It had to be one of the dumbest – and most exciting – things I’ve ever done.
It also turned out to be one of the best.
In a world where people routinely leap from cliffs, bridges, and the tops of skyscrapers with barely a shred of nylon tied to their backs… travel into regions rife with civil war and wasting diseases… and bet fortunes on securities designed to fail… it wasn’t the most insane thing a person can do. But on a personal scale of 1 (harmless) to 10 (suicidal) in my First World Ultra-Responsible Dependent-Supporting Adult Life, it was around a 9.75.
One March morning, while running late for important meetings at my employer’s headquarters just outside Paris, France, I hopped on the back of a stranger’s Honda ST1300 sport touring motorcycle taxi (a “moto taxi” for hire at Charles de Gaulle Airport), and raced at top speed through heavy Paris-bound traffic. My driver was not losing any time, and in the process of getting where we were going very, very fast, we violated about as many rules of common sense and motorcycle safety, as I can think of.
What took place on that day was one of the few times in my half-century of “adventure living” when I was pretty much convinced I was going to die. I tend to err on the side of risk in my life, diving into nascent industries and emerging technologies with gusto… taking on challenges at work that most shy away from… and running multiple side businesses on a shoestring – one of them a national presence for nearly 20 years running. But I don’t often deliberately put myself directly in harm’s way. When it comes to my daily adventures, I have One Rule: Make it home for dinner. That overcast day in March, 2014, was one of those times when I wasn’t at all sure if I was going to make it home. Or make it anywhere – especially for dinner.
You might ask yourself, why the hell would anyone get on the back of a motorcycle, driven by a total stranger, and race at top speed between clogged lanes of a highway far from home, weaving through stalled traffic, just inches away from surrounding vehicles – and narrowly missing disaster not once, but more times than I can count? It was practically a death wish. At the very least, it was a really Bad Idea. What the hell was I thinking?
But if you’ve ever flown into Charles de Gaulle (CDG for short) in France, and then tried to get to Paris by car, you’ll probably understand why I did it. If you’ve ever been racing the clock on official business anywhere in the world, only to be faced by a seemingly insurmountable crush of stopped traffic, you’ll probably be able to relate, too. It wasn’t my finest (or worst) hour, but it happened.
And I lived to tell about it.
So, you may ask, what’s all this got to do with Zen, the French, Life, and everything else in the subtitle? And why should you invest the next x-number of hours in reading about my stupidity?
Well, here’s the thing with regard to the French – in my extended experience of dealing with Europeans both personally and professionally, since the late 1980s, I’ve learned a whole lot about what works and what doesn’t. And since working almost daily with French colleagues from 2010 to 2014, I’ve learned even more. I’ve watched movies and read a bunch of books. Everything from Peter Mayle to Pamela Druckerman to Stephen Clarke, and a bunch of more obscure (yet no less enthusiastic) Francophile confessionalists. And yet there’s nothing like climbing on the back of a very powerful motorcycle, and spending 40 mind-numbingly intense minutes with a crazy Frenchman, to make real the lessons you gleaned from mere words on a page.
As for Zen, I’m not sure I can – or should – speak to that. By its very nature, Zen precludes discussion of itself. Of course, you’d never know it from looking through Buddhist scriptures – or going online – and hearing so many voices coming up with so many different versions of truth about All Things Zen. Putting a finger on the particularly “Zen” aspects of life experience is a little like trying to get a small piece of shell out of the eggs you’re scrambling. It’s slippery business, and if you’re not careful, you can end up wearing your breakfast before it’s cooked. But that doesn’t keep any of us from trying. Those of you who are into the Four Noble Truths and who tread the Eightfold Path with glee may find plenty to hold your attention. I’ll leave it to my readers to do your own finger-pointing at what I’m mooning about.
Regarding Life, well, nothing makes it sweeter than a passing brush with death. And nothing makes your near miss seem more dramatic, than writing a book about it after you’re safely back at home.
And as for motorcycles… I’m not a regular rider, and a lot of what I say in the coming pages may make that pretty clear. Let the record show that I do actually regret making the choice to hop on that moto taxi. I understand why I did it in the moment, and it eventually came to make perfect sense in a pragmatically twisted sort of way, but the record should also show I will never, ever do it again. At least, not that way. There were too many close calls, and I was eminently unprepared for the ride I took – or the potential consequences.
Let the record also show that I do not recommend that anyone without motorcycle riding experience follow in my footsteps. I’m clearly not going to stop you if you decide to do this stupid/crazy thing called being an inexperienced rider who hops on the back of a motorcycle with an unfamiliar, untested driver in a foreign country, and tears down the road at top speeds through snarled traffic. If you do this, yourself, and you get maimed, killed, or castrated… well, that’s on you. Consult your significant other. Consult your doctor. Consult your lawyer. But if you do what I did and it ends badly for you, leave me out of it.
Then again, if you’re an experienced rider – either driving or riding pillion (as a passenger) – taking a motorcycle from the airport to Paris could be the ideal way to get around. It’s probably a great way to get around the city and see the sights, too. (I’ve posted a lot of videos at my blog http://zenmotoparisfrance.com/ of people doing just that.) Sure, it’s a little more expensive than a regular taxi – maybe 20 euros more on the trip from the airport – but for the time it saves you and the feeling of being out in the open, instead of inside a stuffy cab, I think it’s well worth it. Moto taxis are fast, convenient, and they can be a lot of fun. If your pilot knows what he/she is doing on two wheels, and you’re comfortable on the back of a bike, I say go for it.
In any case, if you do decide to try it for yourself, make sure you have ample travel insurance that covers repatriating your remains to your home country, as well as providing for your funeral and the future welfare of your loved ones. After all, French motorcycle riders are – to be indelicate and possibly impolitic – fucking crazy. And you’re not going to be the one driving.