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Blog : Posts from February 2010

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Secret Passage

In which we look for some Parisian history


Every so often, search requests come in for things like “disused stations on the Paris Metro”. I’mk not entirely sure why, because this site doesn’t have very much content at all on that topic. All there is, in fact, is this post from a few years ago, which wasn’t really about disused Paris metro stations at all: it was more about all the various interconnection lines and mysterious secret underground depots that you can see from a passing train.

When I was in Paris the other week, though, I kept an eye out. Because there are the odd one or two disused stations on the Metro, even if there are fewer than on the London Underground. I kept my eyes open, and I spotted a couple.

Firstly, if you head north along Line 5, across the Seine and through Quai de la Rapée station, you will find that the line quickly disappears underground on its way to Bastille station.* Once in the tunnel, well-lit and easily spotted, there is a stretch of broad station tunnel, heavily graffitied like almost everything on the Paris metro. This is the remains of Arsenal station: off the top of my head, the only Paris Metro station to share a name with one on the London Underground.

Secondly, turn around back to Gare d’Austerlitz, then head westward on Line 10. Past Odéon, there’s a complex network of underground tunnels linking Line 10 to various other routes; the modern line has a complex history. And somewhere in-between all the various connections, past Mabillon station, there is another secret. Croix Rouge station, originally the terminus of the line. It’s harder to spot than Arsenal, but it is there.

Hopefully, then, if people come here looking to spot disused Parisian underground stations, here are a couple of hints. If you want to see what they look like inside, there are photos on the web, of course: where doesn’t have photos on the web nowadays? Alternatively, you might prefer it the other way: sit on the Metro, ignore the buskers and the beggars, and look out the window for a flash of abandoned platforms.

* incidentally, foundations of the original Bastille fortress are visible on the Line 5 platforms at that station.

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Salvation and me

In which we discuss the language barrier


Back when I was 11, I started secondary school, and we started to learn French.* Like most English children who learn French, one of the first words we came across was salut. As a greeting, for use with friends, something like “Hi”.

When I was a few years older, I read my way through my parents’ bookshelves of 1960s and 1970s thrillers. One of the books on it was Papillon, the autobiography of a 1930s French crook called Henri Charrière; a long picaresque tale of his imprisonment in the jungles of South America, on Devil’s Island, and various escapes, recaptures, masturbation, sex with dusky native wives, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how much of the sex made it into the inevitable film version, because I’ve never seen the inevitable film version.**

One thing about Papillon, though, confused me. Not the long story with all its peregrinations and jewels-up-the-bum, but the geography. I’d heard of Devil’s Island before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a group. Les Iles de Salut. Or, according to the French I’d been taught at school, the Islands of Hi. Something about that didn’t sound quite right. Back then, I couldn’t just pop online and check up on this, though, and so it was a while later that I discovered: salut doesn’t literally just mean “Hi!”. It is, in fact, “salvation”.

Well, that makes rather more sense, despite being rather darkly ironic for the prisoners of pre-war days. It’s somewhat stranger, in fact, that the French apparently use “Salvation!” as something like an equivalent to “Hi!” And there, in my head, the matter rested.

In the meantime, between then and now, lots happened. I read some stuff about the French Revolution one day, then read some more, and later more still, until I knew such vital trivia as Louis XVI’s favourite hobbies, or the name of Robespierre’s dog.*** I certainly knew about the Committee of Public Safety, the body which in many ways became France’s primary executive power in 1793-94; a dour committee of serious-minded men who promulgated government by terror, passing laws that banned any sort of anti-Revolutionary word or deed or thought, the punishment being clean, scientific and egalitarian decapitation.**** “Committee of Public Safety” is a very dull and bureaucratic name for a body convinced that France needed saving from its reactionary self, whatever the cost of the purge.

All of my reading, of course, was in English, my French being just about good enough to order a Metro ticket. So it was only the other day, when we visited the Museé Carnavalet – the museum of Paris’s history – that I found out what the CPS’s real name was. La Comité de salut public. Not just responsible for the public safety, but for the public salvation. The committee to save the French from themselves, whatever it takes.

All of a sudden, in my head, their actions made much more sense than they ever had before. It just goes to show what you can lose in translation, between safety and salvation; or, indeed, between safety, salvation and “Hi!”. Maybe I should have worked on my French harder in school, and the Terror would have made more sense earlier. Salut.

* Actually, there was another abortive attempt to teach me French, by my first school teacher, at the age of 5 or so. It didn’t get very far.

** starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Presumably the masturbation was also omitted.

*** Hunting and locksmithery; and “Brount”. And I didn’t get asked either of those things when I went on the telly.

**** The “egalitarian” part of that isn’t just me using long words: before the nobility lost its Old Regime rights, they alone were entitled to execution by decapitation. The common people got to hang. The guillotine, incidentally, wasn’t as clean as Dr Guillotin thought it would be; it spilled large amounts of blood, so much that the site of the guillotine was steadily moved away from the centre of Paris to try to limit the number of districts which started to get a pink-tinged water supply.

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