There are few cities in the world that are romanticised about as much as the capital of the French Republic: Paris.
However, whether you are off on an evening stroll by the Seine, marching down the Champs-Élysées or even standing on the top of the illustrious Eiffel Tower, there is one smell that seems to always be lingering… I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the scent of freshly baked baguettes or unfiltered Gauloises wafting through the air.
When Parisians answer the call of nature, the ‘City of Lights’ in its entirety suddenly becomes their very own personal latrine. I would wager that there likely isn’t a square inch of the city that hasn’t at some point been tinkled on by an undiscerning Frenchman.
No matter where you are in Paris, you will always be reminded about the presence of pee. The walls of the many architectural wonders are stained, the pavement has a certain stickiness, and that metro seat you’ll regrettably find yourself in feels damp.
Public urination in the city could honestly be considered a time-honoured tradition, to the point where UNESCO should just go ahead and add the activity to its list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’.
The internet tells me this is a problem that Paris has been trying to ‘relieve itself’ of since at least the 1830s, when the first public urinals, or Pissoir as the French say, were installed along the main boulevards. This cleanup effort apparently went a step further when Baron Haussmann, under order of Napoleon III (i.e. the nephew of the famous Napoleon), demolished virtually the entire city to rebuild a new one that wasn’t soaked in piss. I can only imagine that after this monumental reconstruction, there was a mad rush to be the first to take a whizz on the fresh, pristine city.
It’s a testament to the underlying integrity of Paris’ residents who, despite the wide availability of these Pissoirs, will actively go out of their way to spray the streets with their wee. Perhaps, it could be interpreted as Parisians, believing themselves to be the epitome of culture and sophistication, hold their piss in such a high regard that regular toilets are simply not worthy. I can only assume they view the aroma of their pee as equally fragrant as a spritz of Chanel No. 5.
Consequently, the many Pissoirs around the city stand vacant, probably only used by the occasional tourist who thought they were being cheeky.
For those seeking the authentic Paris experience, it’s recommended that you do as the locals do and break the seal anywhere but one of these open-air loos. You could also go a step further and take a leak on the Pissoir structure itself, which I’m sure would qualify you for French citizenship immediately.
Ultimately, public urination should just be considered one of the fundamental components of the French way of life, much like sucking down endless amounts of cigarettes, perpetually striking, and having pseudo-philosophical debates at the local Brasserie while buzzed off red wine. It should be expected and accepted on any trip to Paris, as the occasional misstep into a suspicious puddle will not likely be the worst thing your feet end up in or on during a visit.
On the other hand, the endless piles of dog shit around the city is a whole different story…