THE PARIS METRO IN 26 EASY LETTERS
Accessibility: You’ve probably noticed that when the printed coordinates of a Parisian place of interest are given (a boutique, museum, restaurant, even a party-throwing private home), there is often a funny little symbol following the name, address, and phone number. The funny little symbol, a capital M with a «degree» sign after it (M°) precedes yet another name, as in M° Pyramides or M° Ecole Militaire or M° Michel Bizot. This designates the métro stop nearest the destination in question, a practice affirming that the métro is everywhere and used by everyone but the most crowd-averse snobs. (The site and app of the RATP has an interactive map which can give you door-to-door itineraries with travel time indications for the entire metro, bus and train system in the Paris region. – Ed.)
Begging: On the rise in the Paris metro and becoming worse seemingly weekly. Beggars boarding your car fall into three major categories: those who in a languorous, detached singsong recite their tales of woe then, often accompanied by an inert baby or ragged child, pass the hat (or plastic cup, or listless hand); those who seek to sell little several-euro homegrown-by-the-homeless booklets about Parisian history or Provençal eateries or Pakistani zodiacs; and those who before passing the hat (or guitar case or callused hand) provide unsolicited entertainment (see Entertainment, below). Somehow, the French language seems ill-suited to the vocabulary of begging like playing bluegrass on a Stradivarius.
Children: If you like the sound of their interrogative little voices, go out of your way to take the métro on a Wednesday. That’s a day they’re not in school. That’s a day they are accompanied by every permutation and combination of extended-family member in every seat in every car on every métro on every line in the entirety of the mass-transit network. Especially (sorry, Ministry of Culture) if the line goes anywhere near a McDonald’s. Especially if the line goes anywhere near a McDonald’s with a promotion going on. If you don’t like the sound of their interrogative little voices, go out of your way not to take the Paris metro on a Wednesday.
Dinner: As in what one is about to make for, what one had last night for, what one would have had last night for had one not worked too late to get to the supermarket, or what one had on the most memorable vacation of one’s life several years ago due to the quality of the in-hotel dinners. One of the two main topics of conversation you will overhear on the métro. The other is soccer, especially, of course, around big-game times. You will hear little if anything about politics, religion, or, despite the tales the GIs brought back from World War II, sex.
Entertainment: (See Begging, above.) Unsolicited entertainment in the Paris metro ranges anywhere from insultingly poor Jimi Hendrix imitations (sans guitar burnings) through accordion-enhanced re-creations of ethnic harvest-hymns to enchantingly elaborate puppet shows necessitating the transformation of the car into a makeshift stage complete with curtain, recorded Guignol-appropriate music and a wood-and-cloth cast of thousands or so it sounds. Entertainers are supposed to play on platforms only (i.e., not in cars) and only if authorized (via I.D.-badge license) by the Préfecture de Police. Virtually none of this is respected by the musicians or enforced by the authorities, leading some commuters to theorize that the potential enforcers possibly see themselves post-next-election in the shoes of the potential entertainers and don’t want to unnecessarily rile their future co-workers.
Famous: Except for the newest of the new lines and stops built in the late 1990s and accorded the obligatory millennium-resonant label almost every métro stop is named for a famous person, place, or thing. Even those named seemingly for the streets under which they run are named for famous people, places, or things, as the streets under which they run are named for famous people, places, or things. If you speak/read French, go into a good bookstore and ask for the book on the history of the métro stations. Each little paragraph or page reads like a novel. You’ll learn more about the Battle of Austerlitz by researching the Gare d’Austerlitz stop than you did in all those high school geography, college history and post-grad literature classes combined!
Garden: Speaking of new lines and stops accorded the obligatory millennium-resonant labels, the Météore (as in «meteor» as in not a famous person, place, or thing) line number 14 which opened in October 1998 and goes from Gare Saint-Lazare to Bibliothèque Nationale (the national library in eastern Paris, last of François Mitterand’s Grands Travaux, or Great [Public] Works) features stations that are a combination of Buck Rogers, Sir Terence Conran and Salvador Dali. Dotted with little brass floor and wall plaques bearing familiar quotes and their authors’ names, the Bibliothèque station looks in spots like a Roman forum, while the Gare de Lyon stop features a misty tropical garden from which real parrots and toucans watch the métros flow by.
Happy: What most people on most métros don’t look. The métro car has been referred to as «a cemetery on wheels.» It is said that standing at the finish line of a marathon allows one to see the entire range of body types pass by in logical succession: first the ectomorphs (skinnies), next the mesomorphs (mediumies), finally the endomorphs (you guessed it). Same with the métro and the entire range of unhappiness: riding Line 6, for instance, which goes from the Arc de Triomphe’s glamorous Place de l’Etoile (perceived, even if inaccurately, as the geographical center of Paris) to the working-class Place de la Nation (almost as far east as you can get without being out of town) allows one to see the entire range of social classes enter and exit in logical succession according to the real estate value and ethnicity of the neighborhood under which one is rolling. But elevated social status apparently does not a happy commuter make.
