31 July 2016

How It Ends

When you've taken a trip, was there a sign that it was over--or about yto end?

For me, it came late yesterday, when I returned the bike I rented from Paris Bike Tour.  Stephen--who was so helpful when I rented from them last year--was there, and we talked for a while.  I was being selfish,really:  It was near closing time, and I'm sure he, and the other staff  members, wanted to eat, go home, or get some kind of relaxation.

Location vélo – 2

Truth is, even though I enjoyed talking with him and the rest of the staff, I was prolonging my time with them as if I were in denial that my trip was about to end.  

Now Paris Bike Tours has the bike I rented.  I have memories, and soon I will be on my way to my own bikes--and Marley, Max and my other friends!

Anyway, I'll tell you more about this trip if you'd like.  I'd like that, a lot.

30 July 2016


As much as I love Shakespeare, I have to tell you this:  The man never had an original idea in his life.  At least, not an original idea for a story.  Every one of The Bard's plays was written, in one version or another, by somebody else.  The reason we read, perform, watch and beat them to death today is that he imbued his characters with a depth never before seen in drama, at least in English:  Until his time, most dramas were "morality plays" or other kinds of vehicles to impart lessons or accepted wisdom.

Likewise, Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic scene is no more original than any murder story has been since Cain and Abel.  Even if you've never watched the whole movie, you know that scene:  Marion, played by Janet Leigh, is taking a shower when a female figure stabs her.


I am not saying the scene--or the film--does not deserve to be as famous as it is.  Rather, I am just pointing out that Hitchcock probably paid a visit to the Louvre, or at least looked at an art book or two, some time before he started making Psycho.

Please don't ask me how it took so long for me to come to such a realization.  But I might be the only visitor in the history of the world's most famous art museum to laugh while looking at Jacques Louis David's The Death of Marat.

Like Marion Bates, Marat was stabbed by a woman.  He met his fate in his bathtub, where he spent much of his time (and, in fact, did much of his writing) because of a skin condition.  It's extremely unlikely that Marat could have taken a shower, even if he had known they existed:  Even though the first indoor shower was invented two decades before he was murdered, it would be another six decades before modern indoor plumbing would make them workable. The originals were operated by hand pumps.

Anyway, for a time in my youth, Jacques Louis David was my favorite painter.  His combination of revolutionary fervor (He, as a deputy from the city of Paris, voted for the execution of the king.) and painting technique--dark backgrounds that made for vivid, dramatic colors and forms, a technique often called "chiaroscuro"--appealed to my sensibilities in those days, almost precisely because I could not see it as another side of the sentimentality I thought I was rejecting.

But one lesson I learned from Marat and David is that backgrounds or backdrops matter.  Why do you think I came to Paris again?  Why do you think my favorite muesums in Paris are the Rodin, Cognaq-Jay, Picasso and d'Orsay?  I mean, I love much of what Rodin, Picasso and the Impressionists did.  But there's nothing like going to the museums devoted to them (especially Rodin, in my opinion).  On the other hand, I can't say I was a fan of much of the work that's in the Cognaq-Jay.  But it's become a "new favorite" precisely because of the environment it creates and the way those works are presented.  Plus, it has some of the friendliest staff I've encountered in a museum.  (Oh, and it's free!)

Anyway...A great backdrop can make for a great ride.  That's why I can put up with the insanity of Paris traffic (Then again, I'm a New Yorker): What's not to like about riding among beautiful buildings and gardens?  

But cycling also transmutes, if not transforms, backgrounds.  A bleak, apocalyptic necropolis becomes bearable, and an interesting--and in its own way, even beautiful--image when it's the setting of a good bike ride, even if it is just from work to home, or vice versa. I used to pedal through such a setting every day when I was a student and worked in a factory; that ride might be what kept me (relatively) sane.

I have been able to ride through far more beautiful vistas.  Some were natural, whether in mountains or along seashores.   But for the past few days, I've rolled through some of the most beautiful urban scenes in the world.  It's made for some great riding--and a great trip!

