Recently, the press in France – and especially in other countries – has been whipped up to a frenzy with stories about Paris being infested by bedbugs (punaises de lit in French). After all, nothing energizes commentators writing about other countries more than a good dose of schadenfreude. The British tabloid, the Daily Mail, always reliably xenophobic, ran the headline, “Sacré bleu! The bed bugs are coming for you.” Apparently, those nasty creatures have been invading not only public transport but also that most sacrosanct of French locations: the cinema.
If you read rather more sober analyses, the end of summer tends always to coincide with an increase in bedbugs, and there is scant evidence of this being a particularly virulent infiltration. However, with the Paris Olympics due to take place next year, the authorities are, perhaps not surprisingly, taking these stories seriously and making sure to show that they are acting swiftly and decisively.
Even though I am inclined not to panic at such reports, my recent experience with very different pests makes me think that action is indeed needed to clean up parts of Paris. Recently, during the unseasonably hot weather the city experienced in late September, I joined some friends for an evening picnic on the Île de la Cité, near the Pont Neuf, a spot that offers a perfect opportunity to enjoy panoramic views of both banks of the Seine.
As the weather was so warm, almost every inch of the waterside space was filled with people savoring the opportunity to sit outside at night before the inevitable arrival of cooler weather. However, as soon as we had settled down to enjoy some cold rosé and various tasty treats on a little patch of ground with views across to the Louvre, we immediately found ourselves competing with several enormous rats scurrying for a share of the picnic.
Having been brought up in Africa, I am totally unperturbed by all kinds of creepy-crawly creatures, but it was a bizarre experience to see the other picnickers seemingly unconcerned by – or totally accustomed to – the regular waves of rodents approaching and then retreating. This to me was an infestation and not just the occasional foray by a furry visitor. In the end, for our group, the rats definitively emerged as victors, and we left the area as quickly as possible.
So I beg the headline writers to lay off the poor bedbugs and turn instead to something like “Invasion of the Mutant Super-Rats,” which turns out to have been another recent Daily Mail (self-referential?) headline – about British vermin this time.