Paris is truly an obsession. You, dear reader, certainly love Paris. Maybe you’ve lived here, or you’ve been here once as a child and you ate a croissant and went to the Eiffel tower, or in fact you’ve never been here at all, but in any case you are a moth drawn to the flame of Paris. I’ve never met an American who frankly told me that he did not like Paris (though liking the French is a different story. You probably are stifling some joke about their lack of hygiene or military prowess). For many people Paris is more of an idea than a place. It’s a desire. It’s iron-wrought balconies and strolls along the Seine and Notre Dame and Montmartre and sidewalk cafes and the slow but steady intake of cheap wine. Well, I was sure that this vision of paradise must be a projection over something more real. I would peel back the thin film and expose the real Paris and report back to you that you have been living in a dream, my friend, and the time has come to wake up.
Part of this attempt to destroy your naive dreams was a brief venture into a quartier populaire, a lower-class neighborhood, to take artsy photos with a hilarious and eccentric French photographer. Here are the shots I took at this photo activity organized by my program:
While these are not the usual touristy photos, you can see that even the lower-class neighborhoods are pretty and fairly pleasant. I’ve now had several weeks to dispel the mythical city and unearth reality and, unfortunately, I must give it up and report back that the myths are true! Every bit of it is true! I am convinced that even the air is different, and the stones. The view from my bedroom window is completely taken up by a stone wall, but I am comforted by the fact that it is a Parisian wall. It’s entirely different from an American wall. There is, though, one aspect of paradise (oops, I mean Paris!) that may not be quite what you imagined. To know what something is really like, you should go to the heart of the matter. And the metro is at the heart of Paris, sprawling underneath the monuments and squares and cafes.
Don’t get me wrong–I love the Paris metro. Despite its various odors (each line has its own, shall we say, parfum. And I don’t mean Chanel) I take it every day as it’s immensely convenient. No one ever waits longer than 6 minutes for a train and there are 384 metro stops (thank you Wikipedia). Transferring lines is incredibly easy EXCEPT at the dreaded Chatelet stop, where six metro lines meet in a vast, grimy underground city of damp hallways, stairwells, passages, and even those conveyor belts you walk on at the airport to go long distances. I am thoroughly convinced that some strange natural phenomenon has led to the formation of black holes throughout the Chatelet station, which suck up the passengers foolish enough to go there and spit them out right back where they started so that they wander endlessly back and forth until they die of hunger.
The metro is also the place where one is most bluntly faced with extreme poverty. The many, many homeless people sleeping there are almost enough to make you doubt that Paris is paradise. Overall, riding the metro is a very “proletarian” experience. You become part of the masses in the grimy station pushing to get crammed like sardines into the train cars. If you want to get up close and personal with French people, the metro is the place to do it. This strikes me as a sharp contrast to the preferred mode of transportation in America, the car, which keeps you in your own private bubble of space that is controlled by you and arranged just how you like it. Many Americans would probably feel that their personal space was violated on the Paris metro, but the French don’t really have a concept of “personal space”, or if they do it’s far less important to them. Maybe that’s why they prefer to live in the heart of the city where they have tiny apartments, rather than in the suburbs where they would have the vast private space that Americans relish.
In Paris and especially on the metro, you feel the life of the city and the people. If the train stops and you’re annoyed by the delay, at least you feel like you’re all in it together (credit to Quincy, who said this to me!). There’s a sort of solidarity that develops. The metro has really failed me only once, when an entire line was down and a man on the PA system announced that we had to evacuate the train and the station, which forced me to take another line and transfer at Chatelet (the horror!). As we were evacuating, there was a general air of discontent in the crowd. We were outraged that we had been cheated by the metro’s promises of efficiency. An older woman next to me kept making faces and grumbling. It seemed like she wanted me to agree, to join in denouncing the system, but I couldn’t recall any expressions of discontent in French and so decided not to open my mouth but I made sure to look extremely displeased. At least, though, I felt like I was part of something during that exodus from the station. And I could see how easy it must have been to spark the French Revolution.