August 11, 1997

"Les Égouts"

Which is an innocuous-sounding French term for "the sewers," which we toured yesterday; or at least a representative portion of them, including a branch sewer and a main sewer. We also saw a "flushing machine" used to clean the sewers (it looks a lot like a really big toilet tank and flush valve), and a five-ton "flushing boat" that plies the main sewers. They're obviously missing a bet here – underground Bateau Mouche tours!

They also have smaller hand-pushed dredges (doesn't that sound like a great job!), and an electrically-operated version that wasn't used very long – only for two electrocutions. However, they don't seem to be that concerned about working conditions – when the guide told how sometimes methane gas builds up to dangerous concentrations, a member of our tour group asked if the workers had gas masks. "Oh no," she said, "that would cost too much!"

Which reminds me of the boastful brochure quote about the history of the Paris sewer system: "It was only in 1850 that Baron Haussmann, the prefect for the Seine, and the engineer Eugene Belgrand designed the present Parisian sewer network. Belgrand won acceptance for his totally new concept: having the wastewater discharged far downstream of Paris." Quel genius!

Betty Lou sent the following to a friend who once lost a ring down the bathtub drain. (Her story also had a happy ending – the ring was insured and she bought a better replacement with the settlement.)

We took a tour of the sewers today, and at its completion there was a self-directed video we could view. There were seven "episodes," each one beginning like a Western showdown, showing close-ups of several, rubber-boot-clad legs, striding purposefully down the street to a jazzy accompaniment.

As we neared the end of the last episode and learned about the "watchmen," we couldn't help but think of you. First we saw a woman who dropped her keys down a storm sewer – she called the sewer watchmen, and they came to her rescue, prying up a manhole cover (there is one every 50 meters), descending into the darkness (they wear battery-powered headlamps) and retrieved her keys. The woman was incredibly chicly dressed and we didn't see the watchman wipe the keys off – they also wear rubber gloves – but she took them with great pleasure and gave him a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. So French!

Next we saw a woman who not only dropped some keys down a sewer but ALSO a cigarette pack with a VERY IMPORTANT telephone number on it. Once again the sewer watchmen came to her rescue, retrieving her keys AND the cigarette pack.

Finally we saw a man whose wife lost a medallion in her home. Her daughter was pulling on it, and it came off and fell down the drain. AGAIN, the sewer watchmen recovered her jewelry. (We learned that not only do they have street signs in the sewer for every intersection below ground to match those above, they also have street addresses for every building! And in fact, there are two or three times as many miles of sewers as streets, because wide streets will have more than one below.) And now we really were reminded of you and your missing ring. If only you had been in Paris, the ring would have been recovered!

Some of the other episodes were pretty interesting also. For example, one showed how they put large wooden balls, just a foot or so smaller than the openings (they showed one about ten feet in diameter that had to be lowered by a crane) into strategic parts of the sewer to sweep before them what the English-speaking tour guide called "grit." On various poster exhibits, we looked for the French spelling of that term, but only seemed to find "solid material." The balls rolling the 17 kilometers to the treatment plant take a week to get there; they are then trucked back for the next trip.

On a more somber note: We took the Metro to the Place de l'Alma station and had a coffee at an outdoor café before walking over the Seine on the Pont d'Alma to the entrance to the égouts. From our table, the Eiffel Tower dominated the view to the right; directly ahead of us was a replica of the flame of the Statue of Liberty, constructed by the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and structural engineer Pierre Eiffel, of Tower fame. In fact, the flame was one of the earlier models they made during the design process.

Never would we have believed that less than three weeks later, Princess Diana would die in the tunnel nearly underneath our café. (The cars descending on the right are in the opposite direction of her flight.) And that the flame would be turned into a memorial, and in the process disfigured, by some among her legions of admirers.

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved