31 August 2015

A Comparison Of Bike Share And Subway Systems: Paris And New York

Although I didn't use Velib when I was in Paris, I couldn't help but to marvel at some aspects of it.

For one, it seemed that quite a few riders on Velib bikes weren't tourists.  Now, here in New York, some people ride Citibikes to and from work, while others who don't own bikes sometimes take out those familiar blue bikes for spins around the neighborhood.  But such riders seemed more common on Paris streets.

But what really impressed me is how well-covered the city is:  One doesn't have to go more than a few blocks, even in the outlying arrondissements, to find a Velib port.  Also, one can find those ports and bikes in areas outside Paris proper:  I saw them in Vincennes, and along the way between the famous Chateau and the City of Light.  I also spotted the ports and bikes in several towns along the way to Versailles.

By contrast, the borough of Queens got its first Citibike stations earlier this month, in Long Island City--not very far from where I live.  Critics say that the new port doesn't really represent an expansion into the Borough of Homes because the ports are next to the subway stations closest to Manhattan, and on the Queens side of the Queensborough/59th Street Bridge.  Many people regard Long Island City (and my 'hood of Astoria) as satellites of Manhattan rather than true Queens neighborhoods.

The same criticism can be made, I think, about the placement of Citibike stations in Brooklyn:  Williamsburg, right next to the eponymous bridge that links it to Manhattan, was the first non-Manhattan neighborhood to get Citibike.  Nobody expects to see the blue bikes in the far southeastern and southwestern neighborhoods of the borough any time soon.  And it would be more than surprising if the bike share program ever came to Staten Island at all.

To be fair, Velib started in 2007, while the first Citibikes didn't roll down city streets until two years ago.  Still, the difference in how each program covers its city reflects another pattern in each city's transportation infrastructure.

You see, all of the neighborhoods that have, or are getting, Citibikes, are ones that are well-served by New York City's subway and bus systems.  They have major lines linking them to midtown and downtown Manhattan, and they are the sorts of neighborhoods in which many people (myself included) live car-free.

Official New York City Subway Map
New York City Subway map, 2015.  Manhattan is the island to the left; Staten Island is the one in the inset.  Brooklyn and Queens are to the right, and the Bronx is at the top. 

There are large swaths of the city that have no mass transportation at all.  None of the subways cross the city lines into New Jersey, Long Island or Westchester County, and most of the eastern half of Queens--as well as parts of southwestern and southeastern Brooklyn--have never had subway service.  Kings Plaza Mall, the largest retail area in Brooklyn, is about seven kilometers from the nearest subway stop.  So is JFK International Airport--which, until five years ago, didn't even have a light-rail link to the city's subways or the Long Island Rail Road.

Even in Manhattan, there are transportation "deserts", if you will.  One reason for that is that most of the subway lines on the island run parallel to each other, in  north-south ("uptown-downtown" in Big Apple parlance) routes.  Only two lines run across Manhattan:  the #7 train under 42nd Street and the "L" under 14th Street.  The lines that enter Manhattan from Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx become part of the "uptown/downtown" grid once they reach Manhattan.

Paris Metro map

In Paris, by contrast, the lines are spread in patterns that have been likened to the circulatory system of the human body.  One result is that no point within the City of Light is more than 500 meters (about 1/3 mile, or six New York City blocks) from a Metro station.  Some of the inner suburbs, such as Levallois-Perret, are nearly as well-served as central Paris.  Even so, there are proposals to not only add service within the city and inner suburbs, but to extend several lines further out.

I find it fascinating that both rapid transit and bike sharing systems in New York and Paris reflect the history of planning (or, in some cases, lack thereof) in each city. 

In my hometown, the first subway lines were built by private financiers who operated them, under city contract, in much the same way they would conduct their other businesses.  All of the city's transit lines were not brought under the umbrella of one governmental organization until the 1950's.  In a similar fashion, the city's bike share program, while initiated by the city, is run by Citibank--which can make (or lose) money as it could with its banking, real estate and other businesses. 

On the other hand, the Paris Metro system was centrally planned from the beginning.  That, I believe, is why lines aren't duplicated and, if you want to transfer from one line to another, you don't have to go all the way to the other end of town, as switching trains in New York sometimes necessitates.  And, interestingly, Velib was started by the Mairie  (City Hall) of Paris, which still owns the system although JC Decaux operates it.

