After several days in Paris, I recognize that a colorful, complex layer of navigation overlays our experience of the city. Moving from place to place is an experience separate from our destination. Our travels are packed with crowds of immense diversity, a variety of musicians, swiftly moving motorbikes and speeding cars, cobble stoned streets and grand boulevards. Then there is Métro, with its multitudinous stair steps, escalators and quickly closing train doors.
We are pedestrians, traversing streets and climbing steps, pushing Carnet tickets through turnstiles, boarding crowded Métro and RER trains, always seeking moment-to-moment direction from signs and maps. Métro rides are swift and efficient.
At first, Métro’s route map appears overwhelming, but Aggie seems confident and we buy our first Carnet (kar-nay) for 12.75 Euros. Our trips often involve several transfers. Each rail line appears as a different color on the map and instead of working our way north and south or east and west, we determine direction by the names of end-line-of-the-line stops. Marne-la-Vallee, Mairie de’Issy, Porte des Lilas, and Chãtillon-Montrouge. The names suggest mystery and the unknown. We rarely travel to the end of a line so the mystery is never uncovered. I cannot pronounce the names of these destinations, but I can spot them as we find our way from one line to another. We never lose our way. I marvel at this system that moves millions of Parisians.
“I always like to get to the first stop, so I know we are on the right track,” Aggie says with unintended pun. We begin to save single Euro coins for Carnet ticket machines. Before our trip’s end, we buy five more 10-packs. I calculate over 50 rides on the Paris Métro.
I quickly fall in love with Métro, enjoy the surge of people at each station. We walk beside black mothers with babies in strollers, men and women dragging wheeled suitcases, young lovers immersed in one another, students with backpacks, African men in grand tunics, women in stiletto heels, tourists and businessmen.
Everyone moves quickly along the endless flat underground escalators at Châtelet, up and down countless stairs and pushes through sortie gates. All deftly open and close umbrellas on the steps leading to and from the streets. They avert their gaze like New Yorkers. Aggie and I are old enough, and perhaps touristy enough, for young men to offer us their seats.
I like Métro maps. They are a puzzle I can understand. Maps are posted in each station and in each train car. The frequent signage leaves no doubt as to the destination to which we are heading. We carry maps in our purses and consult them often. Our home stop is Rambuteau at the Pompidou Center. We chart from there.
Our ears attune to the musicians who fill Métro’s white-tiled underground corridors. We stop to listen to a group of Ukrainians that includes two accordions, fiddles and a bass. We hear a saxophone player offer renditions of Miles Davis and ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, a duo of Peruvian lutenists, a 10-person Baroque ensemble, a violinist and an amped guitarist who plays one melody loudly and tiresomely.
No Métro station is exactly like another. Châtelet is grand and filled with contemporary lighting and riveted metal walls. Hôtel de Ville platforms are covered with what appear to be bolted copper walls. Every station's corridors are filled with advertisements in gold baroque frames.
Sight-seeing in Paris is a daily, moment-to-moment charting of the way. Following signs, checking maps, we become quite proficient at traveling from here-to-there.