September 03, 2004

Riding on the Métro

It doesn't make much sense to own a car if you live in Paris, unless you wish to use it to travel outside of Paris. Problems associated with owning a car include the fact that there is nowhere to park it and that the traffic is horrible - traffic jams are the norm.

Underneath the city of Paris, France is a labyrinth of tunnels - the Paris Métro and RER rail system.

The Métro opened on 19 July, 1900. The system has 124 miles of track and 15 lines. There are 368 stations (not including RER stations), 87 of these being interchanges between lines so that every building in Paris is within 500 metres of a métro station. There are 3500 cars which transport roughly 6 million people per day.

During the time in which I lived in Paris, I spent a lot of time in the Métro. It's like it's own little world in there. There are vendors who set up in the tunnels to sell anything from purses and jewelry to fruit (some of the best I've had. Mangos....mmmmm). There are bums who practically live there (you can smell them before you see them), panhandlers and musicians who play for hours on end for the money people put in their hats or guitar cases.

Soon after I arrived in Paris, I got a big fat refund check from the college because I had tested into a much higher program than expected. It was too late (void if not cashed with 30 days) to mail it back home to put in the bank, so I was forced to cash it at a money exchange joint. So, with over $1500 worth of French francs in my purse, I hit the Métro to go home. Paranoid as hell, I am standing in the crowded train imagining that everyone around me knows what's in my purse. An arab, most likely Algerian, Morroccan or Tunesian (more on the Arab/blonde thing later) inches closer and closer to me, giving me the eye. About the time that our shoulders touch, I am prepared to kick his ass if necessary. I lean over towards him and tell him, in the most perfect french I can muster and a hushed tone "J'ai un pistolet dans ma poche (I have a pistol in my pocket)." I said nothing more. His face went white as a ghost and he slowly inched away from me. That took care of that!

One time, I fell asleep in the train on my way home from some late night fun. I was awaken by the "everyone off - end of the line" buzzer and found myself way out in the suburbs. Dang! Long ride home.

I had a friend, Glenn from California, who was writing a book about experiences during his travels. I am supposed to be in his book, though I have never heard if it was published or not. He put the pistol in the pocket incident in there. He also wrote about the time that he and I, out of sheer boredom, whimsy and curiosity, decided to become Métro musicians. He brought his guitar and I my fife (yes, fife) and we camped out in the tunnels playing our little renn-faire style tunes. It was a lot of fun and we made quite a bit of money that day.

The most significant Métro memory I have, however, was not a fun one. It was down right frightening. I was with my French roommate - Anne, and my friend Tupou who is from Tonga. We were coming home on the Métro around 10pm, sitting in the "booth" like seats, me facing the two of them. A young man was sitting behind them - let's call him loner. Two men got on at one of the stations, and they sat with the man behind my friends - one next to him and one in front of him. As the train barrelled down the tunnel, I saw the man next to loner pull out a hand gun and stick it in his ribs. I said to my friends "oh my god, that guy's got a gun" and, simultaneously, all of the passengers sitting behind me hit the floor. Loner jumped up and grabbed the gun, which was still being held onto by the other man and they began fighting over it, falling over the seats and into the aisle. Shots were going off as we were all becoming very intimate with the floor - a window was shot out and bullets where ricocheting off the walls of the train.

As the train came into the next station, we dove for the doors. I was frantically jerking at the mechanism that opens the door (they open automatically, but some times stick) prematurely as the train screeched to a halt as I crouched as low as I could get. A shot rang out and I felt the impact on my foot. As all of the passengers burst out of the car, me being one of the first, I looked down at my foot fully expecting to find a smoldering hole there. No hole - it must have hit the floor right next to my foot. I was dumbfounded as I watched the passengers run one way up the stairs and out and the robbers run the other way.
My friends and I were ok, and Loner was cursing and spitting on the tracks. One of the robbers had sprayed him with mace. We asked if he was ok, and he managed to say that he will be, so we ran out of the station. Needless to say, the three of us did not sleep for a long time. We had so much adrenalin rushing through us. We felt fortunate to be alive.

Next Installment: The Burden of Being Blonde in Paris

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