29 July 2016

From The Beach To The Cathedral

I took a ride to the beach:

It probably doesn't remind you of any beach you have visited. (I know:  I'm assuming you've been to a beach. Believe it or not, I've actually met people who haven't.)  That's because "Paris Plage" (Paris Beach) is actually on a stretch of the Left Bank.  Of course, nobody goes swimming in the Seine:  As far as I know, it's not allowed and no sane person would do such a thing.   Many Parisians go to actual beaches in places like Deauville and Dieppe on the English Channel, Lacanau (really nice--I've been there!) and La Rochelle on the Atlantic and, of course, any number of places along the Mediterranean.  But even the hardiest denizen of the City of Light can't get to them in a day by bike!

As you probably surmised, I didn't come to Paris to go to the beach.  In fact, I've never traveled anywhere specifically to go to the beach, and have no interest in doing such a thing.  (I must be one of the few people in this world who has had no wish to go to Hawai'i.)  I didn't even come for the biking, although that is worthwhile.  Rather, I'm here to see friends and "get kuhl-chyuh".  So, of course, I split most of yesterday between two museums.

As the old neighbor I met the other day learned, the Museum Pass isn't worth it.  At least, there aren't very many people for whom it's worthwhile.  First of all, nobody should go to more than two museums in one day--especially if one of the museums is a big one.  Hopping from one museum to another--one of the few things that makes a Museum Pass worthwhile--induces burnout in even the most avid art and artifact lover.  And, if anyone visiting a large museum like the Louvre for the first time should devote a whole day to it.  (Please, please don't be one of those people who goes in, takes a selfie with the Mona Lisa and leaves!)  If it's not your first visit to such a museum and you want to spend, say, a morning or an afternoon, choose an exhibit (a temporary one is a good idea) or theme or genre (like, say, 18th Century French paintings) and spend your time in those.

Also, if you're going to be in town for a few days and you want to do more than one museum (or activity) on  a given day, choose venues that are near each other.  Having to make mad dashes across town will burn you out almost as easily as trying to take in too much at once.

Another tip:  Check to see whether a museum you want to visit is open late on a particular night.  For example, I found out that the Musee d'Orsay is open until 9:45 pm (a.k.a. 21h45) on Thursdays--which worked very nicely for me yesterday.

Speaking of the d'Orsay:  I also learned that there's a combination ticket available for that museum and the nearby Musee Rodin.  That combo (jumelee) ticket allows its holder to visit each museum once at any time from three months after the ticket is purchased and costs a few euros less than purchasing each museum's tickets individually.

So...I spent yesterday morning and early afternoon at the Rodin.  Time there is some of the most rewarding and cathartic time I can spend off my bike.  

The very first time I went to the Muesum, more years ago than I care to admit, some of the sculptures--two in particular--affected me in such a basic way that I could not understand, let alone explain.  

On one hand (pun intended), the fingers resemble the arches of a Gothic catheral.  But the first time I saw "Cathedrale", I knew that it wasn't only about the structure or inner architecture of a big medieval chuch, any more than Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is about a monster created in a laboratory.   Rather, it's about the forces that arise within us, and what we create within as well.   Rodin's cathedral is not just; it is a space we find or create, as needed.

Then there is this.  

While actually part of the Porte d'Enfer (Gate of Hell) monument, Rodin actually made a copy of it as a stand-alone.  One of the reasons why it affected me as it did was that I could feel the tensions between--I was going to say between the man and woman, but I knew it wasn't really about them.  The man and woman are distinct individuals,but they are really the same person--which is the source of the tension.

If that isn't my story, I don't know what is.  Cycling is not an escape from it; rather, it integrates those tensions and turns them into motion.  At least, that is what cycling has always done for me, long before I understood it.

After spending the morning and early afternoon at the Rodin, I rode--over a distance only slightly more than that between the Picasso and Cognaq Jay--to the Orsay.   

28 July 2016

What's This Bike Doing On the Place des Invalides?

The Retrogrouch has written an excellent series about the rise and fall of the US bicycle industry, and how the rise helped to make Shimano the largest component manufacturer.  In the third of his four installents, he discusses the rise and fall of Schwinn.  One commenter made a couple of interesting points, one of which is that the "Bike Boom" didn't happen in Europe because Europeans didn't have one or two generations that didn't ride bikes, and bikes made decades ago are still in use.

That commenter also couldn't understand why The Retrogrouch and others were describing Schwinn as the top Amerian bike.  That commenter had never seen. let alone ridden, one.  Come to think of it, the few Schwinns I've seen in Europe were ridden by Americans who brought them for tours or other rides.

