Thursday, June 6, 2013

Table Tennis Days with Yvon

The small village of Degagnac, home of Yvon, was directly on our route from Albi to Saint-Gildas-des-Bois in Brittany, our next Ville Étape nearly 400 miles away, the longest transfer of this year's Tour and many a Tour. No distance would be too great to travel for a visit with Yvon, perhaps the most friendly guy in all of France, so even if Degagnac wasn't so well placed for us, we certainly would have made an effort  to get there.

Unfortunately, Craig was no longer part of our merry band, as he had to return to his home town to keep a hard-to-get appointment to replace the brakes on his Deux Chevaux, the first work he has had to have done on them since purchasing this relic of a car fifteen years ago.  He regretted having to withdraw from all the good times of our jolly trio, especially since he too knew Yvon and his many charms, and as a table tennis enthusiast would have been especially thrilled by all the table tennis Yvon had in store for us.

The day we arrived in Degagnac happened to be the final day of the season for the Professional B Table Tennis league in France.  The team in Villeneuve, 45 miles from Degagnac, was hosting a team from St. Denis, a suburb of Paris, noted for its cathedral where many of the French kings are interred.  It was a crucial match for Villeneuve, as it could win the ten-team league and advance to the A division next year, quite an achievement for this town of 9,000 that already competes against teams  from much larger cities, such as Nice and Rouen.

 Andrew and I weren't  particular table tennis fans, but we were happy to go along with Yvon and his girl friend Colette, who are both passionate players and fans of the game. Yvon had just attended the World Championships in Paris and is the coach of the local Degagnac team.  It is a much more popular sport in France than I had ever realized. 

The table tennis specific stadium in Villeneuve was packed when we arrived just in time for the introductions of the four members of each team.  Colette had driven like a Formula One driver to get is there on time on the narrow, windy roads, going hard in to every curve in a most impressive display of driving, though nothing compared to what we would see from Yvon the next day.   From the very start the fans were cheering the home town players with a vociferous chorus of "allezs," and none more so than Yvon, using a term that I thought was unique to bicycle racing.  But no, it applies   to other sports besides cycling.

A player on the St. Denis team won the French national championship seven years ago.  But the most impressive play came from a Chinese player on the local team.  Each team is allowed one Chinese player.  He was so relaxed and dominant, he was the only player all night who didn't go towel himself off, as is allowed,  after every sixth point.  The most popular player on the Villeneuve team was a 19- year old, who grew up in Villeneuve and is ranked 44th in France and promises to be a potential champion.  The fans chanted his name "Stéphane" along with the "allezs."  The support didn't hurt, as Villeneuve won four straight best of five matches, sending everyone home quite happy, with the team claiming the league championship and elevation to the top division.

After breakfast the next morning, Yvon took us out to one of the out-buildings on Colette's farm to size up Andrew and I at the game.  Neither of us had played in years, but were happy to bat the ball with Yvon, a certified coach as well as runner-up in this year's master's division for the departement of Lot where he lives.  Andrew had retained a little more of his skills than I, but we acquitted ourselves well enough that Yvon invited us to the local team's training session that night.

But next on the agenda was a visit to a neighbor's vineyard to purchase a couple gallons of wine straight from the barrel for a euro a liter.  One of the family members was in the local cycling club, another activity that Yvon is deeply involved with.  Yvon had invited the club's two American members for lunch.  Bob and Mary were awaiting us when we returned.  Yvon had to ask Bob to move  their car.  Bob didn't seem surprised at all.  "It's impossible for you to park your car in France without someone telling you to move it," he grumbled.   But that was about the only negative thing he had to say about France during our four-hour long lunch on Colette's patio. 

He and Mary were won over to France when they first visited in 1983 on a bicycle trip that Mary rewarded herself with for earning a Phd.   They flew to England first and biked there a bit.  Bob was reluctant to continue on to France, harboring the typical American aversions to the French, but agreed to accompany his wife since that was her desire.  He soon realized that all his dislikes were unfounded and has been happy to return innumerable times, eventually buying a house in a town near Degagnac and then retiring there and making it their full-time residence.  

