Keep Off The Grass

June 20, 2011

la France (proper noun, feminine) – France; in the French language, countries are typically preceded by their defining article (i.e. “le Canada”, “la Bolivie”)
la pelouse
(noun, feminine) – the grass; the lawn

le terroir – (noun, masculine) land; soil; terrain
le(s) produit(s) du terroir
– (noun, masculine) regional product(s)*
le brie – (noun, masculine) Brie cheese
la Brie – (proper noun, feminine) the region of Brie, in France; note that this is distinguished from the cheese by the change in gender, that is, the cheese is masculine and the region is feminine
le chèvre – (noun, masculine) goat’s cheese
la chèvre – (noun, feminine) a goat; note that this is distinguished from the cheese by the change in gender, that is, the cheese is masculine and the animal is feminine
un(e) gourmand(e) – (noun, masculine/feminine) a foodie; someone who is fond of good food

les flics(noun, masculine; slang) the cops
interdite – (adj) prohibited, forbidden
une abeille – (noun, feminine) a bee
un repos – (noun, masculine) rest; time off
la Mairie de Paris – Paris City Hall
le gazon
– (noun, masculine) grass; turf; lawn
hivernal – (adj) winter
autorisée – (adj) authorized
déjeuner sur l’herbe – to have a picnic lunch on the grass (literally “to lunch on the grass”)


Mangez sur l’herbe
Un jour ou l’autre
l’herbe mangera sur vous
-Jacques Prévert

(“Hurry up, picnic on the grass; one of these days, the grass will picnic on you.”)

La France
is famous around the world for its many luxury exports and high-end products. Most of us at some point or another have probably already encountered its produits du terroir without even realizing it: champagne from France’s Champagne region, for example; or Dijon mustard, named after the city of Dijon; or perhaps a glass of Bordeaux wine from – you guessed it – Bordeaux.  There are, of course, its many cheeses: Camembert, from Normandy, Brie from the region of Brie, and (a personal favourite) countless varieties of chèvre, just to name a few. For the gourmands out there, there’s caviar and foie gras, and to satisfy the fashionistas, a long tradition of haute couture, world-renowned fashion houses like Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton… and the ever-ubiquitous sac Longchamps, the go-to “It” bag that seems to accompany every American tourist home.

Yes, France has no end of premium luxury products of which it can boast. But as I discovered shortly after moving here, it also has one precious commodity that you’ll never read about in the tourist brochures or find listed with the AOC, a commodity so sacrosanct that it is protected fiercely everywhere in Paris by local edict, by chain-link fences and other physical barriers designed to ensure its security, by intimidating signage that prohibits the public from tampering with it, and, if that isn’t enough to discourage the common riffraff from interfering with this national treasure, by les flics, who are quick to put a stop to any shenanigans on the part of heretic tourists who may have wandered into its sacred midst.

I am, of course, talking about the grass, or as the French call it, la pelouse.

“Keep Off The Grass”

All across the city of Paris, in public parks and gardens, on the grounds of historic monuments and grand chateaus, there are signs everywhere reminding the public that la pelouse is strictly interdite.  From the Jardin du Luxembourg to the Jardin des Plantes, the unwashed masses are corralled away from the valuable green stuff and must keep instead to dusty dirt or gravel paths designed expressly for the purpose of admiring la pelouse from an appropriately respectful distance.

Left: “In this garden, the grass is off limits”;  Right: “Keep Off The Grass”
Sacre Coeur might be open to visitors, but its lawn is strictly out-of-bounds.
Hailing as I do from the “Great White North”, land of wide, open spaces and untamed wilderness, this phenomenon was rather new to me. (Oh okay, fine, seeing as how I come from Toronto, I suppose the “untamed wilderness” refers more to the club district at 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday than it does feral parkland, but still.) While I’d come across the occasional “Keep Off The Grass” sign in my lifetime, this systematic, citywide ban on a tactile relationship with l’herbe was baffling.

