Life On the Big M

Life on the big M


Jayne Tuttle finds that the Underground movement is still strong in Paris.

I run and jump into the carriage as the buzzer sounds, even though there is no need for such haste. On Paris Pink Line 7, trains come every two minutes at this time of the day. But two minutes can be a long time to spend at Chatelet Metro station, especially when it's stinking hot, the station is packed and next to you is a lady screaming blue murder at a man on a bench. And there is no man on the bench.

Doors bang shut. I am greeted by a sticky, well­dressed, human mass. I can smell at least five different types of body odour ­ light and fruity, tangy, rich, aged, fennec. I don't really know what a fennec is but when The Frenchman has ridden his bike to my place in the sun and whiffs under his arms, he says, "Whoo, smell the fennec." Apparently it's a small desert animal. Perhaps it's like my brother's lynx. I squeeze my way through the bodies, saying pardon, pardon, to my favourite Metro position; back pressed against the opposite doors like a Garfield suction toy, avoiding with all possible might the terrifying prospect of touching the greasy metal pole 2000 salty Parisians have slid their buttery mitts over. Off we go, whoops, pardon monsieur, I trip on a tourist­looking man, oop­la. I love the Metro. What would Paris be without it? You're never late. It's reliable. It has wheels. If I can't ride my bike, one of my favourite "discover Paris" pastimes is:

1. Jump on Metro.

2. Jump off at random station with interesting­sounding name.

3. Get lost.

4. Find nearest Metro stop.

5. Repeat.

Stations have their own character and design. Some are classy and pristine with curly art­nouveau exits, some are plain and stinky. The worst, such as Opera and Les Halles, have unidentifiable liquids leaking from the walls, suspicious puddles everywhere and a stench so strong I have to hold my breath and think of flowers. Whereas at sparkling Louvre­Rivoli I could happily host a dinner party wearing stilettos and a ballgown. Bonne Nouvelle has happy writing, Abbesses is so deep it's like descending into an arty, crumbling mine shaft, Arts et Metiers has cool copper signs with rivets. But my favourite station is Palais Royale, with a colourful gazebo entrance like a bejewelled sea urchin and a built­in wiggly bench that is fun for a little sit.

The Metro is great. The only problem is the rush­hour squish factor. Uh­oh. There is a man pressing up against my side and I fear it is another Papie Frotteur. Last time I had an older gent press himself up against my leg, I was so distracted by the creepy sensation that I didn't notice him pinching my mobile phone. But then at least he had a goal. I would prefer that to your standard Frotteur, the man who stands just that bit too close with a disturbing expression on his face, a phenomenon that can only occur in overcrowded city transport. You feel trapped, there is nothing to do but stand, breathe, and go to your happy place.

"Mademoiselle?", I am startled from my Bestest Ever Australian Actress in a Best­Ever Foreign Film Oscar moment by the sweet voice of an unbelievable­looking Frenchwoman. She is pointing at my feet, where, in my slipperiness, I have dropped my carte orange (the coveted and oft­stolen monthly trainticket). I awkwardly squat down to pick it up. She called me mademoiselle. I have started getting madamed and am not much enjoying it. Usually it depends on if my hair is up or down; today it's up and I got mademoiselle. Quelle treat. To add to the joy, the Frotteur has shimmied towards the stunner and I breathe a sigh of relief, then quickly feel bad for her. I hope she has a good imagination.

There are a few seedy characters to be found on the Metro. If Le Frotteur is eerily gentle, a more rough­love train buddy is the Le Turnstile Jumper, the friendly fellow who, as you are taking your carte orange from the slot, will bang suddenly up behind you, taking your breath away, and squish through the gate, attached to your rear as though you two have become one. Some Jumpers are polite and ask before they violate. Others just ram you and leave you in a state of bewilderment as they tear off, dodging the ticket inspectors to take the final seat on your carriage.

But today there is no seating left to even fight over. As I ponder the pros and cons of fare evasion and wonder what Ms is in French, the train pulls to a halt at Pyramides and, thankfully, a whole heap of people jump off.

Relief. I can breathe again.