Knowing all of this, I don't feel I'm being cynical or pessimistic in saying that Velib will be in Orleans before Citibike comes to Staten Island!


30 August 2015

Seeing The Coming Heat Wave

Every few years, it seems, we get the sort of summer we've been having this year:  Not exceptionally warm through most of June, July and August--until a heat wave comes right around Labor Day. 

Officially, today wasn't part of a "heat wave". But tomorrow is supposed to be the beginning of one.  Today, the temperature reached 33C and the air grew more humid:  a  marked contrast to the dry, almost crisp conditions we'd had for a few days.

I went for a ride anyway, out to the middle of Long Island and back.  I sweated, but no more than I have on other rides, and I wasn't really tired after 120 km.  But tomorrow will be toasty, the forecasters say:  about 35C.  And the two days after that will be hotter, and more humid.

I'll be working, so I'll probably ride late in the day, or the evening, when--at least in theory--it should be a touch cooler, if not less humid.

Even if I hadn't heard the forecast, I think I would have known the heat wave was coming.  I believe I saw it in the slightly reddish hue of the full moon that loomed over the Amtrak trestle that transverses Randall's Island when I was riding home last night:


29 August 2015

Get Out Of My Way!

If you read the post I wrote yesterday, you might not believe what I'm about to say.

OK, here goes:  When I sluicing the glass and concrete canyons of Manhattan--delivering everything from the title for land on which towers would be built, pizza with anchovies and pineapple (it smelled even worse than it sounds!), an Andy Warhol print (to Judy Collins, no less!), payroll documents and little packages with their unwritten, unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" policies, if you know what I mean--cab, truck and limo drivers actually used to back or steer out of my way when they saw me coming. 

Then again, if you knew me in those days, you'd know I'm not exaggerating.  Heck, people used to cross the street when they saw me.  I was young, full of testosterone--and angry, about being full of testosterone as well as other things, real and imagined.

Being a bike messenger was probably the one job (OK, one of the two or three, perhaps) in which being young and angry--and stupid enough to believe that my anger was a sign of how smart and sensitive I was--served me well.  I was quick; I got lots of deliveries and tips and a few gifts.  And, oh yeah, a couple of dates:  I guess it has something to do with what you've heard about sex with crazy people.  (It's true.  The only problem is that, once the act is done, you have that crazy person to deal with.)  It's probably a good thing I was a bike messenger:  It's probably one of the few jobs in which I could physically channel my rage and not get myself into trouble--let alone get paid for it! 

Now, if you've been reading this blog--or if you know me--you know I'm not the badass I imagined myself to be--or, at least, tried to make people believe I was.  I know that and, honestly, I'm happy about it.  Everything in life--including bike riding--is better even if I don't have the physical strength I once did.

Still, I take pride in knowing this guy has nothing on the bike messenger I was back in the day:

From Engadget


28 August 2015

Mama Mechanic

This afternoon I took a ride out to the Rockaways on Tosca, my Mercian fixie.

The weather was lovely, as it was yesterday:  warm, but not overly so, with high puffy clouds floating across expanses of blue sky.  And, as luck would have it, I rode into the wind on my way out to Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway.  That meant, of course, that on my way home, I could pedal about 20 RPM faster without trying.

Anyway, I was coasting through an area of Gateway National Recreation area frequented by bird-watchers and wildlife photographers--in plain view of JFK International Airport!  My external reverie seemed to embody the one that was playing out within me at that moment:  I am still in the afterglow of my trip to Paris and of the wonderful late-day ride to Connecticut I enjoyed yesterday.  I have been doing some writing away from this blog (I don't want to give too much away!) and I'm feeling optimistic about the semester that's about to begin. Now all I need is to hit the Lotto jackpot and meet the love of my life.  Hmm...I'm not so sure about the latter.  Being single isn't so bad after you've been in an abusive relationship or two.

Wouldn't you know...a cute young guy approaches me from behind.  "Sir!"  "Sir!"  He sounded distressed, so I turned to look at him.  (His distress was the only reason I looked at him, I swear! ;-))  "Do you...Oh, I'm sorry, Ma'am."

"Don't worry."

"You don't see a lot of women riding here.  And, from behind, you were pedaling like a dude."

I said nothing. (I didn't want to give too much away!)

