Monday, August 10, 2009

Pt.2 Ou e La Metro? We Don't Need No Steenking English!

In Part One, we left everything familiar to us, and got on a plane which took us to Paris. At this point of the narrative wandering around with our suitcases in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

In the Airport - Still!
Now what? We were on our own, and suddenly things started looking very French. Nothing was in English anymore, and though it seemed like we came over with at least a partial planeload of fellow Americans, but everyone we saw was suddenly a foreigner, or actually it was we who were the foreigners. Let’s go to the hotel and sort things out. How do you get to the other end of Paris?

We attempted to ask about a bus, about cashing traveler’s checks, but nobody understood, or wanted to understand English. It was 6:30 a.m. in an airport we had to get out of. A crabby Englishman had a tourist bus which would go past our hotel, for which we had to wait two hours, and which cost $40 each. We looked for a place to cash traveler’s checks. The only place which would take them, because the bus would not take them, was the equivalent of a “check cashing” place, and they charged a commission of 40 francs, about six dollars to cash them. Seemed a bit steep, but after going around the hallway one more time (a round building is a great place to go around in circles.), we decided to do it. The airport was suddenly a very cold and uninviting place. It was actually hot. We would notice that the French do not use very much air conditioning. We were dragging 200 lbs of luggage in four suitcases, and our first hour in Paris was turning into a real nightmare. We cashed 1000f (about $200).

Next stop, a taxi. AHA! Taxis are waiting right outside the taxi door, but — combien? — they wanted 500f to get out of there (that’s $100.00). Joyce said that the taxis could keep waiting. We took another turn around the airport, even the unfamiliar faces were beginning to look familiar. We asked at a car rental place — they didn’t talk English, they didn’t take traveler’s checks. We began to notice another thing about Paris: everything smelled like piss. For about half-way around the hallway, one could smell the reek of the public restrooms.

Finally, Joyce said “Let’s ask the sweeper” indicating one of the janitorial personnel. It was a cinch that he didn’t take $100 taxis to and from work. He understood little English, but we asked him “Ou e La Metro?” and he told us that there was a shuttle bus that ran to the subway terminal, because you couldn’t catch La Metro directly at this airport.

After a few false starts, asking every bus that stopped, we asked “Is this the bus that goes to the train station?” They didn’t understand English, or they didn’t want us to go to the train station, so they pretended not to understand. Finally, the driver assured us that his was the bus that went to the train station. It was a spacious bus, with plenty of room for bags (we found out later in the ride that our “luggage bay” was actually meant for a wheelchair) but since we were the lamest thing on board at the moment, they let us stay in the wheelchair slots, standing while the bus careened around road ramps, onto highways, through blood-curdling lane changes (especially standing up with rolling luggage).

We came to stop at a huge concrete and chrome building, with hundreds of people waiting in front of the door. Never found out what all the people were waiting for. We went inside the building. It was a train terminal. The clerk found out where we wanted to go, issued us tickets for 40 francs each (about $8), and motioned us to a row of turnstyles, with instructions to “don’t forget to get your ticket back”.

Our first Metro ride was about to begin. We had a map, and instructions to change at “St. Michel” They said “San Michelle” and we said “Saint Michael”.

I ran a ticket into the slot of the turnstyle. It was promptly sucked in, and came out the other end. The turnstyle was enabled for me, but not for my suitcase. Someone helped us understand that you could put the ticket through the turnstyle as many times as you wanted, provided you had our kind of “all-day” ticket. We remembered to take our tickets. Once on the other side of the turnstyles, there was lots of space, but the entire area was enclosed by fences. The only outlet was an escalator and stairway that went down. The entire area below and above was brightly lit by skylights. At the bottom of the escalator, a train was leaving. Judging by our luck, that was our train. Turns out, all the trains were our train. Once you’re waiting by the right track, all the trains follow the same route. We didn’t know that. Two ladies came down the escalator after us. We asked them if they knew any English. They didn’t, but they tried to communicate with us. We determined that we were waiting for the right train, because we were going to St.Michel.

