PARIS — I think one of the most wonderful feelings in the world must be that of when the geography of a new place begins to map itself in your mind. For me, in Paris, that process began when I found a bicycle.
My fascination with the Metro lasted approximately a week and a half. By the start of my second week, the variety of people had begun to lose its magnetic appeal, and a commute of an hour and a half each day become heavy. When the sun finally came out at the beginning of my third week, the last thing I wanted to do was hurtle under a beautiful, summery city in a grimy tube full of unhappy people.
Thus, in order to prevent myself from resorting to the world-blocking headphones so common in the Metro (NB: big, over-the-head devices in various colors are popular, especially with gold accents. If you’re really cool, you leave them around your neck even once you’ve met up with your friends — bling of choice for chic young Parisians), I went in search of a bicycle. My path to Velib, the Paris city bikes, was almost thwarted by my American credit card. In order to purchase an access card, one needs a credit card with a chip — something the rest of the world possesses but which, like the Metric system, our country has decided to ignore. Fortunately, my French friend offered to set me up — and I was off!
I will not deny that, as I pedaled along the Seine that first afternoon, an enormous smile spread across my face. I’ll let you guess if I really did sing a few verses from the Sound of Music. It was just such a wonderful feeling to zip along! My first ride took me all the way across Paris, from beneath the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrond. to bustling Place des Fetes in the 19th. As I passed a number of the Metro stops on my regular commute — above ground, this time — I had the sensation that Paris was becoming real.
On a bicycle, the city unfolds itself with each turn of the pedals. Over the next few weeks, I began to understand where everything is in relation to each other, how distinct pockets fit together and discreetly melt into one metropolis. I became aware of Paris’ neighborhoods, as mind-blowingly diverse as the people I had observed on the Metro. One afternoon, under the big bruised clouds of a brewing summer thunderstorm, I rode along Boulevard de Menilmontant/Belleville. In this traditionally immigrant neighborhood in the Northeast of Paris, the bike lane was full of colorful litter and the air whooshing by brought a sonic amalgamation of Arabic and French. It stood in stark contrast to where I had ridden the day before, the bourgeoise 9th, where I had shared wide-open cobblestone boulevards with BMWs and the occasional Ferrari. Nonetheless, had I continued past the turn-off for my host family’s house and pedaled for another ten minutes, I could have easily connected the two neighborhoods on my growing mental map.
Two observations on bike riding in Paris:
- Heels are appropriate footwear. And one can make no concessions to clothing coordination, no matter how sweaty one may get; the first morning I rode to school, I pedaled behind a woman whose toenail polish matched her dangerously high platform espadrilles. She also was able to dismount and park her bike gracefully, a fact of which I was extremely envious, having just spent ten minutes attempting to get on my bike without splitting my dress and/or flashing the world (my success in this arena was questionable; a creepy man watched the whole spazzy process and told me it was “better than the cinema”).
- As most of Paris’ bike lines are separated from the street by a curb, you don’t really need to worry about motor vehicles. I would like to warn you, instead, about the rogue pigeons, who on multiple occasions sat calmly in my bike lane and refused to fly away until a split second before I had almost killed myself in attempting to brake. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Paris there are a few nice pigeon crepes.