Identity Papers: Checked usually on platforms or near turnstiles by members of the constabulary during periods coinciding with terrorist attacks, immigrant-phobic political campaigns and the publication of newspaper articles about the increase in urban violence. If a Chanel-suited Caucasian female adult with a briefcase, and a baggy-jeaned North African male adolescent with a boom-box approach a turnstile at the same time, you can guess whose papers will be requested.
Junction: Don’t worry about not getting a seat in a crowded Paris metro car: just look at the easy-to-decipher metro-line maps above the doors. In the mornings you’ll certainly be able to figure out where the commuters will soon be getting off en masse: stops along the Champs-Elysées and major boulevards, certainly near principal commercial and business areas, around points where significant numbers of workers are needed to serve significant numbers of residents and tourists. In the evenings check which upcoming stop is served by other métro lines especially multiple other métro lines especially multiple other métro lines taking people out into the lower-rent suburbs, where many commuters with families live. You can be sure that at these times at these junctions the car will disgorge like a chemical-treated blocked drain.
Karma: The force that we hope will in a future life bring back as one of their former passengers all the sadistic Paris metro drivers who stop in the tunnel between stations for no fathomable reason, who announce that a standstill will last «just a few minutes» when they mean «until I decide it’s time to get going again,» and who close the doors just as we are approaching them.
Logo: Look hard at the RATP (see RATP, below) logo emblazoned on the sides of métro cars and buses (as well as printed onto tickets, route maps, transport-system brochures); it is one of the most ingenious emblems ever designed. (No wonder the French win international graphic-arts awards year after year!) What seems at first a squiggly line through a circle appears to morph before your eyes into the profile of a woman. But the trick here is to know that the double-duty squiggly line is also more or less the shape of, and thus represents, the Seine, performing visual magic like those sketches of Grecian urns in your college psychology textbooks, which used to morph before your eyes into the profiles of two women. Amazing! (Read about the RATP rabbit named Serge. –Ed.)
Métro: Ever wonder what it means, where the word comes from? Métropolitain. An adjective describing the kind of rail system it is.
Name: In addition to being designated by number (which denotes the order in which they were built, with Line 1’s route being the logical first, as it follows along the Champs-Elysées and delineates what is now the longest urban axis in the world), métro lines are named for the stops that anchor them, i.e., the first and last stops of the line. People with a penchant for thoroughness will say, for example, «That’s near Line 8: Balard–Créteil.»
Open: As in doors. Just when you get used to the fact that the doors of the métro car do not open automatically but have to be activated by you, you happen upon one of the spiffy new Line 1 trains or venture onto the Météore line (see Garden, above) and find yourself desperately foraging for the button to push or the lever to flip while the «Open Sesame» occurs in spite of your good offices. Then it all happens in reverse, as you stand there on, for instance, an old Line 12 (Mairie d’Issy–Porte de la Chapelle) train awaiting the electronic intervention that never comes…and your train leaves the station without your having gotten off.
Plaque: A secret. A hermetically sealed secret. The best kept secret in Paris. I shouldn’t even tell you. But I will. When you’re on Line 1 in the direction of La Défense, the minute the train pulls away from the Bastille station en route to the Saint-Paul stop, start looking at the wall across the tracks. (Conversely, when you’re on Line 1 in the direction of Château de Vincennes, the minute the train pulls away from the Saint-Paul stop en route to Bastille, start looking at the wall on your side of the tracks.) Within about thirty seconds or so you will see a beige marble plaque whose gold letters tell you that this here right here right where this very plaque is whizzing past you (or vice versa, actually) in this very tunnel is where the original Bastille as in prison as in French Revolution as in built in 1370 and stormed in 1789 right where this little quadrangle of signage is, is where the original Bastille really stood. (That column out in the Place de la Bastille is, of course, a placeholder.) Wow. The experience catapults you into another dimension. You could take that train every hour of every day for the rest of your life, and catch that split-second glimpse of enlightenment, and never tire of the thrilling awe it inspires.
Queer…Quirky…Quasi-insane: What you are deemed (and for which you are brutally gawked at) by the natives if you board a métro car wearing, partaking of, participating in, or carrying any of the following: sneakers, athletic wear, food or drink, loud conversation (especially if not about dinner or soccer), a foreign newspaper. Extraordinarily tall, beautiful and/or ugly individuals have a hard time of it too; and if any of these happen to be wearing sneakers and/or eating a sandwich, the stare level approaches the unbearable.
RATP: You’ll see it on everything that has to do with the Paris public-transportation system (tickets, brochures, maps, equipment, route and schedule finding app, website, etc.), so you might as well know what it stands for and means: Régie Autonome de Transports Parisiens the Paris public-transportation system.
