Sights new and old

Just outside the Palais Royale is one of my favorite metro stops:

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One of the best parts about getting to know a place is finding things like that: the special places you love, not just the places that make the lists in a guide book. Just across the street from the Palais Royale is a Corsican restaurant we’ve loved since we found it in 2009 (after the Tour de France): Casa Luna. It’s another place that doesn’t make anyone’s top ten list of must-sees in Paris, but we go there every time we’re here.

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(This was last year when we went there with friends; no pictures from today’s visit.)

But even through we could fill this week with hitting all the places we love and have enjoyed before, we’re making time for new places as well. Today we went to a small museum that’s currently featuring the urban artwork of Invader, something Evelyn was excited to see. (I wrote about tracking down his work around Paris here.) And we also finally got to the Paris aquarium–which is only a short walk from where we lived when we lived here, but we never got to it.

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Evelyn liked the arch of streaming water that we passed through on the way into the aquarium. It was a great time–lots of sharks and seahorses, jellyfish and rays, huge lobsters bullying each other, and all kinds of fish we’d never seen before. We were there for a good two hours.

Then off to Bercy Park–another place we love–and now back to our apartment. Tomorrow: catching up with more friends. Goodnight!

Love and beauty… on the métro?

Everyone has a story about riding the métro in Paris.

It’s convenient, efficient, and can get you all over the city. I’ve seen wonderful musicians playing on the trains and in the corridors. But it can be dirty and often smells. Sometimes passed-out drunks practically have entire cars to themselves as their stench wards people off. Four times I’ve witnessed, in the words of a friend here, “the infamous métro puppet show” that a certain guy puts on at the end of the car with his ratty puppets, a curtain held up with a bungee cord, and an ancient crackling boombox. I’ve even seen a guy grab a woman’s cell phone and make a run for it.

And then there was the crazy experience of not understanding the announcement from the driver, not realizing everyone had to get off, and before I knew it the train had left the station and pulled into a holding area to park! Fortunately I wasn’t the only unaware idiot and enough of us made enough of a racket, pounding on the doors, that the driver finally drove the train ahead to a platform to let us out.

But today, I share a different kind of métro story from my friend Samantha, another expat at my church here in Paris. A story of beauty. Of humanity. Of love. Here are her words:

I was riding the metro and watched as a blind woman was helped inside by another woman. Her stop was the same as mine and I watched again as the other woman told the blind woman when to get off and which direction to go for the connecting metro. I wanted to help her, but was held back by my lack of confidence in French. However, seconds later, I watched as an older gentleman walking the same direction asked the young blind woman if he could guide her to the next metro. They walked arm in arm the whole way there. The blind woman and myself got off at the same stop again. I considered trying to help her, but couldn’t remember any of the French words I needed to use. Sure enough, I watched another woman approach her and offer to guide her.

Watching this blind woman being passed from person to person was one of the most beautiful displays of love I’ve ever seen. There are a lot of bad things happening in our world right now, but there are a lot of really amazing things happening too.

So true.

I, for one, will miss the métro when we move back to Seattle.

A surprise in Châtelet

A word to the wise: don’t, under any circumstances, if you can at all avoid it, unless your idea of a good time is forgetting what the outside world looks like… use the Châtelet métro stop in Paris. It’s an endless labyrinth of interlaced corridors that go on and on and on–so that you’ll swear you’ve already walked farther than you’re even going to go on the blasted métro (if you ever get to it). And you might be right.

Five métro lines intersect down there and you can also connect to three different RER lines at the Châtelet-Les Halles station (which is technically a distinct station from the métro stop, and is the largest underground train station in the world), that is, if you’re willing to put in the steps.

But sometimes it’s more work to avoid it. And sometimes–like today–it’s nice to get out of the rain. And sometimes, you’re rewarded with something unexpected.

I’ve posted before about the music scene on the métro, both on the trains and in the stations. Today we enjoyed something special:

Four violins. One viola. Two cellos. And some nice resonance in the tunnels. I usually avoid Châtelet; today I’m glad I passed through.

Music on the métro

After yesterday’s account of a mugging on the métro, how about a happier story today. Yes? Okay. Cue the music…

It’s not uncommon to hear musicians on the métro. Both on board and in the tunnels. On the line 6 we get plenty of accordion players (all playing the same five songs), often accompanied by little karaoke rigs blaring out their back-up tracks. For me, the novelty has pretty much worn off. But there are musicians we do enjoy hearing.

Like the soprano sax player who often plays unaccompanied in the evenings at the Charles de Gaulle Étoile station where we catch the 6 to get home. Some good resonance there for his sultry renditions of mellow soul hits from the 70s, like “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (the guy really digs that one–and he plays it well).

Or the young guy with the low-slung guitar on the line 2 late at night when Carolyn and I were coming home from the Simple Minds concert a week after the Paris attacks (yes, at the venue where they recorded their live album back in the day—gotta relive the 80s when I get the chance!).

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Usually people barely acknowledge the musicians and try not to make eye-contact when they walk up and down the aisle with their cup held out for spare change. But that guy had the whole car singing along, taking pictures (like me), capturing some video (like the woman in the picture), and even crossing the length of the car to give him money. Are you kidding me? You definitely don’t see that every day.

This morning, two older, vaguely Spanish-looking guys got on (just a guess—there are people from all over the world on the métro, and these guys didn’t look or sound particularly French) and made their little announcement they they were going to entertain us and hoped for some coins. Some of the buskers will say this kind of thing before they get started, others just get on and crank up their accordion without any introduction. Now, they’d gotten on behind me, and at first I didn’t turn around. But then they started playing.