See original image

Today I saw something that's even rarer than a Schwinn in Europe:  a Ross.  A Eurotour, no less. Isn't it funny that an American company would call something "Euro" when it has no connection with this continent--and it ends up here anyway.  It's like McDonald's selling "French Fries" to the French.

I didn't get a chance to take a photo of that bike, as I was dodging and weaving traffic near the Place des Invalides, where the bike was parked.  But it's the same model as the one in the image above.  I'd be curious to know how that bike got here.  These days, most airlines charge over 100 dollars to bring a bicycle aboard.  (For a long time, Air France and other airlines simply counted it as one of your checked bags--they allowed two--as long as it wasn't over the weight limit.)  Although there's nothing wrong with the Ross, I simply can't see spending that much to bring it along unless you're moving here and absolutely love its ride, or if it has sentimental valus for you.

Tomorrow I will tell you some more about my adventures here. 

27 July 2016

Meeting Under The Unicorn

First off, I want to assure you that I have made up nothing in this blog.  Not even the third-place finish in a race.  Or the climbs in the Alps, Pyrenees, Sierra Nevada, Green Mountains, Adirondacks or Catskills.  Even the bad, crazy and silly things I've done are as I've recounted them.

Still, you might not believe the story I'm about to tell you.  I understand.   But I assure you that I couldn't make up anything like it.  

It took place in la Musee Nationale du Moyen-Age, a.k.a. the Cluny.  Even if you've never been there, you've seen this:

Most people think of it as "the unicorn tapestry".  Truth is, it's just one of six tapestries in the "La Dame a la Licorne" series.  The other five tapestries feature the lady, the unicorn and nearly all of the other elements of the one you've all seen.  But what this one--"Mon seul desir"--represents is the subject of debate.  Some have said that it is the mind, while others believe it is the heart or love.  I think the tapestry's creator intended it to be the power of the unicorn, whatever that might be.  

Now, what exactly is the power of the unicorn?  Some say it's something that happens when the woman touches his horn. (I won't disagree. But I want to keep this clean!) Well, perhaps it got me out of bed early so I could ride for an hour, with no destination or purpose, for about an hour before cycling to Cluny.

And the unicorn's magic (or whatever you want to call it) may have been the cause of what I experienced while in the museum.  

Many of the objects displayed there, at one time or another, adorned cathedrals.  A couple stood before one of the displays.  They were talking about how those objects were made and how cathedrals were built. 

I chimed in with a comment about how, in places like Chartres and Reims, literally everybody in the town contributed in some way or another to building the cathedral.  Of course, some were artists and craftspeople.  Others cut and set stones and glass, and did other things vital to building the structure.  And, of course, there were those who prepared food and did other things for the other workers. "Most of those people never lived to see the finished product," I pointed out.

That led us to talk about the things we were looking at--and, soon, things entirely unrelated.  Naturally, the conversation led to the inevitable traveler's question, "Where are you from?"

When I'm far from my home area, I say "New York"--which, of course, is true.  But unless someone's familiar with the city or its environs, I don't mention anything more specific.  It's not that I'm trying to impress anybody: Rather, it's just easier:  Almost everyone has heard of New York; only people who've lived in it have ever heard of Astoria,  Queens.

But that couple obviously knew the city.  So I told them I live in Astoria, Queens.  Each of them mentioned living in Brooklyn.  "No kidding!  I lived there for a long time."  That led me to confess that I'd grown up in Bensonhurst and Borough Park and later lived in Park Slope.  

Turns out, she lived there, and he in neighboring Windsor Terrace.  They mentioned The Park (Prospect), eating at the Silver Spoon and the Pintchick's store on the corner.  

"Bergen Street", I exclaimed.

Up to that point, I had the feeling that I somehow recognized them.  Especially her.  "Yes, I lived there during the '90's," she said.  "And we started dating then," he added.

The FBI has age-progression software that shows, for example, what a child who went missing years ago might look like today.  My mind's eye did the opposite of that:  I found myself imagining what they might have looked like five, ten, twenty years ago.  In her case, I didn't even have to look that far back:  She's hardly aged at all.

We asked each other's names.  She told me hers. "Really?"  

Her eyes, and his, fixed on me.  Then I asked whether her last name might be (N)."

