Last year, when we were in Paris for a month, we never boarded a bus because we were intimidated. We have always been able to master the subway system because it’s relatively easy for visitors to understand. But the bus is a whole different animal. It’s so complicated that a lot of locals we have met won’t even try it, but this year we had no choice.
On the subway, we can make mistakes without anyone knowing it. Below the earth, as long as a person has a little white cardboard ticket that the machine sucks up and then spits out at the top, the turnstile will open. This allows the passenger to enter the system and ride around all day long taking the wrong line and ending up on the wrong side of Paris without anyone being the wiser. We’ve been known to get on the Métro in the wrong direction, but please don’t tell the children. They will be alarmed.
People on the Métro seem to maintain a personal barrier even when they’re smashed together intimately. But on the bus everyone can see our stupid mistakes as we fumble at the top of the front steps, trying to figure out how to pay, and then locate a seat or at least a pole to grab to avoid rolling down the aisle when the vehicle lurches forward or stops suddenly. Then, once aboard, there are protocols, some of which are not visible, some of which are posted in French, which we can’t read. All locals understand both the implied and printed rules and they are enforced diligently by passengers. For instance, it takes quite a while to learn that particular seats are set aside for children and pregnant women. An able-bodied man who sits in one can be the recipient of a brand of deadly stink-eye that only the French know how to administer. The women are the most adept at that look, which combines a wrinkle in the nose indicating that she smells something worse than tires burning in the middle of the bus and an eyebrow raised so dramatically that her perfectly coiffed hair becomes even more lofty. An almost imperceptible shake of the head (the tsk tsk one), completes the gesture. It’s fascinating to witness!
Last year, we covertly watched people at the bus stops for clues. People queued up and entered toward the front of the bus, while others departed from the back. Everyone moved briskly and knew exactly what they were doing. We hung back and never tried it because we had no idea how much money we would need, where to get tickets, and the maps at the bus stops were incomprehensible to us. Being linguistically challenged, we knew there was little hope of getting help from other passengers or the driver. Bus drivers have always intimidated me, so I wasn’t in a position to ask for help in any language. I’m afraid of librarians, too. Makes me wonder what went on in grade school that I’ve sublimated.
This year, our apartment is a long walk from the Metro station, especially when it’s raining. The bus stops outside our door and takes us to the Métro in about five minutes, thus opening up all of Paris for us. We were forced to cowboy up and figure out the system within the first few days of arriving because the extra walk to and from the Métro made our excursions seem too long.
Here’s is what we learned:
Step 1: acquire the ticket (or monthly pass, which we now proudly own). Tickets may be bought in packets of ten and the little white stubs end up in every pocket, purse, drawer and suitcase you own eventually. Since we intend to spend a lot of time in Paris in the coming years, we opted for the Navigo Pass. These hard plastic cards require a head shot photo (no head covering, please), and take quite a bit of time to acquire, even with a helpful attendant at a Metro station. The attendant who helped us gravely accepted our photos, produced a pair of scissors to trim the pictures to exactly the right size, ceremoniously glued them onto our passes, and inserted them into space-age indestructible plastic gizmos which are intended to last through ten years of daily abuse as they are smacked against the electronic eyes at bus and subway terminals. The owner fills them up with euros once a month and they are good for the Metro, the RER (Paris railway), trams and subway.
2: if you have a smart phone you can download the Métro and bus route program which will help you plot your course. If you don’t have a smart phone, I have no earthly idea how you would figure it all out. Once you have arrived at the stop you need, get on the bus. This may sound simple, but in Paris, lining up is another mysterious exercise, whose fluid rules mystify even the most astute outsider. People will first approach the bus shelter, crane their heads around the side to see the electronic ticker which indicates when the next one will arrive, then range around one another in a loosely tiered fashion, the people who arrived first being closer to the curb. There is NEVER a straight line, or queue, as there is in Britain and other more uptight societies. When the bus does arrive, the casual line-up disintegrates. You must step lively, jump on the thing the instant there’s enough floor space between peoples’ shopping bags, large purses, strollers, wheelchairs, and briefcases, to plant your feet, and grab a solid object before the doors shut with their pneumatic hiss and you wind up thrown against your neighbor’s body, or worse, his brick-filled backpack. The national French sport is cutting in line, and a lifetime of practice gives them a definite edge on newcomers.
Step 3: Hang on tight and if you can, get a seat, but be careful that you take the right one or the unkind responses will remain in your memory long after the bus ride itself has faded. I am so unaware of my own elderly status that I sometimes feel as if I should jump up to give my seat away to an older woman and then I realize that I’m older than she is and I sit back down. Being a gentleman, Tim has a really hard time remaining seated while there are any females at all standing in the aisles, but I think he’s getting over it.
Step 4: watch the orange electronic sign on which crawls the ultimate destination of the bus and its interim stops. On some runs a recorded voice will announce the stops, which is a nice bonus, a French pronunciation lesson for those of us trying to understand the language.
Step 5: get off the bus. Refer to Step 2. The same rules apply. Stepping over buggies, canes, feet and dodging back packs and even lumber (honestly) can add to the thrill of this kind of transportation and line-cutting is practiced even in those cramped conditions. Keeping a good grip on your sense of humor at these times is essential!
Step 6: find a nearby bistro, commandeer a table and order yourself something cool and delicious while you celebrate your victory over the Paris transit system. After all, you’re practically a native now!