Friday, August 5, 2011

Interlude: Bucharest by Bicycle

Graffiti:  Moldova is Romania
Many old friends and colleagues from my years on Hubble are probably wondering, "Is she still riding that bicycle, or has this T thing taken over her life with the speed of a overloaded tandem careening down a mountain road without brakes?"  To all assembled lovers of two wheels I hereby declare, I'm still riding.
1989 Revolution Began Near Here
There's a deeply embedded T side to my riding a bicycle that almost no one would have guessed, but I will get to that in one of my "So How Far Back Does this Go?" entries.  For the moment I just want to share the joy of riding in Bucharest, where this summer I have again become an urban cyclist as I once was for many years in the Washington, DC, area.  I ride my bike to the Embassy in the morning.  It's not even three miles from my home, but having the bicycle at work means I'm ready to go when the workday ends.  I ride to my electrologist appointments, I ride to the market, and I ride just to explore Bucharest and the immediate countryside.  Unlike in Tashkent, where I had an $800USD Honda with no gas gauge, I own no motorized transportation here, and thus the inspiration to ride is all the greater.

Ceausescu's People's Palace
Concert Hall
Mind you, this is urban cycling, not a pleasant ride in the park, although there are also some very beautiful parks.  Bucharest is a very busy city with too many cars, not much infrastructure, and too many drivers in a hurry.  As in the Soviet Union, cars were out of reach to all except the lucky and well-positioned during communist times.  This all changed after the revolutions of the late 1980s.  When Ceausescu fell in December 1989 and the doors of capitalism opened wide, the Romanian love affair with the automobile began and has not abated despite gridlock traffic and excellent, fast public transit.  Everyone just has to own a car.  It's a status symbol of wealth and well-being.

Chased by a Truck
Old Town
Riding a bike in central Bucharest on a workday is about the same as riding in Manhattan or in downtown Washington, DC, during rush hour.  There is a laughable system of bike lanes on sidewalks that is entirely unusable because of pedestrians and cars parked on the sidewalks.  (I could mount my soapbox and lecture that bike lanes on sidewalks are dangerous by definition and should be banned everywhere, but I'll resist the temptation. . . .) That means I'm in the traffic lanes with the cars and trucks just as I used to be in the U.S. and as I still appear on the cover of the Maryland Bicycle Safety Guide.  Since there are scarcely any hills in Bucharest, I'm able to keep up with the motorized traffic for extended spurts.  In the very center sometimes it is impossible even for a bicycle to make headway in the gridlock, and then I find myself walking the bike on the sidewalk with the pedestrians.
Romania's Arc de Triomphe
As always, riding a bicycle is a great way to explore, and that's what I like most on weekends.  I've been here long enough now that I don't mind getting lost and then figuring out how to get back on familiar ground.  Some of the nicest districts are those I discover by accident.  Bucharest was once known as the Paris of the East, and there are still back streets where one can find the atmosphere of the inter-war city that once was.

A Quieter Ride
Will I continue riding when the snows of winter come?  Probably not.  I did that for years in the U.S., but I will now let you in on a secret:  it's not fun.  There is nothing like a 35F (2C) rain to soak and chill a body to the bone.  (The trick, as Peter O'Toole says in Lawrence of Arabia, was in not minding it.)  Here I will enjoy the warm, long days of summer riding and switch to metro, bus, trolley, and tram for the bad winter days. 

Astronomers' Street
Question for future thought:  Should I trade in my trusty Atlantis for a Terry? My bicycling friends will smile and say, "So, she had to end on a T note after all, didn't she?"

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