Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Les bittes de trottoir

Those odd waist-high posts along the sidewalk. They seem to proliferate like bamboo in on every Paris curb. For over a year now, I've been wondering what they were called. Thanks to dipping into the first few pages of David Downie's book, Paris, Paris, I just discovered the answer: les bittes de trottoir. Mind you, the word bitte has two meanings: docking post (as on a wharf) or slang for penis. Reflecting on the chicken-or-egg etymology, I'm not sure which term is the original. Certainly the resemblance is not serendipitous.

As a pedestrian, I have a love/hate relationship with these bittes. On the one had, they do keep cars from parking on the sidewalk: hooray, more room for the rest of us. I had imagined that they might keep moving cars from navigating up and over the sidewalk, and therefore keep my life insurance policy renewable. Alas, two months ago I witnessed an accident on rue de Babylone where a wayward Twingo simply flattened a bitte in five seconds. The car was in rough shape, to be sure, but had there been a pieton on the sidewalk at that moment, she would've been flatter than a crepe. So much for a false sense of security.

The posts do provide a minor deterrent for all those impatient motorcyclists who don't want to wait in a bouchon (traffic jam) on a narrow street. Or a slalom challenge, depending on who's driving.

And, in their defense, the bittes do have a humanitarian function. I have observed them being used quite practically by tiny elderly ladies on their way to Sunday mass at St. Francois Xavier. Waiting at the cross walk, these powder-thin grandmères cling to the bittes with both hands lest they get swept in a powerful updraft when the winter wind whips down the boulevard.

But they can be annoying. When encountering another person on a narrow sidewalk, you have to step into the street to avoid the bitte, especially if you are carrying plastic sacks of groceries. Don't bash your precious bottles against those metal posts! They're not tall enough to be a useful hitching post to lock your bike on. But they're tall enough to really, really hurt when they impale you. Engrossed in conversation while strolling down a broad sidewalk, with a moment's lapse of forward-gazing attention you can suddenly find one of these charmers poking into your belly. Ouch.

Visually they are jarring. They do mar the streetscape, but not enough that their presence really drives me to distraction. I can live with it. Not so one exasperated Parisian, who is up in arms and for the past year has spearheaded an anti-bittes crusade. Benlem2's blog, http://benlem2.canalblog.com/ takes photos (as the one above) of offensive clusters of the sidewalk posts and photoshop-erases them for "before" pictures.

As Marianne magazine cautioned, take a look at Benlem2's website; but know that you'll never view the sidewalks of Paris in the same way again.

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