A busker hops on with a rusty trumpet and a set of speakers on a trolley. He has an enormous black beard and is wearing patchwork jeans. The tourist-­looking man and his young blond son stand shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot as the busker starts playing his trumpet in their direction and dancing weirdly. He presses play on his stereo but it doesn't work and he kicks it and continues playing. He turns to blow the instrument towards me and I try to look away but it's a relief to have at least some air flow in here and now I'm smiling because he's funny and it's too late I'm going to have to give him the 56 cents kicking around in my pocket collected for such occasions.

I love the buskers. At Chatelet, where a lot of tunnels meet, there is a space where fantastic bands play. They are actually paid to be there. I sometimes plonk on the stairs among the passing ankles and listen. They often sell CDs but I never buy one. The good musicians are lovely but, most of all, I love the bad ones. The Metro tunnels and carriages are teeming with them. Then there are the absolute shockers, either completely oblivious, or going for the sympathy vote. They're my favourites. I often pay them. Especially the ones that have portable speakers and tacky electronic beat machines to which they attach their microphones and sing top­40 hits in various languages with gusto.

At Chaussee D'Antin, a huge swell of Galeries Lafayette shoppers fresh from the summer soldes removes any relief the last exodus of passengers bought. They natter excitedly about their bargain purchases, clasping copious bags of all different colours and I consider jumping off to go on a mad spree. Anything to breathe again. Alas, the familiar "BEEEEP" and the doors are shut, with me up to my eyeballs in shiny cardboard and strong perfume. The tourist­looking man and his son assume a new position closer to me and I notice the older one is dressed strikingly like my dad.


What would the Big Man be doing right now? Taking the dog for a walk along the beach? Watching the footy replay? Playing canasta with nan eating Violet Crumble? Chatting to Milly across the fence about the weather, holding a VB in a Great Barrier Reef stubby holder?

I suddenly feel very far from home. Especially as the busker is now beefing out a loud baritone version of Non, Je ne Regrette Rien and the supermodel just whacked the Frotteur with her handbag. In this carriage filled with Paris sweat, baguettes banging legs and the sound of French chatter, Australia feels another world away.

But it is uncanny how much this guy does resemble my dad. He couldn't possibly be French, in an unpretentious pair of stonewash jeans, sneakers and a baggy jumper with some sort of hardware logo on it. I feel an inexplicable surge of affection rise inside of me.

The bearded busker exits with his jingly cup at Le Peletier and the tourist­looking man turns fully around to face me, relieved.

I suddenly realise that the man's jumper, which looks like one of the ones dad would get free with 10 lengths of plywood, reads something like "Tools Australia". My suspicion is confirmed. Before I have time to think, I have already blurted out, "Hey, are you Australian?"

"Ye­eah," replies the man, with a pleasantly thick accent.

I suddenly feel like I've been pulled out of an enormous, sticky croissant and teleported Tardis­like to the middle of a good old Aussie backyard. This man is my motherland. I am aware I have only three stops until I have to get off and my mouth moves faster than the train.

"Why are you in Paris which area are you staying in do you like it what have you seen where have you been how long are you here where are you from in Australia?"

"Melbourne", he says. No way! Whereabouts?

Turns out the guy's from the street around the corner from where I grew up. The little blond kid goes to the same primary school I went to and knows my brother.

And as we hurtle hot and stifled through the subterrain of France's capital, I am standing by the barbie, cup of Fruity Lexia in one hand, Cheezels on each finger of the other, discussing the finer details of brackets, power drills and do­it­yourself.

Another happy place.

But oh too prematurely I am jolted back to the here and now by the familiar swing of tracks as the train pulls in to Gare de L'Est. Before I can shout "say hi to dad for me", the doors slam shut and my friends fly away to their home in the sky. Or Montmartre, where I think they said they were staying. I wave for a second then decide not to get nostalgic over two people I spent precisely four minutes with. The train has bolted anyway. The familiar bustle and smell of my home station greets me, as do the bare buttocks of a man as he graffitis the wall with his own personal spraycan. I resist the urge to deal them a swift backhand and climb up the 63 steps to the tabac, where the nice man calls me "mademoiselle". When I finally appear out of the little Metro mole hole into the fresh air, the sun is shining. And I am in Paris.