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Parisian Interlude

It has been the sort of trip that my European friends mock me for, a quick dash across the Atlantic for a day or two, and a quick dash back. Still, when the wedding invitation arrived in my inbox just three short weeks ago, I knew I had to make it work. It’s not every day that someone in one’s French “family” gets married, and certainly not everyday they do so in one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. And so I scrambled, got a plane ticket and hotel reservation, and voilà, j’y suis!

Of course, the wedding was beautiful, the bride radiant and the groom beaming, and I’ve not seen more big hats on women since I don’t know when. Some five hundred guests crowded into the nineteenth century chapel, in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel, more guests than seats. The groom warned me to arrive early or risk not getting one. I took his advice.

I found it rather odd to take the subway to a wedding — that was a first — but I gather that it’s more normal here. I mentioned this tidbit to another American guest; she told me she and her French husband took the bus. Why bother with difficult traffic and difficult parking when it’s just as easy to use public transport? Yes, they have taxis, but the subway is always cheaper, and often faster. A couple of guests were carrying motorcycle helmets; they had ridden scooters.

And where were the bicycles? Alas, I don’t know that that anyone in the wedding retinue came au vélo, but I must report my utter surprise at the cycling transformation this city has otherwise undergone since my last visit in 2007. There are bicycles everywhere now, with the young and old alike taking to them, in every part of the city. They are mostly and obviously transportation cyclists, dressed for a destination other than exercise, with a shopping bag or two thrown in a front basket. Almost none of them wears a helmet.

The biggest change, though, has not been the numbers of cyclists. It has been, instead, the marked and visible increase in bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, “sharrow” markings, shared cycle and pedestrian streets, shared bus-bicycle lanes, etc. in just the past four years. Where does it all come from? My (non-wedding) friend E. told me at brunch today, with a little irony, that the “gay, socialist mayor of Paris” wants everyone on bicycles.

If you’ve kept up with the city at all, you’re sure to have heard about Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s Vélib system, that bike rental service pioneered in La Rochelle in the 1970s, perfected in Lyon, and installed with great success in Paris in 2007. Vélib gets a lot of press, and the model has been copied with various results in other places. However, the all-important increase in infrastructure has so far been excluded in most discussions of Paris that I’ve seen. If Delanoë is behind it, I would say it’ll be his most important and lasting legacy.

Paris is a city from which Los Angeles could take some lessons. It’s closer in size, density, and car-centric attitude than many other bicycle-friendly capital cities. (E. drove me a few miles today along the “Périphérique,” right into an L.A.-style traffic jam, complete with stand-still traffic. Somehow I felt right at home.) Cycling on Paris’ streets probably feels as dangerous as cycling in Los Angeles. They are often narrower and covered in cobblestones. The northern European weather works against riders. What’s more, its conversion to a more bicycle friendly place has come relatively recently. Studying how that happened — and especially the politics (does it take a socialist mayor?) — could be instructive. The quick transformation here is startling and inspiring.

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