Reflecting on my first week’s and a bit of experience of “Paris,” I realized that I have only known Paris by its underground. 14 trains, 26 metros, and many escalators and stairs later, I’ve gone from being overwhelmed by the massive transportation system to now assertively stepping into a crowded cabin and stating “Pardon!” to have the crowd part and make space for me.
This fervent hopping on and off of trains and metros is because I temporarily lived with my mom’s friend’s family 30 km south of Paris in a commune named Brétigny-sur-Orges, and work in a sub-urb north of Paris in Neuilly-sur-seine.
My first time traversing the long distance from Neuilly-sur-Seine through Paris to Brétigny on the weekend, everything was seen and heard with wide eyes and open ears. I found it amusing that the recorded messages on the metro that reminded me to be aware of pickpockets played first in French, Japanese, English then German (perhaps there’s a lot of Japanese tourists). Out of the unfamiliar French surroundings, I spotted familiar things- some Canadian Goose jackets, American exchange students and also hear the angry English rap lyrics of Enemim being blasted out of a teenager’s earphones.
While on the train, towns with old buildings on sloping hills passed by. There are also the Banlieus, poorer sub-urbs littered here and there, large gloomy buildings with balconies full of strung clothes and other random items. It was nice that I could see what the areas surrounding the huge city of Paris are like.
However, my first day at work during rush hour proved to be a much difference experience. For once, I glad I didn’t have enough time to eat breakfast- my eyes watered because of the strong urge to gag. The dank, cement underground tunnels with smells of urine, sewage along with other stenches is exemplified when there’s waves of people all jostling to get to where they need to be. I needed to step aside from the frenzy to stop and double check if I’m following the correct signs, or else I’d be carried along right with the masses of people.
By the third day having spent over 8 hours on the trains and metros (extra time allotted to getting lost) I was desperate to shorten the commute. I was tired of being packed like a sardine, of smelling the weird combination of perfumed people mingled with subway smells of some of the small underground tunnels, of constantly walking up and down the escalators and stairs.
The fourth day proved even worse when there were technical difficulties on my metro line and people pooled waiting for the metro doors to open hoping for pocket of space on the tram cars to push into. After being afraid to squeeze on and seeing three metros pass by, I was desperate to get to work at a reasonably late time. I heaved myself onto a cabin and as I was trying to grab onto the pole, another hand that was on the same mission accidentally swiped mine. *shudder, what a creepy feeling* Squeezed in, I could pretty much breath in the hair of a girl in front me, and needed to turn my head or else be nestled underneath a man’s armpit. If you couldn’t grab on the arm holds and poles, no worry, there were bodies and bodies to cushion you when the train braked or turned. I got quite close to people in Paris, literally.
But now, over a week later, it’s surprising how fast you can adjust. Despite the unpleasant description I’ve provided, there’s also moments of human kindness. People who take a moment to hold the barrier gate for the person behind them, a man who helped a stranger carry her stroller down the metro steps, a woman who pointed out a newly empty seat to an elderly man. I still always have my bag firmly clasped under my arm and but not as hyper vigilant. My body has probably learned how to breath less when underground, or at least not inhale through my nose when in dank, smelly tunnels. I may not be able to avoid the crazy metro systems, but can’t wait to reduce the commute once I find a place in Paris!