how to spend 19 hours underground

by David Sadegh

     I admit it, I love driving just as much as anybody, especially when I can speed down a deserted highway with the radio turned up full blast. But in general, cars suck. They rob you of your money and time (try reading something while you're driving - believe me it only results in headaches and large mechanic bills). One of the many reasons I'm in Paris is that it is home to one of the most wonderful metro systems in the world. Not only can you get around Paris quickly and easily, but each metro station has a personality of its own, many featuring unique architecture or even educational and artistic exhibits. The fact that every station seems to have its own character gave me the idea to spend an entire day in the metro system and really try to see everything there was to see underground.  I would start on the first metro at 5:30 in the morning, and not come back out until the doors closed at 1:15 a.m. the next day. Was this possible?  For food I would only eat what was available underground. For entertainment I would rely completely upon the sights and sounds around me as I made my journey through the day.

     I was ready to do it. At 5:15 Saturday morning I made my way to Port de la Chapelle where I would be able to catch the first metro on the line 12. On the way to the entrance I realized I didn't have any change on me, a definite handicap if I was to take advantage of the various vending machines available during the day. Luckily I passed a convenience store in my rush to get to the station in time, and I was able to get some change. Now whether the machines would actually work was a different story (I must have lost hundreds of francs in those blasted machines). A couple of minutes later, I was inside. I put my little green ticket through the slot and came out the other side. The first metro was sitting there, waiting for me to climb in. And so I began my day.

     I wanted to ride every line at least once, though I didn't even attempt to hit every stop on every line. I also didn't want to get trapped anywhere, so I avoided turnstiles even when I could make a legitimate transfer. It wasn't until after I had puchased my first round of vending machine snacks that I realized something ? I didn't know where a bathroom was inside the metro. I mean sure, for some people the whole metro is one giant toilet, and they use the omnipresent gutters accordingly. I have in the past seen men using the "facilities", and once I even saw a woman supervising her small child whilst he peed towards the wall... Oh well, I hoped to avoid the dilemma altogether with a little luck and by drinking as little as possible.

     There are people who live in the metro. They are the ones asleep, stretched across the seats, or else gathered in a seated huddle deep in discussion, often with dogs in tow and obviously not in a hurry to get anywhere. Sometimes these guys fool you by actually using the train. At my first change, Pasteur, I got off and saw further down the quay a very slow man with a cane was struggling in vain to get to the doors and open them to board the metro before it left. He could not get the doors open in time and was forced to wait for the next metro, which he successfully boarded. There was much to see in the Pasteur station, historical displays and whatnot, and by the time I got around to the other side of the quay, the old man was back, seated and talking to a friend of his. He had run whatever errand he needed to and was already back at home, relaxing next to the lights along the tracks turning yellow, purple and blue as the trains came and went.

     Pasteur is one of the nine showcase stations in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Parisien public transport. It is filled with information about the man and the Institute of the same name, and here you can read about the 1930 french hygeine campaign when people were informed that it was a good idea to take a bath at least once a week. At Europe (another exposition station, on the line 3) are video screens comparing the daily habits of people living in the various european capitals. I spent a great deal of time reading walls covered with a century's worth of trivia at Tuilleries (organized by decade and conveniently written in French, English, and German). Montparnasse Bienvenüe had the most to see, with photography displays in several hallways, videos near one of the main exits, and interesting metro facts from A-Z all along the lengthy conveyor belts that join the 13 and 6 lines with the 4 and 12. The opposite wall along this people-mover sports super-enlarged faces of people who were born on the 19th of July, sharing their birthday with the Metro itself.

     In addition to the new exhibits, there are other stations with permanent displays. At the Parmentier stop you can learn about the man who convinced France that the potato was indeed safe to eat, demonstrating that this peruvian vegetable was not just food for lepers. The walls at the Hôtel de Ville station are lined with giant pictures of the Hôtel at various stages in its history. The ceiling of the Cluny-La Sorbonne station is covered with a giant mosaic artwork (400 m2 with 60,000 pieces) that includes oversized replicas of the signatures of Descartes, Victor Hugo, Sartre, and dozens of other french names I should probably recognize.  The line 12 stop at Concorde is ingeniously decorated with the text of the Rights Of Man, one letter for each square tile covering the walls of the quay.

     As the day ended I realized I had not even come close to seeing all there was to see in this underground paradise. It would take a full day on each line to come close to that. Also, interestingly enough, nothing really out of the ordinary happened. No trains stopped unexpectedly while I was on them; there were no fiery wrecks (I think there have only been a handful of wrecks in the whole time that these things have been running).  No, it was business as usual, people in a hurry on their way somewhere, basically taking it all for granted.

     When I got off the last metro I noticed about five people on the other side of the quay, even though the last train in that direction had come through half an hour before. I didn't have the heart to yell out to them that it was too late, and anyway, the employees in the station would be around soon enough to dash these poor souls' hopes. Soon enough they would be forced up into the cold air and freezing rain, and maybe only then would they come to appreciate the few moments when they had the warmth of the quay, the company of fellow travelers and vagabonds, and the feeling that there was something good around the corner, one more train on its way to take them safely home.