It was nearly 7 a.m. Paris time, a full nine hours ahead of my body’s clock, which thought I was still in the Bay Area even after a 13-hour flight and two nights of no sleep.
Under these conditions — with around 90 pounds of clothes and books that I didn’t end up reading — my first metro trip from the Charles de Gaulle Airport to my hotel in the 13th arrondissement was, needless to say, horrible.
While packing three days prior, I figured, “Hey, six weeks abroad, I might as well take full advantage of American Airlines’ rather generous baggage restrictions” — one large, free checked bag, one carry-on and one personal item. So, I filled my bags to their breaking point. But after lugging my belongings up the first flight of stairs at our transfer point, I wished I had packed lighter.
Already sweating, I rolled my suitcases through a long hallway and down two sets of stairs, hitting each cement block with a loud, echoing clap. I was relieved to sit down on the uncomfortable green, plastic chairs on the next train, not knowing how many flights of stairs awaited me at our final station (there were three).
By the last set of stairs, I couldn’t muster the strength to go any further — my friend had to retrieve me and my luggage from the second step.
It wasn’t until my next few metro rides that I began to realize that the smelly, old subway would be central to my entire experience in Paris. Of the countless French-isms I gleaned from riding the metro, these four ultimately enhanced my understanding of the city’s culture:
1. Personal bubbles don’t exist in Paris.
In America, personal space is inherent in all public social interactions — we generally respect the idea that everyone is entitled to the immediate foot of space surrounding their person.
But, there’s no such thing as a personal bubble in Paris. French people occupy space as efficiently as possible, meaning they leave no room in between each other. On the metro, especially during rush hour, Parisians fit as many bodies as they can into a single car, forcing many faces into armpits — and awkward physical contact between unknown body parts from unidentifiable persons — causing a sharp increase in temperature thanks to all that body heat.
2. Parisians love their dogs.
At home, my dad insists on bringing our family’s two dogs everywhere we go — to Peet’s, Office Depot, Safeway, etc. The dogs like to go on trips, he says, even if that means they’re stuck in the hot, cramped trunk of the Suburban.
In Paris, nobody leaves their pups in the car. In Paris, dogs have the same perks as people, even the right to sit on a seat in the metro or on a chair at a cafe.
Parisians allow their dogs to poop wherever they like and almost always refrain from disposing of their waste. I’ll just say if you make it out of the city without stepping in dog poop, you’ve managed to do the near impossible.
3. Parisians speak quietly.
The only conversations I could ever hear when traveling on the metro were the ones between me and my friends from my travel study group. Even while speaking at what we considered a normal volume level, we were the loud, obnoxious Americans and the only people who could be heard throughout the train.
Despite the French people’s disregard for personal space, personal conversations are kept private. No one talks above the purr of a cat. It’s rude to do so.
4. Parisians relieve themselves wherever they please.
Immediately after passing through an underground metro gate, a gust of air smothers you with the smell of piss, and if you walk a bit deeper into the metro tunnel, the smell of butter croissants — sold in most stations — meets head to head with that of human urine, creating an odd dichotomy between savory and foul.
Parisians, who are well-known for their affinity to publicly display affection, are also proponents of public urination. During my five weeks in Paris, I saw firsthand three counts of Parisians peeing in broad daylight — one of which involved a woman in her 20s who squatted along the Seine River next to Pont Marie and took a surprisingly well-aimed piss, for a female.
If the Eiffel Tour is the global icon of Paris, then the metro is the true symbol of the city itself.
Although the metro has few conveniences, like a rare elevator, and possesses a constant smell of urine alongside the harsh sound of trains screeching on tracks, it played an integral part in my Parisian experience. And not just because it got me everywhere I wanted to go, but because it allowed me to see Paris stripped of its cafes, globally-renowned monuments and museums and delicieux food.