The Streets of Paris
25.06.2017 - 26.06.2017
It's a glorious, summer's day in Paris. The sky is bright blue and people are starting to congregate in the weekend sunshine. The high pitched wail of the emergency sirens and the dulcet tones of friends muttering in French as they smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk form the soundtrack of the city. If you look up you are surrounded by the beautiful, old, stone buildings with their stereotypical sloped grey-tiled roof and garret apartment windows. Just as you would imagine them to be. Rows of windows overlooking tiny terraces big enough only for a chair for smoking.
I walk the streets watching and listening. Admiring the baked bread in the boulangerie and the windows piled with glossy pastries in the patisserie. I listen as I pass French people at bistros and cafes, drinking and talking. It's been a few years between visits, it comes flooding back to me as I walk.
With each step I avoid unidentified puddles and notice the unusual stains where the pavement meets a building corner. The senses are heightened in Paris but it's the nose that screams the loudest.
As you traipse the old streets so rich in culture and history you encounter a familiar scent of Paris. It's not the baguettes baking nor the cigarette smoke of moody young French people. It's the overwhelming stench of stale urine that permeates this wonderful city
It engulfs me as I walk. Every time the path narrows or becomes enclosed in some way a sense of panic sets in. With legs aching from a long flight, tired, pale and floating in a jet-lagged daze I wander through the Parisian streets and meander by the famous Seine River.
Ahead is a bridge. With a great deep breath I navigate the path underneath.
You know what to expect. You hold your breath. It starts to seep in, you can't hold it any longer, the scent of piss wafts up your nose, it bounces from the concrete path to the stone of the bridge and ricochets off the walls. It's a piss chamber and you are going to need to speed up to get through.
How can such a lovely city smell so horrendous?
I contemplate this aromatic hygiene dilemma as I complete my promenade by the Seine by edging towards a steep path that leads to the street above, hoping for fresher air at street level. I understand there is not a lot of grass in Paris and toilets probably charge money, but why pee in small, confined places like under bridges, subway walk ways, door stops and every sidewalk?
The city is permanently stained with urine, dark patches on the concrete are remnants of a rich history, thousands of years of public urination. Part of King Louis' daily routine was probably a quick public slash by the Pont Neuf. I suspect Marie Antoinette's much quoted line said "let them eat cake and piss where they please". I have probably traversed some royal piss at some stage in my time there. Walked through the wee stains of famous artists like Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. Do the urine imprints of the great thinkers and writers of France lace the bottom of my Birkenstocks?
As I meandered up the stone slope by Pont Neuf, the towers of Notre Dame poking out ahead I head back to street level and the answer is there. An older gentleman is just peeing against the stone wall, his piss running down the pavement, trickling down the stone slope towards the river and myself. Forming an instant stain as it hits and revitalising the centuries of piss stains before it to mingle in the air, old and new, modern and historic, united by urine. The scents wafts across the summer air, the man oblivious, piss no doubt pooling at his feet. Public exposure? sure. Public nuisance? without a doubt. The real crime is being a filthy bastard. Go and find a toilet or pee down a drain, into a bush, somewhere where nature can subdue the horrors they are causing.
The history of Paris' streets are probably being eroded by years of concentrated urine. Stripping back the coatings of the street, they will start to uncover ancient ruins in the city's more popular piss spots, eroded streets forming big holes to the treasures of yesteryear.
With a wide berth we go around the pissing gentleman, by all accounts, a well dressed older man, not homeless, not insane, just someone who has never learnt to hold his bladder. We dry-wretch as we arrive at street level with increasing pace in our strides.
As I explore this wonderful city it is imperative to approach every puddle with caution. Much like you would a historic site or stereotypical French scene, I begin pointing out every pavement stain that starts in a pile at a wall and forms a river down a slope - another Paris piss stain. As iconic as a baguette wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette.
Any flowing liquid in gutters flags as a potential hazard. There is an overwhelming sense of disgust and fear as you looking up to admire this wonderful city but momentarily take your head out of the game. Suddenly wetness permeates your toes, they squelch against your sandals as you come to a screeching halt. Oh god no. You're frozen with fear, should I look down? You see the puddle and there's a pigeon bathing in the same liquid, you're hopeful, you breathe a sigh of relief but secretly wonder whether Parisian pigeons enjoy a piss bath just as much?
As you navigate the city of love the senses are overwhelmed. The beauty, the sounds, the never mentioned aromas. There's always a new scent to discover, sometimes it's garbage intertwining with freshly baked bread but more often that not it's urine, thousands of different forms of urine in varying degrees of decay. You pray for a cleansing rain but alas it is the scent of Paris.
The city of love (and wee).
Piss Stains of Paris
Piss Stains of Paris is an exciting new Parisian walking tour I will be conducting next summer. Explore the sights, sounds and smells of the city, admire the piss stains, how many can you count? Do they resemble anything?
Can you find a confined space that hasn't been pissed in?
Inquiries and bookings welcome.