Sunday, August 26, 2007

Second Wind

Who would have thought that I would ever get into aerobic exercise? I remember back in high school there was a 600-yard walk/run. What torture that was for the couch potato I was then! I was almost dead by the time we arrived at the finish line. France has changed all that. Or rather, being unemployed in France has changed all that. When I arrived in France I had a job. Now I have a job. In between I was unemployed ("en chomage"). Which is a bummer. Maybe that is why the French government gives unemployed people ("chomeurs") bunches of benefits. (Sometimes you wonder if maybe you should stay unemployed to keep up all the benefits – but no, no! Don't listen to me. I'm still a good American who works, works, works). These include free admittance to most museums. And free entry to all the municipal swimming pools of Paris! For awhile, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to try it. I got hooked on lap swimming.

Even now that I'm working again, I still go to the pool and swim for 30 minutes without stopping. When I begin the laps, I can swim about six strokes without breathing. Then it hits - heavy breathing, or having to breathe with each stroke. Then, breathing every other stroke. Finally, after about 20 to 25 minutes I get into what I call "second wind". My breathing slows down; I feel really centered; and I go even faster than before. Wow! I think of it as a reward for busting my gut and suffering. Justice! Long live second wind. If you'd like to find out more about swimming in Paris, take a look at my E-Book, "Life in Paris: The Real Thing".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Riding a Bike in Paris

I have just returned from riding my bike, and once again I thank my lucky stars that I am still alive. Riding a bike in Paris ain't for sissies. BB (Before Bike), I dreamed of floating along Parisian streets as I once did on the bike paths along the beach in Santa Monica and Venice, CA. About two years ago I got lucky, and a friend of mine actually gave me a mountain bike that had been used by one of his sons, now gone to university. "It just needs a bit of touching up" he said. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a whole series of challenges and obstacles to overcome in my life.

The first challenge was getting the bike from my friend's place to mine. He lives in the suburbs of Paris, about 45 minutes from the center by intra-city train. So, I took the train from the nearest train station back to Paris. The cars are pretty big, so getting a bike onto one wasn't a problem. I don't even remember how I got through the turnstiles, but obviously somehow I did. And managed to ride the bike home. This was my first introduction to riding a bike in the city. It was awful. Really awful. When there's no bike lane, the streets are often really narrow. This does not stop Parisian cars from winging by you with about 5 centimeters to spare (I may be exaggerating a bit here, but not much). And whoever designed the one-way street system should be time traveled back to 1789 and guillotined. You will often find yourself trying to turn off a main street to the right, and every street you cross is one-way to the left! Or you're going along peacefully, when suddenly your street becomes one way in the opposite direction!

I have finally discovered the way to go. Take major roads where the bus lane is also a bike lane. This is especially good when you're in a poorer part of Paris (which is where I am) because there won't be many busses to crush you along the bike path.

Since California (c. 15 years ago), I literally hadn't ridden a bike. "Just like riding a bike," they say. "Yeah, right."

First I had to replace both tires, and add a rear light. I figured that the best store for all that was Decathlon, a major sporting goods chain in France where in the past I've found great sports clothes. One of the first things I bought was a helmet, strictly for safety reasons. Unfortunately, the helmet makes me look like a "real biker", which I am not! Amazingly, most Parisians do not wear a helmet, so I really stand out. What I really need is a banner (in French) saying something to the effect of "I am wearing a helmet for safety reasons only. Do not be surprised if I go very slowly and I stop at red lights, since I'm not at all sure what I'm doing. Do not expect more of me."

I have to admit that gradually I am getting more comfortable on my bike. And I'm really luck that my apartment building has a "locaux des velos" which is an entire room on the ground floor to store bikes in bike racks. All you have to do is get a key made by the guardien and you're "in". Of course, nobody will tell you this outright. You have to know, as you do for most things in France.

I have also discovered a better place to repair and upkeep my bike. Fairly near my place is "Oh Velos" – a one-man bike repair stop. The guy who runs it is really good, really French (if he's in a bad mood, he doesn’t hide it), and totally obsessive about one thing: YOU MAY NOT KEEP YOUR BIKE THERE OVERNIGHT. Forbidden. Nada. Interdit. But I can live with that. I just had him replace the rear inner tube because there was a leak. There's now a slight difference that makes all the difference. The drag is gone. I'm free. I can now peddle at medium speed instead of dragging behind everyone. I'm getting more comfortable gliding in and out of traffic. I'm sticking to those bus-bike paths where I feel a bit less threatened. So, it's better. I'm biking in Paris.