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In Les Misérables Victor Hugo called the Paris sewers the "conscience of the city," because from them all humans look equal. In a small van full of sewer workers about to begin their shift in the 14th arrondissement, Pascal Quignon, a 20-year veteran, is talking of more concrete things—the pockets of explosive gas, the diseases, the monstrous rats rumored to dwell under Chinatown. His father worked in the égouts before him, his grandfather too.

Beside a bookshop in a narrow street we zip into white Tyvek bodysuits and pull on hip waders, whitish rubber gloves, and white helmets. All this white seems unwise, a potentially horrible canvas. Warm, thick air fountains up from the open manhole. Quignon and his colleagues say they notice the smell only when they come back from vacation.

"Ready?" he asks.

In the vaguely egg-shaped tunnel, an endless stream of wastewater burbles along a channel in the floor. On both sides run large water pipes. One carries drinking water to houses and apartments, the other nonpotable water for cleaning streets and sprinkling parks.

Some of the tunnels here date to 1859, when Hugo was finishing Les Misérables. Where tunnels intersect, blue and yellow signs indicate the names of the streets above. I splash along trying not to think of the dark current at my feet, trying not to get anything, anything, on my notebook. Quignon and his partner, Christophe Rollot, shine flashlights into crevices and record the locations of leaking pipes on a handheld computer.

Rollot scrapes his boot through the water and slides it up the wall. "If you look, you can find a lot of stuff," he says. Sewer workers say they have found jewelry, wallets, guns, a human torso. Once Quignon found a diamond. Under the Rue Maurice Ripoche, I feel a jet of water wash over my foot. It came from one of the descending pipes. Someone has just flushed onto my boot.


Beneath the Opéra Garnier, the old opera house, is a space that many Parisians dismiss as a rumor. As the foundation was laid in the 1860s, engineers struggling to drain water from the sodden earth ended up simply impounding it in a reservoir 60 yards long and 12 feet deep. This underground pond, which figures in The Phantom of the Opera, is home to several plump fish: Opera employees feed them frozen mussels. One afternoon I watch firefighters practice underwater rescues there. They emerge shining like seals in their wet suits and talking of a leviathan.

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