Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bicycles and Escapism

France - Paris1942
[image via collectvelo]

A little while ago I came across this beautiful old photo of three Parisian ladies with their bicycles. How happy they look, how carefree - it was a picture that put a nostalgic smile on my face... until I noticed the date, which was 1942. Carefree Parisians giggling on their bikes during nazi occupation? Historically, the photo did not make sense. I was not the only one to notice the discrepancy, and soon comments began appearing below the image, such as "It looks [as if] nothing happened in France during the war?" and "odd, they didn't care the Germans were occupying their city?" The person who posted the photo then explained that it was a publicity shot from a 1942 fashion show, "Journée de `l'élégance à bicyclette." Now it made more sense: The image was intentionally designed to be one of much needed make-believe - suggesting the sort of light-hearted existence that was very far removed from the realities of actual life in Paris at the time. The bicycle here was used as a symbol of escapism.

Looking at contemporary visual narratives involving bicycles, my mind keeps drifting back to this photo and I cannot help but see a connection. While analysts have attempted to explain the current trendiness of cycling with economic and environmental factors, that never rang entirely true to me. There is an undercurrent of hysteria in both the commercial, political and personal focus on the bicycle we see today that goes beyond practical concerns and even aesthetic interests. It is as if the very idea of bicycles - in its deep-rooted association with a simpler, more innocent era and also in its inherent promise of mobility - has the power to reduce anxiety, which could explain its popularity (and marketability?) during times of heightened uncertainty, threat, and social unrest.

39 comments:

  1. "While analysts have attempted to explain the current trendiness of cycling with economic and environmental factors, that never rang entirely true to me. There is an undercurrent of hysteria in both the commercial, political and personal focus on the bicycle we see today that goes beyond practical concerns and even aesthetic interests. It is as if the very idea of bicycles - in its deep-rooted association with a simpler, more innocent era and also in its inherent promise of mobility - has the power to reduce anxiety, which could explain its popularity (and marketability?) during times of heightened uncertainty, threat, and social unrest."

    I see it as all the same on this great big marble.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So did the retreat of cycling come at a time when people felt more secure?

    I would have thought the car was a more defensive vehicle - but it's true I've found riding the bike in place of driving the car rests my own soul and makes me feel safer in my world.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I completely agree with you! This is such a great little post. It seems that today in such a terrible economic climate and a world beset by social problems, we need a little escapism from the harsh realities of life, so we naturally backpedal into a simpler, purer time. (Backpedal, ha, a pun!) Riding makes you feel giddy and almost child-like in a sense. You don't need a licence to do it, and it can be done anywhere...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lots of French people did welcome the Nazis and even more folks were indifferent to the occupation. If you add in the cowards, you get 99% of the population. "Collaboration" was rampant. "Resistants" were a tiny minority and were the Al Quaida (terrorists) of that era. Fascism was in full swing in people's minds especially in its lighter, toned-down version, exactly as you can see now, again, in the entire Europe (Norway anyone?). Fascism is deeply rooted in Europe and was never eradicated. In plenty of places, tons of Nazis continued on living normal lives and went unpunished. Well, you know Austria, so I assume (again!) you know what I am talking about.
    Nazism didn't happen to Europe. Europe greatly contributed to its happening. Nazism was democratically voted to power. And by the way, its little contemporary avatars are slowly getting there too.

    It does not surprise me that in 1942, carefree elegant Parisian women felt comfortable, happy enough to giggle on fashion pictures.

    "There is an undercurrent of hysteria in both the commercial, political and personal focus on the bicycle we see today that goes beyond practical concerns and even aesthetic interests."

