“Let’s stay civil …”

I complain a good bit about the Paris Métro: despite its art nouveau charm, it’s often a crowded, noisy, and filthy experience. I usually don’t give the RATP (the company that operates the transit system) much credit either, but I have to tip my hat to the recently launched third generation of its “civility” campaign, “Restons civils sur toute la ligne” (“Let’s stay civil on the whole line”). Like earlier “seasons,” the campaign uses clever little “proverbs” and animal characters to remind passengers how to conduct themselves in the Métro … and the subtle nod to the fables of La Fontaine is so, so apropos for a French audience. The ads also integrate graphics representing transit lines into the proverbs. Only time will tell if the campaign will have any real impact on the daily transit experience, but until it does, we can at least enjoy the ads … Continue reading “Let’s stay civil …”


The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned While Living in France

A few days ago, I wrote about the second anniversary of my departure for France. I described how my life had changed as a result — about what I had left behind and what I had discovered here. Since then, I’ve been ruminating on the various lessons I’ve learned during the last two years as an expat in France. Here are my top ten:

1.     When people say that French bureaucrats are paper shufflers extraordinaire, they aren’t exaggerating. In fact, they may be understating the case. I’ve never seen such a paper-centric modern society in my life: a form for this, another form that’s exactly the same (except for two questions) to accompany the first form you already filled out, mail it in or make an appointment to drop it off. By no means may you send it electronically. If you want to survive as an expatriate in France, here’s my advice:

Invest in a good ink-jet printer and several reams of paper. You’ll need two copies of everything, s’il vous plaît … plus an extra one for your files for that moment when you discover that they’ve misplaced the two copies you already gave them. (Take my word for it; this can happen.)

2.     The French are schizophrenic about one of their own scientific discoveries: pasteurization. On one hand, they don’t pasteurize their cheese. That’s a good thing, because it tastes better that way but — since the U.S. government apparently views non-pasteurized cheese as a chemical weapon — I’d have to smuggle a Camembert into the country under the noses of those Immigration and Customs Enforcement dogs if I wanted my parents to taste a real one. (Make sure you read my August 29 revelation about importing smelly French cheese, though.)

"Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory" by Albert Edelfelt
“Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory” by Albert Edelfelt

On the other hand, the French don’t just pasteurize their milk … they ultra-pasteurize it. (I won’t get all scientific on you, but there’s a difference of about 115º in the process.) That allows the French to package and store their super-clean milk in unrefrigerated bottles or cartons for months on end. Why? It apparently has something to do with limitations on refrigeration here … like not having enough room in the fridge for all your Camembert AND your milk at the same time. (See 7, below.)

3.     The Paris Métro is undeniably a marvel of public transportation, but it stinks … literally. Let’s just be brutally honest here for a minute. The Paris Métro has a certain charm with all those green and white 1960s-era trains rolling through its hundreds of art nouveau stations, but being authorized to eat and drink in the Métro does us no favors, folks …

4.     Don’t be fooled by what looks like a toll-free number in France. Why, yes, they do have numbers here with prefixes that evoke the 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866 family of truly free telephone numbers we have back in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that it always works that way here. The rule of thumb: never trust a number with a prefix any higher than 0809. The vast majority of 08 numbers in France are in fact toll numbers, and the amount you pay can range up to 0.75 euros ($1) a minute. The good thing is that the numbers belong to color-coded families, so always look for GREEN numbers … these numéros verts are always free. The unfortunate thing is that many (perhaps most) customer service numbers aren’t green, which leads us to the next lesson …

"green number ... free call from a land line"
“green number … free call from a land line”

5.     The French are experts at profanity. They are also, as we all know, the world champions of nonchalance. (That’s why we just use their word for it.) When these two character traits come together, you discover a marvelously nuanced array of how to say, as Rhett Butler so famously put it, “I don’t give a damn.” It takes a bit of practice, but dealing on a regular basis with French bureaucracy (or customer service calls you have to pay for) can put you well on your way to successfully distinguishing the appropriate audience and circumstances for such exclamations as:

  • Je m’en fiche! (literally, something like “I put myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en fous! (literally, something like “I do myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en tape! (literally, something like “I tap myself out of that!” … keeping in mind that “tap” can have the same slang meaning in French as it can in English)
  • Je m’en bats les … ! (literally, something like “I beat my … !” … well, I’ll just stop there and leave to the rest to your imagination.) You probably understand already that this is the last one in the arsenal.

