Early Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Luke and I ascended from a metro station in Paris onto the quiet streets of the Montmartre neighborhood. We were wearing our running gear and bright colored raincoats (which we luckily didn’t need) and were searching for some fresh baked pain au chocolat before the morning’s race kicked off. We were a little jumpy, not knowing quite what was in store for us and worried that our lack of French would literally get us lost. A few hours later, the streets of this artsy, NYC Village-like neighborhood — famous for its Sacré-Cœur Basilica and appearance in film Amelie — would be filled with tourists; and Luke and I would be jogging through the crowds, map in hand, looking for our next challenge.
We were contestants in the inaugural Pop in Breaks, an urban race designed to let participants discover Parisian neighborhoods in a unique and fun way. Without giving away any secrets (as the race will run again), we had to find and complete five challenges throughout the Montmartre neighborhood within four hours. The challenges were light, fun, and accessible. They included various activities related to sports, art, and culture; all of which immediately and intimately immersed the contestant in the culture of the Montmartre neighborhood.
Pop in Breaks is organized by Pop in the City, a Paris-based company founded in 2012 by friends Mary Pichot, Sophie Gastine, and Clémentine Charles. Pop in Breaks is their newest initiative, which is smaller scale in comparison to their Pop in the City events which take place in European cities abroad (meaning not in France). Pop in Breaks are in Paris, are coed, and have 20 teams (40-60 people). The bigger Pop in the City events take place abroad, are women-only, and draw hundreds of female contestants. Mary, Sophie, and Clémentine call the Pop in the City events “female urban raids” and say their goal is to revolutionize the weekend getaway by allowing women to interact with a city and its locals in new ways — ways not typically accessible to a tourist and ways that will create an unforgettable experience by evoking the emotions. The first Pop in the City race was Pop in Porto, which took place in Porto, Portugal in September 2012. The next big event is Pop in Bologna to take place — yes, you guessed it — right here in Bologna, Italy.
I first met Mary and Sophie when they were on a research trip in Bologna in preparation for Pop in Bologna. It serendipitously turned out that Luke and I already had plans to visit Paris during the weekend of the first Pop in Breaks. We happily signed up and agreed to be their English-speaking guinea pigs as the only non-French speaking team in the race. All of the race materials were translated into English for us and one of the organizers stood by us during group instructions to act as our translator. After getting used to travelling in Italy knowing a good amount of Italian, I was afraid we would offend the Parisians we stopped to ask for directions when we started with “Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?”, but almost everyone we stopped spoke great English and, luckily, no one seemed offended.
It should come as no surprise that the founders of Pop in the City are adventurous women themselves. Marie and Clémentine met in graduate school, and then together met Sophie in 2007 when they were all participants in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, a nine-day women-only adventure race across the Sahara desert. Contestants in the Rallye drive through the desert over rough plains and sandy dunes with only a compass and a map; competing to win, not by being the fastest team, but the one which has traveled the least number of kilometers between checkpoints. Marie has competed in the Rallye twice, Clem three times, and Sophie five times, with her team scoring third place out of almost 100 teams in the 4×4 category in 2011.
Get ready for the ladies to Pop in Bologna on June 15th, when our city will be raided by 400 mostly-French females. A total of 25 challenges will be set up throughout the city. The challenges are divided into five categories: sports, art, culture, philanthropy and extreme. Each team will aim to complete five challenges with one challenge from each category. I’ve heard a few bits of what’s in store for the event and am certain the contestants will experience Bologna like no tourist has ever before.
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