Is Paris really that dirty? A candid answer from a Parisian

Be it visitors, or Parisians, or French people from outside Paris, everyone seems to have an opinion on how dirty Paris is!

‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’

‘Trashed Paris’: Is the French capital dirtier than ever?

The above are just two of the many headlines that show Paris’ dismal reputation when it comes to sanitation.

I still remember the first time I encountered the suggestion of Paris being anything but beautiful. It was in the penultimate season of Sex and the City. Carrie meanders around Paris doing Parisian things, i.e. looking forlorn while wistfully walking through scenic Parisian cityscapes.

In very Carrie-esque style, she wears Manolo Blahnik (a brand of beautiful high-heeled shoes in case you didn’t know). Having already been scoffed at by snooty shop-keepers, and brushed off by rude French people, right when the Parisian experience couldn’t get any worse for her, she steps on a steaming pile of dog poop.

Carrie looks down at her shoe in horror as the camera zooms in on the mess. She frantically tries to wipe it off with a napkin, then tries to clean it under a water fountain: all this, while being framed against the majestic Parisian landscape.

Carrie Bradshaw stepping on dog poop in the streets of Paris
Carrie Bradshaw stepping on dog poop in the streets of Paris

But is Paris really that dirty?

For some audiences, the scene epitomised Carrie’s conflicted feelings for her boyfriend and a foreign land, while for others, it epitomised the realities of walking around Paris.

Decades after I watched the show, this scene is still the first thing on my mind when I read anything related to cleanliness in Paris or about Parisians and their dogs.

This was before I learnt of a real phenomenon called ‘Paris Syndrome’, which refers to the psychological shock and disappointment that some people face upon visiting Paris and finding out that the reality of the city is very different from their expectations.

No, Paris is not all always rosey and pretty, but it’s not all terrible as well. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

With TV, social media, movies and now Emily in Paris presenting an extremely romanticised idea of what Paris is, here’s my candid take on this question as someone who has called Paris home for the last couple of years.

I love Paris, and though it is my favourite place in the whole world, it’s not always rosey to live here. But it’s not all terrible as well. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

Read ahead to find out what you can realistically expect when you come to Paris.

Dog-poop: Do Parisians not pick up after themselves?

One of the very first topics I learnt to complain about in français was about crotte de chien. It literally translates to dog-poop, and yes, this is a real problem.

Of course, it’s not all dog-owners. As with everything else, it takes a small minority not doing their part and cleaning up after their pets, to give an entire city a bad reputation. Someone should start a podcast asking people why they do not pick up after their pets? I’d love to find out, really!

The city has attempted to tackle the issue by implementing fines for those who do not pick up after their dogs and installing more waste bins throughout the city. However, the problem persists, and visitors to Paris should watch their step to avoid ending up like Carrie.

Smelly streets

This here is also a fact: that many streets in Paris smell. Whoever described Parisian streets as ‘urine-soaked,’ was not exaggerating. It doesn’t happen everywhere but if you spot an empty-ish little lane which offers some cover, especially off a bar-filled lively street, you better get your olfactory system ready for the onslaught.

Even installation of public urinals have not been able to combat this issue.

I once saw two women being frantically admonished by a home-owner in Montmartre because one of them peed in an apartment entryway. This was drama I wasn’t expecting on my way to brunch on a Sunday morning!

The building’s front-door was not visible from the road, making it prime urinating spot for the women. They didn’t account for the residents spotting them, I suppose. It was only my second week in Paris and I was shook!

Unfortunately, it was only a precursor to the things I have seen since (story for another time).

There is a whole phenomenon called ‘Paris Syndrome’, which refers to the shock of disappointment that tourists face when they actually visit Paris and find the city to be very different from their expectations.

Rats & Pigeons in Paris

If you are from a huge city, you are probably already familiar with these city-dwellers. Parisian rats, by no means, have as big of a reputation as New York rats, but they’re doing their best to climb up on the totem pole, I think. Boulevards, parks and apartments, no place has been spared by these city-slickers.

Paris also has a lot of pigeons. And where there are pigeons, there will be pigeon poop. Though not as big of a nuisance as dog poop, they have their own unique way of wrecking havoc, especially around canals and railway stations in Paris.

Density of people

Paris is a very densely populated city with over 2.2 million inhabitants and millions of tourists every year. In fact, in 2022, Paris received more than 30 million tourists! You can imagine what kind of pressure that would put on any city.

Pollution and litter can be an issue in certain areas. Also with so many people using public transportation regularly, things can get a bit….ahem….let’s say, funky. But ultimately, I’d say, its not so serious!

Also, Parisians seem to be forever-grappling under the dust, grime and soot of the never-ending 10001 construction and renovation projects everywhere. But that’s also to be expected in a city as old as Paris.

Final verdict: Is Paris a dirty city?

Paris is a dreamy place, but even dreamy places are populated by real humans producing garbage and waste.

But no, Paris is not a dirty city per se.

Like any big city, it has its share of cleanliness challenges but most of the time, the garbage gets picked up on time, the streets are cleaned and washed at regular intervals, the boulevards and parks are pruned and kept looking beautiful all year round.

Yes, it could most definitely be dirtier than where you come from, and there is always scope for improvement.

Ultimately, any city is dynamic, and not a static entity incapable of change. With the Olympics game fast approaching, we can expect cleanliness and sanitation efforts in Paris to be ramped up.

Even with the at-time-questionable sanitation and hygiene, Paris has the best to offer in terms of art, culture, architecture and gastronomy. And for me, these merits of this incredible city far outweighs the negatives.

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