According to my very unofficial survey, most expats have a love-hate relationship with the Paris métro. (I suspect Parisians do too.) I remember a cold, grey February conversation with a young American woman who had ras le bol, which is to say, she had had it. “That awful, dirty hole in the ground,” she called it. Sometimes I feel that way too.
That said, descending into the métro, greeted by a particular, cinder-y smell (which John Lichfield, The Independent’s long-serving correspondent in France, has described as “something between burnt air and rotting bananas”), the screech and whoosh and whine of a train entering the station, the chook of the levers that open the doors—this can make me unaccountably happy. (Maybe it's simply that it means, “Paris.”)
Life underground is a microcosm of Parisian life above ground. Passengers read, converse, busk a living with a trumpet or an accordion, check text messages, embrace, and sleep, in a crowded car that mirrors the space in cafés with their close-packed tables, or the narrow sidewalks where you lift your umbrella over that of the person coming toward you in the rain.
The French are conscious, above or below ground, of what’s required to live together in shared space. They say “Pardon,” and “Excusez-moi,” and make room for your knees when you sit down across from them. And if they forget, they are reminded. This fall, it was impossible to miss the series of posters with a sloth sprawling in a subway seat at rush hour, a chicken in a pink trench coat talking loudly on her cell, a frog jumping a turnstile.
When you take the métro late at night—the crowds gone, maybe two or three other passengers encountered as you transfer from one line to another, following the correspondance signs—the tiled walls, the long corridors with their varied gradients and odd-angled corners, the flights of steps which you climb only to reach a short hallway, turn a corner and descend again: all come into clearer relief, making their claim as structure, the way mountains do at dusk. If I had a cat’s nine lives I might devote one to making a model of the Paris métro, every distance and elevation and angle replicated on a match-stick scale.
When I finished, I would add the stairs that lead to trees and sky.
‘The crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s his immediate pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re not the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody—these are just a few of the minor pleasures of those independent, passionate impartial minds whom language can only awkwardly define. The observer is a prince who, wearing a disguise, takes pleasure everywhere. The amateur of life enters in the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.’ Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, USA: 2001.
Loie Fuller, dance artiste in fin-de-siècle Paris, 1902
Lumière film, “Serpentine Dance II,” (1897-99), shows the fantastic twirls with billowing silk swathes of Loie Fuller.
World's First Film Poster
Cinématographe Lumière: World’s first Film poster advertising the Lumière brothers cinematographe, showing a famous comedy (“L’Arroseur Arrosé,” 1895).
'Gazing is such a wonderful thing, about which we know little; in gazing we are turned completely outward, but just as when we are so most, things seem to go on within us, which have been waiting longingly for the moment when they should be unobserved, and while they are happening in us, intactly and strangely anonymously, independently of our consciousness, their significance gradually grows in the object without a convincing, powerful name, their only possible name, in which we joyfully and reverently recognize the happening within our soul, without being able to reach it, only quite gently, quite remotely comprehending it under the symbol of a thing that immediately before was quite strange to us and in the next moment is again estranged from us.'
If art is among your full-blown obsessions or just a budding interest, Google, which has already altered the collective universe in so many ways, changed your life last week. It unveiled its Art Project, a Web endeavor that offers easy, if not yet seamless, access to some of the art treasures and interiors of 17 museums in the United States and Europe…
On the virtual tour of the Uffizi in Florence the paintings are sometimes little more than framed smudges on the wall. (The Dürer room: don’t go there.) But you can look at Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” almost inch by inch. It’s nothing like standing before the real, breathing thing."