Tuesday, January 28, 2014


"I want to start riding a bike to pick Max up from school," I said to Matt recently, after noticing my athletic shoes lying on the closet floor, right where I'd unpacked them a month ago.  "There is nothing like riding a bike around a city to make you feel completely ageless," I remarked.

"I guess that's getting increasingly important, the older we get," he observed accurately.

"I'm going to join velib," I said, ignoring his not-so-subtle hints that I might not be the best candidate for the city's almost-free bike service.  It's true that I am a bit of a corner-cutter, when it comes to things like following the letter of the law.  Also, I have no internal compass.  If you want to get someplace, just ask me which way I think it is, and then go the opposite direction.  Add to that the fact that the streets here are almost always slick with rain, and his concerns might be founded.

But I do love to ride a bike, or at least I used to.  Back at home, I took a lunchtime spinning class at the gym, and while I liked working up a good sweat in under an hour, the wasted energy of all of those bodies, moving in place in a dark room, to awful music, often struck me as preposterous--especially when it was frequently sunny outside.  Why don't I just go outside and ride for an hour? I'd think.  But for some reason it was so much easier to motivate to go to the gym, even though all of that frenzied cycling to nowhere did seem like a bit of an obvious metaphor. 

I'd had my eye on the velib bikes ever since we got here.  It would be hard not to notice them.  Parked side by side at hubs stationed every few blocks all over Paris, these are the world's ugliest bikes.  I mean seriously, you couldn't set out to design a more hideous bike if you tried, which they must have done as a theft deterrent.  The program is borderline socialist--it costs $30/year for unlimited 30 minute rides, or $39 for the enhanced "passion pass" which gets you unlimited 45 minute rides.  The bikes look soviet, with their bulbous, cement-colored plastic frames.  According to the French couple who came over for dinner last week, the program hasn't worked as well as the city hoped.  Instead of getting more cars off the streets and people out exercising (they share our concern with growing waistlines), there are now 1/3 fewer cyclists in Paris--although honestly, how do they measure these things?  People haven't stolen the bikes--it'd be pretty obvious--but there is a trend among teens of dumping the bikes in the Canal St. Martin, maybe as a show of herculean strength, because these things are as heavy as they're ugly.

In addition to needing some real exercise, I had another reason for wanting to sign up for Velib.  I'm trying to fight against the more anxiety-prone parts of my nature and savor the things that make Paris, well, Paris, while we are here for this luxuriously long, yet limited, window of time.  Every other time I lived in a foreign country, later I'd have a list of regrets.  Why was I so stressed out when nothing was objectively wrong?  Why didn't I take more advantage of what was there?  Now, whenever I'm torn about something, I ask myself if I'll regret not having done it later.  It seems to be working as a strategy.  I also love to get something for free (or quasi-free), especially in a country where most things are so very pricey.  So I logged onto the velib site, went all out for the "passion pass," and eagerly checked the mail until it arrived a week later.

Then it took a while to work up the nerve to activate the thing, suspecting--and being absolutely right--that it wouldn't be as easy as it looked to check one of these bikes out from the fully automated kiosks.  At least not for me.

I have a new appreciation for the stress of the illiterate.  I can read in French at maybe a fifth grade level, but that exempts how-to manuals and bureaucratese.  I barely skim the fine print on that stuff, even in English.  The first day that I tried to check out a bike in order to pick Max up from school, I couldn't even figure out where to jam my velib card (it turns out you set it on a flat screen that reads it) and, after asking a meter maid who told me she had no idea and would never dare to ride a bike in Paris, I finally gave up for lack of time.  The next day I allowed myself an extra 20 minutes, and after a lot of trial and error (I'll spare the tedious details), as the bike was released from its metal bolt and came free in my hands, I felt a little drop in my stomach.  But I couldn't back out now--especially since I couldn't figure out how to check the bike back in.

As soon as I was cycling, that ageless feeling I'd described to Matt swept over me. I don't mean that riding a bike makes me feel young, exactly, although I do remember the origin of the pleasure, as a kid, of feeling so free and so effortlessly in the moment, able to daydream while observing things, able to feel the speed of moving through space with nothing but my own legs.  You don't get that feeling at a spin class.  Part of the joy, for me at least, is moving toward somewhere I actually need to be.  And that joy is amplified, I must say, here in Paris, where there is no ugly view.  On a bike, the cold felt bracing instead of just bone-chilling.  I had on one of Max's wool hats, pulled snug over my ears, and a scarf and mittens, and my cheeks stung in a good way.  I did get lost a few times, or not lost so much as detoured.  I found myself riding in a circle with the traffic around the big ferris wheel, amused that I'd managed to lose my way when the Seine was right there, a straight line leading to Max's school.

And after I finally figured out how to return my bike, I was only 5 minutes late to pick him up.

"Seriously, you should get a velib subscription and we can ride together," I said to Matt hopefully.

"I think Max could use one parent*," he remarked dryly*.

* Matt objects to being cast as, "the straight man," but can I help it if that's what he said?

* If you notice a newly adverbial bent to my writing, blame it on JK Rowling.  We are reading Harry Potter to Max right now--on about page 3000 of the whole 4000 page oeuvre, a figure that I find shocking, both in terms of her output and how fast we've been consuming the 7 books, having started this fall and going at a clip of approximately 75 pages per night.  It's amazing how much more reading you get done in a country where your Netflix subscription doesn't work.  JK Rowling seems to find no line of dialogue complete without an adverb clarifying exactly how something was said.  The books would be a fraction the length if she'd followed the standard rule, which is that the line itself should convey the work of that gratuitous adverb.  And yet, and yet...  Reading to a kid, I find myself noticing that they do help to figure out what the person is not only saying but feeling, in books where a lot of the vocabulary goes over his head.  And I find myself coming around, grudgingly, gradually, if somewhat abashedly...

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