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a pretty Good Friday

The church bells have been ringing all day, because it’s Good Friday. And the clochard – the homeless man who sits all day on the street outside the bakery next door, waiting for coins, must think I’m either busy or crazy, because of the many times he has seen me march by today.

I decided to conquer the Velib system of bike rentals this morning, after rereading an article I cut out last year from the Globe, telling me how easy it is. All you have to do is swipe your card and off you go, says the cheery travel writer, zooming all over Paris. Then when you’ve finished, presto, you stick the bike back somewhere.  So off I went, to the long line of Velib bikes just down the street. 
Okay, but I see nowhere to stick in my card. There’s a green light sensor on the post that locks the bikes; I try running my Visa card over it a few times, but nothing happens. I look around for a sign or a meter or something, but there’s nothing except a phone number to dial. I have no pencil or paper with me. So I walk the 3 blocks uphill back to the apartment to call; by the time I get there and have entered the two entry codes to the apartment, I’ve forgotten the phone number. 
The website, though, makes it look easy. So off I go again; this time I try another place that also has the bikes. Again – no explanation, no post, no nothing. Humiliated, I write down the phone  number and go grocery shopping instead. I feel briefly like a real Parisienne, loading my little basket with endives (which they sell in bulk here), kiwis, fantastic cheese, Poilane bread. But what I need most is laundry detergent, and I stand for 15 minutes in front of the display, trying to figure out what product does what. No, that’s to get rid of calcium in the water, and that’s softener, and that’s for dishes. A man who works there gives me a hand with my choice, and I don’t feel quite so Parisienne. 
At home I call the Velib number and get the guy to explain it to me. Easy. Back I go, marching past the bewildered homeless man. And again – there is nowhere to unlock the bikes!! Am I blind? In despair I ask in a nearby computer store. Oh, it’s across the street, madame, he cries. So I go across the street, which happens to be in front of a cafe, where the patrons watch me walking up and down looking for something, anything, a clue. I go back to the computer store. No, not across that street – he comes to the door to point – way way on the other side of the avenue down there.
Aaah. I cross the avenue and find the post, MILES from the bikes I was looking at.  There’s a screen and you push buttons. But it’s incomprehensible – it keeps asking me for my subscriber number. I’m not a subscriber, I just want a bike for a day. Impossible. I am nearly in tears when a nice young man comes up to get a bike, and I beg him to take me through. He shows me the routine, and I can tell you, there is absolutely nothing simple about it. This button and that button and then the card goes here and then you answer questions by pressing more buttons, and then you get a card with a number on it and then you enter the number of the bike you want to take, and then – and then you’re done, you can unlock your bike. He shows me how. I want to hug him but he’s French. Mind you, even if he were Canadian, I might not hug a stranger, even such a kind and patient one – but certainly not a Frenchman.
I set off on my heavy, sturdy Velib. It’s mine for the day if I want. But now I realise I’ve planned the day badly – I’m on a great big bike, and I’m hungry. It has taken so long to do all this that now it’s lunchtime. I don’t want to figure out how to lock the bike up so I can have lunch, and anyway, I don’t want to tour Paris on my first day. I take a spin around the neighbourhood and for a bit am overjoyed – my new silk scarf is blowing in the breeze as I tool around. Here, a row of small, extremely old, beautiful houses, there an array of spring blooms – and now, yes, I am completely lost. My sense of direction is bad, true, but this city is so incredibly dense and confusing, such a tangle of little streets. I do find my way back along a big boulevard, and am relieved to return Bike #18 to its niche – under half an hour, so it’s free. Next time, I think I’ll be able to do it by myself, and I’ll plan it better.
I buy more groceries – soon Easter Sunday and Monday are coming and many shops are closed. There’s a – well, at home it would be a gourmet take-out place; here it’s just a butcher store with meat but also some wonderful stuff already prepared. I buy ratatouille again, cauliflower au gratin, and a pastry shell stuffed with something delicious.  But it’s a beautiful afternoon and instead of going home to cook, I find a small cafe on the Rue Mouffetard and sit watching the crowds and reading Edmund White’s The Flaneur, a stroll through the paradoxes of Paris, while eating my salad. No wine – without Madame Blin, it’s just not the same.
And then, one last purchase – I can’t resist some flowers. For only 10 Euros – around $16 – I assemble a giant bouquet. In fact, I got carried away – there aren’t enough vases here for so many flowers, so they’re stuffed in bottles all over the place.  
And soon I am going to see old friends for dinner. Their son was a toddler when I last saw him; now he’s a father in his late thirties with children of his own.  The family lives just outside of Paris. I will not be getting there by bicycle.
Sat by the window in the sun this afternoon, after all my adventures, finishing Wayson’s book. It’s exquisite, my friends – stunning, achingly beautiful.  I couldn’t wait to tell him so, so I called. There he was, on the other side of the world, this wonderful writer, mentor and man. The book is #9 on the Maclean’s bestseller list. 
“Keep yourself healthy,” I said to him, newly aware, after reading the book, of his fragility. 
“Do everything you want to do – enjoy everything,” he said to me.



2 Responses to “a pretty Good Friday”

  1. Hi Beth,
    I’m here in Paris too and have had similar experiences with Velib including almost being reduced to tears!
    I’m glad you figured it out though. I was told you needed a special credit card. Guess not?
    Anyway I hope you’re having a wonderful holiday. Sounds like things are looking up. Isn’t it just heaven?

  2. beth says:

    Claudia, thanks for writing. Yes, heaven. Could this day – Saturday – be any more perfect? I love the photographs on your website – you’ve shown me how to do it, with close-ups and detail, as I’ve been taking vast vistas – the Louvre from the other side of the river, which just looks like some long distant building with turrets.

    As for the Velibs, I have a Visa card with a chip and a PIN that I made sure to get because I’d heard that was what was needed. However, I also now have a transit pass good for the whole month, so I may simply stick to the bus and metro. Everyone’s out of bikes in the sun today, though – looks like fun. THEY obviously figured it out.


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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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