I mentioned my love for the glorious Paris Metro while talking with a French man the other day. He simply couldn’t comprehend it. He made that face reserved for food you don’t like, and informed me that the Metro smelled. “It smells”, he said but his face said, “Urgh, you like something that smells”. It was difficult to make a comeback after that. He had made me feel like a beastly outcast who rolls around in toenails and licks cat hair off the floor (god, it’s not like I said I like the RER).
It was too late to change his mind about me, but I could still save face for the Metro. Ah, the Metro: practical, stylish and affordable, an example in efficiency and a veritable free, daily theatre, where every aspect of life is recreated underground and for all to see.
Genuine scenes of animal interaction are silently played out as privileged positions are contended and personal space is defended. Plus real, live entertainment of all kinds can surprise you at any moment. Sometimes people actually join in; either with the performer and his music (I’ve seen whole carriages come to life (granted, they are usually tourists, but they’re real people too!)) or with fellow passengers enjoying a good old collective tut because it’s repetitive or unwanted or simply because they’ve had a long day and can’t I just go home without this racket lordy, lordy? It’s thoroughly entertaining.
The morning routine is enacted as women do their hair and make up – even the windows serve as mirrors between stations. I once witnessed a woman expertly tweezing her beard at about 120 hairs per minute: a skill at the best of times, but on a fold-down seat with an intimate audience of about 25, no mirror and her own, spit-flecked running commentary, it’s quite a feat.
We do it all in the comfort of our own metro. We inhabit it. We do as we please. Meals are eaten. Deals are made. Telephone conversations of the utmost emotional significance take place. Couples quarrel and kiss. Friends say hello and goodbye. Parties are started. Nights out are wrapped up. We even go to sleep on it – you wouldn’t do that in a restaurant or at the dentist would you? Noses are picked and nails are filed. We tap on our laptops and listen to music as loud as we like.
Yet despite this flagrant free-for-all, I am so proud of my fellow humans for being able to act so civilized especially in times of extreme passenger density. Of course, there are nicer things than having one’s face thrust repeatedly into a stranger’s woolly armpit for six stops, but we suck it up and think no more of it. We are bigger and better than to go postal on someone just because they held their head at the wrong angle (mouthful of afro) or elbowed us in the cheekbone (we’ll just go postal on someone we know later, for no apparent reason). It’s part of the city and part of our day!
It’s a disgusting and delicious peek at people, a chance to do that most basic of human responses (stare at people for a bit, make ridiculous comparisons with ourselves based on wildly inappropriate assumptions about them, then pretend we’re not looking). It’s also a great way to get around.
Within the city, you are never more than a five-minute walk from a metro station (except for my particular place of work – yet, for a mere ten minutes, I get a choice of six stations, with the option of five different lines. Amazing). You also rarely have to wait longer than three minutes for your train. I did however once get to a station at a not-ungodly hour of the day and was shocked to see I had to wait for a mind-boggling seven minutes (though it only took me two of them to get over it).
Sometimes it feels like a fairground ride as it lurches upward into the light of day and over the Seine, offering a glimpse of the sumptuous city, then screeches round a corner and drops back into the dark.
It’s a bargain at under 30€ per month (your company pays the other half), and for that you can also jump on buses and trams. It’s busy ’til late and runs later at weekends. And it buzzes at night with the day’s debriefings. Managing to catch the last metro home fills me with such joy and gratitude that I am incited to actual love for my fellow passengers and all the surprising qualities they must have and all the wonderful things they must do.
And despite the strikingly strong smell of urine which accompanies your change at some stations (line seven at Place d’Italie deserves a special mention), there are works of art and informative exhibits at others, with some stations decorated uniquely and beautifully like line 11 at Arts and Métiers, line one at Franklin D Roosevelt, and outside at Musée du Louvre where you find the quirky Kiosque des Noctambules.
OK, so this is descending into a fact-file, which I do not want it to be. I simply wanted to tell the guy who didn’t understand, why I love this marvellous system and how lucky we are to have it.
I guess he appreciated my arguments, but I also guess he’ll forevermore think of me as the person who admitted to loving something that smells.