Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mitry Mory, France

Friends: Its been an extra pleasure these past few days bicycling around Paris, sharing the streets with the legions of freshly reborn cyclists on rental bikes. Even if their battery-powered head-lights and tail-lights didn't make them so obvious, their shining exuberance, bounding about with the heightened zest of the recently unshackled, would distinguish them from the veteran cyclist and make them stand out. They all sat a little higher on their seats, proud and delighted, gazing all about as if amazed at how much there is to see freed of the confines of whatever metal box they had formerly been imprisoned in as they were transported about the city.

The locals are taking advantage of the bikes as much as, if not more than, those visiting-- shopping, running errands, commuting and venturing to locales they might not otherwise. Not all Parisians have space in their apartments for a bike, nor feel comfortable leaving a locked bike out over night, so easy access to a rental bike is meeting a tremendous need. And with the streets of Paris greatly diminished of motorized traffic in August, the city is presently a bicyclist's paradise. Even the pay toilets are now gratuit. Not even a rainy Monday could discourage the use of the rental bikes.

The rain had me marooned in my tent until two in the afternoon out in a cornfield twelve miles from the city line, where the night before I was amongst a crowd of a couple thousand in the Cité de la Musique park watching John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" from 1940 starring Henry Fonda on a giant inflated screen. Several hundred of us took advantage of the free, fenced-in valet bike parking. After the screening the six or seven people staffing it were literally sprinting to retrieve and deliver bikes as fast as they could, easing whatever impatience those of us in the long, long line in the post-midnight hour might have been feeling.

The rain kept me from tracking down the Tour de France offices, as had been one of my Monday objectives. Besides seeing how extravagantly bike-themed it might be, I was hoping to learn what town had won the best-decorated award and who the runners-up might have been. I was hoping too for an array of photos of their decorations either hanging or in an album. I was hoping also for a poster of this year's race, The World in Yellow, of the bike-configured continents. But that was no longer necessary, as I lucked into one Saturday when I biked out to Compeigne, 50 miles to the northeast, the stage 3 Ville Arriveé where I was trapped on the wrong side of a fence for four hours awaiting the peloton's arrival.

When I inquired at Compeigne's tourist office if the city had had any special exhibits or displays honoring The Tour, the woman at the desk rewarded my interest by taking down their "World in Yellow" poster and letting me have it. Little did she know how much it would be appreciated. One of the several reasons I was drawn back to Compeigne was to visit its Vehicle Museum, which included a bicycle collection. Getting the poster easily made up for the bad news that the museum was closed for renovation. Compeigne also lured me back, as it is surrounded on three sides by a ten-mile wide band of forest that was just begging to be camped, something I was unable to do a month ago in my race to keep up with The Tour.

Compeigne has been the start city for the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic the past thirty years. The race is older than the Tour de France and equally storied. The woman at the tourist office traced its route through the city for me so I could ride it myself, starting in the cobbled Plaza de General de Gaulle, going past the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), over the Oise River then off into the wind-swept fields of Flanders and its assorted stretches of cobbles that have earned the race the sobriquet "Hell of the North."

After a night in the forest, undisturbed by its population of deer, I returned to Paris on a road I had yet to try, that supplied the easiest access to the city of any that I have attempted. Before "The Grapes of Wrath" I went in search of Oscar Wilde's grave in the sprawling Pére Lachaise cemetery. After seeing the grave in "Paris Je T'Aime," a recent movie celebrating the twenty arrondisements of Paris, I wanted to verify that it was truly plastered with lipstick-stained kisses. Indeed it was, even more dramatically than the movie indicated, half-way up all four of the twelve foot high walls of the tomb. It was also splattered with graffiti of adoration in several languages. There was a steady stream of devotees, but no kissers, just photographers. The Dublin-born Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46. An unnamed admirer paid for the tomb. Evidently the graffiti is accepted, otherwise the tomb would be fenced off as is Jim Morrison's in another sector of this cemetery. Morrison's grave remains the only one of thousands in the cemetery with a fence and a guard. While I stopped by Morrison's grave, a young woman gave the guard a potted yellow carnation to add to the forest of flowers adorning his grave.

Hanging out in the parks of Paris outside the tourist orbit, the city takes on the demeanor of a third world country. Their grassy expanses were packed with Africans, black and Arabic, and a few Asians. Occasionally I'd glance up from my book and have a momentary lapse forgetting where I was. If my eye caught a rare Caucasian, I'd think, "Ah, a gringo, I'm not the only one." Even as this trip draws to a close, flying back to Chicago tomorrow, the array of nationalities had me pondering travels elsewhere and contemplating where to next, perhaps that Istanbul to Cairo ride that Eelco, the Dutch cyclist, planted in my mind three months ago as I was setting out for Cannes.

Later, George

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