Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Autun, France

Friends: It had been seven months since Eelco, a Dutch cyclist, and I had met on Hokkaido in Japan and spent a day cycling and camping together, but it seemed only a day or two ago when we resumed our travels together in France this past Sunday. We greeted each other like the best of friends, so strongly had we bonded.

Eelco has been on the road all this time, continuing his two-year break between ending his studies as a medical student and beginning an internship. He had flown in to Paris from Indonesia a day before I arrived. We arranged to meet in front of the cathedral in Meaux, 25 miles from Charles De Gaulle airport, sometime between four and five Sunday afternoon, three hours after I landed. Cathedrals make for ideal meeting places. A year ago that's where I met my French friend Yvon in a small town 300 miles east of Paris. And just like a year ago, I arrived first by about 15 minutes, allowing me to have a little snack before resuming the riding.

Eelco was pretty much de-jet-lagged. I was fairly exhausted, having flown through the night, but I was good for another 25 miles or so of cycling before collapsing for a solid twelve hours of sleep off in a forest. I had brought a bicycle racing magazine for Eelco to occupy himself with while I slept in.

It didn't take much effort to find a quiet road out of Meaux where we could ride side-by-side and catch up. We alternated between reveling in the superlative French cycling and recalling our fondness for Japan. Japan was extra fresh in my mind having given a slide shown less than a week before. It was still vivid with Eelco as well. He had spent five of his 20 months of travel there--shocking, he said, considering it was the most expensive of the 29 countries he had
traveled. He had no intention of staying there so long, but he loved it too much to leave. It wasn't the favorite of his countries though. Syria, actually, topped all. He recalled Romania too with extra fondness. His enthusiasm had me plotting a Budapest to Cairo trip including all of Turkey come fall, even as I am setting out on another three months of Cannes and The Tour, with the British Isles and ten days or so of cycling with Craig sandwiched in between.

Eelco and I had a fabulous, albeit wet, two-and-a-half days of cycling here before he headed off to Geneva to visit a friend working for the U.N. and I continued south to Cannes. Japan is the land of concrete, actually producing more per year than the U.S. though it is one-twentieth its size, while the French seem to be parsimonious in their smothering of the planet with the stuff, leaving their roads as narrow as possible. But that does not make for unsafe cycling, as the French are extremely deferential to cyclists. They may zip and zoom about recklessly otherwise, but when they come upon a cyclist, they are suddenly in no hurry. The only toots we received were of friendliness. Still, one must be extra careful in France, as cars can come flying out of nowhere. The French are among the worst drivers in the world, a stark contrast to the Japanese, who may be the most careful.

This is my fourth summer of cycling France. Eelco knows it well too. He's spent every summer since he turned 18 nearly ten years ago bicycling around Europe, inspired by a six-week cycle trip his family took to Indonesia when he was 16. His recent trip was entitled "Back to Bali" to
commemorate that life-transforming ride. He made it to Bali, but before he returns to Amsterdam, he's going to bicycle for another month or so in Europe. We could both revel in
the familiar, and also in the new. France is the Land of the Picnic. It is actually a French word,
pique-nique. There are picnic tables and picnic sites everywhere. There is even a road sign featuring a picnic basket with a bottle of wine, a baguette and a hunk of cheese--four things quintessentially French. All the picnickers along the Tour de France route are as alluring as the race itself.

I've already gotten a taste of this year's Tour, as Autun, where I am now, will be a Ville Arrivee in this year's Tour. Even though that event is more than two months away, this year's poster already adorns many of its shops and municipal buildings. Its another fabulous work of art

that will warm my heart whenever I spot one. It is entitled "Le Monde in Jaune"--The World in Yellow. It is the earth as seen from space, with the continents in bright yellow against a
background of dark blue. And the continents are arranged to form a figure on a bicycle, though not so obviously at first glance.

Later, George

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