I love taxi drivers in Paris - they talk, they explain, they ask questions, they tell you stories, they make you laugh.
This is why I find them so charming - if you engage them, you're in for a pleasant ride. And you are practically guaranteed to learn something you didn't know.
One driver did a whole comic routine imitating a Chinese man trying to speaking French. He had me clutching my stomach and gasping for breath. Had he left it there, it would have been easy to dimiss as an example of French cultural arrogance or racial stereotypes, but instead, he followed his skit with a very well-informed analysis of Chinese versus French culture, complete with concrete examples of Mandarin and Cantonse phrases, their various nuances, and why this affected the way the Chinese man had expressed himself. We talked of the Chinese New Year being the year of the chicken and why sales were slow of chicken figurines in China. It's a Madarin word for prostitute. The French taxi driver, a rather unremarkable looking man in his 40's, spoke Chinese. You have to admire a country whose educational system churns out so many well-rounded educated people, even if they end up being taxi drivers.
One bitterly cold evening, we caught a taxi and gratefully settled into the warmth of the back seat. Curious how cold it might be, Stephane leaned forward to check the display panel : it read 20 degrees celsius (about 80 degrees Farenheit). He turned to the driver, a young African man, and said,
"Are you sure your themometer is working properly?"
The driver looked, and burst out with melodious, resonant, rich laughter. It was of course gauging the temperature inside the taxi, which we all knew. His laughter was so infectious, so alive, almost giggly in its alternance of low and high tones, that we laughed at absolutely everything that was said from that point on until we reached my apartment door, where as he pulled up behind the Jaguar belonging to the restaurant owners next door, I said,
"Right here behind my car will be just fine." More peals of bell-like laughter. He wiped the tears from his eyes. We tipped him generously.
Another time, I got into a taxi driven by a younger North African man, who proclaimed a weakness for customers "spoiled by Mother Nature" (i.e. beautiful), who explained that he had become a taxi driver after losing his job as a computer programmer. He described the exam a driver has to pass in order to be qualified. They must learn over 40 different routes by heart. They must fill out blank maps of the streets of Paris, noting clearly which ones are one-ways, and dead-ends. They are quizzed on the quickest route from, say, Republique to the Marais. He claimed it was the hardest exam he had ever taken, including the baccalaureat.
They don't mind telling you what they think of soccer teams, politics, ethnic groups, or world events. They will tell you about their homes, their left behind villages in Algeria, Senegal, and Portugal. They even give away some secrets of the trade. One driver explained to me how every taxi has a lit up display in its back window indicating when the driver started his rounds and how much time is left on his shift. It starts with the date, then the time their shift started, and the time of the last pick up they can accept.
They have a weakness for young mothers with babies. I have known at least two who broke the rules and either accepted a check when they weren't supposed to, or picked up a young mother as a fare after their shift had ended simply because it would be unacceptable not to help a young mother. Pregnant women in their last month, however, are to be avoided, as they might suddenly go into labor and ruin the taxi's interior. A small enough window between compassionate gallantry and indifferent practicality.
Far from what you would expect, though, they are not hardened to people or emotions. Recently, after a rather emotional parting, I found myself crying in the back seat of a taxi on my way home late on a Wednesday night. The driver did not say a word until he stopped to let me out.
"Pardon me, Mademoiselle," he said hesitantly, "but why are you crying?"
"I just said good-bye to someone I love," I replied.
"It's none of my business," he said with a smile and a wave of his hand, "but don't you worry. It will all work out. Just give it some time, and then it will all be solved with a phone call, you'll see."
I think I even believe him.