While the Air's Away On Paris' Pollution Day

platform on no 29 at Gare Lyon
There may not be much room on the platform, but today it is free.

Parisians Take to Free Rides With Aplomb and Panache

Paris:- Wednesday, 1. October 1997:- My SNCF ticket-buddy says I don't need a ticket today unless I want to go to Moscow. The hand-lettered sign taped to the ticket-automat outside the tiny station says something like, "Free Rides Today."

My kids were yelling last night during the TV-news, so I didn't catch the audio part that went with the report about the license plates. Odd-numbered plates, even-numbered plates; which on which days? And which number is the odd or even one?

What I also didn't hear; they must have said the pollution metre hit the big 'Three' on Tuesday, and therefore Wednesday would be Full-Red-Alert-Odd-Number-License-Plate-Day. First thing this morning, I got it loud and clear from Radio Info.

Last Saturday, in the 'Au Bistro' column I wrote that RATP-métro ticket sellers would possibly be on strike today. If they aren't selling tickets, then there will no ticket controls - barriers will be open, which means free rides.

Metropole has a reader who swears by self-tours on RATP buses, and strike or no, my plan was to try and take the open-platform bus number 29 from in front of Saint-Lazare - to wherever it goes and I had my SNCF ticket automat fingers crossed against drivers being on strike today too.

But, ahhhh, pollution - this is different. A brand-new situation! Free transport for everybody.

'Don't buy a ticket' message is taped to vending mahine.

Sitting in my free seat, high over Suresnes between Saint-Cloud and La Défense, I turn on Metropole's own weather-station by looking out the train window. Straight up there is blue sky, but looking at Paris, it looks like my glasses need serious cleaning, and I am not wearing any.

The Tour Eiffel is 40 percent visible, the high hotel at Port Maillot is about 30 percent, the Arc de Triomphe only 20 percent, and there is no sight of Sacre-Coeur at all. The sun is brighter towards the fifteenth and at first I see no Tour Montparnasse; I can't even see the hotels along the Seine and they are much closer. A re-squint and I can make out the big one at Montparnasse, but only about five percent, tops.

Over Paris, the air looks like grey wool. Hack, cough; maybe I should call it a day at Le Défense and take the free ride back?

I ride through La Défense, all the way to Saint-Lazare. I can't tell whether the train carried more passengers than usual because I was at the back end; where I usually sit, to make the change at La Défense. If the front of the train was full, they've cleared the platform by the time I get to there.

No big crowd inside the station. I go through to the vast hall where the ticket-robots line a wall for 100 metres. Every one has a hurriedly-printed simple note, saying, "Don't buy a ticket - 'cause pollution'" taped to it. A SNCF employee sees me regarding the vending machines and repeats the 'free-rails' message, with glee, I think.

Out front, in the Cour de Rome, there are no buses at all. Maybe there is a strike after all? This used to be a fair-sized bus depot; it is now empty, but across the intersection there is the usual crowd of long, articulated buses.

Three people are sort of standing as if they are in line and when I look around some obstruction, I see they are standing by a lonely pole with the bus number 29 sign on it.

I buy Le Parisien at the kiosk there and put myself at the end of the informal line, which has increased to seven. The front page says 'Edition d'Essonne' so I go back to the kiosk and ask for the Paris edition and the guy has it.

He says he puts out the Essonne edition at 11 in the morning, and puts the earlier Paris edition on the shelf below. It seems odd; here I'd expect Hauts-de-Seine or Yvelines or Val-de-Oise; but not Essonne. You get there from another station, not from Saint-Lazare.

We are a good dozen or fifteen when good old number 29 chugs around the corner from the rue St. Lazare. A lady either tries to buy a ticket or is asking directions, so I can't do my fast slither through the bus to get the best spot on the open platform at the back.

In third-best spot, the bus does the zig-zag before passing Printemps on Haussmann and rolls down the rue Auber to the place de la Opéra. This is my first time on this bus so I am doing the 'rotation-look' and Bus no 53, to Opera forgetting about today's 'news event' - forgetting to estimate the compliance with the odd-numbered plates, forgetting to estimate the volume of traffic.

All buses, métros, RER and local SNCF trains are free today.

So I am taking photos as the bus goes through the place de la Opéra, and only later when I look at them, do I realize that this intersection was relatively free of traffic. At the stop in Quatre-Septembre, there are a fair number of passengers waiting to get on, and the platform starts getting crowded.

Only so many people can fit on the back platform. The difficulty with opening the door discourages some who would like to try it; so I guess my companions are pros. Just in front of the platform, the bus has a back-door and a guy who is smoking gets on through it, and comes on the platform.

Another guy is talking about his artistic achievements in broken English to a couple whose replies I don't hear, but they look attentive. The artist is smoking too. A young lady gets on and comes out for a cigarette as well. We have our own local area of pollution. If the stewardess served drinks out here, we'd be set.

In town, the air seems clear. It is very bright and the shadows are very blue; there is immense contrast. The bus turns off Septembre and goes down the narrow rue Notre-Dames des Victories to the place of the same name - the one with the religious knick-knack shop - and then hangs a left into Etienne Marcel.

I don't know why I thought we'd be heading out the Grands Boulevards toward Gare du Nord. This bus is going to Gare de Lyon and Bercy and points east, and it is okay with me because it seems certain it'll run through the Marais.

