Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Le Caylar, France

Friends: It wasn't until we were on our dessert course as I ate dinner with my Warm Showers host and a few of his friends in Le Caylar, that I discovered that the woman sitting beside me was the town librarian. She had alluded earlier in the evening to being a reader when she mentioned that sometimes when her eyes were getting tired and she didn't want to stop reading that she'd alternately close one eye, to give it a rest, while reading one-eyed. We were too busy talking about bicycling to let me pursue the subject of reading with her.

Her one-eyed reading was just an aside after I mentioned that when biking in the cold, if my gloves weren't adequate to keep my hands warm, I'd ride one-handed, putting first one hand and then the other behind my back out of the wind, clutching it into a fist trying to warm it up.

We had been talking about cold weather cycling and if I ever stuffed newspapers in the front of my shirt to keep warm like the racers do on descents. I admitted I had. Someone also wanted to know if I resorted to dope like the racers to keep up with The Tour do France. "Caffeine," on occasion," I said.

Hubert had seated the librarian next to me because she spoke the best English of anyone at the table and also because she was his co-organizer of Le Caylar's upcoming Slow Travel Conference, a take off on the Slow Food movement. For over fifteen years this small town 45 miles northwest of Montpellier has had an annual festival of lectures on various topics. Last year's program included a talk by a local who the year before became the first person to sail the Northwest Passage over Alaska to Greenland in a small enough vessel that he could drag it over ice bergs when necessary. The conference also included a talk by someone who had walked the Santiago de Compestela pilgrimage route and a couple of other travelogues.

The travel programs were so well received that Hubert and Marie-Claire decided to devote this year's entire four-day event of sixteen programs to Slow Travel. Twelve will be by touring cyclists and four by walkers. Unfortunately it is the first week of August after I'll have returned to Chicago and won't be able to attend. I did learn from Hubert though that Paris has had an annual bicycle touring convention every January for the past 27 years. He attended it this past year for the first time to find speakers for his event.

Like my great friend Yvon and many French, Hubert has a natural inclination for travel by bike. It seems to be part of the French heritage going back to Paul de Vive (Velocio), the father of bicycle touring, the first to promote it back in the 1890s. Hubert plans to dedicate his conference to Velocio and hand out his Seven Commandments of Cycle Touring to all those attending. As great as his attraction to bicycle travel, his responsibilities as a father of four has limited his touring. His family has had two tours, one in Holland and another in Ireland. He says when his children are all grown, his dream is for he and his wife to bike to Morocco.

Among the others sitting around the dinner table were Hubert's wife, though as the town doctor she had to leave early to attend the monthly town council meeting, their teen-aged daughter Juliette, Marie-Claire's husband and Danielle, a widow whose husband had been an ardent cyclist. She brought along a sculpture in a wicker basket of a bicyclist given to her husband on his 75th birthday paying tribute to his love for the bicycle. When she left she gave me kisses on both cheeks. Even though I'd had some practice with Onni I was still not all that smooth with the ritual. Afterwards Juliette asked, "Do you kiss like that in America?"

The conversation was lively and animated all evening, just like in a French movie. These friends all enjoyed each other as much as they enjoyed the fine multi-course meal with veal as the main course that Hubert had prepared. When there was a momentary lull towards the end of the meal I asked if the town had a library. I had meandered all over it on my bike searching for the street that Hubert lived on and hadn't seen a library nor a sign for one.

Marie-Claire blurted, "We do, and I'm the librarian, but its only open three days a week and only a few hours a day." I told her that the scarcity of libraries and their limited hours was one of a few minor things things that prevented France from being the perfect place to travel by bicycle. She acknowledged that France is "behind" when it comes to libraries, especially compared to England and Scandinavia and America, though she insisted that things are improving. Just recently they had started an loan system between neighboring libraries.

"We got a late start," she said. "Our first libraries were books confiscated from the wealthy during the Revolution."

"Its always puzzled me," I said " that the French have such poor libraries considering your love for books. I see people reading books in line for movies at Cannes and along the road during The Tour de France, a site I rarely see in similar circumstances in America or anywhere I've traveled. Television shows featuring books and authors are quite popular in France. At one time wasn't there a Friday night TV show on books that was a big national hit?"

"Yes, it was called 'Apostrophe,'" Marie-Claire said. Then she explained that one of the reasons the French aren't so enamored with libraries is that they are particular about their books. They don't like to read books with smudges or a strand of hair or some other indication that the book has not been respected.

"Its too bad that Napoleon wasn't a proponent of libraries" I said. "Then you'd have the best in the world. He pushed the planting of trees along roads and the establishment of cemeteries so people wouldn't have to be buried in a mass grave. Now you have great tree-lined roads all over the country and the most cemeteries in the world. They are both great for bicycle touring, as the cemeteries are a source of water, but I'd sure like the ease of Internet that libraries provide. It can be a real challenge finding the Internet in France. It was remarkably easy in China and Turkey and Africa and of course in the US with every small town having a library that is open every day and for most of the day."

I wondered if Andrew Carnegie had funded any libraries in France. She didn't know, nor was she aware of his great library philanthropy, building over 1,600 in the US in the early 1900s, doubling the number of libraries in the country, and also funding the construction of 800 others around the world, though mostly in English speaking countries. France has never had such a benefactor. A visit to Wikipedia revealed there is a lone Carnegie in France--in the city of Reims. The city was largely devastated in WWI. The Carnegie was built in 1927.

After the cheese Hubert brought out a huge bowl of cherries. He said to set aside the stems, as they used them to make tea. I had practice at that, as Craig and Onni did the same. Craig and Onni also saved the pits for a friend who uses them to stuff into a pillow for heating in a microwave. No one at this table was aware of that.

I'm hoping to meet up with Hubert in Montpellier in the middle of July when The Tour concludes its 15th stage there on a Sunday. If it doesn't work out, I am sure to meet up with him again in the years to come, just as I have managed to do with Yvon every year since we met seven years ago. He is another true devotee of the bicycle that I rarely come upon.

Later, George


LBJ said...

I had no idea that there were travel conventions dedicated to bicycle touring. I did some touring last summer in Europe on my Montague folding bike. It was great because I did a ton of riding, but if I wanted to pick up and go quickly from one city (or country!) to another, I could just take the bike on the train with me. For me, it was a really good combination of slow and fast travel.

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Haha, I usually read with one eye closed (or open? Optimist?) when wearing my contact lenses. I just find it much less strain to focus.

Uh oh... time for reading glasses?