Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Paris Reading Underground

I have been advised that spending too much time working at home is becoming dangerous to my mental health, so I’ve made an effort to get out and about more. So the other day I decided the time had come to finally do something about the pile of books that has been sitting next to my bed for about a year, and go to one of those places in Paris that buys used English-language reading matter.

There is a lively trade in English-language books here that sometimes resembles a smuggling network. It works something like this: you meet someone who is an English native speaker who lives in Paris. You work the conversation around to books, and how expensive new English language ones are here and how you should have stocked up last time you were in Chicago. The other person’s eyes narrow slightly. They say: “I’ve got books.”

“You’ve got books?” you reply, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Yeah, I’ve got a whole stack of them that I’m trying to get rid of.”

“Really?” You take a sip of your coffee and look out into the traffic. “Hmm…I’ve got some too.”

Your companion lower’s his voice and looks at you significantly. “We could exchange some…if you want.”

“What have you got?”

“Oh, a few thrillers, some mysteries…”

“Oh,” you say, and stir your demi-tasse.

“…and the new Paul Auster, a Zadie Smith, and some David Sedaris…”

Your heart starts to pound. “OK, when do we meet?”

“Here’s my card. Bring a sturdy backpack.”

Or you can just take your books to the San Francisco Book Company. This used bookstore deals exclusively in English-language books. There is wheeling and dealing here too. First the dour bookseller will assess your cache and pick out which ones he wants (in general, surprisingly few). Then he will offer you a minimal amount of cash, or twice as much in exchange, i.e., you can pick books from the store. You start to drool, because the store is full of great used books. Until you look at the prices, which are much higher than you would have imagined for a used book. You start to balk, until you remember that you are overseas and they’ve got you over a barrel because English-language books cost a fortune in the stores and even on Amazon you’ll have to deal with hefty postage. And besides, you are a die-hard, someone who does not want to Search Inside! on a computer screen, no, you are someone who wants physical contact with their prospective read.

So you are stuck. You find yourself paying nine euros for a dog-eared copy of a New York Times best seller. At those prices, I’m not sure why the booksellers are so dour. And they are very dour. Expat anglophone sellers of English-language books tend to be even more dour than Parisians. I’m not sure if it’s because Literature Is Serious Business, or if it’s because they are permanently disappointed that Paris is no longer the city of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Either way, it’s a challenge to get a smile out them.

Just down from San Francisco, there is very similar store, called Berkeley Books. Clearly there is some sort of connection, though the owners claim they are not affiliated. Perhaps there is some sort of Bay Area association. Maybe soon we will see the opening of Emeryville Books, or The Cupertino Reading Room all within a six-block radius of the Odéon metro station. It could happen. Anything is possible when it comes to the Paris Reading Underground.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Velib' Update

I’m hardly a Velib’ expert. Living in the burbs, I don’t get to use Paris’ way-cool rent-a-bike program as often as I’d like. There are thousands of Parisians out there who have thoroughly integrated Velib’ into their lives and can test tire pressure, adjust the seat, check out their bike and sail into traffic while I am still pulling my Velib’ card out of my wallet. That said, I’ve gotten used to the system and it seems way less baffling than before.

And less scary. As time has passed, I have been forced to acknowledge that despite the psychotic look of Parisian traffic, you don’t see cyclists being bumped off at every corner, nor is there a steady stream of ambulances rushing mangled Velib-ists to city hospitals. Of course, there are plenty of accidents, and you should worry, but you should also know that there are a lot of cyclists doing dumb things on their bikes, too.

I think it was my old roommate who finally made me see the folly of my ways. She thinks nothing of sailing out into the middle of place de la Bastille on two wheels. In fact, she does it almost every day. Since she has to eventually turn left, she actually gets herself into the center of it, near the mighty column that celebrates Les Trois Glorieuses (that’s the revolution of 1830, by the way, one of the several other revolutions that Paris witnessed on the rocky road to becoming a republic). “Are you nuts?” I asked, dumbfounded. The traffic that careens around the place de la Bastille is so bad I won’t even go near it in a car. Imagine a giant roundabout the size of a (round) football field with cars whizzing around at the speed of light.

That said, I am forced to admit that cars get around it without pile ups every five minutes. Maybe there is some kindly god like the winged Spirit of Liberty on top of the column that hovers over the place de la Bastille and protects drivers and cyclists from the law of probability. My roommate responded that she gets around just fine, and that car drivers are much more aware of cyclists these days. I decided it was time to stop worrying so much and start appreciating the joys of Paris on two wheels.

Besides, it’s my civic duty. If cyclists don’t take to the streets in numbers, Paris will never complete the transition to becoming a bike-friendly city. And perhaps it is fitting that the bicycle revolution should take on the place de la Bastille, birthplace of the first French Revolution. Aux armes, citoyens! Though I still won’t ride through it like my roommate. I’m not crazy. I wear a helmet.