    I totally agree.
    However I see that hysteria rooted in the funny feeling that this time, as a specie, we may not make it (think dinosaurs).
    There is an emergency, lots of people are tuning in and there is this urge to do something concrete, right now. something that produces immediate results.
    Cheaper, green, fitness, now! You just need to step on that bike. It is so easy and yields powerful immediate results.
    People are hysterical about cycling because it is a huge part of the solution.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interesting topic. I'm not sure if I can come up with any comments that are as well stated as Velouria's. I am glad to hear that cycling is currently becoming trendy, this I didn't realize, I thought my recent interest was due to making personal choices to do what I love, regardless of where it takes me financially or what other people think. There has always been a small percentage of individuals that have followed this path. I came back to cycling, something I loved but was discouraged from when much younger, initially because of my own poorer economic status which is not due to the loss of a job, but to the choice of taking a less stressful and currently lower paying position. Less money gave me an excuse in a way, to ride bikes again, for transportation, but now I ride daily, whether I have any where in particular to go or not. There is a real thrill and freedom felt when I ride. The obsession I have, with beautiful vintage bikes I am not sure where oy comes from, although I suppose it is a form of expression, as one does sort of 'wear' their bike. Cycling literally does alleviate anxiety (as do other forms of aerobic exercise) and in my case also relieves a personal fear of cardiovascular disease which I am genetically prone to. Now I realize I am also trendy. I am fine with this. Hopefully more people will arrange their lives so that they can ride a bike every day.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Paris during the war was used by the Germans as an R&R destination for troops. The Nazis had very good reason to try to portay normalcy.

    For example - though the organizers of the 1940 Tour de France cancelled the event after the invasion, by 1942 the Germans assembled their own Circuit de France and tried throughout the war to keep some kind of bicycle event happening.

    To quote Dooley Wilson in Casablanca ..."That sho take the sting out of occupation".

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nice post! Very little makes me happier than pedaling a bicycle. That's why I pedal. All those other reasons float around my head and heart, but more often than not a climb onto a saddle because it is fun.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Interesting idea. For me the bicycle is less about escapism and more about empowerment. You can't fix the problems of the world, hell you can't even fix your own car these days, but you can fix your bike. You can do something about your health by riding a bike, you can help the environment, you can help your personal finances by ditching the car, and so on. That's a lot of simultaneous reasons to feel good because you're doing something(s) good.

    BTW I've been fascinated to read in BQ about some of the randonneuring that happened in France during the war. Perhaps for such cyclists it was a form of resistance? b

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow, what a fascinating post! Speaking from my own personal experience, I would say that you are dead on target. Compared to automobiles (and computers, cell phones, etc.), bicycles are very simple machines, and if mine breaks down, I can fix it with relatively little effort and minimal cost. Riding makes me feel free and slows down the pace of my day. It also takes me back to my childhood, which was, for me, most definitely a simpler, more innocent era.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Montrealize - Yes, I know about the split allegiances of France and other occupied European countries during WWII, both through my personal background and from history. It is complicated as you say. But: Having seen countless personal photos from that period, this one with the French women did not look right to me. No one took personal photos like that during the war; even collaborators were nervous. Even German personal snapshots (except those of high officials at formal events) from that period don't look like this. The fashion industry during WWII is another thing altogether, and there are fascinating accounts of how it was used to control the emotional climate of populations.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Montrealize should take more care before writing such ill-informed and offensive nonsense. Millions of Europeans, and Russians, died fighting Nazism. The French, for the most part, detested the invading German army, and still energetically celebrate the anniversaries of when they got kicked out. And the Resistance (not resistants) were, through their immense courage, instrumental in helping to kick them out. There were indeed collaborators in France during the war, including the Vichy government. Very many were executed when the war ended - they were profoundly hated.
    These are very bad, very wrong, comments and should not have been made so carelessly.

    ReplyDelete
  12. You are reading far too much in this picture. As Montrealize and Velodog say, life in France, and especially Paris, remained relatively normal and so was riding your bike. It wasn't all Anne Frank. So yes, fashion shoots "what to wear on your bike this season" were not really abnormal or for propaganda. Although the petrol rationing may have had something to do with it. People probably cycled a bit more than they would have otherwise. Only Americans think cycling is for fun; millions of people elsewhere do it for transportation.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "The fashion industry during WWII is another thing altogether, and there are fascinating accounts of how it was used to control the emotional climate of populations."

