Paris vs. New York: Subway Edition

Maybe the York Street F station isn't so bad after all. (No, it's still pretty bad.)

Parisians are known for their shitty attitude toward everything, and thus if you know some Parisians here in New York, you have probably heard at least one of them rant about the MTA at one time or another. “What’s up with these fifteen-mile-long platforms that have, like, two benches for people to sit?” they ask. “Why the freaking hell did that train just skip my station? And what on earth is up with those putain de RATS? They’re everywhere, mec.” (Yes, this is the French word for “bro”.) A Frenchie myself, I have shamefully given in to the temptation to rant about the New York subway system, and even wrote an essay last week about my own trauma-inducing MTA experience.

But allow me to let you in on a little secret: Parisians are actually probably just jealous. This is not to say that the New York subway is actually awesome, because it’s not. But maybe give the Parisian Métro a try, and you might be surprised. And I don’t mean in a good way.

Case in point: You know how the L train always has substantial delays? You’re probably familiar with all the chaos, the panic, the irrationality? To me, this is just like a regular Monday morning in Paris. Or Thursday. Mid-Afternoon.

Not convinced? Last week, the RATP, Paris’ own transit guru, released a guidebook on Métro etiquette. Twelve shiny rules of “savoir-vivre,” also known as how not to be a complete asshole on public transportation. Now, many of these guidelines may appear self-evident, and lead you to wonder if this is perhaps a little joke, showcasing the legendary French humor. (What do you mean you’ve never heard of it?) But no. The fact of the matter is these are for real, and what’s more, probably necessary.

I can see the skepticism on your lovely faces as you mentally compare the Morgan Avenue platform to that one time you took the Métro near the Champs Elysées and stood there baffled because there were fucking bronze statues in the subway. So I think it might be a good idea to go through a few of these rules together, and I can help you understand why they were invented in the first place. Who knows, you might even come out of it a little more appreciative of the MTA.

1. Respect the no-smoking sign. Yes, the clichés are true, and despite smoking having been banned in the Métro for a long time, the French still try to sneak in a cigarette when they think nobody’s looking.

2. Use a handkerchief to blow your nose. You might think this is a joke, but people will actually sneeze in your face in the Métro. While stepping on your feet. And not apologizing.

3. Don’t demand a duel when somebody steps on your foot. Now this is probably my favorite, because it carries two distinct implications. The first is that, whether you want it or not, people will step on your feet. I don’t think I can stress this enough. Flip-floppers, take the bus! (Just kidding, the bus is much, much worse.) The second implication is that Parisians can become extremely belligerent when grouped together in small spaces. How many times have I seen frail old ladies getting into cursing matches to defend their feet’s honor? The look of amusement on a child’s face, and conversely the one of horror on his or her parents’ when a sexagenarian calls a septuagenarian a “fat bitch” is, as you might guess, vastly entertaining.

4. On hot days, keep your arms down, like the Emperor penguin. Penguin reference aside, this might be the most relevant advice on the list. I can already see you chuckle at the idea. Do French people really smell that bad? And here you thought it was just another stereotype. Well think again my friend, and consider this: In Paris, our trains do not come equipped with air conditioning. I repeat: No air conditioning in the Métro. Yes, even in summer.

Remember the cascades of sweat running down your armpits and lower back as you waited for the L train in July? Well imagine the same thing, but that when the L finally comes, it turns out to be even hotter inside. Now, imagine that this unusually hairy and tall guy, who has already been in this sweatbox for a dozen stops, is holding the upper bar and shoving his armpit right into your face. To be honest though, I’m not sure people lowering their arms would make a difference, since Parisian train cars in summer pretty much already smell like a Bulgarian wrestling team’s dressing room after practice.

5. Don’t confuse the Métro with the bathroom, even if there are tiles on the wall. As much as I wish this one was fake, it remains abhorrently, desperately true. The Paris Métro is basically a giant toilet, and certain corridors in Nation and Montparnasse are notorious for the foul stench of death and pee that seem permanently imprinted within their walls. I’m pretty sure people have died of lung poisoning from deciding to breathe in the wrong place.

The list goes on with more helpful stuff, like don’t stare at a woman passenger even if she’s dead sexy, or that wasting 5 minutes giving directions to a tourist is worth it just to hear him try to pronounce “La Motte Piquet Grenelle.” (Not kidding. Making fun of tourists is actually encouraged. Which explains a lot.) Actually they don’t explicitly say tourist, just “dude in Bermuda shorts,” so I assume tourist, because Parisians never wear Bermuda shorts.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? I guess for one thing, we could start freaking out a little less about the MTA. And I don’t mean stop bitching about it, because bitching about stuff usually makes things better. So bitch away, my friends, but do so with the knowledge that somewhere in Europe, people are having a way shittier transit experience than you are. Just stay cool. Like the Emperor penguin.

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  1. Being French myself, I can confirm that all this is true. I’ve already used the NYC subway, even though it’s far from perfect, the parisian metro is definitely worse. People are litterally crazy, running everywhere, pushing you all the time, even yelling at you for being too slow (that’s happened to me more than once). And why are there not any express services ? Having so many stations over such a small area (Paris is 40 sq miles BTW) is quite ludicrous. Oh, and don’t forget strikes every now and then, this is our national beloved sport. Bienvenue à Paris !