That 1983 trip was their first bicycle tour and that won them over too bicycle touring as well. They have biked in quite a few places around the world on their tandem or Bike Fridays.  Their latest trip was to Kerala in southern India for 43 days this past winter.  A narration of that trip and several other of theirs can be found at   "Bobmary" is their author name.  We had so much to talk about that Yvon  had to drag us from the table at three as he had more plans for us.  Not only was it hard to stop talking, but eating as well.  Colette prepared a magnificent feast starting with olives and sausage followed by a fish and avocado salad that could have been a meal itself.  The main course was duck with a potato and mushroom dish, the mushrooms harvested in her forest.  There was the usual lettuce salad and a variety of cheeses and several wines.  It was easily the best meal of the trip for Andrew and I, surpassing also anything he'd had in China and Thailand before coming to France. 

Yvon wanted to take Andrew and I to Rocamadour, a village built into the side of a mountain that is one of France's premier tourist attractions, twenty-five miles away.  He took us on a route of narrow mountainous roads, driving as if he wished to prove that he was as good behind the wheel as he was with a table tennis paddle going the maximum speed the road would allow, driving even a little more aggressively than a typical  Frenchman.

After several minutes I was regretting that I hadn't followed Bob's suggestion to bring along my bike to ride back, as I would have asked to escape the car then and there and bike the rest of the way.  I didn't ask Yvon to ease up, as I only wanted to get this drive over with as I concentrated on keeping my lunch down as I was jerked from side to side in the front seat.  By the time we reached Rocamadour, all I wanted to do was lay down in the back of the mini-van.  I nearly fell down when I got out before crawling in the back.  I had no desire to take a stroll down the town's one street packed with post card stands and gift shops and tourists.  I had gotten a good enough view of the town's beauty from several vantage points.  

Yvon mercifully drove back at a moderate speed as I lay curled in the back without being tossed around like the sack of potatoes I felt I had become.  I still needed a couple hours in my tent to recover when we got back.  I didn't feel like eating even though it was after seven when I emerged from my tent, but I was able to bike a mile into Degagnac with Andrew to attend the town's table tennis team practice session that Yvon conducted.  He said that not all the players could make it and there would be an open table.  

Yvon  founded the club this past November.  He was able to round up six tables for the town's community center.  The club has become so popular in this village of 750 people, its mayor arranged a  3,000 euro grant from the Credit Agricole bank, a former sponsor of a Tour de France team, for a robot-spitting ping pong ball contraption for the team.  The club started as a social gathering, but the players have become so consumed by the game it has stirred their competitive juices.  They asked Yvon if he could arrange matches with neighboring towns.  They had their first a few weeks ago with the much larger town of Gourdon and narrowly lost.  They have a rematch in Degagnac in two weeks. 

 Yvon is quite proud of his players.  He was pleased that when he told everyone they could take a break during the practice session, no one wanted to.  For the sake of our legs, this supposedly a rest day for Andrew and I, we did sit out in the cool for several minutes, though continued to watch the spirited play.  We agreed that we would certainly join the club if we lived in Degagnac, as well as its cycling club.  There was a great sense of fraternity among all the members of both organizations that me met, a strong quality among the French.

That same zest and enthusiasm that Yvon has for everything, has made him a great asset to this community that he has moved to in the past year after meeting Colette at a national cycling gathering nearly two years ago.  And once again, he was the usual extraordinary host.  He couldn't do enough for Andrew and I, even though it was the first time he had met Andrew.  He treated us as if we were the closest and dearest of relatives, and Colette equally so, her face ever adorned with a bright and shiny smile, even though she hasn't been able to ride her bike for some time as she recovers from a shoulder operation.  Unlike last year, she wasn't able to accompany Andrew and I along with Yvon on our ride out of town.  Yvon was only able to cycle with us for less than an hour as it was Colette's birthday.  He left us with the warmest of memories to fill our conversation and thought for days to come.

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