Metro Hands

Sorry about the less-than-stellar photo. I was trying to take a picture in a hectic métro station, and when there was a break in the frenzy of commuters, I tried to get my shot. But soon the people behind the glass in the information booth started taking notice of me snapping a few pics of the high-security features of the métro, like metal railings and door handles.


So I snapped quickly and packed up my camera fast, especially when I saw one of the guys stub out his cigarette (a sign I took that he was really serious about coming out of that booth), fearing he’d ask me what I was doing. Then I’d have to explain that I have a food blog but I write about Paris as well and I was going to do a post about something called ‘Métro Hands’ and wanted to take a photo to accompany the text for the edification of my readers which was all in the name of fun but sometimes encompassed serious topics, although often shrouded in stories that are either offbeat, funny, poorly-written, lively, contains typos, insulting, unedited, over-edited, timely, insightful, amusing, pathetic, or when all else fails, is accompanied by a recipe for a chocolate cake or cookies.

(I doubt that he would have understood what I was talking about, though in his defense, I can’t blame him—neither would I.)

Anyhow, I don’t know if the French have a phrase that corresponds to this, but when you arrive at someone’s house or at a restaurant, often one will excuse themself shortly thereafter to wash up, claiming a case of ‘Métro Hands’, which usually gets paired with a slightly queasy expression. I’ve seen both French people do this, as well as Americans, who many folks view as a band of raging germophobes (although curiously, you can’t touch produce at the market, and men must wear bathing caps and a barely-there Speedo in a public pools in France, for l’hygiene…mais oui!.)

So what are ‘Métro Hands’?

Simple. They’re your hands after you’ve ridden the métro.

I’m not a hygiene freak, although I avoid shaking hands with someone who I suspect has been picking their nose, or who just took a leak outdoors in the dark corner of some building. And although they tell you not to touch things at the outdoor market pour raisons d’hygiene, I like to touch my fruits and vegetables before putting it in my buying them, and I will confess to once trying on a swimsuit at some store (I’m won’t say where) sans slip. But I mean, can you really tell how le string is gonna look if you’re wearing BVD’s underneath?

And I wash my hands pretty frequently. After years in the food-service industry, it’s a good habit to avoid passing along any maladies I might be festering in my palms to unaware patrons, which we saw in a delightfully-informative film in chocolate school called “Uninvited Guests”, which was like having Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought to life. Except in germ-riddled chocolate factories in place of the gory stockyards. Thankfully, the film was animated.

And I avoid that Purell® stuff, which they’re starting to sell even over here. (A note to mes amis americains, please don’t whip out a bottle of it and pass it around the table in a restaurant, especially in a three-star one. Do your sanitizing and other personal grooming in the private, like us normal people. You wouldn’t whip it out and relieve yourself in the corner of Le Grand Vérfour, now would you?)

But the dreaded Métro Hands freak me out mostly during the winter, when everyone has a cold and people sneeze into their bare hands, then re-grab the metal bar. Then they get off the métro, and I get on and grab the same bar. C’est pas bon. Hard-core germophobes might carry their own métro strap, but I’m sure I would get even more menacing stares than I do taking pictures on the métro if I whipped out one of those things.

Luckily in the winter, one can discretely wear gloves, so I rarely suffer from métro hands. And I have the most wonderful gloves in the world, lined with luxurious cashmere. Each time I stick my hands into those leather babies, I sigh in pleasure as the finely-knit wool inside embraces my hands and fingers, cuddling them in soft, silky comfort wherever I go. I depend on them for avoiding métro hands. Without them, I’d be lost, and probably sick a lot more often, which would inhibit my ability to write this blog and take pictures in the métro.

But the other day, something terrible happened. I was leaving the apartment, and could only find one glove. I normally don’t lose things. I’ve had several pairs of stiffly-priced Oliver People’s sunglasses for many years, and haven’t lost a pair yet. I’ve not lost a mobile phone either. Nor my mind. (Although I may be close.)

So where was my beloved glove? Being late, I just grabbed my mittens and split for the elevator in my apartment building (which is about half the size of a phone booth, and I got stuck in yesterday, which is a whole other story for another time.) But when the door opened…


Voila! There was my glove!

Parisians have a peculiar but terrific custom, at least I found it peculiar when I moved here, that when you lose something on the street, invariably someone will pick it up and put it somewhere safe so you can find it when you return. You see eyeglasses, scarves, keys, gloves, and other things that are easy to drop resting on ledges and tucked between iron grillwork around the city. (Although I’ve yet to see any Oliver People’s sunglasses lying around…)

I don’t think Parisians are any more or less honest than people in most other cities, sauf Tokyo, but it was the first time it happened to me and I was so excited and thankful that I could barely stand it.

