Thursday, February 12, 2009

Train-train (the daily grind)

One of the decidedly unromantic sides of living in Paris is the daily commute. I love the Métro and its convenience and history, enough that I'm spending Saturday afternoon on a walking tour with the association Ademas, but I don't love the hours I spend stuffed in an overcrowded subway car acrobatically hanging onto a steel pole.

The RER A commuter train is even worse. During rush hour, trains arrive roughly every minute and half, disgorging fewer passengers than attempt to squeeze aboard at every station. Most people are trying to reach La Défense, Paris' outlying business district. I board at Etoile, the busy station under the Arc de Triomphe one stop away from La Défense. Squashed as I usually am between tall commuters fiddling with their cell phones, I try to imagine I'm elsewhere and lose myself in my book if I can still reach it.

Once we pass La Défense, I usually have a place to sit and some space to breathe. On many mornings, however, some small glitch in the saturated system throws the trains off their rapid schedule and the cars are so packed at Etoile that I can't even get on. I let train after train go by before I finally succeed in boarding, often one that isn't going to my destination, forcing me to get out and wait again a couple stations down the line.

Parisians are notably grumpy and unfriendly when confronted with transit system problems. It is every commuter for himself, with people pushing and shoving, shouting and complaining, and no cheerful camaraderie in the face of delays. Recently, when a series of events forced a complete halt of traffic at Saint-Lazare, one of Paris' busiest stations, mobs of angry commuters so menaced railway personnel that the station was closed and evacuated.

I try to remember to be respectful and patient, but it is so easy to get caught up in the pushing and shoving and grimacing and grumbling. When I've watched the fifth(!) train in a row leave the platform without me, it is hard not to shove my way into the next one in a mad Darwinian dash to survive. I have two disadvantages, for I am small and short and I tend to care too much about what other people think of my behavior, but even that doesn't stop me on some days.

I am ashamed to admit that I have wondered to myself if the economic downturn might ease the pain of my commute. After all, with all these layoffs, soon there will have to be fewer people fighting their way to the office every morning.

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