I Learned Grace in a French Subway

CC BY-NC, Steve Harris, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Steve Harris, Flickr

I was a tourist but strode around modest enough to not look like one. Just days into my dream vacation, it was going better than I could’ve imagine. There was much English spoken in Paris, making it easy for the less-than-fluent types like me. Roaming off the beaten path was amazing for the architecture, vintage shops, and museums that disclose themselves to those who dare venture away from common sightseer targets. But when it was necessary—and it always was—the subways worked like a whistle.

Cluny-La Sorbonne Station, Paris CC BY-NC, Sean_Marshall, Flickr
Cluny-La Sorbonne
Sean_Marshall, NC

Each station of Paris’ Métro bears its own unique character. They are discernibly Art Nouveau in style and sometimes littered with incredibly vibrant and creative graffiti. These surprisingly immaculate underground labyrinths invite the very thing you don’t do there, which is hang out. After familiarizing oneself with train tickets and cards, the only task left is to learn navigating stations. Some were small and others were compact cities, like back in Tokyo.

Arts et Métiers CC BY-NC, Steve Calcott, Flickr
Arts et Métiers
Steve Calcott, NC

Statistically, safety was far more a concern here than in Japan. After all, I was again in Western society. I had been warned about subway pickpockets and even discerned a few. They targeted people in the busy vestibules. Usually I’d pass right through those to sometimes be alone in long, tiled corridors and tube platform areas with nothing but Syrian-arched exits eyeing me with foreboding.

In Japan I had relearned fear, which was the strangest thing I ever had to do in life. Being on dark streets at three in the morning is a world of difference in Paris and in Japan—the difference between witnessing car theft and having nothing at all to fear. Nonetheless, I had no problems with people.

The only hiccup I had occurred the day I entered the one station that immediately put me on edge. It was dark and creepy just entering it. I hated the way the attendant’s booth looked the part of a junkie’s lab and the way its neon lights harshly smacked the cold concrete that imprisoned the area. It made the darkness even more apparent. No tourist could feel comfortable here.

Cité CC BY-NC, Talus, Flickr
Talus, NC

Nevertheless, the routine was the same: feed my card into the machine and pass through the turnstile—but not this day. For some reason, the gate rejected it. I tried it again and it spit it back at me, again. What’s going on, I thought, other travelers passing around me now. That’s when you start re-educating yourself with the basics while mumbling in terse staccato: This is the card. Card goes into slot. Slot is supposed to accept card. And the machine goes “Nuh-uhh!”

Couloir CC BY-NC-SA, Possamai, Flickr
Possamai NC-SA

I kept trying while knowing inside I was avoiding the obvious just a few feet behind me. I knew I was gonna have to oil up my French and talk to the agent about the problem. What a novel idea in France! I’ve never been a very confident speaker of French despite diligently studying it half my life. I heard the attendant on her microphone talking to someone, so I avoided the issue a little longer thinking the card might still take.

I was mentally at a loss with this machine. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead because I had now lost my cover and become the dumb tourist. Finally, I turned toward the agent’s window only to be met by her fluster and steely gaze pointed right at me. That’s when I realized she had been hollering at me the whole time.

And, in French, she had been telling me—the one who had spent all this time fighting the machine and worried about his card and dreading French and hating this eerie location—it’s free. And I walked through the turnstile.

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