Paris Metro Serenades: “Those Were the Days”

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Paris Metro Serenades: “Those Were the Days”
“Those Were the Days” (and no, this is not about nostalgia) Well, just a touch.  And only at the beginning. It used to be that when you took the métro in Paris you would be serenaded by young men with guitars.  You’d hear a lot of “The Boxer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  From the singers’ accents, you could tell that a lot of them were anglophones, but every once in a while, you’d hear a song by Brel or Hugues Aufray.  So there were a few Frenchmen in the mix.  They were mostly hippie types, and they were mostly not too bad, and not very good.  It didn’t require a lot of effort to put up with them between Concorde and Chatelet.  You would also hear an occasional accordionist, usually playing something by Piaf. But then came Gorbachev, the Russo-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall.  World- shattering events.  Métro music was changed forever. Within the past ten years or so, métro music has been taken over by the Eastern-bloc music Mafia. (And I’m using the term “music” loosely.)  I’m sure I haven’t heard the sound of a guitar in the métro in the past five years.  And what do we have instead? You’re sitting in the métro, minding your own business (or maybe not, maybe you’re eavesdropping on the conversation between the young couple sitting next to you) or reading, talking to someone or just dreaming, when the métro doors open at a station and in steps a man with an accordion strapped across his chest.  If you’re really unlucky, he may have a little battery powered amplifier hooked up to a cassette player for accompaniment.  And if it’s your own personal Friday the 13th, Ides of March, and visit to the dentist rolled into one, he’ll have a woman with him who plays the tambourine and screams enthusiastic words of encouragement to him while he plays.  And what does he play?  Whether he’s alone (unplugged), amplified or with a tambourinist, he will play “La Vie en Rose” and “The Toreador Song” from Carmen. And another song.  I don’t remember what it is.  I think I always stop listening by then.  And it seems everyone else does too, because everyone I’ve talked to (and as you can see, these articles are extensively researched) agrees that there are usually four songs, but no one knows the third. And to finish, always, and I mean always, a rousing version of (and thus the title of this article) “Those Were the Days.” Now, I may have made it sound like there’s only this one accordionist in Paris, with his sadly limited repertoire, and that some days maybe the battery’s dead on his amplifier, so he leaves it at home.  And some days, his wife has to do the laundry, so she can’t play the tambourine. But, no.  There is an army of accordionists in Paris.  They know each other (you often see them sitting together in groups in métro stations), they live together (or at least they did.  They used to stay at a certain hotel near the Porte de Clignancourt, on the Boulevard Ornano.  I used to call it the Accordion Hotel.  It’s since been renovated.  Where did they go?), and they always play the same damned songs! I imagine that they have a secret accordion school.  Maybe in Bucharest.   There the master planner chooses the repertoire. A couple of French songs for atmosphere (a lot of American tourists think these are French musicians, and that they’re taking in a bit of the local color).  Then the mysterious third song, probably loaded with subliminal messages so that no one can remember it.  And “Those Were the Days.”  So the American tourists will feel at home. I suppose these songs are easily taught, easily learned, easily played.  Or maybe they’re the only songs the teacher knows.  Once they’ve mastered (mastered!  Who am I kidding.  Mastered?)  these songs, the accordionists are smuggled into Paris.  Urban legend has it that these guys are controlled by the Russian Mafia.  That a guy in a suit comes around to collect their money, that he leaves in a Mercedes. Maybe.   When the Accordion Hotel was still in business, it’s true that I often (well, no, not “often,” but more than once, more than twice) saw an expensive German car (Mercedes, BMW, they’re all the same to me) stop in front, and all the players went one by one to the car’s window. Maybe the car was only asking directions, and no one knew how to get to the Eiffel Tower from there.  I don’t know. But there does seem to be a true belief among Parisians that these “musicians” are protected.  I’ve often (and here I really mean “often”) seen people avoid entering a métro car where there were musicians playing.  I’ve also seen many people change cars when the music starts, and almost every time the music starts, I’ve seen people roll their eyes in exasperation, heard them mutter, not again! (can you mutter with an exclamation point?  I think so.  Yeah.).   But there’s only one time that I’ve seen anyone who had the courage to tell the accordionist to stop.  Only one time that someone was brave enough to face down the Russian Mafia and demand his right to ride the métro in peace and quiet.  Only one time that someone said what so many had thought.  And who was this courageous defender of freedom?  I’m so modest that I’m a little embarrassed (I’m blushing! As I write this!  It’s true!) to say that it was me! And do you know what the really amazing thing about this was?  The accordionist stopped playing.  He wasn’t happy about it.  But he stopped.  And I didn’t get beaten up when I got out of the métro.  So maybe the métro riders…
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