And, simply adding “contre” right before the verb (“Je m’en contrefous!“) just reinforces how much you don’t give a damn! … !!!

You can always find rough equivalents between French and English swear words, too, including the euphemisms we’ve created to replace them in polite company. For instance, “merde” and “mince” are the French equivalents of “sh*t” and its polite cousin “shoot.” It might be an oversimplification, but from what I’ve seen and heard, French profanity is simply a little less profane than English profanity. (That might explain why I have no qualms about publishing “merde” but you don’t see the S-word spelled out.) What I mean is, saying “merde” doesn’t seem nearly as eyebrow-raising in French circles as the S-word is in ours. Another case in point is the word usually translated into English as the F-word: putain. Literally, it means “whore,” but it’s used as both an interjection and an adjective to express … well, almost anything depending on the context. Don’t just take my word for it — check this out:

By the way, if you don’t want to sound too crass by blurting out “putain,” you can always trot out the polite-company equivalent: “punaise.” After all of that, I realize that I’m actually giving this topic short shrift. I see some real research and a full post on this in the future. Stay tuned …

6.     As melodic and enchanting as the French language is (and as colorful, too, given number 5), the French are also experts at nonverbal communication. Despite the adage that there are no stupid questions, the truth is that there are, and if you ask one in France, you’re likely to get a look that very efficiently communicates that fact without so much as a sigh from your respondent. The French can also express an entire range of sentiment from sympathetic support to mild annoyance to overt hostility just by puffing air through their lips. It’s all a question of how forcefully it’s done. Take a look at this … (the whole video is great, but there’s a good example of what I’m talking about at about 0:55 – 1:05):

7.     Air conditioning is one of the most brilliant inventions in human history. You recognize this undeniable truth when you no longer have it. Here in Paris, summer is usually fairly mild by the standards of the Deep South, but every now and then you wake up in a sweat to a forecast high of 101ºF. That’s when you start cursing France for being a third world country, and you hurry off to the nearest supermarket to hang out in the frozen food section. Let’s face it … that dormitory mini-fridge won’t ever cut it as a make-shift air conditioner.

But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.
But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.

So, there you have it — my humorous look at the top ten …
okay, okay
seven things I’ve learned while living in France.

(You have to cut me a break, guys. My laptop was starting to overheat,
and I didn’t have enough battery life to make it to
the ice cream case at Super U.)
I hope you enjoyed it. Come back soon!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Cold War on Line 7?

I live in La Courneuve, at one end of line 7 of the Paris Métro. I spend a lot of time riding on that line, looking at its long list of stations during my daily trips back and forth to Paris. Scanning that list recently, I noticed what seemed to be some strange homage to the Cold War: the end of World War II … the White House … and the Kremlin.

V-E Day in Paris, May 8, 1945

The official name of the La Courneuve station is La Courneuve—8 mai 1945. The date refers to V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day: the end of the Second World War in Europe, when Germany’s act of military surrender was officially ratified in Berlin. While we don’t celebrate May 8 in the United States, it’s celebrated widely in Europe as a public holiday. Nothing really noteworthy in having a station named in honor of the end of the war, right? Towards the other end of line 7, however, two more stations drew my attention: Maison Blanche and Le Kremlin-Bicêtre. That got me thinking. “Maison Blanche” means “White House” and “Kremlin” … well, “Kremlin” means “Kremlin.” (I’ll admit, I had no idea what “Bicêtre” meant.) “How interesting!” I thought. At one end of line 7 we’ve got the end of World War II and at the other end, we’ve got the White House and the Kremlin! Hmm …

Continue reading Cold War on Line 7?

