Sweat was dripping down my temples as I stood squished between the business men and women on their
way to work and tourists with their oversized suitcases headed to the airport. My hands were slipping down the pole in the middle of the tiny little car that was already overflowing with perspiring, malodorous people. The doors had been open for at least twenty five minutes. Were we ever going to leave?
The metro often went on strike during the summer that I worked in Paris. I actually knew the Paris metro was going on strike that morning, but that didn’t make the experience any more pleasant. In order to get to work each morning, I dutifully boarded the metro. The RER usually left at least four times an hour from Gare du Nord, but that particular morning, the frequency of trains slowed to a trickle, and I must have waited an hour on the stinky, smoldering train. Mais, c’est normal! Ils font la grève! (But it’s normal! The Parisians always strike!)
Yes, it is “normal,” at least in France, for municipal organizations to strike. Don’t let it get to you. Just appreciate the esprit of the French. You’re bound to run into la grève, French for strike, when visiting Paris. Fortunately, French unions plan well in advance, always announcing their plans prior to holding up everyone’s day.
Had I been any other tourist taking the train to the airport, I would have loathed the Paris metro system, but every time I’ve been to the city of lights, it has been my reliable mode of transport. I could trust the metro’s consistency and its sprawling nexus of rail lines making travel in Paris a breeze. Oftentimes in New York, I long for the Paris metro. My experiences with the generally loyal, swift, and ubiquitous metro outweighed its lack of performance that fateful day; my faith persisted.
The Paris metro transports over 4.5 million people a day and contains about 300 stations. But don’t be alarmed–it’s extremely easy to use and well-designed. Most lines operate from 5:20 a.m. through 1:20 a.m. (Saturdays until 2:20 a.m.). Once in the car, anticipate about two minutes of travel time between each stop. A single ride only costs €1.60, and the nature of your stay in Paris will dictate how you utilize the metro and its many passes.
For only a few trips on the metro, it’s best to buy tickets, or billets, as needed. If you plan on using the metro often, but don’t want to buy a weekly or monthly pass, buy tickets in bulk. Ask for a carnet, a pack of ten tickets great for sharing with friends or family, at the ticket counter (billetterie or guichet) and you’ll save a few Euros. Individual tickets and carnets can also be bought from automatic ticket machines (don’t fret, instructions are available in English); however, these machines typically only take coins or credit cards. Don’t bother using a credit card as American cards don’t have micro-chips in them, so the French machines won’t recognize them.
For extended stays in Paris, you’ll save money by buying a weekly or monthly metro pass. The cost of both the weekly pass, hebdomadaire, and the monthly, mensuel, increase as you add the number of zones, there are a total of six, in your travel range. Most sights are located within zones one and two. A weekly pass for these two zones is €17.20, while a monthly pass is €56.60. Weekly passes are valid from Monday to Sunday; monthly passes for a calendar month. These passes can be bought from any ticket office, located underground at the entrance of most metro stations. Ask for a Carte Orange, also known as a Passe Navigo. Most passes are now magnetic, so you can wave it in front of the turnstile, instead of swiping it. You’ll have to attach a small photo of yourself to the pass (photo booths are found in most stations).
Really, the metro spells ease and entertainment. Never has there been a better place for people watching: beggars, musicians, comedians, tourists, students, business people and more all unite underground in Paris. Take advantage of the cheap transport and enjoy the humorous situations that arise from time to time.
After a two-hour commute that sultry summer morning, I eventually made it to work, albeit an hour before lunch. I was exhausted and in need of another shower, but I made it. My boss didn’t even chastise me. Oh la la, la grève ! Don’t worry about it. C’est normal!
Story by Catherine Courtney Glenn and Photos by Elizabeth Gyon