"Do you have an allen key?"

"Yes, I do."

Just then I saw the reason why he asked:  His handlebar slipped and rolled inside the stem.

"We can't let you ride like that," I said.

"I swapped this handlebar today.  I guess I didn't tighten it enough."

"Well, let's hope it's the right diameter."

"I thought they were all the same size."

I shook my head and, from the corner of my eye, saw the source of the problem.  He had a stem with a faceplate that bolt in the four corners. He'd tightened the top two bolts much more than the lower ones.  So, in addition to the usual hazards of a loose handlebar, he ran the risk of shearing off the faceplate and, possibly, taking an even nastier spill than he might have had he only leaned on loose bars. 

Before I tightened the stem bolts, I asked him to move the bar to a position he likes.  Good thing: I noticed that his grips slipped on the bars.

He said he'd used water to slide the rubber grips onto the bars.   I grabbed the edge of the right grip and rolled it up to the end of the bar.  Then I unrolled it, and the grip--an Oury--stayed as if it had been epoxied to the bar.  I did the same for his left grip.

Then I told him to grab the grip and try to roll it, and to try to move the bar in the stem.  Everything was as firmly in place as the pyramids.

"Lady, I don't know how to thank you enough."

"Just be careful," I said in my most maternal tone.  Really, he's a nice kid--he's been working as a lifeguard--and want him to live and ride long.

27 August 2015

In Twilight And Afterglow With Arielle

It was a gorgeous late-summer day...and life intervened.  The new semester is starting, so I had various things to attend to, including course outlines and finding and restoring links to readings and films I'm assigning my students.

At least I got out to ride in the middle of the afternoon,.  I took Arielle, my Mercian Audax, off the peg and inflated the tires.  I knew she would feel great after spending a week on a rented hybrid, but Arielle exceeded my hopes and expectations. I felt as if I were in a race car suspended by hot-air balloons.  Or maybe a flying carpet with jet engines.

Whatever the metaphor, the bike overcame the deficiencies in the human engine.  Possibly the best part of all was riding a Brooks Professional--which is starting to feel really broken-in--after whatever was on the rental bike and the cheaper leather seat on my LeTour.

The bike felt so good I just wanted to keep on riding it.  And that's what I did, all the way to Connecticut.

I'd've gone even further than I did into the Nutmeg State, but I really didn't want to ride back in the dark.  I have lights, but riding back from ConnectIicut means passing through a couple of dodgy neighborhoods.  I've ridden them in the dark, with no problems, but I prefer to avoid nocturnal rambles in them.

I descended to the Queens side of the RFK-Triborough Bridge just as the sun was setting.  From there, it's only a kilometer to my apartment after 120 kilometers of delightful cycling. 

I arrived in a glow of twilight, and in an afterglow of an invigorating ride--and, of course, my adventures of the past few weeks!


26 August 2015

This Bike Is Like A Tatoo Because...

I've never had a tatoo, and I probably never will have one. Every once in a while, I see one I like.  However, even seeing such a tatoo has never made me want one.  

It's not that I have any religious or philosophical objection to tatoos.  Nor am I afraid of the needles, at least not anymore:  After all, I have had surgery.  And, even though I grew up in a time when tatoos were associated with outlaw bikers, prisoners and the sorts of military folk who live, work and die by the motto Caedite eos.  Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius, I have never had any fear of, or prejudice against those who have their bodies pricked and painted.  Perhaps my attitude is a result of having two uncles--one of whom is my godfather--with tatoos.

Even when I see a tatoo I like on someone else, I have no wish to get one for myself.  Perhaps it's hypocritical, but I find myself thinking, "Good for him (or her)."

I feel something similar about some of the wild bike finishes and color schemes I see.  I saw an example parked near Columbus Circle today:

I had to go inside a Starbuck's to take the photo because the bike was parked too close to the glass wall for me to take a photo from the outside. Believe it or not, I actually liked the look:  In some strange way, those colors and shapes actually work together.  

Still, I would never make any of my own bikes look anything like that.  And I definitely would not put wheels like those on any bike of mine.  But if that bike makes its owner happy, that's what matters.  Right?

25 August 2015

After Paris....A Ride In The Bronx?

Two years ago, the former chief of the French National Police caused a stir when he said that certain parts of Paris were starting to resemble the Bronx.

