Friday, March 11, 2011

Just Like Riding a Bicycle

Whoever coined this phrase clearly hadn't waited as long as I had between bicycle rides. I can't even remember the last time j'ai fait du vélo*, but with this oft-quoted expression in mind, providing me with too much (false) confidence, coupled with a gorgeous sunny, warm spring Friday, I decided to finally try out Lyon's Vélo'v* system. Lyon, who pioneered this system in 2005, followed by Paris (Vélib) in 2007 (riding on the coattails of Lyon's success), and now a few other cities around the world, have an ingenious bike-rental system that I would love to see exported to cities in the US. Basically, there are Vélo'v stations scattered throughout the city (every 300m) and all you have to do is go up to the machine, get a pass, and pick your bike! When you're done, you can drop it off at the closest Vélo'v point. One little caveat--you have to have a credit card with a chip on it, so if you're an American in Paris (or Lyon), tant pis pour vous.* It's free for the first half hour, then 1 euro for the next 2 half hours, and 2 euros for every half hour after that (unless you get a longer term pass, then it's even cheaper). When in one of the French cities with such a system, you're sure to see tons of people whizzing around on identical bikes, now you know why. Haussmann unified the appearance of buildings, and the minds behind this scheme have done the same for bikes. In fact in Paris, the color of the bikes reflects the greyness of the urban decor.

Velo'v: my new frenemy

So great system right? Well...not if you're as maladroit* as me, especially since I was possibly in grade school the last time I hopped on a bike. Anywho, my plan for this sunny day was to stop by the Saint Antoine market, pick up une barquette de fraises* and some clementines, grab a Vélo'v and ride over to Lyon's lovely Central Park wannabe--Le Parc de la tete d'or--for a picnic and some reading. Fast forward to me, confusedly pushing the release button over and over and futiley yanking on my chosen steed. I had to try at least 3 times before I figured out how to properly liberate bicycle #15. I triumphantly threw my bag into the basket and got ready to hop on. That's when I noticed the seat was tilted backwards. Hmm. When I couldn't figure out how to fix that, I decided to put the bike back and choose another one, with a more horizontal seat. As I tried not to look to idiotic, I shoved and shoved the stupid bike back into position, but the damn thing kept beeping angrily at me, surely wondering what pauvre con* (or conne in this case) was having such a hard time with a theoretically simple system. So simple that even a tourist could do it! Oh dear. Thankfully, after hearing that evil beeping for a third or fourth time, a nice older man stopped to help me. "C'est pour le prendre, ou pour le remettre?" he asked me. "Pour le remettre,"* I responded, smiling in gratitude and relief. Five seconds later, he had it in place, it happily blipped twice, and voilà! After thanking my savior, I fled the scene of the crime, hoping no one had watched me commit tant de bêtises.* Thus ends me vs. the Vélo'v, round 1. I decided that I needed a little recovery time from that ordeal and just took the metro to the park, planning to try again on my way back.

After spending a couple of delightful hours in the park, enjoying a panini, tarte aux pralines and a good book, it was time for me vs the Vélo'v, round 2. This time, I was determined to win. Vélo'v would not beat me a second time. I walked (more or less) confidently up to the machine, punched in my code, chose my bike and this time, easily pulled it from its post. Whew. I threw my bags into the basket. Ok, ca va aller* I thought. Except now, it was time to ride. That stupid cliche kept repeating in my like a broken record--a broken record that was mocking me, along with all of the French people who walked by me, giving me strange looks as I awkwardly climbed onto the bike and even more awkwardly tried to ride it, failed, got off, got back on, and repeated this strange dance. I wobbled, zig-zagged, got off again and decided to walk it across the street. I got back on the horse, wobbled, zig-zagged, got more strange looks, got off and on a few more times, pretending to check my seat, or make sure my bag was zipped. In a city full of bike riders--not quite Amsterdam or the UC Santa Barbara campus, but close--my French témoins* were probably wondering why a girl my age seemed to be having such trouble riding a bicycle (especially considering the many small children flying past me with ease). I could feel the French judgment. Doesn't she know how? What is she doing?? And more importantly: Is she going to run me over? To answer that last question, quite possibly.