The next train arrived. The trains are electric. There is hardly any motor noise, only a very distinctive rolling, whirring sound, a comforting sound that I would grow to love. The train stops, the doors open, people get off, people get on, a horn blows, all doors close, and the train leaves. This entire sequence takes place in about fifteen seconds — you have to know what you’re doing. No hesitating in the doorway, and don’t let go of your suitcase. In trying to make these, we occasionally received help lifting and dropping the suitcases from complete strangers, who made no big deal about it.

Inside the car — remembering that it was only six in the morning for everybody but us — everyone is usually silent. Above each door is a schematic map of the train you’re on. The map is a color-coded bar about five feet long, with circles representing each stop in order. If you’re on the right train, the order of the stops will match the order of the stops on your map. The designers of the maps never “simplify” the routes, they mention all the stops all the time. Within seconds of the door’s closing we were accelerated to top speed — it feels like from fifty to 70 miles per hour. The ride is very smooth. Very, very close, there is another set of tracks, for trains in the opposite direction. From time to time, our train passes other trains. With a combined speed estimated at 180 miles per hour, the two trains do not spend much time passing each other. And it is so quiet. You hear a sudden sucking sound, as the two trains get into each others airstreams, then during the quiet coupling, you can see a blur through the windows — you can’t look directly at it and tell that it’s another train out there. Then another sucking sound, as the airstreams disengage, and the train is gone. This whole process takes on the average of two seconds. They seem so close together, they are actually more than a foot apart. Don’t put your hands out the windows. I don’t even think the windows open in these trains.

Our first ride took us into a tunnel, lit at intervals by fluorescent lights, but very, very dark in contrast to the brightly lit interiors of the cars. The cars have seats, some facing each other, some facing sideways, and in the doorway there are fold-down seats, as well as areas where you can stand and hold onto poles if the car is full. Some cars are double-deckered, and you must step either up or down to get to a seat, or remain in the doorway. When fully loaded, we usually opted for the doorway, trying to keep our bags out of the way of boarding passengers. Passengers did not find our luggage unusual, this must happen quite often. At some transfer points, some passengers even helped us on and off with our suitcases within the 15 seconds allowed.

We emerged from the tunnel seconds later, and stayed above ground at ground level for most of the way, occasionally going up to elevated tracks to work into traffic patterns. The scenery at first glance looked like 1940s or 1950s Chicago, primarily two and three story buildings, with very abundant graffiti. The graffiti all looks very fresh, it must be an endless battle. After looking at the buildings a bit more closely, however, it could be seen that the buildings were much, much older. There were many round-arched windows, and the roof facades and roofs of the buildings looked distinctly like nothing you’d see very often in the United States. Instead of shades and screens, most windows had wooden shutters, which they usually close — it must be very dark inside these buildings.

The train came to a stop — PANIC — is this it? Quick — where is this stop on the map? The stops are all labelled by blue signs with large white lettering, which is easily visible from inside all of the cars, as the train stops. Strasbourg — St. Denis — Now, we could see our stop coming up on the map — Reaumor Sebastopol — Les Halles — hey, this is fun — Louvre — St. Michel — Let’s get out! Time to transfer!

Where we got out was a more typical station than the one we started at. It is a completely artificially-lit tunnel, a semi-circular tube of shiny white porcelain-surfaced bricks. Some parts of the tunnels smell strongly of urine, but there is evidence of almost daily cleaning. There is no litter scattered about, and only occasional is graffiti or evidence of vandalism seen in the tunnel stations. There is usually some sort of seating bench, either a plastic bench, or a row of individual plastic seats, usually yellow. Along the walls, and extending up into the vaulting curve of the walls, are posters advertising upcoming events. Movies and theatrical events were the main poster subjects. Most movies are American movies which would be just off of first-run in the United States, presumably dubbed or subtitled into French, probably dubbed, judging from what we saw on the television channels. People on and off the Metro are usually silent, and staring straight ahead, as on an elevator, but no numbers to stare at. Occasionally, we heard small blasts of what sounded like accordion notes.

Next: Will they EVER arrive at the hotel?

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