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

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