The following is a true story. No details have been exaggerated and all events depicted really happened. If you don’t believe me, then I invite you to come to Paris when the metro workers “faire la greve” (go on strike) … and experience a “day in the life of a real Parisian.”
I have to backtrack a bit and explain my first strike experience here in France. It started the day before we were left for our trip to the south of France, and since I so conveniently had a midterm scheduled that day, it was out of the question for me to miss class. Well, the metros were not even worth bothering with, so I trekked the 2 hours to class and 2 hours home that night. Luckily it wasn’t 30 degrees at that point, so as horrible as it was getting home at 10 pm after walking for two hours, it could have been a lot worse.
Now I think I understand what “worse” means. Late this Tuesday night, seven labor unions went on strike, including the RATP and SNCF. The RATP includes the metro, bus, and tramway, and the SNCF includes all trains going out and coming into Paris. Here, all of the strikes are announced, so I knew it was coming (not like this made any difference, in any way). See BBC photos here.
The trip to school
The strike started affecting me yesterday morning, as I prepared to take the metro to school. I got to the stop 3 hours before my class, and there weren’t as many people as I expected. The metro cars were packed full when it pulled up, but there wasn’t a massive crowd of people waiting to get on. I tried getting on to no avail – no spots were open and the people in the cars weren’t letting others on. Right as the bell was ringing to announce the closing doors, I spotted a 2-inch opening on a car, and jumped on. I was completely squished up against the door and I almost didn’t make it on. People were pushing and shoving, and my face was touching the door, and my arms were flailed up against the door and other people. It must have been an interesting sight.
It gets worse: the next day
Since yesterday’s metro experience wasn’t that bad, I thought today would be the same way. Could I have been any more wrong? As I am nearing the platform this morning, I see hundreds of people on the first set of stairs (there are 2) on the way to the platform. I push my way through this mass crowd of people, and the platform is barely visible. All I see is a sea of people waiting to get on. I get up to the edge of the platform and a metro comes, but I couldn’t get on. I decide to wait, since the next one was due to arrive in 8 minutes. Well, 8 minutes turned into 25 minutes, in which more people came to the platform and were trying to push and shove their way through.
When the metro finally arrived, the cars were completely full to the brim, and barely anyone got out. I had to get on. I pushed and pushed, and I was barely standing on the edge. My feet were right where the door closes, and my bag wasn’t making it in. A man on the platform offered to push me and he tried pushing me so that the doors could at least close, but it did not help. Then people started yelling, screaming, saying that the doors weren’t closing because of me, and that I am crazy, and that I needed to get off and wait for the next metro.
No way, buddy. I had an in-class essay in French, my first class, and seeing as how this was going, I was already late. I stayed on, with people’s arms flailing, people trying to push me off, and incessant cursing in French. C’est la vie, non? (That’s life, right?) Yes, it is. I stayed on and dropped my bag to the floor of the car, put my arms on the top of the car and just lunged my body backward. Luckily the doors started to close, and I was in! People on the platform were just looking at me like I was completely nuts. It was every man for himself out there.
After an almost 45-minute metro ride, which is usually about 20 minutes, I made it off, gasping for air. There were times when I thought, “I am going to run out of air and pass out.” I had to keep getting on my tiptoes and pulling my head upward to get in fresh air. Nevertheless, I was fine, and I made it to class (late) but able to write my essay.
And worse: the trip home
I knew getting home would be a problem. Our cultural formations class doesn’t end until 6, and that usually means I’m hitting rush hour. Well, rush hour on strike is more like rush hour times 5. When I got to the metro stop, I waited and waited, and when the metro finally arrived it was, again, packed to the brim. I had to pull the same maneuvers as this morning. I was on the edge, the doors needed to close, so I put my hands on the ceiling, flung my body back, and made it.
The part I have forgotten to mention is that not only is getting on the hard part, but staying on is almost more difficult. With each stop, people from the back of the car would have to make their way forward, causing those of us at the front of the car to have to get off to let them off. Then the people who had been waiting on the platform would try to push their way through, which resulted in screaming, pushing, punching, and cursing. Luckily, I never got left behind, and I was able to really push my way through.
After an HOUR-long metro ride back home, I nearly didn’t make it off. During the course of the trip, I ended up in the back of the car squished up against three guys about a foot taller than me. I could feel myself short of breath the entire trip, but I kept perking my head up and getting on my tiptoes to try to get air. When my stop finally came, I had to start yelling, “Je descends, je descends!!” (I’m getting off) and “la porte, la porte!” (the door). People didn’t want to let others off for fear of losing their space, and my arm got trapped between three people. I could feel it bending and twisting, and for a moment I thought, “Great, if I didn’t suffocate myself to death on the metro, then I’m getting home with a broken limb. Superb.”
Luckily other people were pushing me through, and I was able to get off (having to shove about 5 people and screaming at them to get out of my way in the process).
I wish I could have gotten photographic evidence of the chaos that ensued this morning and afternoon. Even after a detailed description, I don’t think I have adequately explained the situation well enough, or rendered it justice. But, I keep telling myself, what did I come to Paris for?
The experience. And surely this was an experience I’ll never forget.