So I’ll continue to defensively wear my gloves each and every time when riding the métro, careful to avoid the railings and handbars during the cold season.

And luckily, it’s not swimsuit season, although I’m not really much of a swimmer anyways. I’d be really surprised if I ever saw anyone wearing a skimpy swimsuit on the métro, even though the French are notoriously uninhibited. So it’s doubtful we’ll ever hear the phrase ‘Métro Cheeks’. (And thank goodness we probably wouldn’t have to witness folks doing their ‘sanitizing’ in public down-there either.)

But if I ever find a skimpy swimsuit tucked into a hand-railing somewhere around here, I’ll be sure to track down the owner, to pass along the good karma for getting my glove back. And not to worry; I’ll bring along my camera as well. Just for you.

Never miss a post!


  • January 19, 2007 6:54am

    I hate metro hands too–just don’t rub your nose while having your gloves on though. In Japan, they also have a habit of leaving gloves that someone has dropped on a wall or shelf–so when you go to look for it (which is rare in Japan) you’ll find it!

  • AT
    January 19, 2007 9:41am

    I sat fixated on the phrase “chocolate school” for awhile before I moved on. “Chocolate school”. Nothing about that sounds bad. If only it were a school MADE of chocolate, rather than a school in which students are taught to make it.

    Re. hand sanitizer: I’m guilty of its use, but only when I blow my nose at work. Whenever possible I cough or sneeze into tissue or my sleeve. Washing with soap and water is most effective and you don’t get that hand sanitizer taste when you eat later.
    (I currently have a foaming hand sanitizer on my desk, in cucumber melon scent. It’s alcohol free.)

    Re. Metro hands:
    I glove my hands on the subway too. If it’s not glove season but I’ve got a jacket or long sleeves on I pull the sleeve over my hand. It’s trickier in the warmer months.

    There used to be a cold medication ad in the subway trains that read something like, “See that newspaper you just picked up? The last person used it as a tissue.” Ew.

  • January 19, 2007 9:51am

    Myabe I should bring several boxes of disposable latex gloves to Paris?

    I’m just kidding!

  • barb
    January 19, 2007 10:32am

    that’s all fine and well, but what to do after you carefully wear your metro gloves on your way to the restaurant, or after you wash up upon arrival, and then sit down to eat a meal that the preparer has man/woman-handled sans latex gloves?

    i’m surprised there aren’t the same hygenic regulations for food preparers as there is in the states.

  • Richard
    January 19, 2007 11:58am

    There was a study done on germs in NYC and they found that the Taxi cabs were the filthiest and had the most disgusting germs. They also found that escalator handles and the gym are basically harmless. To everyones surprise, the subway cars were the had the least amount of germs.

  • Linda
    January 19, 2007 12:02pm

    I have been reading your blog for only a few months, so I may have missed your commentary on Paris porta-potties. If there’s been none, I hope you will consider this a blog-worthy topic. When we’ve visited Paris, my husband has gone for his early-morning runs and, hence, had occasion to frequent the Paris porta-potties. He’s also had opportunity to observe the maintenance folks cleaning them. Apparently, they steam clean them! And he tells me they somehow rotate so they are completely clean and fresh for each user. I personally have taken his word for this and have not delved into a Parisian port-potty. But perhaps a few pictures with that camera of yours would explain it all? I hope you’ll consider it . . . Linda

  • Val
    January 19, 2007 12:24pm

    What a great story! I’m starting off the day with a smile. :)

  • Steve
    January 19, 2007 12:34pm

    You have mentioned the ‘regles de maillot’ several times in the past and each time I try to figure out what could possibly be the basis for requiring men to wear skimpy bathing suits in public pools. I cannot fathom any logical (or even half-baked) rationale for this. Are they afraid someone might hide something in baggy trunks? Has anyone explained this to you? Please enlighten me.

  • Henriette
    January 19, 2007 1:23pm

    Thanks again David for making me laugh!Loud…You are such a good writer!

    Have a good weekend-can’t wait for your next blog entry.;-)

  • January 19, 2007 1:34pm

    Steve: When I asked them why I can’t wear my square-cut Speedo, but have to wear the real skimpy kind, they tell me it’s for l’hygiene. I guess that 1 centimeter of skin beneath the hip joint is teaming with germs that need to be contained under a protective layer of Spandex.

    (Although I really think they make us older gents wear those little swimsuits just to humiliate us…)

    Linda: Those toilets do self-clean although personally, I try not to spend as much time in them as I do on the métro. I usually go, and leave.

    Barb: I just assume everyone in the kitchen washes their hands and practices good hygene like I do. Right?…uh…right? Don’t you think that’s true ; )

    Richard: A doctor told me the metal bars aren’t all that bad, but I see so many people sneezing into their hands, then grabbing them again, that I just don’t believe them.

