2 June 2007

I am sitting in a tent in Dordrecht. It is 22:37 and the mosquitoes are swarming. Little bastards. I was supposed to be much further along today, but for some reason, I left map 9 at home. We spent all of yesterday and part of today on map 9.

The major cycle routes here are (mostly) very well marked. But not always. Much of today was spent going in unplanned directions. One of those directions took us down a tractor path through a line of canals (pretty normal) but which were supplied by working windmills like you see in the Holland Dutch Delft pottery stuff (not at all normal). some guy was mowing the lawn in front of one of them. Xena stopped to relieve herself. always a good citizen, Nicole stopped to pick up after the dog. “What do I do with this?” she asked the lawn mowing guy. He told her to throw it in the canal.

Dear citizens of the Netherlands, Your canals are really lovely to look at, especially in the summer. They have blooming lillypads, ducks and other waterfowl, moss, little bridges and cute little boats and sometimes awesome windmills. But they would smell a whole lot better if they weren’t also full of cow shit. Sincerely, me

Yesterday, we biked from Den Haag to Gouda. We followed the major cycle route. They have routes like highways for bikes all over the country. They’re perfect for tourists. They take you through the woods, in twisty paths around fields and canals and through historic centers of adorable villages. They add several kilometers to the trip, but it’s still great. Except the marking is sometimes lacking. So there are maps you can get, which also list fun things like ferry crossings and camp grounds. Today, Xena had her first ferry ride.

I think a skeeter just bit my foot through my socks. gah!! bastard. I should put on toxic bug spray.

Last night, we camped near Gouda. We were biking in Gouda, on the LF-02, hoping to stop by the VVV (tourist office) around the central train station, when an old woman and a little girl stopped us to ask about the dog. I explained in broken Dutch that we’d towed her from Den Haag and wanted to camp tonight and continue on to Brussels in the morning. The woman didn’t know about camping, but soon assembled a small crowd of passersby to solicit opinions. One woman knew exactly where the camp grounds were. Another biking by, heard her describe the route and stopped her, since the camp ground is closed for a week.

If some stranger asked you about camping in your town, would you know two alternatives?

So she described another camp ground, 10 km away and described the route in detail. We got there and soon figured out why she knew. In addition to caravans (known to Americans as “RVs”) and folks in tents, there were a bunch of tiny cottages. The cottages all faced a road on one side and a canal on the other. Almost all of them had a small boat on the canal. All of them had a little patio by the boat, with a little umbrella. The camp ground was full of people. I’m guessing many middle class people have these little summer cottages that they come to on weekends. They were charming, but packed together at very high density. This is amusing about the Dutch. They escape from their high density cities to go to their high density camp grounds.

We went to the bar seeking food, but, unsurprisingly, they only had bar food. I had friend cheese. Nicole had a burger.

We sat down next to a Dutch woman who had lived in Dallas for 22 years. Then she came home because her father was dying and she realized she had enough of Dallas. She was talking about taking care of her dying parent while her marriage fell apart, something I can also speak about. And we talked about how loss makes you really see the beautiful things in life. The conversation got intense. Nicole started to cry.

Today, there is no bar, except for the mosquitoes. Alas, I am the bar, as is Xena. I forgot to put her pesticides on her before we left, so this morning I went to a pet shop and bought flea and tick stuff to put on her. I asked if they had stuff for heart worm. The pet store clerk didn’t know what I was talking about. I hope this means that it doesn’t exist here. Her immunity from last month has not faded away yet. I will ask again in another shop tomorrow and I’ll ask after that. Maybe there’s heartworm in Belgium but not here.

Today, after we passed the windmills, the tractor lane got very narrow. We let Xena out to run along side the bikes and stopped after a while to give her water before we went on. We gave her the very last of the water. Alas! So we biked on some more kilometers until we came to a grocery store. I was hungry, which is bad for being in a store, but also very thirsty. they were having a sale on soymilk. There is now 2.75 liters of soymilk packed on the front of my bike. I purchased one liter more than that, but then drank it quickly. Things not to do: chug most of a liter of chocolate soy milk and then go to get a heavy dinner. *urp*

I am suffering from massive pack creep. Not only am I taking around the computer which I am not typing on, but also a small coffee-making setup. It includes a tiny gas stove. A tiny pot for said stove. Two gas cartridges. An adaptor for the other kind of gas cartridge in case those two run out. Two 0.25 L cups with coffee filter attachments and little tote bags for them. And bag of ground coffee, stored in a plastic container with a scoop. Also, I have two settings of silverware, two plates, two wine glasses, two napkins, a cutting board, a cheese knife and an insulated container for food and an insulated wine holder, which is, alas, empty, or the mosquitoes might be getting tipsy. (little bastards).

Now is time for sleep.