Well finally I started to (re)get the hang of it, kind of like my French coming back after two years of no practice back in 2007 during my first excursion abroad. I wobbled at first, but the grammar and vocab slowly made their way back. I peddled unassuradly across a bridge, nearly seizing up everytime I saw people walking towards me, sure I would run into them--and I nearly did a couple of times (though luckily I was moving so slowly I probably only scared myself). I made my way towards the banks of the Rhône, riding in towards the center. Part of the path led me through a small parking lot. That's where I almost got run over by a car barreling down, in reverse, completely heedless of the fact that a bicycle--oh and ME--were there in its path. I stopped and hobbled over to the side just in time. Yeah I'm sure they didn't see me. Right. What happened to the pedestrian always having the right of way? Oh yeah. I'm in FRANCE. Sometimes I forget that, but luckily there are nice folks willing to kill me to kindly remind me of that fact.

Following near death experience #1, I muttered some names under my breath and pushed on, down the ramp and onto the quai! Whew. That was exhausting and I had hardly even gone anywhere yet! My confidence slowly building, I now peddled with a smile, starting to actually enjoy the fact that I was bicycling along the quais of the Rhône river, in Lyon, France, on a beautiful, early spring day. Until I was quickly reminded that I was sharing this bike lane with: other bikers, strollers, kids, oblivious teens, etc also trying to enjoy this lovely day. I suddenly realized how annoying--and dangerous--pedestrians were to bicyclists. Usually being the pedestrian, I never hesitated to blame the bicyclist and shoot angry glances as they passed by, when really, it's much easier for the pedestrian to hop out of the way--and well, stay OFF the designated bike path! Merci beaucoup. There are crazy people like me riding around--do you really trust me with your well-being? I wouldn't. Half the time I found it much easier to just stop and pull over when other bikes/groups/strollers came towards me. When I finally figured out the bell, I let that do the talking, though they still didn't seem to be in much of a hurry, and I was clearly the only one panicking.

Off the quai and across the bridge and I was almost to my destination: Place Bellecour. First though, I had one more big challenge to face: riding in the street. Merde. Riding along the quai was already enough of an obstacle course. At least a stroller or a French teen wouldn't kill me if I ran into to it. I actually started out on the sidewalk till I realized that would never work, oh, and till I saw the bike lane and the other bicyclists in it. Oops. Mistake #324. Into the street I went. Deep breath. Ok another deep breath. All of the other cyclists were weaving easily through traffic, why couldn't I? Five seconds into this escapade, I had near death experience #2. This time, a delivery truck decided to suddenly pull over into MY lane while I was there. Was this "kill a retarded American girl on a bike day" or what?? Naturally I freaked, pulled over, fell into a parked car--a BMW of course--my purse fell on the ground, and everyone just watched me fumbling to collect myself. Somehow I finally made it to a Vélo'v station, and even managed to put the bike back on the first try this time. I was definitely relieved to get rid of it; my dusty black shoes and leggings were a little worse for wear--as was my pride. Still, despite my many stumblings and my awkward starts and stops, as I waited at the bus stop, I couldn't help but think, as Donkey says to Shrek after an unexpectedly entertaining introduction to Duloc, "Let's do that again!" Maybe next time I'll manage it like a pro--or at least, like all the other gracefully bicyling Frenchies. Though I should probably wait until it no longer hurts to sit.

faire du vélo: to ride a bike; ...j'ai fait du vélo: ...I rode a bike
Vélo'v: As I found out on Wikipedia, this is a portmanteau of velo (French for bike) and love. Awww.
tant pis pour vous: too bad for you
maladroit: awkward
une barquette de fraises: a basket of strawberries
pauvre con/conne: stupid idiot, dumbass though it can be stronger than that, as when President Nicolas Sarkozy famously said "casse-toi pauvre con" (get lost asshole) to some guy at the annual agricultural fair in Paris and it was caught on film. Oops.
"C'est pour le remettre ou pour le prendre?" "Pour le remettre.": Are you trying to put it back or take it out? Put it back.
tant de bêtises: so many stupid mistakes
ca va aller: It's going to be ok
témoins: witnesses

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paprika! Paprika!

