A visit with Paul Fournel

Woke up at seven, flew out of bed to see my London friends off (they are on a mini-vac down south) then began Advanced Faffing.

I am pinned to the apartment by the pull of the computer and Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room. I was now the owner of this domain…why would I leave?

Sewed the strap back on the banjo case (second time for that: my trademark’d slapdash seamstress technique saves no time, in fact it does the opposite….)

Checked, re-checked, and triple-checked my email between bouts of wrestling with a frigid tea kettle…no amount of clicking of buttons would make it work…boiled water on the stove, made tea, forgot it while doing emails. Couldn’t remember to eat, though.

Finally I reached the French poet Paul Fournel by phone. We’d swapped emails half a year ago.
I first read his lyrical essay collection Besoin de Velo when working with JP Praderes and Christoph Courbou. They were producing (with J. Heine) a Vintage Bicycle Press art book (not out yet, will tell all when I’m permitted to). Me and Otto were one of the subjects of this er, ‘bottom-secret’ (file under :London Derriere) project.

Got oot at two-ish…From that quiet corner to Atlantic Avenue (and its sister street, Electric Avenue) you swing into a street scene like you’d find in the Caribbean. Most people are black, brown, pink or punk.

All the shops are open. All the sidewalks jammed with people.
I try to remember the brakes are reversed on this bike, and try to dampen my too-quick reflexes.

Luckily, my first half mile is a straight line,– no accidental wrong-lane changes–though the street’s packed beyond capacity with buses and private cars and other cyclists, none of whom wear lycra. My fear sharpens my eyesight and hearing.

In a foreign city, I am alway starring in my own “Jacquie CAN” movie. The heroine is a chickenshit disguised as a wonderwoman.

Onboard a bike, the “set” changes smoothly and swiftly.

A Les Blank thought crosses my mind, as meat, not garlic, invades my nose. Les used to cook cajun food backstage to get that ‘smell-around’ element accompaniment to movies like Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers…

Aha…the halal butcher’s store with row upon row of hanging animal part. Then past the sketchy Jamaican bread store.

Then past Brixton’s market hall, barely altered since Victorian times. Small battered boxes of food piled on top of one another angle precariously ( selon moi, the person with a messenger bag parked on my ass….the dreaded tail-wagging combo that knocks things over). Pleasantly jumnbled micro-businesses: shoes, glue, cleaning products, radios, hairbrushes, scissors, towels.

I smile, thinking of Jackie Chan brilliant early films.

They featured Keatonesque chases with street market smash-ups that hurl live animals, fruit and vegetables skyward as Chan eludes both enemies : corrupt police and the criminals.

Eventually I get over the Chelsea bridge. Set decor gets very posh.

I ride Sloane Street. I have never seen it but it is famous for its shopping princesses.

The traffic is intense, it’s a hot day, and the red buses and black taxis don’t mind squeezing me to the curb. Dozens of close calls per block. I realize I don’t have my “in case of fatality, call…” note in my messynger bag/

I am grateful they are professional drivers…and that I wore a helmet for once.

Magnificent gardens, row upon row of fine houses…great landmarks (Albert Hall! ) LIttle-known ones (London School of Music)…I think of Wordsworth…

Earth has not anything to show more fair

Dull would be he of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty.

This City doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theaters and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky.

Ah…at least someone can do that “City” some justice. Though London is more a planet with its own gravitational force, own physical laws, own continents, etc.

Reader, by now you know I have a streak of fears, petty and large that would cripple me if I weren’t so bloody forgetful.

Once I’m on that bike (in London’s dramatically improved cycling environment) they’re left behind like midges, which practically ignored me up in Scotland (professional courtesy?)

The Hannahcycle is a finely tuned streetwise black skinny tire bike (DON’t ask what make, I don’t notice that stuff).
With a minimum of begging for directions, I find the Institut Francais in Queensberry Place.

He is summoned, and in a few banjo songminutes, he appears at the entry of the institute, and presents me with his latest book, which amazingly, is an A-Z book called Meli-Velo.

I shriek and pull out my present to him: the non-bestseller, A savvy cyclist’s A-Zedinburgh...he thumbs through it slowly (perhaps one of only two people who ever did this in front of me, as if there were all the time in the world)..

meanwhile I struggle with the two bike locks I’ve been asked to deploy (and fail miserably!) we are drinking coffee at a nearby cafe that permits bikes to have their own table.

He is elegant and fit in a red linen summer coat, and stunning red leather sneakers. He has an open friendly moustachioed smile, and a very French expressiveness of mouth and eyebrows.

We don’t murder his language, though I half tried when I called him to squeak French.

He inquired about my life in California, reasons for being abroad, if I still race. I’d have been happy to gush endlessly about Fabulous Me (working title of my moi-moire) but being a sincere fan of his remarkable, poetic bicycle writing, I had to quiz him, too. AND do a little name-dropping…it turns out that he is GOOD friends with the redoubtable Nancy Huston, la transplanted Canadian who taught a small bevy of college women (me among them)_ some marxist/feminist theory and a whole lot of French literature, culture and priceless savoir vivre.

Without a doubt, she was a teacher that pushed her adoring students to think orignially.

I am not sure she would remember me but I asked him to ‘remember’ me to her, in the event I did stick in her memory…

Paul and I commiserated about the state of the drunken children of the UK, the state of the doped up racers in all the cycling sports and of course these thoughts petered into the universal French Shrug of acceptance/regret

“c’est la vie, quoi…eh bain…”

He told me he rides weekly in the vallee de Chevreuse (funny, our classes were held in Rue Du Chevreuse, at Reid Hall in Paris)…with a handful of bike friends, they do a hundred km…I am duly impressed, and wonder if he could ever meet JP Praderes…


I might have to go to Paris myself one day. Fournel says the Velib program (free bikes all over town) has transformed Paris into cycler’s heaven. “But you never find bikes at the top of the Montmartre hill… so trucks have to collect them up and deposit them up there…”

I remember someone telling the same story about the free bike program at Middlbeury College. Over time, ALL the bikes were to be found at the bottom of the hill, where the college ends and town begins….

No one ever wants to push those suckers back up the hill….Frankly, it makes sense to like hills because life is full of them, they are inevitable and they shouldn’t always be a struggle.

Here is how Fournel opens his newest (published June 2008! The thing was still warm…) Er, I mean, here’s how I mangle his opening paragraph…

The bicycle is a language.

Or is it ‘cycling is a language’?


A language where everything blends together in the expulsion of effort.

A language of sorrow, of awareness and joy that is lost in the silence of the mountains then found again in the deep woods. A language of the evening, the pleasant telling and re-telling of the rides epic and ordinary, all memorable.

For you francophones, click here for a bit more…

~ by jacquiephelan on July 2, 2008.

One Response to “A visit with Paul Fournel”

  1. Most Excellent!!!!!

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