There was a time, long ago I suspect, when I still had some semblance of personal space. Personal space and a wee bit of sanity.
Now is not one of those times. As I march like a member of the national guard through the Saint-Lazare metro station, I wipe that silly Midwestern smile off my face and assume the Paris Stance: shoulders up and back, eyes that could stop a deer in its tracks, and a pair of 2-inch boots that aren’t afraid to step on your heel if you even think about slowing down. I’m carrying a Saint Bernard-sized purse to boot, which not only holds my entire life inside but is also quite practical for taking down those groups of teenage girls who clog up the metro corridors.
As I push past yet another graying man walking 3 mph, I let out a deep and very French huff, puffing my cheeks out to their breaking point and throwing in an eye roll for good measure. I snicker at the woman who has somehow managed to trap herself between the bar of the turnstile and the metal barrier, her four crisp designer brand bags wedged up against her face. I tap my metro card over the barcode reader and slide through effortlessly. No one, and I mean no one, will take me off my course.
But wait, what’s this? A huge crowd has formed around some guy singing Curtis Mayfield for small change. Haven’t French people ever heard soul music before? Apparently not. I break past them, narrowly missing the foot of a blond model-type in a red pea coat, who seems to be entranced by the jams, as she comes at me from the other direction. More huffing and puffing ensues.
At last, line two! But first I have to navigate the throng of passengers exiting before I can go up the stairs to the platform. I feel like a rainbow trout trying to go against a river current. It’s no use. Whatever I do, I’m pressed in from all sides. I go left when the woman coming towards me goes right, so I swing right, only to knock into an angry businessman. I finally get to the right lane and assume the Paris Stance in order to make my way up to the platform without being killed.
After three whole minutes of waiting (I am forced to pull out my 200-page novel to cope), the metro finally arrives. Ugh. I forgot that it’s Wednesday at 7:15: Primetime, baby. I cram in with the rest of the sardines, my already sweaty back pressed up against a stocky old man and my face in a head of black curls. If questioned, I could undoubtedly tell you which shampoo the woman used this morning (Garnier Argan Cranberry, by the way). I’m suddenly reminded of my friend Kass, who once said during a particularly packed metro ride home in Tokyo a few years back, “If someone touches me, I’m going to get pregnant.” We are that close.
At Opera, the cars spit out hoards of people. Only half come back in. I scramble frantically towards a seat. My back is killing me with this humongous bag. My tuckus is inches away from freedom when I spot the doe-eyes of a very pregnant woman before me. I smile pathetically and say, “Allez-y.” I feel like crying.
As I grab onto the sweaty pole in the center of the aisle, contemplating the difference between Dante’s inferno and my current situation, I pan back to a recent email from my friend in the Dordogne, which I have not yet responded to: “Hi Colette! How is city life treating you? I hope you’re still the same person as before and haven’t turned into one of those arrogant and pretentious Parisians!”
Originally published in Brit’mag, No. 44