It’s a crescendo, a rumble, a woosh of the wind coming down the tunneled track. Crush of bodies, tang of sweat and soap, wet wool coats and perfume, squeezing into a space no bigger than the average American closet. It snakes through the underbelly of Paris, wheels shrieking against steel, a high-pitched cry of a child never soothed. From my earliest memories of Paris as a child, the metro represented the thrill of urban unpredictability and excitement, a roller coaster of sights and smells that terrified and delighted me all at once as I gripped my mother’s and aunt’s hands tightly, eyes fixed on the edge of the platform as if I might find myself suddenly propelled over it if I let it out of my sight. Currents of people and music and noise, train after train, wave after wave.
Now a regular commuter and in possession of my own metro pass, navigating through this pulsating network of tunnels and trains has become routine. The things that made my pulse quicken as a little girl have faded into habit and even annoyances. Every now and again, however, something unusual occurs during those periods of the day spent underground that shakes you out of autopilot and grabs your attention. With so many people sharing space and breathing the same air day in and day out, boundaries between private and public life become blurred. Whether it’s as gruesome as projectile vomit or a sweet moment shared with a stranger, they remind me not to lose the wonder I felt as a child at the first tastes of the big world. Here are three little stories from the Parisian underground to wake up your senses as they did mine.
The One with the Projectile Vomit
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. It’s a bright early morning, cold and clear, and the rush to work is off to a grind. Tailored suits and leather shoes, sleepy eyes and breakfasts on the go, headphones and screens to block out the rest of the world, as if living in their own orbit. In this way, we walk swiftly in one mass, together yet always apart. Up and down the steps of the metro, our legs take us over the crests and valleys of concrete hills, from one platform to the next. We descend into the ground just to pop up through the ground at our destination, tunneling our way through the earth like moles, blinded by the light that awaits outside. Our hub is Chatelet/Les Halles, a palace of intersecting corridors and processions of weaving bodies right in the center of the city where despite the lack of sunlight, time can be measured by the urgency in footsteps.
I am with a friend. After navigating through this giant fortress of activity, we make it to one of the major exits, Porte du Louvre, a 12-foot wall of stairs up to ascend to reach the street. Side by side, we trudge up the steps, concentrating on our footing and staking a claim to what little amount of space is ours among the pack. As we come up on the street, I see a woman up ahead plop herself down on the edge of the sidewalk, a large suitcase beside her. The morning commotion on the street mirrors that in the metro, bodies in motion whose individual faces have been erased in our little bubbles. A few more steps forward and we are passing this woman when a stream of liquid escapes from her mouth and projects through the air, landing at least two feet away from her. For an instant, this little pocket of the world stands still, stunned out of the clouds, shocked by the sheer force hidden in the depths of this woman’s stomach, and the mere centimeters between ourselves and the spray that could have changed the course of our days. Nonetheless, the circling orbits of so many lives played out in one space have finally collided, forced to acknowledge one another’s presence if only for a short moment.
The One with the 90€-Conversation
It happened while I was changing lines, heading home just as the late afternoon storm of too many limbs and stoic stares and insults was gathering. A tap on my shoulder and I turn to find a middle-aged man asking me if I could do him a favor. I don’t answer but the look of suspicious skepticism must have been pronounced for he says that I shouldn’t be scared, he won’t bite. People are flooding past us and I think about walking away, how easy it would be to be swept away with the crowd. He says it will only take five minutes and I can’t help myself from telling him that’s kind of a long time, enough for me to switch lines and catch the next metro going home.
But I’m trying to be more patient and in reality, I have nowhere to be, so I stay. He launches into a long story involving running out of gas, not having enough money on him to pay for more, not having the right papers on him for his bank to help him (footnote: this is kind of probable in France, land of bureaucratic hassles), and spending the whole day asking strangers for help only to be ignored or told no. He’s from a small town in the middle of France and he just wants to get home tonight. I can sympathize with both of these sentiments, having often bemoaned the lack of kindness Parisians have for one another.
“How much do you need?” I ask, reaching for my wallet. I happen to have 40€ on me and it’s been a good month so I know I can spare it. But he tells me he needs 90€ to make it all the way back home, that if I give him my mailing address he’ll write me a check to reimburse me and put it in the mail tomorrow. He also promises a bottle of my favorite perfume as his sister apparently works in a beauty shop.
At this point, we are outside on the street again, having gone outside the station while he explained his story and I’m not sure what to do. I want to be kind and trusting but you just never know and 90€ is a lot. I start to change my mind and voice my doubts, saying i am happy to give him what i have on me. He then becomes distraught, almost angry, saying he thought I understood his situation and that he’ll never be able to get home with 40€.
I should have walked away. But something provoked me to stay, maybe the part of me that hates disappointing others, and so I give him my address before walking to an ATM to withdraw the remaining difference. After handing him the money and wishing him the best of luck, I can already sense the feeling in my gut telling me that maybe I’ve just been emotionally manipulated into giving a perfect stranger 90€ for God knows what. There’s something guilty about his expression as he walks away but I try not to think about it too much, reminding myself that a good deed isn’t about being repaid anyway.
It’s as I’m recounting the details of this odd encounter to a friend later that night that I realize just how many holes there are in his story, all the questions I should have asked but didn’t think of. Suddenly I feel very vulnerable, imagining intruders at my window thanks to the address, and sheepish for being so naive. And why did this man pick me out of the crowd? For a couple of days, I find myself on edge in the metro, watching my back and trying to appear as unapproachable as possible.
But in a few days, the feeling passes and the whole experience is filed under the many lessons I’ve learned while living here. Only my curiosity remains about what a well-dressed, middle-aged man’s intentions could possibly be in singling out a young woman in the metro for 90€.
The One with the Giggles
On the first day that spring finally conquers the winter grey, a friend and I decide to meet at le Sacré Coeur in Montmartre to enjoy the sunshine after months of seeking refuge in cafés. It appears that we are not the only ones who have decided to take advantage of the weather as Line 2 is particularly crowded for the early afternoon. Every car is packed, passengers standing with bags pressed tightly against them and faces practically against the necks of those around them. Normally such rides seem interminable but the promise of a warm spring day awaiting just above has appeased the Parisian spirit and these irritations are forgotten.
Somewhere amidst the crowd the side of my car, a young woman in a baseball cap is talking loudly on the phone, apparently recounting the events of a night out. She begins to laugh, and not the cute little “tehehe” kind. This is a loud, rollicking laugh, the kind that sucks the air out of the lungs to make a strangling sound at the end of a riff, one that sometimes leads to snorting. It rings out through the car above the clamour, filling the empty spaces above heads and between legs. It sends a ripple through the crowd, soft at first, until shoulders shake, hands cover mouths, and faces bury into the backs of friends. A peal finally escapes from someone’s lips and breaks the seal, everyone laughing and not knowing why and laughing even harder at the absurdity of it all. Through eight different stops and new sets of passengers, the chorus swells and when I finally reach my stop, I don’t want to leave. But I’d like to imagine the laughter spreading down the length of that train as it continued along the serpentine tracks that day, greeting each wave of people with the pure unbridled joy of being alive in this city so hardened by life.
a.k.a on facing situations of letting your guard down and taking people on human being to human being
- projectile vomiting in the metro:
- money lending in the metro