There is a phrase in French — beaucoup du monde — that literally means “a lot of the world.” You use it to describe whenever there are a lot of people out and about; for example, il y a beaucoup du monde dans les rues aujourd’hui, which means, “there are a lot of people in the streets today.” Though you can use this phrase in any sort of context, I think it is most applicable to one necessary, quintessential aspect of Parisian life: the Metro.
Riding the Metro, one doesn’t just encounter beaucoup du monde, but tout le monde — that is to say, all the world, or everyone. Every trip is a new experience because of the diversity of the people accompanying you. The Metro is probably the only place in Paris where you’re likely to find buskers, students and tourists, as well as businessmen, children, grandmothers, society women, shoppers, artists and writers, all sitting together willingly. Sometimes people bring their dogs; others, their bicycles; still others, their guitars or accordions, hoping to make a quick Euro off of a captive audience. The Paris Metro is all the different aspects of the city condensed into a single network of spaces, none of which manage to escape that subtle but universally unmistakeable subway odor of garbage and urine. A French joke says that Paris below-ground is like a cheese: It’s full of holes, and it smells.
Although the Metro system is as a cheap and convenient mode of public transportation, it does have its drawbacks. Traveling to class with tout le monde is a hassle more often than not — the magic of riding up-close and personal with the true Parisians wears off very quickly, usually around the moment you find yourself surrounded by loud, drunk teenagers on your way home Friday night. The stations themselves exhibit various levels of cleanliness, evidenced by the variable strength of urine-smell that permeates the air. The vending machines sell dubious-looking prepackaged waffles (“gaufres” in French) and madeleine biscuits alongside upside-down bottles of water, Orangina and off-brand soda. Not a terribly awesome selection there, but certainly helpful on late mornings spent running through the station desperately trying to get to class on time.
The one thing I do love about the Metro is that it provides an incredible opportunity to pick up style tips from local mavens. Everyone knows that Paris is the fashion capital of the world, and it is beyond apparent just from looking at what people wear on the Metro. In particular, I have fallen in love with Parisian winter wear: It seems like everyone has a gorgeous, elegant coat and/or stylish scarf-and-hat combo to keep them warm in the winter wind. I’ve even seen a few honest-to-god capes, and they never look out of place among the crowds of other bundled-up passengers; I haven’t yet figured out how they do it. It’s not quite the same North Face or Columbia crowd that populates the Boston subway system, that’s for sure.
I suppose, now that I really think about it, being surrounded by beaucoup du monde during my morning commute isn’t as horrible as all that. I’d be more upset if I had to deal with the Red Line every day — not to mention the Green Line — but the Paris Metro is interesting and bearable because it is different. The novelty will wear off with time, I know, but for now I’m happy to spend my Metro rides sitting in my fold-down window seat and finishing my reading for class.