He was making reference to the increasing crime in those Parisian arrondissements--namely, the 18th, 19th and 20th.  (It also just happens that those neighborhoods contain the city's greatest concentrations of African and Middle Eastern immigrants.)  He is not the first Frenchman, or European, to make such a comparison:  the worst parts of cities, or the banlieues are often likened to New York City's northernmost boroughs, usually based on impressions gleaned from such films as Fort Apache, The South Bronx.  While I certainly wouldn't compare Port Morris with the Place des Voges, not all of the Bronx is poor and crumbling and even its worst parts aren't quite as dangerous as some other urban neighborhoods.  But I guess "Camden" or "North Philadelphia" or "The South Side of Chicago" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Anyway, there is a certain irony in the former police chief's comparison.   It can be seen in certain areas, such as a stretch of the Grand Concourse near Yankee Stadium where I rode today:


While the buildings are in need of maintenance, some are quite nice:  People actually lived in them by choice.  More to the point (for the purposes of this post, anyway), they bear the influences of Art Deco and classical architectural styles found in many Paris buildings.

Also, you may have noticed that the Grand Concourse, like the Boulevard des Champs-Elysees, is wide, has a parklike median and is lined with residential as well as commercial buildings. 

The parallels I've described are not merely coincidental.  At the end of the 19th Century, most of the Bronx was still wooded or farmland; all of its industry as well as most of its population was concentrated in the southernmost part of the borough.  But new waves of immigration would fill Manhattan's tenements and trains almost to their bursting point, and many longtime Manhattan residents sought bigger apartments as well as more open space but wanted a manageable commute to work.  The city's subway and trolley lines were extended into the Bronx, and new street and apartment buildings were constructed. 

Around this time, a man who had been a surveyor, mapmaker and engineer for the New York Central Railroad (then the second-largest corporation in the US, after the Pennsylvania Railroad) was appointed the chief  topographical engineer for New York City.  His name was Louis Aloys Risse. At age seventeen, he emigrated to the US from France, where he was born in 1850.  Thus, it comes as little surprise that while on a hunting trip (!) in the hills of the North Bronx, he conceived of a boulevard, inspired by the Champs-Elysees, that would connect one end of the borough with the other, and with Manhattan.

So...Do you still think it's so odd that I'd take a ride in the Bronx while still in the afterglow of my trip to Paris?


24 August 2015

In The Year Of '39

One of my favorite Queen songs is '39.  In it, a group of space explorers go on what they believe to be a  year-long voyage.  However, when they return, a hundred years have passed due to the time dialation effect in Einstein's Theory of Relativity.  So, the loved ones they left when they embarked on their journey are dead or aged beyond recognition.

Brian May, who composed and sang the lead vocals for the song, had studied astrophysics before embarking on his music career.  He has always insisted that '39 is "a science fiction folk song" (hmm...) and denied any political, social or historical references.  But it's difficult to hear the song without thinking of the year 1939, after which the world would not be the same because nobody who survived would be innocent (if they ever were) again.

They would never again be like these boys, who were discussing what would be the last Tour de France for another seven years:

Photo by Robert Capa

23 August 2015

Cycling In Paris, Then And Now

If you've been reading this blog during the past week-and-a-half, you know that I did a pretty fair amount of cycling during my stay in Paris, which ended just the other day. 

When I went to the City of Light in 2004, I didn't do any cycling.  However, I rode there during eight previous trips from 1984 to 2000, and during the time I lived there before those trips.  (On those previous trips, I rode to and from Paris as part of longer tours in addition to riding in the city itself.)  Now, I'll admit that I can draw only so many conclusions from spending only ten days there, as I did on my most recent trip.  Still, I feel confident in saying that pedaling in Paris this year was a very different experience from that of previous years.

One reason is, of course, that I am a decade and a half older--and my body is very different now, due to the hormones and surgery.  Naturally, those factors make all of my riding different:  I simply cannot rely on pure strength and chutzpah, as I did when I was younger.  Also, I am more careful about where and when I ride, though I must say that I felt less hesitation about taking a midnight ride alone in Paris than I do in New York.  Then again, I stayed in neighborhoods and on streets that were well-lit and full of pedestrian traffic even at a late hour.

