Notes on the Métro

She stepped quietly onto the Métro somewhere around Pigalle, I think. I didn’t notice her at first so deeply was I immersed in Le Figaro, reading about Air France workers attacking company directors, Angela Merkel being attacked for her immigration policies, student activists in Hong Kong struggling against Beijing. Just another Tuesday afternoon on line two. The rest of the carriage was similarly uninterested, their black coats pulled up around deaf ears. The burble of conversation and tinny twangs from smartphone earbuds continued.
She cleared her throat and began to speak. I braced for the familiar spiel about unemployment, housing and hunger, the usual appeal for change or a restaurant ticket. But none of that was forthcoming. Instead, she talked about sadness, her French rising with poetic cadence. It was more spoken word than exposition. She was not detailing her own hardships but the universal need for tristesse as a motivator, and a fact of life. The mood of the carriage shifted. People were listening. Through the crush in the vestibule I could make out the red scarf she had wrapped around her head, its folds secured with an elaborate pin. She wore dark sunglasses, a nose ring and a brown leather choker. I guessed she was around 20 years old.
Then, with a sharp strum on the ukulele slung around her neck, she started to sing, and a stream of bittersweet caramel filled the air. Her voice twined rich and true around the soulful melody. I didn’t recognize the song, but I stopped wrestling with my newspaper and sat back to enjoy the music. She played two or three numbers in their entirety, maybe out of certainty of touching her accidental audience or perhaps simply for her own pleasure. “You remember when I used to love you all night?” “Gotta make a move, boy.”  Station announcements drowned her out at regular intervals, but she held her own. People made an effort to cross the carriage to toss a coin or two into the small wooden bowl at her feet. She remained in our carriage for eight or nine stops, probably continuing to Nation, where the line ends.
When I finally alighted, I thanked her and added a couple of euros to her bowl, but neglected to ask her name.
Later, I read in an op-ed that the Paris transport authority, the RATP, had just held the autumn round of its biannual auditions for performers seeking to ply their trade in the corridors and carriages of the Métro and RER systems. About two thousand turned up to vie for one of the three hundred and fifty-odd permits offered each year.
I have to confess to not being a big fan of buskers. Good acts are few and far between, and bad ones can be an assault on the senses. However, when you encounter a performer who stands out, it can elevate your commute. I’ve found line two, which runs between Porte Dauphine – near the Bois de Boulogne and the rarified Avenue Foch – and the decidedly gritty Place de la Nation, particularly fruitful in this regard. Even without buskers, it’s the chattiest of the Métro lines, always humming with talk. (Sometimes that becomes indignant or panicked shouting if a pickpocket strikes, often near Anvers, which serves Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur.) It was on line two that I once saw the whole carriage erupt into a dance- and singalong to Tequila.
Another reason to love line two is that, like line six, it goes partially overground, so you can watch Paris roll by out the window. If you get the scenery with a pleasing soundtrack, so much the better.

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