Sunday, February 22, 2009

Les Egouts: The City Below

We sure picked a good day to go underground. Snow blew into my face, somehow circumventing my umbrella, soaking my coat and freezing my hands as I emerged from the Metro. The only above ground indication of Les Egouts was a small kiosk near Pont de l’Alma with a relatively unobtrusive sign, announcing “Visite des Egouts de Paris.”

After buying a ticket, we took a narrow stairwell until we reached a platform somewhere below the street. The hot humidity would have been welcome if it weren’t infused with the smell of sewage. The tour began in this front hall, with a long line of amateur-looking posters outlining the history of the sewers and how they worked, how they were cleaned, etc. Given the smell and the murky look of all that was around me, my first reaction was to be wary of the tap water in Paris. As we advanced through the museum (of sorts), however, my appreciation for the sewer system grew.

A cultural and historical difference that confronts me time and time again in Paris is how old Europe is. Although that statement seems completely obvious, I have found that Americans have trouble wrapping their heads around the deep, deep history of European civilization. This depth, however, was well explained in Les Egouts, as I read about how the sewer system evolved from nonexistence in the Middle Ages to its relatively sophisticated form today. It was truly developed out of necessity, as the city’s population grew and the Seine could no longer naturally absorb and filter the waste produced. It wasn’t really until Napoleon I in the nineteenth century (!) that a semblance of the current system was created, when he had 19 miles of pipes laid underground. Before then, waste disposal had been much the same since the fourteenth century—which is to say, horrible. I read that this was perhaps the greatest achievement of Napoleon I: his accomplishment that gave the most back to the French people.

I believe it. Les Egouts really are an underground city. Thousands of people are involved with quality control, engineering, and maintenance work, among hundreds of other jobs. There are even boats that ride the sewer waters, cleaning the bottom and carrying workers from one place to another. Another cleaning method that I find interesting but don’t quite understand are the giant boulders rolled along the bottom. They dredge the accumulated sediment with some kind of suction action, a seemingly primitive method of cleaning, but have apparently stood the test of time and are effective. I was just generally impressed with the subculture of this subterranean world; this world that affects everyone in Paris everyday, but that remains largely unseen and unappreciated.

The visit did a good job of showing how Les Egouts are inextricably intertwined with history, literature, and Parisian life, even if people don’t know it. They had a display from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Les Egouts have been immortalized. Posters hung from the ceiling over rushing, fetid water, detailing the history of Les Egouts from political and social viewpoints. The exhibit, overall, firmly established a meaningful context for Les Egouts.

Although I thought the visit was generally effective, I can understand how it could be intolerably boring if one does not enjoy reading posters. All information was essentially disseminated through this route and even I found it extremely tedious at times. I think that perhaps having more interactive displays throughout the exhibits could greatly enhance the experience of Les Egouts. Perhaps an introductory video at the beginning would pique the visitor’s interest. I would also have appreciated seeing a full map detailing the sewer system. Knowing mileage is interesting, but I think more visual aid would help visitors to appreciate how extensive the sewer system really is. With that said, I think part of the charm of the visit comes from its amateur vibe. After all, we’re only catching a glimpse of this subterranean world and it wouldn’t feel nearly as novel or original if it were a huge multi-media production.

Like the sewers themselves, the museum is underground in multiple senses.

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