Sunday, April 1, 2012


Mostly, this blog is about telling you the Real Reason we came to Paris. But this post is about something that took us by surprise.

O Paris! City of cycling amateurs carrying baguettes and avoiding hills! City of old ladies in belted trench coats pedaling sedately to market on bikes, and punks transporting meals for the homeless on bike-wagons, and children and teenagers and college students madly dashing to school on bikes, and old men wearing berets and smoking as they toodle along the river on bikes, and affluent-looking people wearing suits cut better than you'd ever thought you'd see in real life, leaving the stock exchange--on bikes! And everybody else--riding to and from work, running errands, and going out to see friends--on bikes! Who knew?

If you, like La Potiche, are one of those people who learned to ride a bike as a child, but defied all platitudes by managing to forget how to do it, so that, the first time you remounted a bicycle as an adult, you promptly fell off, then got back on and steered sideways right into a shrub, whereupon you fell off again, then gamely got back on, only to find yourself going down a ramp, whereupon you crashed into a railing, fell off, and bloodied your hands and knees--then Paris is the place for you to relearn! There are lots of things about Paris that are not easy for your average American tourist, such as speaking French (my accent has gotten worse. "Bon-JORE!"), finding food on a Sunday (we go out on a massive Friday grocery offensive to equip ourselves till the following Tuesday), and buying stamps anytime ("We have no stamps here," a postal worker told us recently. The three others working the counter all flung their hands in the air: no stamps). But biking in Paris is not one of those difficult things.

They make it so easy here! And it's not for lack of car traffic: there's just good infrastructure.
(left: photo by Pierre Metivier)
This is the Place de la Bastille. It was once a place where Parisians with pickaxes demolished a fortress. Now, it is the place where 11 lanes of vehicular traffic converge on a circle unmarked by any lines. In America, you would be taking your life in your hands to cross that intersection on a bike, but we are not in America, we are in Paris! And in Paris, you just get on your bike and pedal right through the middle of the Place....while the cars, coming at you from ten directions, SLOW DOWN, to let you pass. The first time we saw a bicyclist launch herself into the intersection, we were standing on the curb with our bikes, watching in horror. But she pedaled gaily across, and then another cyclist crossed, and another, and we realized that that was just the way things were here. So the next time we were at Place de la Bastille, it was nighttime....and all the traffic was going faster....but once again, when the light changed, and we pedaled fearfully into the intersection, everybody slowed down to let us go, and nobody beeped, nobody revved his engine to speed us up, nobody flipped us the bird, or, for that matter, nous a fait un doigt d'honneur. In Paris, nobody thinks it's worth killing another person, so you can save ten seconds driving to the gym or the mall.

Almost anywhere else you want to go, there's a bike lane, and when there's not, nobody's going to run you down anyway. Many of the bike lanes in Paris are also bus lanes and taxi lanes: that is, buses are supposed to use them, and taxis sneak into them. When we heard about this, we were all, NO WAY, because we are from New York, and New York buses are ungainly giants that unwittingly crush everything in their wide-turning paths, while taxis want to veer onto the sidewalk, crush pedestrians to death, and park themselves inside restaurant plate glass windows, preferably windows with customers sitting just inside. But in Paris, the bus/bike lanes are wide enough for a bus to come up behind a bike, tinkle the special Pedestrian/Bike bell (which is purposefully gentle and charming-sounding, so that startled cyclists won't veer at the noise), and pass on the left with a margin of several feet. The taxis are similarly well-behaved--and what's more, they yield the right of way to cyclists. It's unbelievable. In two months of city cycling, we have been cut off only once: by a cop car, which made a right turn without signalling, right in front of La Potiche. Let it never be said that bike culture can flourish only in cities that have no motor traffic.

Those of you who knew La Potiche before the recent outbreak of outdoorsiness will not be surprised to hear that she's no athlete. She can only go a few miles before pooping out; she still falls off sometimes; and, going at top speed, she couldn't escape an angry dachshund named Vigo. Which makes Paris a perfect place for her to cycle, and Vélib a great way to do it.