"How did you know that?"

"We used to be neighbors.  In fact, I lived in the apartment next to yours."

For a few years, we exchanged pleasantries and sometimes got into conversations in the hallway of our building.  Our talks veered into all sorts of topics:  art, movies, politics, the not-for-profit agency for which she worked, my writing--and the class and workshop I was taking with Allen Ginsberg.  

But at that moment, she could not recall those things--or, more precisely, she could not connect me with them.  

"Well, I am Justine now," I confessed.  "But back then, you knew me as Nick."  

I could see flickerings of recognition.  Then I added  more dim, dark secrets:  I had a beard in those days--a red one, at that.  

"Wow.  Yes, now I remember.  The beard!"

Then she recalled, aloud, the poetry--Yes, I still write, I assured her--the studies, the teaching and even my cat.  "And you used to ride your bike everywhere," she recounted.

I nodded.  And, yes, I still ride, and I've been riding here in Paris.  She, her husband and their teenage daughter went for a ride the other day, she said.

Just when we were about to fall off each others' radar--which was much easier  in those days, just before everybody started to use cell phones, the internet and e-mail-- she had started dating him.  And I would meet, and move in with, the last partner I had in my life as Nick.

Now tell me:  What are the chances that two people who lived next to each other--in Brooklyn--would bump into each other twenty years later--in Paris, no less?

26 July 2016

215 Steps--How Many Kilometers?

I have no idea of how many kilometers (Remember, I'm in France!) I pedaled today.  I'm guessing it's not less than twenty, but not more than forty.  

There is, however, one measure I can give you with certainty:  215 steps--from 8, rue Elzevir to 5, rue Thorigny. Both addresses are mansions in the Marais district of Paris, which straddles thte Third and Fourth Arrondissements and contains, among other noteworthy sites, the Place des Vosges.  

I had intended to go to the first address.  When I was about to lock my bike to a signpost in front of it, an African man in what looked like a butler's uniform informed me, politely, that there was bike parking at the end of the block.  "Pardon", I said almost simperingly, "je n'ai lai pas vu."  I guess I wasn't the first person not to notice it. "Pas problem", he said. "Merci," I responded.

8, rue Elzevir

So why was I going to a mansion at 8, rue Elzevir.  Well, I had a free pass.  Then again, so did anyone else who wanted one.  But since I'm so, like, "over" being part of the "in" crowd (I mixed generational references.  Is that as bad as mixing metaphors?), I didn't mind.  For one, the man who showed me where to park my bike was so nice.  And so was everyone else I met inside.  And there were some really interesting things to look at.

All right, I'll admit it:  I was there to look at the stuff, and the place itself.  You see, that mansion is la Musee Cognaq-Jay.  I had seen signs for it and was intrigued by the name: "Cognac" with a "q" at the end, and "Jay"--that doesn't look so French, does it?

The fully-articulated fish in the foreground is made from gold, enamel and jade.  The other cases are made from gold , enameling and precious stones. 

Well, it turns out that Theodore-Ernest Cognaq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay founded the Samaritaine department store, which grew from a small tie vendor at the foot of the Pont Neuf to an eleven-story Art Deco colossus that took up several square blocks.   If you can imagine a combination of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, a la francaise, you'll have an idea of what the store was like.

Messr. Cognacq and Mme. Jay were, not surprisingly, among the wealthiest people in France.  This allowed them to accumulate a vast collection of art and objects, which are displayed in the museum.  What is so unusual about this collection, though, is that almost everything in it is from the 18th Century.

Although few collectors and curators focus on this period today, it makes sense that Cognacq and Jay would have spent their time and money on it.  For one thing, the work of painters like Van Gogh and other Impressionists were not yet deemed collectable, let alone immortal.  And the work of other artists who are so revered today--including one I'll mention later on in this post--was either in the process of creation, or hadn't been conceived yet. 

So, it's not surprising that whoever advised Cognacq and Jay would have told them to buy works from the 1700s.  By that time, it was a century or more old, so it (or at least some of of it) would have passed the test of time.  In other words, paintings, sculptures and other objects from that period would have gained the stature the Impressionists would attain in the 1970s or thereabouts, when Japanese collectors started to pay large sums of money for Monet and Van Gogh paintings.

