The Paris Metro

This post was written by admin on January 12, 2009
Posted Under: Daily Paris

The Paris Métro is a necessary evil. Its sixteen lines cover over one hundred and thirty miles stopping by more than three hundred stations (conveniently pour moi, one of those is directly outside my apartment). With 4.5 million users a day you can kiss goodbye to your normal boundaries of personal space but at least with the knowledge that nobody else really cares to be there either.

paris metro

Securing Oneself

If you’re taking a single line across many stops your best strategy is to try and secure one of the inner seats away from the door openings. From here you can sit relatively unbothered unless you have long gangly legs like mine that get in the way of the person you’re facing opposite. The tacit etiquette of the pull-down seats next to the door is such that if too many people start jumping on, then you should stand up and give some space and priority to those on their feet. In practice this only works about fifty percent of the time. If you have to stand I advise grabbing hold of something if at all possible (this is where height and high grasps become an advantage). Failure to secure oneself can result in embarrassing brushes with complete strangers as I experienced first hand after being catapulted and thrust towards a woman with full frontal body contact. I apologised, stepped backwards, anchored my legs in a wide stance, but was embarrassingly hurled in slow motion back towards her for a second volley – squish.

On the subject of ‘securing oneself’ in the other sense, I’ve heard stories of pick-pocketing although do not personally know anybody who has been a victim. I’d apply sensible caution and make sure you have nothing valuable in a loose pocket or bag. I recall standing on a crowded metro last summer and a small American family called out within earshot of everybody in the carriage “everybody, hands in pockets, keep hold of your valuables!” It seemed like the perfect ‘how to make yourself a victim’ advertisement to me. I also recall the tourist who walked around with an uncased Nikon D2x (a pricey camera) hung loosely over his shoulder as he walked around the underground. Again it’s unlikely anybody would take it, but better safe than sorry.

What to Do with your Eyes

Depending on your disposition, you may consciously have to decide what you’re going to do with your eyes. If I can, I gaze blankly through the window, but sometimes positioning can prevent this and you either have to pick a spot that doesn’t look like you’re brazenly staring at somebody, or you can simply look downwards. The latter has given me insight into Parisian footwear; the youths opting for trendy new trainers and the more mature in shiny polished leather shoes. It’s in these moments that I look down at my old tatty trainers or shoes (the sum total of my footwear collection that probably have a good twenty years combined life between them), and realise their decay lends little to their life expectancy.

I can’t bring my eyes to meet the walls because a certifiable interior designer has created something that best resembles that flash of your own eyes’ network of capillaries, after the optician has commanded you keep your eyes wide open for one minute (at the same time scorching your retinas with the equivalent of a 42-led flashlight).

paris metro train interior

If I bring my eyes up to the window it’s usually too dark to see anything other than the reflection of everybody else who is in the train. Should your gaze meet with another ‘reflection watcher’ it can induce that momentary flicker of uncomfortableness as two ghostly reflections connect.

I’ve sometimes taken to looking at the names of the stops above the opening doors and committing them to memory, but this can give the affect of starring at somebody and has resulted in some starring back.

The Strong Pincer Effect

Through my idle metro gazes I have also become very familiar with the little rabbit guy who warns about sticking your fingers in the door due to the strong pincer effect (the French warning is more descriptive than the English, although the illustration gives the general gist no matter what language you speak). I was on the train one day when I saw a lady’s arm stuck in the door. She didn’t wail but she did look uncomfortable, then her young son started crying until a couple of seconds later another lady on the outside prised open the doors for her. I’d hate to imagine what might happen if the safety mechanism didn’t kick in and the train took off.

rabbit, pincer, trapped hands, metro

Fare Avoidance

If you buy a weekly pass it operates from Monday until Sunday, so if you buy it midweek you could be wasting your money and may wish to opt for ‘un carnet’ (pronounced kar-nay – don’t hit the ‘t’ or you won’t be understood), which is a reduced price for ten tickets. Be sure to have a small passport sized photograph of yourself to include (you might need to ask for one of the small free plastic wallets to put it in), write down the number of your ticket on the accompanying identity card too; I assume the whole identity thing is to prevent other people from using your ticket. If you’re using single tickets, keep the ticket on you, even after you’ve passed through the barrier because the ‘ticket police’ do check from time to time and it would bring momentary joy to their day to impose a fine upon you. Let’s keep them perpetually miserable.

