Thursday, May 6, 2004

Felletin, France

Friends: Finding an Internet outlet hasn't been as easy in France as elsewhere. Not all libraries offer the Internet, and one has to be lucky to arrive in a town when its library is open. Though the French are known as avid readers it is not reflected in the quality of their libraries. They are are generally quite modest and keep very erractic hours. They often are only open in the afternoon or morning and sometimes just three or four days a week. And if a library does offer the Internet, it may only have one terminal, so Jesse and I have to take turns.

We have had to resort to Internet cafes, but they too can erratic in their availability and quality. Jesse and I sat for over half an hour in the tiny square of one small town waiting for its Internet outlet in a photography store to reopen after closing for lunch. Its hours were nine to twelve and two to six. It was 2:15. We watched a parade of locals come by the shop, check the door and walk off. Their varied reactions of frustration were as entertaining as a Tati movie--shaking the door, thinking it needed to be pushed rather than pulled or pulled rather than pushed, peering in the window holding their hand to the side of their face to shield the glare, some pounding on the window or door, and some peering around as if they were considering breaking in if no one were looking or pulling out a can of spray paint to vent their frustration. After five or six, we began laughing at the mere approach of the next person in anticipation of their reaction. It was better than being on the Internet.

When I left off yesterday, I was commenting on the French devotion to meat, and was about to comment on the experience of a friend from Chicago who moved back to France a year ago after over a decade in the U.S. While in the U.S., she became a vegetarian. Her friends and family were shocked, and are convinced something is seriously wrong with her. But Florence deferred to the ways of her country and put out a spread of meat along with cheese and fruits and bread when we overnighted with her and Rachid in the city of Tours along the Loire River two days ago. Jesse and I didn't need meat, but Florence felt conditioned by the culture she lives in that having biked 150 miles from Paris in two days we might need some meat, even though she too is an ardent cyclist and maintains her energy without it. It was a nice gesture, and we appreciated it.

Florence and I are uniquely bonded, as we have shared the streets of downtown Chicago the past seven years as bicycle messengers. To a degree, every day is a battle, and we are fellow combatants contending with traffic, security guards, idiotic building policy, uncaring receptionists and mail room clerks, oblivious pedestrians, stressed-out dispatchers, rain and wind and cold and heat, and much much more. It is dangerous out there. But it is an exhilarating experience. Florence was the senior woman messenger when she left. Florence became a messenger after burning out as a waitress. She loved the messengering. Like many, she felt as if she had found her calling. Not even one in ten messengers last two months. Anyone who sticks it out for more than a year is a virtual lifer.

No one knows the downtown of a city more intimately than its bicycle messengers. They know every street and alley and shortcut, every place to take a leak or to plop down for a brief respite or bite to eat, the coldest drinking fountains and patches of grass, every building and their many entrances and elevators and mailrooms and security guards. We know a city's eccentrics--the beggars and homeless and cops and commuters. Florence missed it intensely, as I do too whenever I take a break. She wanted to know about her many messenger friends and the countless nuances of the messenger's world--the latest in how buildings were treating messengers, which were making our life easier and which more difficult, relegating messengers to freight elevators or instituting messenger centers keeping us out of their building.

We gabbed non-stop until nearly two a.m., even though I had been accustomed to crashing by ten after a long day on the bike. Even though we had been talking for over eight hours, we felt as if we had barely started. We were fully energized and were shocked when we discovered how late it was. Florence had to be up early to get to class, as she is enrolled in an environmental studies program. Jesse and I had to be on our way fairly early too, as we had no time to spare to get to Cannes, 600 miles away, with a couple more friends to visit on the way.

Florence's husband, Rachid, gave us a quick bike ride around Tours before we departed. We were in the heart of Chateau country and Tours had one to offer, though it was quite pint-sized compared to some of the monstrosities we had seen as we bicycled along the Loire River. After Tours our next destination is the Cevennes 350 miles to the south, to visit another Chicago bicycling friend, Craig. He lives six months of the year in Notre Dame de Rouviere, a tiny town of 100, about 50 miles north of the Mediterranean. I have a couple of bicycle parts to deliver.

We were hoping to be able to spend more than an evening with him, as Craig said he had loads of roads he'd like to bicycle with us, but once again it doesn't look as if time will allow. Our daily mileage hasn't been as good as we had hoped, slowed by more climbing than we anticipated. We climbed over 4,500 feet yesterday in 88 miles and today in 30 miles we have climbed 2,100 feet already. But at least we don't have to contend with the heat, as the temperature is plenty cool, not even 60. We need gloves and an extra layer or two when we set out in the early morning. When it's raining, it's almost as cold as Iceland was last July.

We were saved having to set up camp in the rain last night, but just barely. We camped just outside Guret. The Tour will finish one of its stages here come July. After Guret we have been riding a portion of The Tour's route between Limoges and St. Floret, this year's longest stage, 150 miles. I plan to bike as much of The Tour route as I can, though I know it is highly unlikely that I will be able to bike all of it. Whether or not I will be there for this stage remains to be seen. We were given a small hint of what it will be like to be amongst the throngs alongside the road cheering the riders as they pass, as a truck driver today shouted "Allez!, Allez!" as he passed us on a long climb, just as he would the riders of the peloton. The Race touches all here. Rachid expressed amazement at how captivating the television coverage of The Race was. He watched it for hours at a time for all three weeks of The Race, even though he had never had any interest in bicycling racing. He raved at the beauty of the countryside and the efforts of the riders and the exuberance of the thousands of fans lining the roads. He's looking forward to watching it on tv again this July.

Every town, no matter its size has a bakery. We patronize a couple every day, Jesse
for a baguette and pastries, and I for more nutritional fare--quiches and potato patties and pate's or weiners in a biscuit and mini-pizzas and more. They are emporiums of tasty treats, often with something unique. We enter each with great expectation, wondering what we might find. Their proprietors often engage Jesse in conversation, curious about his fluency in their language, and curious too about our bicycling. An older guy in the pastry shop in the town with the closed Internet shop told us about visiting Chicago. He said it wasn't anything like the movies--it was clean and didn't have any gangsters. France hasn't showed a hint of its reputation as being snooty or anti-America. So far everyone has been kindly and welcoming. Jesse's facility with the language may be partially responsible for winning the favor of all we encounter or perhaps it is that we are traveling by bike, something that always has a positive influence.

Later, George

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