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 stunk. Philip 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.