Fare avoidance is common place. I guess if you do it often enough it would offset the cost of any fines although for those of us who buy our tickets, it does leave a small taste of resentment. Those stations that simply employ a turnstile offer weak resistance to a simple leapfrog of free passage, but more often than not there’s a large gate just beyond it. Occasionally you’ll feel somebody lining themselves up and getting really close up behind you and they’ll squeeze themselves through, unannounced on your ticket. I’ve seen this happen many a time, although it has not happened to me yet, but it does remind me of a story.

I’d gone down to the station outside my apartment which was particularly quiet on this day. A slightly plump young girl, ahead of me, walked towards the top of the stairs that led down to the turnstile, but there she stopped and waited. As I reached the stairs myself I got the distinct impression she was a fare dodger. I descended at speed and could hear her following, so with my long legs started taking the steps two at a time with ticket in hand and arm outstretched so I could push myself through the stile and gate with maximum efficiently. I could hear the echo of her footsteps quicken, trying desperately to match my impossible pace. My ticket went in with accurate precision; I strove through both stile and gate and sat myself down. After a minute had gone by I surreptitiously caught a glimpse of her in my periphery vision and she was caught like a mouse in a humane trap, held prisoner between the stile and the gate unable to move forwards or backwards. Another minute later and a kind soul let her through with the use of their ticket as I glimpsed down and pretended to be using my mobile phone to avoid the evil glare she must have been bearing down on me. My mean Parisian streak is finally beginning to show!

Metro Entertainment and Begging

Tourists are frequently wooed with accordion music; sometimes with puppet shows set up at one end of the carriage, occasionally a little karaoke will flare up or a polite announcement to address the carriage and the retelling of a hard luck story followed by an outstretched palm. People do give, but if you’re not interested in doing so you can stare blankly as they walk past. If you’re in Paris for more than a day it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to avoid in-carriage metro entertainment at some point or another, and who knows it might even liven your spirits.

Tales from the Dark Side

I’ve yet to experience any real shenanigans first-hand, but if you’re female and have anything on show (e.g. the tiniest bit of cleavage), there’s always going to be somebody who will gawp at you. Mme. Grenouille will testify to that too, but it was one of her colleagues who had a couple of warier stories to tell. On one occasion she was flashed at by a female flasher who exposed her breasts at her as she sat opposite onboard the train. I must say this was the first time I had ever heard of a female flasher, and I dare say some men may now be rushing to book their holidays in Paris upon reading this (if you’re from the Paris tourist board, please feel free to send a contribution my way). The other incident occurred when she was walking up the stairs of the metro stop and felt something tugging lightly at the back of her skirt. She turned around to find an old pervert trying to lift it up in the hope that she wouldn’t notice – he soon took flight when rumbled.

So there you have it, the Paris metro in a nutshell. In my usual unplanned way, I seem to have ended my piece on a downward turn. Generally there’s little to fear from this mode of transport. It’s efficient, inexpensive and the maps are clear making travel from A to B simple (I say that but line 6 of the Trocadéro is currently closed until May which is a pain in the butt). If you can get a bus (the tickets work for both the metro, bus and trams, and even the little funicular at Sacré-Coeur!) it usually makes for a more pleasant view. With that said there are small stretches of the Paris metro that surface above ground, but most of it is contained under the streets, where hundreds of miles of tunnels, sewers and catacombs also combine into Paris’ dark bellied underworld.

Reader Comments

I have ‘accidentally’ found myself at this web page and here I am , reading your posts, laughing. (Started with snow and ended with snails :-). You are a skillful writer indeed! Your writing style reminds me of Jerome K. Jerome and his Three Men in a Boat.
I really enjoyed reading.
Best wishes,

Written By Melinda on February 5th, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

Hi Melinda,
Snow to snails – you’ll have to forgive my randomness and lack of cohesion, but glad it entertained. 🙂
You have me wanting to dig up my old Jerome K. Jerome book now! (I haven’t read this book yet).

Written By admin on February 6th, 2009 @ 9:33 am

Interesting perspective over Paris!
I’ll be visiting Paris at the end of July for the first time. How will Paris be on that period?

Written By Ramona on June 19th, 2009 @ 8:48 am

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, will not be published
optional, your blog address

Next Post:
Previous Post: