Having spent significant amounts of time in cities like Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai, I am used to using some of the most ultra-modern mass transit systems in the world. As a result, I am extremely au fait with sleek and shiny carriages whirring along between stops in near silence. Many of the systems in China are scarcely five years old and are clear examples of the country's vast expansion and unbelievable development over the past decade. Therefore, when I I took my first ride on the Paris Metro, I felt that I had been transported back in time. Whilst the newly built system in Tianjin and the Beijing subway – which was revamped for the 2008 Olympics - were images of twenty-first century global development, the Paris version seemed to have more in common with other earlier eras.
The impression of time travel created by the Paris Metro seemed to work on two separate levels. In one way – the most overt of the two – the style and design of the French capital's transport system seemed more akin to the 1920s than the early twenty-first century. This began with the signs that stood outside the gate to each station. These looked as though they were made from stained glass and their design evoked images of art-nouveaux style. It genuinely gave the impression that they had not changed for perhaps one-hundred years. The old-time style continued with the wrought iron railings that surrounded the gates and then led down into the bowels of the station.
Inside many of the stations – particularly some of the older ones in the centre of the city – the stairways and platforms are tilled with the type of ceramics that give the feel of nineteenth century development – they felt as though they belonged in the era of the nineteenth-century European Industrial Revolution. The feeling of industrial growth and strength is compounded by the riveted girders that hold up the ceiling. The same is also true of many of the trains that ferry commuters around the city. They are neither sleek nor shiny and there is not the slightest hint of the aero-dynamics that define more modern systems. In fact, many of them are rather blockish and seem to have more in common with the days of steam than with modern express links. An rather quaint example of this is the doors. In Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, there are illuminated electronic buttons on many carriage doors that allow passengers to open them with a swish of hydraulics. In Paris, many carriages still have a mechanical handle that clunks the doors open with a creak.
The Paris Metro not only sent me back to the 1920s and beyond, but also, in a very different way, it transported me to the 1970s and 1980s. IN many of the countries I have visited, not only the trains but also the the stations and the system as a whole are clean and sanitized like some futuristic utopia. Even in London, many of the Victorian-era stations have been revamped into modern transport hubs with LCD screens and suicide barriers. They have been cleansed of much of the grime and squalor that was on show in the 1980s, when the underground was not always the cleanest or safest way to travel. I was expecting much the same to be the case in Paris. However, there seemed to be a layer of decay on much of the system. There were plenty of beggars, homeless and buskers. And, in several stations, there was a less than pleasant odour.
Perhaps the image I paint of the Paris Metro seems excessively negative. However, I do not mean it to be so. I found the antique feel to be decidedly charming and gave it a character missing in modern transport systems. There are also plenty of modern touches that make travel very easy.