The other morning, I read a nervous post on my expat community Facebook feed about bed bugs in Paris. Since a popular cinema publicly affirmed last month the existence of bed bugs hiding in its theatres, there has been a flurry of alleged bed bug sightings on certain metro lines and trains, with social media networks having their own infestation of these creepy parasites.
“Why are they only talking about this now? Bed bugs in Paris have been here all along. I’ve been hit twice in five years!”
Mysterious skin rashes
Bed bugs came to visit my home in 2017 after my son returned from a weekend retreat in a French monastery. A week later, he began to complain about clusters of an itchy red rash forming bumps on his body. At first, I thought it was an allergy, so I promptly switched cleaning products. Still, my son complained it was getting worse. This time, I could see the rashes were forming red dotted lines on his body.
Bewildered, we made a beeline to a doctor who determined that the skin rashes were due to insect bites. He ruled out mosquitoes. The doctor instructed us to spray essential oil all over the bed in the dark and told us to wait and see what came out.
“Comment?” I asked in French. I was baffled. What could possibly ‘come out?’
We followed his instructions, spraying the bed, sheets, and curtains and closed the doors. Two hours later, we were revolted to discover little dark dots frantically crawling on the sides of the mattress. I captured about five bugs in a small transparent zip bag and set them aside to accurately identify them.
Bed bug surprise
I promptly googled “flat oval brown bugs.” Lo and behold, there on my screen was the exact specimen that I trapped: Cimex lectularius, common name: bed bug. I was freaking out and filled with disbelief all at once. I had bed bugs in my home!
My first reaction was to blame my son for keeping his room so untidy that it attracted these creatures. Thanks to various sites on Google, I learned that these pests are parasites that feed off blood and not forgotten scraps of food in my son’s backpack or bin. They love blood, whether it’s bourgeois blood or the blood of a pauper, no warm-blooded prey is excluded.
Now that the enemy was identified, I needed to call out the troops. I couldn’t bear to cohabitate with these beasties another night. The exterminators detailed an overwhelming pretreatment preparation. All clothing, bedding, sofa covers, pillows and stuffed animals had to be washed at 60° and dried at high temperatures. All boxes under the beds needed to be inspected. The floors and baseboards needed to be vacuumed, as well as any bags, boxes and suitcases which were kept on the floor.
Our standard home washing machine and dryer could not handle the huge laundry load of a family of five all at once. We took the task to the laundromat where industrial machines could quickly and effectively do the job.
Face to face with the enemy
As I removed the sheets from my son’s bed, I saw tiny black dots on his sheets. These were bed bug feces – telltale signs of bed bug presence. When I peeled his headboard away from the wall, I suddenly dropped it and screamed when I saw little groups of bed bugs scrambling to safety like thieves. On the back of the headboard, black feces stained the wood. The same scene transpired when I pulled the mattress away from the wall, except the insects and stains were concentrated in the seams of the mattress. Sickened by this sight, I drove to a pest control shop in Paris and bought a bottle of industrial-strength pesticide to annihilate my unwanted visitors.
I was very surprised that the shopkeeper wasn’t surprised that I had bed bugs! She reassured me that bed bugs were a nuisance but not life-threatening. I discovered that they have been quite the popular squatters in Paris.
Armed with the newly purchased chemical warfare and a mask and gloves, I sprayed the mattress, headboard, and mattress foundation. The next morning, we wrapped and taped everything up in a plastic covering and took it down for encombrant collection, or bulk garbage disposal. I made sure to write PUNAISE DE LIT on everything to ward off anyone from taking in a used bed bug bed. (On a side note, the city of Paris already had guidelines for the disposal of bedbug-infested furniture).
It seemed that the spray immobilized the bed bugs. I kept my appointment with the exterminators anyway as a precaution since my son could have transported them to other parts of the flat on towels, stuffed animals, and clothing.
When the exterminators arrived, they requested that all furniture be pulled away from the walls so they could have access to the baseboards and dark corners. A combination of pesticides and steam was deployed. Pesticides kill the living baby and adult bed bugs, but only steam and high heat can kill eggs. They stayed for about 45 minutes while we vacated the premises for four hours. In two weeks, they returned for the second application just to make sure that they got the babies of the eggs that didn’t hatch and kill the eggs that they may have laid after their first visit—the whole procedure of washing everything, vacuuming, and moving furniture needed to be repeated.
My house was amazingly dust-free for two whole weeks – vacuuming every part of the flat each day was essential to suction up any dead bed bug corpses or any of the living that may have escaped destruction. Our vacuum cleaner was also treated with pesticides after each use.
Soon after the second treatment, I purchased mattresses and box spring protectors for all our beds. These protectors completely encase the mattress and box spring. The zippers used on the protectors do not allow the baby bugs to enter or leave if trapped inside.
The effort was worth it. We were lucky, the exterminators told us. We reacted quickly and didn’t let the infestation get out of hand. Female bed bugs, under good conditions, will lay eggs weekly.
Fast forward: Bed bugs strike again!
Two years ago, I received a nervous call from a renter of our studio apartment on Avenue Suffren, not far from the Eiffel Tower. She said she was pretty sure she had bed bugs. At first, the punaises de lit did not bother her but they were multiplying. To my horror, when we visited the studio, the space was infested, most likely from a used sofa bed she had been given.
By this time, we were experienced bed bug evictors and took immediate action.
Know your potential enemy
When my family stays in hotels, rentals, or new lodgings, here’s what we have learned instinctively to do:
- First, we inspect the sheets, and mattresses for tell-tale signs of bed bugs. Look for the tiny black dots of their feces, which stain the mattress seams and any part of the mattress unexposed to light.
- Even if all is clear, we take further preventive measures and keep our luggage on the racks provided, not on the floor. We don’t put our clothes away in the drawers, we hang them up and off the floor. If we ever spotted anything suspicious, the first thing we would do is alert the front desk and probably find another place to stay.
At home, we remain vigilant:
- No secondhand furniture is welcomed in our home unless it undergoes very close inspection and treatment of industrial pesticides.
These blood-sucking parasites have co-existed with humans for centuries. They are always present in populated cities – especially tourist ones, as humans transport the bed bugs in their belongings – let me also add that bed bugs do not have wings or jump. They are rarely found crawling on walls in well-lit areas.
From victim to fearless and informed warrior
Paris, our beautiful city of light, has not been spared. Our task at hand in this climate of panic is to be alert, inform ourselves, and take the necessary precautions to reduce the infestation and keep spread under control. Bed bugs can reproduce very quickly and create a lot of havoc in your home, not to mention unexpected expenses. Rather than creating a climate of uneasiness, let’s win some medals and turn this energy of panic into positive, fearless action.