Taking a quick break from my "French tales" to give you a Hungarian one, hope you don't mind...
In 2009, I went to Prague (which I loved) and Vienna (which I...liked-ish), but this time I pushed even farther east to the other former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--Budapest.

Parliament in Pest
Hungary had a long road to independence--from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Nazis, to the Communists, and still seems to be working on recovering from all of this, but Budapest is definitely a metropolitan, cosmopolitan, cultural-filled, tourist-friendly, and beautiful city that can claim a number of World Heritage sites--according to Wikipedia, it was named the most livable city in Central/Eastern Europe and is called "the jewel of the Danube."
Budapest was actually 3 separate cities until 1873: Buda and Obuda on the right bank of the Danube, and Pest (said Pesht) on the left. In 1873, they were united to give us the capital city we know today as Budapest. These 3 names now simply designate three parts of the same city. Buda is hilly, residential and quieter (other than the tourists buzzing around Buda castle and the Matthias Church) than the more bustling, flatter, commercial and business area of Pest. Both areas can boast pretty, colorful, historical buildings and must-see sites, as well as excellent views of each other. Budapest definitely reminded me of Prague--Central/Eastern European cities, significant Jewish histories/sites, similar types of cuisine, crazy, impossible to decipher languages (that interestingly enough, are not at all related--could have fooled me!), lots of art nouveau architecture.... Though I found Budapest a bit less well-preserved and quaint, but with better food--Hungarian goulash soup and paprika chicken (well paprika everything really), cream cakes galore, their own thinner-pastried strudels, langos (mmm fried dough) etc etc...YUM. If pressed to choose (or recommend), I'd  definitely say Prague (but hey, why not both?).

Two things I really liked about Budapest--the coffee shops (not the Amsterdam kind), and the money. Coffee is definitely an important part of Hungarian culture, as it is in most of Europe, and they have a lot cafes, many of which are establishments from the 19th century, with beautiful interiors and a "story" in their menus. Besides these though, Budapest had actual American-style coffee shops, and I'm not just talking about Starbucks. I even saw one place called "California Coffee." I realized this was something I missed about the US, as, other than Starbucks, the "coffeeshop" doesn't really exist in France. Sure there are a gazillion cafes, but it's just not the same thing. I was even able to get a chai latte at one of these coffeeshops! As for the money, though Hungary is part of the EU, they, like the Czech Republic, are not yet on the euro--though this is kind of a pro and a con. A pro, because the exchange rate is highly favorable--1 euro=270 Hungarian florints, but a con because new currency is always a little confusing, plus it means getting charged for the exchange. Unlike expensive Switzerland, where technically the exchange rate is also favorable, but everything is still super expensive, Budapest actually was a pretty cheap place. In the oldest cafe in Budapest, I was able to get a pot of tea and a fabulous pastry for about 4 euros. Score!

My first day in Budapest woke up on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak: I woke up to light snow (when promised mostly sunny), and a very unwelcome cold. Not a great way to start a trip. Well, after sleeping in for another half hour, I forced myself out of bed, swallowed a couple of day quill I had luckily brought just in case, bundled up, and walked along the Danube to the Parliament building to get tickets for the 10 o'clock English tour. After a tour of the gorgeous interior of the world's 3rd largest (and Europe's largest) Parliament, including Europe's oldest crown, the snow had stopped, blue sky was appearing, and the day quill was working its magic. I was ready to explore Budapest! And explore I did, until both my knees and ankles hurt.

After the Parliament, I headed back to the Danube to find what turned out to be my favorite thing in Budapest (besides the Parliament and the pastries): a WWII Holocaust memorial of copper shoes to remember Jews who were shot into the river near the end of the war when the Germans knew they were losing. The shoes represent the real shoes left behind along the bank. It reminded me of the exhibits in the DC Holocaust Museum and London Imperial War Museum which have piles and piles of shoes gathered from concentration camps, but even more moving because of the fact that they were "on location," and though made of copper, looked every bit as real as the shoes in the museums.

