Monday, May 14, 2007

from France: men, women and wheels

I had always thought of Sunday as a family day in France. Most everyone eats a big meal en famille in the afternoon. People go to parks, sit in cafes – Sunday is about the embrace of your own little familial community.

Still, if you happen to be riding through towns and villages on any spring or summer Sunday in, say, Provence, you’ll get a glimpse of a separation that is uniquely French. (Or at least uniquely not American): men are chasing hobbies and women are somewhere on the sidelines, or at least – far less visible to the passerby.

We biked relentlessly. What more can I say. I am logging in 60, 70 kilometers a day (ok, a little less today) and I am feeling like my strength is diminishing.

Isn’t one supposed to get stronger over time?

Not me. I wake up, look outside, see a blooming chestnut tree..


..and think: that is some chestnut tree. Good bye, chestnut tree. Me, I am off to bike over hills and mountains.

My attitude on a ride is all wrong. Instead of “go go go!” I think “oh shit, another incline!”

True, at the end of the day, there is that great sense of accomplishment. But before that, oh the swell of feelings of despair! So why do it? I suppose it’s much like labor: kid pops out, you’re elated and go on to have another. We choose not to remember the tough parts of the day, or else we’d never get out of bed.

Ed and I set out ten minutes before noon. We’re ahead of yesterday by ten minutes!

We come to a village that is celebrating old tractor/car/motorbike day. People are driving in old models of all the above. Did I say people? No no. This is a guy thing.


We get off our bikes and walk around, looking at the ancient models of this and that. Maybe I see a woman or two. Maybe. She’ll be the one standing to the side while a guy she’s with swoons over some engine part.

We bike over to the next village. What’s this? A bike race?


Oh, but this is not novel. You need go down any hilly country road on a Sunday in France and you will understand. There are a lot of skinny, muscled men riding around on their velos out there.

Though for me, this particular race, which consists of four repeats of a twenty kilometer loop, is a source of terrific embarrassment. Their route is along the roads we were riding. Occasional cheering groups are parked along the side. Imagine how fun it is to be panting up a hill where some fifty riders are soon to whizz through in a matter of seconds.

People smile and shout encouragement (allez allez! courage!). I feel like a comic sideshow to the main event.

Okay, male hobbies. There is also the matter of what men see and what you sometimes wish they would not have noticed.

We are in the village of the bike race. Eureka! This is the time to go begging for a spare tube! We used our last one yesterday and we are only halfway through our velo trip.

And so I ask a guy (because I think a guy would know this and besides, I’m not seeing many women) about where on this Sunday I may purchase a spare tube.

Not here, he says. It’s Sunday. Everything is closed. Maybe in the next town? But then, I know you were there already. I was driving behind you as you biked through. I recognize that little suntanned strip on your back!
Ed is grinning - I meant to tell you about that...

Sure you did.

The thing is, pants these days are cut low. And my t-shirts are not long enough. So there is this strip of flesh exposed to the elements where shirt and pants don’t meet. It’s not evident when one stands, like this:


But when you lean forward on your velo, well, if you happen to have a tattoo, say of a sparrow on that part of your torso, that sparrow is going to be in a band of suntanned skin by the time the ride is over and done with.

[And yes, one of the support cars to the racers did have spare tubes and yes, they shared.]

The rest of the day is all about mountains. What a surprise. We have entered the Haute (as in high) Provence, the Rhone-Alpes department. I cannot believe I chose this route.

One last village to pass through. This one at least is at the base of a hill. Kind to the biker. Pierrelongue. So similar in name to my Pierrerue of last June!


We overnight in Buis-les-Baronnies, a village surrounded by high, jagged cliffs. I am trying to focus on everything but the fact that there is no way in hell of biking out of here without doing a lot of ups and downs. And even more so, on the fact that it’s supposed to rain and thunder for the next two days.

I’m sure I’ll survive.


At night, all is calm, all is – southern France villagey.


And the food – oh, so very excellent. As usual.


And tomorrow? Courage! Allez, allez!