Adventures on the Paris RER (France as I See it series)

Au revoir, Junior!

Junior, my 19-year old, flew home to Seattle yesterday. He spent his last night in Paris at his grandmother’s house. We decided to meet at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport (“Roissy,” as the French call that marvel of 1970s urban design,) to send him off on Monday morning. I could have splurged on an Uber or cab fare; but it’s been a while since I rode the RER suburban train to the airport. Some of our tour members use the Paris RER; and I thought I’d test this out in the name of research (not to mention the fact that the only bus available in my neck of the Vincennes woods would have taken at least 1.5 hours to reach the airport.) Non merci.

Metro – RER – CDG VAL / CDG VAL – RER – Metro: Public transportation win.

When I lived in Seattle, and I read in the media that Parisians complained about their public transportation system, I would roll my eyes like a 16-year old; then engage in a full Gallic shrug, complete with a final, dismissive, “PFFFFFFFFFFFF…” What were they thinking? Did they need to be shipped to the Emerald City during monsoon season to fend off suburban traffic for hours on congested highways? Would they learn to appreciate what they had, then?

I had forgotten all about connecting at the infamous Châtelet / Châtelet les Halles transportation hub in Paris. We, Paris habitués (regulars) know: These correspondances (transfers) are not for the faint of heart. In fact, unless you have a Phd. in Orienteering, or are a direct descendant of civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, (the “father” of the Parisian Metro,) I recommend you avoid doing this at all cost. Better die from Parisian air pollution (or after getting hit by a green trottinette,) than pass out from inhaling unidentifiable smells lurking below ground.

Demonstration:

Secteur Forum, Secteur Rivoli, Secteur Seine: Take your pick, les amis!

Congratulations: You have now left the Metropolitan network and have somehow entered the Paris RER’s grid, a.k.a. “the Matrix.” Down below, you will find interminable tunnels, moving walkways (that never seem to move fast enough for Parisians zooming by,) drafty corridors, zombies (commuters?) rushing left and right to mysterious locations, and a barrage of turnstiles showing more red than green. Bienvenue à Paris!

Warning: Boarding the wrong train could lead to a costly and time- consuming mistake (and a visit of Mitry-Mory, accessible via the Mitry-Claye station.) “What’s in Mitry-Mory?” you ask. Aucune idée. No idea. Besides, you want the OTHER train, that heads to Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport. Stay focused, please!

L’enfer, c’est les autres

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre may have been on to something when he wrote in the play “Huit Clos,” “Hell is other people.” I reflected on this when I reached the platform where the Paris RER train to the airport was due any minute. It was 10:00am, post-rush hour, on a Monday morning in July (when many Parisians have already left the city on their summer vacation.) The train was packed. Commuters, tourists pushing huge suitcases, all tried to get on, disorganized, impatient, tense. Within minutes, an argument broke out between two women because someone had “cut the line.” Meanwhile, from the bowels of the car, a male voice boomed: “Stay out of the way so we can get out!Bienvenue à Paris.

Everyone is clearly dying to get to Roissy today!

Paris RER: En voiture! All aboard!

It was hard to find a place to sit, yet I managed. I looked around at people, and the baggage racks travelers are well advised to keep a close eye on (Everyone knows pickpockets prey on the Paris RER’s airport route.) I looked blankly at the nondescript suburban towns we passed on the way to the airport. One caught my attention. In a bad way.

Arriving at Terminal 1 (or was it 3?)

Even if you have a good sense of direction, don’t believe the signs you have seen so far: the Paris RER does not really take you to Terminal 1 (though it takes you to Terminal 2… eventually.) From the alleged “Terminal 1,” you need to ride a free, fully automated shuttle (CDGVAL) to terminal 1 or 3. Ah, la France! You are so… complicated. On the bright side, once you have successfully passed travelers (and their bags,) and gone through yet another turnstile to get out of the Paris RER, you are very close to your goal. Also on the bright side, the CDGVAL shuttle is clean, and fast. You will reach the terminal in no time at all.

I thought I’d share this glorious sight, awaiting travelers as they get off the Paris RER train:

You could never find these downtown for a week… until you reached the airport!

Of course, on the way back, you will have to go through the whole process the crowds, the bickering, the heat, all over again. This is what my Paris RER car looked like after I got off at Châtelet les Halles around 1:00pm when I returned:

I am positive some people remained stuck with their bags and could not get off!
(I could hear them shout desperately “Pardon! Pardon!”)

Famous last words:

  1. Only use the Paris RER mode of transportation if you travel light. Do not attempt with a full-size suitcase. If you do not know what “traveling light” means, find out before the trip. Carry-on bags were invented for a reason. Capable bags are available here. Your favorite YouTuber or Instagram Influencer will teach you what to put in them, hopefully for free.
  2. If you can afford to spend 10 days in Paris, you should consider splurging on a cab ride into the city and back: Since 2016, official fares to and from Charles de Gaulle airport have been set by law at 50 to 55 Euros one way. You can reserve a cab by calling G7 taxis, a reliable company. Bus connections are also available. —- Or you could ride the Paris RER train like I did; save some money; and blog about it later.
  3. If you get stuck in a crowded Paris RER or Metro car, because of a “problème technique” (technical problem) or an “incident voyageur,” (incident involving a traveler,) just take a deep breath and rejoice at the opportunity to share an authentic Parisian experience: Unlike what Instagram and Facebook would have you believe, many Parisians do not live on Ile Saint Louis (only very affluent locals and foreigners do.) If Parisians work near le Louvre, chances are they are long distance commuters and live in the suburbs. As it turns out, some may have reasons to complain about public transportation in Ile de France (the Paris area.)
  4. Not matter what happens, remember surprises (good and bad) are part of every travel experience. Not to mention the fact that…
Paris loves you

A bientôt.

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