The familiar Gâre de Lyon train hall

It was midnight in the Gâre de Lyon, and I was lost. Which was strange, since I thought I knew this train station well. It’s close to my apartment, my jumping-off point for trips south. And it’s distinctive: The train hall, inaugurated in 1900, is full of forged steel, frescoes, grand arched windows and curving staircases. It’s usually crammed with travelers. But not tonight.

The unfamiliar glass space where I found myself at midnight

After a late dinner in the suburbs, I had taken the RER (suburban train) back to the Gâre de Lyon. All I had to do was take several escalators up to the train hall, and walk home. But when I got up to street level, I was not in the usual train hall – i was in a huge modern space entirely enclosed by glass windows and walls. It was clearly a train station – empty tracks marched down one side – but I couldn’t get oriented: The world outside the windows was pitch black. The interior looked the same in all directions. The station shops, a mini-Monoprix, tabac and pharmacy, were closed. Far above my head, empty office windows loomed. The only person in sight was a gentleman cleaning the floor in the distance. I felt like I was in a giant glass aquarium, with me the only fish.But not tonight.

I was a bit anxious. Had I gotten off at the wrong stop? Taken the wrong escalators? I didn’t want to wander an empty building and unfamiliar streets at midnight lookng for my way home. Should I chase down the custodian to ask directions or just walk until I saw something familiar? I sat on a sleek metal bench, too tired to go exploring.

Suddenly music filled the hall.

This wasn’t piped-in music, it was real piano. Ragtime. I couldn’t see its source, and because of the echos, couldn’t identify its direction. But the music made me feel better, and curiosity got me up and moving. I set out to look for the piano, swimming in artificial yellow light from columns to kiosks to signs.

At last, at the other end of the hall behind a large advertising poster, I found an upright piano. The young man at the bench was belting out 1920s Scott Joplin. There was no stage, no audience, no logic to this midnight performance. The pianist was dressed properly but simply, in khakis and a jacket. He had no sheet music, nothing but a shopping bag. His dark head moved with the music and he hummed as he worked his way through the early 20th century – blues, swing and lively French chansons.

The corridor of frescos that led back to the main station

I stood listening. Finally a few people trickled by. A woman stopped to listen. A couple passed with backpacks. A family rushed through – mother, father, son, daughter, with a yellow Labrador retriever and two hockey sticks. From the direction the others walked, I discovered a corridor that led back to the old Gâre de Lyon, and easily found my way home.

Later, I confirmed that I had taken the escalators to Hall 2, a 2014 ten-track addition to the Gâre de Lyon. Logically, I knew that some city authority must have approved and delivered the piano. But I preferred to believe that it had materialized just for the night, while the outside world slept, so I could listen to magical music in a giant glass aquarium.


Addenda and Links:

The Gâre de Lyon, in southeast Paris, was inaugurated in 1900, and is a masterpiece of Art industrielle (industrial art). Ninety million passengers a year make it one of the busiest stations in Europe – which is why Hall 2 was built. Its stone façade is covered with classical figures and boasts a 150-foot clock tower that’s a cross between Big Ben and Jules Verne. The wonderfully over-decorated Train Bleu restaurant in the station is one of my favorite places to take visitors.

There are four types of trains in Paris: Métro (subway), RER, regional and TGV. All four types stop in each train station. Wonderful opportunities for getting lost!

Here are some decorative bits from the old station. And here’s a map link to train stations with pianos.