Bed bugs and Broomsticks.
There has been a lot of noise, recently, about the bed bug problem in Paris, not least of all here in France. ‘Les punaises de lit’ are a major problem in Paris right now, according to the media both at home and abroad. Or are they? Well, yes and no. According to ANSES, the French Health & Safety authority, between 2017 and 2022 more than 1 in 10 French households reported bed bug infestations and recent years have seen a 65% increase in pest control visits for this particular parasite. Is it really as bad as suggested and are the concerns valid ones?
Paris is not alone in having a problem with bed bugs. Most major cities in the world have bed bugs because they tend to congregate where their pray is, and warm-blooded mammals are high on bed bug menus and cities provide lots of them. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with sanitation – a room can be spotlessly clean and still have bed bugs. They’re an opportune predator and will hitch rides on just about anything; luggage, furniture, carpets, even books to move from one location to another. A large part of Paris’ problem is its increasing popularity as a tourist destination. Hotels around the world have long battled bed bugs exactly because travellers coming from various locations will, inevitably, bring a variety of smaller travellers with them. The concern is very real because, next summer, Paris will host the Olympics and the large influx of visitors that will bring and it will become a costly exercise for Paris’ hotels if they can’t get on top of any infestations.
In general, bed bug populations are on the rise everywhere. They’ve always been around and they’ve always been a problem. We only really got in control of the bed bug population in the 1940s, with the use of DDT as an insecticide. Even when DDT was banned (after it turned out to be not very good for humans either) it seemed to have done enough to keep bed bug numbers down – but the tide started to turn around the end of the 20th century, as bed bug populations re-emerged with increased resistance to chemical insecticides. Between 1999 and 2006, for example, bed bug infestations rose in Australia by a staggering 4,500%!
It all sounds like something from a dystopian Sci Fi novel but the reality is that it’s not as bad as it sounds. Many of the reports and callouts for bed bug infestations are fuelled by national anxiety and the ability of social media to spread concerns way beyond the reasonable. While bed bug infestations are difficult and expensive to eradicate once they get a grip, they’re relatively easy to avoid. If you’ve visited a potential bed bug location make a point of washing all your clothing when you get home and, if you can, steam clean your luggage before bringing it back into the house – high heat is one thing still guaranteed to destroy bed bugs. A lot of the suggested ‘sightings’ of bed bugs in places like the Paris metro and at the airports remain unconfirmed, bed bugs are about the size of an apple pip, so not that easy to spot and very easy to confuse with a number of other small insects. Just keep calm and carry a steamer.
On to more pleasant things. Autumn has finally arrived here in southwest France and, in our particular corner of it, we seem to have had most of our missing rainfall in the last few days. Water butts are full to overflowing and the garden has issued a big sigh of relief as the ground soaks up the much-needed water. Temperatures that were still in the mid to high twenties around the middle of the month dropped ten degrees almost overnight. It’s still warm in the daytime but it’s no longer hot. It means we can finally get out and do all those jobs that piled up over the summer months when it was too hot to do anything but lounge around the place. I miss the summer already.
One thing that’s particularly enjoyable about the autumn is our annual Halloween night. All our local little witches and wizards will be moving around the village looking for some treats. We really enjoy it. Halloween is popular with kids here, though it’s a relatively recent addition to the event calendar, reckoned to have arrived in France sometime in the early 1980s. Thankfully, in our village, it’s all very organised and well-supervised. The Fete committee, that organises all village events, handles it and the children go around as one group, supervised by adults. All the houses in the village are contacted in advance and asked if they’re prepared to take part, then a route is organised to ensure that only those households who want a visit are included. You know roughly how many visitors you’re going to receive and get a rough idea of what time they’ll descend on you – so it’s a minimal intrusion and it’s fun to see the kids enjoying themselves. They’re so polite, always thanking us for their treats and it really is a pleasure to have them around.
Perhaps one of the reasons Halloween has caught on with children here is that the following day, November 1st, is All Saints Day, or La Toussaint. This is a big day in the French calendar. It’s a national holiday and the day when you remember your ancestors – it’s a serious day, and must feel especially weighty for a child. This is the day that you traditionally remember the dead and it is usually associated with family visits to the cemetery to pay respects at family graves. Though France is a secular country their catholic past is always with them; no wonder children enjoy the fun of Halloween before facing the possibly more scary realities of life.
Enough philosophical dithering, let’s do some music. Back when I started writing this column I mentioned a French band I had become interested in, La Maison Tellier, they’re viewed as a French folk/rock band over here but you’d be hard pushed to separate them from what we think of as americana. To further the connection, I recently discovered that the five members of the band are great admirers of Neil Young’s “Harvest” album and that, in May 2022, on the eve of the albums 50th anniversary of its release, as one of their first gigs after lockdown restrictions were fully lifted, they did a Paris concert where they played the album in its entirety, along with other musical guests. Now, while my aversion to Neil Young as a performer is widely known, I am a fan of his songwriting and was delighted to find that the event was filmed and that many of the performances can be found on YouTube. So my musical offering this month is the superb La Maison Tellier, with some musical friends, and their interpretations of some classic Neil Young tracks – ‘Old Man’, ‘Out on the Weekend’ and, of course, ‘Harvest’. There may not be a huge amount of americana music in France but what there is shines very brightly.