I spot the museum from across the street. I bounce inside and see two mid-age men in blue sweaters and caps behind the counter. Trying to hide my surprise, I exclaim that I’m here to visit the museum. “Welcome!” they reply. We all laugh.
At that moment I knew I was in for a treat. I was a long way from contemporary art galleries where hip young art students sit behind round glasses and glass counters, grudgingly interrupting their reading to sell tickets. I was at the Musée des égouts de Bruxelles and these men, unlikely museum workers perhaps, were former sewer workers (égoutiers).
I take advantage of being the only visitor to start a conversation. We marvel at how far our countries are from one another. We discuss humid vs. dry cold and ice fishing. The older man, in his 60s and sporting a T-bar moustache, doesn’t see the charm of ice fishing; the younger one, in his early 40s and never without a smile on his face, thinks his patience makes him an ideal candidate for the sport.
Since their youth, these men have worked for the city in and around sewers. At the age of 15, they became sewer worker apprentices. The older one specialized in bricklaying and spent the next 38 years replacing bricks and pre-fab basins, and injecting liquid cement into cracks and holes. A grandfather to three children, he could retire tomorrow, especially given all the body aches and sores he accumulated on the job… bending over in tunnels less than a metre high, working on all fours. He’s already had one hip replaced, and waits for the other, thanks to his wife’s private insurance. But he won’t retire yet. He loves to work.
The younger one specialized in cleaning. He drove a wagon-vanne (a gliding mechanical car) through the city’s 350 km network of collectors pushing sands, mud and crass from point A to point B. Off the job, he was in a car accident that left one of his wrists inflexible and barely responsive. I ask him how the accident changed his life. He says he’s given up the guitar and drums, and most of the sports he once practiced. But I still sing, he says with a smile. His co-worker nods in agreement.
The accident also affected his work. With such a wrist, he couldn’t drive the wagon-vanne or work in the sewers. As he tells it, the city wanted him to retire early. But he wanted to stay, and slammed his fist on a superior’s desk to prove it. That’s when the city moved him from the underground to the aboveground in its sewer division office. He was relieved. He had never liked working underground.
I wonder, but don’t ask, whether these job transfers implied salary adjustments and if so, were they in favour of the workers. A moment later, the younger man starts talking about quality of life. He argues that life and the economy were better with the Belgian Franc. The older man listens and counter-argues.
Older man: Maybe, but it’s all relative. We still live better here than in Poland.
Younger man: Yes, okay, but we don’t make that much money and life isn’t necessarily easier here than over there.
Older man: Yes, but we have a certain quality of life here.
The younger man thinks about this: If by that you mean we have lots of stuff to consume, okay, I agree.
Older man: Yeah, and none of that is really important … Is it? The younger man nods, his eyes expressive, as though to say, this is what I meant all along.
The older man’s shift ends. We say our goodbyes.
I start walking through the exhibition. Sewer history is fascinating. It’s about industrialization, urbanization, engineering and mega projects, labour, risk, and our relationship to water and waste. The younger worker finds me in one of the underground exhibit rooms to tell me that there are only 30 minutes left to closing time and that we should visit the collector and canalized Senne River. And so, we enter a humid corridor and he tells me about the millions of rats that eat one-third of the garbage in Brussels’ sewers. Handy little buggers!
Small tunnels, named after the streets above, carry water under us. A small portion of the canal is open to visitors. We walk its deck. My guide sees me touching the railing and suggests I keep my hands to myself. Thirty seconds later, I touch the rail. Touching rails and other public things is something I do all the time. Sewers are dirty places, he reminds me. Despite receiving regular vaccinations, égoutiers fall sick all the time. Heightened exposure to bacteria and gaseous emanations will do that. As though I remind him of why, he tells me that menstruating women are especially vulnerable to disease, and, for this reason, women don’t work as égoutières in Brussels. For whatever reason, women sewer workers are rare. And not just in Brussels. Once outside the collector, my guide suggests I wash my hands.
We finish the visit in the room dedicated to the men who work the sewers. I take a picture of him (and promise not to post it online). He takes one of me with a uniform he once wore. “Even after having four showers and a change of clothes, when you take the bus after work, people … [he lowers his head, and walks away].” Waterproof, reflective uniforms were introduced in the 2000s. I can’t imagine how important this change must have been.
It’s already past closing time; we exchanges good wishes and I leave.