Fun (and possibly useful) facts about the Paris metro

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Musician playing an interesting variant of the violin on the RER B train to Roissy. Picture source: me.

In a previous post, we saw some basic principles of politeness on the Paris métro.  Here are some other fun facts about the subway experience in the City of Lights.

  • There’s a whole genre of panhandling that takes place on the métro and on Paris-area trains.  Someone will get into the car and declaim a speech.  “Declaim” might not be the best verb here, as it’s typically done in something of a monotone.  It typically begins something like this: Mesdames et messieurs, je suis désolé de vous déranger pendant votre trajet.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to disturb you during your journey.”  It then proceeds along the following lines:
    1. I am homeless/I have 5 children/I have lost my job and am unemployed.
    2. I need a place to stay tonight/food for my children/money to pay my rent.
    3. I would appreciate money/lunch tickets/a few sous.
  • The mendicant then walks through the car holding out his hand (it’s primarily men that do this) or a paper coffee cup.  If it’s a young street person carrying a backpack and a leather jacket, he’s probably not going to get much.  If it’s an old person, a few people will give him money.  Then he gets off at the next stop and gets on another car.  Linguistic note:  it is taken me over a year and a half to be able to understand one of these guys.
  • Musicians on the subway and on local trains are a real thing, not just a cute cliche.  Sometimes they will be playing the accordion that we’ve all seen a thousand times in the movies, but they also may sing, or play any of a variety of musical instruments.  You’ll see this not just in touristy areas, but even on the train that I take out to the suburbs with tons of other people on their way to work or to the various and sundry universities south of Paris.  I would guess that they are organized in some way, as the majority of them show up with the same loudspeaker and canned background music.  (See above for one of the more bizarre things that I’ve seen in this respect.) I encourage you to give these folks some money–they’re out there working for a living, and they’re one of the things that gives Paris its usually-wonderful ambience.  In addition, it sometimes takes some courage for these folks to do what they do, e.g. the guy who plays the recorder in one of the stations, frequently including Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) in his repertoire.  This is risky in a city in which anti-Jewish violence has recently been pretty severe.  One of my favorites is a guy who often sits in the Cluny-La Sorbonne station, west-bound quai, on Saturdays.  He alternates between playing the er-hu, playing the flute, and singing truly impressive Chinese songs.
  • There’s usually an excellent map of the immediate neighborhood somewhere in a métro station.  However, its location is somewhat unpredictable.  Sometimes you’ll find it on the actual subway platform, and sometimes outside of the turnstiles.  Check before you leave the platform; if you don’t find it there, try again once you exit.
  • In his book Five nights in Paris: after dark in the City of Light, John  Baxter claims that massive amounts of perfume are pumped into the métro system on a daily basis.  I can’t say that I’ve ever smelt it, but I did find a couple of articles from 1998 that are consistent with the claim.  (Here’s one.  Here’s another.)
  • It’s said that within Paris, you’re usually not more than 10 minutes’ walking distance from a metro station.  This is probably true.  If you’re near a metro station with multiple lines, you’re probably about 30 minutes door-to-door from any place in Paris.  Add a bit if you’re near a metro station that only serves one line.

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