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Posts Tagged ‘city life’

blue bikes central square Cambridge

This fall, I became a semi-regular user of Boston’s BlueBikes system, mostly riding between Harvard Square, my beloved former work neighborhood, and Back Bay, where I work now.

Even as the weather has turned colder, I’ve continued to enjoy my rides, usually along the same route: down Mount Auburn Street to Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge by MIT and all the way to Commonwealth Avenue, down which I ride for a few blocks before docking my bike at (or near) Copley Square.

I hadn’t ridden regularly – especially in city traffic – since my grad-student days in Oxford, when I pedaled my green bike everywhere, from school to work to church and back again. Boston’s traffic (and weather) patterns are a little different, and I’m finding the whole process of riding a bit different this time around.

I’ve been taking notes, mostly in my head, most of which can be summed up as I am learning. But I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

back bay Boston brownstones sky

I am learning (again) that layering is key: if I bundle up properly, I can ride in colder weather than I initially expected. (I am also learning that I have my limits – which include snow, rain and wind chills in the teens.) I am learning to pull on two pairs of gloves, to wear sunglasses and slather on stick sunscreen to protect against both sun and wind. I am learning to carry an extra base layer, to change into at the office – because I hate that clammy post-ride feeling after you cool down.

I am trying to carry a lighter work bag (probably good for me anyway), though I’m also learning to strap whatever I’m carrying (including flowers, sometimes) into the front basket. I’m learning to pack extra snacks, make sure my water bottle is sealed, wrap my lunch in a plastic bag (it helps if the food is frozen).

Once I start riding, I’m learning how to thread my way through traffic and when to pause, in the absence of protected bike lanes. How to shrug off the occasional yells from grumpy motorists. How to signal a turn, usually not once but several times. How to avoid drains and puddles and manhole covers. The particular traffic signals and patterns along my regular route.

Back in those Oxford days, cycling gave me a new kind of freedom, and opened a different window on the city I already loved. It is doing the same for me here in Boston and Cambridge, and like so many things I love, it urges me to pay attention. To my surroundings, to the changing weather, to the buildings and trees and the view across the river, to my own body and spirit moving through the world. I can see why a few friends of mine are addicted to cycling. I just might be, too.

Any tips on riding in the city – or in the winter – for a novice?

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back bay Boston brownstones sky

Step 1: eye the docking stations around Boston and Cambridge as you listen to your friends rhapsodize about the freedom, exercise benefits, etc. of urban cycling.

Step 2: remember your days as a cyclist (in Oxford) with fondness. Start following several cycling-related Twitter accounts. Imagine riding through Back Bay, along the Esplanade or around Harvard Square.

Step 3: rent or borrow bikes on vacation, getting reacquainted with cycling through neighborhoods (San Diego and Sevilla) or along two-lane shore roads (PEI).

Step 4: take a buddy ride from Back Bay to Central Square. Three turns, 1.6 miles, afternoon sunshine and the steadying comfort of following a friend.

Step 5: download the app.

Step 6: hop on a bike one morning after prayers at Mem Church, just to see if you can do it. Ride back across the river: two and a half miles down Mass Ave and over the bridge. Feel the wind in your hair, the good honest sweat, the pride in trying something new and brave.

Step 7: repeat step 6 and variants as often as possible. (Start carrying an extra shirt and additional snacks.)

This post is not sponsored – Blue Bikes doesn’t know who I am – and we’ll see how this evolves as the weather changes. But for now, these rides on brisk fall mornings are saving my life each week. 

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midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

New York in January is rain-washed sidewalks and humid air, brittle Christmas trees with their sharp pine scent, piled in heaps on the streets for the garbage collectors. It is scraps of blue sky glinting off silver skyscraper windows, traffic lights and street lamps and the glitter of midtown mingling together in a wild, whirling urban glow.

New York in January is women in black coats and ankle boots and red lipstick, hundreds of men in suits striding through midtown with sleek leather portfolios under their arms. It is spindly bare trees still wound with twinkle lights, orange construction cones and planks of plywood and men in hard hats blocking street corners with their work zones. It is darkness falling early as you walk past uniformed doormen, glowing storefronts and unexpected churches amid the high-rise buildings, raising their spires to the sky.

st patricks cathedral spires nyc

New York in January is dogs bundled up in plaid coats for a morning walk, intrepid runners in leggings and knit caps, slippery patches on sidewalks after hours of unexpected snow. It is skies so blue they make your heart ache, a brisk wind whipping off the East River, the relief of coming indoors to a warm bookstore or cafe after walking with your head bent for blocks on end.

