Friday, October 9, 2009
The crisp crack of cool wind rushed past my cheeks as I briskly peddled my rented Velib from the 15th arrondissment back to the 9th. The journey began as The Frenchmen neighbor needed to drop off an envelope, never fully stating the purpose; it was a last minute kind of thing. We navigated our way through the streets of Paris, the three of us, with my host at the lead — mostly. We took turns up front. Traversing about 12 and a half kilometers, including a laborious uphill, took a little over 30 minutes. Alas, we came upon an old warehouse that looked like it could be or has been some type of factory where medium not hard work happens. The Frenchmen hopped the curb, stepped off the bike and flipped the kickstand. He dropped his carefully sealed envelope, in a small drop door. A quick rest to catch our breaths, relieve our legs and plot our return route, then it's back on our rented bikes — equipped with three speeds, a basket and bell — rushing back through the streets of Paris at a steady pace (pas de hill this time).
A brush of chilled early autumn air drafting from The Seine ahead hit my face, the scent unmistakable. I was quickly reminded, Carpe Diem — seize the day — "Holy, shit! I'm riding a bike through the streets of Paris, and across The Seine at 2:30 in the morning... This is fucking awesome!" My peddling slowed and I lived that moment.
My host, a friend of nearly a decade with whom I worked my first reporter job, has lived in Paris for the last three years. It was well past time for my visit.
Upon arrival, I quickly nestled into the traveler role — leaving the tourist characters to be filled by my cousin from Baltimore and her childhood friend, both who were also on the trip.
As a traveler on my first European excursion with a knack for observation and attention to detail, this trip opened my perspective, or at least further extended my authority for the perspective I already had.
I think I have seen what it means to have a smaller footprint. In fact just about everything is smaller there. The doorways. The stairs. The elevator. The hallway. The bathroom — ouch! I hit my elbow on the medicine cabinet, and it wasn't the funny bone. My fault for being lanky.
Somewhat in line with their footprint, even the people of Paris tend to be smaller. Hollywood ain't got nothing on them Parisians. Thin is in. Even the pregnant women. With just the bump in their belly and shapely hips to support the hump, frequently I found myself oddly attracted and a siring arousal in my loins.
The few that I saw, I understand why those women end up pregnant. Aside from the financial incentives given to French families for bearing children (a monthly allowance of 180 euros for families with three children), les femmes français strutted as if they wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say "damn it, I'm frickin awesome. I'm the shit — all up in here." Then they get dressed with that in mind. They do their hair with that in mind. They choose their shoes with that in mind. And they walk/ride to wherever they are going with that in mind.
And if you believe like I do that women set the pace for society, that attitude may also have something to do with what I perceived to be a culture and energy of enjoyment. It may have been that extra pep in the step of the people who this observer could tell, were familiar with the give of the streets; that in contrast to the tepid steps of those to whom the land is foreign. Or it could be the displays of romance in the park, the lively flow of perky breast bouncing on heels or condom dispensers affixed to stone walls. Even the Ninja Turtle Men, (you know, the green-clad sanitation workers who dutifully picked up the trash, cleaned the streets, swept the gutter ... ), even seemed to have some enjoyment, if no more than just a little, in the work they were doing — or maybe that was the tunes coming through their ear buds that was causing joy.
Also noticeable was a culture of respect. Respect for the vagabond who by day lounges next to the ATM machine with a request of, "aide moi, svp."
"Peut-être," I was instructed to respond before grabbing another stack of Monopoly money — well at least those euros seem to spend like it's a game — and rushing on my way. This, I later assumed, was a way of instilling just a little bit of hope for the disheveled looking man instead of simply ignoring him as if he were subhuman, the way that is common place along the streets of any given American city.
If this is what socialism looks like at a brief glimpse, it's not looking so bad. OK, so it's rare to find hours of operation on many of the storefronts, there is the cultural acceptance of up to a half bottle of wine at lunch (had to make it sound like a complaint), and everyone smokes, all the time. Not that that has anything to do with Socialism, but really is all the smoking necessary? Regardless, absent was the anticipation of French arrogance that looks a lot like that thing they call swagger. And for what ever reason, be it the reclamation of self tour as was the case for two middle-aged married women from the Northeast or a simple escape from the monotony of a young life that has a plan of it's own, that swag is looking kind of familiar. The trip gave life.
Photo and words by James Joyce III