I must admit, though, that I never had any great interest in 18th Century art, with a few exceptions.  If I were to become a scholar, I probably wouldn't choose that period.  The most interesting work of that time came, I believe, from philosphes, political theorists, few novelists--and composers.  There isn't much poetry to capture my attention (apart from some of William Blake's early work near the end of the century) and even less drama. 

The painting and drama of that period, with a few exceptions from Fragonard and a handful of other artists, leaves me cold, for the most part.  But seeing them in a setting in a mansion of that period made them more interesting.  Also, seeing those paintings and sculptures along with objects made of porcelain, gold and stones--some of which were intended for daily use--made the paintings more interesting.

If you are in Paris, the Musee Cognaq Jay is worth checking out, even if you're not interested in works from the 18th Century, just to see how an extremely wealthy couple would have lived with the things they collected.

After spending the morning and the first hour of the afternoon at Cognaq-Jay, I walked 215 steps to see the work of an artist I mentioned, but didn't name, earlier.  Yes, his museum is at 5,rue Thorigny:  the Hotel Sale, a.k.a. la Musee Picasso.  

If you've been reading my earlier posts, you know that the Musee Picasso has long been one of my three favorite museums in Paris.   Although it, like the Cognacq Jay, is located in a former residence, the two could hardly have had more different atmospheres:  The Cognacq-Jay has the intimate atmosphere the creators of the Picasso tried to achieve and, I believe, would if it hadn't become a tourist destination.   To be fair, the Picasso has become one of the most famous museums in the world because even people who know nothing else about art have heard his name. 

Vue de la façade, côté rue de Thorigny – détail, le fronton.
215 steps later:  5, rue Thorigny

Still, I love the Picasso, in part because of the artist himself,  but also because of the way it creates a milieu for him and his work.   But after 215 steps, I think I have found a new favorite to add to my list.  

And I got to take a late-day ride after taking in both, on a Tuesday in which clouds swirled and rippled in the breeze, diffusing but not muting the sun's rays.

25 July 2016

The Promenades

Here's what I had for breakfast today:

Now, you might have a difficult time finding this product in your local store.  However, it might be worth finding, as it promises really good things:

The nutritional value goes like this:  Joie de vivre, 19 9 grams  Soleil (sunshine), 33 grams.  Synergie, 12 grams.  Energy, 13 grams.  Poesie (poetry), 21 grams. Addictif, 2 grams.  The "sacoche de banane" is what the French call a "fanny pack", "waist bag" or "bum bag."  Sometimes they're simply called "banane".

"Menil Monkey" is the name of a collaboration between the office of the 20th Arrondissement--which includes the neighborhood of Menilmontant, or "Menil" for short--and DJ Joachim Touitou, or Joachim.T.

Menilmontant is a neighbor of Belleville, the neighborhood that gave the world none other than Edith Piaf.  Both neighborhoods are in the hilly northernmost area of Paris that includes Montmartre and the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, where none other than Chopin, Oscar Wilde and, yes, Jim Morrison are buried.

On Menil Monkey's "cereal box", there's a warning that consumption of the contents can cause addiction to the 20th Arrondissement, among other things.

Well, I was there the other day...and the last time I was in Paris...and the one before that.  The 20th is indeed interesting because it's Parisian and cosmopolitan at the same time.  It's an area where you can eat and drink at old-school Parisian cafes or in West African, Middle Eastern, Asian or  Kosher (mainly Sephardic Jewish) establishments.

And I saw a lot of bike riders--of all kinds.  Some were on Velib (the Paris bike share program) machines; others rode bikes older than themselves; still others pedaled classic touring and racing bikes.  It was, in short, an interesting procession of un-self-conscious utility cyclists, cognoscenti  and folks on trendy bikes.

That procession seemed to spill down the Avenue de la Republique toward the bike lanes of the Canal St. Martin. There were some hipsters and wannabes on fixed-gear bikes.  (These days, most fixed-gear bikes in New York are being ridden with single-speed freewheels.) And there were a few riders on the kinds of bikes that seem to be sold, under different labels, but with the same cartoonish graphics, everywhere in the world.  But I got a kick out of seeing young people on bikes that would be considered "vintage" but to their riders are simply bikes that are getting them from wherever to wherever--and, possibly, did the same for an older sibling, parent, aunt, uncle or someone else before them.

