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Riding the Paris Metro

Sweaty commuters and firecrackers!

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It was my first time in Paris---actually, at age 15, my first international sojourn---and after a week of intensive morning French classes and afternoons of negotiating huge lines of fellow tourists and letting my mother do all the talking, I finally rode the Paris Metropolitan on my own. It is a testament to how easy the Metro is to navigate that my first worry was not that I would lose my way but what if someone spoke French to me.  By this time, I had hopped on the Number 3 line often enough that I knew by familiarity I was going the right way. The only thing left to stew about was the possibility of some performer taking issue with my orange jacket, Canadian flag pin or scowling face---my first line of defense against the evils I thought lurked on the trains of the Metro.

Nothing happened to me on my trip other than making it to my destination, the steps of the opera, in good time. I think this is when my love for the Paris Metro clicked into place. After my trip I was in thrall to the effortlessness with which the Metro picked you up and dropped you off and never discombobulated your internal orientation. It is the cheapest and easiest way to the major sights of Paris with one-way trips costing €1.50 and including unlimited transfers to and from the 14 different lines.

The only surprises came from the Metro riders themselves.  Mom and I had our share of curious encounters with spirited fellow travellers but never anything that diminished our dependence on the trains. The trains are more reliable than the occasional wacko that rides them so the likelihood of getting back to the hotel in good time was greater than that of being harassed or even just feeling uncomfortable.

Even so, our more tumultuous rides stand out.  One day on the elevated Number 6 line, a man ranted and raved about a racial slight he had received. “How can anyone accuse me of not being a Frenchman,” he said, “I have served in the army!”  The guy clearly had a point but loud voices and strangers are an unnerving combination.

One day a man waved at me which I interpreted to be an example of an overly-amorous boogeyman that gregarious Frenchman has been reduced to and was therefore terrified the rest of the ride. It was while writing this article that I realized that this man may have only spotted someone he knew at the opposite end of the train-car.  I should be so lucky to get a mere wave the next time I visit Paris.

After watching the spectacular Bastille Day fireworks we got on the first available train with the crowd, and as we moved through the city we watched the train start to empty out until there were only a handful of people left. By the time we made our final transfer, we were alone on the platform save for the young men at the opposite end throwing firecrackers to and fro. At least they seemed to be having too good a time to bother us so we sat and, staring straight ahead, we strained our ears listening for the sound of the next train to overwhelm the SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! of the firecrackers.

Jean-Paul Satre’s notion that “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”) is true of public transportation all over the world but the ease of the Metro never makes encounters with other people truly hellish. The most discomfort I felt was in the crush of people during rush hour in July but I found that there was a comfortable distance riders maintained between each other that was forged by an unspoken contract: “I’m sweaty, you’re sweaty and we both just want to get home.  Let’s keep it at that.”

What would public transportation be anyway without the public?  My love for the Paris Metro was forged by its straightforwardness and its dependability---two qualities that shine in a crisis. The convenience of the trains every few minutes or so means that if things get hairy you can just get off at the next station and another train will pick you up again to continue the journey. The next train is usually calm by comparison. Hillary Titley has not been back to Paris since the incidents she described here but she recommends purchasing a Metro Pass such as the Paris Visite for travelling about the city and the outlying area. The Paris Visite offers you unlimited travel on the Metro, bus, tramway, and regional trains for 1-5 days, starts in price at about €18 for one day, takes you as far as Chateau de Versailles and Disneyland Paris and gives you a wicked souvenir to take home.

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