Sun 3 Jul 2005
Car-Less In France
Paris is one city where you do not need a car.
My husband and I have one but it stays parked in a garage unless we are going out of town. The public transportation system is so great in Paris that getting around is a breeze. Plus, no one in their right mind would want to drive here. I tried it once and it was so foreign to me – what else? The French don’t get in an orderly line to turn left – they sort of pile into the middle of the road, squeezing as close as they can to each other in order to go screeching across the intersection the moment they get the chance. It was a couple of years before I realized that there weren’t any left turn signals as there are in the States which explains a lot of these driving patterns.
People walk in Paris. You wouldn’t believe how much you walk here. I have finally gotten used to it and often out walk visitors, even young ones. I had a girl in her twenties come to visit me and we walked everywhere. We went to the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triumph, down the Champs-Elysées, to the Marais, up the hill to Sacre Coeur, through the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay. At the end of each day she would collapse on the couch, rising only to drag herself to bed at 9 p.m. What are these young people coming to? It made me realize how much I walked in Paris without a second thought. Even my grandsons, ages three and five, couldn’t do it. We had to purchase umbrella strollers, not an inexpensive thing to get here, so they could go everywhere we wanted to go. They were used to walking from the house to the car, the car to school, and then the opposite at the end of the day. My husband’s grandchildren walk from their home to their school, five or six blocks, every day. They never have any trouble keeping up with the adults.
Needless to say, I am always on the metro or a bus. The metro goes anywhere you want in a very short time. It took me awhile to figure out the system, but I’ve mastered it and find it fast and reasonable. Occasionally, I start reading to pass the time and have looked up as the train pulls away from my station. When this happens it is simply a case of getting off at the next stop, going to the other side and returning to the stop I wanted.
Since being in Paris a short time, especially down in the metro stops, I have been subjected to a wide variety of music, some of it very good, some of it unbelievably horrible. I am on the metro just about every day and have started to see the same people either sitting in one of the connecting halls with their box in front of them for donations, or boarding a train just before the door closes not giving anyone a chance to change cars. The musicians around various metro stops and tunnels actually have to try out to get their places and receive badges making them official. I read that over a thousand people try out for just a little over three hundred places. I am sure the ones boarding the trains haven’t gone through the audition. Apparently, the money is pretty good and you can pick your hours, too.
In the connecting tunnel between metro lines 1 and 4 I usually hear a little band from Peru with some background music playing from a speaker and several native flutes of wood tooting. There is often a large crowd standing around to listen, applauding when they finish a song, then stooping to look at their offering of CD’s. Is it just me, or are these Peruvian musicians in every city? I have heard the same live music in many cities, just recently in San Antonio and not long ago in Prague.
One day I was walking down a tunnel and I heard music that sounded like it was coming from an organ in a church. It echoed majestically through the subway tunnels. The tune was from the Phantom of the Opera and I was surprised when I rounded the corner and the musician turned out to be playing the accordion. It was really rather religious sounding. I wondered if the acoustics of the tunnels added to the sound as when I sing in the shower and think I sound like Celine Dion.
A friend of mine said he was sitting on the metro one day when a man boarded with what is often the instrument of choice, an accordion. He swears that the man must have taken his music lessons by mail, and had only completed the first lesson. It was excruciating to sit there while the “musician” went through the three songs he knew. I often hear the same songs time after time, usually including the quickly recognizable “Besame Mucho,” in Spanish. I assume they think these are the songs people riding the trains want to hear. I have sometimes wondered that if I offered a musician a Euro NOT to play, would I would be successful? This is usually at the end of a hot day sitting on a crowded car with the accordion playing in my ear as I have picked a seat near the door where they enter to play. Sometimes it is entertaining and enjoyable. Sometimes, I can’t wait to get off at the next stop and hurry to slip onto another car.
One day my sister was with me and a man entered without any instrument at all. He stood there with a hand cupped over one ear and began to sing, “It Had To Be You” in English, with only a slight French accent. It was like he was singing to himself as he kept his eyes to the ground, never looking up. My sister, who is a good vocalist herself said, “This guy is really great!” He did sing well. I was really surprised, and I am sure he was as well, when she pulled out a five Euro note and gave it to him. “You have a really great voice,” she told him. He profusely thanked her and stepped out of our car and on to the next one. When the train stopped again, he came back in and stood in front of us and sang another song. I don’t know if he wanted more money or was just happy to be appreciated.
