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Tales of a Confined Expat Biking Enthusiast

How this bike-loving American in Paris adapted to a year of stay-at-home orders

One of Carly's four city bikes, picking up bread from a Paris bakery.

The French Collective speaks with Carly N., an American expat in Paris who has called France home for almost twelve years. Carly came to France as a teaching assistant and then entered a Masters program before working full-time in the women’s rights sector.

As so many do, she fell in love with the city and, pre-COVID, could be seen at her favorite sidewalk cafe sipping a beer, in her beloved East Paris apartment reading books, or, most often, biking all over town. When the strict French confinement rules went into place, we couldn’t help but wonder… how was a biking enthusiast and regular weekend warrior dealing with stay-at-home orders? How had idyllic Parisian living changed in the face of a pandemic?

A simpler, maskless time

Carly, tell us your favorite things about the city. Favorite neighborhoods, things to eat and drink, whatever you like...

Oh, where to begin. This answer probably changes frequently, but since the pandemic and work-from-home orders, my rare commutes to work are a dream. Using protected bike lanes (thanks, Anne Hidalgo (note: mayor of Paris)) to ride along the Seine, passing Pont des Arts, the Louvre, Pont Neuf, Académie des Sciences, l'Église Saint Eustache... Bike riding - or strolling! - generally around the city with no real destination in mind. I would also recommend the quais of the Seine that are now totally shut off to cars.

More broadly, let's not lie, I'm a canal (Saint Martin et Ourcq) girl for life. Love La Villette and Buttes Chaumont - you gotta get that outdoor time any way you can! And the simple pleasure of a tradition baguette still warm from your neighborhood bakery...

And well, yes, of course the food more broadly. Confit de canard is high on my list, in a noisy, lively bistro with a bottle of red wine.

The craft beer scene has really ramped up since I've been here. If you're a beer lover, La Liquiderie Cave is one of my favorite places in the whole city. Such a wide variety of beer, really knowledgeable staff, and lots of local options.

Bopping around France

Tell us about your love of biking and the trails in Paris or France in general that you love to ride.

So, I bought my first bike in Paris in 2011 and have been bopping - primarily by bike - around the city ever since. And I just became increasingly interested in taking day trips, then weekend trips, then investing in better bikes so I could go further... I'm now the happy owner of four Paris-based bikes for all types of different occasions (commuting within Paris limits, long road rides on the weekends, and bike trips carting your tent, food, etc., with you).

In terms of favorite trails... That's a super tough question! My very favorites are all over France and part of trips I've taken. Example, this past summer going from Neussargues, south of Clermont Ferrand to Lacanau along the west coast, we passed through these beautiful highlands in the Massif Central, or along the coast of Brittany.

But there are also a ton of great trails to be had around Paris, too. Following the canal north out of Paris, for instance, to the Parc Forestier de la Poudrerie is probably the best way to get out of Paris on bike while avoiding the traffic. Or cycling to a nearby chateau like Sceaux (very accessible) or Chantilly (a little farther). For cycling enthusiasts who aren't afraid of long distances, the organization Classics Challenge has a ton of great day-trip traces you can follow... But they are on average around 160km.

And you can always hop on a TER or RER train to get back to Paris at the end of your day.

More COVID = Less Coastline Rides

All that you’ve described up until now sounds like heaven on earth. But then COVID happened. Can you describe what the start of confinement was like for you?

Extraordinarily strange experience. We went from whispers of next steps to full lockdown in a matter of hours. To leave your apartment, you needed an official document that you had to hand write at the time (they have digitized the form since,) and for only a select few reasons: one hour of exercise within one kilometer of your home, shopping for essential goods, etc...

They announced confinement for two weeks, but we ended up doing 50+ days.

Like everywhere, I think, we all of a sudden were busy with digital happy hours, taking yoga classes online, clapping at 8 PM for our medical workers... The charm of it all has worn off since...

It was difficult all over the world, but the attestation and staying within a kilometer of your home seems much more severe than what happened in the United States. How have you coped? What have been some of the bright spots this past year for you?

Coping mechanisms: meditation, journaling, yoga, and reading. I wanted to get an indoor trainer to hook up to my road bike to cycle. But they sold out quickly and were on backorder until the end of lockdown...

Bright spots: friends and family, for sure. With one of my closest friends who lives in New York, we've taken to having digital work dates basically daily. We connect on Zoom and it's like having a colleague with you that you can chat with when you need a little break from work, or just glance over and see them working which motivates you.

In California, we had a strange few months of social-distancing circles painted on the grass in parks, or Michelin-star restaurants building parklets on sidewalks and alleyways. What were some of the shocks or surprises along the way over there? In other words, what are strange COVID-centric events or facts that are central to Paris or France?

Well, the super-strict restrictions. Not being able to go further than 1 kilometer from your home during lockdowns was the biggest shock for me, I think. And having to write out a long one-page attestation each time you left your house.

Now, I'd say we remain shocked that France is still battling covid and we're in lockdown number 3 and the vaccine roll-out is so slow, particularly when we look at how the States are rolling out vaccines. I have multiple friends who are travelling home and plan to get vaccinated back in the States before coming back to France.

Have you been able to continue biking? What is your dream ride when this is all over?

Not during lockdown. However, I took two days off right at the end of the first lockdown to do long day-trips on my bike. And, during the first weekend of "freedom," I biked to Bonneil in the Champagne region with a few friends, ending in fields of champagne grapes - not half bad!

Longer term, I'm dreaming of biking to Fecamp for a weekend, Geneva to visit a friend, potentially over summer if things clear up, and Southern Denmark for a two-week trip!

What's your prediction for the year to come? Are you optimistic now that vaccines are being administered?

Oh man - well, seeing as France just announced a nation-wide four-week lockdown (and Paris has already been in lockdown for two weeks), and the 50-and-under crowd won't start getting vaccinated until mid-June at the earliest (according to Macron's latest speech), we're having a pretty hard time remaining optimistic on this side of the ocean! Most all work-related calls start with "Ça va? Ah oui, bof... ça devient vraiment long, n'est-ce pas ?"

A grateful Carly who still can't wait to get vaccinated and back on the road. On t'aime !

Any final thoughts or stories you'd like to share?

Globally, I think wherever you have spent this last year, it's been an absolutely crazy year. I feel really lucky that I have an apartment I love, a job that I can do on télétravail, and a good group of friends. However, I think one thing all expats have realized is that we're a bit more than "just a plane ride away" from our families. I've always taken for granted the fact that I can go home whenever I need to, if I need to. And this past year, I've been made acutely aware of the distance between myself and my family, which is a tough pill to swallow. And many expat friends are in the same boat. Eagerly, eagerly, eagerly awaiting the vaccine!


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