First off, it was something other than the usual: clarinet accompanied by guitar. Nice. And second: they were good. The clarinetist’s fingers must have been smoking, the keys melting, he had so many notes blazing out of that thing. (The last time I heard such a flurry of notes from a woodwind was at a jazz festival in the 80s with Kenny G, who never plays five notes when he can play a hundred-and-five.) But more than that—it was tasteful. Not just an athletic display of virtuosity, it was musical. And the guitarist was keeping up with his friend, strumming away on his Glen Hansard-esque, almost-worn-through-the-soundboard classical guitar.

When the clarinetist came by with his paper cup, I gladly fished through my pocket for some change for these guys who’d definitely livened up the quiet ride to the Opéra stop.

Yesterday I saw a mugging on the métro. Thankfully, what I saw today is much more common. Granted, it’s usually the accordion guys, not Spanish Kenny G trading his sax for a clarinet, but that’s okay.

Mugging on the métro

Ten seconds. Ten seconds—if even that—and the moment was over, the only thing left to do was head home.

FullSizeRenderI had just caught the métro at the Dupleix station in the fifteenth arrondissement. Blue skies, bright sun, but only a few degrees above freezing. It was 3:40 in the afternoon and I only had to go two stops on line 6.

I’d spent the last hour or so at a little bakery where you can get a coffee without paying extra to sit at a table. Nice! (But really, what’s wrong with that place—don’t they know they can charge at least an extra euro for that?) Sixty minutes of organizing a whole load of documents I’ve created over the last year full of backstory material, character notes, and world-building ideas. I’m a little over a month into working through the second draft of my novel, and when you’re inventing a fictional world from scratch, there’s no shortage of things to keep track of—technology, architecture, history, religion, even just what kind of things people eat for dinner… and on and on and on. It had been a good session but I was ready to shift gears. I was even thinking it might be good to write another blog post. You know, set the sprawling multi-year project aside for a bit and write something fun.

So: laptop packed up, scarf wrapped tight, baguette for tonight’s dinner in hand, on the way to the Passy stop. Throughout most of Paris the metro runs underground, but this stretch is elevated above the street and affords some nice views, even crossing over the Seine just southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It was a typically quiet ride. People almost never talk much on the métro; when I do catch snippets of conversations it’s as likely to be among tourists as not.

I found a place in the front of the car where the folding seats are as well as a pair of vertical poles to hold on to. It wasn’t particularly crowded. I easily could have found a seat, but for such a short trip I didn’t bother, so I was leaning against the front wall of the car. Sitting on one of the folding seats was a woman with a mane of curly hair spilling over her scarf, tapping away on her phone. Texting, or surfing the internet, I didn’t notice, but whatever it was, she was very intent. Across from her, a youngish guy slumped in his seat, hardly anything distinguishable about him under his big winter coat. A middle-aged man with thinning black hair got on and I stepped back to give him some room. The doors closed and we sped off to the next stop: Bir-Hakeim, the one closest to the Tower.

We got to the station and the doors opened. I was facing the open doors, not particularly focusing on anything as a few people stepped into the car. And then: a blur of movement burst into my peripheral vision and I spun my head to see the young man in the big coat rushing the woman and then he instantly tore away and lunged out doors and onto the platform. Immediately she was yelling. But it wasn’t a scream; he hadn’t hurt her. It was shock, it was alarm—it was anger. And then I realized what I’d seen: he’d snatched her phone right out of her hands and was running away with it.

Those who had gotten into the car poured right back out and a moment later at least three people had the thief pinned against the wall of the platform. The woman got right into the fray and ripped her phone back out of his hands, all the time berating him in a steady stream of loud, angry French.

It’s still hard for me to understand spoken French; Parisians in particular are known for speaking so quickly that comprehension can be a challenge for novices like me. So I didn’t catch a word of the torrent of outrage that she was blasting the young man with. But her tone of voice, her body language? That I understood.

Ten seconds: that’s all it took from the time he grabbed the phone out of her hand to the time she tore it from his. I was still on the métro, still stunned by what I’d just seen. I looked down and noticed a small shopping bag on the floor where she’d been sitting. It appeared to be a few frozen meals. I picked it up and joined the circle surrounding the would-be thief. One of the men holding him was dialing on his phone, calling the police, I assumed. The woman was still venting her anger. When she took a breath I held up the bag to her. “Excusez-moi…” She took the bag, turned back to the young man and started in again. I watched for another moment and then got back on the métro.

The buzzer sounded, the doors closed, and we pulled out. The Seine was soon passing beneath us, the Eiffel Tower standing starkly against a cloudless sky. I got off at the next stop and walked the few blocks home.

As I made my way, it occurred to me: if the thief had just timed his crime better he might have gotten away with it. If he had grabbed the woman’s phone when the buzzer sounded, he could have dashed through the closing doors and been running down the platform before people knew what had happened. For her sake, I’m glad he hadn’t thought of that.

I can still picture the look on his face as he stood on the platform, held by the Good Samaritans. He didn’t look like a hardened criminal. He didn’t look like anyone who would even make me nervous or make me check that my wallet was still in my pocket. He looked like a kid who had just gotten a bad grade on a test or who had been scolded for not making his bed. It was hard for me to tell how old he was. Sixteen? Twenty? Should he have been in school? Did he have a bed? Had he done this kind of thing before? He didn’t look homeless, but whatever his situation, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. What would happen to him now? I have no idea.

It’s a bit ironic: this morning I was perusing a forum where people were discussing an area in the outskirts of Paris known for pickpockets, where you probably don’t want to go alone at night, and where you need to have your wits about you at any time. But there’s a great cathedral there, so it’s on my list. I was thinking of going out there today, but decided to save it for another time.

Instead I stayed close to home, on familiar turf. And witnessed something I’d never seen before. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. Paris learned that lesson last year. I was reminded of it again today.