Sunday, March 2, 2008

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and the Paris Metro

Some people find riding public transportation to be a tedious exercise in human mobility. They dislike the crowds, hate waiting for a train or bus, and are easily bored by long trips. I, however, have found that my time on the Parisian subway system affords me a number of luxuries, including the opportunity to read, daydream, and study French society first-hand. Recently I got to thinking about how the ideals of the république play out on this underground stage. More specifically, do liberté, égalité, and fraternité exist on the Paris Metro?

Liberté was easy to find; people can do anything on the metro. They eat, drink, sing, give lectures, and play accordions. I've even seen four-piece bands pile into a train and begin a between-stops performance. It's an attempt to entertain that mostly draws rolling eyes from travelers who are trying to talk on their cell phones. You can also bring pets onto the trains, and while, in theory, this is supposed to be reserved for small companion animals, the large golden retriever who felt the need to nuzzle my feet on line 9 last night proves that, even on the metro, Parisians take their claim to liberty seriously.

Fraternité is also well-represented in Paris' underground world. Elderly men and women, mothers with strollers, and tourists who have lost their way are often helped by the fellow riders. I once saw and old, hunched-over woman helped off the train by a man who had noticed she was moving too slow and was at risk of getting herself and her rolling cart stuck in the slamming doors. This kind of brotherhood is sometimes rare in a fast-paced city like Paris, but it is alive and well on the metro.

Egalité has proved more difficult to locate. There are numerous discrepancies in the usability afforded to riders. One sad example of this is the complete lack of handicap accessibility. There are no elevators in the system, and very few escalators. Persons in wheelchairs, and even those who have difficulty with stairs, are completely unable to access the trains. What's more, while some lines use modern trains which are equipped with automatic doors, more spacious interiors, and voices that announce the station names (helpful for the visually-impaired and distracted readers alike), other lines are stuck with antiquated trains offering little in the way of 21st century convenience, or equal opportunity.

There is a commercial currently playing on French television that aims to promote the rights of the handicapped in France. It profiles Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and demonstrates that, despite his needing a wheelchair, FDR pulled his country out of the Great Depression and helped save the world from the terrors of Nazism. One of the metro stations in Paris is even named after this former president. What a shame that he would have never be able to access it.


Jan said...

Tanya I am so happy that you are able to spend a few months in Paris. C'est formidable. And I know you will take full advantage. Its funny - I have only one friend in Paris and she lives a deux pas du Pont de Sevres. I don't know the quartier well - as I only visited at night and then une Greve dans les transports began and I couldn't get out to see her! (I spent 19 days in Paris in November 07). I want to suggest you go to the Beaubourg and see the Expo of Louise Bourgeois which opens March 5. She is phenomenal - and one of my favorites. I'll keep checking into your blog - good prep for a writing career!!! What is your work/project while you are there?
Bises - Jan

Tanya said...

Hi Jan! I'll be finishing up grad school out here. Classes start tomorrow...should be fun! Thanks for the recommendation on the Bourgeois expo. I've been seeing ads for it in the metro. Will check it out!