Then I continued my tour of Pest (the left bank), walking through different squares, snapping photos of statues, art  nouveau buildings and churches. I took another tour (not by choice) in the Synagogue, the second largest in the world and largest in Europe. The tour guide reeled off her memorized schpiel in heavily accented English so that I probably only understood like 75% of what she said, as she went over "the history of the Jewish people" in like 15 minutes. Anyway, I did learn that Poland and Hungary lost the most Jews in WWII, Hungary losing 600,000 out of a population 1 million. Today, there are only 125,000 Jews in the country. The rest died, escaped, or were never given the chance to be born.

Buda castle behind statue of "the Little Princess"
From this sad site, I once again worked my way back to the river to watch the sun set behind the palace of Buda hill. Little did I know this would be my only sunset, as the forecast for the next day was "sunny." Ha. My second day was less-than ideal. My cold was worse, the sun disappeared after about an hour, and the tendinitis in my left knee (dormant for the last 3 years), decided to come roaring back, causing me to walk stiffly and painfully around Buda hill and City Park as I attempted to complete all of the "must-sees" of the city before limping back to my hotel room at 3pm to rest my leg and escape the icy wind, which was really not helping my cold. In between, I was sort of able to enjoy said sites, and most especially, my tea and pastry break at Ruszwurm, the oldest cafe in Budapest, dating from 1827. I had some absolutely scrumptous cream cake and vanilla tea, in the small cafe, surrounded by French tourists, who naturally, were everywhere in Budapest (a welcome sound for me, especially after hearing way too much Hungarian).

Great Market Hall
The next day, my last, I had a few hours before I had to leave for the airport around 1:30, so I was able to make it to the Great Market Hall for some souvenir shopping and a "street food" lunch of apple-nut strudel and langos. The market was great, you could easily spend several hours in there, shopping and sampling local delights amongst fellow tourists doing the same and locals picking up produce and meat. As it had snowed--and snowed--the night before (which I had to limp through to eat my last Hungarian dinner, appropriately enough of goulash, paprika chicken and their version of crepes), I also wandered back to a few sights to get some pictures of them covered in a light icing of snow, which began to melt not long after. Before heading to the airport, I stopped in one final cafe for one final tea and pastry. A delicious end to a lovely trip--a trip I was relieved to bring to an end, looking forward to recovering from all of my aches and pains, and, as always when I spend a few days in another country, eager to return to la belle France.

Et voila! Next time, we return to France!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Faire pipi

weird self-cleaning toilets
Yes, that means what you (probably) think it means: literally, "to make peepee," but is probably better translated as "to go peepee." Though this may sound like a phrase reserved for children, it definitely is not, as I've heard people of all ages use this more familiar version of "aller aux toilettes" (go to the bathroom/restroom).

An important cultural side note: if you ask where the "salle de bains," (bathroom) is, you will likely get some strange looks, whether you are in a restaurant or chez des amis.* In France, the toilet and bath/shower/sink are almost always in two separate rooms, so unless you want to take a shower, make sure to ask for "les toilettes" (always plural).

 Anyway, for anyone who has ever traveled to Europe, you have likely discovered the disconcerting lack of "toilettes publiques." Unless you are in a restaurant or a tourist site, you better learn to hold it, or suck up your American pride a pay for it (to be fair, it can also be a challenge in big cities like San Fran or NYC). Usually, when you can find public toilets, they are payant*, and I'm not talking a fortune, maybe 0.50, but still, I'm sure I'm not alone here in thinking this basic human need should not come with a price tag--but once again, that is probably American me speaking. If you don't want to pay simply for the use of a more or less (more often less) clean and stocked bathroom (or can't find one) your other option is stopping in a cafe and getting the cheapest thing on the  menu--a drink. This of course continues the vicious cycle--though we can't always make our bladders listen to reason.

