Dreaming of Paris Bicycles

As I write this, it is minus 23 Celsius outside, even worse with the wind chill. Earlier this week, when I took a walk beside Lake Ontario, the wind roared across the treacherously slippery boardwalk and cut through my coat; today when I go for a walk, I will wear two coats.

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The homeless have wisely abandoned the streets for emergency shelters. Snow blocks the garage door and my bicycle is imprisoned. I daydream of Paris: bicycles, colour, and warmth.

Paris is the place to see unusual bicycles, like the one below. Yes, it might look a bit peculiar, but only because the wheel has been turned around; the forks and the modest handlebar should be facing forward.

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It seems forever since we lingered at a café and let the sunshine revive us as we idly commented on an unusual bicycle or whatever else caught our attention.

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Not all art has to be mechanically sound. But an attached rear brake cable might be advisable here if the bicycle is to be used for travelling, that is.

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As with cars, some neighbourhoods are better than others for spotting upscale machines. Is it the aggressive riding stance? The flat black paint? The carbon fibre forks? Do the gold-plated hubs really make it go faster? This is not everyday Paris.

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Nor is this colourful bicycle typical; I smiled when I saw it a few days before Christmas several years ago .

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If one seeks the everyday, nothing says it better or more often than the famous rental bikes, the Vélibs.

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Neatly parked, they frame everyday activities.

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You don’t have to go anywhere to make use of the Vélibs. Sit down, make yourself comfortable, catch up on your e-mail, have a smoke, take it easy.

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Vélibs are also fun to ride. A couple of years ago, during a June visit, we noticed  a charity bike ride on the Champs Elysées on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, we decided to join in. We were given a choice of three charities and decided to do our ten laps each for La Fondation du Patrimoine en Ile-de-France.

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It was a glorious event. Afterwards we stopped to listen to a band that was there to motivate the cyclists. What better way to transport a keyboard and sound equipment? There was also a drum on wheels.

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The Bassin de l’Arsenal is one of my favourite hangouts. One goes there for the boats and barges, but there are also bicycles. As this English canal barge proceeded through the locks towards the Seine, I chatted with the owner.

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We’ve seen many boats with bicycles aboard. Bikes and boats go together as do bikes and Paris: neither has a lot of space to spare.

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I never weary of the range of bicycle forms, colour schemes, and accessories. Consider the great variety in panniers or saddlebags.

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When you start to look for bicycles, you see them everywhere. Yes, some stick out, but others blend into the landscape as if waiting for someone to discover them. They lure us in.

Some invite into intriguing places we want to explore.

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Step off the street and into a courtyard and you are sure to find more bicycles.

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Two very common sights: a painted sign invoking the law of 1881 forbidding people from posting signs and a bicycle idly standing by.

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On the day we celebrated Philippa’s birthday, we walked through a formal garden where a bicycle waited quietly for someone to return.

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One day, we wandered into the Observatoire to see an exhibit. It was stunning and the building itself is an exhibit of another sort; we walked through impressive spaces, up and down time-worn stone stairs. And as I peered through a window, I spotted a bicycle, probably belonging to an employee.

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These bicycles probably belong to staff members at the 1728 restaurant on the rue d’Anjou.

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Sometimes one finds the whimsical.

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Or secret messages.

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But even in Paris, time takes its toll.

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Sometimes it snows on the bicycles of Paris, but not very often.

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Sometimes Paris is where we are lucky enough to go. Other times, Paris is what we dream about. Today is for dreaming.

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One day, when it warms up, I will buy some flowers to carry home on my bicycle.

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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21 Responses to Dreaming of Paris Bicycles

  1. Teresa Elwert says:

    Such a delightful post. You clearly have an eye for the visual — and have, I assume, a good photo tagging system that allows you to pull up all the bikes you’ve photographed. I wish I could share the photo of a row of all-pink bikes I took back in 2008 in the 10th arrondissement.

    • Thank you for your kind comments Teresa. I enjoy looking at things and try to take the time to keep looking until I see things I had not noticed initially. Sometimes I move about a bit until I find a way to capture what my eye and mind saw but my camera failed to find until I have given us more time.
      However, I must disappoint you regarding my tagging system to keep track of all my photos. I don’t really have one. I have about 20,000 digital images that I have downloaded to iPhoto. These images cover more than Paris. The software gives me dates and I have a notebook with dates of Paris trips. The software allows me to create and name Albums and this is as close as I get to a system, or more correctly a semi-system.
      I have many Paris Albums and the title of each reflects something I though was interesting and potentially a subject for writing about. It also tells me how many images there are in each album by putting the number in ( ). Here are titles of some of albums I have created and to which I drag and drop images: Paris, bicycles (180); Paris, Michael Caine (34); Paris, Parc Buttes Chaumont (13); Paris, Cracks in walls (28); Paris, Haüy, June 10, 2014 (129); and 4 albums of Paris, Reflections depending on whether they be from mirrors, windows, water or other.
      I can never count on the albums to be up-to-date. First, I don’t get around to analyzing the photos I download after coming back from Paris. Perhaps, more important albums are created whenever I get an idea for something I might want to write about. I create an album, put the images that helped create the idea in it but don’t go through all 20,000 or so to look for whatever else might fit. In a case such as this I will go through later looking for relevant images and sometimes also go to other non-copyrighted images sources for which I always give credit.
      Oftentimes I will not notice details in a photo until I have downloaded it and looked at it on one of the luxuries in my life, namely a 21-inch computer screen. Similarly I might not notice certain details until I am looking for them.
      My system might sound like quite a bit of work and I guess it is. However, it has the distinct advantage that it brings me back to images that I look at with fresh eyes. For example, there are photos I took before I ever thought I would want to write about cracks in Paris walls. After I got the idea–it came to me at a civil engineering conference where I talked to a representative from a company that makes sensors used to check on movements of the Eiffel Tower–I created an album, took some photos on subsequent visits to Paris and one day I will look for other photos I already have. I never go through the collection in search of one subject area, always more, say about three or four.
      I have never sought out a one-time-does-it-all tagging system because I don’t really believe in them. I have spent much of my life doing historical research from original sources. What I see at one reading of a document might be quite different from what someone else might consider important. And then if I read it at a later date, or with something else in mind, I will see things I haven’t seen before. There is often a problem when we take our own word, or that of someone else, regarding “what it there” because “what is there” often depends on what you are looking for. I get much pleasure, as well as use, from my Paris photographs. I keep going back for more, because I firmly believe there is too much there to capture and any one photo probably contains more than we can appreciate at any one viewing. I keep going back to both Paris and my photos because each time I see something I had not seen before because “what is there” keeps changing.
      I also have to admit I am a bit sloppy and disorganized. I believe in organization and neatness (well, up to a point) but often can’t quite figure out how to do it. And whenever I get organized it seems I can’t find stuff.
      Now, about the pink bikes. I sure would like to see that photo.

