The doors were closing just as the train made ready to depart from Pigalle station, when a tiny arm shot between them and forced them apart with a shove. Two gypsy boys, maybe around the ages of eight or nine, boarded, one carrying a battered boom-box that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hip-hop video from the 1980s. He placed it on the floor and began fiddling with it, while the other boy made an announcement in French and then English.
“Who’s ready to kick it?” he called out in his tiny child’s voice. The other boy finished tinkering with the machine and pressed play. Some American R&B song I vaguely recognized began to pump out at high volume, and the boys broke into a synchronized dance number.
It was growing late — maybe one o’clock in the morning — and the train was well-loaded with passengers who were equally loaded, if not more so, and heading home from a night out in Montmartre. Some looked on at the kids’ display with amusement, and others turned with an air of disgust. The truly hardened riders gave no notice at all.
The train stopped at Anvers and a few people boarded and disembarked, and all the while, the boys kept bouncing and weaving like a miniature back-up dance crew from a Madonna music video. As the train pulled into Barbes Rochechouart, they ran up and down the length of the car, shaking cups in the face of each passenger. A few people dropped in coins, but most did not.
As we slowed to a halt, two metro police could be seen waiting on the platform. The boys cursed and grabbed the stereo and, as the police came through one door, darted out the other. The cops tried to hurry after them, but the oncoming crowd was too dense. The boys escaped, laughing and hollering.
Scenes like this are common on the Paris metro.
To really get a feel for the city, one needs only to spend a good deal of time riding its trains. You see it all that way: begging children; old men playing sad songs on the violin; lovers caught up in nights of romance; well-clad businessmen and uniformed janitors making their way home from long days at work. There are drunks (especially around the Latin Quarter, Montmartre, and in Bir-Hakeim station, which leads out to the Eiffel Tower), prostitutes (especially around Blanche, Pigalle, and La Chapelle), and politicians (mostly boarding at Invalides station). A few of the stations are ornate (Arts et Metiers), some are nondescript, and others complex and confusing (Nation and Gare du Nord).
My first trip was not easy. When I initially came to France, I landed at Charles De Gaulle and had no idea how to get to my hotel, which I thought was booked in the city. Some kindly Parisian I met on the plane bought me a book of tickets, showed me where to board, and gave some vague directions as to where she thought my hotel would be.
I ended up confused and riding the blue line back and forth between Nation and Porte Dauphine, then somehow ended up at Saint-Lazare, which I was told would place me near my hotel. It did not.
When I emerged at street level for the first time, I immediately knew there was some mistake. The neighborhood was much too nice for the inexpensive room I’d booked. After some desperate asking around, I was finally told by a pitying Frenchmen that, sorry, your hotel is far outside of Paris in one of the suburbs. I descended back into the station and tried to buy a new ticket — a task complicated by the fact I had a good deal of euros and pounds, which I had not yet figured out.
Somewhere along the line, I cut my hand severely with no idea how I’d done it. Suddenly, I was wandering around the underbelly of Paris, with my hand wrapped in a handkerchief and a trail of blood dripping behind me like macabre Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs.
In the end, everything worked out far beyond my expectations, but that’s another story.
Eventually, I came to know each of the lines intimately, and t0 love that moment when one emerges from the depths into a nameless crowd of faces — at Hotel de Ville, at Montparnasse Bienvenue, at Republique. I developed that sixth sense that warns you of metro cops whenever you haven’t paid your fare. I sat through power outages (suffocating), met random beautiful girls (exhilarating), and more than once fell asleep and woke up with no idea where I was and the train closing for the night.
One ride I will never forget was my last. It was eight in the morning, and I was on my way to the airport for my flight back to the States. My mood was bitter, as I was leaving behind both a girl I was in love with and a city that, over the course of several months, had grown to be my home. The station at Gare Du Nord was absolutely chaotic as everyone fought their way through to get to work.
When the train pulled up it was completely packed and, much to my dismay, it did not look like there was enough room for me, my backpack, and my oversized guitar case. As I pushed my way onboard, I felt the guitar pull away from my hand, and watched as it was lifted and passed over the heads of the riders like a crowd surfer at a rock concert. There it goes, I thought. I’d been warned on my first day that it would be stolen — it just seemed cruel that it would happen on my last day in the city.
But then it stopped. I focused as it hovered above the passengers on the other side of the car. When the train hit Le Bourget, which is the last stop before leaving the city, the car cleared out considerably. As the crowd thinned, my guitar was passed from hand to hand, and like magic, it was back in mine.
Don’t listen to what they tell you: those travelers who instruct you fear the metro as you would a gang of convicts. The metro was always on my side; always there to get me where I was going (at least until 1am — 2am on weekends). No harm befouled me, and I was only once harassed by the train police.
Just remember to always have a twenty-euro note handy for emergency bribes.