Letter to the Editor, “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality” (Oct. 31, 2009)

Regarding: The New York Times, October 31, 2009, “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality

Dear Editor,

As an American who has recently returned from living in France, I definitely agree that France’s Vélib program has been fraught with problems. However, this in not the case in Lyon, where my wife and I lived earlier this year. In fact, France’s second city — which was the first French city to start a bike-sharing program (“Vélo’v“), two years before Paris — has had no such problems. But it seems to me that either a combination of lack of enforcement, Parisians’ character, and/or significantly larger size of their program must have something to do with their propensity to damage the bikes. Without trying to sound haughty, in Lyon, I never observed vandalism with the Vélo’v system — and I used it frequently! — anywhere close to the scale of the described problems with Vélib. With public bike sharing starting to come to North America (Montreal, Washington, D.C., San Francisco) I hope that North American cities like are not scared off by this story of vandalism and instead look to other European cities where such a program does work well.

Sincerely,

Cyrus Farivar
Oakland, Calif.

Adieu, Lyon!

Well, our seven-month contract here in Lyon has finally come to a close. We’ve had ups and downs, like with anything — but overall, Becky and I agree that we’ve had a fantastic time. We’ve made some wonderful friends, and have had a chance to experience a taste of French and European life.

Things I’ll miss about Lyon:

1) People!

Big thanks go out to Wolf, Rebecca, Romix, Lucy, Loïc, Brad, Nicole, Birgit, Clément, Didier, and many others who made our time here unforgettable. We can’t wait to see you guys again soon!

2) Size!

Lyon has the trappings of a big city, but in reality it’s not that big. Wikipedia will tell you that the city itself has a population of under 500,000 — and yet’s it’s the second (or third, depending who you ask) biggest city in France. What that means is I can bike from our suburb of Villeurbanne to downtown Lyon (around five kilometers) in 20-30 minutes or so. It makes the city very livable.

3) Beauty!

Those Romans were some smart dudes. In addition to building lots of awesome stuff all over the place, the Romans were smart enough to found Lugdunum, the city that we now call Lyon. It’s famous for being the place where the Rhône and the Saône intersect. It’s got hills and flatland and everything you could possibly want.

4) Markets! (and Food!)

Back in January I made a Google Map of the street markets of Lyon and Villeurbanne. I couldn’t possibly have hit all of them — the best ones were the ones that I just happened to stumble on at the right time. Definitely though, Croix-Rousse takes the cake. We’ve done our best to sample the local food, from high-brow bouchons, to the low-brow kebab place called “Casa di Tacos.” Not to mention delicious bread and pastries on nearly every corner. Our favorite bakery in town is on the corner of Cours Vitton and Rue de la Tête d’Or (M: Masséna), with our local favorite within walking/biking distance of the apartment is Boulangerie Jacquier. We’ve enjoyed quenelles, sausage, countless cheeses, and an astonishing amount of cheap and good wine. Plus, a few surprises, like Ninkasi beer, and the cha shu bao bought from the Vietnamese grocer on Rue Passet.

5) Vélo’v!

Especially in the last month now that the weather has been gorgeous, I’ve been Vélo’ving everywhere. 5€ got me a subscription to participate in the famed bike sharing program. This type of system only works because there’s about 350 stations all over the city and immediate suburbs. Within a three block radius of our house, there’s four that I can think of without even trying. San Francisco, Washington DC, you guys really need to get on this — and stop dicking around with this 10 station nonsense. Lyon has over 300! You gotta have that many to make it worthwhile.

6) Games!

Moi, je m’en fous je triche” (I don’t care, I’m cheating) is a fantastic local game club. Among our American circle of friends, we called it the “game bar” (often sung to the tune of this Electric Six tune: “Gay Bar”). Locals just call it “La Triche.” You pay 6€/yr (September to September) for an annual subscription and then you have access to 800 games. The spot, which is staffed entirely by volunteers, is open every day (except Monday) — and it feels like going to your geeky board game friend’s basement.

Just as burritos, beer and Catan are a favorite weekend activity for us in Oakland, this was the next best thing. Catan still dominated, but we also took on Carcassonne, Puerto Rico a couple of times. We’ve also been fascinated by watching people play “Cash N’ Guns“.

La Triche is also the host to Lyon’s famedPacman @ Lyon,” which I really hope to bring to California. If you come here to play, say hi to Clément and tell him I sent you.

Oakland, here we come! Becky arrives on Sunday evening, while I get there Monday afternoon.

Lyon WiFi Cafés

Here’s a quick list of my favorite four WiFi cafés in Lyon. At two of them (except Lipstick and Pamplune), you have to ask for the WiFi code at the bar, but it’s still free and it won’t expire after 30 minutes or anything stupid like that. Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments!

1) Le Voxx
1, Rue Algérie
M: Hôtel de Ville

Le Voxx (pictured above) is my favorite WiFi café in town. First it’s got a beautiful view of the Saône. Second, you can’t beat the atmosphere, power plugs (there’s one on the street level, a few in the back, and more in the lower level). During winter they have fantastic mulled wine (vin chaud), and around lunchtime they always have cheap sandwiches and other fancy items like fresh lasagna or salads or whatever.

