A few months ago I was sitting in the restaurant of a hotel in Montreal when I noticed that the gentleman next to me had not been served his coffee. So I offered him some from my pot and that was more than enough to break the ice and start a lively conversation.
He was from a country in Africa and he had been traveling in Europe and North America on a fact-finding tour. His area of interest? Public Transportation Systems. His country, he said, had a lot of work to do in this area and so his government sent him out into the world to find out how other countries do it. Imagine that - a people who have rid themselves of the "not invented here" mentality. I thought that was most sensible thing I'd heard all week. So he told me about Germany and then he told me about Canada and he was talking about this feature and that system and what he felt was lacking in his own country's system when a little light went off in my head and I just had to ask, "What about France?" "France?" he said. "Yes, France," I insisted and I was off and running.
This might amaze some people but I don't own a car. In fact, I have never in the nearly twenty years I've lived here ever felt the need to get a driver's license and own a car. (My French husband disagrees so he has a car that I pretend doesn't exist and, just between you and me, I think he is quite mad.) I have used just about every other means of transport here: fast train, suburban train, metro, buses, and tramways and I have always been able to get where I want to go with a minimum of hassle. So I know what I'm talking about here. I'd even say at this point that I vastly prefer a nice ride in a warm train where I can read to my heart's content to a frustrating drive into town dodging other commuters or sitting still when the freeway turns into a parking lot. Madame no longer wishes to drive - she prefers to be driven.
I shared all this with my breakfast companion. I even took out my Passe Navigo from my purse and showed it to him. But the very best part was when I hauled out my Ipad and brought up the RATP (Régie autonome des transports parisiens) website that has been my constant companion. It's really quite simple to use - you enter the departure address (or a station) and the destination address and the RATP tells you how to get there using whatever combination of public transportation methods are the most appropriate at that particular time of day. You can select different options: English or French, date and time, rail (metro, train, RER) or bus/tramway, and even whether you want an itinerary with the fewest number of connections or the least amount of time walking. The site then offers you an proposed itinerary and if it meets with your approval you can email it or print it out. You can even get a little map of the destination neighborhood.
I have used this system for so long that I take it completely for granted. It is only when I visit other places or I meet someone from somewhere else that I realize what a great public transportation system France has. I did wonder at one point if I was overwhelming (or boring) my breakfast companion with my enthusiasm. From the questions he asked and the eagerness with which he grabbed my Ipad to look more closely at the site, he didn't seem to mind one bit. I hope he and his colleagues have a look and maybe contact the RATP for a visit. I think this system really is quite remarkable and, I'll admit it, I had a lot of fun showing it off.
My very own (albeit quite minor) contribution to the "rayonnement" of France in the world. :-)