“Take the métro,” prodded Elisabeth several years ago, after I first began my regular visits to Paris. My flight from the states had just arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris and here I was with my good friend on the balcony of her apartment near the Place de la Bastille. Soon, Elisabeth would leave to catch the next flight to Berlin, where she lives when she’s not in Paris.
“Me?” I asked.
“It’s easy,” said Elisabeth tossing me the keys to her apartment, as she was about to leave.
“What?” I asked.
“The métro!” she said swinging the purse strap over her shoulder. “Buy a carnet of tickets,” she said, kissing one cheek, and then, “they’re cheaper!” as she kissed the other. “See you in a month,” and with a toss of her hair, “au revoir!” She was out the door.
As I unpacked, I made plans for the afternoon. I knew that even if I kept to a fast-paced clip, it would take three hours to walk from the apartment in the 4th arrondissement to a jewelry boutique in the 16th, slightly less if I crisscrossed the river Seine to wind my way through the streets of Paris’ Left Bank.
Several months ago, I had purchased a matching necklace and cuff, each piece a froth of small white pearls and tiny beaded-glass florets fashioned together with slender filaments of jewelers wire. The jewelry set, suitable for cocktails and evening affairs, is always the first accessory to come to mind when I want to add a subtle flair to my look, but the VAT/GST refund (Value Added Tax / Goods and Service Tax), on this purchase was never posted to my credit card and I wanted it back. There was little chance that this shop owned by two stylish Parisiennes, a mother and her daughter, selling one-of-a-kind items created by artisans from France would be open for business during August; the month when most Parisians leave the city to tourists and escape to the country or a seaside resort. If I arrived at the boutique this afternoon or tomorrow, I could be there in time to collect the refund as a credit to my card, credit toward another purchase or Euros in hand — play money.
The streets of Paris felt familiar and I was happy to be back and on my way. In my sac I carried a bound booklet boasting list-upon-list of my favorite things to do, places to go and people to see in Paris. By arrondissement, my lists covered what I knew and what I wanted to discover — from boutiques and markets, all kinds of food in all kinds of venues, museums and busy tourist sites, to obscure places and French fashion. The beginning of my book, set in bold face type, held numbers for emergencies, and taxis.
On my return from the boutique — with a tax refund in my pocket — I could stroll back along the streets of Paris’ Left Bank stopping for chocolates at Debauve & Gallais on rue des Saints-Pères and at Pharmacie de I’Île St-Louis on rue Jean du Bellay located near the western tip of the island, for shampoo, lotions and soaps. In a few weeks, within days of each other, my two daughters would arrive in Paris. One girl would come from Boston and the other, from New York. On each of their pillows I’d place a bag of chocolates, pretty soaps and the French magazine Elle to welcome them “home.” But first, chocolates and pretty soaps for my pillow.
In tribute to Elisabeth, who had been prodding me for years with her métro campaign, I could buy a carnet for the girls and leave it at that.
The métro entrance was less than 500 yards from the end of my street. I’d make a fast purchase. Later, I would tuck one carnet in the bag on each girl’s pillow. At the bottom of the steps, against the left wall was a vending machine for métro tickets. Straight ahead was the entrance. Two people lingered near the entrance gates and I did not want to pull my change purse out of my sac to buy métro tickets from a vending machine less than a coat-length away from them. I turned around and walked right back out to the street, fast.
As soon as I reached street level, I dashed — for anywhere — with my sac wrapped around me from right shoulder to left hip and squeezed inside my elbow; I did not need to be fluent in French to have read a small sign at the bottom of the steps that said: beware of pick-pockets. Unfortunately, as tourists, when we understand the sign we instinctively reach toward our wallets! There I was, standing at the corner of Place de la Bastille and rue Saint-Antoine, waiting for the light to change, when I saw a lunchtime crowd of Parisians racing down the steps of a different Métro entrance. Safety in numbers. I followed.
At the bottom of the steps I found a booth with clerks selling tickets. Another beware of pickpockets sign and tourists reaching toward their wallets. I purchased two carnets, stood back and watched the drove of Parisians and tourists passing through the entrance gates. Alright, I thought, if they can do it, I can too.
I consulted every wall map and approachable woman or man who could assure me that I was heading in the correct direction to reach the platform for Métro Line 1. Street side, I knew the east-west route that ran in a straight line like the back of my hand. From rue Saint-Antoine, I would take the yellow colored Paris Métro Line 1 and ride this line until I came to Métro stop Franklin D. Roosevelt on Champs-Élyées and shorten my walk to the jewelry boutique to collect my refund. On my return, with Euros in my pocket, I could savor a free and easy three-hour walk back to the apartment crisscrossing the river Seine through the streets of Paris’ Left Bank.
