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Tuesday, 1 February 2005

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Few cities in the world are more identified with their subway systems than Paris. One of the busiest metro systems in the world, it carries more than 4 million riders a day on some 16 lines to 300 stations. To ride it is a visual carnival, a living history, an urban love story about the chemin de fer, or "path of iron."
It's a story that starts at the Chatelet stop in Place St. Opportune, in the heart of Paris. It was one of the very first stops built for the very first line in 1900. It's also the world's largest metro station, with five metro lines and three commuter lines running through it. One of the original archways keeps the art nouveau metropolitan style that's the hallmark of the Paris Metro.
Standing inside the station, author Mark Ovenden says the style was the creation of "an amazingly young architect" named Hector Guimard. "He had the idea of building things out of this wonderfully laced wrought iron that looks like it’s kind of grown there, almost organically — the way that trees grow or that plants grow. It's a very organic-looking form and quite advanced for its time."






The art nouveau-inspired Metro entrances were designed by architect Hector Guimard.
Courtesy of Mark Ovendon
Ovenden is co-author of the book Paris Underground: The Maps, Stations and Design of the Metro. He believes the contrast between the Metro's ornate entrances and the formality of the surrounding boulevard gave the city some sense of nature. That might be one reason that Parisians grew fond of their Metro so quickly, he says. "They were also so totally unique."
In the late 1800s, Paris was well behind London and New York in building a metro system. Visitors to the 1889 Grand Exhibition that featured the Eiffel Tower had to ride a horse and buggy to get there — an embarrassment that spurred the completion of the Line 1 in time for the World's Fair in 1900. Built in 20 months, this first line of the Metro connected all the major Paris attractions.
Today it's a living, breathing, big-city system — and rife with fare jumpers. Ovenden sees one and calls out, "Fancy not paying today?" He suspects there are more fare jumpers in Paris than anywhere in the world — about one in 20, he says.
The Phantom Station
If there is one thing that captures the imagination of Paris Metro aficionados, it's the dozens of abandoned stations — many closed to be used for bomb shelters during World War II. The trains still hurtle past these empty stations without stopping, like the rail equivalent of the Flying Dutchman.
Julian Pepinster, who co-authored the book Paris Underground with Ovenden, leads tours of the Metro. As a member of the Regione Autonome de Transports Parisian's safety department, he also has the keys to one of these "phantom stations" — St. Martin, closed for 60 years.
It's well lit, but the sight of an enormous empty Metro station is still eerie. Graffiti taggers have done their worst here, but some unusual advertising art has survived. Pepinster points out amazing bas-relief enamel posters. They're semi-permanent advertisements dating back to a time when products didn't change very often.
An advertisement for a bleaching product, which dates from the French colonial period, is found in the St. Martin "phantom station," which has been closed for 60 years.
Jacki Lyden/NPR
One advertisement is both arresting and disquieting. It's for a product called Eau De Javel, bleach. The image shows the silhouette of a black woman through a white sheet she's holding up. "At this time, France still had its colonies in Africa," Pepinster explains. Ovenden translates the advertisement's message: "Here is a black woman, you can see her hand, but she uses bleach and becomes white." It's an ad that wouldn't happen now, they agree.
"What's really weird about walking down here," Ovenden says, is "when you look around you — apart from the graffiti — you realize that you’re on a normal Paris Metro station platform. Just the other side of this wall, which has been built since the station was closed, the train’s running. And if you look out the window when you’re on a train that comes from Republique to Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, you can see you're going through an old station."
Adrien Venturi, 11, calls the Metro system a "magic place."
Jacki Lyden/NPR
A Boyhood Love Affair
When Pepinster and Ovenden were little boys, they were perhaps not unlike 11-year-old Adrien Venturi, whose passion has been the Metro since the age of 3. He has the Metro memorized, from its history to its stops. Sitting in his family's flat near the La Motte-Piquet station, he describes the Metro's allure.
"It’s a kind of magic place," he says. "You go in one door, you go out another, you go down on the elevator and then you go up on an escalator."
Adrien says he doesn't know too many others who love the Metro as much as he does. "In school, teachers know how much I love it, so when the teachers are planning a trip, they always ask me, 'What is the best way to go?' 'Where should we get on the Metro?' 'Where should we change?' They know that I’m kind of the expert."
Adrien looks younger than his 11 years and a little like Harry Potter. His eyeglasses enhance his curious, intelligent face. He calculates the route he wants over a placemat depicting the Metro. Soon, he's confidently leading the way to Line 14 — his favorite.
It's an east-west line that connects France's biggest railroad stations. "It goes very fast, because there’s a very long distance between stations," Adrien says. He loves Line 14 for its speed, but also because it's modern and he likes the double doors that allow passengers to board. It's bright, too. "Not all stations are clean and well-lit," he says.
It's crowded on the Metro, but Adrien isn't bothered. "I find it normal," he says. "It’s what we call transportation, a common transportation. It’s for everybody’s use, so it's normal."
The view from the front cab of conductor Elodie Mura's train.
Jacki Lyden
From The Conductor's Seat
But it does get packed, especially in central Paris. At any one time about 600 conductors deliver hundreds of thousands of passengers to 300 Metro stops — and tunnels are being expanded in the system's periphery to the north and south, from Aubervilliers to Porte d'Orleans.
Elodie Mura is one of the drivers on Line 12. Driving through the tunnels, she points out some of the conductor's controls. "Around the lever here, you have this big ring that you have to activate. You have to do it, like, every 10 seconds or so," she says. "If you don't touch it or activate it, the train automatically stops, because in case the driver has, like, a heart attack or anything that goes wrong for him, so that the train doesn't go on, on its own.
She keeps her eyes out for people who might be tempted to jump in front of her train. "I think about it every day, because it could happen any time, you never know," she says. RATP's safety department says between 100 and 120 people commit suicide this way each year.
"You could have colleagues that can spend their entire life driving and it never happens to them," Mura says, "but others [have had it] happen several times."
But the summertime merriment of life on the Metro does not seem to lend itself to such grim reflection. At any one time, dozens of bands and performers roam the system. The acoustics are particularly good back at Chatelet station, where a Ukrainian band named the Musicians of Lvov play a folksong. It's a song of heartache; the story of a young couple who loved each other very much but had to separate because life was too hard. It has a sweet side, a happy side and a very sad melancholy side. For 1.60 euros per ride, who can beat a show like that?




