Learning to Ride

Paris Metro map by Adrian Tombu via Flickr
Paris Metro map by Adrian Tombu via Flickr
Paris Metro map by Adrian Tombu via Flickr

I can no longer conjure up a clear picture of the day I learned to ride a bike. My memory tells me it was the summer after I turned eight, riding in circles around the unusually large driveway at the Cottingham’s house near Newtown. It was just me, riding in circles, until I got the balance right.

Not much later, my newfound skill would be packed up – with my family and all of our stuff – and moved 3,000 miles away to Oregon. My brothers and I would spend many summer days for years to come riding through the nearly-empty parts of the Oregon State University campus that started across the street from our house – a campus empty enough that three kids on little bikes could ride for hours without worrying much about cars or even many other bikes. When my family moved again – to New Hampshire, four years later – I brought my bike, by that time an almost adult-sized ten speed. That bike transported me to friends’ houses in our tiny town, when no parents were willing to play chauffeur.

I have a clearer memory of the day, during my junior year in college, when I stood in front of the multi-colored spaghetti of a Paris Metro map and the proverbial light bulb went off. I had spent a few days following others in my group who knew how to navigate the Metro, not paying attention to what they were doing. And then I was on my own. It took me a few minutes, but then suddenly it all made sense. The braided lines disentangled themselves and seeing my path from Point A to Point B became simple.

Last month, I visited Washington D.C. with my boyfriend, his mother, and his eight-year-old daughter L. I am not well-versed at traveling with kids, but when we descended for the first time into the D.C. Metro I figured it was worth a try to explain the Metro system to L. This was only four colored lines, not 20. When we got onto our train, I pulled out the map and showed it to her.

“Okay, so this is where we started – Union Station – and this is where we want to go – Dupont Circle. They’re both on the same line – the red line – so all you have to do is figure out which direction to go. And that’s the name of the station at the end of the line in that direction,” I told her, pointing out the points on the map. She didn’t get it. The next time we rode the Metro, I walked her through each step as we were doing it. She sort of got it. The next time, I handed her the map, told her where we were starting and where we wanted to go, and asked how we would get there. It took some prompting, but she figured it out. And by the end of day two, I would hand her the map as soon as we got to a Metro station, at which point she essentially navigated us along our route – including, on a couple of occasions, a transfer from one line to another.

I have this adorable picture of her showing the map to her grandmother, explaining how to read it – passing on her newfound knowledge. She later said that she’d like to go to college in Washington D.C. When we asked why, she said, “Well, I already know how to use the subway.” We did not test this theory out (because, hello), but I am perfectly confident that if L had been sent into the Metro on her own she’d have been able to find her way.

Two weeks before we left for D.C., the training wheels had come off of L’s bike for the first time. There’s video of her pedaling up and down the street, eagerly going faster and faster, clearly loving the speed and her control of it. When we walked toward a Metro station on day three, something occurred to me.

“Y’know,” I told L, “Learning to ride the subway is a lot like learning to ride a bike. That freedom you felt when you rode a bike for the first time on your own? That’s a freedom you can take with you anywhere there’s a bike you can ride. It’s the same with the subway. Learning to ride the subway, to navigate that map – you would be able to navigate the Paris Metro if we plopped you in the middle of Paris right now. That’s pretty awesome.”

She agreed, and although I’m not sure she fully grasps the connection, I look forward to the day when I can hand her a Paris Metro map and let her do the rest.

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