For a while I thought it was perhaps just a central Paris thing. I mean, given the number of tourists that overrun the city every year, it probably makes sense to keep everybody off the grass to ensure it keeps growing. I started to really miss that comforting, spongy sensation of walking on actual earth, and the pleasant, prickly feeling of nature between my toes, so I headed out of the city, in search of greener (or at least more accessible) pastures.

But it seemed that even in the countryside, la pelouse was off-limits.

There’ll be no frolicking across this country meadow.

Those ducks had better stay in the water, where they belong.

I tried the famous gardens outside of Paris, like Versailles and Fontainebleau.  No dice.

The beautiful gardens at Versailles are for looking, not for touching.
Can you spot the familiar sign in this picturesque Fontainebleau landscape?

Sometimes a sign will go into a little more detail about exactly why la pelouse is interdite in a particular location, providing a cute illustration or a helpful word or two by way of explanation. In the Jardin des Tuileries, for example, I can only imagine that there are killer bees lurking amongst those innocent-looking blades of grass.

“Don’t Walk On The Grass / Danger Bees”

Sometimes I wonder if the pelouse in a certain area has seen one too many episodes of Star Trek.

“Pelouse, The Next Regeneration”? (Photo courtesy Christophe Lhomme)

Now, like all rightful French citizens, la pelouse is also entitled to extensive holidays.

“Lawn at rest.”

In fact, the Mairie de Paris is so fierce about defending the rights and protections of this cherished resource that it has an entire webpage dedicated to the subject, headed emphatically by the official slogan: “La qualité des pelouses, c’est aussi votre affaire! (“The quality of the grass concerns you too!”) In it, citizens are sternly reminded:

“N’oubliez pas qu’en période de repos hivernal (15 octobre – 15 avril), même s’il n’y a pas de signalétique, toutes les pelouses sont inaccessibles pour permettre au gazon de se reposer.”
(“Remember that during the winter rest period of Oct. 15-Apr. 15, even if there is no signage visible, all grass is off-limits in order to allow the lawns time to rest.”)

Yes, that’s right. Six months of repos. Even the grass in Paris gets more vacation time than we do.

“Lawn at rest for the winter” (Photo Courtesy Christophe Lhomme)

Now, every once in a while in Paris, a window does open—an enchanted, magical window—and it is time for much rejoicing because the powers-that-be suddenly decide that…

It’s surprisingly easy to spot these magical designated areas, uncommon as they are, because Parisians get very excited about this rare treat and will flock to them in great numbers, crowding enthusiastically onto the tiny square patches of land where la pelouse is actually autorisée.

Oh happy day, la pelouse est autorisée!

You know that spring has finally arrived in Paris when you can see people lounging happily on
one of the two rectangular patches of land in the Jardin du Luxembourg where sitting on the
grass is actually permitted.

Come to think of it, rumour has it that there is a 2×4 patch of land opening up very soon at my local park.  Guess I’d better run and reserve my spot—today, I plan to déjeuner sur l’herbe!

*Note: For those of you living in Paris who are missing their grass fix, take heart, I may have exaggerated (just a little) for comic effect. There actually are a few parks within the city limits where sitting on the grass is widely permitted. Two of my favourites are Buttes Chaumont and Parc Montsouris, which are big and green enough that you can almost forget you are in the middle of a densely populated city. The Champs de Mars is also authorized for picnicking, but given that the grass is directly in front of the Eiffel Tower, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a good spot in high tourist season!

4 Responses to “Keep Off The Grass”

  1. Andrea Says:

    This must be why they sit on the cobblestones in Place Pompidou.


  2. Alia Says:

    Gah! Why didn’t i know about those few little park areas when i was there? We bench picnicked.


    • Darlene Says:

      Neither of them are in the centre, so you wouldn’t have found them anywhere near where you might have been sightseeing. But they’re both really lovely big parks – you’ll have to hit one the next time you’re here!


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