An American in the Métro

© Simon Law

There’s something quintessentially Parisian about the Paris Métro. From the art nouveau entrances to the winding corridors to the white-tiled walls and ceilings, there’s simply no confusing the Paris Métro with any other underground transit system in the world. But did you know how American a few of the Métro stations are? For most French, these stations are probably no more interesting than, say, Boucicaut or Bréguet Sabin, but for an American, they’re little souvenirs of home right here in Paris. Continue reading An American in the Métro

Châtelet-Les Halles

Photo: Le Grand Châtelet after 1684

Châtelet-Les Halles is not only located at the very geographic center of Paris, it is also the transit hub of the city. It is actually a complex of two Métro stations (Châtelet and Les Halles) and a pôle d’échange, or central exchange station, for the RER (Réseau Express Régional or Regional Express Network, Paris’s commuter light rail system). The RER station services three of Paris’s 5 RER lines: A, B, and D. Métro station Châtelet services 5 of Paris’s 16 Métro lines: 1, 4, 7, 11, and 14. Métro station Les Halles services the 4 line.

The first notable thing about Châtelet-Les Halles is that it’s huge! The southern end of the RER station connects to the Châtelet Métro station and the northern end connects to the Les Halles Métro station. The walking distance from Châtelet to Les Halles is almost half a mile (750 meters)—a distance 50% longer than the average distance between stations in the Paris Métro system! Thankfully the transfer is facilitated at one point by a nice, long people-moving conveyor belt … or you can just take the 4 line and save the shoe leather.

The second notable thing about Châtelet-Les Halles is that it is the busiest underground transit station in the world. Each weekday, Châtelet-Les Halles hosts about 750,000 travelers (more than the average weekday traffic in the entire Washington, DC Metro). During rush hour, 120 trains arrive in and depart from Châtelet-Les Halles each hour! That’s a lot of people scurrying here and there. No wonder Châtelet-Les Halles is, in my opinion, the most overwhelming and disorienting Métro station in Paris.

So, the question that I initially set out to answer: why is it called Châtelet-Les Halles?

Read the rest of this entry for the interesting, in-depth backstory »

Le Métro

Photo: © Simon Law

If you’ve ever spent much time in Paris, you know that the Paris Métro is enormous: 16 lines, 381 stops in 297 stations (of which 62 provide correspondence between lines), and 132 miles of routes. It’s not as large as New York’s subway system, of course, which has 24 lines, 468 stops in 421 stations, and 209 miles of routes, but it is much bigger than the Metro system of my hometown of Washington, DC: the DC Metro has 5 lines, 118 stops in 86 stations, and 106 miles of routes.

© RATP — The Paris Métro is enormous.

Paris’s Métro is one of the densest subway systems in the world, with 245 of its stations located within the 34 square miles of the city of Paris itself. Since the Métro was designed at the end of the nineteenth century to comprehensively serve the city, the stations are very close together: only 548 meters apart on average (about a third of a mile or 600 yards), ranging down to 424 meters (a quarter of a mile or 465 yards) on line 4 and up to one kilometer (about six tenths of a mile or 1,100 yards) on the newest line 14. With all these Métro stations and their maze-like transfer tunnels, it’s no wonder that Paris has been described as a véritable gruyère. 

Continue reading Le Métro

A Bitter-sweet Exile

A friend recently posted an article on Facebook about former Manhattanites living in my former hometown of Washington, D.C. Manhattanites exiled to Washington search for fellow sufferers is a humorous piece in the Washington Post‘s lifestyle section reporting on the “stranger in a strange land” lamentations of the members of a group called the Fellowship of Unassimilated Manhattan Exiles. It’s pretty funny because these folks are self-styled “exiles,” as if they had been banished from Manhattan to the hinterlands. And it’s even more entertaining because the article is rife with the stereotypical over-inflated New York ego: Continue reading A Bitter-sweet Exile