Life in a Paris Metro

Commuting on the French capital’s busy train lines can be an experience that feels humbling and also universal.  
Photo by: Horacio Villalobos-Corbis/Contributor/Getty Images
Photo by: Horacio Villalobos-Corbis/Contributor/Getty Images

A few days before my brief stay in Paris this September, I was lurking online amongst the good people of the internet, as you do anytime you want your productivity to hit sub-zero levels, when I chanced upon a reddit communiqué. It was an extended rant, which the internet claims proficiency in. “So you’re going to take the metro in Paris this summer,” said the author before launching into a list of around 20 dos and don’ts for the inexperienced visitor.

The tips were pithy, useful and couched in exasperated irony. On personal hygiene: “Take a shower, god dammit. If the train is crowded I could end up closer to your body than your girlfriend.” On how to behave: “If you’re not sure whether you’re in the way or not, you’re in the way.” On being lost: “You can ask a Parisian for help but please start with a ‘bonjour.’ We will feel bad about your accent and feel obliged to help you.”

Bless the writer’s heart because each time I scurried down the stairs of a train station in the French capital subsequently, those words rang true. My hotel, near the Place de la République square, stood right next to the entry point to République, a stop that served four metro lines. For three days, this was my central command centre to navigate the city.

Under République’s white-tiled, brightly lit dome, I would perch myself on a Motte seat (one among different styles of seating architecture in subway stops across Paris) and make my mental calculations, staring at a map of crisscrossing coloured lines. “Switch over from the purple to the pink line. Wait, which one’s the yellow line again? Change three different lines? Hell, no!”

In the subterranean world, Paris shed some of its polished sheen. Mass transportation has a way of doing that to even the most advanced of cities. Rats skipped jauntily across tracks, the homeless made themselves at home in corners and, come nightfall, public urination was the right of mischief-makers.

Not that there weren’t signs of elegance and artistry. At Châtelet, a violinist’s mournful rendition of “Habanera” from Carmen almost made me miss my train. The word search mural at Concorde, designed by Francoise Schein to spell out the Declaration of the Rights of Man from the French Revolution, was as much of a time sink. I could have gazed admiringly for hours at Place des Abbesses’s art nouveau iron-and-glass awning on the entrance. But that would have meant climbing the station’s winding staircase—a feat as gruelling as a Stairmaster workout.

Within a span of three to four journeys, the metro had become my safe space. Franz Kafka famously observed, “The metro is the best way for foreigners to imagine they’ve a quick, correct grasp of the essence of Paris.” The key, of course, is that it is “imagined”—an illusory feeling of belonging that travel lulls a person into.

At museums, public squares and historic monuments, being the rootless flaneur can feel reassuring. Everyone in these places is from somewhere else. In restaurants and cafés, if you stood out as the other, you could argue that the newness was the whole point.

But in the underground rail system, a refuge of workaday men and women, clueless tourists are an intrusion. Perhaps it’s the result of living in Mumbai, a city full of high-strung commuters, that has made me sensitive to this fragile temperament.

So every time I stepped into a train in Paris, the reddit commandments scrolled silently in my mind. My attempt was to be nonchalant and unobtrusive, give the distinct impression that I have been jumping into and out of these metallic grey coaches forever.

On one Saturday evening, I had to amend my plans en route to Saint-German following a sudden shower. Sprinting out to the nearest metro stop, I arrived at the ticket gate and forgot a crucial commandment: “Searching for your ticket right in front of the gate is NOT OK.” Eventually, I fished out my ticket from my drenched satchel butafter I had borne the full consternation of my fellow passengers.

Obviously I had some distance to go before perfecting the Parisian metro etiquette. To the redditor who had so painstakingly tried, I can only submit a sincere “pardonnez-moi.

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    Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

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