets gross when it’s hot. The air is humid and oppressive and you end every day sticky with dirt and sweat. The metros are the worst, but even on foot there’s no way to avoid the feeling that your body is somehow covered with little particles of dirt and carbon.
This perception is not contradicted by the fact that there’s garbage everywhere – even floating in the Seine along with the swans and fish that have gone belly-up. I’m not even going to go into the fact that there’s dog poop everywhere – in the streets, on the sidewalks, in the metro, on your shoes…the fact of the matter is that this city is dirty, and the only way to not let it bother you is look up, which isn’t hard to do. I don’t think anybody would prefer looking down at the ripped papers in the gutters to looking up at the beautiful buildings, pilfered Egyptian art, ridiculously spiky churches or the pretty pretty bridges crossing the polluted river.
Pretty as Paris is in the bright beautiful sun, the fact that it’s been so warm already is slightly concerning. If spring arrives midway through February, when and how intensely is summer going to come? If the smoggy warm afternoon of March 12th had me longing for the start of Paris Plage, I have a feeling I’m going to be longing for Antarctica in a few months.
I once saw a list, “You know you’re Parisian if…” The first point was “You love Paris,” the second, “You hate Paris.” I think that’s me. You can’t possibly live in this city for any significant period of time without simultaneously adoring and despising it. It’s dirty, yes. It’s polluted, yes. But it’s oh-so-pretty.
* France follows the same general daylight savings patterns as the U.S. – “Fall back, Spring forward,” just on a slightly different calendar. While Americans set their clocks ahead last Sunday, we did nothing. In France, we don’t lose our hour until the last Sunday of March, so for two weeks, I’m only 8 hours ahead of Tacoma (instead of the usual 9).