I need to explain a feature of these narrow streets, and this platform. There is no idiot-proofing on this platform, so if you want to stick your head out the side to see what's coming, do it carefully. The bus passes various street objects very closely sometimes and you could get a nasty crack if you left one of your body-parts in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On the positive side, there is a roof over the platform so you can ride in the rain, and there are two loudspeakers too. Some buses have a recorded robot-voice call out the names of stops as the bus arrives; but this one fortunately does not, or it is turned off.

The bus passes Sébastopol and there is a lot of haze blazing up from the south, and then turns into the glare in the rue Beaubourg and runs down it to the pipes of the 'gas works' before turning left into rue Rambuteau, where it is like a marché.

At the rue des Archives, the road narrows and becomes rue des Francs Bourgeois. This is one of the Marais' main streets and is easily worth a couple of days time to see it all. Here the bus seems to go too fast; possibly because of the sparse traffic - a short line of cars does bunch up behind the bus, because there is nowhere for it to pull over when it stops.

This is really a ride worth a ticket! After crossing the rue Turenne, number 29 runs through the north side of the place des Vosges and its garden is full of light, surrounded by the deep blue of its square of hôtels. This is followed by the narrow-again and fully in shadow, rue du Pas de la Mule.

At its end the bus turns right into the big boulevard Beaumarchais and heads for Bastille. The huge place is almost empty and the bus gets through it quickly to the south side, where it lines up for the rue de Lyon.

From the top I can see the clock tower of the station and soon the bus has turned into the boulevard Diderot and stopped. This is where I hop off; right beside the métro entrance.

Bus routes seldom change and my very old map says number 29 goes out to the Porte de Montempoivre, which I've never heard of. The area's larger name is Porte de Saint-Mande, and the bus arrives there after a long run bus stop rue 4. Sept along the rue Daumesnil and after passing through the place Félix Eboué. I must have a look sometime.

Instead I have a look at the sky and I see two vapor-trails heading in the direction of Brussels or Amsterdam. I don't know if looking up like this is any sign of clean air, but it looks promising.

Waits for buses are shorter; passengers are more.

Without taking the whole trip, I give three stars to the RATP's bus number 29 route, and pronounce it good value for the price of one bus-ticket: four francs eighty - if you bought a 'carnet' of ten of them.

In the métro, I get talking to a German with a back-pack who has just got off the train from Switzerland. The métro's announcing system is telling everybody not to use their tickets, and if a barrier is closed, 'push the button,' and I tell him about this.

This unusual message has replaced the usual 'watch out for pickpockets' message, which is a relief, and the German and I chat about Berlin-Charlottenburg until we both get off at Concorde.

From there I ride up to Jules-Jofferin and the city hall of the 18th - Montmartre - to get the press kit for the coming weekend's 'Fête des Vendanges à Montmartre.' I am becoming attached to this little neighborhood party, even if Metropole readers are sick of it.

On the way out of the building I come down the stairs in order to admire the skylighted central hall and at the main floor, two ladies ask me where to find... I don't know. One is helping the other and I say where the secretary is, but the one looking won't ride in the elevator on account of 'platzangst' or something, so I step over to the hall and point at the secretary's door, on the second balcony. When I say the stairs are not many, she trundles up them.

The other lady complains about unemployment the way Parisians talk about these things and she is quite happy to hear me say I am all for the revolution - which is safe enough to say, when you are in the Republic of Montmartre - and not in some ultra-chic royalist quarter.

Outside, a large busload of police are trying to sort out a minor fender-bender and we revolutionaries part, friends for life.

I want to get some 'cover' photos in case I can't be at the Fête on Saturday so I head up - into the sun - up the rue du Mont Cenis rue des Francs Bourgeois to Caulincourt. Along here the shadows are inky-blue and there are a lot of trees lining the road; so it is a bit dark and the contrast is very stark where the light is falling down the streets of stairs from the summit.

A free ride through the middle of the Marais.

On the downhill side, the top of the stairs leading down to the métro presents one of the 25 best views in the world - except for looking like it was assembled by some besotted Hollywood set-designer. It is just too authentic, but I shoot it all the same. Twice.

By the entrance to the métro, there is a flower and plant shop - local color! - and two cafés, facing each other. I shoot both and go to take a glass of water in the closest.

This fellow, wearing a naval-type rope for a tie, has just entered before me, and the bar crew think we are together. He puts a battered mini-tuba on the floor and announces to one and all that it is his Minitel, and then orders a whisky and they decide he should have a Johnny Walker when he can't make up his mind.

Then he shows me a Dunhill belt-buckle watch. He takes a blast on the tuba. He shows me the gaudy but antique ring he's just given the bar lady. Then he disappears, leaving the drink on the bar and the horn on the floor.

I finish my water, say goodbye, and then bump into this guy in the tunnel of the métro entrance, where he's been chatting up a passing lady carrying a bass. He invites me to a party in the rue Antoine up at Saint-Ouen on Friday night. He invites me to the bar where he's playing tonight.

When I see the lady with the bass on the métro platform, I can't think of anything appropriate to say. That's why this is the end of my first Paris' odd-plate-day pollution report.

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