TUPNews recently popped over to Paris, to see how the French are holding up. They're doing just fine, I'm pleased to report.
Longtime readers may recall that on my last visit to Paris, the French were all about the roller skates. This time, it's all about the free bikes.
A couple of months ago the mayor of Paris installed self-service bike rental terminals at dozens of locations within La Peripherie. You leave a credit card deposit, get your ticket, punch in the number of the bike you want to take, and off you trot. When you get to where you're going, you find a station and drop it off, and it automatically charges you whatever you owe. There's like, ten thousand of these fucking bikes - grey, three-speed, durable and faintly art-deco - and the stations are everywhere, not just in the touristy areas.
It's cheap as well. The first 30 minutes is always free; after that, a nominal per-hour charge kicks in. Streetwise Parisians never stay on a bike for more than 25 minutes, preferring to avoid the charges by changing bikes several times on their journey. I couldn't be bothered with this, so just stayed on the bike for the duration. Four hours on the bike worked out to six euros, including the one-euro 24-hour subscription charge. Bonzer.
That said, it took some persuading for me to actually get on one. My girlfriend, who has a near-suicidal disregard for the dangers of the road (frequently walking out into traffic without looking, bombing down the A40 at 100mph in a rent-a-wreck after taking the wheel for the first time in two years, speeding through a Spanish hailstorm, over winding unlit Pyrenees motorway, while I squeeze the handle of the passenger door, in the dark) was immediately up for it, even insisting that we cycle five miles back to the hotel after a long boozy dinner. I, however, have neither a driving license nor a cycling proficiency certificate, and found the idea of weaving through Parisian traffic completely terrifying, and flatly refused. On the second day, however, I relented, and agreed to cycle from our hotel near the Eiffel Tower to a restaurant in the Latin Quarter. Here began my conversion to cyclism - I was so taken with the experience that we spent the whole of the next day bitching around town on our velos.
It's simply a fantastic way to see the city. Unlike London, Paris is one of those cities that can just be absorbed. While London is a patchwork of villages, some colourful, some dull, there is a uniform pleasantness to central Paris that rewards the unfocused, free-spirited tourist. When you're breezing along on a bike, that charm is amplified - for the first time in six or seven visits, I felt almost like a local. A sunny day in Paris, the wind in your hair; anonymous, invisible, free - this can't be commercialised or made touristic, not like the cynical pricing in the pavement cafe outside Pere Lachaise, or the English language bookshop on the South Bank (with the cat, the upstairs library, the cots, the typewriter anyone can have a go on, perfectly, perfectly bohemian, and thus sadly but inevitably filled with American post-grads drinking wine, playing Doors covers on an acoustic guitar and trying to lay each other) - past monuments and down scummy side streets, it's a pure experience. I was even wearing a stripy shirt; it was like a fucking Belle & Sebastian song.
And it's a cycle-friendly city, made up for the most part of long, broad boulevards, many of which sport separate cycle lanes. There is a stretch along the North Bank where the bike lane is lined for about a kilometre by poplars, creating the effect of a shady country lane, until you look to your right and see the Musee D'Orsay through the trees. Then left, up towards the opera house, left again down to Place Madeleine (one of my favourite parts of Paris, not really sure why), left again onto Place Vendome, then right up the Champs-Elysees.
At this point, somewhat intoxicated with my newfound comfort on the bike, I insisted that we circumvent the Arc de Triomphe. This is, of course, ludicrously dangerous - even my daredevil girlfriend was skeptical. But I was hooked.
My heart was pounding as we waited at the final traffic lights. It should be easy enough - we could just stay on the outside lane and go three-quarters around. The lights changed and I set off - within twenty metres, it was clear that this was not a great idea. The outside lane - a purely abstract notion, as there are no marked lanes - offered me little safety, as cars veered aggressively across my path to make their exits. I pulled over to reassess my approach, expecting my girlfriend to follow suit. Of course, she overtook me and plunged straight into the chaos. As she disappeared around the bend, I prepared to set off again, but was stopped by a middle-aged Frenchwoman. She asked whether I was Parisian; learning that I was not, she implored me not to go through with it ("Tres dangeruex!")
Sheepishly, I dismounted and walked my bike back over the pedestrian crossing, braced for the sound of screeching tires. Killing one's girlfriend tends to put a damper on a romantic holiday, so I was of course extremely relieved to see her arrive safely, if a little ashen, at the three-quarter mark. This proved enough excitement for one day; we took a far more leisurely cycle back to the Eiffel Tour, and our hotel.
Long story short, let's get this set up in London as soon as we can.