When I first arrived in Paris, I actually liked the metro. I found a charm in the ridiculously long names of the stations and the busking accordion players who would alternate between Edith Piaf and La bamba! But oh, how the bubble has burst.
Living too far to walk to work and not being a confident enough cyclist to glide alongside unpredictable Parisian drivers, I am forced into this underground hell at least twice a day from Monday to Friday. Let me tell you, being enclosed in what is essentially a hot metal tin with an accordion player belting out “La bamba”, “Quiza quiza quiza” and the theme from the film Amelie on a loop really does test your levels of restraint vis-à-vis shoving a busker’s face into his own accordion and accordion-ing him between the two ends!
Travelling from the 19th to the centre of Paris means I get to ride two of the more colourful (in both senses of the word) metro lines, line 5 and 4 (orange and purple respectively) daily. It also involves the joy of changing at Gare du nord. Ah, gare du nord, you are a microcosm of Paris. In this station it is every man for himself, from the moment you push your way off of the train because the people getting on won’t wait, to the determined line you must cut through the station to stop yourself getting carried by the crowd to the wrong metro line. And not forgetting the friggin scary looking machine-gun wielding army soldiers patrolling this metro-meets-RER hub of northern Paris. It sounds daunting and it can be at first, but fear not, for I have created the essential Gare du Nord survival guide!
- Look like you know where you’re going even if you don’t. Remember if you do any of the following, you are pretty much asking for a weirdo to approach you: drifting around with a lost look on your face, stopping to find directions, stopping to look at a map
- Do not make eye contact with ANYONE. A weirdo will approach you.
- When crossing the station, fix your eyes on your destination direction, then cut across the station in an exact straight line. Do not move out of anyone’s way because if you do, as soon as you move from your path you will have cut into someone else’s and then have to get out of their way and so on until you might as well just give up and get carried along in the tide of people.
- Look out for the amazing hand-skate-boarding old man (he basically does a handstand on his skateboard and skates around the station with his legs in the air)! This will not help you, he’s just really cool!
As I mentioned in my survival guide, there are a fair amount of nutters riding the Paris metro at any given time. Unlike London, it is extremely easy to jump the barriers in Paris, thus contributing to the increased number of mentals who have access to the metro and their own 15 minutes of soap-boxing with an extremely reluctant, but locked in audience. The vast majority vary between religious preaching, political ranting, begging sob-stories and drunken ramblings. Not a week goes by without my hearing a variant on the “I lost my job 5 years ago, I have 8 children and 5 dogs to feed…” Most of them just drive me crazy, like other normal people I do not fancy a political debate on Sarkozy before I’ve had my morning espresso. But, as you get to know the mentals of your own metro line, a certain fondness can develop. For example, the crazy lady who rides line 5 singing a capella into her hairbrush is a personal favourite. She likes to sing Veronique Sanson, a famous French singer with a unique style of drawing out each last note of a line. Unfortunately Mme mad-brush is not quite so musically gifted and her version of this sound effect is to finish each sung line with “aaahh-aaahh-ahhh,” thus making her sound a bit like an injured goat. She does make me smile though and brings back a bit of the old eccentric metro-charm.
Whilst I have whinged and moaned about the weirdos and buskers of the metro, the thing that actually makes the metro so awful, the one thing that really makes your blood boil and feel as if you could snap and have a bit of a Michael Douglas “Falling Down” moment is the other passengers. Here I have compiled a list of the top 10 metro passengers I detest the most:
- People who barge their way onto the train without waiting for others to get off first
- People who lean against the bar in the middle of the carriage so that no-one else can hold the bar without touching their sweaty back.
- People who do not remove their rucksacks when the metro is crowded
- Backpackers who do the same thing but on a larger scale and make you want to push them over so that they’re stuck like a turtle on its back
- People who don’t give up their seats for pregnant women, disabled people or old people (how were you raised?!)
- People who eat burgers on the metro. Great, now we’re all locked in this airless box with your greasy burger smells.
- People who insist on reading their books even when the carriage is so crowded that turning the page means giving a paper cut to the person next to them
- Anyone who gets on carrying a loud speaker threateningly attached to a microphone
- Men who sit with their legs really wide apart so that they end up with a seat and a half whilst you’re left perching one cheek precariously on half a seat (get over yourselves, we all know there’s nothing there that requires that much room!)
- Groups of Americans that yell at each-other because that is their normal speaking volume (and you wonder why Parisians dislike you!)
Bon voyage to you all!