Paris’ street-sweeping heroes

Photography often makes me adopt some strange positions. Such was the case when I slithered on my belly along Paris’ Seine river to frame this shot.

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So engrossed was I in my task that I barely registered the sound of the street-sweeping vehicle approaching from behind, nor did I notice it stopping.

“Is everything alright, madame?” I saw the man’s boots first, then his uniform, and finally his masked faced. I felt a bit stupid as I stood up and explained that I was suffering for my art taking a photo.

He sometimes took photos too, he said, pulling out his phone. He flipped through shots he had taken while running an 850-kilometer (528-mile) race last year to raise funds for displaced children. “I came in third in my age group,” he beamed. “Wait. Let me show you …” There he was, standing on the winners’ podium. “And this is me, in my new suit, meeting President [François] Hollande!”

He told me he hadn’t always been a runner. He removed his mask and pointed to his right cheek. “See this scar? I used to be a firefighter. When I was in my 20s I responded to a commercial fire on the rue de Rivoli. We didn’t know there were gas canisters in the basement. They exploded, and I was severely burned.” He pulled back his cap to show me his scarred scalp. “I started running as part of my therapy,” he said.

“But even so, you used it to benefit others,” I said. “You’re quite a humanitarian — a real hero!” He simply shrugged and asked whether I would take his photo in front of Notre Dame.

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It wasn’t until after Roger and I parted ways that two thoughts struck me: First, the fact that a seemingly humble job often belies the richness of a man’s life. And second, that even as a street-sweeper Roger was still serving his fellow citizens.

The next day I got up even earlier and glimpsed how the quays along the Seine would look, if not for Roger and his colleagues.

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It enraged me that the partiers could not be bothered to use the empty garbage bin that was literally two feet away.

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Seeing the sweepers swerve to clear the piles of trash at least solved a mystery that had long haunted me, though: “What are those strange trails of water on the quays?” Until now I’d imagined roving packs of giant drunken snails.

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Although it’s too late to personally thank Roger for his work, here is my ode of gratitude to the multitude of women and men who get up long before dawn …

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… to give the rest of us a pristine view of Paris.

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And here’s one final pro tip for you: If you hear street-sweepers in Paris, follow them! They are wonderful people, and the water-slicked sidewalks they leave behind offer some equally wonderful reflections.

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    • I am afflicted with an incurable curiosity about people, J. P. — especially when they are as remarkable (yet unassuming) as Roger. His story was a wonderful reminder of the impact a seemingly ordinary life can have.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Gerri! There are so many unsung heroes like Roger in our ordinary lives, aren’t there?

  1. Wow this is a nice touching story! Funny that a small job or activity can have such a big impact on people’s lives, whether u taking a photo or Roger sweeping the streets! If only we all do these small things and share them and look at the world from thus perspective, the world would be a better place!

    • You’ve said it perfectly, Maylynn: The world would be a better place if we could all walk a mile in each others’ shoes. I feel immensely privileged to have met Roger, and that he shared his story. It was one of the highlights of my trip!

  2. I love this: “…the fact that a seemingly humble job often belies the richness of a man’s life.” Everyone has a story, if we take the time to listen. Such a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing.

    • You’ve made my day with your kind comment, Tasha — I’m so honored this spoke to you! Meeting Roger was a wonderful reminder of the positive influence we can each have, simply by living our lives. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  3. Great post. Isn’t it amazing the people we meet while out in the world. Its one of the many reasons we travel along the back roads of America. The stories are wonderful and we are always shaking our heads especially with scenes such as the trash feet away from a receptacle. Why do people do some of the things they do is a question we’ll never find the answer too.

    • Well said! I’m endlessly amazed (and dismayed) by the things people do — but thank goodness there are folks like Roger out there, working every day to set the world to rights. Like you, I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel because being out of my routine and comfort zone makes me more receptive to experiences like this one. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  4. What gorgeous photos and what a lovely man. Street sweepers are the bedrock of a civilised world – we’d soon sink into layers of swirling rubbish if they stopped doing their job so well. Were you able to give Roger a copy of your photo? I imagine it would take pride of place in his house – aside from your usual light capturing magic, it shows him looking cheery and dignified, in front of Notre Dame.

    He’s part of Paris’ ‘proprété’ team, isn’t he? I’ve seen they have a website where you can ask questions through Twitter (at the bottom of their page in ‘Paris, j’écoute’) so they might be able to tell you how to get a print to him. There can’t be tons of Rogers cleaning on the banks of the Seine, and the photo does identify him. It’s always a treat to get a beautiful photo through the post. If he has children they’d love it too. The proprété site is here: They’ve got ‘la newsletter’ to sign up to too!

