Amuse-Bouche No. 6: Pourquoi Faire Simple?by Julia FreyTaking the Vélib’ for a spin.Grève générale des métros! It’s the biggest Paris transit strike in 10 years. Perfect time to try out the Vélib’. I’ve never used it before, so I’d better démarrer sur les chapeaux de roue (“take off on the hubcaps,” i.e., at full speed). I go down early.7H02—There’s already a line. The (almost) free bike rental system inaugurated in major French cities in recent years is a victim of its own success. In the first 6 months after it opened in Paris in July, 2007, des Vélibiens (Vélibistes? Vélib’eurs?), rented bikes 6 million times and rode 7.5 million miles. Elegantly gris souris (mouse-gray), a Vélib’ (its name combining “vélo” [bike] and “liberté,” with an apostrophe replacing the last syllables) has a kickstand, headlight, basket and lock. Les bobos (bohémiens-bourgeois) are detaching from their cars, becoming “des drogués des déplacements doux” (addicted to soft—i.e., environmentally friendly—transportation). “Vous vélibez?” There’s a website vélibataire (Vélib’ + célibataire: single) for vélibats. Vélib’ for romance: It’s la vélorution! But a Vélib’ is not biplace (tandem), donc pas top pour la drague (not ideal for pickups).7H15—Finally, I’m at the head of the line. One bike left! Should I buy a pass for a day or a week? With a one-day pass (€1), I can make as many 30-minute trips as I want within 24 hours. The first half-hour of every jaunt you take that day is free. If your trip lasts longer, costs spiral geometrically: €1 for minutes 31–60, €2 for another 30 minutes and €4 for each subsequent half-hour. Careful. Twenty hours costs €151. Not to mention the €150 credit card deposit against theft or loss. People without bank cards are out of luck.7H20: So are les Amerloques! It won’t take my card. The man in line behind me asks “Your carte doesn’t have une puce?” Quoi? My card needs a flea? The puce, a computer chip embedded in European bank cards, triggers a release mechanism in the borne (kiosk). No puce, no Vélib’. Obviously le système has a few couacs (literally, “quacks,” i.e., glitches). Head back upstairs, come down with husband’s European credit card.7H35: “My” bike is long gone, but luckily two more bikes have been turned in at the rack. I wait in line again, buy pass with French card, type in number of a Vélib’ s parking slot on keypad at the rack’s computer terminal. Ouh là là! (Uh-oh!) Typo! There isn’t any Vélib’ in that slot. Nonetheless, la location est prise en compte (the rental is recorded) and now I have to return a bike that I don’t have. I feel like a locdus (boob).I decide to call la hotline on my portable (cell phone). After five tries, two unexplained hang-ups and 10 minutes of being on hold, I am told that 1) my borne doesn’t exist, and 2) my account can’t be traced because the server is down. Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué? (Why make it easy when you can make it complicated?) After 20 minutes they unblock my account number.8H20: One bike left. I have 60 seconds to push a button to free the bike. Before I can figure out how to get it out of the stand, my Vélib’ is bloqué. That means I can’t take out a bike again for five minutes. C’est lourd (frustrating). Wait. Try again. Merde! (mild obscenity). Flat tire.8H32 The borne informs me there’s a station with bikes a 20-minute walk away. I race over.8H52: Génial! (great). Two bikes are disponibles (available). I liberate the closest one…but it won’t move. Some person or persons unknown have chained it to be sure to have a Vélib’ when they want one. I consider rubbing my chewing gum into their lock’s keyhole.9H01 Enfin! (At last!) On bike, struggling up hill. Vélib’ is solide: 22 kilos. But traffic in Paris actually seems less dense since the bikes are available. I wonder if it’s true. As I head downhill, I’m getting into this, the wind in my hair, skirt flapping.9H25 Oups! Now I’m en retard (late). I grille un feu (“broil” [run] a red light). Getting caught would cost €200. Manage to park the bike in a borne and dash to my meeting. Ouf! (Whew!) They're starting late because of the transit strike.16H (4 pm.) Learn the strike’s been extended…indefinitely. Why didn’t I go for that one-week pass?© Julia Frey 2009
E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of New York in French to add comments!

Join New York in French


  • Bet you're right, Robert. Le Monde's recent article (see below) on the "revenge" factor in vandalizing Vélibs probably won't apply in NY either, as Americans don't do the same kind of class battle. Anybody who steals a bike in NY either needs it or needs the money... They don't just dump it in the Hudson to get even with the poor sucker who might actually want to rent it.
  • Interesting article on the bicycle system. I somehow doubt that if the City of New York adopts a similar system as Mayor Bloomberg has suggested, that there will be discrimination against French credit cards.
  • Hi Irwin! I've noticed that people are much more interested in bicycles than in any other topic I write about. The most recent reaction to this one is in the NY-Paris group: where Alan Sommerman cites a reference to an article in Le Monde about vandalized vélib's.

    Once I got FOUR letters correcting a misinterpretation I made of one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's posters. The writers were shocked that I didn't know that in 1896 bike racers sometimes did time trials while riding in the slipstream of five-person bicycles! BTW if anyone can tell me what a five-man bike is called in either French or English, I'd love to know.
  • Thanks for your article. My wife and I just returned from a week in Paris which included several Velib test rides of our own. True, there are some problems with the Velib system -- a shortage of "parking places" in many areas, depending on the time and the weather, and reportedly lots of vandalism and theft -- but otherwise, what a dream of a system!! Moreover, the Paris authorities have done more than just provide bicycles, having also greatly improved the city's network of bike paths and signage, so you can easily navigate from one quartier to the next without constantly having to consult a map. Bravo!
  • Hi Anne,

    Just started a thread to find translations for "klutz" on: You can trace thread's progress by searching the word on the site. It's a great site for people who love words, and I usually can find somebody willing to explain something I don't get. I recommend it.
  • Merci!

    Encore vous m'avez fait rigoler en lisant un conte sur la France. Ca me donne l'impression d'y etre, dans les rues de Paris; ca pourrait etre moi, le "klutz" (comment est-ce qu'on dit klutz en francais?) pour qui rien ne marche comme il faut.

    I treasure your petites histoires sur la vie quotidienne, which bring real life to my --and soon my students'--understanding of what it is live in France.

    All laughing aside, though, what a wonderful program the Velolib' is-- very green, healthy, and ...tres commode! (well, most of the time).
  • Cet article a pour but d'abord d'être amusant, de commenter la langue française, et en l'occurrence de parler des couacs qui existent avec le Vélib'. Mais pour être clair, j'adore le vélib'. Une fois qu'on apprend le système, cela est très efficace et nous rend la vie plus facile. N'hésitez pas à vous en servir!
  • Great story Julia. This made me want to post my article on the Vélib. thanks. Nathalie
  • Il y avait un article sur les "Vélibs'" dans le New York Times il y a peut-être deux ans, mais ils en ont parlé plus favorablement. Mes étudiants ont eu un autre version que le vôtre !!
This reply was deleted.

Visit our bookstore

Visit our store

Learn French