But the main reason why riding in Paris was such a different experience this time had to do with how the nature of cycling itself in Paris has changed.  The two most obvious changes are the Velib program and bike lanes.  The former was non-existent, and the latter were nearly so the last time I cycled in the French capital. 

As I have said in previous posts, I am not as enthusiastic as some other people are about bike lanes.  In Paris, as in other places, lanes end abruptly or at rond-points or other intersections that are more difficult or even dangerous for cyclists to traverse than they would be if cyclists had been riding among automobile traffic.  Also, it's not always easy to see where lanes begin or resume.  To be fair, these problems--which also exist in New York and other cities--may be a consequence of the fact that the system of lanes is still a work in progress.  But I think that if the lanes are to become part of a true transportation alternative, they must be integrated with each other, and with the points at which they intersect with motor vehicle traffic.

Also, as in other cities, taxis pull into the lanes (at least, the ones that aren't separated from the streets by physical barriers) to pick up and discharge passengers, and trucks use them to make pickups and deliveries.  Worse yet, in overcrowded districts, such as that around Barbes-Rochechouart, people walk and even congregate in the lanes because there simply isn't enough room on the sidewalks.  Those neighborhoods are also home to African and Middle Eastern immigrants, who don't seem to ride bikes as much as Caucasian Parisians or tourists (at least, those from other European countries and North America).   I think that's why when I rode through those areas, some people looked a little surprised to see me riding in the lane--though, again in fairness, I must say they were very prompt and courteous in stepping aside for me.

Which brings me to another point about how cycling in Paris differs--or, actually, doesn't--from times past, but differs from riding in New York:  One doesn't find nearly the level of hostility from drivers and pedestrians toward cyclists that one can encounter in the Big Apple.  Part of that, I believe, has to do with something I've mentioned in earlier posts:  A culture of adult cycling continued in Paris, and in France, when it was all but dead in the United States.  Thus, as I've mentioned, many drivers and pedestrians are also cyclists, or were recently.  And those who aren't or weren't are at least familiar with cycling and cyclists. 

The one time a driver cursed at me, I deserved it: I made a wrong turn and rode the wrong way on a street near Bonne Nouvelle (ironic, isn't it?) as said driver approached.  I apologized; he yelled "Faites attention!"  Good advice.

As for riding the "wrong" way:  Often, one sees the international Passage Interdit (Do Not Enter) sign with a caption that reads "sauf velos" or "sauf cyclistes".  In other words, it's a one-way street for motor vehicles, but not for bicycles.  I have never seen such a thing here in New York, and for me, it was strange to see it in Paris because the streets are narrower. 

Also, I saw only a few cyclists on sidewalks, and they were riding only from a curb to a door.  They didn't experience the admonishment, let alone the hostility or attention from the police one can experience (especially if one is a Black or Hispanic male) for riding on a New York sidewalk.  Mainly out of habit, I didn't ride on sidewalks:  I rode to wherever I was going, dismounted and walked my bike to the store or museum entrance.

Given what I've described in this post, I will be very interested to see if cycling seems like a different experience yet again should I return to Paris and to the rest of France, as I hope to do one day (year?) soon.


22 August 2015

On Time Changes And Food

Landed at JFK on one side of midnight. Got back to my place on the other.  A day change, on top of a time change.  My body is in a kind of temporal spasmosis, drifting off and waking up between Eastern Daylight Time and Greenwich +1, which is six hours later.  So, even though there's been nary a cloud in the sky, I haven't ridden today. 

In the past, it's taken a day for my body to acclimate to time shifts.  I'm hoping the same holds true this time.  The trip that just ended was the first I took across multiple time zones in four years.  Does age diminish one's ability to acclimate to time changes?

I'm sipping an iced tea and thinking about some of the food I ate in Paris.  As I was there for only ten days, I decided to stick to more or less traditional French food and not to try, for example, the Korean barbecue  near the hotel or any of the other "exotic" restaurants one can find in the City of Light. 

On previous trips, when I spent more time in Paris and in France, I tried and enjoyed local versions of Chinese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and other cuisines.  I also have eaten French regional specialties on their home turf:  bouillabaisse on the Cote d'Azur, cassoulet in the Toulouse region and quenelles in Lyon, for example. 

I have eaten enough meals in France (I once lived there and have returned several times before the trip I just took) that I can say that not every single one of them was wonderful. However, some were and I can say that, on average, one has as good a chance of enjoying a savory meal in France as in any other country.  

