Does Paris Stink?

photo: street washing system

Detail of Paris' essential street-cleaning system -
note rag dam, note water.

Email from Johanna Shirley, via the Internet: Monday, 3. May 1999:-

Dear Ric,

Please, don't be offended by this question... it is honest curiosity. My nephew - 15 years old - recently spent a few days in Paris.

His response to the question, "How did you like Paris?" was that it stinks!

He meant that literally. He said it smelled of urine. He insisted that he saw people urinating along the streets.

I would like to be able to explain to him that the smell has something to do with air pollution or perhaps some type of industry, but since I've never been there, I really have no idea what he's talking about.

Is there some legitimate reason for the odor?


Johanna Shirley©1999

Yes, Paris Does Stink!

Bonjour Johanna -

Paris:- Thursday, 13. May 1999:-I am not offended. Your nephew is absolutely correct. Paris smells; it stinks.

While it is not all that common to see residents performing certain bodily functions 'en nature' as it were, it is not unknown. Public facilities are not plentiful, and they are not free - especially not for people with no money.

On the other hand, I invite everybody in the world to try out the public toilet beside the front of the Madeleine, just to its right. It is a palace of a toilet. Even if you have no need, it is worth a look for its tiles and for its superb shoeshine chair. The light filtering inside from the glass bricks overhead is very calming too, and if you like the smell of disinfectant, you'll love it.

As for Paris' other smells, a good sample of these can also be found right around the Madeleine church. Go by the Fauchon and Hedidard shops and you will be assaulted by the smells of exotic fruits, cheeses, sausages, foie gras, bread - bread alone has 143 different smells! - and the smells of cookies, cakes, thousands of foodstuffs; all jumbled together because they are fresh and on display. Any open-air market in France is an olfactory extravaganza!

While still at this place in Paris, you may also notice that diesel cars and trucks smell too. Some city buses also smell of course, but newer ones run on GPL and are relatively odorless. If it is warm, and you stand near a métro ventilation grate, you will get a blast of hot métro smell every four or five minutes. Electricity, hot metal and hot brakes have a particular smell. Connecting métro tunnels smell too.

Walk down any street past the butcher, the baker, the café - ah - the café; smells of strong coffee, beer, wine, wine, cigarette smoke; transitory scents of perfume - in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré you smell a variety of flavors of what ample money can buy and comes in tiny bottles. Wine comes in different-sized bottles and it is supposed to smell so good it makes you silly.

The Seine doesn't smell like much because it is channelled between stone walls, or laps at stone quays. Streets don't smell bad because most of them are given a bath every day by guys in green overalls who sweep the dirt down the drains with brooms made of elegant green plastic twigs.

Pollution, which is not great in Paris, does not smell. Paris has little industry - other than restaurants, museums, shops, banks and hotels - and of these only restaurant terraces may smell of cooked food.

By living in Paris, gets one used to the smells; the smell of fresh bread never ceases to be novel every day. My 11-year old son just came back from a visit to Dublin, and he said it smelled. What he meant was, it smelled different - with its coal fires and Guinness on tap.

Yes Johanna, Paris stinks. It is not merely a 'moveable feast,' but a feast for a moveable nose.

Regards, Ric

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