The canal, like most others that are no longer used for shipping, offers a calming time for those who ride along its paths or sit on its banks.  I've been told that some of those romantic or painterly photos that look like they were shot on the Seine were actually taken along the canal.

Its calm surface, though, belies a tragedy that took place just steps away last November:

The Bataclan bar and concert hall, a site of the November 2015 terrorist attacks

But that didn't stop people from enjoying their afternoon there, whether they were dangling their feet into the water or spinning pedals.  

One equally-pleasant place where you're not allowed to ride, though, is the Promenade des Plantes.  You can bring your bike up there, but you're not allowed to ride it.  Still, it's worth climbing the stairs from the Avenue Daumesnil, near the Bastille and the Gare de Lyon  (where the Orient Express originated), to see what became of a former railway.

At the Grand Train exhibit I saw the other day, sections of old railroad tracks in a disused rail yard were turned into patches.  The Viaduc des Arts is, in contrast, a botanical garden about two kilometers long in the former track beds.  At street level, cafes, restaurants, shops and art galleries are in the vaults that hold up the railroad by way.  

This project is said to be the inspiration for New York's High Line, which was also a disused railway.  The difference, though, is that while the High Line does indeed have gardens, it's lined with all of the kinds of touristy shops and restaurants you can find at the South Street Seaport.  With the Viaduc des Arts, you can choose to go to the galleries and shops on the street level, or go up to the Promenade des Plantes for the flora and fauna--which, interestingly, do more than anything on the High Line to evoke (at least in my imagination) the tracks that once lined, and the trains that ran along, them.

After descending from the Promenade des Plantes, I rode by the Gare de Lyon--faster than any of the trains ;-)--to the Seine and the bridge back to my hotel.

Ah, yes, another fine day!

24 July 2016

What I Could Have Done, And What I Did

After you read what you're about to read, you might decide that you won't ever read this blog again.  I understand.

Here goes:  I was in Paris on the last day of the Tour de France.  And I wasn't among the throngs that lined the Champs Elysees for the finish.

Why?, you ask. Well, for one thing I have a general aversion to being in crowds these days.  I have stood along the world's second-most famous thoroughfare (after Broadway in NYC) on two other occasions for the finish of the race.  I have also been on the side of the road, in other parts of France, where other stages of the Tour passed. I just don't get the same thrill about such things that I once did.

For another thing:  I hardly ever attend sporting events anymore.  It's not that I don't like sports:  I once wrote about them for a newspaper.  Rather, I am not crazy about the way many different sports, from baseball to basketball to bicycle racing, have devolved.  Too much is decided, I feel, by drugs and other kinds of technology, compared to events past.

Which brings me to my final point:  This Tour, like the past few, didn't have the storylines  of Tours past.  Even when everyone expected Eddy Mercx, Bernard Hinault or Miguel Indurain to win (as they usually did), they could generate more drama than any of the current riders.

Finally,  I just cannot bear to watch Chris Froome.  I don't have anything against him winning:  He's worked hard and, as far as anybody knows, hasn't used drugs.  But he is the most awkward-looking rider I've ever seen at the front of a major race.  As long as no one can prove he's cheated, I have no problem with his winning the Tour.  But that doesn't mean I have to watch him.

So, after filling myself up at the hotel's breakfast buffet, instead of going to the Tour, I got a (relatively) early start on a gorgeous morning and found myself pedaling streets that were all but deserted--even in places as popular with tourists (or heavily used by delivery drivers) as the Boulevard St. Michel, St. Germain des Pres and Trocadero.  I really felt--to borrow a cliche--that Paris belonged to me.

But, most important of all, I spent the afternoon and early evening with one of my friends, the man she married last year and a friend of theirs who was very friendly toward me.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, Michele and I had not seen each other in a number of years before I saw her last August, in this city.  She was just a few weeks away from marrying the man who is now her husband.  I saw her again in New York in May, with her husband Alec, near the end of their belated honeymoon trip.

An old Italian proverb says that a good meal can keep a person content for a week.  I tend to agree with that.  I'd say the same for a good bike ride or a few other things (some of which can't be mentioned on a PG-13 blog ;-) ).  And, as much as I love good food and writing, as well as cycling, i can't help but to think that nothing can keep me happy longer than a good time with an old friend.

