Ah, Paris. City of lights, city of love, city of omnipresent and yet completely miserable mass transit. The Paris metro is poeticized. It’s in movies. There are books. People buy the white tiles that line its stations to decorate their houses. And whether it is the middle of winter or the height of summer, it is a nightmarish cluster of humans (and sometimes dogs, and groceries, and take-out food) jammed together in a sweaty, steamy, claustrophobic, slow-moving capsule of body-odor scented transportation purgatory. I can’t help it. Every time I go through one of those pretty art nouveau metropolitan archways, I develop a case of the metro sweats.
So I walk a lot. But when I’m pressed for time and can’t handle the prospect of thirty minutes of stagnant air underground, the city of Paris has cleverly devised the ultimate solution: the velib.
The city sponsored bike program is cheap (1.70 for a day, 29 euros for an entire year), relatively easy (I mean, if I managed to figure it out, anyone can), and not only is it generally faster than taking the metro it has the added benefit of being exercise. The Velib app for iPhone can locate nearby stations, calculate your route, and even tell you how many calories you will burn in pedaling from point A to point B!
They do, however, have their drawbacks, and while I am sure I am far from exhausting the list of potential mishaps on bicycle, lord knows I have made a dent. For starters, to ride a Velib, you have to ride on Paris streets. These can range in size and intimidation level from “tiny and medieval and sporadically blocked by improperly parked vehicles” to “hellishly terrifying six lane roundabouts where people apparently follow no rules.” I find that I feel safest on a Velib late at night on an empty street with a generous and well-marked bus lane, but since I often need to go places during daylight hours I don’t often get the luxury of these ideal biking conditions.
To rent a Velib on the street, all you need is a chip and pin credit card. The Velib stations are well distributed, and the aforementioned iPhone app will tell you which stations are closest, how many bikes and parking spots they have available, and whether or not the bikes are broken. When you see one of these stations, you will note a row of gray bicycles and a little kiosk-like machine.
When approaching the kiosk-like machine, try to be calm. Imagine a flat pond, or a sunny field, or a leprechaun sliding down a rainbow into a pile of puppies. If you are stressed it will go wrong. While the process should appear straightforward, you will have to press a lot of buttons. First, you need to tell the machine that you want to rent a bicycle, and for how long. Then you have to read and validate liability information (never read it; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you have to make payment, validate the payment, validate the guarantee of 150 euros, enter your pin, validate your pin, make up a secret code, enter the secret code, enter the secret code again, and validate. Then you will have to read instructions (never read them; if you press 5 it skips to the end). Then you will be taken back to what appears to be the screen you started on. While it appears to be a problem, this is what you want. You now have to tell the machine that, having rented a bike, you want to take one out. Don’t get stressed if the person waiting behind you to get a bike is becoming agitated, or if the person waiting for you to take your bike so that he can park his is rolling his eyes. There is absolutely no human way to expedite the button-pressing process.
The machine will tell you to enter the code on your ticket, then enter your secret code, and then enter the secret code again. Then it will give you a list of the available bikes and let you choose your vehicle. THIS PART IS VERY IMPORTANT. Do NOT choose a bike with a broken seat. DO NOT choose a bike with a flat tire. DO NOT choose a bike where it looks as if the gears might have been tampered with. If you choose a faulty bike, you have to press all the buttons again, and no one wants to press all the buttons again.
So you’ve chosen your bike. You know the names of the streets you are taking in order to go in the same direction as the traffic. You don’t totally trust your sense of direction but hey, it can’t be that confusing, right? Plus, the app with the map is so helpful!
At this point I think it’s important to talk about wardrobe. When biking, one must be certain that ones shoes will stay attached to ones feet, that ones scarf will not blow away in the wind, that one has proper eyewear to protect ones eyes from dusty city funk blowing in ones face, and, the cardinal rule, that if one happens to be wearing a dress or skirt that one is comfortable with the length of said dress or skirt and/or is thoroughly undergarmented.
One sunny, Velib-worthy day, Lauren and Laura and I set out to go from my apartment at Republique to Laura’s in the bottom of the 14th. This little trek would take us across most of the city in about 35 minutes. It was hot out when I got dressed that morning, so I picked a short and flowy, loose-fitting dress with a lightweight skirt. It was very weather-appropriate. We got our bikes near my place after pressing buttons for about twenty minutes and were on our way. Lauren, the Velib master, was leading the way. We made our way down to the Rue de Rivoli, the center of Paris and the heart of the tourist area. People were everywhere. We were really bad on our bikes, and the streets were only going one direction, and as we went onto the sidewalk I saw Lauren turn around and look at me but couldn’t hear what she said.
So obviously everyone is familiar with the picture of Marilyn Monroe standing over the Manhattan subway grate with her white dress billowing up around her. In that scene from The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn’s character says, “Oh, can you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”
Well, Marilyn, yes. Yes, I can feel the breeze from the subway, but no, delicious is not how I would describe the sudden gust of air that grabbed my loose-fitting, lightweight summer dress and blew it up completely OVER MY HEAD. Marilyn Monroe might have made that image iconic. I assure you that swerving on a bicycle, blinded by my own dress and for all intents and purposes mostly naked in the middle of Rue de Rivoli was not my iconic moment.
The rest of the Velib mishaps are too numerous to recount: seats suddenly becoming loose and dropping, broken gears that leave you feeling like you just completed an Iron Man by the time you get home, dangerous swerving and last-minute turns across Place de la Bastille that would probably give my parents heart-attacks, being jarred and rattled by accidentally taking a cobblestone street, paying for a ticket only to realize that the bikes are broken and just sort of leaning there uselessly, getting a fly inside of my eyeball, watching Laura run into a van that had run a red light while she screamed at him in French, “Learn how to drive!”
The good news is that the city of Paris just added a section to their website so that you can buy your Velib passes online, since with most American credit cards, the little kiosk machines don’t work. Which means that before, you would have had to press all the buttons over and over again in vain, without ever getting to risk your life on a French bicycle. But now you can ☺