Scenes from Paris mass transit

Posted by Bao on Monday, January 16th, 2006

The last two days have been all about the mass transit system in Paris. We’ve been jumping in and out of trains, peering at maps, checking out cool subway stops (one of the subway stops is designed to look like the inside of a brass submarine) and getting lost. My profound thought a few years back, which I have patented so please do not attempt to rip me off, is this: if you really want to get to know a city and its people, then learn and use its mass transit system. Pretty deep eh?

Anyway I’ve been mesmerized by the graffiti art, of which there is plenty in Paris. Tags, burners, and straight-up murals cover trains, walls, buildings, even cars and trucks. I wonder what most Parisians think of graffiti, especially since much of the graf that I’ve seen is clearly influenced by the U.S.’s hip hop aesthetics. Personally, I think the dizzying amount of graffiti gives Paris a distinct look, a brazen character, as if a tattoo artist went wild and inked the skin of this city. In a city world famous for its artists and art museums, it’s interesting to see art that spills into the streets, or maybe it would be more accurate to say, owns the streets.

We interviewed a long-time art dealer in Montmartre today and I asked him about graffiti, but he had little to say about it other than that it’s an obviously American art form that has influenced Paris. It’s interesting to see, once again, the far-reaching influence of hip hop culture and art. American Rock and Roll still has a hold here as well, but rock and punk seem to have a stronger hold on older Parisians, like Yves and his friend Jerome, a guitar maker and repairman. Jerome’s crib is stuffed to the gills with American comic books and guitars, and American flags, and he loves America more than anything, and wants to move to the U.S. and start a business. He is a sweet, talented guy and he may be the most patriotic American I’ve ever met: funny that the most loyal and patriotic American is a French guy living in a suburb of Paris.

On the way back in the train station at the other end of the tracks, I see two families sitting next to one another waiting for the train: one Asian, one Black. The daughter of the Asian couple is easily in her twenties but she acts like a little girl as she hangs out with her parents, and her father pretends to be surly while bopping her on the head with a balloon attached to a stick while her mother laughs, it is clear that they love each other very much and the whole scene is quite endearing. Next to them is a Black woman with her son, very young, he also has a balloon on a stick, he holds it with a sweet shy smile as his mother lovingly watches him, he looks back at her and it is clear that they love each other very much, and it is all very endearing. The Asian mother teaches the young boy to press the stick of the balloon between his palms and then rub his palms back and forth, making the balloon spin, and the boy giggles with delight. Both families, strangers in the subway station, laugh together.

I know, one random subway encounter doesn’t solve the world’s ills. But it’s important nonetheless, because it was organic, it was real, it was a touch of simple beauty in a world that so often seems ugly and cruel. And we didn’t catch it on tape. I just wish everyone could have been there to see it.

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