Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cannes, France

Friends: I'd have a movie to see tonight if I'd been granted a press pass, as the press gets first viewing of "Da Vinci Code," 24 hours before it opens the festival tomorrow night with its World Premiere. Milos of Facets will be there and says he will be reporting on it for WBEZ tomorrow. If he can figure out a way to work it into his commentary, he'll mention how Air France lost his luggage. Its the fourth time he's had such ill-luck with them.

My first screening will have to wait until tomorrow afternoon. Among my choices are a documentary on Leonard Cohen, a comedy about high school seniors learning to surf so they can show up the surfer dudes at their school in some competition, a Czech rafting movie, something from Russia about a boxer who suddenly finds himself on Mars and a Japanese movie about a former star high school baseball player who is in the doldrums. And that, of course, is just the start of it. I have hours of digesting the schedule to go. I have yet to find anything about bicycling.

After being assaulted by multiple billboards of Tom Hanks in just about every town I passed through in the 900 miles I've biked from Paris, I feared Cannes would be overloaded with "The Da Vinci Code" hoopla. But other than a giant pyramid promoting the movie at the corner of the harbor, about the only other promotional device I've seen is a pair of giant, slightly doctored posters of the Mona Lisa.

The past two years I have descended into Cannes via Grasse, perfume capital of the world, eleven miles inland to the north up on a high ridge. This year I took a more sedate route from the west. I thought I'd follow the coast, but I took a very quiet, shorter inland route. There were more cyclists on it than motorists.

The traffic had become considerably thicker and irritating for the first time as I came within 25 miles of the congested Cote d'Azur. I also began to see luxury cars and villas and other trappings of the beautiful people who congregate here. There is a non-stop parade of them along the croisette, and others going topless on the beaches adjoining it. Saturday, as I biked south of Grenoble through the Alps on National Highway 75, a route right up there with the circuit of the Grand Canyon de Verdon as a ride to die for, I had to share the road with almost bumper-to-bumper traffic of Grenoblians fleeing the city, as the French are programmed to do on the weekend. But the beauty of the dramatic mountains surrounding me was so consuming, nothing could distract from my joy of being where I was. Besides, the sanely-sized cars that predominate on the roads here are hardly a nuisance compared to the grotesque, absurdly over-sized, vehicles that run amok in the US. It is so rare to encounter an SUV here, that it is a shockingly traumatic experience whenever one appears, reminding me that such beasts exist. "What in the hell was that," is my initial spontaneous reaction. Then, "What is wrong with them driving such a monster. How selfish and irresponsible and immoral!"

But for 80 miles Saturday my thought was spared any such outburst. All I had to contend with was a little precipitation and a long climb over the 3,700' Col de la Croix Haute before a gentle 40-mile descent to the town of Sisteron, a delightful cross-roads city with a medieval citadel on a promontory overlooking the countryside. I will be happy to return to Grenoble come July when the Tour passes nearby, as it is the gateway to L'Alpe d'Huez. It is the largest city, other than Paris, I've been through on this ride, with 150,000 inhabitants, about a quarter of which are students. The city has a very useful network of bike lanes that begin well outside the city. It was Friday rush hour when I made my arrival and the bike lanes were utilized by people of all ages. The lanes took me through the car-free heart of the city.

Grenoble has always treated me well. Two years ago I was there for two stages of the Daphine-Libere race and had Lance and his body guard brush past me on the way from his hotel to the starting line. This year, its streets provided me with a fold-up umbrella. It could prove invaluable at Cannes if the rains persist. Last year all I had to keep me dry was my hooded rain jacket and whoever I could snuggle up to in line who had an umbrella. There were only a couple such occasions, and not so bad that I would have lugged an umbrella all this way. But when the road provides, I figure there must be a reason. I always feel as if it is looking out for me.

With the umbrella in reserve, I am as well-prepared as ever for the next two weeks. Besides a few films by favorite directors, I am most looking forward to all the French films with their commonplace subtleties that have been a part of my life the past two weeks and two summers and will remind me that they are just outside the theater doors for me to appreciate. Something as simple as a road sign will trigger a rush of fond familiarity.

It is not uncommon for a French film to include someone out biking, and not just as a throw-in as in American cinema, but as a genuine part of their culture. I will be happy to be reminded of the genuine bonhomie of Yvon's cycling friends and everyone involved in the rainy day's ride I mingled with. I marvel still that anyone would turn out and ride in such conditions, especially since the cyclists in that region have a choice of at least two such rides every Saturday and Sunday from early spring until late fall, hosted by one of the many cycling clubs in the area. The list of rides is published in a booklet at the beginning of the year. Each ride has a short, medium and long distance and may have an off-road option.

There are even rides strictly for women. Francoise had ridden one the day before I arrived. She and 27 other women rode 100 kilometers and they stuck together in a comradely pack. For members of the French National Cycling Organization most rides cost two-and-a-half euros while non-members pay four-and-a-half. One inducement to have ridden in the rain is that each club gives out awards at the end of the year to its members who have ridden in the most rides and ridden the most miles. Yvon and Francoise have a closet full of trophies and medals. I could have come back with a trophy myself, but instead was given a fanny pack and a glossy eight euro year-in-review magazine to honor me for having cycled from Paris. Thinking of the French and their devotion to the bike already has me eagerly anticipating the Tour de France. I know I will meet devotees of the sport such as I rarely encounter at home. But for the next two weeks I get to immerse myself in the world of cinema. I will be on the alert for signs that I do not have to despair for the future of the human race.

Later, George

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