Of course, good food is always a result of good ingredients and preparation. But part of the sensual pleasure of eating has to do with its presentation:  something the French seem to understand better than just about anyone else.  Nearly all foods have at least some inherent appeal; it seems that the only people in this world who rival the French in their ability to enhance that appeal are the Italians.

One sees such skills on display equally in four-star restaurants as in local cafes, in the homes of French people (the ones into which I've been invited, anyway) and in hotel kitchens.  It can even be seen in a local fruit shop, like this one just up the block from the hotel in which I stayed:


There are definitely worse things to see on one's way out of a country.

21 August 2015

Some Recommendations For When You're In Paris

Today I am flying back to New York, so this post will be short.

This, of course, is not the first time I've been to Paris. But it's the first time since I started this blog, and the first time since my operation.  It was also the first time I visited in more than a decade.

Much has remained the same.  However, as on any trip, I made a couple of minor discoveries you might find useful should you find yourself in Paris.

One is, of course, Paris Bike Tour.  I can't recommend them highly enough.  For one thing, they're located just steps from Les Halles/Centre Pompidou, nestled between the lively and charming neighborhoods of Beaubourg and Le Marais.  PBT's rental rates are very reasonable (25 Euros for a 24-hour day and 10 Euros for each additional day after that) and their bikes, while basic, are well-maintained. They require a 300 Euro deposit (cash or cheque),refundable upon return of the bike, or a credit card number.  I gave my card number and they didn't put a "hold" on it.  And, when I returned the bike, they returned the contract, which had the only record of my card number.

The best parts  of Paris Bike Tour all are their staff members Kevin, a native Parisian, and Stephen, who hails from Montreal and is thoroughly bilingual in English and French. (Kevin speaks some English, too, though I conversed mainly in French with him.)  PBT also employs guides who lead tours in English and French as well as other languages.  I didn't take any of them, but from what I've seen, I'd expect the guides and tours to be engaging and interesting, and probably a good choice for a first-time visitor to the city.

Another recommendation is the place where I stayed:  the Hotel Lenox-Montparnasse.  I don't know what the rates are because the room was included in a package with my air fare.  I had a small room--typical for a Paris hotel--but it was immaculately kept.  Even better is their service:  Every day, after I went out, the hotel's workers return the room to the pristine condition in which I found it when I first checked in.  Plus, it's in a convenient yet safe location, with a station of a major Metro line (Number 4) right at the corner.

The Lenox is in a building that, as well-kept as it is, has character and charm.  It''s not a faceless chain hotel in a glass or steel box; its a smallish hotel in a real Left Bank Building, albeit one with modern amenities.

The concierge recommended a restaurant which will be the final recommendation of this post:  La Brasserie Gaite.  If you want to eat an authentic French meal at a reasonable price, you must go to LBG.  Named for the street--la rue Gaite--on which it's located-- just across the Edgar Quinet Plaza from the Lenox Hotel--it's lively, if sometimes a bit hectic.  Most of their meals are meat-based (entrecote de beouf, confit de canard and such) but salads are also available.  They also make, from what I'm told, excellent crepes and pastas, though I didn't try those.  For 35 Euros, I had  a nice-sized bowl of onion soup au gratin, beouf tartare with Auvergne-style potatoes (similar to au gratin), a salad, dessert (an apple tart with crème brulee) and coffee. 

An old Sicilian woman once told me there are two things that make absolutely everyone in the world happy.  One of them is good food.  She never told me what the other is.  Whatever it may be, I'm sure she'd appreciate La Brasserie Gaite.

Update:  After writing this post, I decided to go back to La Gaite for lunch:  my last meal before departing for New York.  I had a crepe and salad, which were every bit as good as the dinner I'd had a couple of nights earlier.


20 August 2015

Rue Rennes In The Rain: A Ride For A Romantic?

Rain pattered against asphalt and cobblestones when I woke.  Later in the morning, the stream of water turned to a scrim of drizzle.  I started to ride.  The drizzle turned back into rain.

There are certainly worse things than riding the Rue de Rennes in the rain.  For one thing, as you can see, it looks like everybody's idea of a major Left Bank street--almost a boulevard, really.  For another, it's about two blocks from my hotel room and can take me to just about anyplace I want to go.

