Paul D. Wilke
Lessons Learned on the Paris Metro
My daily commute on the Paris metro is a people watcher's delight. Every day I see something interesting. Maybe it's a beautiful woman dressed like a runway model, or perhaps an older gentleman with just the right scarf, worn just the right way, looking like a distinguished professor from the Sorbonne.
Other times, I come across the panhandlers trudging through the cars and reciting sad monologues in rehearsed monotones before making their way with a hand out to take whatever spare change people will give. They're great at making and maintaining eye contact. We're great at avoiding it. And so the balance is maintained.
My favorites, though, are the eclectic mix of musicians I come across. Châtelet is one of the largest underground metro hubs in the world, with a warren of underground tunnels connecting five other lines. Millions pass through here every day in the heart of Paris. This attracts a variety of musicians and street performers who earn a living playing for spare change.
One of the regulars is a middle-aged Russian couple who play instrumental versions of the pop classics. The wife plays the electric keyboard, and her husband plays the sexy tuba. I'll pass them on my way to work, him tooting his tuba, her slowly swaying back and forth at the keyboard, with her eyes closed and a dreamy smile plastered on her face like a Slavic Stevie Wonder.
Elsewhere, at Place de Concorde, a red-headed woman of around 40 does karaoke Streisand, but with less passion than the Russian duo. Every morning I see her standing in the long pedestrian tunnel there with her music box. She sings, slowly, fitfully, but never for more than a few moments. In the time it takes for me to pass by — maybe 30 seconds — she'll invariably stop to fiddle with the settings on the music box or get something out of her bag. Every day, the same thing.
Then there is Caberet Slav, made up of eight middle-aged guys from Lviv who sing traditional Ukrainian folk songs in a loud baritone. I find them on most afternoons at Concorde between 4:00-5:00 pm. I look forward to it. Hearing Ukrainian sung like this sends waves of nostalgia over me, taking me back to the time when I lived in Kyiv and heard this kind of music every day.
That such an extensive transportation network developed a personality and culture of its own should not come as a surprise. London's "Tube" is an integral part of its identity, much like New York's Subway, Berlin's U-Bahn, and Chicago's "L," just to name a few.
Named for the company that initially operated the network, La Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Metropolitan de Paris ("The Paris Metropolitan Railway Company"), the Paris Metro is the second largest in Europe, behind Moscow's. Its 140 miles of track connect 244 stations that transport 4.1 million passengers daily to work, home, airports, train stations, and tourist sites. Most Parisians have a metro station no more than two blocks from home to take them wherever they need to go. Though an efficient and reliable means of transport, its communal nature means that regular passengers inevitably begin forming a catalog of amusing Metro anecdotes that they share with friends and family. I have a few of my own.
A few months ago, for example, I boarded the train and saw a solitary drunk guy, not an unusual sight at that time of the day. The pre-rush hour metro often carries the inebriated flotsam and jetsam from the previous night's bar hopping. The night is not yet over for these lost souls, though it probably should have ended hours ago. No one took them home, sadly, and so they are left to wander the trains like drunken ghosts.
On this warm autumn morning, I had the entire car to myself except for this one drunk fellow. I immediately realized why. He was slumped in his seat, head sagging forward, and seated above a large splat of vomit spread out on the floor beneath him.
It looked like he had already thrown up his dinner from last night, his lunch from the day before, and perhaps a large stack of pancakes from yesterday's breakfast. How can one person have so much in his belly, I wondered? I corrected myself: it's not in his belly anymore. Then the smell of vomit hit. Vomit has always been an olfactory trigger for me. Seeing puke, smelling puke, makes me want to puke, elevating the risk of a runaway chain reaction of puking. Cause and effect.
The worst thing was — and I throw up a little in my own mouth typing these words — the man was slowly scooping up his chunky-soup vomit off the floor and eating it: one, two, three handfuls of puke, straight from the floor to his mouth. Slurp, smear, slurp, and then I was out of there as fast as I could go, trying to think of something, anything, other than what it must be like to be that guy right at that moment chowing on his chow from a few hours ago. I held my nose and fled to another car filled with more sober commuters.
Here, everyone acted like it was just another morning commute in Paris, eyes forward, headphones on, present but not present, and most importantly, no one re-eating their last meal. I sometimes wonder where this guy is now, who he is kissing with his barf-tainted mouth, and whether she knows where that mouth has been.
Another time, I witnessed something a little more thought-provoking. I was waiting at Charles de Gaulle Etoile to catch the Blue 2-line train home after work. The westbound 2 at Charles de Gaulle Etoile is only a few stations from the end of the line, so there are usually not many people waiting. It's great for peace and quiet but not much fun for people-watching.
This day turned out to be different. Only a few people were waiting, and most of them were glued to their phones, except for one guy who stood out. He was a tall, thin, nerdy-looking white dude in his late twenties and doughy-looking, like someone who doesn't get much exercise or sunlight. He wore oversized coke-bottle glasses and had an under-bite that defaulted his expression into a permanently goofy, mushy grin.
Shoulder slouched and pigeon-toed, he was intently pacing back and forth on the platform, gently nodding his head 'no' while mumbling to himself as if in conversation with someone in his head. But still, always, that goofy grin.
At one point, he stopped his pacing to check out a garbage can. A disposable plastic bowl from someone's recent lunch got his attention. He grabbed it out of the trash and held it up while squinting to get a better look before then gently putting it back where he got it. At this point, I filed the guy away into the category of eccentric but harmless weirdo.
My train pulled into the station. I watched the first few cars go past as they slowed down to stop. In one of those cars, I saw a bleach-blond obese woman of around 30 dressed in a lavender-colored top and matching pants, both a few sizes too small.
But what really stood out was the bright pink fanny pack wrapped around her waist that screamed "tourist!". Parisians are generally slim, fashionably attired, and aloof. Ms. Fanny Pack was none of those. Instead, she was looking out of the window and laughing and pointing with childlike abandon. How could anyone be this excited to reach their stop? I figured she was just a wide-eyed American from the Midwest having a great time on vacation.
Then her train car passed and I didn't think much more about it. I boarded and took a seat, settling into my state of being present but not present, just like everyone else, headphones on and eyes forward. But as the train started to pull out of the station, I looked out and saw the most incredible sight.
The goofy guy with the coke-bottle glasses was sitting next to Ms. Fanny Pack. They were sitting together on some red plastic chairs next to the vending machines, wrapped in each other's arms. That childlike laughter I had seen a moment before was her excitement at seeing him on the platform waiting. Likewise, he wasn't just a crazy guy talking to himself but also someone eagerly awaiting the arrival of his sweetheart.
She was both laughing and crying at the same time, with her head resting on his shoulder. He was grinning from ear to ear as he caressed her back. Together, these two souls were beautiful, purely, wonderfully, unabashedly beautiful, and their affection for each other was an inspiring sight to behold. For that moment, the entire universe for them extended no further than those two red plastic chairs.
Then my train moved into the tunnel, and they were gone.
The moment was only tainted by the uncomfortable realization that, only two minutes ago, I had summarily judged both before dismissing them from my smug little people-watching universe. He was just a weirdo. She was just a fat woman with a fanny pack.
That, and nothing more.
Yet they were not the ugly ones, not anymore, not at that moment.
No, I was.
Odd how a perspective can suddenly shift when a lazy first impression gets burned away to reveal something unexpected.
All I can say is that I'll try and do better next time.
And then the next time.
And the next time after that.
I'll have many more opportunities, no doubt.