European Sweeping

Paris, France

by Ranger Kidwell-Ross Paris not sweeping

I'll cut right to the chase, in case you're on your break, or shouldn't be reading this right now and are counting on using the Paris sweeping information as your excuse. Our story about sweepers currently working in France is that there are no sweepers currently working in France.

We drove all the way through France, almost to the northern border of Spain, before spotting a sweeper to take a picture of. And, it wasn't even working! So, while I can't say for certain there were no mechanized sweepers on the job in the entirety of France, I can absolutely assure you that, if there were any, they were certainly few and far between.

The reason for their scarcity is that, as I write this, municipal employees have been on strike throughout France for about three weeks. That said, it has been quite difficult to come up with any firsthand information. Also, for the first time on this trip, I've been unable to reach anyone in the local sweeping world who speaks English. Even Raphael, my French friend who has visited me several times in the U.S. (and has been persistent in his attempt to help me contact French sweeping officials), cannot uncover anyone in Paris who knows what's happening with the city's sweeping program. As far as we can tell, they are all on strike. Since I've been missing all the media coverage while traveling, you've probably heard more about it than I have.

Initially, the strike made it tempting to bypass Paris. And, the recent spate of holidays had thrown us off schedule by several days. The one coming up this Monday is called Pentecote Quarter. It follows on the heels of last Monday's holiday, Ascension Day, which followed the English holiday that put me in Hamburg a day ahead of schedule. The European workforce obviously observes more holidays than does its American counterpart.

In Amsterdam, we learned that the strike was creating chaos in the inner city of Paris. Several turista agency people suggested that we probably wouldn't want to go there, what with all the turmoil. Hearing that, of course, meant I had to go take a look. There are no lengths too far for me to go in order to bring you, in this case, the 'non-sweeping' news. Here's how it happened:

After an unforgettable midnight stop at Brussels' Grand Plaza, and catching a few winks of sleep when we couldn't drive any further, we arrived in Paris late on a Saturday afternoon. The city was stiflingly hot, and the streets were sardine-packed with crazy drivers interwoven with death-defying motorcyclists. People from all over Europe were there, celebrating the three-day holiday weekend in the big city. Did we have a hotel reservation? Of course not. But, no problem! We were seasoned travelers at that point. So, after only three sweaty hours of crawling from pillar to post, gesturing wildly with our hands as though that would somehow assist in the language barrier, we secured a hotel room in a semi-dive near the train station. Voila!

By the looks of the streets, those in charge of sweeping operations hadn't been setting regular hours. If they were, Paris has a long way to go to bring itself into even the 20th century standards of pavement cleaning. You'll see what I mean a bit further along.


At the Hotel de Bruxelles, we discovered that although you can cram both yourself and a small suitcase into the elevator at the same time if you really try, they do give you really cool room keys to make up for the inconvenience. When we nabbed the last room, the nearby streets were crammed to overflowing with garbage. Huge, noxious piles of it. Stacks of cardboard boxes and a kaleidoscopic assortment of miscellaneous household-type items were mixed in with piles of mostly sealed garbage bags. A short time later, as we gathered our suitcases out of the car, a garbage truck came through the narrow, crowded streets and scooped it all up -- at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon. Great scheduling!


Being completely exhausted at that point, I felt like doing nothing more than taking a long nap, but that just wouldn't do. After all, it was the beginning of a weekend in Paris! Even the view from our room was nothing like I'd see in the States. After taking a quick shower, I took off to see some of the sights I'd only heard about until now.

Since then, I've toured many of the must-see tourist places, walking until my feet felt like they were on fire. Most of the time, but not always, our train connections were running. Sometimes the schedule board was unlit, which means that particular line was, for the moment, on strike.

Of course, there were only so many world-class artistic works I could wade through before my mind started going numb. For example, the Museé 'd Orsay has one of the greatest collections of Impressionist artworks in existence. I eventually found myself giving a mere 15 seconds of haphazard appreciation to original works that, before now, I'd seen only in books. Cezanne, Pisarro -- check. Gaugain, Degas -- check. Renoir, and the guy who cut his ear off (you know the one) -- double-check.


As I previously warned, there's not much to report about Parisian sweeping. But, as you can see, I did take some pictures designed to keep you in-the-know regarding the condition of the streets. Everywhere I went it was dirty. From the bus lines to the subway to outside the museums, and at all spots in-between, litter was ev-er-y-where. Rodents could dine for weeks in the curb lines without eating on the same street twice. In some sections of town, garbage piles dot the cityscape. Other areas appear normal in that respect, but nowhere did I see a curb line or street that looked as though it had been swept in the past several days.

Initially, I thought I'd be able to make contact with someone in Paris' sweeping community on Monday, but I learned they had another holiday this week! Due to the language barrier, I was assuming that people were still referring to last week's three-day holiday, not the successive one occurring this week.


It's now Monday afternoon and, after combing the city, I have yet to unearth a sweeper in action anywhere. I thought, perhaps, a taxi dispatch system could help me find a location in the city where sweepers are operating, but no such luck. However, I found a type of motorcycle I haven't seen in the U.S., so I've substituted that for a sweeper photo.

If your supervisor walks by and you're pretending to be doing sweeper-related research, click-and-hold on the frame that shows water coming out into the street. Then, if you have to, tell them you've just learned that during the Paris street-sweeping strike, water was flushed out of the storm drains periodically. I assume the reason was to wash the material that would normally be swept into the catch basins, but I don't know for sure. If you really get stuck, point out the overflowing trash bin in the head-on photo. And, although I saw covered motorcycles made by a variety of manufacturers, to me these BMW models were clearly the most outstanding.


To conclude my sweeper research in Paris, I visited the Church of Ste. Michelle, which I knew would be packed, to see if anyone was cleaning up its large plaza. Sure enough, a contractor was on the job. I believe the operator's name is Tiote SouLaheo. He was riding around on the truck you see, emptying all the garbage cans in the plaza. He spoke a little English, so I asked him if there were any sweepers working anywhere in Paris today. "No one except for me," he said with a smile. "I am working on a holiday." His satisfied tone clearly reflected the overtime he was getting paid.

Here's a photo showing the system that most of Paris uses for its street litter containers. Quite a contrast, I thought, with Copenhagen's liner system that allows multiple reuse. It appeared that, despite the strike, these were still being emptied in most areas of the city. As you can see in the other set of photos, though, that wasn't the crux of the strike. I'll be glad to get out of what is, at the moment, a somewhat noxious city to be in.


That may happen sooner, rather than later. I've just learned from Raphael, who lives in Lille, France's fourth largest city (about an hour's train ride north of Paris), that a large municipal workers' rally will be taking place there in the morning. I've decided to go take a look. After all, if it's a big enough event, maybe someone will be operating a sweeper to clean up the mess. Raphael and I will also get a chance to catch up and, of particular importance at the moment, I can use his computer to upload my files and send the Amsterdam and Copenhagen stories to the U.S.

See you in Lille at the rally!

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