    Isn't it what we call "propaganda"?
    Is it really ANY different than today really? Personally I don't find. Levels of manipulation are even worse today. See, back in the day, people could tell propaganda from reality, even when it was well done.
    Today so many people have lost that distance and even cheap see-through techniques/manipulations manage to convince majorities of people. Lots of people have lost the connection to reality so the bullshit we can make them swallow is cruder than ever. i.e. Creationism, mass destruction weapons in Irak (love this one) denial of global warming etc.

    Those who push cycling have to pedal upstream against all of this, thus the hysteria.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hmmm, I see what you are saying to a certain degree, but still I find something distatsteful about the whole idea of something being "Trendy" Is there a trend? Well certainly, but is it a fashion concious "me too" mentality or is it mearly a by-product of current social, environmental and economic climate? I tend to think the later! I was born at the tail end of the Baby boom, but well before the Me genertation, Generation X, etc. My generation was one that worshiped the automobile and many of us embraced the freedom that was embodied by getting our drivers License. Kids today don't really care to drive, especially if they have somebody to do it for them! Let's face it, these days driving a car is an expensive responibility! I understand it! Before I had a car I skateboarded and biked around, my parents where happy for me to get my drivers Lisence so I could take my little sister to school and they could be relieved of that responsibility! Another reason I think many people are taking to transportaional cycling, is that many people who are loosing their jobs are at an age where they can technically take early retirement, but they are not really ready to "retire". You see them working at Home Depot or Walmart, etc. Many of these people are former professionals who still see the need to have a job, but don't want the pressure cooker or don't need a high paying job, just a little something to supplement their incomes that's not stressful. The fact that it's fun and maybe reminds them of their younger days and is good for you are probably just the icing on the cake!

    MASMOJO

    ReplyDelete
  15. I certainly agree with you-choosing to ride a bicycle is a way to escape from some very troubling current realities, both social and personal. When you hop on your bicycle, you neither have to consume gas (thus contributing to the global demand for oil) nor pay for it yourself (thus decreasing your own assets, which, for many people, decreases overall well-being). And riding your bicycle, particularly in the city, involves so much concentration that it allows you to escape from whatever may be bothering you, albeit temporarily.

    I agree that the current obsession with cycling is just that: an obsession, which by its very nature contains an element of hysteria. But I wonder how much of that is escape, and how much of it is other things. I see the cycling community as a kind of identity group, and I believe that being a part of a group is very desirable for some/most people.

    Being a cyclist, at least for some people, implies that you have a certain set of political or social beliefs and personal attributes. A part of me thinks that cycling is not just something you do, but something you are.

    Anyway, thanks for this interesting post!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Velouria said...
    "There is an undercurrent of hysteria in both the commercial, political and personal focus on the bicycle we see today that goes beyond practical concerns and even aesthetic interests."

    Very astute and accurate observation, Velouria.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "Is it the romance of the object in the age of information...or just the collective abandonment of larger ambitions?" (http://catandgirl.com/?p=2583)

    ReplyDelete
  18. "...to reduce anxiety..." Biking certainly helps with that. I recommend to everyone to ride your bike to the dentist. Then you can keep on smiling while the cavitron is having fun inside of your mouth. (Real life experience shared.)

    ReplyDelete
  19. Cycling in Paris during the German occupation was multi-faceted:

    - It served as transportation as no gasoline was available. There even were bicycle taxis.

    - Many Jews and others fled to the "Free Zone" by bike, for example, the constructeur Narcisse.

    - For many avid cyclists, cycling clubs became support networks. They helped each other procure the goods needed for daily life, they organized rides to the country to barter for food, and they competed as a sort of "inner emigration," to distract themselves from the daily hardships in the company of people they could trust.

