parisians as characterized by their metro system

I’ve been in Paris for approximately one week. Maybe less. My host mother lived in New York for five years and I’m surrounded by Stanford students in class, so I haven’t really been able to absorb a lot of French so far, but this is about my first impressions anyway.

Not that I want to stereotype. But there’s some sort of hidden rulebook for manners and conduct that a majority of Parisians seem to have read. To begin, you need to understand one thing. The director of the Stanford in Paris program worded it best:

“The Americans, they like to take care of you. They want to know your needs. The French, not so much.”

Parisians, in particular, have two salient characteristics. One, they keep things running smoothly. Two, they know what they want.

This is not a culture where every waiter is capable of waiting for you as you make a decision. They simply do not have the time. (Btw, one or two waiters often run a whole restaurant or café at lunch. Keep this in mind if you want to have a sit-down lunch: it can take about two hours. Also, vegetarians beware: most restaurants can’t cater to your needs. Don’t be a bitch about it. Just pick the meat off your plate.)

People may seem rude, but they’re sure as hell efficient. Have you ever used the Paris Métro at rush hour? It’s a beautiful thing. Trains come every two or so minutes (the wait time for the next two trains is prominently displayed at each platform), and you usually have to pull a handle to open the door you want to get into (I assume it preserves the air conditioning).

There are no announcements for each stop (except for line 1, which is fairly new and tourist-prone because it’s the line for the Louvre, the Concorde and the Champs-Elysées), so the wait time at each stop is usually about thirty seconds. People don’t try to keep the doors open because the doors are quite vicious– as the warning labels on the windows say in multiple languages, they can “pinch your hands very strong”.

warning on french metro doors

There are fold-down seats near each set of doors. When a large group of people comes in, the people occupying these seats stand up to make more room for everyone. This never fails. Very old people and people who have a pile of paperwork on their lap are exempted, but otherwise it never fails. (Or else you get a dirty look.)

There are no elevators on the métro, so old ladies with groceries or people with heavy bags (like me on my first day) are assisted by a small army of young and/or strong French people up and down the long staircases. In addition to being a random act of kindness, this facilitates traffic.

The only thing to be careful of in the metro (besides pickpockets) is the long line at the station counter, where a single attendant (maybe two, if you’re lucky) sells tickets and passes. These lines tend to be long at all the wrong times because there’s just no room for ticket machines in the station before entering. Fortunately for most Parisians, you only need to get in these lines every so often– a ticket can be issued for months at a time, and the touch-and-go NaviGo pass can be refilled online, or so my host mother says.

If you’re from Manhattan, you’ll feel a bit more at home than most. If you’re from a suburban or rural area in the United States, don’t cry at the lack of friendliness from strangers. Smiling is considered an overt come-on. If someone does smile at you, they’re probably about to follow you home and rape you.

I don’t want to end on a bad note. Hmm, what can cheer you up? I’ve been getting fat off of desserts lately. If you think Parisian waiters are extremely rude, don’t worry: the food they bring usually more than makes up for it. If you’re vegetarian, get a few entrées instead of an actual dish. And dessert. God, I love the Hôtel du Nord‘s tiramisu.


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This is a blog of things place-related, by a cash-strapped Stanford grad who's lived in various places and writes about life. She's currently looking for a job in Manhattan or the Bay Area.

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