Short story: 

An Engagement in Paris by Fanny Blake

TWO days before they were due to leave for Paris, everything between them changed.

Searching for the car keys Alan had borrowed, Jenna was hunting through the pockets of his jacket when her hand closed round a small box. She couldn't resist pulling it out and opening it. There, on a navy-blue velvet cushion, lay an antique ring: an oval sapphire surrounded by a single line of old, cut diamonds. Just the sort of vintage bling she adored. Aghast, she snapped the lid shut. A ring plus a long weekend in Paris could only mean one thing: a proposal.






Please, no.

She much preferred the trials of being a single mother to the disappointment of her marriage. She didn't want to go there again, and she'd thought Alan understood that. Their two-year-old relationship was perfect as it was. They lived apart, they got on well, they liked each other's children. Her 12-year-old twins thought he was the next best thing to Father Christmas, despite her entreaties not to spoil them. His 19-year-old son had grudgingly accepted her as part of his family.

The view across Paris from the steps of Montmartre was breathtaking. Behind Jenna, the white-domed basilica of Sacré Coeur basked in the sunshine. In front, the Parisian roofscape extended as far as she could see. As she stood beside Alan, listening to the street musicians below, he slipped his arm around her. She stiffened. Now? But he just smiled and suggested they explore Montmartre.

She had been on tenterhooks ever since they had arrived at the Gare du Nord. At dinner that night, she squinted to the bottom of her champagne glass just in case the ring was drowning there. She studied the waiters for a telling air of expectation. She held her breath back at the hotel when they took their brandies on to the terrace of their room. But after 24 hours, Alan still hadn't said a thing.

She had her reply ready: "I love you Alan. But..." But what, she wondered. What was really holding her back?

When they approached the ticket office at the Eiffel Tower - another romantic opportunity if ever there was one - Alan took her hand.

"Shall we take the lift?"

"To the top?" she squawked, as he reached into the inside pocket of his linen jacket.

Her heart beat faster. Not now. "I'm terrified of heights. I couldn't," she gasped, lying to avoid potential public embarrassment.

Failing to hide his disappointment completely, he pulled out his wallet.

"You've never said. Are you sure?"

She nodded. He didn't insist, just put his money away. As they walked off to find a bistro that served steak frites instead, she wondered if she had done the right thing.

On the Pont de l'Archevêché Alan hung back, transfixed by a young couple locking a padlock on to the side of the bridge where hundreds of others hung, then throwing the key into the Seine. A token of their undying love. The girl gasped audibly as the boy dropped to one knee and produced a ring. Love was definitely in the air. While the bystanders clapped, Jenna's fingernails dug into her palm as she remembered the padlock Alan had bought for her case at St Pancras.

She couldn't imagine anyone being more thoughtful than him. Nothing was too much trouble. As the days went by, undiluted by the demands of children and work, she saw him in a new light, and became less sure of the reply she would give. Together they visited Notre Dame and the Louvre, walked through the Tivoli Gardens, took a river boat down the Seine, and sat watching the world go by from the street cafés. The more they explored, the more she fell in love with Paris. And with Alan. Every step they took was imbued with an air of romance, of expectation. But nothing was said.

At last, wandering through the Place Vendôme, arms around each other, Jenna braced herself again. The holiday had only a few hours left to run - and she no longer knew what she thought. By saying no, she would risk losing him. Staring into a jeweller's window, the reflection of a contented middleaged couple gazed back. "How beautiful," he said of the displayed rings. He appeared not to notice Jenna tensing beside him. "Mum asked me to get her old engagement ring valued last week. I was stunned by how much it was worth. I put it straight into the bank." He laughed.

Jenna didn't. Instead, a bubble burst. The ring hadn't been for her at all.

A wave of crushing disappointment washed through her.

At St Pancras, it was dark and raining. They stood waiting for a taxi in silence. How she wished Paris was still theirs. Soon they would be in their separate homes, planning their semi-attached weeks ahead. But wasn't that what she had wanted? An image of the ring flashed across her mind. They stepped back as a taxi pulled up.

"Alan?" She spoke almost without realising.

He turned his head towards her as he opened the door. "Yes?"

"Do you think we should get married?" His expression revealed he was as startled by her question as she was by having asked it.

What have I done? She climbed into the cab, wishing she hadn't been so precipitate. What was happening to her? Paris, she replied to herself, that's what.

But perhaps he hadn't really heard. Perhaps he would ignore her.

Alan slid on to the seat beside her, shaking the rain from his greying hair, and then leaned forward to give directions to the driver. Finally he turned to her. How would she cope with his inevitable refusal? He took her hand. Jenna's heart did a quickstep. Her hand shook a little in his and he squeezed it as he gave her the most generous of smiles. "I thought you'd never ask".
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