Saturday, April 17, 2010

I want to ride my bicycle

George and I had bicycles to repair.
“It’s amazing how this place has exploded” he says as we walk into Serkos’s bicycle shop deep in the jungle of cheap t shirts and junk stores of Monistiraki.
“Five years ago a Greek would have shot his own foot before getting on a bicycle and now...”
And indeed, as we frankensteined out our respective rides, changing the seats, chains, added bells, swapped brakes, a good number of clients stepped in and out.
this has something to do with the historical crisis? Bicycles are the most cost efficient means of transportation requiring no fuel, no batteries, no cords or plugs...just the inherent power of a foot on the peddle. Better when there are two, but I’ve actually seen a one-legged cyclist in this city, so I know it can be done.

My bicycle was a gift from my parents for my 30th birthday. It is a luminescent purple, like a rainy morning sky, and therefore I named her “Attikoulamou.” This is a term coined by the Star network, pin-up quality weathergirl, Petroula, who speaks to each region of Greece as if they are her little pets. (click on her name to watch her in action. You've never seen anything like it.) “Attikoulamou” means, “My little Attica.” Attikoulamou is a fancy, many-geared, shock-absorbing bicycle but is shaped like the classical bicycles of yesteryear. If she had a spirit animal, I think it would be a Pegasus. I love her.

Yesterday I rode Attikoulamou into the center to meet our taxi-abandoned clients. I rolled up to my usual post in front of the theater of Dionysus to secure her safely to a pole, one I choose regularly because bicycle theft, here as in every major metropolis, is a real problem. This area is regularly patrolled.

“Signomi Kiria... Excuse me Madam...” and the dreaded approach of the authority figure commences.
“You cannot put your bicycle here. It is dangerous for the site.”
The idea of arguing whether a parked bicycle can be dangerous DID cross my mind, but I thought maybe better to be compliant, given the amount of trouble an official of the archaeological site of one of the most important ancient buildings in the world could give a tour assistant on a day to day basis.

“Where shall I put it then?”

She gave me the Greek, chin only shrug, palms outstretched but held tight to her side.
“Then ksero. I don’t know. There is no place...”
“Yeah I know,” I laughed.

There is literally not one place to properly lock a bicycle in the entire city of Athens. There is not one bicycle lane in the center, not one. There HAVE been talks, and in the suburbs special lanes and paths are springing up. Certain commuter trains have started allowing people to bring their bicycles on board, but for the most part, Athens remains a staunch enemy of the cyclist.

The streets, too, have no appreciation for someone on a bicycle. No respect or consideration is offered, even if one rider, high on a saddle, means one less car is on the road, one less seat occupied on a bus or train. Motorcycles consider you competition and zig zag dangerously in your path to prove their superior power. Taxis cut in front and squeal to a stop to make a drop off or a pick up. Riding from Kallithea to the center is better than a video game, but unfortunately without the multiple lives should you crash and die.

So why do I do it? Excellent question. While I can point out the good it does for the environment and by taking a stance I'm making a difference, the more immediate answer is vanity. After three months of steady improvement at navigating Attikoulamou through the streets, up the hills, by the seaside, I’m looking great! I’m getting these curious muscles in my arms that I’ve always seen on tv but never thought were possible in my very own anatomical makeup. My energy is higher. I sleep better and my appetite would satisfy any Greek mother. “Eat, eat! You’re too skinny...”
I’m not afraid of carbs.

There’s also ego. I feel this cocky victory when I’m darting in and around the cars, imprisoned by traffic and stoplights. It’s liberating! I enjoy thinking that they’re silently cursing me as I fly past, bound to arrive to my destination before they’ve passed the next four intersections.

For the time being, I’m throwing “street survival” in with the other battlefronts I’m facing, including language barriers, moments of real feelings of isolation, cultural differences, lapses in self-confidence...because on my bicycle I don’t even have time to process these things. I am too busy dodging taxi doors, cars parked full center in the road (emergency flashers on, of course) produce delivery trucks, trolleys, oh GOD the trolleys on their fixed cables and their fearsome roar as they rumble impatiently behind you.

When I’ve had a little fire in my belly thanks to the grocery-store grumps, an irrate driver, or just a conversation gone wrong, I’m even faster.

Kostas, the wiry, chain smoking bicycle technician, has just talked me into a new seat. Being a woman I have “special” needs. The bicycle seat, or “σἐλα” has a hole in the middle. I don’t need to say more, do I? When he’s realized how much I’m using Attikoulamou, he’s very insistant that I need to be protecting myself. He pulls out special padded pants, handlebar extenders, and finally he’s decided the frame of my bicycle will eventually have to go. This would be, to me, sort of like cutting up Botticelli’s Venus. I outwardly acknowledge his recommendations and inwardly swear to Attikoulamou she need not fear. I’ll never butcher her like that.