  • barb
    January 19, 2007 8:10pm

    right…riiiiiight david. that’s exactly what i was thinking myself when i was buying tea from the nice lady in the tea salon. as she was sifting through every leaf and fruit in the mix with her nice clean hands, before putting it in the packette and handing it to me, the thought that i would eventally be scalding every known germ to blithereens with boiling hot water never even entered my mind, as i scanned her face and hands for any open lesions.

    honestly, i just don’t get it, but i live by the credo that what i don’t know, obviously hasn’t killed me yet.

  • expat
    January 20, 2007 8:48am

    One day my husband and I walked into a fromagerie in Wallonia (French speaking part of Belgium). The guy behind the counter blew his nose and then continued to handle the displayed cheeses (without washing his hands or wearing gloves). Needless to say, we walked right out again!

  • January 20, 2007 9:07am

    I really like your -true- analysis :)
    Once I found a Sony digital camera in the metro stairs and brought it to the “Chef de station”, the staff couldn’t believe their eyes that I’d done this gesture! I hope the owner will have found it at the “objet trouvés” service (that actually are very nice and efficient).

  • January 20, 2007 11:35am

    Oh yes, we are familiar with Tube Hands here in London!! My husband refuses to touch anything vaguely related to food after leaving the Tube, until he has washed his hands. I have to admit that I take a slightly more relaxed attitude – I mean, I have actualyl EATEN in a Tube carriage and lived to tell the tale. I figure it’s not a bad idea to build up your resistance to disease gradually!!

    The did a study on London Tube seats a while ago (bearing in mind that London Tube seats are like car seats – springy and fully upholstered with a nice deep crevasse between the two cushions – not the nice hygenic blastic ones like in NYC). They found something like traces of food, drink, urine, vomit and multiple (multiple!!) types of semen on an average seat. Eeeeeeeewwwww!! So it seems the straps and poles are OK but DON’T TOUCH THE SEATS!

  • January 20, 2007 11:44am

    Jeanne: Good God, woman. Those tube seats sounds like one of Kevin’s or Matt’s parties.

    I recommend staying away from wearing short skirts, especially on the Tube!

    Expat: I wonder if they would have done that if they were Flemish?

    Barb: I don’t mind hands touching things. After all, we’re all human.
    But when people sneeze into their hands, or blow their noses…or do whatever they seem to do on the seats in the London Tube, at least they should wash up afterwards!

  • Kris
    January 20, 2007 4:21pm

    David: Very intuitive post! I especially wish that those who ride NYC’s subways were a little more considerate with other’s posessions, alas, a bag forgot on the train is a bag lost on the train.

    Jeanne: Comparatively, those tube seats must be a double-edged sword. The comfort of an upholstered seat bears the burden of a bevy of unwanted pests, i.e. stains of the unclean sort. I find it very similar to the BART system of San francisco, CA. They to have upholstered seats and I have experienced them. Although not until now had I realized the potentially germ infested area.

    What hasn’t killed me so far adds to my resistance

  • January 20, 2007 7:17pm

    David: Hmmm… and you’ve been to these parties??! Sigh… and Matt always looked like such a nice, clean-living young man :o) And short skirts are fine on the Tube, especially when teamed with this season’s must-have accessory, neoprene tights.

    Kris: I never really thought about it either (beyond “mmm, comfy seats, snorrrrrrre”. But I guess it stands to reason: you can wipe and disinfect hard surfaces during the overnight cleaning process, but there’s no way you can properly clean upholstered seats. The best you can hope for is that the stain isn’t too bad and that the seat dries by morning. It certainly explains why they always choose such busy, patterned fabrics for the seats!!

  • January 20, 2007 9:21pm


    Congratulations – that is truly the finest ‘freaking out of google ads’ that you have ever done. Frankly I come for the chcolate, but I stay to watch you making the google AI go nuts :) Kudos from Northern California & Margaret Fox’s kitchen witch.

  • January 21, 2007 6:41pm

    A couple of tablespoons of Pomegranete seeds everyday and you won’t catch nuttin’ nohow, nowhere! Honest it works!

  • kudzu
    January 21, 2007 9:26pm

    Is it true that you and my daughter are twins separated at birth (and how would I know)? One college course in microbiololgy was enough to start her on her own crusade against anything-hands. She taught her toddlers to wash their little paws with soap, under running water, for the length of time it takes to sing one chorus of “Happy Birthday”. I used to shrug off her obsession but not any longer, since personal hygiene seems to lose its importance. (I watched Bobby Flay on an Iron Chef episode plating food with a fresh — bleeding — cut on his finger — no Bandaid or anything. How’s that for professional?

    And by the way, ask Anonymouse exacrly how one is to use those pomegranate seeds: internally or externally or in my lady’s chamber??