23 July 2016

A Paris Bike Tour To The Grand Train

Sometimes I am a creature of habit.  Yesterday I went to Paris Bike Tour, from whom I rented a bike when I was here last year.  I did the same this time, except that I  got one of their "official" bikes (with the PBT logo and colors) this time.  Last year's bike was a silver Arcade, which was similar, if not the same, except for one thing:  the bike I got this year has a Shimano Dynohub powering the front and rear light, which I used last night.  Last year's bike had battery lights.

At first, I thought this year's bike was slower--or that I've aged more than a year or gained more weight than I thought I did since last year. (Don't ask!  Never ask a woman questions about her weight! ;-)) Then I thought that the seat was slowing me down--after all, it's the cushy sort found on bikes like this, and I'm used to my Brooks saddles.  But, finally, after steering out of the rond (or roundabout, as the Brits call them) of the Place de la Bastille, I realized why everything felt so sluggish:  The tires had about half as much air in them as they needed.  

I could have topped off the tires at any number of places, namely bike shops and gas stations.  As it happened, PBT is closer to Bastille to any other such place (that I know about, anyway), so I went to them.  Just for good measure, they did a quick check of the rest of the bike, and found nothing amiss.

All was well with the world, and off I went on the bike.  Mostly, I've rambled:  I've had no particular destinations in mind.  Actually, I headed for the hills, such as they exist.  Of course, I rode up the longest and steepest hill in Paris:  the one leading to the Sacre Coeur de Montmartre--and, of course, down to the teeming streets and open-air markets of Goutte d'Or, often called the "petite Afrique" (little Africa) of Paris.

When I pedaled in that neighborhood--and neighboring Barbes-Rochechouart-- this year and last, I noticed that however well-intentioned the bike lanes are, it is all but impossible to stay on them unless you want to stop-and-start, or do a lot of dodging and weaving.  It seems that, even by Paris standards, the streets and sidewalks of that neighborhood are narrow, and people are always out shopping or otherwise out and about, always in large groups. So, they almost can't help but to spill into the bike lanes.  They almost invariably get out of your way, at least to the degree they can, and say "pardon".  I saw only one cyclist argue with the pedestrians.  That cyclist himself is African, from Senegal.  "Vous n'etes pas francaise"--"You are not French" he said with a knowing grin.  I nodded, sheepishly.  "Pas problem.  Vous etes sympathique."  I almost expected him to say I am "tel" or "trop" sympathique--so or too nice--buy he just left it at "nice".  

Anyway, from there, I rode to Saint Denis--home of the Stade de France, site of the Euro soccer championship and one of the terror attacks in November--only to find the Basilica closed.  Still, it's impressive from the outside:

If it looks unbalanced, that's because the North Tower (the one that would have been on the left) was removed in 1840 after it was damaged by lightning three years earlier and subsequent storms.  Work on reassembling and installing is now in progress.  

But the ride to St. Denis was not for naught, as I found a path along the canal to La Villette, a few kilometers away in the northern part of Paris, where it connects with Canal de l'Ourcq, which in turn connects  with the Canal St. Martin-- an extremely popular spot for cycling, walking and picnics.

Then, after some more wandering I decided to hop a train:

No, I didn't go back to New York.  Rather, I chanced upon something I'd heard about before coming to Paris.

The Grand Train is held, as you might expect, in an old rail terminal and storage yard.  It was nice to look at tains that had, not only power, but also style.

You really had the sense that people rode those trains.


In those days, all Frenchmen wore moustaches.  At least, in the movies--and on trains--they did:

The engine in the photo below was designed for use in rugged Pyrenees terrain no other vehicles could reach.  It was used as a "relay" to and from ambulances and other cars and trucks, as well as to get pilgrims to Lourdes. 

It made its first run more than two decades after the first Tour de France cyclists climbed those peaks in the Pyrennes, and its last about two decades before I pedaled up them.

The organizers of Grand Train seem to have "discovered" some interesting uses for old track beds--like a "beach"

a "garden" 

and even a chicken coop.

(It looks like someone thought formal wear was required for this event!)

Hey, they even figured out that a gravelled track bed makes great petanque  court.

I was not surprised:  My Italian grandfather used to play bocce on a disused rail bed underneath an almost-equally disused viaduct of the New York transit system.

What would he think of that young lady?