There are many professional sounding musicians in the subways. Along with the accordion sounding like an organ is a lady who plays classical music on a harpsichord that I always enjoy. Sometimes, usually on a weekend night, there is an exotic looking woman singing really great jazz. A father often boards trains carrying a tambourine to accompany his little son who plays the violin. Recently there has been an eight member group of young people playing classical music with violins and cellos. They really sound fabulous. All of this music in the metro really does add to the experience of being in Paris. You might get a man with hand puppets giving a little show behind a curtain that he attaches to the poles in a car, a group of three singing (what else?) “Bessa Me Mucho” with guitar, accordion and trumpet, or just one person with a small sound system playing background and amplifying their singing or clarinet. It is more enjoyable than the men who get on and shout at the top of their lungs over the sound of the metro the story of their lives, usually that they were “just released from prison,” and ask for a little monetary help. I don’t often give money as it would really add up being on the metro daily, but there are moments when the music brings a smile to my face and my foot beats in time to a happy song being played. That’s when I will dig in my wallet and see if I have any spare change.
Sometimes riding the metro can be a challenge. When the temperature soars over ninety degrees, it is akin to being inside an iron box set in the sun. The only relief is the open windows blowing hot air into the car as the metro moves along. A long stop between stations for various reasons can be brutal. And you never know if you are going to sit down on a seat that was recently occupied by someone with a really wet sweaty bottom or grab a handle still moist from the previous metro rider. My sister once kept one hand cupped in the other until she could get to a sink and scrub her hands after this experience.
A crowded train can be really difficult. I’ve been on cars where it was so packed with commuters that I couldn’t lift my hand to scratch my nose. A metro strike or slowdown can add to this experience happening more often. I have stepped into a crowded car and taken my place right by the door thinking no one else can get in but someone always manages to squeeze in just as the doors close and push you back behind them. This can be difficult as it is hard to find a bar or strap to hang on to then and you start hoping the train won’t make any sudden stops sending you into the lap of a total stranger, or causing your foot to mash the foot of the unfortunate person next to you. I’ve had both things happen to me. There is also often some woman getting on the metro with a little shopping cart on wheels. As she boards the crowded train she runs over your foot with her cart. Does she say excuse me? No. She looks at you like you have some nerve putting your foot in the path of her cart.
The bus system is great, too, and you get wonderful views of Paris as the bus rolls along. One day I had just returned from a trip to the Marais and had a poster of an artist I liked rolled up in my hand. I got on the bus at Nation, four stops away from our apartment building. There were only four other people on the bus. As we pulled away I noticed a man standing in the aisle next to me. I wondered why he was standing when almost all of the seats were empty. Then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Was he doing what I thought he was doing? I refused to look and kept my gaze fixed firmly outside the bus window. The bus stopped and someone else got on. The man in the aisle moved back to a little standing area. I could tell he had continued his “activity” and was wondering what to do if, when I came to my stop, he was still doing it, and would actually have his “member” out for all to see.
The bus came to my stop. I stood up and turned around and there it was. All of a sudden I was really angry and without even thinking about it, I started bashing him on the head with my rolled-up poster. It made a loud sound rather like a gun shot. I said, “You sicko! You pervert!” like he could understand me. I think I startled him (do the French just pretend nothing has happened?) and he quickly zipped up his pants and turned his back to me. Good thing, too, as kneeing him had entered my mind. Interestingly, the other passengers were looking at ME as if I were the weird one. I looked at the bus driver to see if he was going to do something, but he just sat there. Should I go up and tell him what the pervert was doing? Would he care? And how would I do it without any French? The thought of pantomiming what the man had done kept me from trying.
So I got off the bus and the man got off, too. There was the neighborhood prostitute standing right there and I said, “Why don’t you use a prostitute?” He kept looking at me over his shoulder, maybe expecting another attack and I actually looked around for a rock to throw. As I was walking back to my apartment I realized that I wasn’t upset, I was feeling empowered, a sort of “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” feeling. I hadn’t been a victim, I had been an activist. I thought maybe that pervert would think twice before trying that on a bus again. Who knew where another English-speaking Avenger might lurk?
I told my husband about what happened that night on the phone as he was out of town. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asked. What could he have done? Ask me to hand the pervert my cell phone so he could tell him off? I handled it but every time I board a bus I do look around and see who’s on board with me. Today I have the poster framed and hanging on my wall. You have to stand close to see the creases. Only I know they are there.