It took me until 2013 to really fall in love. It happened opposite the Luxembourg Gardens on my way to the Porte de Clignancourt flea market. It was a Saturday morning and I had walked a hundred yards or so from my rented studio on Rue Royer-Collard (5th arrondissement) when it happened. Not a coup de foudre– I did not immediately and recklessly lose my heart at first sight, I’d always believed in “try before you buy,” and although undoubtedly handsome, well, “books and covers” and all that…
However I can’t deny that I was nervous; this was quite a big step into the unknown for me and I had absolutely no experience on how to approach this without making an utter fool of myself.
He was standing on the pavement smoking. Did I just ask him politely? Or should I throw caution to the winds and barge in? He was much younger than me (then that wasn’t that unusual) and I certainly didn’t want his pity or polite patronising. He finally looked up as I dithered on the pavement, and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Is this the right bus for Porte de Clignancourt?”
He stubbed out his cigarette with a nod and boarded the bus. The number 85. I followed him on and asked for a return ticket. He realised instantly that I was a virgin, and handed over two identical tickets. I was so bemused that I ignored the machine where the ticket should be stamped and made my way to the back of the bus. How very odd: no return tickets!
I had boarded the 85 at the terminus and as it made its way down Blvd St Michel and across Pont St Michel, along the Rue de Rivoli, past the end of the Louvre and onwards and upwards, skirting Sacre Coeur, I started to relax. What a fantastic way to see Paris! Why had I never done this before? In the 18 months I lived in Paris at the end of the 1960s I had never, ever taken a bus. I knew the metro system like the back of my hand and dived into its murky depths daily without a thought. Even being tear gassed in St Sulpice metro station, during the May manifestations had not deterred me. (Badge of honour really, although I was not that keen on being physically whacked by an over enthusiastic officer in the CRS giving chase. We had all scattered like pellets from a shotgun from the exit of the metro, eyes and noses streaming, attempting blindly to get as far away as possible from the men in black indiscriminately striking out with their batons.)
Buses had appeared to me then like chugging dinosaurs, packed, slow, and God only knew how you knew where they were going. They seemed to be full of old people hugging shopping bags. (I looked down at my lap– thank God, no shopping bag, but a rather smart, and decidedly not, old lady, leather number.)
Coming home from the flea market, the bus began smoking and coughing alarmingly. It was absolutely heaving with bodies, the aisle jammed with Saturday shoppers and without ceremony the conductor pulled to a stop and told everyone to get off and wait for another bus.
Aah, I thought, so this was the problem with Parisian buses; they broke down and you had to walk. After the bus had disgorged half its passengers, the conductor promptly closed the doors and started off again. I had been wedged into an inside seat and I looked at my neighbour questioningly. “Just too many people.” She explained nonchalantly. “The bus doesn’t like it.” We continued on to the Luxembourg Gardens without further incident, but I still wasn’t sure how frequent this occurrence was and wondered if this was to be my one and only foray on a Paris bus?
After all I had never been thrown off the metro and sometimes it had been so packed with bodies it had been difficult to breathe. And I still knew the metro system-some of the lines indelibly marked in my memory. Convention to Odeon. (And Le Tabou.) Change at Montparnasse. Convention to Place de la Concorde, and thence to the Champs-Élysées. (Where for the princely sum of one franc, there was a cinema that played only English films on a loop. I sat through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? twice in one afternoon.) Ligne 12 also went on to Abbesses, the lovely Art Deco station that leads to Sacre Coeur.
BUT could you compare traveling underground to actually seeing the buildings and streets and people change in front of your eyes on a clean and cheerful bus?
Once back in my studio, I googled everything I could about Paris buses. Bus tickets were the same as metro tickets and interchangeable. Ten tickets cost just over 14 euros and could be bought from machines in the metro stations or at the counters with a credit card. The staff would also supply you with a map. Metro lines on one side, bus routes on the other, street names included. Bus tickets had to be validated in the machine next to the conductor, but could, on a different bus be re-used if the next journey started within 90 minutes of the original journey.
I turned into an anorak overnight.
Not content with my map, I stopped at every bus stop in the vicinity of my studio and took mental notes and sometimes, shame overcomes me, wrote in a little notebook. The bus stops do not content themselves with the mere numbers of the buses that stop there. Each bus boasts its own little map of its route with all the stops and the running times. And if you are STILL confused– well, that is where the wonderful conductors come into their own. I have yet to meet a rude or surly bus conductor and God knows they act not just as drivers, but travelling information bureaus, and are expected to be multi-lingual to boot. They never drive off when they see you coming at a run. Parisian conductors often will let you off at a convenient spot, tell you patiently and nicely the best stop to get off for the Champs de Mars to save a 100 metre walk and pass the time of day with you if you get on at the terminus.
And this is another one of my anorak tips.
If you live anywhere near where your chosen bus starts its journey-walk there and get on an empty bus. From the Luxembourg Gardens, the 82 goes to the Musee D’art Moderne, via the Eiffel Tower and Pont D’Alma. By the time it has worked its way around the Gardens it has already filled up considerably. (There is a shameful, but undeniable smugness in being ensconced in your chosen seat for the entire journey.)
So while I am unashamedly in love with Paris bus conductors I may just be a little more in love with the squat, green vehicles they are driving.
For more information about traveling Paris by bus, see the RATP’s official website.