22 July 2016

The Good News, And More (I Hope)

In a literal way, this sign can tell you where I'm not right now:

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During one trip to California, I got about as close as one is allowed to the sign.  I'm not anywhere near it now.  However, this sign inspired a sign I saw where I am now:

In a way, I can understand why that "Bonne Nouvelle" sign is done in a similar style to the "Hollywood" sign.  The latter reflects, I think, the exuberant optimism in which the film industry was created. And the neighborhood in which the "Bonne Nouvelle" signs are posted also has a long association with the performing arts.

However, the area around the "Bonne Nouvelle" sign bore  its namesake centuries before the station bearing the sign was built.  

The Bonne Nouvelle district--and the station--are named for the Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle.  That good news is,  I am very sure, different from that for a Hollywood producer.

Of course, you surmised that I am in a French-speaking locale.  I am indeed in Paris, again, visiting a couple of friends.  The station is one at which I transferred--on my way to pick up a bike, though not either of the ones I mentioned in yesterday's post!

21 July 2016

Something Else That Isn't New, And Something That's Even Better

So...You think Shimano introduced the low-profile cantilever brake as part of its then-new XTR mountain bike group of components in 1992.

Well, when I first saw those XTR low-profile brakes, I had my suspicions.  Like most Shimano "innovations", some other company had tried it before.  Some, like the dual-pivot brakes by GB, Altenberger and Weinmann, didn't work very well, and Shimano was the first component manufacturer to make it work.  Others, like indexed derailleur shifting and hubs with integrated cassette bodies, were successful in earlier iterations (in both cases, from SunTour), but the cycling public wasn't--for various reasons--ready for them.

So...It probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that Shimano didn't invent the low-profile cantilever brake after all:

I don't know when this brake was made.  I'm guessing that they came as original equipment on the bike and, from what else I saw on the bike--a Motobecane city or utility bike--it was made in the 1960s, or even earlier.  Perhaps the brakes were made by one of the familiar but now-extinct manufacturers like Mafac, CLB or Weinmann.  Or they might have been made by some other company that went out of business even earlier than those firms.  

A sign announcing the bike was for sale hung from its top tubes.  The price was pretty low.  I thought about buying it, except that I don't have the time or resources to restore it.  Its owner might have ridden it for years without lubing (let alone replacing) the chain or cables, or cleaning and greasing the bearings.  But, as you know from reading this, that's something I would never do if I could help it.

Also, the logistics of getting the bike to my place would have been difficult, to say the least, for reasons I will reveal in a future post (possibly tomorrow).

In the meantime, I'll leave you with another interesting bike I saw today.  Given the way it was parked, I couldn't take better photos.  

You know that at some point, this bike was owned by someone who rode a lot--and not just from the French Cycle Touring Society sticker on the fender.

I'm guessing that the bike originally had dropped handlebars and, possibly, a Brooks or Ideale leather saddle.  Should we be upset that the bike now has flat bars and a thicker saddle?  Although I would have liked to see the bike in its "original" state, if the bars and seat are the thing that makes the bike a rider rather than a wall hanging, I won't complain.

The frame is made of Vitus 888--in its time, the chief European rival to Reynolds 531 and Columbus SL or SP. Also, the components are among the best of their time:

Now, you know the Specialities TA crankset, Huret Duopar derailleurs and Maxicar hubs spell "top of the line touring bike."  But this bike's owner (or builder) knew a thing or two:  the front sported a Mafac Racer brake, but the rear featured a Mafac Raid.  (Can't you just see and hear the bated breath and Velo Orange and Compass Cycles?)  And those pedals, from Specialites TA:  possibly the finest quill pedals ever made.  

My favorite feature, though, is this:

No, it's not a funky shifter for a front derailleur.  Instead, the lever operates this:

Some cyclists believed that when Sanyo chainstay-mounted dynamos were made (in the 1980s), they were the best available. I never used one myself, but I knew a few cyclists who did.  All claimed the generator was more efficient than any other available at the time--as long as the tire wasn't knobby or slicked by snow, ice, mud or oily rainwater.

Whatever you want to say, Meral bicycles reflected a lot of attention to detail.  It's too bad we didn't see more of them in the US.

(Yes, that last sentence is a clue as to why I decided not to buy the Motobecane with the low-profile cantilever brakes!)