    My friend Paulette Porthault told me that it was a very hard time, but also a time of joy as they helped one another and found out who truly was a friend. See also

    http://janheine.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/the-aunt/

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm totally escaping on my bike. Though I love cycling anyway it has kept me sane during this time of uncertainty in our nation. Several of my family members and friends have been hit by unemployment, housing loss, or reduced income [or a combination of these]. Everyone I talk to is worried about the future. We all need something to ground us and keep us going. For me its my bicycles.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Escape is mostly what I use my bicycle for! I've read that some folks like horseback riding, but cycling is lots more affordable and can be practiced in public places.

    I find walking seems medieval in comparison and doesn't really offer the same sort of escape as cycling.

    :0)

    ReplyDelete
  22. I find both to be true....I can't afford a car, but it's also pleasurable to bike. In these times of poverty, I escape by pedaling, but I also get my stuff done.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Many Jews and others fled to the "Free Zone" by bike, for example, the constructeur Narcisse.

    That's how the creators of Curious George escaped from Paris to Spain.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @ Anonymous 8:36

    "Millions of Europeans, and Russians, died fighting Nazism."

    Right.
    Yet, just as many people if not more didn't do a damn against it and even praised it with passion. Plenty a nazi/collabo went on to live a very peaceful and quiet life ever after and were never bothered.

    "The French, for the most part, detested the invading German army"

    False. The majority didn't care or composed quite ok with the nazis, turned a blind eye to what happened. This belief is the result of propaganda. Their ego was hust by the defeat though, this for sure.

    "and still energetically celebrate the anniversaries of when they got kicked out."

    Again, propaganda.
    That's just for the record, for the image. This reversal of posture only started when it became clear the americans were going to come to the rescue (even though their intervention was purely economically motivated).
    THEN all the rats started coming out of their hidings and a humongous movement of later-day resistants, and courageous fighters of the 25th hour.

    However, most great industrial conglomerates of the day (plenty still in business) profiteered like there was no tomorrw.
    Heck, ever Henry Ford did, with a Furher picture on his desk, and he was across the pond so imagine those in situ!

    "And the Resistance (not resistants) were, through their immense courage, instrumental in helping to kick them out."

    Oh, "Resistance" is the name of the "movement". "Resistants" are the people. I am talking here about the people.

    Resistants were nothing but small groups of terrorists. What transforms mere terrorists into heroes is whether their cause wins in the eyes of History.
    The Resistants were a tiny group of people who faught guerilla style. That's it. Put a bomb here. Sabotage a phone line here. Intercept messages. Etc. ETA or Zapatista style. Nothing more. They had plenty of courage but limited means. They had everybody against them, starting with their very own countrymen.
    They, on their own would never have kicked the Nazis out.
    Fate had it that they won because the US found it in their interest to step into the affair. They were on the good side of History and they are heroes now. Otherwise, they would have passed into History as one of the many "groupuscules" claiming to fight for freedom but who lost. History is written by the winners, always.

    I am glad by the way that things came out the way they did, otherwise I would not be here and I would never have met my husband (even though, given that some in his family practiced "horizontal collaboration" maybe they would have come ahead anyways).

    Yet, this does not mean that my feelings about the issue of Nazism should change anything to the facts and reality.

    ReplyDelete
  25. @ Anonymous 8:36

    (For some reason, I could not post in one piece)

    "There were indeed collaborators in France during the war, including the Vichy government. Very many were executed when the war ended - they were profoundly hated."

    LOL. This is the most hilarious part of your response.
    Within Europe, so many Nazis stayed put after their movement's downfall, especially Austria, it is a total joke. Plenty more got exfiltrated to Argentina, Uruguay etc. with the Vatican's help and blessing (do a search on "La route des rats", in English "Ratlines"). In the name national reconciliation and such, investigations were never pushed far, only few people got executed... And then, everything was shushed. People stopped mentioning things, everybody wanted to forget. And then the 60s prosperity kicked in and peope moved on.

    "These are very bad, very wrong, comments and should not have been made so carelessly."