The first time I lived in France, I absolutely refused, on principle, to pay for the use of a toilet. Everywhere I traveled, I looked out for that sign of freedom and America: McDonald's. I remember really liking Italy because the Mcdo's were more abundant than in France. Just like in the US, those trusty golden arches could be counted on to provide me with free bladder relief. If there were none to be found, I simply waited till the next museum or mealtime. Well, except the couple of times I snuck into luxury hotels to use theirs--in London, my friend Danica and I smiled at the doorman of the Ritz, charming our way into their fancy pink restrooms, with white, wicker baskets for the real towels and a comfy velvet couch! We even had the cleaning lady take a picture of us in there. Your visit to Nice isn't complete without a stop in the bathroom of the fancy Negresco Hotel (and if you get caught, just blame Rick Steves--it was his idea).

bathroom in the Ritz in London

bathroom in the Negresco in Nice
This time though, I have succumbed to the European ways. It still grates every time I have to hand over that 0.50 centimes, but in emergencies, it's totally worth it. I thought I was going to die in Budapest, when I followed the signs to a public toilet, only to discover I didn't have enough money left to pay for it. Imagine my relief when, a few minutes later, I found another one that accepted Hungarian currency AND Euros. Whew. As far as those "trusty McDonald's," sometime between 2007 and 2009, the McDo's of France followed the example of other fastfood restaurants by installing codes on the doors--to get the code, you need a receipt (or just be sneaky enough to escape the notice of the employees and wait for another customer to open the door).

"This free bathroom is open Mon-Sun from 8am to 7:30 pm"
I can't tell you how stupid I felt taking this picture
This brings me to the situation in my lovely ville* of Lyon. Unlike pretty much every other place I have traveled in Europe, Lyon, against all odds, has, more than one, FREE PUBLIC TOILETS. In Europe, this is like stumbling upon a  unicorn. Even better, and once again, against all odds, they are always clean and well-stocked with toilet paper AND soap. Nicer than or a at least as nice as any toilet I've every paid for. Incroyable, non? The first time I saw the sign for the "sanitaire gratuit" next to the metro station in Vieux Lyon, I didn't believe it. Of course I knew "gratuit" meant free, but I was still doubtful. I peeked my head in and saw a man behind a counter on the left-hand side. Hmm. I ventured inside and saw a few coins on the counter. My doubt increased, but I carried forth, cautiously walking past the man behind his counter, offering a tentative bonjour, and waiting a second for him to demand .50 centimes. But quelle belle surprise, he did not! After returning my bonjour, he went back to reading his newspaper, and I practically skipped into an open stall. I recently discovered a second FREE PUBLIC TOILET along Rue de la Republique, one of the main streets of the centre-ville, and once again, I doubted its verity--how could this city have not one, but two such miracles? But, I can now attest that it's true--and this one is just as clean and nice as the other.

It might seem like a small thing, but come to Europe, and I promise you, you'll want to join me as I give a grand merci to the ville de Lyon. My bladder thanks you.

Free bathrooms in Lyon and Paris:
Paris: the Louvre--there is a bathroom in the lobby by the coatcheck. You don't have to have a ticket to go past security, so in the off season, this can be a good option. Otherwise, you'll probably pee your pants before you get through the line (if you're a girl anyway).
Musee Carnavalet (near Place des Vosges in the Marais): Besides being a really interesting museum on the history of Paris, it is always free, for everyone at all times. So if you're in the area, feel free to nip in, have a quick look around, and use them shamelessly for their bathrooms.
Victor Hugo museum/apartment in Place des Vosges: this is also always free.

Lyon: Vieux Lyon, next to the metro
Rue de la Republique, across from the Printemps department store, below ground just outside the parking garage.

And of course, there are always the creepy, free-standing, self-cleaning toilets in both of these cities (as pictured above--the ones in Paris are green). I have yet to gather enough courage to try one out, but hey, desperate times...

chez des amis: at your friends' place
payant(e)(s): adj which means that it is something you have to pay for
ville, centre-ville: city, downtown