Thursday, May 14, 2009

Velib' and the Bike Lane Conundrum

Speaking of health and well being, I took another spin on Velib’ the other day. While bike lanes are still few and far between in Paris, there are more of them than before, and I thought why not take advantage of the ample bus lane configuration on Boulevard Montparnasse. I set out from Gobelins on a bus/bike lane that runs in two directions in a parallel universe on one side of Boulevard de Port Royal. It’s like a separate street with two-lane traffic that just happens to run right next to another one. At this point in my travels, the bus/bike lane was on the left (to me) side. Once I got over my disorientation, I was a happy camper, because there was barely any traffic and I felt relatively safe, even if I did have to look over my shoulder from time to time to see if a bus was creeping up on me.

Then, as I crossed Avenue Denfert Rocherau, I saw a labyrinth of markings on the pavement and suddenly the two-way bus/bike lane switched to the other side of the street! “This is too much for me,” I gasped, as I ducked over to the crosswalk and walked my bike across the street, as I tend to do when I lack the courage to cross interminable Parisian intersections with angry cars snorting on every side. As my heart rate returned to normal, I got back on my bike and continued down the bus/bike lane thinking that now the way was clear all the way to Montparnasse.

It was then that I came up on what my map tells me is Place Picasso, but my heart calls The Nightmare. This time, the markings on the road were clear: when the light changes, follow the white lines across the intersection and rejoin the bus lane on the other side. I looked over to the other side. It looked doable. It looked like a clear and simple procedure. It even seemed logical. So when the light changed, I crossed. I was the only bike on what felt like a freeway onramp, or a train turntable, or some other place where a bike just shouldn’t be. I pedaled across for what seemed like several kilometers, all alone, with about 14,000 cars staring me down from 12 different directions, all poised to come charging out of their starting blocks the second the light changed. What if I didn’t make it to the other side before that happened? “I’m going to die!” I shrieked as I crossed, my heart jumping into my throat, my body covered in a cold sweat.

To my amazement, I made it across. It took a good fifteen minutes for my heart to stop pounding. I know I’m a cowardly weenie, but could someone please build decent bike lanes in this city? Please? I understand that bus lanes make handy bike lanes too, but a bike is not a bus...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heathy Living

Now here’s an addendum for Michael Moore’s film, Sicko: I have a French friend who is very pregnant with her second child. Due to the configuration of her pelvis, her first delivery was by Cesarean. She was all prepared to have another Cesarean, but this time around, the midwives at the hospital are turning themselves inside out to get her to give birth “naturally.” Without her requesting it, she has been treated to acupuncture, homeopathy, and something called sophrology, a touchy feely technique which I had never heard of before I came to France. By the way, she is not paying a Euro cent for any of this. While I am marveling that she gets all this free alternative medicine without her even asking, she keeps telling me that she’d rather just have the Cesarean and be done with it.

I admit, I am a major fan of the French health system. As I have mentioned before, I had brain surgery here at one of the best hospitals in Europe, and the only bill I ever saw was for using the telephone. French doctors love me. "What? You only get 23 Euros for an appointment? You deserve more than that!" They don’t get to hear that very often. In fact, there are French people who complain that 23 Euros is too much. Never mind that those 23 Euros are reimbursed by Social Security, so they don't even really pay anything. True, there are plenty of specialists who cost a lot more, and not all of their fees are covered. But most employers offer supplemental health insurance, so in the end, almost everything is covered. Even when it's not, it's a fraction of what it would cost in the US. Naturally, the system is outrageously expensive for the government, so there is constant talk of reform and then shrieks of horror from those same French people who were complaining (grumbling is sort of a national pastime here). So things change at a snail's pace, and at every tiny change, people start to say that now France is on the slippery slope and soon the health system will be like that in America. When this happens, I say "relax, you have no idea how much your system will have to change to reach that point..."

That said, the current proposed reforms regarding hospitals make my hair stand on end. I keep thinking about what happened to American hospitals a decade or so ago when our brilliant bureaucrats decided that it would be just too cool to run the public hospitals like for-profit businesses. I believe that was the beginning of the end, or perhaps the beginning of a new era of hospitals that have so little regard for patients that you don’t dare stay in one without an advocate (family or friend) to fend for you.

In France, access to good health care is considered a right, right up there with Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. There was a mini revolution here in 1936, when social security was first established, along with paid vacations and retirement benefits. French people don’t consider themselves lucky to have a social security net, they feel they fought for it, and they deserve it. Maybe when we decide that we deserve it, it will happen in the US too.