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Metro Mania: underground in Paris


« Attention a la marche, en descendant du train »— French phrase for “Please mind the gap”. The animated voice blares through the speakers of the metro yet still manages to retain the sweet seductiveness inherent in the French language. Quickly darting out of the automatic doors of the metro car, I am obligated to offer several pardonez-moi to the other pedestrians who I inevitably bump into as I brush past. I follow the extensive underground labyrinth of halls and moving sidewalks which are constantly crowded with a myriad of local commuters. Stealing a quick glance at my incredibly high tech, fifteen euro cell phone, the fluorescent digital clock on the one inch square screen blinks 21:45. Merde! After quickly doing the fast math my mind has yet to become accustomed to, I realize it is now 9:45 pm—naturally I am running late for my rendez-vous with my new friends from school. Normally my habitual tardiness does not faze me, yet an anxious feeling grows in my croissant filled stomach.

Since being in France for a little over a week, I have rudely awakened to a culture shock much more severe than I had originally intended. Throughout the summer I prepared for my voyage abroad, looking upon forewarnings with disdain and, embarrassingly, quite a bit of conceit. Admittedly, the mandatory travel seminars and the advice from concerned family members led me to regard all warnings of the shock of displacement with as much respect as I would the disclaimer on a box of cigarettes. Apparently much more emphasized in France as the bottom half of every single cigarette box contains the bold white words « Fumer tue» (French for smoking kills). In reality, what really kills me is the stereotypical French hypocrisy rooted in this advertisement. This aside goes as unnoticed as a male teenager, wearing jeans that are tighter than mine, each time he opens his cigarette box for the trillionth time… just counting this afternoon.

“Mademoiselle, bouge-toi, s’il te plait! Vite!” God, how come a French woman can ask me to move my ass without sounding totally rude, simply because she speaks French! Her reprimand snaps me back to reality where I realize I am motionlessly standing on the left side of the escalator, whereas you walk on the left side is and stand on the right side—maybe this is why I am late. The worry washes over me again as I fear that my new friends will forget about me since we have not yet exchanged our new French cell phone numbers, nor do I know mine, nor do I have service in the metro anyway. I bank on the fact that my housemate, Amrita, will keep an eye out for me and hold the crowd before they make their way to the fondue restaurant we all planned to dine at via Face book—a communication saving grace.

In practically walking a marathon trying to traverse the Montparnesse-Bienvenue station to find the line 12 train from the line 4, I luckily reach the platform of the line 12 train with one minute to spare. “Direction Porte de la Chapelle, prochain train dans une minute, le suivant dans cinq minutes” resonates through the empty, tiled metro tunnel, informing passengers the next train going in the direction of Porte de la Chapelle will arrive in one minute, and the following in five minutes. The telltale rumble of the train entering the tunnel sends vibrations throughout the entire track and platform, signaling the train will arrive any second and tacitly beckoning the awaiting crowd to approach the edge of the plateau in hopes of gaining a prime standing spot- or if lucky, a seat. However, being peak time on a Friday evening, towards the terminus of the line, with the array of people already waiting, there is not much luck for achieving either of these two hopes. In boarding the train, I struggle to hold my ground; although in actuality keeping my own two feet on the pavement will be an accomplishment as I am moved by the crowd like a detached piece of coral sucked into the incoming wave. Once safely aboard the metro, I push my body against the sliding door in an attempt to steal the luxurious coldness of the metal opposed to the stuffy humidity of the air in the cart.

After several stops, I sneakily found a safe perch– standing in the half foot of space between the fold down chairs and the hinge of the door– enough people have cleared so I can unfold the squeaky plastic chair and find some repose without attracting dirty glares, as sitting apparently occupies more room than standing. In just a few short days here in Paris, I understand most American’s misconception concerning the haughtiness of the Parisian culture. Yet, I truly appreciate that the French will let you know when you do something wrong. Although at first, these glares and reproaches may be a blow to ones confidence, or simply weird since in New York people ignore everyone else around them, I find the French intuitive to the unaccustomed traveler who would most likely benefit from any reproach when violating the status quo. Even though I have already lost my patience once or twice, I truly believe these remarks will aid me in my search to encompass all of the characteristics of the classy, timeless, flawless, French mademoiselle.

In glancing at my Franco-phone (pun intended), I am now coasting on 30 minutes late– awesome. With only seven metro stops away from my destination station Abbesses, located in Mont Mare, a chic African French girl boards the metro and assumes the seat across from me. I become immediately enthralled in the outrageous outfit she is wearing; acid washed gray denim jeans with a matching crop jacket, African hair in its natural fro. At first glance I condemn the girl, and the outfit, for being stuck in the 80’s with the acid and the frizz, yet upon further inspection, I realize I actually adore the bold ensemble. The harshness of the denim is contrasted with a slightly low cut, satin black halter top—revealing just enough, yet perfectly conforming to the famous, French mystique. Her studded black leather satchel and black suede pumps appear to be straight off the shelf of Neiman Marcus, yet none of her clothing items bare any brand. Her flawless mocha skin accentuates her plum red lipstick and metallic pewter of her eyeliner, which she is currently touching up. Not a single thread of insecurity can be found in the girl’s presence. I desire the confidence she has to design, wear, and work her outfit—something I will later find comes naturally. The French have always held the reputation as leaders in fashion, yet I automatically revise this maxim to add my own aside; the French are leaders in fashion, because they wear what they want and do not care what anyone else thinks. I store this away as a mental note to add to my rapidly growing list of “to do’s” to become more one with the culture.

Suddenly jerked about by the brakes on the train, just now noticing the girl must have descended several stops before, I hear the Amélie reminiscent voice announcement that we have arrived at Abbesses. Stepping onto the platform with my new found motivations, the irony of my most recent thought provokes a laugh as I climb the winding stairs of the Abbesses station as Amélie herself does in the renowned French film. The familiar sound of adolescent voices speaking English echoes in the winding hall as I mount the rest of the stairs, and my fear of abandonment vanishes like the smoke of a cigarette into the night air. In rounding the last bend, I spy a carousel, hear accordions, and smell crepe dough wafting from the makeshift kiosk—oh la, la! For the first time since my plane landed in Charles de Gaulle airport, the feeling of anxiety morphs to excitement. J’arrive à Paris.

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