More offline blogging about France

When I last left you, a perpetual scholar of the French Academy was starting her speech. You do not need to skip ahead, as I will not recount it here. I was not standing at the side of the parade route paying rapt attention. I was sitting on the curb with my head cradled in my crossed arms. I dreamt that she talked about Joan of Arc’s blog.
There is widespread consensus that Joan of Arc was illiterate when she started her career, but some scholars believe that she gained literacy by the time she died. Orléans was her first campaign, so the chances of her being able to write by that time are very low. She dictated some letters to the English, but she didn’t write them. Therefore, alas, Joan of Arc could not have blogged her campaign against the English at Orléans unless she dictated it or perhaps did audio posting via her cellphone. What would her blog have said? I sense a work of fiction in my future.
I awoke as a show of French military force rumbled up the street. Tanks, troop carriers and soldiers marching in dress uniform. The announcer gave statistics about who had just come back from Afghanistan, who was about to go and how many had been killed or injured there. Then came the gendarmes, also in dress uniform, marching with bayonets affixed to their machine guns. These military police are used domestically to quell unrest at demonstrations, like the one I had seen the night before. Then, came the firefighters in their shiny silver helmets and with their big red firetrucks. For the first time, the crowd applauded. They’re not too taken with the Gendarmes, but everybody loves a firefighter.
Then, more speechifying. Then the civic / religious parade started in the opposite direction. The Joan of Arc character rode up the street on her horse in show armor, smiling and waving at everyone. She looked radiantly happy and overwhelmed by the moment. You could almost imagine the real Joan of Arc with the same expression. The Orlánaise girl was enjoying the attention, but knew she was standing in for another figure. Joan of Arc might have enjoyed the attention as well, but herself put all the credit on God and the patron saints of the city.
She was followed by a bunch of pages and knights in period dress and then by other folks in period dress including the dancers from earlier and people with what looked to be relics and people whose idea of period dress got farther and farther afield until it devolved into men dressed as wizards and other such silliness. There were also altar boys, town leaders, regional politicians, priests, bishops, archbishops, honored guests and people with various flag sashes pinned to them. There were boy scouts and girl scouts and gymnasts and jugglers and basketball teams and rowing teams carrying their boats and every other civic organization in the entire department proudly marched by.
Nicole and Xena and I went to the medieval market to get lunch and drink mead. I made the only notes in my journal of the entire trip:

8 May 2007, 17:30
I am sitting at a table at the medieval market in Orléans. Xena is sitting at my feet, leaning into my leg for reassurance. Today, she has been surrounded by crowds and subject to barking dogs, marching bands, drum corps and a couple of canons.
I am waiting for Nicole to return with mead and a crepe made from ostrich eggs. [Here] there are also breads and sheep cheeses in traditional styles. Behind me, there is meat smoking over a small wood fire and a few meters to my right, there are sheep awaiting their edible fate.

The people in silly costumes from the march started to come back into the market. The march is exceedingly long and goes all around the city. I don’t recall if Joan dictated the route for the thanksgiving parade, but I believe she may have. It goes from the cathedral, down the main drag, across the bridge and along way down the road on the other side, certainly farther than the city extended when she was there. Perhaps there was a monastery or other shrine at the end. Then they come all the way back. Hours later, exhausted gymnasts and scouts, with encouragement from the parents, finish their long trek around the city.
The Joan of Arc character was in front of the Cathedral where another part of the ceremony took place. Then, they marched to the city hall where some of her colors and banners were retired to wait until next year. She looked exhausted, like she wanted to climb down from her horse and fall asleep right at it’s feet. Again, I can imagine the real Joan of Arc, who had an injury and who had barely eaten anything in the last day, after having lead charge after charge against the English. She would have been even more exhausted. But with a sense of duty the modern girl went on, to the museum to store the rest of her armor for the next year. It poured down rain for this last kilometer. And then she went on to return to normal life and her relative obscurity. Perhaps even now, people she knows are complimenting her on her good work, and next year, people will remind her of, but in the end she holds a place held by hundreds of other girls. Joan the Maid went on to the next town to beat the English there and the next town in victory after victory until the whole Loire Valley was in the hands of the Armagnacs.

May 9

The next morning, we broke down our camp to head the same direction that Joan went. She had with her local guides. We had the camp ground director. We intended to follow the Loiret for a very pretty shortcut through small, lovely villages. But the director sent us off in the opposite direction and then I misread the map several times and we found ourselves on the opposite side of the river than our planned route, with no crossings for quite a long time.
The roads along the left bank had steep inclines, leading to charming tiny clusters of houses, made out of rock, lining narrow cobblestone streets. Chickens hid behind the high walls, heard but not seen. An old lady here and there peeked her head out of a garden gate, preparing to visit her neighbor or ride her motor scooter to the next town with a bakery. It was on one of these steep hills (beside a charming town, leading to a bridge over a small stream) that my gear shifter ceased functioning. I tried shifting it furiously from low to high gear to make it pop back into place, but all I succeeded in doing was getting it stuck in the most difficult gear.
Only one bike has a trailer hitch, so there was no trading dog dragging duties. I carried on, going up steep inclines at slow, difficult paces. My camera batteries had died overnight, so I have no documentation of the steely grey skies threatening rain as the wind blew against us. Nor the outrageously orange wildflowers in large fallow fields on either side of the road. Nor the trees, blowing in the wind. Or the small stone towns. Or the Renault mechanic who said the gear shifter was too complicated for him to fix.
We came to a town with a basilica and a tourist office. This town, like all the others for the last 30 kilometers, had no bike shop, but the town across the river, Meung sur Loire, did. So we crossed the river and went straight for the tourist office there. The desk clerk directed us several kilometers away to a non-existent bike repair place. Fortunately, some locals told us where to find a repair shop – about 3 blocks away from the tourist office. The shop adjusted the cable and fixed the bike in about 5 minutes and charged nothing.
After my bike was fixed, I went back the the tourist office to ask about camping. The municipal campground was closed. I had to go only 7 km to the next town. And so I did, on the hot, sweaty, windy, buggy main road, choked with rush hour traffic, while the humid sun beat down on me. I got to the camp ground and nearly fell asleep while checking in. “Are you tired?” the camp ground guy asked in French. I told him my tale of bike woe.
I did not return to Meung Sur Loire, but on the way to bike repair, we passed the Joan or Arc marker on the side of a building, detailing her stay in the town. When she arrived in town, she first captured the bridge fortifications and then, like us, sped off towards Beaugency.

