This essay by NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley was borne out of the personal exasperation of living in a beautiful city with one thing she found very, very wrong.
When you walk down the grand boulevards of the City of Light, you have to be careful where you step.
Every day, my senses are assaulted by the piles I have to dodge in the Parisian streets. There are the fresh ones that leave me feeling angry, and the ones from the previous days that have begun to smear down the street on the bottoms of people's shoes.
About a year ago, I began to get really worked up about it. Who were these selfish people? And why could I never catch the wretched little chien who left his telltale turds on my street?
So I made a cardboard, cutout stencil that said, "Be Proud of Paris!" and sprayed it next to the piles, thinking I could shame people into picking up. When that didn't seem to work, I just circled the patties in bright red paint and wrote "Shame!" next to them. Though these exercises gave me some measure of satisfaction, I was still frustrated and determined to try get to the bottom of it.
Then I discovered that tracking down and fining offenders is actually a government job.
The Incivility Brigade
Hamidou Traore is head of the incivility brigade for the city of Paris. He fills me in on things early one morning at headquarters in the center of the city. As it turns out, it's been illegal to leave dog poo on the streets of Paris since 1982. But Traore says it's hard to change habits.
"There are people who think because they pay taxes, the street cleaners should clean up behind their dogs," he says.
Traore says Parisians have had enough time to learn the rules, and that his teams try to change mentalities through punishment. Around here, dog poo goes by its technical term, "canine ejection." And there's a $50 fine for leaving it on the pavement. But of course, you have to catch the person.
Enter Frank Calvet and Eric Robichon. They're two of the 100 or so plainclothes inspectors with the incivility brigade. The duo crisscrosses Paris to find and fine offenders. I was thrilled to have a chance to accompany them.
On A Mission
To be fair, Calvet and Robichon aren't just out looking for dog poop. Their task is to find and punish all the litterers who degrade the quality of life in the French capital. The worst offenders, they say, are the construction workers who leave bags of heavy debris on the street. But to indulge me, we quickly get down to business, so to speak, and begin following dog walkers.
First, we're hot on the trail of a woman and her two squeaky little companions. I see immediately that Calvet and Robichon are real pros. Just like in the movies, they lag casually behind and duck in and out of doorways so as not to be spotted. After following her for a good 20 minutes, she heads back into her apartment building, and we're left with nothing. I can see that this isn't going to be easy.
And then, all of a sudden we round a corner and there's a dog doing it right in the middle of the sidewalk! We're going to catch a canine ejector, and I'm going to get some satisfaction!
And then, just as surprisingly, the elegantly dressed woman of a certain age stoops to pick it up. She even wipes the sidewalk with tissues. I simply have to go over and congratulate her.
"You shouldn't own a dog if you don't pick up after him," Claude Bocara tells me. "That's disgusting."
Calvet and Robichon say they don't pounce until a dog owner turns his back on the poop. They tell me some people are indignant when confronted, but most are sheepish and say they were going to pick it up.
I end up going out with Calvet and Robichon on two cold, early mornings. We follow countless dog walkers. Many fit the right profile, letting their dogs run off the leash and dropping their cigarette butts on the ground. We watch for the most likely dog culprits: "You could follow a poodle all day, but a Lab gets right down to it," Calvet says.
In the end, all the owners we spot pick up. How can it be? I'm starting to believe what Calvet and Robichon tell me, that most Parisians do their duty.
The guys try to console me. Then, as we're returning to the station after scouring my neighborhood in the 15th Arrondissement, we almost walk right into a steaming pile, and I am beside myself again. It looks like if I want any satisfaction, I'll have to go back to my spray-paint cans.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
From one insane city to the City of Light. This next story is about life in Paris from NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley. But please be warned: it's not all glamour in the French capital.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This is a radio story born out of personal exasperation - exasperation over a bizarre and foul part of life in an otherwise beautiful world-class city. For those of you who thought Paris was the capital of fashion and culture, you must know that it's also the world capital of dog poo. And it's starting to drive me mad. It's everywhere. Walking the streets here sometimes feels like negotiating a minefield. As one friend put it, strolling a Paris boulevard is like walking down on the farm. But bizarrely, Parisians don't seem bothered by it. When I talk to locals or even expats who have been here forever, they all say the same thing: Oh, it used to be so much worse.
