Friday, December 13, 2013

The Etiquette Manual for the Modern Métro Traveller

… there’s a fun new French e-book just out 
writes Stephen Clarke,
and it is specifically designed to be read on public transport.

It has a long title – too long, perhaps for smaller e-reading tablets: “Manuel du savoir-vivre à l’usage du voyageur moderne”. This translates as something like “Etiquette Manual for the Modern Traveller”. It’s a deliberately old-fashioned-sounding title chosen to signal that the contents are going to be fun. It is, though, a serious book, a genuine attempt to improve public behaviour on Paris’s crowded transport network. And it is quite witty. Two of its suggestions are: “being helpful means carrying an old lady’s bag to the top of the stairs … and then giving it back to her” and “being courteous means understanding that the enormous crossed-out cigarette on the walls of the Métro isn’t just a work of art”.

These rules have been suggested by users, and they highlight some real everyday problems. Among the most relevant is the plea “not to challenge the knight who accidentally steps on your foot to a duel”. You see this happening all the time. Given that the genuine rule one of Métro usage, especially at rush hour, is: “when the train pulls into the station, passengers waiting on the platform must form a dense crowd around the opening doors, thereby preventing anyone standing near the doors getting off, and then push their way on to the train while those who were sitting down are still trying to shove their way towards the exit doors”, you naturally see a lot of people losing their temper. Someone getting off will “accidentally” elbow someone getting on too early, and before you know it, a full-throated shouting match is in progress, with both people indulging in an in-depth analysis of their adversary’s race, physical appearance and supposed possession of testicles. It rarely goes beyond an exchange of words, but it holds the train up even more and creates a bad atmosphere in an already stressful situation.

And here lies the problem with these witty guidebook-style appeals for courtesy. The people who read them are usually not the ones offending. The jokes in the book were thought up by the victims of the bad behaviour, and they’re being too polite about it. Admittedly, the light, bantering humour is necessary because if you tell Parisians “do this”, they’ll be tempted to ignore you or do the opposite. If, on the other hand, you use humour, you’re suggesting that you don’t really care whether they do it or not, and that it might actually be cool to do it, so you’re in with a chance that they’ll actually do it. Sadly, though, even if the new manual does get a bit of media attention and raise awareness, its jokiness won’t solve many problems.

 … It’s easy to compare London to Paris. The Tube’s corridors are almost all clean and homeless-person free. London employs people to beg travellers on the platform to let people on the train get off. At the barriers there are people preventing fraud and giving advice. Escalators abound, whereas you’d be very hard pushed to find any Paris stations without long staircases. It all makes travelling around London feel much smoother. There is, though, one other key difference – the Paris system is incredibly cheap.

 … In Paris, you get what you pay for, and that includes sharing your trains and buses with a tiny but attention-seeking minority who are incorrigibly impolite. The person smoking on the platform or listening to loud music on a train isn’t just being impolite, anyway – he or she is being provocative, looking for an argument. There are people like that in every city and in Paris they often hang out in the Métro. The next time one of them is growling “connard, fils de pute, enculé” (literally “male version of the vagina, son of a whore, recipient of anal penetration”) at me for exiting a Métro rather brusquely, it’s not going to help if I tell him wittily that I am a knight who doesn’t want to be challenged to a duel. The reply would probably be a crushingly effective allegation that I am the “knight of his rectum”. That’s the kind of everyday wit you get on the Métro.
Stephen Clarke’s insider guide to his home city, Paris Revealed, includes a line-by-line portrait of the Métro network, and his own user manual for surviving on public transport.