At least once a week I like to watch a French film with French subtitles as opposed to English ones, and occasionally with no subtitles at all. When I turned up here I assumed learning the language would be a doddle, but I’m not as totally immersed as I’d expected, and watching a movie or television programme and trying to follow the plot while identifying key words as it goes along makes me feel better (even when I don’t have a clue what’s going on).

Last night I watched Louie Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro, a 1960 vaudeville comedy that is actually funny visually, though I couldn’t be too sure what was being said. Zazie, a 10-year-old from outside of Paris who comes to visit her Uncle, apparently talks in a colloquial argot half the time, so why I’d think I’d understand I’m not sure. But still, there’s plenty to enjoy in the direction, even with that maddening habit filmmakers of the era had of speeding the more animated sequences up; one can only assume this was hilarious for a number of years back then given the pervasiveness.

Without giving too much away (actually this is the spoiler to defecate on all spoilers) Zazie never makes it inside the Metro despite it being all she desires during her stopover. Circumstance and her naughty uncle thwart her ambitions. I’d like to suggest it’s some existential parable but it isn’t. It’s slapstick. Nevertheless it’s much funnier than any modern French comedies I’ve seen from, say, the last 15 years (I’m looking at you Dîner de cons).
Personally I very rarely get on the Métro, mainly because I don’t have a job. The one thing I do like doing however is discovering the history behind the place names. And guess what kids, there’s plenty to discover. For instance the nearest Metro to my house is Parmentier. Foodies amongst you may be aware of a potato association (oven-roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary are known as parmentier potatoes I’m told) but M. Parmentier himself was a scientist who convinced the French public in 1770 that the potato wasn’t poisonous. What a guy! We probably wouldn’t have French Fries without him. Just imagine, all those heart attacks averted. Interesting that Parisians, who were quite happy to raid the local zoo and eat all manner of exotic species (and sewer rats too) during the French Revolution were so squeamish when it came to a root vegetable. King Louis XIV was so flummoxed by the spud that he wore the plant as a buttonhole.

At the more edgy end of my street is Couronnes, the scene of Paris’ first and worst Metro catastrophe in 1903; you wouldn’t know it given the lack of commemoration. Whether or not it’s easy to feel pity for the 84 people who were killed because it happened so long ago is open to debate, though I’m sure the centenary of World War I will be big news next year so why there’s no monument or even a plaque here I’m not sure. The story goes that there was a fire at the nearby Ménilmontant station, and the passengers would have been saved where there not a gentleman holding up the carriage after becoming verbally embroiled with the poor Poinçonneur regarding his ticket. All of the passengers asphyxiated from the backdraft of fumes coming from the other station.

The second world war is in evidence in some of the Metro place names, and there are probably more than the two I know about. Jacques Bonsergent – quite near us also – was named after an engineer who had pissed up fistycuffs with a Nazi during the occupation and was executed in 1940 for his troubles just in time for Christmas. Guy Môquet was another martyr to the cause, executed by the occupying Germans at just 17-years-old; the station named after him is situated on line 13.

Having lived in England most of my life, it creeps me out to imagine the Nazis occupying the place where I now live, even if it was 70 years ago. I find that footage of Hitler walking in front of the Eiffel Tower more upsetting than I used to because I suppose one becomes territorial when you live somewhere. At the Holocaust Museum recently I saw footage of a lady talking about being taken as a child from her home by Nazi officers to a large warehouse space on Rue Boyer, and I suddenly remembered that Rue Boyer – which is not a long street at all – is where my favourite venue La Maroquinerie is situated. Being able to identify a tangible place associated with my own memories really brought home to me the evil of Hitler in a way I hadn’t imagined it could before, and I realise how glib that probably sounds. As I get older too I become more painfully aware how much closer my birth was to the Second World War than I could have comprehended as a child. Were I to live in reverse time then I might be able to catch whoever set fire to the Reichstag about now.

All this metro action has got me interested in exploring the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture. I still haven’t been brave enough to walk along the old railway line – abandoned in the 1930’s – just yet, but I’ve seen others do it. If anyone knows where there’s a decent access point then please leave a comment or mail me. I’ll try my best not to get arrested. Thanks.

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