  2. I’ve never read such a lovely article about bicycles!

    • Thank you very much. Bicycles are one of the many things I have enjoyed looking at and photographing in Paris. It is such a rich urban environment that it needs to be shared and I am delighted you joined me in appreciating the bicycles of Paris.

  3. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    It is very important to keep private cars out of big, crowded cities so yes, the bike is a brilliant solution. So are trams. In fact anything that doesn’t spew petrol fumes.

    When you went to the Observatoire you saw the VERY impressive spaces via old stone stairs. So what did you think about the bike amongst all that lush greenery? Out of place.. nothing should disturb nature blooming? Or appropriate, small scale, clean and evocative of rural life?

    • The bicycle seemed to be perfectly in place. The immediate environment was very urban with cobble stones and structural stone. We assumed it belonged to an employee who rode it through traffic to work every day.
      We have walked past the Observatoire many times and visited it a few times. The Observatoire and its grounds seemed to be quite at home in Paris. We have often marvelled at, and enjoyed, the many green areas in Paris. They vary in size, are generally man-made, but they fit and are an important part of the daily lives of Parisians as well as its visitors. To me the parks and green spaces of Paris are about making urban life enjoyable and healthier rather than being evocations of rural life; they might have started as such evocations but they now serve different and valuable functions that contribute to and validate urban life as worthwhile.

  4. Susan Walter says:

    Super post, I really enjoyed it. We’ve just come back from Paris, and if it makes you feel any better we caught a few flocons coming out of Les Invalides, but they didn’t stick.

    I thought the idea was to make your very expensive bike look as crappy as possible with electricians tape wound round everything and distressed accessories, so that it wouldn’t get stolen? That black bike is unusually ostentatious.

    And many thanks for supporting the Fondation du Patrimoine. They are a fantastic organisation and helping us put together a project to save some rare wall paintings in a 15th century chapel at risk in our village.

    • Thank you very much Susan. It seemed to us that the Fondation du Patrimoine did good things and I am glad to have your confirmation. I hope things will work out well with the rare wall paintings in your village.
      Ah yes, the question of to disguise or not to disguise expensive bikes? I think it is a complex issue depending in part on personality, circumstances and the role of the bike in your life. In Toronto most of the disguised/taped bicycles I have seen belong to bike couriers. These are generally people who do not have a lot of spare cash but need the bicycle to earn a living. It makes sense to get as good a bicycle as possible but also to do what one can to keep it in your hands and not the hands of thieves.
      I often see expensive bicycles, not disguised at all, and driven by people whose accessories alone cost more than many bicycles. I often see these bikes and their riders on the weekends. The cyclists are often skillful riders but the bicycle is for recreation or fitness and is not a tool of their trade. These bicycles are carefully tended points of pride and to disguise it would diminish the pride of ownership. But the lack of a disguise poses security risks. The flat black bicycle I photographed was securely locked to a pole and was visible from the tables inside the little bakery and café.
      We live half a block from a beach and I see something similar with the motorcycles that line up in front of coffee shops and restaurants. These motorcycles with their acres of gleaming chrome are spotlessly clean and the riders generally wear the most exquisite leathers with nary a scratch of scrape on them.

  5. Ana says:

    As always, I enjoyed the way you bring to light some of the quirkiness and beauty of Paris. And the fun. Last June my son and I enjoyed riding the Vélibs on the Champs Élysées for the charity run. That was my one chance to try out the bikes; I had gone to Paris for a few weeks armed with a book on bike routes but found the traffic daunting and decided to stick to buses and walking. I gave the book to my much younger landlord.

  6. victualling says:

    I love your bicycle ramble!

  7. Richard Ewen says:

    You two true Paris lovers have hit on the head what Paris ( and its bikes ) do to people. Paris is to visit as often as possible and when not possible – it is for dreaming.

  8. Oh, thank you for keeping the dream alive. I just visited the Cluny, via memory and imagination, wanting to channel some Paris my way, but your extended bicycle post is much more satisfactory. Can’t wait ’til May for my next hit of the real thing!

  9. Paris and bicycles… two of my specialties! 😉

  10. Meg Morden says:

    Oh Norman what a delightful post! I loved all the wonderful visuals. It makes me want to jump on a bike (oh right plane) and go to Paris right now!

  11. Vagabonde says:

    You did get many types of bicycles in Paris – but you did not get mine. My red bicycle was given to me as a child, but my father did not want me to ride it in the streets of Paris. Then, when I was a teenager my father gave me a “Velo Solex” which was a French bicycle with a motor – so nice! I think I wrote a post on both. Nowadays velo Solex are collector’s items so you don’t find them often in Paris.

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