    Saw the website on this blog – full of interesting things about water and Paris

    Thank you so much for taking the time to introduce us to Roger and to light up our screens with your photos. Paris is lucky to have you recording it so lovingly.

    • My goodness, what a TREASURE you are! I was on a tight schedule the day I met Roger, so I didn’t have the presence of mind to exchange contact info with him — but thanks to your resourcefulness I now have hope of sending him a print (or at least an email). Merci infiniment !! And thank you also for that link to Parisian Fields. Although I follow and love this blog, I’d somehow missed this post. But thanks to you now I know what these little street-spigots are called — and where their water comes from! Marvelous. But most of all, thank you for your kind words, and for honoring me with your continued readership. Hearing from you always brightens my day.

      • Do let us know how you get on in finding him. It’ll be a bit like a travelling French photographer coming to your home town, getting into conversation and then making a beautiful portrait of you with a well-known landmark in the background. You’d be thrilled if they shared the photo with you. I doubt if Roger’s friends take a lot of photos of Notre Dame, not in the enthusiastic way that visitors do – its beauty is glorious novelty to us, but everyday and expected to them.

        • My missive has been sent, SbE — and I will indeed let you know of any response! And you’re so right about the locals not taking photos of Notre Dame (at least not with the same level of enthusiasm). I was talking recently with an American friend who moved there several years ago and who was despairing at how inured he has become to Paris’ beauty. I confessed that the same is true of me in my own city. Perhaps it’s inevitable to take the familiar for granted, unless we made a deliberate and concerted effort otherwise.

  5. The story sounds so “you.” Finding the personal in a big city makes the whole encounter a lesson for us all. Dismaying to know the trash problem is everywhere–thanks to those who help keep things beautiful for us all.

    • Trash is indeed a problem everywhere — and sadly, especially in Paris. But as you observe, thank goodness for people like Roger who toil around the clock to clean up after the inconsiderates. Thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words. xx

  6. What a lovely, human, heartwarming post, thank you. I have always felt that road sweepers and bin men were some of the most valuable and least valued people in society. Your pictures are fab, I only hope your heroic fire-/streetsweeping man sees them. Are you going ot post his picture anywhere else? And what a great idea too for a blog-post-picture-safari – except austerity has bitten so hard here it’s impossible to tell when the street sweepers will be around next. Sigh.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and buoying comment — you’ve simply made my day! My friend Elaine in Brighton (who is also very thoughtful) sent me the link to the Paris Proprieté department where Roger works, so I’ll try to get in touch that way. Given his quiet demeanor I expect he’ll be a bit surprised by all the fuss, though. 😉 On a more serious note, I’m very sorry to read that austerity has gone so far in your corner of the world as to impact street-sweeping. That is indeed worthy of a big sigh. Here’s to brighter skies ahead …

    • You know more about life adventures than probably anyone else I know, Tom. 😉 Thank you for the kind words!

  7. Could this be the most important man in Paris? Because without him (and those like him) the city would surely be overrun in trash. Who’d want to visit then?

    • Perhaps, Jim, yes — this *is* the most important man in Paris! Sadly, even in spite of his efforts the city is overrun by trash, and by the rats that are feasting upon said trash. If I didn’t know a thing or two about zoonoses I might have found the rotund rodents’ antics kind of charming …

  8. Great photos. I loved the first one in particular. But just don’t get run over for the sake of art!!
    The story of your friend leaves so many questions…..850km race is amazing, regardless of how long it ran! THAT takes dedication, in addition to the heart. It’d be nice to know why he picked the charity, that race. A better man than I am, Gunga Din.

    • I had a zillion questions for Roger too, Jeff — including the ones you asked. Sadly, (1) my French is rather marginal, and (2) I was already running late for an appointment. But if I ever run into him again I’ll be prepared with my written questionnaire. 🙂 Thank you, as always, for your kind words.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Alison! I tried to remember to “get down” more often on this trip and was (mostly) pleased with the results. If nothing else, it added a bit of variety to my shots. Thank you for stopping by!

  9. I love the shot that was the cause of the discussion – very clever! And what a lovely simple snapshot of a life that you captured in your dialogue with him. It’s also nice to see shots of a place I’ve visited! (although I was never up early). Were you staying nearby to Notre Dame?

    • I think it’s kind of charming and funny that my photographic exploits led to this exchange as well. And … why yes, yes, we were staying near Notre Dame. Right across the river, in fact. While we didn’t care for the street noise (%@$! scooters), it was a treat to hear the cathedral’s bells toll every day. Thank you for your kind comment, Terry — I’m always honored when you stop by.

