I know this activity suggests you go out in the early hours of the morning to “people watch”, but I assure you there is nothing more interesting than watching people come and go, get on and then get off of the metro in Paris. I’ve been reading a book recently by Annie Ernaux called ‘Journal du dehors’ which is a short collection of her experiences in and around Paris between 1985 and 1992, a lot of which are focused on the metro and the R.E.R. train network. She describes in short accounts, sometimes one sentence long, sometimes two pages long, the kinds of people she sees on the metro, people she finds interesting and intriguing. I’ve finished the book now and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to recreate a few of these short accounts but from my own experiences on the metro. I take the metro almost every day to university and around Paris so whilst I was reading Annie Ernaux’s book, I started to take notice of a few everyday instances that occurred during my journeys on the metro.
Metro line 8, direction Créteil, a young mother, around 28 years old gets on with her daughter, around 5 years old at Invalides. The little girl is carrying a see through plastic lunch bag containing a packet of crisps, a juice bottle, a chocolate bar and a lollipop. The mother opens her magazine, flicks through the pages mechanically without paying attention to any of the articles, merely eyeing up the photographs of “celebrities” and this season’s new floral prints. The little girl smiling with a most innocent grin asks her mum (in French of course) “Which one can I have?” No response. “Which one can I have maman?” Eventually looking up from her magazine she replies “C’est ton choix” (It’s up to you). Bestowed with the important task and great responsibility of deciding which one of the precious treats she should have first, she unzips the lunch bag and carefully surveys each item, as if weighing up the pros and cons of each. (I think the little girl secretly wanted her mum to just pick one). She goes for the crisps. No going back now. She swings her dangling feet back and forth in utter happiness at her choice of the ready salted crisps. The mum takes the bag of crisps off her, utter despair on the girl’s face. Her mum opens the crisp packet properly as the little girl had only opened a corner and was sticking her hand into the tiniest hole to pull out a crisp that was bigger than the hole. On returning the crisps, the mum gets back to her magazine and the little girl eats her crisps, each one better than the previous, whilst staring out of the window into the darkness of the underground.
Metro line 4, direction Montrouge. It’s only 3pm in the afternoon so fortunately the metro is empty compared to its 5/6pm equivalent where you have an armpit in your face and everyone is eyeing up the passengers sat on the seats, waiting for them to get off. I have my back to a door therefore cannot see the passengers who get on behind me. All of a sudden music starts. It’s very normal for people to play music on the metro in the hope of acquiring a few centimes, normally it’s a harpsichord or they bring a speaker, wheeled in on a trolley and sing along to a backing track. But this was a first. A man gets on with a bassoon. He plays around 4 songs, which is unusual because normally it’s one song and then they get off at the next stop. Beautiful songs, classical pieces. All passengers look up from their book or their newspaper and pull out their headphones. When finished and the man starts his way up and down the carriage, every passenger rummages around in their pockets looking for something to give him. Satisfied, the bassoon player gets off and hops along to the next carriage to do it all over again. The man sat opposite me gets off at the stop after, whistling one of the tunes he had just heard.
Metro line 4, direction Clignancourt, the buzzer sounds which indicates that the doors are closing. A woman risks it and jumps through the door, getting slightly stuck. It would have been far simpler, and dignified, for her to reverse and wait the 2 minutes for the next metro but no. Two men rush to her aid and prise the doors open allowing her to get in. She sits on the nearest seat, brushing her hair off her face as if nothing had happened. Aware, of course, that the whole carriage is looking at her.
Metro line 6, direction Charles de Gaulle Étoile. A young couple around 25 years old get on at La Motte-Picquet Grenelle. Clearly tourists. You could just tell by their slightly stressed, “we need to do everything in Paris before we leave” kind of faces. The woman looks up at the plan of metro line 6 illustrated above the door. She can’t find the metro where they need to get off and starts frantically scanning the image. She turns to her boyfriend, scared at the prospect that the day will be ruined because they’ve got on the wrong metro line. It appears as if he is used this kind of worry from his girlfriend and he assures her that they are right, pointing up to the image to indicate where they got on, which direction they are heading in and where they need to get off. She looks relieved and can relax for the next few stops before they get off at Trocadéro. I knew exactly why they were getting off there. From that point is one of the best places to take photographs of the Eiffel Tower. I know because I too went here when I first arrived in Paris.
Waiting for the metro to arrive at Saint-Placide, a business woman holds a coffee in one hand and her laptop case in the other. She walks right to the far end of the platform, passes lots of empty seats on the way but sits in the furthest seat away. I wonder why she walked so far away. Two possibilities. She either just wants to be as far away as possible from anyone that could potentially bother her or she takes the metro so often that she has planned where to get on the metro so that she is closest to the exit where she will get off. I think this because I do the same sometimes for my trip to university. Go to the far end of the platform at Saint-Sébastien Froissart, to get off at Strasbourg-Saint-Denis to be nearest to direction I need to head in to change lines. Get on line 4 at the closest end of the platform to get off at Saint-Sulpice to be just next to the exit. Perfect if you’re running late!
Metro line 14, direction Saint-Lazare. A woman gets on at Gare de Lyon with an enormous suitcase. She can barely even lift it onto the train it is so big and by the looks of it very heavy. The train is already very busy as it’s rush hour. Everyone stood by the doors shuffles begrudgingly further towards the back of the train to make room for her and her giant suitcase. It’s clear what everyone’s thinking, “Just take a taxi!” or “Find another way to get wherever you’re going, just don’t take the metro”. I could see in her face that she was regretting her decision.
I could go on and on about things I have seen on the metro around Paris. If you’ve ever taken it yourself I’m sure you’ll understand that it is certainly a “unique” experience especially in rush hour! I’m so glad I read ‘Journal du dehors’ because prior to that I found myself looking down into a book, scrolling through Facebook on my phone or closing my eyes and listening to music on the metro, when in fact it is so interesting to watch people come and go. It’s unbelievable how interesting people can be if you just take a minute to look up.