I must admit, too that riding Rue de Rennes in the rain triggers more than a few sense memories, as well as emotional ones, from the first time I came to this city and the time I lived here.

I followed it to the Boulevard Raspail, and from there to Saint Germain des Pres, the 'hood of more than a few writers you've read and others you've heard of.  One of them, an American, used to climb this street to get to his place on 74, rue Cardinal Lemoine.

The writer is, of course, Ernest Hemingway, and the street is la rue Mouffetard, which seems to have as many twists and turns as the road on l'Alpe d'Huez or Lombard Street.  Mouffetard, and some other streets in the Latin Quarter, escaped Baron Hassmann's city planning which, although it didn't impose a grid pattern, actually made most of the streets run in more or less straight lines before converging with others in plazas and parks. 

It's still confusing if you're accustomed to a grid pattern of the kind found in many American cities.  At least it means that you can follow any given street only so far. However, the real reason why Napoleon III chose him to re-shape Paris as he did--at least, according to some historians--was to make it more difficult for rabble-rousers to run away from cops and soldiers after starting or participating in insurrections, which seemed to happen at least once in every generation in Paris.

Most of the streets that were spared from Haussmann's plan are in the part of town I was riding.  Some of them date from Roman times or even earlier; others were built during the Middle Ages.  One such street lies at the end of Mouffetard:

"Bievre" is "beaver".  Apparently, that street was a stream that fed into the Seine and, in ancient times, people trapped the beavers that lived there.  (By the way, that is how the Astors first made their fortune in New York.)  Other streets twist and wind because they, like Mouffetard and Bievre, were constructed around or over features of the landscape that existed at the time.

From Bievre, I rode across the Pont de l'Archeveche --also known as "le Pont d'Amour":

Hmm...Does the kind of lock you leave say anything about your relationship? 

Anyeay, from there, I pedaled along Right Bank roads past the Places de la Bastille and de la Republique to the Pere Lachaise, where famous people like Moliere and, of course, Jim Morrison are buried.  So are some less famous, like my friend Janine.

I didn't leave flowers for her.  I did, however, leave a short letter I wrote, thanking her for her warmth and kindness, and, of course, wishing I could see her on this trip.

After that, I was glad to zig and zag along the crowded lanes of the Goutte d'Or and up the hill to Belleville and, of course, Montmartre.  The ride kept me from wallowing in sadness and I think Janine would have been happy that I was riding to the stairs we had climbed together to the Basilica. 

From there, the rest of my ride was literally downhill to Paris Bike Tour, where I returned my rental bike.  It served me well, but I'll certainly be happy to ride my Mercians again.

19 August 2015

Why You Have To Ride A Bicycle To Truly Understand Picasso, Rodin Or Any Impressionist Painter

You all have seen this Picasso sculpture.

Question:  What kind of handlebars are they?  Velo Orange Belleville?  (OK, so VO didn't exist in Picasso's time.)  Whatever they were, they definitely weren't flat bars.  In fact, I can't think of any way even Picasso (or, for that matter, Rodin or Michelangelo) could have made an objet d'art from flat bars.  For that reason alone, they should be illegal. 

(Don't get me started on those mountain bike bar ends that were all the rage circa 1992-1996!  Yes, I had a pair of Onzas--in purple, no less!)

I posted that image because I figured that I should, since I visited the Picasso Museum--my favorite, after the Rodin--today.  However, I didn't actually see the "bull".  The part of the museum in which it is displayed was closed off because a special show is being organized.  Oh well.

At least there's all sorts of other interesting stuff to see there.

Now that's something to think about the next time you're kissing your beloved!

It goes without saying that Picasso, like many great male artists, had complicated relationships with women:

To be fair, he also had a strong social conscience.  You've probably seen Guernica.  A decade and a half later, he painted "Massacre in Korea":

And he understood, I think, how thin the line is between sensitivity and derangement can be.  At least I gather something like that from his painting Absinthe Drinker:

That one isn't in the Picasso Museum. I saw it yesterday in the Musee d'Orsay.  There's so much there and so much has already been said about many things that are there that I'll just choose a few vague (wave) paintings:

Paul Gaugin (another favorite of mine): Marine avec Vache

Georges Lacombe:  La Vague Violette


August Strindberg (You didn't know he was a painter, did you?) :  Marine avec recif
Alexander Harrison (Philadelphia 1853-Paris 1930):  Marine 

I find it very interesting that the Impressionists and Rodin came along around the time the bicycle was taking a form we recognize today, which vastly increased its popularity over that of "high-wheelers" and other predecessors.  For the first time, many people had access to a mode of travel that is faster than walking.  Because we pass by people, landmarks and other parts of the landscape more quickly on a bicycle than on foot, we see them clearly but momentarily, so they form impressions in our consciousness.  That, I believe, is why we can so readily call upon sense memories of what we saw, heard, felt, smelled or tasted during a bike ride.