MARINA LEE: Why aren't we going over there?
BEARDSLEY: But for tourists and newcomers, like my friend Marina Lee who just moved here with her husband and kids, it's a shock. She describes walking to school in the morning.
LEE: And if we're running late then we'll go the short way, but it has a lot of poop on it. And so that's not our preferred way to go. It didn't occur to me that I'd have to deal with so much poop on the streets, especially on the rainy days.
BEARDSLEY: I began to work myself into a frenzy over this about a year ago. Who were these selfish dog owners who didn't bother to pick up? And why could I never catch the squeaky little chien who regularly left his telltale droppings on my street? I began glaring at every dog owner with suspicion. Perhaps I could shame them into picking up. So, I made a cardboard cutout stencil that read: Let's be proud of Paris, and began spray painting it next to the piles. When that didn't work, I got so angry I just started circling the piles with red spray paint and writing, shame next to them.
I had to get to the bottom of this. And that's how I met Hamidou Traore. He's head of the Incivility Brigade for the city of Paris. As it turns out, it's been illegal to leave dog poo on the streets here since 1982. But it's hard to change habits, says Traore.
HAMIDOU TRAORE: (Through Translator) There are people who think because they pay their taxes, the street cleaners should clean up behind their dogs. It's a shame this mentality still exists. But we're here to change that.
BEARDSLEY: Around here, dog poo goes by its technical term, canine ejection or ejection canine. And there's a $50 fine for leaving it on the pavement. But of course, you have to catch the offending dog owners.
FRANK CALVET: (Foreign language spoken)
ERIC ROBICHON: Let's go.
BEARDSLEY: Meet Frank Calvet and Eric Robichon, whose job is just that. They're two of the hundred or so of plainclothes inspectors with the Incivility Brigade. And today I am thrilled to accompany them on the job.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS CLOSING)
BEARDSLEY: We arrive in Paris's chic 16th Arrondissement to begin our day. To be fair, Frank and Eric aren't just out looking for canine ejectors. Their task is to find and punish litterers of all kinds. But today, to indulge me, we quickly get down to business, so to speak, and begin following dog walkers. (Foreign language spoken) Just like in the movies, the guys lag casually behind and sometimes duck into doorways so as not to be spotted. We follow several dogs with their owners for over an hour, but none of the dogs has to go. Then all of a sudden we turn a corner and - oh my god, there's a dog pooping right in the middle of the sidewalk. We're going to see if the woman picks it up. She's picking it up. I have to go over and congratulate her. Bonjour, madam.
CLAUDETTE BOCARA: Oui.
BEARDSLEY: Claudette Bocara says you shouldn't own a dog if you don't pick up. (Foreign language spoken) So, I ask her what is in the minds of her fellow citizens who do leave it in the middle of the sidewalk.
BOCARA: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: They're just selfish individualists who don't care about anyone else, she says.
CALVET: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The job of an undercover street inspector is a coveted one, and both Eric and Frank have risen through the ranks to get here. Their current job has turned them into street psychologists. They know which breeds do it most.
FRANK CALVET: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: You can follow a poodle forever, says Frank, and nothing happens. But a Labrador gets right down to business. They've got the negligent owners profiled too, but today must be an exception. Oh my god. (Foreign language spoken) We've been following this guy for about 10 minutes who threw down a lit cigarette. So, we thought he was the type that certainly wouldn't pick up his dog poo. But he did it, he just picked it up. Ah, I finally see Frank and Eric in action, giving a citation, though it's not to a canine ejector.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The man has emptied the trash from his car onto the street. He complains bitterly, saying the street sweepers would have cleaned it up. In the end, he recognizes it was a rather uncivil thing to do. Eric and Frank make a great team. They're insistent yet calm, and always pleasant. (Foreign language spoken) Though they try to console me, I can't help feeling disappointed that in my two forays with them we've never nabbed a canine ejector. I'm starting to believe what they tell me, that most Parisians actually do pick up. But then, as if to add insult to injury, as we're heading back, we nearly step in a steaming pile. And I'm outraged once again. I just cannot believe this. They've just left the pile in the middle of the sidewalk and we didn't even have the pleasure, the satisfaction of catching the person. Looks like if I want any satisfaction at all, I'll have to go back to my spray paint cans. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.