Friday, 10 September 2010


You’d think that leaving the house at ten past seven in the morning to make a journey of 25km would leave ample time to get to work for 8.45. Not so on a French strike day. Whilst London was brought to a halt by tube strikes and French workers rallied on the streets of Paris against the proposed increase in retirement age (by a mere two years), what was made less of by the British press was the fact that those of us residing in Paris and its suburbs were also trying to squeeze into limited means of public transport.

To be fair, ‘they’ were good enough to warn us about lack of trains beforehand in both email and on paper. At least those who normally take the RER (regional express train line) B knew that with "traffic quasi nul” – i.e., non-existent – there was no point in even trying to brave the station. But as for the rest of us, knowing that service on some lines would be as good as 50% or 60% doesn’t sound that bad on paper and it was not worth missing a day of work (and pay).

Many strike days are ironically quite peaceful affairs on the metro and RER with people choosing to take their cars or to stay at home leaving the trains quieter than on a normal day. I was confident that this, combined with leaving earlier than normal, would mean I still got to work on time....

The outbound journey was easy: perhaps the main pleasure of living at the end of the line is that you are pretty much guaranteed a seat on your outbound journey. I therefore spent the first twenty-five minutes luxuriating in my much-sought-after seat, in my mind simultaneously gloating at and feeling sorry for my fellow travellers who had to stand up the entire way. There was no chance that I was going to leave it free for them to promptly take and in turn fulfil their dreams. I told my buttocks to savour this feeling in case it quickly went.

I had decided to change my route slightly in the hope of avoiding the worst of the strike. This turned out to be a grave error. My normal lines – 6 and 12 – were on 60% and 30% service respectively. But to avoid the extra changes, I had opted to stay on the RER A for an extra stop and take line 8 instead. This turned out to be silly, as line 8 was also only on 30% service. This was not helped by the fact that daft old ladies had apparently decided that rush hour on a strike day was the perfect time to go out and get their weekly shop done, or go to an appointment… or whatever. Thanks to the slowing down of this service and the traffic preventing the bus routes, this meant I was late for work. That’s right, people: it took me an hour and forty minutes to travel twenty-five kilometres. JOY.

Even sillier, though, was that on my return journey, I made the same mistake again by travelling on line 8. Even though the station where I started was only three stops from the end of the line, it was packed to begin with and it only got worse. People in the next stations obviously thought that they were smaller than they actually were, thinking that cramming themselves in would work out fine despite the fact that there wasn’t an inch of space for neither love nor money. I was closer to more people than I had ever had the desire to be and the biggest of them got out of the carriage using the most inconvenient routes possible (i.e. trying to squeeze between me and a pole). By the time I got out of the carriage myself, I was gasping for air and slippery enough with sweat to feel like I’d been swimming.

However, there was one advantage to my change of route. By getting back on the RER A one stop earlier than I normally would to go home, I only had to stand for one stop before stealing a newly available seat as people got off at the normally busy and popular station where I got on. I was close enough to a seat to relieve my aching feet, legs and backside than I ever could have been if I had followed my usual route and got on the train at my usual station.

Having taken nearly two hours to travel the standard 25 kilometres home, the gratuitous numbers of seats and amount of space in the trains the day after seemed paradisiacal. I could wave my arms around and everything (only when nobody was looking, of course). Next strike day, I am definitely considering staying at home. I know that it's said that if you're not living life on the edge then you're taking up too much space, but personally, I like my space - especially on the metro.

By Bianca Summons

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