On the other hand, when Picasso was helping to invent Cubism, the automobile was in its juvescence.  So was cinema.  When we see things from the window of a fast-moving car or other motorized vehicle, we see "cuts" in much the same way we see a series of images on a strip of motion picture film.  Each image in the series differs slightly from the one before it, but the cumulative effect is that what's at the end of the strip is very different from what we saw at the beginning.

I'm sorry if this all sounds like half-baked cognitive psychology mixed with even-less-baked art and film theory.  I'm just doing the best I can to describe what occurred to me as I was riding between museums, and after visits to museums.  If nothing else, it made clearer--to me, anyway--why the trip to the museum, especially if it's on a bicycle, can be just as important and even interesting as the museum itself.

Just for fun, I'll end this post with something from that great interpreter of fin-de-siècle Paris nightlife, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec:


18 August 2015

Although I Couldn't See All Of The Statues, The Ride Wasn't A Bust

Today I cycled to a place where I shed tears whenever I visit.  Yes, on purpose.


For those of you who have never met me in person, I'm going to share a little secret:  I cry, sometimes in embarrassing, if not inappropriate, situations.  More than once, tears have rolled down my cheeks when I've shared a particularly beautiful piece of writing--like Caliban's "The Isle Is Full of Noises" soliloquy in The Tempest--or when some sense-memory overtakes me.  I can also cry with and for another person, as well as for myself. 

So where, you may ask, is this place in Paris that opens up my lacrimal duct?


He's at the "gate", so to speak.

That bust, and the statue before it, are studies that became part of Porte d'Enfer by Auguste Rodin.  I went to the museum that houses most of his work.

 The only problem was, the main collection was closed.  So was most  of the rest of the museum.  To be fair, the Hotel Biron, at 77 rue Varenne, has been in need of repairs.  And, as with any museum, ventilation systems and other infrastructure need to be repaired and replaced in order to keep the artist's works from deterioration and other damage.
 C'est une injustice! I exclaimed to the guide when she explained the situation.  "J'ai venue d'amerique", I told her, to see Le Baiser, Le Penseur and--my favorite objet d' art--Je suis belle. 



Thinking about....?

From the day I first encountered photos of those works in an art history class I took as an undergraduate, Rodin has spoken to me, moved me, in ways that only three or four other artists, in any medium, ever have.  For me, seeing the ways he could draw out despair, courage, empathy, isolation, inspiration and so much more--sometimes all in the same work--in such static materials as stone and metal has been a sort of guidebook to the soul.  He doesn't merely  render, express or depict emotions; he makes his materials a conduit for la force vitale.  To me, the only other Western sculptor who did anything like that is Michelangelo.

Sometimes, in museums, I see.  Or I might think, or feel, or simply enjoy.  When I am in the presence of Rodin's works, in his milieu, I live.  You might say it's like  at least for me.

Anyway, the museum is apparently building a new wing as they renovate the old space, and are going to exhibit the works in new ways.  I hope that the newly-restored museum doesn't sacrifice too much of the intimacy of the old one and become another big building full of glass boxes that hermetically seal the artist's works away from the people, from the world, as too many other museums do.

 As the renovations proceed, there is an exhibit of some of the castings Rodin made as studies for his masterworks as photographs taken of them, and him as he made them.  Most of the figures you see in his completed works are clothed, but he made nude studies for all of them to get, not only the proportions, but the ways in which they moved and interacted with their environments, before he created the "final product", so to speak.

 And the gardens are still open.  Even if you aren't a fan of his work, or art generally, it's a great place to unwind--after or before a bike ride in Paris.

 After I left the Rodin and had a picnic lunch by the Seine, I rode some more, spent some time in the Musee d'Orsay and rode some more.  I'll talk about those later.