The Force Is With Us

The Force Is With Us

The Force Is With Us
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 20 2003 4:02 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Paris. Today's audio: Project director Sylvain Pernin describes his Segway epiphany, and its rewards. Today's surround video: The plaza of St.-Germain-des-Prés is one of the cultural centers of Europe.

Tad teaches a designer working on the project how to ride.
Tad teaches a designer working on the project how to ride.
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As I write this, Amanda is sitting cross-legged in a chair by our hotel room window, eating petits fours out of a pink box from Ladurée and reading French Vogue. "Who are you, Kate Moss?" she murmured just now, staring at the supermodel's druggie-chic cover photo. I laughed, and then saw that the cover line was actually, "Qui êtes-vous, Kate Moss?"

Only the French, still in thrall to the nouvelle vague's belief that style is character, would expect that a two-page magazine article should plumb Kate Moss' soul, and that its failure to do so might even be—Qui êtes-vous, Kate? Qui? Qui?—cause for despair. In America, we expect only to audit Moss' newest incarnation. She is not a soul to be understood but an amalgam of views and accomplishments to be downloaded. Ever practical, our cover line would read, "Newly Fit and Focused, Kate Moss Talks—About Sex, Men, and How She Stays So Thin."

The French have Voltaire and Sartre; we have Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison. Of course, we have philosophers, too (Will Rogers, Fred Rogers), and they innovators (the French invented pasteurization, coquille St.-Jacques, and the Maginot line, along with two or three other things). But it is universally understood that an educated Frenchman's cultural role is to be the philosophe who produces nothing but can explain everything, while an educated American's—mais, quel paradoxe—is to be the idiot savant who can fashion wondrous things (DDT, thalidomide, bunker-buster bombs) but always uses them incorrectly.

Some of these thoughts occurred to me as Amanda, Christian, and I were Segwaying this afternoon from the Hôtel Bel Ami on the Left Bank to the Radisson on the right. We had gotten comfortable enough on the machines to use the advanced "red key" to start them up, meaning we could now travel at their top speed, 12.5 miles per hour. We crossed the bone-colored crushed gravel paths of the Tuileries, rising and falling over the small ridges as if we were riding through the desert, three abreast in our raincoats, and Christian said, "Star Wars police." It was the perfect image. At the next crosswalk, Amanda said, "It's funny you said that. I was just thinking that all the other people there on foot looking at us were like the weird creatures in Star Wars, and we were the normal ones: Luke, and Leia, and Han Solo."

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Christian stands erect in his Segway with an absentminded air, like a man out walking his dog: He is Han Solo. Amanda grips her handlebars, lowers her head, and braces her legs as if she's manning the helm during a fierce sou'wester: She, clearly, is Leia. And I like to push the speed limit and slalom between bollards or oblivious pedestrians, but sometimes I lose the Force and bang a curbstone: I am Luke.

The assumption that we are the normal ones is not shared by Parisians: They see us as the circus come to town. Along the Champs Elysées, I parked my Segway against a tree and went to look at a milelong exhibition of French trains, from a stunningly restored old Wagons-Lits parlor car to the newest TGV locomotive. When I returned, there were 13 people gathered around Christian and Amanda; all of them had come to walk the railway timeline, all of them were now much more interested in the Segway. I found myself giving a Segway lesson to a friendly man named Jean, explaining with great authority the techniques I'd learned the day before. An orotund, P.T. Barnum-ish note came into my voice, and I found myself accepting Jean's praise as my own just due. Simply by being American, and in temporary possession of a Segway, I felt at least partially responsible for its reverse-torque braking mechanism.

Near Place Clemenceau, a policeman sitting with a few colleagues in a white van gestured to us to halt then put on his cap and squared it before stepping out to address us. You're not supposed to ride Segways in the street, as we had briefly been doing. As we discovered this morning, when we went shopping in the Sixth Arrondissement for shoes (Amanda) and birthday presents (that is, shoes), it's much easier and more fun to blast down an alley on your Segway rather than beetle it along the tiny, crammed sidewalks.

As it turned out, this policeman simply wanted to understand what the hell this thing was. As Amanda explained the Segway's specifications, he nodded as if it all had been foreseen. Young and assured, he had roses in his cheeks and an air of good humor. He touched the machine. "Anglais?" he asked.

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"Americain," I said.

"Beh!" He gestured and walked away—then turned back with a grin. A crowd had gathered by now, and he was enjoying the audience, embracing his cultural role as the true interpreter.

"Who uses them?" he asked.

I explained that police at the Atlanta airport and the Los Angeles Mass Transit Authority were using them for security patrols. In a confusion of bad French, I used the word "flics" for cops—slang roughly equivalent to calling an American policeman a "pig." He smiled, enjoying the gaucherie, then turned his mouth down at the corners (not for us, such vehicles). An older woman in a lime-green raincoat walked by and assessed the situation: the Star Wars police being interrogated by the real police. "Is it an American thing?" she asked.

"Yes," the policeman said, pausing with the relish of a man who knows he's about to get off a zinger. "But for an American—not bad."

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Tad Friend, our mobile correspondent for "Segways in Paris," has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and now writes the magazine's "Letter From California."