2) Lipstick
19, Rue Désirée
M: Hôtel de Ville

This café is a close second to the Voxx. There’s a nice little vibe and they have great booths if you’re staying for lunch. If not, they’re happy to let you sit at the bar and check your email or do whatever else. Most of the booth tables have power plugs.

3) Pamplune Cafe
31, quai Victor Augagneur
M: Guillotière

This is a small gem of a café that’s easy to miss. It’s decked out in rugby and bullfighting paraphernalia, and other than the fact that the owner often has the TV on to sports or music channels, it’s not a bad joint. There’s one power plug in the corner by the window.

4) Cafe Carnot
4, Place Carnot
M: Perrache

This place is run by a friendly Corsican dude — scope the Moor’s Head above the entrance — and is a nice place to hang out if you’re meeting friends at the Wednesday evening market in Place Carnot, or waiting for a train, or have just finished walking down rue Victor Hugo. I believe there’s a single outlet in the rear corner, opposite the bar.

April 6: Cyrus on PRI’s The World

Dear Friends,

I’ve been informed that my radio piece on Urban Pacman in Lyon is airing today. (Scope my photo as Pacman here.)

It will be available on any of these stations (and their Internet streams):

NYC – 3 pm Eastern – WNYC – 820 AM – www.wnyc.org
Washington, DC – 8 pm Eastern – WAMU – 88.5 FM – www.wamu.org
Los Angeles – 12 pm Pacific – KPCC – 89.3 FM – www.kpcc.opg
Boston – 4 pm Eastern – WGBH – 89.7 FM – www.wgbh.org
San Francisco – 2 pm Pacific – KQED – 88.5 FM – www.kqed.org

You can also find it on The World’s site later in the day and on my site if you miss the broadcast.

Also, don’t forget about The World’s Tech Podcast, hosted by my boss, Clark Boyd. It comes out every Friday.

Lemme know if you hear it!

Update: Audio is here.

Sorry for the radio silence

Hey guys,

Sorry I haven’t emailed or blogged much since I’ve been here. We’ve been couchsurfing and can’t move into the aforementioned totally awesome apartment until the 16th, at which point I’ll have regular Internet access and will be able to respond to the backlog of emails that have been piling up in my inbox.

But the short version is that yes, we’ve started school. We’re still in the sort of introductory phase — I’m spending a lot of time telling my classes about myself, California and the American elections. Becky’s been observing and getting to know her teachers and schools and such.

If you feel like calling me before I get Internet, my 510 number at the bottom of my emails now forwards to my French cellphone (via Skype).

Also, we’ll be in Paris Oct 16-19 to celebrate my cousin Romain’s birthday.

More soon!

Also, here’s two photos from Lyon:

     

La vie lyonnaise

Right now I’m sitting on a TGV that’s about to depart from Lyon back to Paris. It’s a quick two hour trip between boths stations. With comfortable seats, food/drink (hell, beer and wine are served on board!) and stations in the center of town — this high-speed stuff is definitely the way to travel. (Everyone’s voting for the California high speed rail ballot measure, right?) Becky arrives early tomorrow morning and I’ll head to the airport to pick her up and then we’ll hop on the train back together for Lyon.

I came to L’Hexagone about a week early because Becky had to finish teaching her classes, but more importantly I had to find us a place to live and get us situated.

In less than a week here I’ve done the following (not in chronological order):

– Found the sweetest apartment ever!
– Met my Couchsurfing host Wolfgang and his roommate, Romain (“Romix”)
– Opened a bank account
– Got a monthly transit pass
– Visited my school
– Went to a party with Wolf and Romix
– Got my Belgian beer on
– Got frustrated with Orange‘s (French cellphone company, formerly France Telecom) bureaucracy

First things first: the pad!

After having spent a lot of time reading the Assistants in France forums, finding housing is one of the most stressful parts of the entire operation. Basically, once you get accepted into the program, neither the Ministry of Education nor the French Embassy does much in the way of trying to actually help you find a place to live. At best, you’ll get a few links of some housing websites, and maybe a friendly reminder that your school might be able to help you out. Bon bref, basically you’re on your own. There are various French sites for looking for apartments, which I’ve been checking nearly every day for the last few weeks. But it’s been tough because when I’ve found something that I’ve liked, it’s either been already spoken for, or the owner wants me to visit the next day (sorta hard to do from a continent away). So I had basically resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wait until I got to France to find something.

One of the problems, though, with getting a place here is that the startup costs are high — often even higher than they would be in the US. Surprisingly, most apartments are rented through agencies, which charge fees in the neighborhood of a few hundred euros apiece. Then on top of that, you’ve got building fees (known locally simply as “charges”), the security deposit, and of course, the rent itself. Oh, and then if you don’t get a furnished place, you gotta furnish it, which usually also probably means that you need to get a fridge, a stove, and probably a washing machine as well. Needless to say, we were looking for a furnished place, and wanted to not deal with an agency.

