Musings on Commuting

by Charlotte Parker

PARIS — My mornings have finally settled into a rhythm over the course of my first week or so here.

I wake up, say bonjour to my host mother, Floriane, and her green flowered dressing gown, enjoy a breakfast of baguette, yogurt, and fruit, and then set out the door at ten o clock sharp, with Baya the floppy-eared dog barking goodbye. My commute begins with a steep uphill climb for several “blocks” along Rue des Compans, followed by an equally sharp descent into the belly of the Metro.

My host family, a retired couple in their sixties, lives in the 19th Arrondissement, a district of Paris located in the Northeast corner of the city close to the peripheral highway that divides Paris proper from the suburbs. My school sits smack dab in the middle of Paris, in the 6th Arrondissement, which means that in order to get there and back from my apartment, by my rough calculations (45 minutes x 2 times/day x 10 days), I have spent around 15 hours hurtling by train under Paris since I arrived here at the end of May. That is almost as much time as I have spent in class, and indeed the Metro has become another classroom of sorts for me, a stage on which to watch the French culture we discuss in class unfold.

Lesson one: Paris is extraordinarily diverse, especially as one moves farther and farther away from the center of the city. Until I switch lines at a hub station near Notre Dame, my co-passengers are at least half of seemingly North African or West African descent. I hear much accented French (thanks to France’s efforts to promote the French language around the world — see here for more on the International Organization of La Francophonie—even recent immigrants speak French well, albeit with accents or very specific dialects), and envy the women their strikingly patterned dresses and stiff head wraps. As might be imagined, the outer neighborhoods — traditionally in the Northeast of the city, as well as the banlieues, or suburbs — are home to more working class people and immigrants, while the center and southwest host the Parisians of popular stereotypes, in their 19th century stone apartments. This is all changing as nearly every neighborhood in Paris has recently been “revitalized” and, some might say, taken over by, clusters of yuppie hipsters, or bobos (bourgueois-bohèmes) — more on that before I leave in July! — but in the meantime, there are fewer Gallic Parisians near where I am living than near the Eiffel Tower, for example.

Lesson two: PDA is completely normal and accepted. I have seen multiple Metro make-out sessions, and even my well-coiffed co-passengers don’t bat an eyelash. This is perhaps because they are busy reading — I have the impression that France’s is a very literary culture — but might also be because, as my professor said today, “they are happy for the lovers!” Indeed, while not immediately outgoing, I have found Parisians to be demonstrative with their families, and, though slower to open up than the Italians and Argentines I have lived with, well-meaning and interested in foreigners once the ice has been broken.

Lesson three: French women wear heels. They even totter around (as I saw yesterday) when it is 7:30 pm and they have to run home to make dinner for their crazy 7-year-old son, who has made them carry his scooter and is tugging at their sleeves (trench coat, no less) — and their ankle is bound by an ace bandage. Pure dedication.

Over the past ten days, I have tried to become a bit of what I have absorbed on my daily commutes. I relinquish my folding seat if the car becomes especially crowded; I read the free newspapers stacked in the corridors between train platforms; I hide my map in a notebook; and I dress a few notches up from what I would wear to class in New Haven, which means more sweaters and scarves (even in June!). I haven’t gotten to the heels yet, but I am convinced that once I woman up and buy myself a nice pair, no one will look at me like I’m a foreigner…

Charlotte is a rising sophomore in Calhoun College. She is spending June taking a French culture and conversation course in Paris.

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Filed under culture, Europe, Overseas Bureau, style, transportation

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