Before I tell you what a pile of poodle poo Paris is, I really should declare a few prior prejudices. First, my Primrose was raised in Jersey in the Channel Islands. All the street signs in Jersey are written in English and French. Their towns have French names. They receive French TV. They can see cars driving in France over the water. They are more qualified than anyone to say the French are retarded and dirty, and they say that exactly. They say the French are retarded and dirty. My mother told me they only bathe once per week, preferring to cover their stench with perfume than tackle it at the source. During my evangelical Protestant phase when I was 15, an evangelist told us the Frogs don’t go to church, and though I’m an atheist these days myself, that does not excuse the Frogs’ lack of god-fearing. I must declare too, how I cringe whenever an English speaker says “Tour de France”, rather than “Tour of France.” I would sooner stop bathing than not Anglicize every French word or phrase, as is my want.
So you see, I didn’t come here expecting the best. I wish I could say I have been pleasantly surprised, but I haven’t. As a cyclist I find a contradictory network of bike paths, that one moment bans cyclists from certain roads, and the next makes us share giant roundabouts as though we have motors. I have felt buffeted like a pinball, away from my course, and never into places I would say were pleasant for cycling.
I have been cut off by busses, denied entrance into the Pompidou Centre with my folded up Brompton (she pretended she couldn’t speak English so, in my language, I told her she needed a shower), and I have been given the squeeze by motorcyclists and taxis when I have been minding my own business following sharrows.
Evidently authorities here thought a few token bike lanes, that police block with their vans, meant this city was ready for thousands of cheap city bikes, to get everyone riding. If the city wasn’t quite ready with its infrastructure, then never mind, the theory would have it that thousands of frogs all over the roads riding bikes, would tame the behaviour of the frogs driving cars.
Alas I suspect actual little green frogs on the road would have more effect. At least the average driver, and motorbike rider, would think frogs of the amphibious kind were a little bit cute, and maybe worth slowing down for.
No, Versailles it is not. Paris today is ten million people in permanent gridlock, with all the anxiety, lost productivity, pollution and road carnage we know gridlock entails. It is only in their imaginations that each Parisian is snatching a few moments living life as a courtier: wearing costumery; exchanging good gossip; observing; and always, in some sense, performing. How can they be so attached to such a bygone myth of their culture, when in reality they are crammed into such a noisy and polluted maelstrom of urban decay?
It helps me understand, if I remind myself that only a few generations separate today’s Parisians from their commoner ancestors who stormed the Bastille, then promptly set about imitating the very way of life at Versailles they had moments before decried for being so decadent.
The bourgeoise who took the place of the courtiers after the French Revolution, employed the services of the chefs of Versailles in something new, called a restaurant. In time they were gathering restaurant tables so closely together, and facing them all to the street, that they must have thought they were seated in Marie-Antoinette’s tiny theatre, Le théâtre de la Reine, and that the street was her stage. Next they were decorating their city with more mirrors than King Louis XIV had spread over the walls of his famous hall in the palace, so the performers of Paris’s streets could check their looks, wherever they looked.
So while it truly sucks to be cycling here, cycling is also the latest act on this stage. Defying the obvious danger, people here dress up to ride bikes, far more than even the Northern Italians. If cars and motor bikes crowd all around them, they try doubly hard to act as though they are indifferent to danger. Their bravery is as much a part of their acts as their scarves (that could choke them) or their Brooks saddles—I have never seen so many luxury saddles on bikes, as I have seen here.
I swear, after coming to Paris, I will never be a poser again—or at least I’ll start trying. Oh look, that’s me in King Louis’s Hall of Mirrors there at Versailles! (Shirt by Paul Smith, T-Shirt by Rapha and hat by Flechet of Paris)