Ten hours of sleep, a single home base for the next four days, and a careful regiment of “sweating it out” was all it took to beat the 24-hour bug and get me back on my feet. Our midnight arrival didn’t leave much time to marvel at our surroundings but our first full day in Paris had us fueling up with pistachio tartines for breakfast before going into full tourist mode.
One of our first stops was the Conciergerie, a former 6th century royal residence on the Ile de la Cité. By the 14th century, however, the function of the Conciergerie had changed from a symbol of royal power to a Palace of Justice. Part of the palace was converted into prison cells, and during the French Revolution, became a ruinous place of detention for “enemies of the republic” where, among others, Marie Antoinette was famously imprisoned for 76 days before being tried.
Prior to the visit, I knew next to nothing about Marie Antoinette save for her likely misattributed decree to “let them eat cake.” But in 1793, there were people who both loved and hated her to such extremes that she underwent 24-hour surveillance after a failed attempt to free her – but was also eventually sentenced to death. In 1815, Louis XVIII ordered the conversion of her former prison cell into a chapel and now, at the Conciergerie gift shop, there are prints of the former queen on everything from throw pillows to mugs to embroidered tapestries. So, did the justice system get it right? Did the price – execution by guillotine – fit the crime? And what confidence does it instill in criminal sentencing today in the modern-day system on which it’s based?
By dinner, we were miraculously ahead of schedule. Courtney ushered me underground to what she predicted would be the highlight of my day: the Paris Metro. And she was right. There was no shortage of things to admire: the trains are frequent, punctual, and clean. Announcements are spoken in multiple languages. And the seats are turned inward, fostering empathy and, daresay, connection between strangers. It trounced the New York City subway in nearly every respect.
Clear signage and the availability of ticket machines, however, were not its strong suit. Instead of heading east toward the Arc de Triomphe as we’d hoped, we hopped on the train due north, out of the city center. By the time we realized our error, we were firmly planted in Paris’s Zone 2, unable to both transfer to the inward-bound train or exit the station because of a discrepancy in ticket type. Now certain to miss the sunset and stuck in a Dante-esque purgatory, I did what I’d learned from my straphanger youth. When no one was looking, I jumped the turnstile.
I knew then as well as I do now that things will always go wrong, but it never hurts to know how to hustle. Still, the stakes were different; I was in a different country with, admittedly, different and likely inscrutable laws. How transgressive was not paying the Metro fare? And what were the repercussions – arcane and provincial as they might be – if I was caught?
On the station platform back into the city, I saw a man pressing the coin return button on a vending machine. From it came a cascade of coins, which he quickly shoved into his pocket. With his other hand, he held a bobby pin, its one end straightened like a tool for picking locks. I looked in his direction and we locked eyes for a moment before he gave me a knowing nod. Had he seen me jump? Would he vouch for me if I was to face trial? The train swiftly pulled into the station. Much as I admired the man’s hustle, I made sure to keep my distance on the ride back.