Carrying a bottle of water is one of the easiest ways to be singled out as a tourist in Paris. Perhaps it’s because many visitors spend the entire day walking from one site to the next without returning to their temporary residence.
Parisians themselves spend more time at their homes and offices where they have greater access to water. In any case, it is rare to see a Parisian with a bottle of water in hand while in public, which makes those of us who carry bottles of water stand out even more.
Over the last few years in France, I have formed the impression that the French rarely drink water.
My girlfriend and I like to meet up with a friend of her father’s for lunch or dinner every few weeks. On many of these occasions, we drink a lot of wine. I like to have a glass of water on the side, just to stay hydrated.
I routinely offer water to our friend, and he always declines saying, “I don’t need that.” He says that he drinks nothing but water at home, but even at 73 years old, he is rarely there.
He isn’t a solitary case either. I have known another friend of his for close to five years, and I do not think I have ever seen him drink a glass of water. Yet both are in good health, which makes the French paradox even more confusing.
On several occasions, our French friends have commented that my girlfriend (who has picked up my habit of drinking water every now and then) and I drink a lot of water. Even yesterday, my girlfriend’s employer commented on it because she had taken her second glass of water of the day.
Anytime that there is a heat wave in France, those watching the weather reports are reminded to drink water to keep cool (and to go to the frozen food aisles in the supermarket). The lack of hydration was most likely the main reason that roughly 15,000 people perished in the heat wave that hit France in 2003.
In most cases in Paris, a carafe of water is only brought out on request. If you don’t ask, you won’t have water. Compared to my experience of growing up in the U.S. where a big glass of water is served without even asking for it, I found this bizarre when I first arrived here.
Why is it that the French seem to drink so little water? Perhaps it is a habit stemming from the past.
In previous centuries, drinking alcohol was the safest way of drinking fluids.This is because the process in which alcohol is made kills off the bacteria that used to contaminate much of the drinking water. In this case, one might have been considered a fool for drinking water at all!
Fortunately today, it is easy to get access to clean, free drinking water in Paris. There are fountains, or Wallaces, throughout the city, installed in the late 19th century by philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace.
He feared the lack of available, affordable clean water in the Paris Commune would turn the poor into alcoholics. Alcohol was cheaper than clean water in Paris at this time. These fountains are easily recognizable and are found nearly everywhere in Paris.
Do not worry about being seen carrying a water bottle here in Paris, for no one will think less of you. You might even being doing someone a favor by reminding them to drink more of it.
1. Bottled Water, by Steven Depolo on Flickr