Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Tour de Paris

Hot and sticky and with aching muscles, the cyclist swings around the corner to the cheers of an elderly couple standing by the roadside. "C'est le maillot jaune! Vous avez gagné!" cheers the man. And I put on the brakes and stop for a bit of banter about doping and hairpin bends, because this is not actually the Tour de France, just me on a Vélib in the Bois de Vincennes.

As a Paris intra-muros newbie, I'm only just discovering the joy of the Vélib. You probably already know how the system works: pay 30 euros (for the year!) to add a subscription to your Navigo pass, and all you have to do is beep the card to borrow a bike from any of the numerous stations for free. The big problem, of course, is when the station doesn't have any bikes left, or even worse, when you have the bike already but there is no place to put it back. To solve that one, you also need one of the smartphone apps that tells you how many bikes and spaces are available at each station. I find the official one tends not to work very well, but Trouver un Vélib has been pretty reliable so far. (We are also lucky enough to have a station right outside the front door, so a quick look out of the window also works for me!)

I've never been a huge fan of cycling, but the Vélibs might just have converted me. They're heavy and only have three gears, 2 of which are so low as to be practically useless unless you're cycling up the Butte Montmartre, but I find them really comfortable to ride and I love the convenience of being able to just leave the bike at the nearest station and, if I want to, being able to take the metro home. I'm also impressed by the number of cycle lanes that have been added, many of which are completely separate from the road (which is just as well, because Vélibs don't come with helmets!).

More than anything, though, I love the fact that vélib-ing seems to bring out the best in people. As well as the chat with the couple in the forest the other day, someone stopped to help me out when I had trouble adjusting my saddle the other day, and when I've to other cyclists at the Vélib stations, they've always responded with a smile rather than the usual Parisian look of suspicion and mistrust.   It feels as good as winning the Tour de France itself.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Egalité on the Tramway

Picture from
If you ever need to travel on the eastern side of Paris, you might have the opportunity to take the new tramway, the T3, that skirts around the city just inside of the Périphérique, from the Porte de la Chapelle in the north to the Pont de Garigliano in the south-west. The tramway is designed to solve the century-old problem of the métro system: if you want to go into the middle of town, the metro is perfect, but if you are travelling between two outlying arrondisements, it takes forever.

The tram is lovely. It's clean and modern and slides almost silently along its rails. (Some days I love the racket of the metro too, but it's hard to listen to music on board!) While it feels slow, I think it actually travels about the same speed as the metro, with stops being 1 or 2 minutes apart. Even better, though, is its accessibility. The doors are at the same level as the platforms, making it useable for wheelchair users, the infirm and parents with buggies. It really is a form of transport for everyone. (Well, apart from those who live on the western side of town, where apparently the UMP councillors were unwilling to finance the project.)

One of my geeky pastimes on public transport is to look at the names of the stations and see how many famous people I can identify. If you look at the list of stops on the T3, you might be surprised, as I was, to see how many of them are named after women. Have you heard of Colette Besson,  Maryse Bastié, or Alexandra David-Néel? I wondered if, as on the metro, they were named after the streets they crossed, and therefore this was just chance, or if there was a reason behind it and, my curiosity piqued, I did some research and found this article. It turns out that not only was naming the tram stops in this way a conscious step towards balancing out the fact that of 302 metro stations, only 3 of them are named after women, but that reaching an agreement to do so was something of a battle.

To answer the question above, Colette Besson was an Olympic athlete, Maryse Bastié was an aviator and resistant who also fought for women's rights and Alexandra David-Néel was an explorer and the first western woman to enter the city of Lhassa in Tibet. Next time you travel in Paris, why not take the tramway, and see how many of the others you can recognise?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Moving Experiences

I once read somewhere that moving house is the second most stressful experience that many people have in their lives, but I've never quite believed it. I think the first most stressful was bereavement, but surely events like redundancy and relationship breakups rank higher than signing a few pieces of paper and packing up some boxes?

I still stand my ground on the above, but I have to admit that, over the past couple of days, I've been feeling a lot more fragile than I expected to.

This, after all, is supposed to be an easy move.  In a stark contrast to the last two, this one is not associated with splitting up with anyone, leaving a group of friends, changing jobs or moving to a different country. It's me with the help of Understanding Frenchman, a couple of good buddies and a van, not me versus Easyjet's excess baggage charges or the capricious and unreliable Italian postal service. And if anything does go wrong, I have plenty of time to sort it out before the deadline is up on my current place.

Admittedly, there have been a few hitches. The new tenant in my flat, who was considering buying some of my furniture, has decided that she only wants a few of the small things, leaving me with a 120kg sofa and and a double bed to transport down the tortuously narrow and winding staircase out of my apartment. I discovered today that Avis's online reservation service allows you to request van hire for one day at the weekend, but in fact they only do a 3-day service, so your request will definitely be declined unless you go to an agency in person to sort it out. It took me half an hour and a call to customer services to obtain the password that I will need to (hopefully) cancel my phone and internet service online. And today I learned that Castorama's packing boxes are not nearly as high-quality as Ikea's, but to go to Ikea, you need a car and I sold mine three weeks ago.

But I've done this often enough and lived in France long enough to deal with all of these things without my blood pressure rising too high. And I'm happy with my decision to move to Paris and live with Understanding Frenchman. So why the emotional frailty?

The only thing I can think of is that change, even positive change, is scary. When we make big life decisions, we jump into the unknown, and the control-freak in me doesn't like that. While I'm sure the outcome of this transition is going to be good in the long run, it nevertheless entails a period where there will be new problems to be solved and when things can definitely go wrong. That big pile of boxes in the corner seems to be symbolic of my life, at its heart still the same, but needing to be unpacked and rearranged before I quite feel like myself again.So while I'm excited about this change, I'm ready for it to be over soon. Let's hope I can be patient!