Friends: Unlike visiting a country I've never been to before where everything is exciting and new, returning to France for the eighth consecutive spring/summer I'm enjoying the happy warmth of familiarity with just the occasional thrill of discovery.
If I hadn't seen them in previous visits, I might have been puzzled by the occasional white cargo van stationed at various pull-offs in the forest on the two-lane wide National Highway 36 south of Meaux on my first day of riding from Charles de Gaulle airport. It was too chilly for their proprietors to be standing alongside them advertising their wares as they ordinarily would. If I had peered closely, I would have noticed a well-made up black woman sitting in the driver's seat of each and guessed at what they were--portable bordellos. They aren't widespread around France, just near some of the larger cities. That is just one of the many sites unique to bicycling around France.
It doesn't take much to bring a smile of joy at being back in this promised land of cycling. Even the road signs and kilometers markers give me a quick surge of delight of being back in France. There are so many small touches of the French, their strong aesthetic sense in making things pleasant, that I appreciate. Even the mere sign at the approach of smaller villages and towns announcing the number of crosswalks (passages) ahead makes sense. I count them down, as they let me know when I'm nearly through and if I haven't found the town toilet or spigot of water, if I'm in need, then I can circle back.
My arrival at the airport was also a blend of the familiar with the new. I was greeted by my sister's daughter, Jessica, who I hadn't seen in twenty years or more, since she was a toddler. She's presently living in Paris pursuing a PhD in 16th century French literature. She had no problem recognizing me, lugging my bike box and duffel. I had no clue of what to expect--what kind of person would be interested in 16th French literature. As we chatted while I assembled my bike, I was continually startled by the many similarities she had to my sister, physical and otherwise. I had to keep reminding myself she was an offspring of my sister, and not my sister. She had a calm self-assurance and seemed remarkably normal and well-adjusted.
She was hoping to join me in Cannes, not realizing that the festival isn't open to the public, just to those with an industry connection. The only screenings available to the public is the nightly film at the outdoor theater on the beach. Jessica has been in France for several years, but has never made it to the Riviera, and is still tempted to take the TGV down just for the spectacle of it.
Jessica is living one of her dreams living in France, as she did dropping out of school to do a stint as a ski bum. Ever since she was 12 years old and began studying French she has been drawn to the language and the country. She shares an apartment with her French boy friend overlooking the Pere Lachaise cemetery, the largest of Paris' cemeteries, where Jim Morrison is buried and many of her favorite writers and where Laurent Fignon, two-time winner of The Tour de France and rival of Greg LeMond, was recently buried after losing his battle with cancer. She can't take her black Labrador for a walk in it as dogs are prohibited from cemeteries and parks because the French are incapable of abiding by the law of cleaning up after their pets. Jessica says people give her funny looks whenever she stoops to pick up her dog's poop, but then realize she must be an American, as only Americans seem to do it.
It relates to the rebellious nature of the French according to a book I'm reading "Au Contraire," another of those books trying to figure out the character and mentality and manners of the French. It was written in 2001 and fully confirms Jessica's dog experience. It also explains why the French have such a paltry system of libraries compared to the US and Scandinavia. The French are notorious for not returning books to the library it says, and snipping pages from books and magazines.
If such blatant, blind selfishness and disregard for common decency were the rule of the land, France would be a most intolerable place. Fortunately those are exceptions. In my somewhat narrow bicycle-centric experience of France freed of hotels and campgrounds and restaurants and buses and trains, my social interactions with the French come mostly in supermarkets and tourist offices and Internet cafes and along the road during the Tour de France. There I largely experience a warm consideration and politeness. In the checkout line at the supermarket no one ever is impatient when someone demands a price check or there is a delay in getting a credit card to work. People always put dividers out between the food and always say "merci" when someone does it.
Jessica had no complaints, not even about her job teaching teen-aged immigrant children, as portrayed "The Class," the masterpiece French Palm d'Or winner from Cannes three years ago. Jessica knew of the film, but surprisingly hadn't seen it as her boyfriend only likes blockbusters. Though it is considered an "art film" and is largely confined to the class room, it is still a riveting and action-packed near thriller. It is based on a book. If nothing else, I highly encouraged Jessica to read the book.
She is an avid reader and besides what she has to read for her studies is involved with two book clubs. She had just read Graham Robb's "The Parisians," as I had, not as captivating as his previous book "Discovering France," but still worthwhile and informative. He's a bicyclist and mentioned a high point in Paris to bike over, something on Jessica's to do list. Jessica's apartment is too small for a bike and a dog, but she takes advantage of the great Paris bike rental program. It is becoming too popular she said, making it difficult at times to find a bike.
Besides cinema, Jessica and her boy friend have different food tastes. Jessica is a vegetarian, an even rarer species in France than in America. She has no problems though finding plenty of vegetables. She has learned to go the local market near closing time when all the vendors are shouting out "un euro" and have a pile of vegetables they are trying to clear out. Once she came home with potatoes enough to last for days, all for a euro.
Usually I am eager to get my bike back together and am frustrated that it always seems to take longer than I want. For once I was in no great hurry. I just didn't want to dally so long that Jessica would be late for her teaching assignment.