  10. Oh Heide, what a wonderful and inspiring post! I love everything about it…the lengths you will go to for a great frame and the way you approach strangers, who become strangers to you no more. Such an inspiring tale of a simple yet profound man. Wishing you a glorious day which undoubtedly you will have, as you always approach life with sheer optimism. Thank you for sharing it with us. x

    • My dear Rochelle … THANK YOU. Thank you for your generous spirit and kind words. You are such a ray of sunshine! I wish you a glorious day too, in your corner of the world. xx

  11. One of my favorite posts you’ve done yet, Heide – thank you! Love this man’s story, his photo, and his humanitarian actions anchored to a stable seeming inner viewpoint. What a great set of photos to match a beautiful story =))

    • You sure know how to make a gal’s day, Lara. Thank you! I can’t take too much credit, though, because it was Roger who supplied the life story — and life lessons, too. Good to know there are folks like him out there, isn’t it? xx

      • You read my mind – so glad to hear of and meet people like this. To be genuine, goodhearted, generous natured, humble, and grounded – love this in people. Thank you for sharing his story!

        • “Genuine, goodhearted, generous natured, humble, and grounded.” What a wonderful list of attributes, Lara! I think you’re teaching all these things by example. xx

    • What a kind comment, Maya — thank you! And you are so right that it’s amazing how much richer our experience can be if only we slow down a bit and listen. Thank you for stopping by!

  12. What a beautiful story! It’s amazing when you are open to listening how much strangers will share. How true, too, that looks are so deceiving, both the clean streets, leaving only a damp clue of the earlier waste and this lovely man, a hero in my book, humbling cleaning up after disrespectful revelers. How sweet that you took his photo. I hope through serendipity that he one day finds this post. Thank you for sharing his story, and for putting our own unique perspective on the experience.

    • What a lovely comment. Thank you so much! I’m honored that Roger’s story spoke to you … just as it did to me. I’m still hoping to connect with him through the city’s website. But absent that, I will make a print of the photo and bring it on my next trip, in hopes of another serendipitous encounter.

      • Oh my gosh that gives me goosebumps! Wouldn’t that be amazing, meeting up with him again. Here’s my little story. I was in Paris in 1989. Part of the time I traveled alone, and part of the time I would meet up with other people and we would hit the road for a few days. I was at the top of a Paris subway station where we assisted a young American (he was 21 at the time, I was 29). We ended up inviting him to join us, and we all hung out for a few days before we all went our separate ways. About 15 years later I was with a friend at a store near Legoland and a man that seemed familiar walked by, looked at me, then looked again. We both had a sense that the other was familiar, but it took a series of questions to realize how we knew each other: Paris! What a terrific coincidence.

        • What a wonderful story — and what a terrific coincidence indeed! My gosh. Now I’M the one wearing the goosebumps! 🙂

          I must say that chance encounters — and the friendships they sometimes spark — are one of my favorite things about traveling. Glad you were able to rekindle at least one of yours, even if only in passing.

  13. Cleaners of all kinds are the unsung heros of all time – without them we’d all be sick with horrible diseases. They are our first lines of defence 🙂

    • You are so right, Byddi! One more reason to celebrate these hard-working folk. Thank you so much for stopping by!

      • My pleasure. I see you stooped by my wordpress blog too – thank you but please know Blogger hosts my blog now – Hope you don’t mind the redirection! I’m still trying to figure out how to manage that.

        • I don’t mind the redirection one bit, Byddi. My blog is redirected too. 🙂 I’ll make a note of your “correct” address, tho. Cheers!

  14. I am in the process of moving to a new house in Léon, Nicaragua. This is such a beautiful city, with art, music, architecture, universities etc. but the streets are notoriously littered with trash. I have talked to my neighbors and businesses in the area and asked if they would mind keeping their street front cleaner. I have also offered jobs to some of the homeless kids in the area to help with the task.

    • How wonderful, Erik — what a perfect way to model the change you wish to see in the world. I hope your positive efforts will have ripple effects that will extend well past your own block! And best wishes with your big move, too.

  15. You have clicked such beautiful photos of Paris…I haven’t been there yet, so viewing photos, videos or tv shows about the beautiful city of love and fashion, are the sources to know about it… Your pics have given a really different perspective than what is otherwise popularly known.
    Acknowledging the hard work of common people is an awesome trait of personality. How nice of you to think upon this.
    Have a great day ahead!!

    • What a kind comment. Thank you! I’ve been fortunate to go to Paris several times, and on every visit I try to get a level or two deeper beyond the touristy veneer. It is an endlessly complex and fascinating city — and as Roger proves, so are its people.

    • Thank you, Yann! Not sure I’d do it again — I was filthy afterward — but it was worth the one shot.

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