Shopping: Due to their size and the number of lines feeding into them (to which in fact their size is due), some of the major métro stations have become veritable emporia. If you play your logistics right, you could gorge on grapes from the vendors in the République station, chomp a chocolate chip cookie from the subterranean snack bar at Porte Maillot, select a scarf at Franklin Roosevelt, purchase a paper at Opéra, get your pictures processed at Charles de Gaulle/Etoile, and at La Défense the mother of all agoras have your hair cut, buy a bouquet, sample a smartphone and decorate your den. All on one unlimited-transfer ticket!
Tickets: Speaking of tickets, the RATP (See? It helps to know what it means.) offers a wide range of possibilities: individual tickets (the most expensive, thus least recommended, way to go unless you are planning during your total time in Paris to set foot on only one sole solitary single member of the entire transport fleet), packets of ten (ask for un carnet, s’il vous plaît), daily/weekly/yearly passes and those that allow you to leave town and hop onto all manner of vehicle within exotic transportation networks throughout the Paris suburbs and beyond. The star of the show, the electronic Navigo Pass (le Passe Navigo), can be read by turnstile-mounted sensors even through your jacket pocket or handbag, and when it is, emits a haunting binnnnng reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s universe in Minority Report. Since some of these passes are geared toward tourists, much of the info about them posted on ticket-counter windows and available in station-based printed matter is available in English. (Since 2022 paper tickets and carnets are gone. Electronic tickets or credit rechargeable plastic ones are now in vogue. – Ed. https://www.ratp.fr/en/titres-et-tarifs/arret-carnet-ticket)
Underground: What a pleasant surprise! Not every métro line stays underground from one end to the other. Line 6, for example, treats riders to a view of the Seine when the train crosses it in the east (between the Bercy and Quai de la Gare stations) and in the west (between the Bir-Hakeim and Passy stations). So don’t bury yourself too deeply in that newspaper you bought at Opéra you might miss something!
Vacation: Leave us not kid ourselves when we are on vacation, the métro drivers are too. In other words, don’t believe everything you read on a schedule. From early July to early September (in other words, when the kids are not in school), trains run less frequently, but the schedule-info rectifiers are on vacation as well, so you should budget some more time if you’re counting on the metro to get you to an appointment.
Wait: Speaking of waiting, François Truffaut was not the only one concerned with the last métro. Except for during special events and occasions (such as city-wide museum open-houses and New Years Eve) they do not run all night. You can learn about hours of operation by reading notices on platform walls (poster-size sheets bearing the informational equivalent of War and Peace printed in characters the size of dust particles), glancing at ceiling-suspended electronic readouts, or asking the nice ticket seller (unless you’re holding up a huge line, ticket sellers do seem to be nicer these days).
X-rated: If you are squeamish about your children’s sighting an occasional graphic-art breast or buttock, you might want to stay out of not only the métro but also maybe the nation! As already noted, the French are among the world champs in graphic design, and the advertising posters lining the platforms (as well as on bus shelters, sides of street-level newspaper kiosks and basically any appropriate public surface) turn an underground ride into a visual celebration. But yes, in order to sell those heartwarming films, tummy-warming mashed potatoes and, let’s say, bikini-warming beaches, our Gallic cousins do not refrain from showing the hearts, tummies and bikinis or their neighboring anatomical parts for which all this warming is promised. Years ago an ad campaign was mounted in which each week, in the same position in the same ad, the same model appeared minus yet one more article of clothing, the accompanying caption being nothing more than a plea to «Watch This Space!» (presumably for the eventual pitch for the product, whose nature was not made known until the woman was in near–Garden of Eden state).
Yesteryear: Until recently there existed the second-best kept secret in the area: a beautiful little museum, tucked away in bucolic (well, at least near the Bois de Vincennes) Saint-Mandé, where tired old brass-and-wood métro cars (some from the year-1900 birth of the métro itself) and geriatric leather-seated trolleys could be visited, boarded and, most important, «listened to» as they implicitly told of the frock-coated men in Vandykes and the bustled women in bonnets who sat in their glazed wicker seats en route towhere? A dance hall in Montmartre where Zola found his Nana? «Until recently» because the Saint-Mandé site has closed in view of a change of venue.
Zoo: Early Sunday morning on the métro. Very early Sunday morning on the métro. In an otherwise dead-empty car are some half-asleep beings in jackets that smell of smoke en route to clean up the Saturday-night refuse of other half-asleep beings in jackets that smell of smoke. Or alcohol. Or the gastrointestinal results of much smoke and alcohol. Not a pretty sight. Or smell. If you have to get someplace very early Sunday morning in Paris: if at all possible, walk.
Written in 2012 by Shari Leslie Segall, a Paris metro rider and writer who lives in Paris.