Sunday, November 22, 2009

An ode to the Paris Métro

Anyone who has h
eard me talk about Paris knows that I have alongstanding love affair with its Métro, which is an efficient, far-reaching, affordable and animated system of public transit that far surpasses those in other cities I’ve visited. I realized the other day that the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship is finally over, but my initial excitement has given way to a more satisfying savoir-faire. On the lines I use regularly, I position myself strategically on the platform so as to be right in front of the exit when I reach my destination. I navigate transfer tunnels like a pro, and I have my Imagin-R (student metro card—25 euro a month for unlimited travel) swiping procedure down to one swift motion when I pass through the turnstiles. I’m familiar with the stations decorated by art—the long mosaics in the halls of St. Michel, the larger than life literary autograph collection splashed across the ceiling of Luxembourg, or the patriotic murals at the Bastille. In the stations without art, I ponder the wall-size ads that serve as cultural insight and my main link to pop culture. I’ve cultivated an intimacy with the system and an appreciation for the personality of its different lines, which I associate more with their color than their number. What follows is an ode of sorts to those that have a particularly pronounced place in my memory…

The primary, finger-paint colors of the RER lines: the watermelon red A, the ocean blue B line, the sunny yellow C, the grassy green D. Ironically, the ambiance here is anything but childish. Dreary but stoic, these trains shuttle drones into the city en masse in the morning, and then, in the evening, back to the sprawling suburban towns they call home. The wave of humid air that sighs outwards as the doors open towards each platform is the collective exhaled breath of a thousand weary workers. They squeeze into the crowded car, dutifully surrender the single empty seat to the oldest or neediest in their midst, then resign themselves to yet another commute spent standing and sweating. Retreating into an iPod, a novel, or just a blank stare, they rarely notice the rare happy faces that dot the crowd— a family just back from Disney Land on the A, an excited, baggage-burdened traveler off to an exotic flight from Charles de Gaulle on the B, a tourist with eyes still aglow from the gold at Versailles on the C.

The pond scum green 3 line, with its newer, disability-friendly trains that announce the stations aloud and use blinking lights to allow you to visually track your progress, and whose seats are arranged in an asymmetrical, feng shui manner.

The fuchsia 4 line, rickety but reliable, which runs through the grittier neighborhoods of Paris and always has an animated, textured group of riders. If you get on in the south you’ll be in the company of students headed to the Sorbonne, to the malls of Les Halles or to the popular watering holes/restaurants of St. Germain des Pres and the Latin Quarter. Once you get to Gare du Nord the caucasian passengers exit in unison, and so completely that it feels almost like a conspiracy. The line takes you through a few Arab neighborhoods (and bars that offer free couscous to poor students) before you dead-end at the Porte de Clignancourt, the geographical and social fringe of the city that hosts a celebrated weekly Marché des Puces (flea market).

The navy blue 2 line, nearly as rickety as the four, whose screeching breaks can physically felt as they scratch across your eardrums.

The indigo 14 line, formerly known by the appropriate acronym METEOR, which is highly automated. Its stops are few but far apart and it shoots through its protective ribcage of a tunnel at rapid speeds. The plastic tunnel extends to the platform, with doors opening only when the car is perfectly aligned to protect bumbling tourists from the hazards of the tracks (and would-be suicidals from themselves).

The olive oil 9, which spans the city and stops frequently, giving it a varied crowd and a tiresome feel.

The chic, baby blue 13, whose plush velvety seats in rich hues of red and purple attest to the wealth of the districts of Paris it passes through.

The yellow 1 line, which runs along the Seine and stops at all the major tourist attractions. Quite predictably, it’s a Babel of languages and their speakers are too excited, lost o
r unfamiliar with the Metro etiquette to respect the invisible isolation bubbles of the Parisian commuters besides them. This line has the same automatic doors as the 14, I like to imagine this is to save the tourists from having to fumble with the hooked door releases that are standard in the other lines.

And finally, the sea foam 6 line, whose rubber wheels send it rolling above ground on raised platforms that pass over the Seine and afford a beautiful view of the Eiffel tower. Understandably, this is also the line that attracts the accordion players, progressing through cars at each stop to the delight of tourists, who pay for the ambiance in pocket change, and the chagrin of Passy’s rich, elderly residents, who respond to the clink of the coin cup with glares. This is the line that delivers me to class every day. After three months, I roll my eyes and immerse myself in my book whenever the accordion man steps on. But this is just to play the part rather than to embody it, because more than the glimpse of the monument and the cheesy music, it’s the thought that I might pass for a local that really thrills me; the idea that this city that I traverse each day is slowly becoming my own.

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