It’s a regular Tuesday night and, just like every evening of the working week, I’m wading through the sea of bodies during the Paris rush hour, narrowly avoiding a backpack robbery, only to endure a sardine can of a train while standing on one foot for 15 minutes. Hate for the Métro – the Tube, the subway, the underground, or whatever – is something we have all felt. But, as I guard the cake I’m taking to a friend’s party from the impending crowd apocalypse, a street singer on the other side of the tracks decides to serenade us with a rendition of Ain’t No Sunshine, and my heart melts.
Inside a Parisian Métro wagon, it’s like a United Nations gathering on rails: a wildly diverse crowd trying its best to weave multicultural ties. Chatting away with my Russian friend in our mother tongue, I spot a guy engrossed in Le Mage du Kremlin (The Wizard of the Kremlin), a recent hit novel by the Italian-Swiss writer Giuliano da Empoli. I catch his eye.
“An interesting read,” says my smile.
“Yeah, learning about your folk,” says his nod.
Exiting the train, we hear a casual Dobry viecher (Have a good night) – in excellent Russian with an elegant hint of a French accent.
In the cosmopolitan microcosm of the Métro, xenophobia doesn’t stand much of a chance. A drunk Parisian passenger is spouting off racist nonsense, but nobody’s buying it.
“You’re not French! You’re a dirty Arab!” he slurs.
I shudder, passengers tense up, the guy he insults couldn’t care less.
Suddenly, the drunkard fixes his hazy gaze on me. “Her!” he yells, pointing his shaking finger at my pale face and light hair. “Now, she is French!”
“No way, Mister, like hell I am!” I protest. Cue uproarious laughter as we mock the absurdity of prejudice in our little underground world.
Or take my Argentinian buddy on his first ever trip to Moscow. He was absolutely terrified of pulling out his mobile on the Métro. The phone was bright pink, and somehow he didn’t want to be the guy who flaunts colourful accessories in the country that passes very questionable legislation. Being completely disoriented, however, he really needed to check his phone for directions, so he finally gave up and took the risk. Surrounded by a thick crowd of grim Russian men, he bravely held his flashy device in his trembling fingers and defiantly looked around. Then he saw him: a particularly grumpy-looking guy, who also happened to be quite huge, moving towards him, an impenetrable expression on his face. As my pal’s heart skipped a beat, the giant man leaned over to him and whispered: “You lost? Need help?” Turns out, he’s just a helpful local, happy to pause his own day to guide a lost Argentinian tourist to his hotel. Pink phone and all.
And here I go again, riding the Métro, surrounded by a cacophony of tourists enthusiastically chatting in Spanish. Trying to play accent detective, I eavesdrop on their conversation, attempting to pinpoint their Latin American roots. We stop, and a group of merry Métro musicians swagger on to the train, belting out Cielito Lindo. The tourists erupt in joy, and I conclude they must be Mexican.
As the train barrels towards the next station, our wagon transforms into a makeshift venue, with a rendition of the classic Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay, canta y no llores. The musicians’ voices struggle to compete with the exuberant tourists, who are ecstatic to be greeted by the sound of their homeland.
So, here we are, hurtling through tunnels, getting squashed in crowds, cursing at trains running late, all the while surrounded by a kaleidoscope of cultures, stories, and unexpected reunions. Lives intersect down here, just like Métro lines. It’s suffocating, filthy and loud, but there comes a moment, if only fleeting, when the cacophony becomes a beautiful harmony, and those moments alone make it worth the ride.