Urban Legends in France: The (Made-up) Myths of Parisian Popular Culture
- Published on Wednesday, 08 June 2016 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Paris Is Flooded!
The Pont Neuf on Saturday, June 4. Yes, there really are men at work — inventing ridiculous new rumors that will spread like wildfire. Or floodwater.
In Paris this past week, the elephant in the room was the elevation in the river. After the rainiest May on record, the Seine rose to alarming heights, bursting its banks in many places.
At the sight of all that roiling, debris-laden water, most Parisians were reminded of the historic flood of 1910, which turned the city’s low-lying streets into canals and the Métro system into a giant sewer with turnstiles (as explained by one of France’s least respected historians here).
Personally, I was reminded of a specious story that I have heard several times, most recently from one of my coworkers. For some reason, the topic of the big flood came up at the office a few months ago, and the guy at the next computer informed us all that “because of that first disaster, the city has a huge secret underground garage somewhere with hundreds of cement trucks that they leave parked there all the time, with their mixers full, so that if the Seine floods again they can plug all the Métro entrances with concrete right away.”
There are so many things wrong with this notion that I don’t even know where to start. So I’ll start with starting the trucks: you can’t leave vehicles sitting idle for years on end (let alone decades, as was implied) and expect them all to function perfectly when a once-in-a-century emergency finally arises.
Secondly, you can’t leave wet cement in a non-moving mixer for even a week without it hardening.
Thirdly, plugging a single Métro entrance would take a phenomenal amount of concrete, especially because the stuff would just keep flowing farther and farther into the tunnel unless there were some kind of barrier blocking the way — a more or less watertight wall that would also more or less block the flood water, negating the need for concrete.
Fourthly, the flood would only last for a matter of days, after which all those Métro entrances would be sealed with a material that can only be removed with jackhammers and that fuses with the underlying surfaces, rendering them unrecoverable. The excavation and rebuilding would take years and cost millions.
Despite such objections (which that day also included a fifthly, sixthly and seventhly) my office mate, otherwise a very intelligent person, stuck to his story, determined to believe what is obviously an urban legend.
Thinking back on that conversation made me wonder: what other preposterous but unkillable rumors have become a part of the Parisian collective consciousness? Since I didn’t know and would rather eat Seine silt (which is now in plentiful supply) than do any actual research, I decided to emulate the myth-mongers and make some up out of whole cloth in...
The C’est Ironique Anthology of Parisian Urban Legends
1) The poodle and the microwave
There was this kind of dotty old lady who lived in Paris with her beloved dog, a poodle named Léon. One day Léon rolled around a little too much in the park and came home from his walk filthy and reeking of mulch and cigarette butts.
Instead of giving him a bath, the woman, of course, wanted to spray him with perfume. But rather than use one of her own fragrances, she decided to mix up a special dog cologne using ingredients she had in the kitchen.
After five tries, she came up with a really nice-smelling concoction by infusing fruit peels and various spices in vodka, heated in her microwave. In fact, it smelled so good that she started making it in batches and selling it to perfume shops around town.
Needing a trademark, she named the scent after her dog, calling it “Chien L. No. 5.” It was a huge hit among Parisian pet owners, including a young, struggling dress designer who was looking for a spinoff product that would make her fashion label better known.
That, of course, was Gabrielle “Coco” Dior, who bought the rights to the formula and changed her last name to Chanel so it would sound more like the name of her first successful product.
But the scent’s original inventor never got to reap the rewards of her innovation. The day her six-million-franc check for the licensing fee arrived in the mail, she died of multiple spider bites from a swarm of black widows that had built a nest in the pom-pom of fur on Léon’s tail.
2) Albino alligators in the Catacombs
There was this woman, a guide at the Catacombs, who went on vacation to Florida and bought a small taxidermied alligator. When she got back to Paris, she realized that the reptile clashed with the color scheme of her apartment, but rather than just throw it out, she stripped off its skin and took it to the bespoke service of a haute couture house, which made her a very attractive handbag from the hide.
Since it was before Labor Day (Jour de la Bourre) when this happened, the artisans dyed the leather white. The woman’s new clutch looked so stylish with her work uniform that she started a fad among the other guides, and today the Catacombs are literally swarming with white alligator accessories.
3) The babysitter and the roast
There was this teenage girl in Paris who smoked a lot of dope. One day her neighbors hired her to babysit their 10-month-old infant. On their way out, the parents left her careful instructions:
“There’s a beef roast in the refrigerator. We’ll be back at nine o’clock tonight. At eight-thirty sharp, put the baby to bed and put the roast in the oven on the highest heat so it will be ready for our dinner when we get home.”
The babysitter torched joints all afternoon and was really zoned by early evening. When the parents came home, they found the baby fed, bathed, diapered and sound asleep, and the beef roast, perfectly cooked, sitting on the dining room table.
But when the wife went into the kitchen, she screamed and fainted. When he went to see what was wrong, the husband collapsed to his knees, writhing in revulsion and horror: the girl had put the cheese platter in the refrigerator!
And the red wine! The entire dinner was ruined!
4) The kidney thieves
There was this guy in Paris who had a little too much to drink at his local café-tabac one night, staggered home and accidentally left his door unlocked. The next morning he woke up naked in his bathtub, which was filled with ice.
Next to the tub he found his cell phone and a note saying, “Call an ambulance right away and DON’T MOVE!” There was also a bottle of champagne in the ice and a national health insurance reimbursement form stapled to the note.
The ambulance took him to the hospital, where they found out that someone had surgically removed one of his kidneys! So the man sent in his reimbursement form and received €30,000 in compensation.
Because of the unusual circumstances of his case, he was offered full hospitalization coverage free of charge and put at the top of the list for transplants. Two days later he was wheeled into the operating room and given a new kidney.
Then came the real shocker. A DNA comparison carried out to confirm compatibility between organ donors and recipients revealed some incredible news: he had gotten his own kidney back!
Released from the clinic in perfect health, €30,000 richer and in no danger of rejecting his transplant, he went home to celebrate — with the champagne that the thieves had left him. But when he popped the cork it hit him right in the eye, hurting him so badly he decided he’d better go back to the emergency room.
Half blinded on the way out of his building, he didn’t see a pile of fresh dog poop, slipped on it, fell right into the path of a motor scooter speeding on the sidewalk and suffered a severe head injury.
An ambulance came to get him, but it got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a demonstration of striking transit workers and by the time they reached the hospital the man had bled to death.
His last words were, “No one will ever believe this.”
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