I saw a guy peeing on the street today: Philip II, modern art, and the smells of Paris

The smell of pee can be your connection to centuries of Parisian history.

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Centre Georges Pompidou
The Centre Georges Pompidou, France’s national gallery of modern art. Picture source: http://www.rpbw.com/project/3/centre-georges-pompidou/.

I saw a guy peeing on the street today.  It was on one of those concrete things outside of the Centre Georges Pompidou, France’s national museum of modern art.  It seemed odd, because there was a free public toilet not 5 meters away.  I could smell the large–and rapidly growing–puddle of piss as I walked by.

Paris has always smelled, and by “smelled,” I mean stunkPhilip II (Philip Le Dieu-donné) tried to deal with the stench from the streets by paving them, sometime between 1180 and 1223.  It didn’t work–the description of sources of the stench in one neighborhood in the 1680s or so (I think it was near what’s now Place d’Italie) included “a stream that served as public sewer and a waste dump for the Gobelins factory, a pig farm, a neighborhood tanner, a starch maker, and an abattoir which emptied blood into the street.”  (Robert Cole’s excellent A traveller’s history of Paris, the source of this quote, proceeds by historical period; each chapter details the stench situation at that point in time.)  Louis XIV moved his residence from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682 in part to get away from fractious Parisian mobs, but also to get away from the stench of Paris.

Poop can still be an issue.  Edmund White used to walk his dog by the Centre Pompidou expressly to have it poop in the ventilation duct of the office of a guy who had refused to give him a writing job.  However, in these days of modern sewer systems, the main issue is pee, and there’s not actually that much of an issue with that.  Despite everything that you hear about Parisian men peeing all over the place, you are only really likely to smell it in the metro stations.  It’s claimed that a couple liters of perfume are dumped into the Métro ventilation system every day in an attempt to cover the smell of pee.  (See here for the closest I’ve been able to come to verifying this.)

Really, in a European context, France is not that bad in the urine-smelling department.  In Belgium, I once had to pee in the kitchen of a decent restaurant–because that’s where the urinal was.

  • faire pipi: to urinate.
  • pisser: to urinate.
  • uriner: to urinate–I found this in my medical dictionary.
  • la miction: urination.  Also from my medical dictionary, so it might just be a technical term.  The English cognate is micturition.
  • pisser dans un violon: to waste your breath, to talk to a wall.  Literally: “to piss in a violin.” 
  • gey kakn afn yam: “go shit in the ocean.”  This is Yiddish, not French, but it’s really the only Yiddish you need to know.

14 thoughts on “I saw a guy peeing on the street today: Philip II, modern art, and the smells of Paris”

  1. “Un violin”, you sure ?
    What you write about Paris from Lutecia to the XIXth century is unfair, since it was the fate of any European city by then . Gutters on both sides of streets carried all human and animal excrements, I guess we can guess the odor … The middle of the streets was higher, and the rich or the officials walked there while the miserable mass had to walk on the filthy sides, and minding above them to avoid the content of chamber pots emptied by households into the gutter beneath ( hence the still in use expression “tenir le haut du pavé” about people that are socially dominant) .
    That’s one of the many reasons why if i had to choose a place to live in, admitting a time machine had me back in the Middle Age, I’d choose at 100% to live in somewhere like Baghdad rather than anywhere in Europe .

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    1. No intention to be unfair to Paris–I tried to make it clear that Brussels is a hell of a lot worse! 🙂 Fascinating about the “tenir le haut du pavé” expression–thank you, as always.

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    2. Phildange, is this what you were referring to?

      “Les tuiles moussues chutent en dégringolades sur les hauts pavés bossus comme il n’en existe plus guère qu’à Versailles et dans les prisons vénérables.”

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      1. No, I don’t know this quote . I was referring to the fact the custom was to empty chamber pots of their human excrements through the windows ( hey why bother ? I like this way of living) and to the fact old streets and roads were never flat : the middle was higher than both sides, whose function was to be sewers as well as streets for the poor .

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  2. A relative was visiting here in Rome from the US last week and kept commenting on how it smelled of pee and pooh. I had to concentrate to realize she was right – it’s a question of perception, and you lose it when you get used to things, however disagreable !

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    1. Those Americans are obsessively sensitive to body odours ( funny when you’re used to travel out of our modern countries, or when you’re able to imagine our own countries in the past ) .
      This mental handicap comes from their foundation by religious psychos whose only notion of spirituality was “Body is Bad and Sex is Evil !”

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      1. Well actually I do feel that city odours are unhealthy, and ever since the comment I’ve also noticed the car fumes. Bad is that we don’t notice any more!

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  3. This is less painful than the mental pollution spread by money makers all around the world … In the late 60s Pasolini, having watched what the RAI had become under the influence of America’s mental junk, just said ” There’s no Italy anymore” . In the 80s I started saying the same thing about France – and i didn’t know the Italian genius’quote yet .

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    1. And more than Gap (though I don’t know what this is ) is the fact that Paris working class population has been deported outside in the 60s/70s/80s . The legendary Parisian spirit, the one who could start several revolutions, was carefully scattered by the financial looters . With these people other fine things vanished : all these foreign and French artists who were unknown when they were young, famous painters in Montmartre in the late XIXth century, American writers and Jazzmen in the 30s/50s, this fascinating melting pot made possible by cheap and rotten hotels or buildings, has no place to exist now in this dead city for superficial cattles hypnotized by their masters .
      Oh boy ! Paris, I so much loved you … when the French were French and could say “F… off ” to money and uniforms bearers .

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  4. No, haut pavé and haut du pavé are different things . Un haut pavé, a high cobble, is a cobble higher than the others, unproperly levelled and a trap for walkers who stumble upon it . Then “le haut du pavé”, the highest part of the pavement, means the higher middle of streets . In “le haut pavé”, the word “haut” is a normal adjective, while in “le haut du pavé”, “le haut de la maison”, etc, the word “haut” is a noun .
    BTW, “le haut du pavé” is only used nowadays in the expression above, only with the verb “tenir” with the social meaning of superiority .

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