Have Skates, Will Travel - PARIS
THE CITY OF LOVE. The place where I fell in love. And the place where some
of my children probably live. It is also, "the greatest place to social skate
on earth", "the street-skate with no atmosphere" and "the quickest way to
get a free bed for the night at the local hospital". Locals call it the 'Friday
Night Fever'; I call it bloody crazy.
I still remember where I was when I first heard about the Paris FNS: picking up my first pair of skates in Paris on a trip with my University. I think the shop was called "Vertical Line" and the sales girl asked whether I would be skating tonight, as she would be. It was a Friday. I remember thinking she was part of some hardcore bunch of teenagers. "No, skating is not my life", I replied, and we all laughed together. She was laughing out of politeness because later that evening my group and I waited TWENTY minutes to cross a road streaming with skaters. The year was 1998 and I had just witnessed my first "Pari-Roller".
Depending on who you talk to, the very first Pari-Roller (it is not cool to pronounce the 's' in Paris) was started by either English quad skaters in the 80's, French "Crazy Riders" in 1991 or Parisians short on public transport in 1995. The official version says September 1993 was one of the very first skates, organised by Rollermania. Numbers started in the 20s and remained at around 100 until summer 1996 (over 200 participants). Then in Summer 1997, with nearly 600 people skating, the Police decided to get involved and have helped marshal the skate ever since.
It is 5pm, Friday 26th October 2001 and boy, is it raining! But a few others and I want to skate tonight. The 10pm start time of the Pari-Roller makes evening travel possible. Hello Eurostar late booking service...
This will be my sixth Pari-Roller. The skate start-point seems to have made a permanent move to Montparnasse, an area where train access is better and shopkeepers have not learnt to charge extortionate prices for water and chewing gum. The crowd is your expected mix of young and old, the hip, the pondlife, and the internationals. We strike up a few conversations with tourists eager to get going: British, Dutch, Polish, American and tonnes of Germans. Later I will notice tourists of a different kind eager to get going.
The skate starts very slow, a lot of beginners hold us up (water guns needed?) and have difficulty following the ups and downs to Place d'Italie, the start-point for many a previous skate. From there we gradually start picking up momentum, getting faster and faster through to central Paris. As we ascend the steep roads next to the Pere Lachaise cemetery (the place where Jim Morrison lays), we reach one of the highest view points of eastern Paris. I make a quick glance at the view; such peace, such tranquility, soon we will destroy it all. Next we head downhill along Boulevard d'Algerie and Avenue d'Indochine.
Police in cars and on bikes lead the skate. For added respect, around 15 cops are on skates, using their finely honed skills picked up from an Olympic speed skater. If the yellow-shirted marshals cannot solve an incident, the police skaters are there in no time, their mere presence calming everybody down. In fact I have never seen them actually having to do anything else than just being there! For the first time I notice two ambulances tailing the skate. Elise, a female blader-cop explains that they are just a precaution even though I later read that 10-20 people injure themselves every week, sometimes breaking bones and, yes, in eight years of weekly skating people have died on the Pari-Roller. Tonight, although I notice the cops wearing helmets, I would say 99% of skaters were not.
Word has spread that 10,000 are skating tonight. But it is greeted with disdain from the crowd. The size is perhaps less than half of peak numbers - school holidays and poor weather the last couple of days are to blame. Half time is at La Vilette; bottles of wine are passed to my group and cigarettes light up.
After the pause we rush past Paris's monuments and festive areas where residents and tourists seem to be cheering us along all the way. Or at least that is what I thought until I actually looked at their faces. Those tourists were me three years ago, just trying to cross the road! It is important to note that despite the outrageous reputation of Parisian car drivers the greatest enemy to skating in Paris are these tourists attempting to race across the road, mid-skate. Day-trippers aside, and depending on your ability the endless piles of steaming-dog poo are either hazardous or provide slalom practice. The skate ends at Montparnasse: it is now 1am.
So how does London and Paris compare? Like London, the route is different each week. Unlike London the cops have a BIG say in where they go. Road surface is generally good and our group commented on the lack of feet numbness due to skate vibration. But the biggest difference is road width. Nearly every street on the Pari-Roller was like Park Lane. You need wide streets to get the sheer volume of skaters through town, otherwise speed is compromised. On the subject of speed the Pari-Roller is just a little slower than the Bullet Skate!
So what does the London FNS have that the Pari-Roller doesn't? Better music! Some skaters carry their own music box but there is nothing official and my group were somewhat mute in an atmosphere that was equally so. Amazingly, some of our group were singled out as for blowing whistles - this was breaching the peace! Of all the big skates only Munich (future report) has successfully covered a large skate with music.
So there it is. Skating in London is at the same stage medicine was when it was using leeches. But bare in mind FNS numbers reached 500 in a tenth of the time it took in Paris.
For those of you good enough (front section of London FNS) the Pari-Roller is a beast of a skate. The experience is exhilarating and you get to see a beautiful city in the process. Viva La France!