Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 10 August 2008


(as I'm led to believe they say in France..)

I made it, and am happily installed in a flat near the Marché Secrétan and the Bassin de la Villette; but something must have made me uncharacteristically relaxed over the weekend - what my father's generation would have called "demob-happy". Where I would paranoically zip my passport and tickets into a pocket inside a pocket if I could, this morning I left them in the pocket of my jacket, which I ended up carrying - the next time I saw them, they were being quizzically picked up by someone at my local tube station. Then I discovered at the Gare du Nord that I had mislaid the piece of paper with all the instructions I had been given about the flat: fortunately, I had memorised the entry code to get into the building.

I arrived in time to find the local patissier open for a fancy cake to have with a cup of tea; once restored, I thought it time to work the cake off on a Vélib bike from the station at the end of the street (if you're going to play in the Parisian traffic, better a Sunday evening than a Monday morning). I had a number of false starts, first on understanding the instructions to create my acoount ID and entering credit card details (each step means using the green V button, meaning Valider: button A doesn't mean Accepter, it means Annuler - the red colour should have given it away), and then when I discovered (after coasting down a slope) that the bike's gears weren't engaging. But within a few minutes I was off.

How nice to have a gentle Sunday evening ride along the Canal St Martin, I thought; but then I discovered some drawbacks. If you don't know the streets, you can be constantly surprised by the one-way systems; and who needs a Power Plate when you can bounce over cobbled pavé (of which there remains more than I had imagined). Plus, of course there's the universal law that all flat roads, when cycled on, actually go uphill, whichever direction you're cycling in. And at the end of the journey, there's the need to find a Vélib station to return the bike. Regular commuters would soon work it out, of course; but it can be a problem for casual visitors like me, and the couple who stopped me barely five minutes into my first ride (somehow other tourists seem to think I'm an authoritative native of all sorts of places, though locals invariably suss me out at first glance). It takes a bit of online route planning.

That photo, by the way, isn't mine, nor the bike I hired. I have scrupulously collected my receipts to prove I put it back (they're not claiming that €150 deposit on my credit card). What happens is that you slot the machine back into a vacant holding post (ensure it beeps and the light turns [edited: yellow, then green]), type your ID code into the control post and collect the receipt, which confirms where and when you collected and returned the bike. I was surprised to find it had given me the 30 minutes exercise that we're enjoined to do each day (and more): which is, I suppose, partly the point.

Fashion note: Gentlemen of a certain age who wish to protect their trouser legs from the unguarded chain should realise that it is not a particularly successful "look" to spend most of the rest of the evening wandering the streets with one trouser-leg tucked into a sock. Trust me.

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