    What makes you think they were careless?
    You are entitled to your views, but rest assured that I am also entitled to mine and you would be surprised how closer to reality I am.
    You may want to grab a history book or two, I recommand Annie Lacroix-Riz, but most importantly, get some real FIRST-HAND accounts (not governmental propaganda). There are still people alive who can tell you.
    At least, I do have some in my family and among my in-laws.

    It is strongly held beliefs such as the ones you detailed above that prevent people from understanding what exactly happened recently in Norway all the while creating the very conditions for all of it to happen again.
    The real nazis were, and still are allowed to go under the radar while everyone "commemorates".

    Now, here is not the place for suc hdiscussions anyways, back to cycling...

    ReplyDelete
  26. "Lots of people have lost the connection to reality so the bullshit we can make them swallow is cruder than ever. i.e. Creationism, mass destruction weapons in Irak (love this one) denial of global warming etc. Those who push cycling have to pedal upstream against all of this, thus the hysteria. "


    Some of those who advocate cycling also have to pedal upstream against those who think that cycling is synonymous with accepting the above ideologies as given facts.

    ReplyDelete
  27. A scene from a classic among classics: La Grande Vadrouille.

    http://youtu.be/8jneSOJVF1I

    BTW, it is worth it to watch the entire movie.
    So yeah, bikes were also mere transports.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Who are you to know "what recently happened in Norway"? Do you judge a whole nation from one mad mans actions? Did you look into how the rest of the Norwegians reacted? Empty drums make the most noice. Could you plse stop poluting this BICYCLE blog w your nonsens? Thank you.
    badmother

    ReplyDelete
  29. Going back to bikes- yes, I think Veloria is right about glamorizing something like bikes during tough times. It makes it acceptable and more palatable.

    What I worry about is five or ten years down the road, twenty (or what ever when) we are back to being prosperous. SUV's will make a comeback and the muscle car. The bike will go back to being for poor people and/or children's play things. There is a theory that gasoline will never see low prices again which may change the landscape, but who knows.

    For now though, bikes are becoming trendy again and I'm all for it. If it gets some life long converts.. YAY

    ReplyDelete
  30. Montrealize, even those who sympathize with your views will cringe at the harshness of your tone and apparent lack of tolerance for other views. Tolerance and patience will do more for your advocacy. You win more flies with honey than vinegar etc.

    ReplyDelete
  31. The issues of allegiances that some of you are raising are part of a debate that historians have dedicated their entire academic careers to. I do not think that we can (or should) try to settle it here on my little bicycle blog.

    This point aside, I think it is fairly accurate to say that regardless of whose side one was on, and regardless of whether one's wartime experience was "all Anne Frank" or not, living in a European country during WWII was stressful and full of uncertainty for the great majority of people.

    Montrealize - Please read this before you post further comments here. I value your point of view and don't want to start moderating out your comments. But please cut down on the hostility of tone.

    ReplyDelete
  32. V., Yours sounds like an interesting theory, but I'm not sure exactly what phenomenon you are referring to. Do you mean the consumerism-the new businesses that are popping up with way-highend clothes, etc.? You make me curious about dealers such as Wheelworks. I would be interested in knowing if/how much of a bump they have had in business, and what kind of bikes are "trendy."

    ReplyDelete
  33. Velouria and neighbourtease

    I am sorry, I did not want to be harsh, I merely wanted to address the following two assertions:

    "Montrealize should take more care before writing such ill-informed and offensive nonsense."

    "These are very bad, very wrong, comments and should not have been made so carelessly."

    None of what I said was offensive, ill-informed, nonesense or careless.
    As Velouria said "The issues of allegiances that some of you are raising are part of a debate that historians have dedicated their entire academic careers to." This is absolutely true.
    And everything I said perfectly squares with what lots of academics have demonstrated (let alone real first hand accounts).
    That some do not agree/like it or see it differently is perfectly legitimate, but does not make it offensive ill-informed, nonesense or careless, nor does it change the facts.

