Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Uncharted Sneak Peek

Another sneak peek at what will begin appearing at Uncharted.net in about another month. I'm particularly proud of the video. Enjoy.

Les Egouts: When visiting Paris, don't forget the sewer tour

Paris is supposed to be romantic.

Strolls on the Champs Elysees.

Rides in a bateau mouche on the Seine.

A climb of the stairs of Montmartre, the Sacre-Coeur, the Eiffel Tower.

But on the left bank of the Seine, near the Pont de l’Alma, my wife and I found another place to wander where, in this fabled city, strolls are scented with musty odors of mildew and night soil; where strollers see not the city’s trademark trees, trimmed as a form of abstract natural art bathed in Parisian twilight, but stuffed rats as big as housecats, grinning from the gloom, black eyes reflecting light that falls from the bulbs embedded in the ceiling above.

We toured the sewers of Paris. Before we toured the Louvre.

We’d do it again. In that order.

Truthfully, visiting the sewers was not high on our priority list when we arrived in Paris. When I idly asked my wife the question, “So, do you want to tour the sewers,” as I chuckled after seeing the museum’s sign, I expected her reaction to be no, as she won’t even clean the toilets at home because the job makes her stomach turn.

I forgot she was a Les Miserables buff. We had two tickets and were descending the stairs more quickly than the characters from Victor Hugo’s famous novel could build a barricade.

For the unfamiliar, the sewers of Paris play a role in Hugo’s novel when Jean Valjean, Hugo’s hero, carries Marius, wounded in a fight at the barricades in the political upheaval that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Valjean – and Hugo – found the sewers to be quite intriguing, foreboding – and expressive:
The light from the air-hole died out ten or twelve paces from the point at which
Jean Valjean stood, an scarcely produced a pallid whiteness over a few yards of
the damp wall of the sewer. Beyond, the opaqueness was massive; to penetrate it
appeared horrible, and to enter it seemed like being engulfed. He could,
however, force his way into that wall of mist, and he must do it. He must even
hasten. He had laid Marius upon the ground, he gathered him up, this is again
the right word, replaced him upon his shoulders, and began his journey. He
resolutely entered that obscurity.

We entered the obscurity as well, though our illumination was more frequent and provided not by air holes but by incandescent bulbs. Walking into “Le Musee des Egouts de Paris,” (the Paris Sewer Museum) from a 42-step staircase near the Pont de l’Alma, visitors descend into that eerie world made familiar by Hugo’s work.

And it is creepy, with that musty smell, lime oozing out of the older walls on this 500-yard tour. Stuffed rats – more than a few – add to the ambience, as do mannequins sporting the latest uniforms used by sewer workers. There’s an interesting mix of history – Hugo’s Les Miserables features prominently in the museum’s displays – and men at work, including a trip on a grate above a stream of treated wastewater that still carries that particular night soil pong. (A secret, we’re told, is if you want to really experience the smells as well as the sights, visit the museum on a rainy day. We opted to visit with the sun shining above; it was smelly enough for us.)

Most fascinating are the giant, hollow steel balls that stand at least six or seven feet high, that sewer workers used to manually roll through the system’s largest collection pipes to clean night soil and other debris out, in order to keep the sewers flowing. I’ve worked some pretty nasty jobs, including hod carrying and windshield replacement, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to push and Indiana Jones-size ball through a smelly sewer just to keep the pipes from backing up. But we do what we do to have the money to take trips halfway across the world to wander around a sewer, right?

The museum reminds visitors that the sewers – all 1,300 miles of them in Paris – work triple and quadruple duty, providing access not only to wastewater and drinking water systems, but also for telecommunications and electricity – all reasons why you never see a power pole in the French capital.

I love this museum. Frankly, it was more fun than the Louvre, even discounting watching the hordes of people taking flash photos of the Mona Lisa, including, in their picture, a sign banning the taking of flash photos. The Louvre may have more art and it may not smell as funky, but Le Musee des Egouts de Paris certainly recalls the quirkiness and subtle humor I came to appreciate after living in France for two years. Forget Winged Victory or the Code of Hammurabi. Give me a stuffed rat and enormous sewer-cleaning bowling balls every time.

The museum also a coy reminder that, in Paris, if you’re interested in something – even sewers – chances are, there’s something to interest you. Even if it’s not necessarily romantic.

Getting there: The entrance to the museum is opposite 93, quai d’Orsay, near the Pont de l’Alma, in the park between the street and the riverbank. It’s hard to miss, with it’s enormous (for Paris) “Egouts de Paris” sign hanging above it. The museum is open Saturdays through Wednesdays from 11 am to 5 pm between May 1 and September 30 (for a full schedule of hours, consult the museum’s web page through the Paris Web Portal at http://www.paris.fr/.)

Cost: 4,20 euros ($6.70) for adults, 3,40 euros ($5.40) for children ages 6-16; children under six get in free.

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