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One day last month, I rode the trains of Paris for three hours. This was not the first time I had given in to my number one Parisian pastime, RURW (Random and Unintentional Reckless Wandering). Normally this craving is fulfilled on foot, where I can lick patisserie store-front windows and sniff flowers. However, heavy clouds drooped in the sky and I was not up for a round of Will it Rain or Not, a game with worse odds than craps (reminder: I was in Paris, not Marseilles). I took to the underground.
I ducked in at La DÃ©fense, took the RER A to Châtelet, transferred to the RER B, and rode it down to Massy Palasaieau (made famous by Renaud in “Le Tango de Massy Palaiseau”). Then it was 16 kilometers out to Versailles on the RER C. Barely touching down on Louis XIV’s stomping grounds, I high-tailed it back into Paris to the other side of town, to the Cimitière Père-Lachaise, yelled “Olly olly oxen free,” after touching Jim Morrison’s grave, and then took the RER A back west towards home. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes I stop wandering, and actually work.
For someone on a meager budget, all of these little trajets could have made my wallet take flight, but I didn’t even bother opening my change purse. I was armed with that little orange pass known as the carte orange, ensuring limitless travel on the Parisian buses, mÃ©tro, and RER–granted one has paid the requisite fee at the beginning of the month.
In my estimation, no French invention (culinary aside) is as ingenious as this little silver-lined cardboard coupon. One simply slides it into the groove in the turnstile and retrieves it from the machine’s slotted top. The carte orange lends grace and class to an operation involving turnstiles reminiscent of those at American football stadiums. Finally, the most contagious aspect is the freedom of being able to go anywhere.
The carte orange is the greatest thing since tucking a baguette under one’s armpit, and so I was shocked a month and a half ago when the carte orange’s 30th birthday, March 23, passed by unheralded. I waited for the press to laud the anniversary or the RATP (local transit) to duct-tape “Happy Birthday, Carte Orange” signs in the stations. Nothing happened. I patiently waited for everyone to realize their great gaffe and looked for it to get a belated birthday wish, page A1 coverage.
When the silence began to scream, I decided to make my own list of the merits of this wonderful petite carte:
Reasons the Carte Orange is the Greatest thing since Tucking a Baguette Under One’s Armpit:
1 – Its week- or month-long duration. Instead of buying a puny purple mÃ©tro ticket every time you want to go somewhere, the carte orange becomes part of one’s permanent wallet collection. In the pouch in which it’s carried is your required passport-sized picture for identification and a little plastic notch into which you slide the card. For either a month or a week, there are no hassles with ticket counters or employees, who scrunch up their faces as if they are sucking on lemons when you speak French.
2 – Employer recognition – Way back in the 1980s, a bit after the card’s advent, French employers were called to recognize the cardboard coupon as an essential means of arriving at work. They took to refunding a chunk of its cost, depending on where one lives in relation to one’s place of employment. Paris is cut up into zones, one (the center) through seven. If you buy a zone 1-7 carte orange, you have access to the entire mÃ©tropolitan area.
3 – You can flash it at the bus drivers– When taking the bus, you can flash it quickly at the bus driver, just enough so that he or she sees the streak of orange. I sometimes mumble my name followed by “FBI,” but most people who drive the 178 either don’t get it or ignore me.
4 – It is less snobby than a Carte-Imagine R or IntÃ©gral –The Carte Imagine-R and IntÃ©grale are its true competition, made popular by their magnetic stripe that one slides fluidly over the top of the machine. Some people don’t even remove the pass from their purse. They slide the entire purse over the magnetic portion of the machine, taking the opportunity to flaunt their expensive handbags under the guise of swiping their card. We Carte Orange carriers see right through it. Nonetheless, it’s projected that these “swipe” cards are the future of Parisian transit.
While nearly perfect, the carte orange is a cardboard card, and even cardboard cards have their negatives. Cartes oranges been known to infringe on amorous relationships. My own significant other saw green the day we were walking in the fifth arrondissement and I stopped him and said, “I can’t keep this in any longer, I am falling headlong in love with”–and before he saw it coming, “my carte orange.” His jealousy quickly dissipated. “I’m glad you came out with it first,” he said, “I’ve been feeling the same thing for my carte orange ever since I added on a zone five.”
Happy Belated Birthday, Carte Orange!
Information about the carte orange can be found at www.ratp.fr. Click S’Informer: Carte Orange: Tariffs for prices.
If you’re visiting Paris for a short time look into the Paris Visite pass on the same website. It is offered for 1, 2, 3 or 5 days. Its per-day rate is more expensive then the week-long carte orange rate, but, unlike the carte orange, it starts counting days when you first use it. The carte orange begins strictly on Monday and ends on Sunday.