O City of Vélib! Vélib is the Parisian bikeshare program; it gives members unlimited access to bicycles, located all over the city, for short-term use. You can take as many rides as you like, so long as you keep them to 30 minutes (or 45 minutes, if you've subscribed to the Vélib PASSION plan. We have Vélib Passion, oh boy do we ever). If you want to take a long ride, you can ride around for 44.5 minutes--then pop your bike into the lock at the nearest stand--wait three minutes--and take your bike out again! And when you've ridden out to the 47th arrondissement and your legs are tired, no need to make your return trip: just pop your bike into the nearest stand and métro home instead! (If any Americans planning visits to Paris are reading this, note that there are various credit card problems that require you to sign up a few weeks in advance, online, so plan ahead!)

(left: Parc de Bagatelle, Bois de Boulogne)
Did I mention that many of the people biking Paris are far from athletic? One of the funny quirks of the Vélib network is that nobody ever wants to ride up a hill. So Montmartre, which is located, famously, atop an extremely steep hill, has several Vélib stations containing no bikes, because people want to ride downhill (wheee!) but they take the subway back instead, leaving their bikes at a low-elevation rack. However, many of those high-altitude stations award bonus time to people who return their bikes there, as a reward! Le Prof and La Potiche have racked up two Velib+ bonuses so far, without much effort, because most of the bike paths are graded at a gentle incline. The ride up to Montmartre isn't bad at all, if you only take the correct route. (The ride up and over the hill in the Quartier Latin, however, was rather harsh, because unexpected. We rode right by the Panthéon without noticing it, because we were too busy trying not to puke.) But mostly, cycling here is too easy to make anybody puke, unless you're puking from joy that it's springtime and the daffodils are blooming at the Parc de Bagatelle and every single chocolate shop in this city is selling real whole egg shells filled with ganache.

(left: Canal. Bike paths.)
There is only one thing La Potiche likes better than cycling around Paris, and it is messing around with a Sharpie. Here she has started mapping bike trips through the city, but each route only gets marked once, so you can't see how many times she and Le Prof have gone zipping along the Seine path from the Pont Neuf, two blocks from their apartment, along the Left Bank toward the Tour Eiffel. It is a marvelous ride, looking out at the water, the boats, the pollards, the cream, yellow, and gray stone buildings (the Louvre! The Musée d'Orsay! The gold dome of Les Invalides a-glittering in the sun!)--and the freaking Tour Eiffel!!!! It makes La Potiche want to scream WHEEEEEEEEE! but she is trying to blend in. We've gone cycling along the Canal Saint-Martin and Canal de l'Ourcq, and through the crazy crowds at Montmartre, and in a loop around the Arc de Triomphe, and along busy commuter passages to Gare du Nord and Gare de L'Est, and out to double-digit arrondissements to look at cherry blossoms and follies (Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc de Monceau), and through the Latin Quarter, along the gorgeous Rue St-Jacques, past la Butte aux Cailles, and down to the Porte de Choisy to shop in Chinatown and buy banh mi (real baguettes make all the difference). By the time we leave this city, we hope that our bike map will be a crazy black-hatched spiderweb of cycling trips. We've ridden dirt paths along the canals, and cobblestones down Rue Poissonnière, and a good chunk of the Bois de Boulogne, a park two and a half times the size of Central Park and absolutely baffling.

And a highway or two. Last night we cycled home from the Cinemathèque Française, along the ugliest, most desolate bit of bike path we've seen yet in Paris. Once you get out of the park, the bike lanes edge the highway through a commercial/industrial zone that shuts down completely at night. You've seen places like this in American cities, where there are no street crossings for pedestrians because there are no pedestrians, and no stores, no restaurants, no homes or playgrounds: just deserted office buildings and highway. But here, somebody decided that if people wanted to go this way by car, they might, also, want to go by bike, so they built a safe, practical lane. It was an ugly, dark, cold way, but we took it, and saw, ahead of us, other bike lights twinkling along the way.

(right: K biking at Versailles. Because I don't have a picture from last night, because we don't have a handlebar-mounted camera.)
Then suddenly, the path swooped down a ramp, and we found ourselves riding through an outdoor riverside sculpture museum. All along the river, people were walking, sitting around drinking wine with friends, dancing...or cycling. It was startling, coming so soon after the previous dark way, and beautiful in that forceful way that startlingly beautiful things have. We kept saying, "Isn't it amazing?" because we could hardly believe our luck to be living in this city. Cycling is not the reason we came here, but it'll be one of the reasons we'll come back.


  1. Wow! This sound so much fun!

  2. In order to publish my comment, Blogspot just gave me the smeary code word "hilly." I think it's reading your posts.