So I placed ads on some sites, and emailed pretty much everyone I knew who had any connection to Lyon, especially my good buddy Dallas Bluth, who spent three years here a decade ago. After a lead on Couchsurfing that later fell through, I ended up visiting two apartments my first day in Lyon. The first was too small, and didn’t really have any common space — it was a tiny bedroom, a tinier hallway, a small kitchen and a bathroom. I passed. The other place I saw wasn’t too bad, as the kitchen was American style (seriously, they call it a “cusine américaine”), meaning that the kitchen area opens up into the main room (“salon”). It was furnished with a bed, desk, futon, and kitchen table, too. And at 560 euros (+ electricity), it was within our budget. But this second apartment was just too far from our respective schools. The Ministry of Education, in its infinite wisdom, decided to place me in the western part of the city, and Becky in two northeastern suburbs. Needless to say, we were looking for something towards the center, about equidistant for the both of us. But this apartment was in the southeast (7è), close to the Route de Vienne tramway, but a bit far for either of us.

My couchsurfing host, Wolfgang, doesn’t yet have Internet access at home, so I’ve had to scrounge for free WiFi at the local mall, and at FNAC (the French equivalent to Borders), and pretty much any open wireless network that I can find (ideally with electrical outlets too). On my way home from visiting my school on Thursday I had to get off the bus at Gare de Perrache and get on the metro/tram to get back to downtown. In the station, I discovered that the Subway in the station has free WiFi courtesy of FON, and a power outlet behind a trash can. Against my culinary morals, I threw down three euros for a sandwich, plugged in, and prepared myself for an afternoon of reading housing ads online.

Only a few minutes after I had sat down, I got an email from Dallas’ friend Nicolas, who lives in Lyon. Dallas had suggested that if anyone in Lyon would be able to have suggestions for me, it would be him. We’d emailed a couple times, Nicolas and I, but frankly, while he was friendly, he just pointed me towards the housing sites that I already knew about.

Nicolas wrote: “I don’t know if it’s too late for you, but i have a good friend of mine who has a appartment in Lyon, et she’s gonna leave her flat till june, and she’s gonna live in Brussels. There is everything you need, internet, books, cd’s, bed, no taxes, she’d like serious et responsible persons i’m sure you are! and for something like 500€”

Her name is Faustine, and he left her number and email, and I called her immediately. She said she was home, and so I went straightaway to her apartment off of the Flachet metro stop, in the northeastern part of the Lyon suburb/twin city of Villeurbanne. On the way, I really hoped that it work out as it sounded totally perfect. And boy, was it ever.

Just a few blocks north of the metro stop, past a kebab shop and a small city park is Faustine’s building. I climbed four flights of stairs and presto, I suddenly found myself in the French apartment of my dreams. Faustine happily showed me around the nearly 50 square meters while I couldn’t believe how freaking awesome it was. The kitchen window faces west and you can see Lyon for several kilometers at least (Faustine says she watches the sunset from this window nearly every evening — “it’s better than television.”) The kitchen floor has these awesome white and red old dusty tiles, and there’s a stove, oven, washing machine (small French style, of course), sink, pantry, and a cute kitchen table with two black vinyl chairs and a small bench, sorta like in a restaurant booth.

The kitchen opens up into the rest of the salon, with a beautiful white couch (it folds out too!), a TV/DVD player, bookshelf with tons of French books, a music stand, a sitting chair, and a low table that serves as Faustine’s desk with her laptop, WiFi router and stereo. Her playlist cycled through classical music, French rap and some Buena Vista Social Club. There’s an adjacent small bedroom with not much more than a bed, closet and a dresser through a white curtain — she explained that she took the door off to create more space. The bathroom, just off of the kitchen, is long and narrow (the shower is actually behind the toilet) and is painted entirely orange.

We sat on the couch over French press coffee (Coffee! I’ve drunk more coffee in less than a week in France than I have in the last couple months in Oakland — maybe I’m growing up after all) and Faustine told me about herself. She’s a longtime flute player — baroque is her specialty — who recently got soured on the entire professional music world. She’s in her early 20s, and has lived in Lyon her entire life (her parents live in another suburb), and in this particular apartment for the last three years (her parents own it, and her brother lived in it before she did). She spends her free time making rings out of vintage buttons that she sells for a small fee, and is the kind of person who paints her bathroom orange, part of one wall red, the kitchen lime green, and changes the pillow covers on her couch from spring and summertime white to fall and wintertime red.

Like us, Faustine is looking for a temporary change in her life for at least several months. So she’s heading to Brussels, to join her brother, his girlfriend, and her sister for at least several months, and possibly more. And like us, she didn’t want to rent her apartment to some random stranger as she was leaving most of her stuff as is and is planning on coming back — so she’s only been telling her friends and hasn’t put up any ad on any website. She went on a trip with Nicolas recently and she happened to mention to him that she was moving, and he mentioned it to us.

We settled on a rent price — no security deposit necessary — and we’ll cover additional utilities costs (gas, electricity, Internet), and will even water her plants. There’s a big grocery store, bakery and metro stop within a 10 minute walk, and a smaller grocery store and Velo’v station about a two minute walk away.

We move in on October 15, when Faustine heads to Brussels. (Until then we’re going to be couchsurfing with Wolf and Romix.)