One of the first things that struck me as being unfamiliar — exotic, even — when I first stepped foot on the European continent some years ago as a college student was the drinking water situation.
"Gas or no gas?" "Bubbles or no bubbles?" I'd be asked when sitting down for a meal.
Unlike back home, where the choice between still tap water and sparkling mineral water was a luxury reserved for finer restaurants, the latter seemed to be the default everywhere in Europe. And so, as a generally thirsty person who likes his water to be cold, flat and accompanied by lots of ice cubes (a true European rarity) while dining out, hydrating took some getting used to. Even purchasing bottled water proved to be daunting as carbonated varieties dominated store shelves.
In most cities, however, public drinking fountains proved to be a welcome refuge from the fizz. Boring, flat tap water gushed forth from these fountains — just how I like it.
But this isn't how most Europeans like it.
And this is why Paris has announced plans to install water fountains that dispense cold, refreshing sparkling water in all 20 arrondissements. The goal? To keep bubble-loving residents — folks who might otherwise avoid public drinking fountains due to the lack of carbonation — in all pockets of the city healthily hydrated while also reducing plastic bottle waste.
Changing water consumption trends where bottled water rules
Publicly owned water utility Eau de Paris began installing a limited number of free sparkling water fountains — les Fontaines Pétillante — in 2010. The first went up in Jardin de Reuilly, a large park in the 12th arrondissement, followed by seven more compact fountains in other areas of the city. The initiative was inspired by similar drinking fountains that have been installed throughout cities in Italy, a country that consumes a staggering amount of bottled water, particularly sparkling water. As for France, in 2010 the birthplace of Evian, Vittel and Volvic ranked as the eighth largest consumer of bottled water with the average resident guzzling 28 gallons of eau per year.
"People often told me that they were ready to drink tap water if it was carbonated," Anne le Strat, a former deputy mayor of Paris, explained to daily commuter newspaper 20 Minutes at the launch of the Jardin de Reuilly fountain (more of a kiosk, really) in 2010. "Now they they've got no excuse not to."
"Our aim is to boost the image of Paris tap water," Philippe Burguiere of Eau de Paris told the Guardian. "We want to show that we're proud of it, that it's totally safe."
Per CityLab's Feargus O' Sullivan, Paris officials are now on track to install nine additional sparkling water fountains by the end of next year with possibly more to follow. The first of these new fountains is now up and flowing in the hipster-chic neighborhood flanking Canal Saint-Martin in northeast Paris. Like the inaugural sparkling water fountain at Jardin de Reuilly, many of the new fountains will be conveniently located in city parks or high-traffic public squares..
Fizzy is delicious
On a recent visit to the city, O'Sullivan even tracked down one of the city's existing sparkling water fountains for a test sip. While he notes that the particular Fontaine Pétillante he drank from was clad in graffiti and not all that attractive to look at, the water itself was "utterly delicious."
I am not exaggerating when I say that this fountain's water was, given the unprepossessing look, a magical surprise. Cool but not icy, it's extremely fizzy, with a really fine prickle of bubble mousse that was almost like the mouth-scratchingly effervescent Vichy mineral water older French people drink for vague reasons of health.
As made clear by officials back in 2010, the water flowing through Paris' newfangled drinking fountains isn't sourced from mystical mineral springs hidden beneath the city or a massive reservoir filled with Perrier. It's regular tap water, the same stuff that comes out of faucets across the city. However, to add the fizz that Parisians crave, the fountains have CO2 carbonators built into their bases. For optimum carbonation, the water is kept at a cool, crisp 7 degrees Celsius (44 degrees Fahrenheit).
Including a growing number of sparkling water fountains, Paris is home to upwards of 1,200 public drinking fountains including dozens of iconic cast-iron Wallace fountains dating back to the late 1800s. By comparison, in 2012, New York City claimed 1,970 water fountains spread across the five boroughs with roughly a third of them located in Brooklyn. Much like Paris, New York has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase accessibility to clean, free drinking water while weaning residents off the bottled stuff. One initiative launched in 2015 pledges to add 500 new fountains and water bottle refill stations within a decade's time. Carbonated water does not appear to be in option ... or at least yet. (Sorry, Brooklyn-colonizing French expats.)
Back across the Atlantic, the sparkling scheme certainly provides an attractive incentive for parched Parisians to kick the bottled water habit — why spend money on the packaged stuff when you can simply mosey on down to a local park with a bottle or jug for a quick and easy refill?