As I came nearer the platform I saw two entrances and two signs for Métro Line 1. One in the direction La Défense and the other in the direction Château de Vincennes. Unnerved by one too many options, I bolted back in the direction from which I had entered Paris’ underground system, but from which entrance had I come? There were two for Place de la Bastille, boulevard Bourdon and boulevard Henri IV, 37 boulevard Bourdon, 130 and 140 rue de Lyon, rue de Charenton, and two for boulevard Beaumarchais. In addition, I now noticed Paris Métro Line 5 in the directions Place d’Italie and Bobigny-Pablo Picasso and Paris Métro Line 8 in the directions Balard and Créteil Préfecture.
I returned street side to the top of the steps again, where the air was too thin. Place de la Bastille was huge. Seven streets and nine crossings. I kept walking clockwise and didn’t turn back until I was right back where I started with the drove of Parisians and tourists prancing down the steps into the métro station to pass through its entrance gates. After an eternity, I boarded a métro car with hordes of people traveling west-bound on Line 1 heading in the direction of La Défense and my métro stop, Franklin D. Roosevelt. I stood clutching a center chrome pole and stared at the Paris Métro Line map above the closed car door and counted my stops, several times.
Bastille, Saint-Paul, Hôtel de Ville, Châtelet, Louvre-Rivoli, Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre, Tuileries, Concorde, Champs-Élysées-Clemenceau and finally my stop, Franklin D. Roosevelt. I listened to the intercom as a clear, unhurried voice announced each métro stop. The dropped h and long o sound of an open jaw launched the melodic first syllable in Hôtel de Ville. The v in Louvre relaxed into the word and gave way to a partial smile on the lips of the intercom announcer. Louvre-Rivoli. As long as I’m here, I thought, I’ll sudy my French. I listened and practiced in my head. I eavesdropped on conversations and matched the sounds I heard to the sounds of the announcer overhead.
The next day, having checked out each métro stop along the way, I rode Métro Line 1 with a steady stream of Parisians on their way to work from our shared neighborhood in Place de la Bastille west-bound toward La Défence. After a morning and afternoon of sketching and visiting museums, having added to my book lists of new things to do and places to see, I returned on Métro Line 1 with a surge of Parisians and tourists toting briefcases, backpacks, children, and French loaves of bread, and departed at my Métro stop, Bastille, and street exit, boulevard Henri IV.
I noticed that the Franklin D. Roosevelt métro stop was where I could transfer to the Paris Métro Line 9. Line 9 would take me to métro stop La Muette. There I could walk to the Musée Marmottan Monet, a museum I had longed to see for its collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionist works by Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, among others. La Muette was a close walk to the jewelry boutique in the 16th arrondissement where I would get my tax refund.
Throughout that week on the métro, my French improved, and Paris became more awe-inspiring than ever. In one week I had traveled by métro to new neighborhoods. I rode the train to Chantilly to see the great masterpieces and tapestries of Musée Condé at Château de Chantilly and back; I rode the train to Versailles to see Château de Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors and the grand apartments of the King and Queen, the gardens, the Grand Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette’s estate and back — leaving my tax refund to the following year.
Feeling accomplished, I received my first visitor with much anticipation — my daughter from Boston. We walked. We rode the métro. We took the train to Versailles. Within a few days, my New York daughter arrived.
Over a shared platter of steamed artichokes at Les Grand Marches, a favorite brassiere of ours located next to the Opéra Bastille where we enjoy sitting outdoors to watch our neighbors, I overheard the girls whispering to one another while delicately and painstakingly extracting the butter-dipped flesh of the artichoke leaves by pulling them gently between their teeth.
“She’s a métro maniac!” I heard, as my Boston daughter dabbed the linen napkin across her lips, muttering, “She even transfers!”
“No, way!” rustled the other.
Sipping my champagne, I pretended not to hear. Oh ye, of little faith.
Vocabulary: French to English Translations
Arrondissement: The city of Paris is divided into twenty administrative districts, referred to as arrondissements. The twenty arrondissements are arranged in the form of a clockwise spiral, starting in the middle of the city, with the first on the Right Bank (north bank) of the Seine.
Au revoir: Goodbye.
Carnet: Ten Paris métro tickets are called Carnet and cheaper than buying an individual Paris Métro ticket.
Euro (sign: € code: EUR): Official currency of the eurozone: 17 of the 27 states of the European Union.
La Rive Gauche (The Left Bank): The southern bank of the river Seine in Paris.
Parisian: A person born and raised in Paris.
Parisienne: A female native or resident of Paris.
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