Monday, April 16, 2007

Paris Biker Babe

I did it. I finally have a bicycle to ride in Paris. It's been on my to-do list for months, but somehow I just haven't had the nerve.

I have been observing, for a year now, those chic Parisiennes who maneuver their way through rush hour traffic, in high heels and stylish skirts. How could they be so oblivious to the dangers around them, I wondered. I envied their bravada. I envied their ability to look so glamorous and put themselves in the spotlight -- sitting so tall and gorgeous astride their velos, being admired by all the men in cars and buses.

But I wasn't ready. I needed time to understand the city, to get the flow of life here, to know others who rode their bicycles around. Even then, I just wasn't prepared to make the plunge. Why was I being so cautious? I wondered where I could I keep it. I asked my gardienne if I, too, would be allowed to park a bike in the courtyard, where there are already four in permanent residence. "Mais bien sur," she replied, "comme tous les autres locataires." Of course I had the same rights as the other tenants. Why was I being so anxious? Despite my happy-go-lucky exterior, I clearly am not as adventurous as I might appear.

Part of it was that I had heard how often bikes are stolen here. Or parts of bikes. Still, that's not a huge deal. Also I had seen how close the bus or other cars pass next to the cyclistes. The cyclistes don't flinch. Was I ready for a game of chicken? I also had heard from my friend Vincent that he had once gotten a ticket from the gendarmes for running a red light on his bicycle in Paris on a Sunday in August. August! A 300 euro fine, and they would take away his automobile driver's license if he didn't pay it. That story was scary, but I was hanging onto it simply for justifying my procrastination about getting a bike. I had written about Mayor Delanoe's new Velib program, where bikes will be available for daily rental next to nothing, starting this summer. Maybe I should wait and just rent a bike, to see how it goes. Oh, come on. I was stalling, and not happy with myself for doing so.

What was I waiting for?

Then Saturday I was heading home from Montmartre on the 12 Metro line and when we reached the Madeleine stop I knew it was now or never. I jumped off and prayed that Decathlon was still open. 19h30 and the store was open til 20h00. This is it.

I went straight to the bike section, which I had been perusing for months. To my surprise I beheld what looked like a bike parade. Dozens of people riding bikes in the aisles, examining accessories, discussing with the bike techs their various options. The fabulous staff were jovial and actually laughing, because it was such a madhouse.

"How many bikes have you sold today?" I asked. "C'est incroyable!"

"Trop!" they chorused.

But they were young, energetic and helpful, and cooperative with each other. A real travail d'equipe. Thierry (forgive me if I got your name wrong) was tremendously patient despite clearly having had a very very long day, eager to begin his Saturday evening. He recommended all the right locks. "This you attach to something tres solide," he warned, about the heavy-duty lock. "Then this cable you attach permanently to your seat (selle). The third lock is to attach to your front wheel, when you are parked for a long time. Les voleurs like to steal front wheels." He showed me how to shift the gears (it's a 7-speed), and other features my Decathlon City bike. It has a panier that removes in a click, a headlight that runs on a dynamo instead of a battery, and I learned the word for kick-stand, which is "la bequille" -- same as the word for "crutch".

Then he sent me along to the caisse and it was a done deal. Suddenly I felt kind of the way I had felt 20 years ago when taking my first newborn home from the hospital. "You mean they're letting me leave here with this without any further instruction or permission?"

And off I went. After carrying my bike up the stairs to the place de la Madeleine, I climbed on and started pedaling down the cobblestones of rue Royale, in Paris traffic. Me? Me.

A feeling of sheer exhilaration perfectly blended with blinding panic radiated from every pore. 'This is so cool!" I shouted to myself, "I can't believe I'm finally doing this!" as I reached the mayhem of place de la Concorde. I was so happy. I felt so free. So much a part of Paris. The wind flowing through my hair. Complete bliss, while gripping those handlebars with white-knuckled fear. I found a bike path (piste cyclable) and flew down the streets, and over the bridge.

Watch out, Paris. This crazy American lady has started singing while riding her bike. Somewhere near les Invalides I spontaneuosly began belting out "I have con-fi-dence in confidence a-lone!" a la Julie Andrews. Stay tuned.

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