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Many months ago, I mentioned that I wanted to write about cycling in Paris versus Oslo, from the perspective of Marcel Mauss’ techniques du corps (available for download in French here). I’m reminded of this old classic each time I go from my Norwegian bike to my French one. Most bikes in Norway have an extra angle on the handle, putting it more in front, thus making the cyclist lean more forward. In Paris, the cyclists sit with their back straight. The majority of bikes in Oslo are some kind of – rather fancy – sport bikes. In Parisian streets, the sport bikes are rare, and you see men and women cycle on anything on two wheels – men on what usually is considered a woman’s bike are for instance not unusual. (And sure, after having my foldable, and expensive indeed, bike stolen after just a couple of months, the last thing I want is a new fancy looking one. What I’ve got now is a cheap retro looking inconspicuous one, – which a friend immediately condemned as bourgeoisie-looking. My only justification was that it was the cheapest I could find.)
In addition to leaning forward on their seat, many Norwegian cyclists use a helmet. Surveys show that cyclists with helmets are more likely to suffer serious injuries, - obviously because they cycle faster. And of course the cyclists in Oslo – forward leaning and with sport bikes – cycle far faster than their Parisian counterparts. Here’s of course the connection to les techniques du corps, where Mauss in 1934 described how what we think are “natural” ways of moving the body, are highly social (physiological + social + individual (or psychological), I think he writes.
I often think of cycling in Paris as a flâneur-like activity, -as the bike itself and the way ones sits, in addition to some general mood, perhaps, don’t encourage one to cycle very fast. The pedestrians also are generally strolling around rather than hurrying. And if someone hurries past you, you very often hear a pardon - yesterday the person in hurry even bothered to turn around to excuse himself to me face to face.
If cycling in Paris has a character of flânerie, in London it’s closer to extreme sport. In Oslo I’ve until now thought of it as simple transportation, but after having read Dag Østerberg’s socio-material analysis of Oslo I realise that our way of everyday city cycling can be read as a an example of our “naturalness”. On my bicycle trip along the canal far into the suburbs today, I noticed that many Parisian cyclists put on helmets and sports gear and get their sport bikes out the cellar in order to go out of the city, as a Sunday activity. In Norway, fast cycling with helmets takes place inside the city. Østerberg writes about the Norwegian bourgeoisie (my translation):
The distinguished naturalness is a characteristic of the women and men of the Norwegian bourgeoisie: They engaged in sport and open-air activities to a far more than the rest of the European bourgeoisie. No other bourgeoisie lives in a forest (Østerberg 1993: 48-9). (For those who are interested, an additional explanation follows in an extended quote at the bottom of this post).
This “naturalness”, in perhaps less “distinguished” versions, permeates the Norwegian society. I wonder if it’s that which makes street life in Norway less communicative, less filled with meaning/significance, thus not social situations, while here in contrast, such small situations are “cultivated” into a little grain of social interaction. One example is the man saying sorry for just walking quickly past me in the street. “How many doors have you got in the face today,” is a standing joke at the Centre Culturel Français in Oslo, as many Norwegians ignore if someone is coming behind them through the door. It’s a lack of politeness, of course, but it’s also a lack of acknowledging that you are interacting with others in a social environment. The notion of living together “vivre ensemble” is everywhere here in Paris; from a core value at school to municipal politics.
I notice that I’m deviating a little from my sunny Sunday bike trip now, and I’ll end this post with one more comment on socio-materiality. It’s so flat to cycle here that I didn’t realise where I was until I was far out in the in the banlieues in Seine-Saint-Denis. However, what I had noticed was that the highly varied east Parisian street art suddenly had turned to pure graffiti “pieces”, and at times even tags and simple scribbling were predominant.
More photos from "neuf-trois" here
When I got back to Paris, I passed Place de la République, and guess what? There were police as well as demonstrators present. (This time it was an anti-abortion demonstration).
The nature impression of Oslo is strengthened by the fact that parts of the economic, political and cultural ruling strata live in the hills, among trees and forest. These strata legitimise themselves party through “nature” and naturalness, in contrast to what is the case in many other countries. The bourgeoisie legitimised themselves from the 18th Century by appealing to “nature”, that we are born equal etc. The powder perukes and the rest of the baroque and the rococo were seen as unnatural, and were consequently left behind. However, around 1850 this changed. The bourgeoisie discovered that nature was and “vulgar”, because one found it among the farmers and the threatening labour movement. From now on, the bourgeoisie legitimated themselves with cultivatedness, with manners in contrast to raw nature. The bourgeoisie of Oslo and the leading stratum, on the other hand, still legitimises itself partly with nature, houses with a forest, Tyrol-looking houses, cabins in the mountain, long cross-country skiing trips. More precisely: It legitimises itself with distinguished naturalness, with carefully prepared natural look (my – quick, sorry – translation, Østerberg 1993: 114).
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