Scooting through Paris

What is your Paris? Beauty, colour, art, elegance, fashion, intrigue, rich and varied history? Or work? Think of the great Paris photos and novels about working people. My Paris is often mirrored or expressed in the scooters buzzing about Paris.

Paris and elegance are long-time dance partners. My memories of that dance include the sight of a simple baguette wrapped in a scarf of paper, the Passerelle Leopold-Sédar-Sénghar (usually called by its predecessor’s name Passerelle Solférino, and a favourite bridge of mine), every passing Citroen 2CV, unattainable lithographs in small galleries, or the seemingly infinite number of stunning building details that prolong the walks Philippa and I never seem to finish.

I cannot define elegance in the abstract. However, I find it where the purpose or intent—or even mood—of the object matches the design and setting with no superfluity, where nothing could be taken away without loss. Elegance can spring from the juxtaposition of elements.

Individually, I had admired each of the key elements in the photo above: the semi-enclosed red BMW scooter parked in the street and the wrought iron gates in a stone archway that opened into an enticing courtyard. One day the scooter was positioned just in front of the archway. Something new had been created. A slice of Parisian elegance. Thank you.

Let me admit two biases. If it has a motor and wheels, it gets my attention. And if it is red or yellow, so much the better. On an August afternoon, we were wandering in a somewhat familiar area. Colours became bolder as the sunlight grew more intense, shadows became more intriguing. What was behind the drawn shutters? Who would answer the door intercom?

My reveries were broken when a young student—or artist?—and his girlfriend buzzed up on a Vespa, parked it, dismounted, and departed, leaving it just as you see above. The casual addition of one colourful Vespa made a visually captivating bit of Paris remarkably more complete. (Click here for an introduction to Vespa history.)

The Piaggio company was founded in 1894, but after the Second World War, Enrico Piaggio recognized Europe’s need for low-cost personal transportation. Enrico turned to aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio. D’Ascanio disliked conventional motorcycles because they were uncomfortable, bulky, dirty, and hard to maintain, and they left the dishevelled-looking driver unprotected from the wind.

Ascanio’s brilliant design was more influenced by airplanes than motorcycles. Enrico called it a Vespa (Italian for wasp) because of its narrow-waisted design, but Vespas also sound like wasps.

Now back to Paris which, in addition to galleries and museums, is well supplied with artists and art students. Who else would have plucked one of Raphael’s cherubs from a perch at the bottom of his Sistine Madonna and transplanted it to the front of a Piaggio scooter? Did I assume it was an art student because I was in Paris? Perhaps. Or was it because I expect artists to help us see the familiar in new ways? Whoever it was, I now see both Vespas and Raphael’s Sistine Madonna differently.

Was it an art student who customized this Vespa? The generous application of what appears to be camouflage-pattern duct tape leaves two distinctive features visible: the chrome frame of the protective front panel and the distinctive logo. On the rear fender the bright tail light assembly is treated equally respectfully and the “Make Love Not War” decal is properly centred. Nicely done.

In Paris – and in many other cities outside North America – scooters are basic daily transportation. They are not simply fairweather friends, fashion statements, or cries for attention from the suddenly single or visibly aging. Scooters get many Parisians to and from work year-round. The image below shows one of the ways scooters are made to work in cold or wet weather.

Here we see a windscreen, attached gauntlets to give access to hand controls as well as blanket-like lower body protection. In the following image we have moved slightly upscale financially and have even more protection. There is a wraparound windscreen that culminates in a removable top and the hand and lower body protection is more complete.

Naturally one dresses for the weather and it is not unusual to watch an office worker come out of the office wearing suit, tie and overcoat, step out of that cocoon and put on a different outfit for the road. Then there are those for whom the scooter is the workplace.

I come from a city where take-out food is generally delivered in beat-up cars with fewer markings than undercover police cruisers. I am intrigued by Paris’s delivery scooters. I love seeing scooters bearing specially made insulated boxes proudly proclaiming the culinary delights speeding through the streets.

Of all the fleets of pizza scooters, Speed Rabbit is my favourite, even though I have never tasted their pizzas. Yes, I like the yellow colour, but the name is just too perfect. Where did it come from? What do rabbits have to do with pizza? Then again, who cares?

Outside the shop for “Atlas Couscous: Gastronomie Marocaine” I saw another fleet, poised for action.

I could go on and on. Perhaps I will…some other time.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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