Burn baby burn

So there I was, meeting with neighborhood parents and a child development specialist on the topic “Etre parent aujourd’hui”. We were meeting in a room in the basement of the “Centre Social Arlequin” (in Grenoble’s Villeneuve area), just a few steps away from the public-funded Ludothèque, a great place where small kids come to play, accompanied by their parents. After about an hour of discussion, I smelled paper burning, with a perfumy edge to it. I asked the Center’s director (seated next to me) if she smelled something burning. Somebody burning incense, she said, as if that wasn’t a particularly odd thing in a public building. I went to investigate, as this is a neighborhood where kids set trash containers on fire for fun (not to mention cars). My first thoughts were with the children in the Ludothèque, but at the same time, I was having a bit of an asthmatic reaction to this peculiar combination of smells, so I decided to investigate. I tracked the smell through the corridors and up the stairs to a corner with some offices, one of whose door was closed. After asking questions of one employee, the closed door woman opened and asked if there was a problem. I replied that yes there was indeed, that her burning incense was giving me an asthma attack, one floor below. She said she’s put out her “Papiers d’Arménie” incense (paper imbibed with a hideous synthetic scent and meant to be burned), and that she’d been the victim herself of certain “unpleasant” odors (human one’s I guessed). Well, I told her that I was very, very bothered her incense. That was that, but I did tell the Director that I thought it was inappropriate first of all to be burning things in a public building, and that the woman’s burning incense bothered me much more than had she been smoking a cigarette, and secondly in a public service such as hers where children and perhaps other sensitive populations are likely to visit, such heavily perfumed odorizers should be avoided. She kindly said she would speak to the woman in question. I later felt vindicated to find that Que Choisir Magazine, in an article on the ill-effects of room “fresheners” and incenses, scored Papiers d’Arménie very poorly in terms of toxicity (Que Choisir, No. 421, December 2004); I gave the Director a copy of the article.

Not more than a week later, I took my kids to a Story Telling event organized by the neighborhood library, on the upper floor of the same building (“Le Patio”) housing the Centre Social. The story telling was great. Bravo to the Library staff and the “Mamas Conteuses”. At one point my toddler got fussy and I took him out of the room where the stories were being told. A few paces down the corridor there was a man stickiing his head out a window, smoking and reading an article. Of course, the smoke was blowing back into the corridor, and I was quite uncomfortable having my son breath that smoke. After a bit of uncertainty I said to the man, who likely worked in the offices there, you probably think you’re smoking outside, but the smoke is blowing back in, and there are children here (as if that matters). He replied “C’est bon” and put out his cigarette. I was so annoyed though that I couldn’t just let it be. You know, I said, smoking is strictly forbidden inside the building. Oh, but I wasn’t smoking inside, I was smoking out the window. Really, I said, your feet are inside, so it would seem to me you’re smoking inside. Blah, blah, blah. Pointless to bitch to him or this blog about it. The only thing to do is to complain to the Patio management. Once again, rules are more suggestions for good conduct than anything else.

Let me get this rant point out now, and it will be recurrent if I maintain this blog: If you are asthmatic and even more so chemically sensitive, do not come to France with the intention of staying for an extended period of time. While the French are smoking less and less and all public places are now (theoretically) smoke-free, at the same time they are wearing more and more hideous synthetic perfumes, even very young kids (the French asthma rate will certainly explode in coming years). Not to mention the absolutely overpowering perfumes found in the laundry detergents that people use here.  And then the constant burning: yard waste burning in spring, summer and fall, and moist wood burning in winter (often with chemical starters), and not just in the country but in big cities like Grenoble (apparently Paris is about the only place where burning is not allowed). While one shouldn’t generalize, my experience over 10 years is that the French love chemicals and will invariably choose a more toxic solution over a less toxic one. One very telling example:  If you’ve been to France you’ve probably found it quaint that the French homes and other buildings don’t have window screens. In fact it’s not quaint at all; they don’t have screens because the people are quite happy to spray their homes daily with Raid. And of course, there’s always an aesthetic argument for the toxic solution: Oh, window screens do spoil the view so very much.

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast

Chemical starter -- Shut your windows fast

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