    The original post was about a picture, and that picture was taken in 1942. I do not feel anything I said was off topic considering that fact.
    This period of the history was not all that bad for lots of people which in my view is important to understand why the picture Velouria posted can be perfectly plausible and not necessarily the result of any particular manipulation. It can perfectly be a normal standard fashion picture.

    "Historically, the photo did not make sense."
    Based on lots of serious historians, yes it did.
    Based on personal accounts as well. I actually have seen more than one real private pictures (i.e. non-fashion, non-commercial) at people's places (in Latin America though, in Europe, people are still too ashamed and did not keep them anyways), of people's grandparents actually cheering, laughing and partying joyfully, champagne in hand together with German officers. Non-prostitution related either. Plenty of artists did that, high society folks, business people. At the "Libération" most got away pretty nice or escaped taking "la route des rats" and made a good life in South America.

    Lots of such pictures got destroyed when the winds started to blow the other way. One of my in-laws, a rather old lady, was a young maid back then and tells amazing stories of that period, among which having to spend nights with her mistress burning documents, letters and similar pictures in the fireplace!

    In my view, this might explain why that picture above seems odd for some. The discrepancy Velouria interpreted as escapism, has a lot lot to do with the rarity of such images (nobody wants to get caught right?) rather that any specific propaganda.

    As for the tone, I am sorry I did no mean for it to be hostile. I actually do not find it hostile at all but I'll try to be more careful with choice of words.

    ReplyDelete
  34. @ Anoymous 2:53

    In the 24 hours following the Norvegian events, in the media, plenty of serious analysts, editorialists, experts etc. attributed the attacks to Al Quaida, the easy and usual suspect. I am mostly talking about French and Brit media, didn't follow US reactions.
    http://www.acrimed.org/article3637.html

    When it became clear that it was an internal operation by a right wing fascist man, they all became speechless not knowing what to say or how to analyse the events.
    That's because two things have happened to fascism since WWII:
    Propaganda tried to make people believe it was something only "they" did, and that "they" were a tiny minority now difunct while "we" were all innocent and pure. Old school hardcore fascism was dead. Far from the truth.
    Second, lots of fascist ideas have been toned/watered down and became very mainstream, i.e.under the radar. Several mainstream intellectuals are associated to the criminal via his manifesto (they're all trying to minimise and back pedal now). Plenty of people unknowingly sport very fascist ideas without even realising it.

    That's all I meant.
    I am not passing any judgement on Norway or the Norvegians. Could have happened anywhere in Europe, especially in France where the climate is at its worst.

    We are living very dangerous times, in many ways very similar to the 1930s. Actually we are back in the 30s. Things could tip very easily in the wrong direction.
    Everybody subliminally perceives it one way or another. There is something extremely creepy cooking below the surface.

    I feel that this is what is fueling the cycling hysteria Velouria analysed.
    You can feel it in other fields as well. Horseback riding classes, outdoor/scout stuff, home wine making, solar pannels, sewing classes, community gardening etc. Folks are "preparing" for after.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Thanks for both a stimulating original post, and an informative follow up discussion. The issues of allegiance, escapism, perception, and choosing what we want to see, pay attention to, remember, or forget are fascinating. Any discussion of them is likely to be unsettling, because they make us question assumptions and examine our own perceptions and behavior. I learned from the thread, even the parts I found difficult to read.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Perhaps the women were discussing their recent enjoyable visit to one of Paris's many theatres, cinemas, dance halls and other places of entertainment which stayed open throughout the occupation.

    ReplyDelete
  37. The booksellers along the quays in front of Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle in Paris sell a lot of old bike posters and photos. This pic is commonly seen on their racks. I've looked at them a number of times and have never seen a date or any info on the ones they are selling. How is it that someone has a 1942 date on this? Have you seen anywhere this is confirmed as being 1942? I don't doubt the story, just curious.

    ReplyDelete
  38. I really liked the post, really very nostalgic that pic is. It's true that you must escape at least for a day from these all time busy, over crowded network and busy roads and schedule.
    Thanks for sharing the pic.

    ReplyDelete