Draguignan was the last significant city I passed through on my way to Cannes. It is nestled in rugged, semi-mountainous terrain leaving me forty-five miles of up-and-down pedaling with a final descent from 1,100 feet to the Mediterranean. As in years past, I made my last wild campsite, before two weeks of sanctioned camping during the film festival, at the summit of the final pass off in the forest. I varied the final stretch of my route from years past, staying inland from Draguignan rather than dropping down to the coast as I usually do.
My route out of Draguignan took me past the lone American military cemetery in the south of France. It is less than a mile from Draguigan's city center, just beyond its official cemetery on Boulevard John F. Kennedy and across the street from the office of the town's cycling club. There was no missing the cemetery with two American flags fluttering high in the sky on poles flanking a huge sculpture of an angel. Though it gave me a small taste of home, there was no mistaking I was still in France with a "no dogs" sign on the grass beyond the entry. Dogs are welcome in so many places in France, including restaurants, those few places they aren't, let it be known. French Fidos and Fifis would certainly love to go romping on the immaculately manicured twelve acres of the cemetery, dodging its 861 headstones.
I was welcomed at the small visitor center by an extraordinarily vibrant English woman who gushed a stream of information. There was literally no holding her back as she recounted the history of the cemetery and WWII lore. She told me there are just twenty-four such American military cemeteries outside the US, scattered in fifteen countries, including the Philippines and Mexico. Only three countries have more than one. Italy and Belgium both have two, while France outdoes them all with eight.
Although American dead were first buried at the location of this cemetery when it was just an open field in 1944 after the initial Allied invasion from the Mediterranean in August of that year, it wasn't officially sanctioned as a military cemetery until 1956. A young French doctor chose the spot to bury the American dead. He is 99 and attended the last big ceremony at the cemetery on May 8 commemorating Europe Victory Day.
I could barely get in a question as the matron of the cemetery rattled on and on. At one point she paused for a breath and commented, "I love my job. When I go home at night, I say 'good night' to all the boys and when I arrive the next day I greet them with a 'good morning.'"
"So it's all men buried here?" I asked.
"No, there's one woman, an in-flight nurse who was killed when the plane she was flying in crashed. One could contribute on the battlefield with more than bullets. There were those who did it with Bibles or bandages, as she did. The average age of all those buried here is 22, but she was 26. When you walk around the cemetery, you'll notice that 24 of the graves are marked by Stars of David for the Jewish soldiers while all the rest have the Latin Cross. There are also two sets of brothers."
I don't think she would have stopped talking if her phone hadn't rung, allowing my to finally take a stroll out to the giant wall that listed all the dead and honored the unknowns and also contained a small chapel. It was a most tranquil setting.
The cemetery was quite a contrast to Draguignan's bustling city center that had been taken over by its annual flea market--another great French passion. Every French town seems to have one. They are such a big event signs advertising a town's "vide-grenier" are posted weeks ahead of time. It gives everyone a chance to unload things they no longer need or to acquire items they think they do need. There is always a frenzied bustle surrounding them.
As I cycled past, I nearly collided with a husband and wife lugging an old, well-used ornate fireplace grill. It could have been a valuable antique or something not much better than scrap metal. They were high-trailing it as if they feared the person who sold it to them might realize he'd let it go for too cheap and might chase after them.
Others were at a near sprint rushing to the market before all the good deals were gone. It is hard not to stop and watch all the action and see all the clutter for sale. I have made purchases over the years, replacing a worn out shirt and also a spoon I inadvertently left with friends I was staying with. They are most definitely a wonderful window to the French.
It wasn't the only one I encountered in my ten-day 700-mile ride. At another in a smaller town a young man was passing out brochures with a photo of the French president Hollande standing in the rain looking very glum. I had been surprised to earlier see similar posters. I at first thought they were left over from the election exactly a year ago that put Hollande into office, but Yvon pointed out that they are being put up by the right-wing party that would like him replaced even though he has four years left in his term.
Once I descended to the coast I was greeted by a round-about decorated with sculptures of golfers, letting me know I had reached a tourist zone. A sculpture in a round-about in Draguignan commemorated the twenty-five people who lost their lives in a devastating flood in 2010. Some round-abouts are just landscaped and others have a sculpture relating to something a region is known for, such as apples. They are another example of the French making their environment more pleasing and habitable.
And now I have twelve days of cinema from all over the world to immerse myself in. Whenever I have a doubt about which film to see, if one of my options is a French film, I will choose to further submerge myself into the culture of the country where I will be spending the next two-and-a-half months.