Thursday, July 29, 2004

Auxerre, France

Friends: Yesterday afternoon's half-hour concert/service/prayers of the monks and nuns in the Vezaley cathedral was so exceptional, I lingered all afternoon at this hilltop village of 500 residents, so I could have a second hour-and-a-half dose of their gentle, almost mournful, singing at six p.m. It wasn't exactly a performance, as the nine nuns and seven monks of the Fraternite Monestique de Jerusalem face the altar and keep their backs to those in attendance during their daily singing-of-their-prayers ritual.

The earlier service was only briefly interrupted by readings from the Bible, while the evening service was a full-fledged Mass with communion and incense and organ interludes and the white-robed clerics going out into the audience giving everyone a two-handed greeting. It was a most moving and soothing experience attended by about 100 others in a nearly 1,000 year old cathedral. The singing and the spectacular location of this cathedral aren't its only attraction. People also come to pay homage to the remains, or relics, of St. Mary of Magdalene. They reside in the crypt below the altar and are available for viewing. They were brought here in 1036 from Provence. Mary fled to France from the Middle East after witnessing Jesus' resurrection, fearing reprisals against his supporters. Her remains were initially interred in Provence, but were later moved here as a safer place for them. This cathedral has been a significant pilgrimage site ever since.

I took advantage of the amenities and spaciousness of the Dijon campgrounds the day before to tend to an assortment of neglected chores--laundry, hacking back the facial hair, patching tubes, and sifting through my panniers. It had been weeks since I had thoroughly investigated my four panniers. I was shocked at the quantity of Tour trinkets and memorabilia I'd accumulated--key chains, magnets, hats, noise-makers, pens and miscellaneous doodads, along with an array of water bottles and newspapers and brochures, almost enough to fill a pannier of their own.

I shouldn't have been too surprised, as each of the nine times I was at roadside when the caravan of 39 sponsors, most of whom had multiple vehicles, passed by dispensing booty, I came away with a small hoard of swag, even when I wasn't trying. A lot I could consume on the spot (packets of cheese and crackers, biscuits, candy, water, mini-sausages) and some I gave to people nearby, but most got stuffed into a pannier or backpack or handlebar bag. The majority were small items that didn't seem to amount to much, but over time, added up to a significant molehill. I ought to have been tossing some of them myself to the crowds as I preceded the caravan.

Instead, I'll offer a sample to anyone who can correctly identify the country where each of these incidents took place. #1 More often than not, it seemed as if the line I was in at the supermarket checkout counter in this country was delayed by someone needing a price check on an item, but no one, not the cashier, not the person responsible, not those in line behind, nor I in my non-messenger mode, ever expressed an iota of impatience. #2 The one and only time a cashier asked to look in my backpack to make sure I hadn't pilfered something. #3 Occasionally I'd be asked to check my pack at a supermarket, but only once was I asked to remove my helmet and check it as well. I didn't always leave it on my bike, especially when I hadn't had a shower in a couple of days, not wishing to inflict my matted hair on the public. #4 One other time besides in France I had to buy a new tire. The shop owner refused to let me leave my old tire, saying he had to pay for garbage removal and he didn't want any that wasn't his. #5 Which country had the cheapest peanut butter, which incidentally had an emblem on its label stating "USA Quality."

And a bonus question. Name the beloved French rider who competed in the Tour 14 times (only three riders competed in more) and achieved the podium eight times without ever finishing first, managing three seconds and five thirds. A street was named in his honor this year on the Tour route in his home town of St. Leonard, departure city for the stage before Bastille Day on the Massif Central. I was halted by the ceremony, as a mob of people blocked the road out of town at six p.m., as the unveiling took place. The 70-year old Pou Pou, as he is affectionately known, was in attendance, along with TV crews and journalists and camera-toting fans. Hanging from the building alongside the road sign plaque with his name on it was an old bike of his and his Gans Mercier jersey. It was a noteworthy event to be on hand for the birth of a bicycling pilgrimage site. Getting a glimpse of one of the sports' luminaries was another of the highlights of this trip. The following day his name was among those written on the pavement of the race route.

As a reminder, the countries I've passed through are France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Monaco. You have a week to reply and anyone is eligible. Good luck.

Now its on to Montereau, final departure city of this year's Tour, to see what remnants remain of its Tour participation.

Later, George

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