Jun 26 2010

Les Egouts de Paris

Let’s say you were in Paris and had just spent 32 euros on a two-day museum card, a special pass that allows you to skip the lines and walk right in to some of the major museums in the city. Let’s say that you’d already visited the Louvre and L’Orangerie. And let’s say that you were debating between the Rodin Museum — i.e., the famous sculptor of The Thinker, among other emotive masterpieces — or a four-euro display entitled “The Sewers of Paris.”

For me, the choice was obvious. Peter and I had spent the morning working our way through an audio tour of the Musee d’Orsay and, while I enjoyed our virtual guide’s description of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” I decided it might be time for something off the beaten path.

Mission accomplished. The Egouts of Paris are right next to a bridge close to the Eiffel Tower. Unlike the Orangerie or, god help us, the Louvre, there was no line. We waved our museum passes and went right downstairs, where several groups of uniformed school children were being led around by guides.

I had just gotten caught up in a display about rainwater when Peter, who had wandered ahead (I’m assuming out of excitement, not boredom?) came back to me.

“I need you to come with me,” he said. “This is too smelly to do twice.”

I needed no further invitation. As friends may know, I spent much of 2008 and early 2009 wrapped up in a series of pieces about the state of American sewage. Hell, I even made a music video. A sewer tour is, as they say, totally my bag.

My expectations were high, but the Paris Sewer Tour did not disappoint. Sure enough, we turned a corner and were hit in the face with a smell I knew all too well from my research phase.

This is the authentic Paris underground.

Unlike the hygiene-obsessed US of A, this was not some synthetic scent being used to create an authentic sewer atmosphere, like how they spray popcorn perfume all over the 68th street Loews theater. Rather, it came from the river of untreated wastewater running through a trough in the middle of the room.

When I say “untreated” and “river,” I’m not exaggerating. Check out the photo. That’s, if you may excuse the expression, the real shit.

I found this disgusting, yet fascinating, but I wanted more background information. How did this system come to be? How did a dredge boat work? What were those enormous wooden balls?  Thank goodness, then, for the hallway full of informational placards, helpfully printed in English and French, explaining the evolution of Parisian wastewater treatment. (For a long time, it was quite simple: dump it into the Seine.)

I wanted to soak up all four sides of each information station (no pun intended), but there was one slight problem: in what must have been a sewer worker’s joke, the boards were set up directly above a different rushing stream of wastewater that had been covered by the same sort of see-through wire grate that covers the air vents in the NYC subway system (think Marilyn Monroe, but smellier). Even I, a truly devoted sewer follower, had difficulty trusting that the wire grates were not going to collapse while I read about Napoleon’s clean water initiatives, dropping me into what could easily have qualified as a beginner kayak run. Making me more nervous: some of the placards, made of sturdy laminated plastic, had actually begun to disintegrate from the fumes.

Peter eventually braved the grate.

Luckily, the grates held and we made it through to the gift shop, where I learned that giant wooden balls were — and are — used to help build up enough water pressure to flush the sand (or “hybrid mixture,” as they called it euphemistically) out of the pipes. I also verified that a large crocodile was once found living in the sewers (it now has its own sewer-themed enclosure at a zoo), got some free sewer tour postcards from a curator at the gift shop, and was invited to a new exhibit — presumably above ground — celebrating Parisian water.

A good time all around.