One winter evening 14 years ago I was by myself in the house when the door bell rang. Three men were just departing through the gate but stopped and called  back to me “ Poubelles “. I didn’t understand why they wanted my dustbins. They repeated “Poubelles” but when they could see I didn’t understand they left. I shut the door, but couldn’t stop wondering what the purpose of their visit had been. 

         Slowly, I started to remember something in the excellent book that had helped us so much in our preparations for moving, ‘Living and Working in France’. After much searching I found the part I wanted under ‘Tipping’.

I read the extract with mounting horror, ‘Christmas is generally the time of giving tips to all and sundry, including the postman, rubbish collectors and firemen, who will often call in early December ‘offering’ you a calendar, for which you’re nevertheless expected to pay (unless you don’t want your post delivered, your rubbish collected or any house-fires extinguished for the following 12 months)’ Oh, no! I had just refused to give a tip to my dustmen! Would our rubbish be strewn over the road for all of the next year in retaliation?

Poubelles is a word to rank with Biro, Hoover and Wellingtons because it’s the name of the inventor of the object. Monsieur Eugèné René Poubelle was the Préfet of Paris. In 1884, he ordered that everyone must have a receptacle for their rubbish that must be put outside their doors to facilitate street cleaning. The boxes became known as ‘poubelles’, hence the French word for dustbins.

The dustbin men are called ‘éboueurs’ from the mud that they had to work with in the streets. It’s not a very nice name but whenever I see the dustbin men at work I think it’s much more exciting job here than in the UK. 

In the UK the dustbin men trudge along behind the dustcart. Here they are more ‘macho’ and have a little footplate and a handle at the back of the lorries. After emptying a few bins they hop onto their wagon and ride to the next bins like naughty schoolboys clinging onto the back of an old double decker bus. They don’t seem to be governed by so many health and safety regulations either. The man who empties the big double bins in our cemetery often lifts the whole bin by himself. They are also extremely efficient. Many streets are closed for weekly markets and the rubbish that is left is unbelievable, yet within half an hour of the last stall closing, the streets are pristine again.

For the €1100 we pay our local council we receive an excellent service. (For those British readers with weak hearts and high blood pressures, please skip the next sentence). The bins are emptied 3 times a week. We can also put out our yellow topped recycling bin once a week and that takes plastic bottles, paper, cartons and tins. Strict codes of conduct are expected from residents. We must only put out our bins after 7 p.m. and must take them in as soon as possible after they have been emptied. In our area the bins are emptied at about 5 o’clock in the morning, but I haven’t seen anyone going out at that hour to bring in their bins. 

For bigger items of rubbish such as tree prunings, old furniture and rubble there are 4 municipal dumps located around the city. There are also rubbish skips that are supplied by our local council. When a skip appears in your street it saves you the effort of loading up the car and going to the dump.

There is no household collection of green waste but anyone can get a compost bin for the subsidized price of €15 from the local council. A short time after signing up for one a pick-up truck arrived at our house. The bin was delivered in pieces, but the delivery person also dug over the patch of soil where it was to go, helped to assemble it, gave us an instruction book and then wanted our signatures in triplicate.

The nearest bottle bank is just across the road at the end of the street, but again there is a notice saying ‘7h-22h only’ in case you disturb the neighbourhood with the sounds of breaking glass.

One year when it had been snowing heavily for 2 days, buses have stopped running, classes have been cancelled but some people in the street put out their wheelie-bins. Did they really imagine the ‘éboueurs’ would be at work in temperatures of minus 10 °c?

Fortunately, our bins were emptied during the following year. David Hampshire, the author of the book, was just having his little joke! I did not need to buy a calendar in order to guarantee good service. But of all the jobs in the world from the night soil collectors in India to the rubbish collectors of Cairo, handling everyone else’s waste is the least honoured of all occupations.  Showing our gratitude once a year is right and proper. Was the foolish optimism of my neighbours justified? Yes! The bins were emptied at 5 am even in that bleak mid-winter.

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