New York in January is New York in all seasons: captivating, exhausting, a demanding, bewitching delight.

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strawberry book breakfast

 

For me, living in New York is a tricky balancing act. Daily, I must leave the cage of my apartment and venture out into the city. Then, I must get in, out of the city, back to my apartment nest. The cage/nest contradiction is a constant one. It goes with the urban terrain. The enchantment of New York is its big dreams. The reality of New York is its small living spaces.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I remembered Julia’s words last week, on a warm, sunny evening when all I wanted to do was stay home. I felt a wee bit guilty about this impulse – because, for a good chunk of the year here in New England, going outside in the evenings isn’t really an option.

In the winters – especially one as long and brutal as this past one – we long for the days of open windows, long walks and afternoons at the beach. By the time spring comes, we are restless, aching to get out and stretch our legs. And once summer comes, we embrace the warmer weather with reckless abandon.

charles river view boston sailboat

I’ve spent at least a dozen evenings down on the Charles River lately, paddling in a kayak (from which I took the photo above) or walking along the Esplanade. I love a stroll through the Public Garden, and I adore an hour spent hanging out in Harvard Yard. Over the long 4th of July weekend, the hubs and I spent an afternoon at the beach, went to a Red Sox game, and threw the Frisbee on Boston Common with a friend.

But in the summer, as in all seasons, sometimes it feels good to come inside, back to the apartment that has been home base for nearly five years (!) now. With its twinkle lights, overflowing bookshelves, cozy living room and the dining table I’ve had since college, it is my nest, the place where I can relax.

The hubs and I love to explore Boston and take occasional jaunts elsewhere (like our recent one to Maine), but we also need time at home, to read and cook dinner, putter around and watch Modern Family, to sprawl barefoot in the living room and exhale.

Do you see the nest/cage contradiction in your own life? Especially if you live in a city, I’d be interested to hear your experiences.

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Recently, Alyssa tweeted about how much she loves eating lunch out alone, “tucked away in quiet corner of noisy restaurant. I’m part of the world, but don’t have to talk to anyone.” There followed a brief conversation about eating (or drinking) alone in cafes or restaurants, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

thinking cup coffee shop hot chocolate scarf

I regularly spend pockets of time alone in cafes, for lunch or a quiet cup of tea or chai, with a book or my journal or simply my own thoughts for company. It feels less cloistered, less monastic, than eating lunch in my office with the door shut, and yet there’s a sheer curtain of privacy between me and the rest of the world. In bustling Boston, where I cram into the commuter train with hundreds of strangers and walk to work among dozens more, it feels deeply restorative to carve out an alcove of space for myself during the workday. I don’t like to isolate myself completely, but I do like a modicum of space to breathe, to write, to pause and enjoy.

Some days do call for total solitude, and as near silence as I can get. But on many others, I love feeling that tug, that connection to the beat of whatever city I happen to be in. I love observing what people wear, how they take their coffee (I used to be a barista, after all), what they do when they’re sitting alone waiting for their food, or how they interact with their friends. I love the diverse mix of people who come through cafes, all of them separate entities but vital ingredients in these massive tossed salads we call cities.

I take a lot of photos in cafes, mostly of my drink with a book or journal, trying to capture the quiet, restorative freedom of the moment. The writer-romantic in me also thrills at being part of a long tradition of cafe society, from the Lost Generation in Paris to the Beats with their coffeehouse poetry readings, to now, when many writers work in cafes with laptops or notebooks. Something about the background buzz, the rotating cast of characters, the smell of coffee and pastries, revs up the mind while (ideally) leaving it quiet enough to write or reflect.

valencia spain cafe tea croissant

Both Alyssa and I started going to cafes alone as college students, and we admitted to one another that it felt a little daring. An hour alone, with no one to answer to, feels secret, almost illicit in a delightful way. Alyssa added, “I used to get the same feeling riding my bike all over Boise when I was growing up. No one waiting for me anywhere.” That comment reminded me of one of my favorite, most visceral memories of my year in Oxford: riding my bike through town, the wind in my hair, bag slung over my shoulder, often heading toward something or someone, but completely free and independent for the moment. In these hours alone, we are still interacting with the world, and yet we belong to nobody but ourselves.

Do you spend time in cafes (or other public places) alone? Do you love it for these reasons, or for others?

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