Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dernier Métro, When You Gotta Go


When I was living in Paris in the spring of 1991, I went out at night as much as possible. Mostly this was to escape my dysfunctional and completely inhospitable host family. If people visited, then I crashed in their hotels. If there were no family or friends from home in town, then I often had an evening of dinner and music and sometimes dancing with my French professor, a woman with the initials E. F. (see another post about her here). She lived in the Latin Quarter; I was on the other side of the city. Not much of a trip on the Paris Métro, but quite a long walk. I think the last train of the night—the famous "dernier métro"—was at around 1:30 in the morning, and service didn't start up again until sometime in the 5:00 a.m. hour. Of course, being used to the 24-hour convenience (if dubious late-night safety) of the subway system in New York City, the fact of the trains shutting down often escaped my mind. So I'd miss the last train, and although it was late, I'd set off with my air of twentysomething invincibility, fully prepared to enjoy the night air of springtime in Paris. Once, though, all it took was the cumulative effect of too much wine, water, and tea to make me realize that I was not invincible and that the enemy in this case was my own body. Sure enough (we'll call it Murphy's Law) I was well off the beaten path, well away from the late-night spots on the Champs-Elysées, making my way along either Avenue de Wagram or Boulevard Malesherbes when the call of nature came, urgently. Nothing open, not for blocks in any direction. The internal debate started: could I make it back to the host family's apartment in time? I started walking faster, but it was absolutely no use. And this is when I did what probably any Parisian—certainly any male, anywhere in the world—would do: I decided to relieve myself on the street. When you've got to go, you've got to go, and of course any woman would have done the same rather than soil her clothes. It's just a little more tricky when you're female. I ducked down between two parked cars and hoped no one would happen by just then. No one did. I stood back up, and for some ridiculous reason, I suddenly felt incredibly European. Not sophisticated, mind you. No, not at all. Far from it. But nevertheless freed out of necessity from a very American attitude toward public urination. I was in Paris but may as well have been in Belgium, or who knows what other country of the E.U. I mention Belgium because, perhaps ten years later, a colleague of my husband who was Belgian and living in New York City found himself in the same predicament. Like me, he chose (if this can be a question of choice) to unzip on the street. Unlike me, he was less than careful about who might be around to witness his desperate act. I will say, there is a difference between being in the middle of a shuttered-down arrondissement in Paris at 2:00 in the morning and being anywhere in New York City, at any hour. Something's always open in New York, and within a block at most. Probably, though, the thought never occurred to this man that what he was doing was illegal; it isn't back home, for him. The truly unfortunate part was that he was spotted not by some shocked tourists or giggling, nightclubbing girls, but by two officers of the NYPD who ticketed him for public urination (or indecent exposure?). After this, I assume he was more careful. As was I, no matter the continent, legalities aside.

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