Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sue Chenette: Underground

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.

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