A pink bike leans on the railing of a bridge in St. Paul, MN's Highland Park neighborhood.

Today in St. Paul

There are about three layers of clothing in my possession that have not been touched for a long time. I put them all on today: first, the black long underwear. Then a t-shirt from high school, and finally, an oversized blue windbreaker that was a hand-me-down from my dad. I pulled all of these articles from my — that’s right, my — closet, wheeled my bike and its freshly pumped tires to the alleyway and got on.

There was one totally new article with me that had yet to function in Minnesota: my camera. It had seen a nice handful of places, but never home.

On Monday, I landed in Minneapolis after nearly 15 months away from the Twin Cities. I spent 11 of them working as an au pair in Paris, two of them scrambling as a copywriter at a startup in Barcelona, Spain, and the remaining 1.5 months traveling from place to place; from Coimbra, Portugal to Marrakech, Morocco to Berlin, among other cities.

And of course, the craziest journey of all was the one back to where I had started. Except, unlike when I left, it was cold and all of the vegetation was dead. And we had a new president-elect.

So, it was time to get back on the bike.

Lines

Montreal Hill was about twice as wide as I remembered it. My skinny tires crossed concrete seams as I sped down it faster than I remembered doing before. In Paris, I discovered within my first five days there, most streets are just wide enough for one car to fit through; no door-opening room or swerving-around-bikes room. And traffic moved quickly and jerkily; people were assertive in their driving rather than passive-aggressive.

I crossed West 7th and rounded the curve toward Shepard Road. Here, there is so much empty space, I thought. Unused lots and parking lots and bulky, empty buildings lined the streets like Minnesotans — too shy and apprehensive to get closed to each other, and because there’s enough space to get around, they did not have to.

In Barcelona, the buildings stood smooshed together, with apartments so close that the abuelas could have full teatime discussions while hanging their laundry on their respective clotheslines. One of my favorite things to watch was how the buildings in the Barceloneta neighborhood layered in front of and behind one another, each one a different color; a deep pink or a soft orange; a bouquet of buildings by the beach.

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The flooding cold lake in the middle of my hometown St. Paul’s Crosby Park.
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The warm beach in Sitges, Spain.

Before the light was green, I crossed the road to Crosby Park. All of the trees were bare and brown. The ground was muddy. The sun shown brightly on the big pond’s surface (and I say “big pond” because we also have plenty of lakes to go around here), but at 2 p.m. it already looked like it was fading, or would be soon.

But, let’s face it, it was getting dark early on the other side of the world too. And I should probably stop trying to compare these places, anyway.

Day five

After I arrived in Paris, I wrote a blog post about the first five days I spent there. Unlike in recent memory, each day was full of completely new things. Back home in St. Paul, I could already feel myself falling into my old routine. I would wake up and tune into the same radio station; go running along the same set of streets as before; eat the same foods from Aldi for lunch and open up my computer at the same time of night to soak up some Netflix before bed.

After 15 months of adventure, everything is suddenly predictable. Should I run for it or should I try to embrace it?

Or should I bike in time with it? I switched gears as I jittered over the uneven path in the woods, holding my cork-wrapped handlebars like they had never left my grasp. I do not remember the last time I rode my bike through Crosby, but riding my bike was almost a daily affair before I left home. They say you never forget how to ride a bike … .

I think it’s hard to un-forget your routine, too. If you have lived in a place almost your whole life, it sculpts a way of living in you. I do not think it is very feasible to completely re-design how you live when you get home, especially if you don’t have to.

Participants

Before returning to Paris for my flight home, my roommate from Barcelona and I drove from her family’s home in Switzerland through the south of France and into Spain, making it back to Barcelona after 11 hours on the road. We spent one last day there, biking around the city to take in the nieghborhoods we would miss. Then we returned to the apartment and packed all of her belongings into the car, emptying the apartment of everything that had made it ours. When we were done, we brought a grocery store bottle of cava to the beach and drank it as we watched the endless black space that is the Mediterranean at night.

Both of us were returning home because working at the startup that had brought us to Spain turned out not to be a livable choice. We would both be living in our childhood cities, with (or in her case, near) our parents, and surrounded by the people and places we had spent most of our time with before.

“I am going to try to go to places where I do not know a single person,” my roommate resolved. Even if she knew plenty of people at home and they were asking her why the heck she wanted to do that.

Because, she and I agreed, being in a place where everything is new has showed us how to live a life in which we’re active participants. This is something we do not want to lose when we’re home, though it already seemed like it would be all too easy to.

So, the reason why I put on those extra layers and took my bike through the woods and then along the river toward the small yet rising skyline of St. Paul, Minnesota, was because I wanted to do something that I had not done before. OK, actually, I had done this before, but it was in no way part of my routine. And I brought my camera, stopping along the way just as I had on walks though strange cities to capture some moments of life there so I could try to look at it with new eyes.

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Local landmark: The old Schmidt Brewery tower in St. Paul.
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Last week’s local landmark: Paris’s Panthéon.

As I pedaled closer to the center, rhythm steady and hands firmly on the bars, I was not quite excited but I was content. A friend of mine went on a bike ride with me before I left and noticed I was cycling in high gear, and suggested I shift down a few notches and ride at a steady rhythm with some fluidity in my pedals. For the last month, hopping from city to city with a small suitcase and a backpack (it was originally just supposed to be a backpack but then Barcelona happened), I had been in high gear.

It is Day Five back in the City of Large Ponds. Now, it’s time to find a new rhythm.

//

Photos: Home, near and far

All places are not the same. Still, whether I was 7,000 miles away or just a bike ride from home, there were some sights that made me think of others. Like:

Paths centered in the frame

Clockwise from upper left:  A path down a main street in Winterthur, Switzerland, just outside of Zürich; a walkway near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin; a street near Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter; a walking bridge over Montreal Hill in St. Paul.

Skylines

St. Paul, Minnesota; kitesurfers sharing the sky in Tarifa, Spain; one of the city’s mosques towering over its neighbors in Marrakech, Morocco; Big What’s-His-Name in London; Cathedral domes standing out in the haze in Sevilla, Spain; the seaside skyline of the medina in Tangier, Morocco; Barcelona’s octagonal city blocks as seen from la Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s church.

Construction

From left: A central palace under construction in Berlin (my friend’s dad excavated an old royal’s tomb from under there); a parking ramp getting a facelift in downtown St. Paul.

Writing on the wall

Saints accompany the street signs in Sevilla; the late-afternoon shadows cross the lettering at the port of St. Paul; a street name and some balcony plants in Granada, Spain; mural art for La Mercè, Barcelona’s city festival.

Bodies of water

A parasailer over Lake Annecy in eastern France; the Mississippi river flowing past St. Paul; the canal in Annecy’s old town; Lake Lucerne in Lucerne, Switzerland; the Port Vell marina in Barcelona.

Bikes

A bicycle leans against the local theater on what is literally called “theater street” in downtown Lucerne; one in Winterthur, Switzerland; and my own.

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