Biking in Prague

I want to make some notes about biking in Prague. First of all, you should find a bike map. there are posted and marked bike routes and you should know where they are. Second, have your hotel on the castle side of the river, somewhat north of the castle. The ground there is flat and in the newer sections, there are less cobblestones. Third, have a bike with a lot of gears. three is not enough if you are towing a dog, for example. Fourth, the sidewalk’s cobblestones are much smaller than the street’s cobblestones and will make you feel less shaken to bits. Also, the traffic is scary and the sidewalk feels safer, even if slower. The natives seem to use the sidewalk. Also, the natives wear helmets, which is a sign that you should too. Sixth, watch out for doors. People do not look before jumping out of their cars and could easily smack you. Prague is definitely a ‘bike to the edge of the section you want to see and then park your bike’ kind of town.

Bike Travel

I have not yet worked out the perfect kit, but this is what I’ve got so far.

The bike

You need a bike that is comfortable going long distances and which can carry baggage. Also some bikes are unwelcome on certain trains. I picked Brompton because they’re light and fold and can go on any train or in any hotel room and have adequate baggage-carrying ability. Also, they are comfortable for going long distances. There are a few other makes of folding bikes which can also be used as touring bikes. Make sure you get lights on your bike and also luggage-carrying ability.

Rent or buy?

If you are towing a dog, you will probably need to buy, since you are attaching a hitch to your bike. Otherwise, it depends on a few factors, including how long you’ll be travelling and how you will be going. If you do train, bike, train, bike, etc, it could be wise to rent a bike at each town rather than lug a bike on all those trains and pay a supplement on every trip (unless your bike folds).
However, if you’re going to be out for a while, you can buy a used bike and sell it at the end of your trip. If you don’t break anything on the bike, this can be cheaper than renting. There’s two drawbacks to this plan: 1. Used bikes tend to sell out of shops at the start of the tourist season, so you’ll have to plan ahead with overseas ebay. (Used Bromptons don’t go for much less than new anyway.) 2. If you get a really cool bike, you won’t want to sell it back. (My bike is so awesome! I love it.)

Clothes to pack

This list is still in flux for me, but here’s a draft. Note that your needs will change depending on whether you plan to camp, stay in hotel rooms, with the weather, how much time you spend in urban areas, etc. In all circumstances, you want stuff that dries really quickly. Wrinkle-free is also very nice. Unless you plan to pack an iron.

For biking
  • 1 or two pairs of non-dorky looking bike shorts. These are shorts that have removal, padded liners, so you can wear them to bike around, but also walk around in them without looking silly.
  • One or two under-layer bike shirts. These are the really tight shirts that wick moisture away from your skin. they dry crazily fast. I wash mine in the shower and it’s dry for the day as soon as I put it on. Mine is currently a dark color and I think I might also want a lighter fabric, lighter color one for when it’s really hot.
  • One or two bike jerseys. I have one that looks like a normal t-shirt, which means I don’t look goofy when walking around, but those back pockets are very handy and I miss them and the lack of collar means my neck is more likely to sun burn. Also, mine is a dark color which can get too warm in direct sun.
  • A bike rain jacket. Waterproof, windproof, breathable. Ideally, you want one where the sleeves come off and with a removable liner. Thees are awesome because they adjust very easily to changes in temperature. They look a little goofy for just walking around because they’re long in the back, but are super comfy anyway.
  • Bike sleeves. These are spandex sleeves which are like arm warmers. They are really handy even when you’re not biking. If you are going in cold weather, you might also want spandex leg warmers which work the same way. And if it’s going to be really cold, you can also get a helmet-liner, to keep your head warm.
  • Bike gloves. You put sunblock all over your arms and hands. You bike for a couple of hours. You stop at a toilet. You wash your hands. You bike 4 more hours in the sun. Your hands are burnt to hell because you washed them and didn’t re-apply sunblock. Screw that. The gloves also add some nice padding for when you’re on cobble stones. (Remember that stupid joke about the nuns, the bike and the cobblestones? Who the hell came up with that? It should go, “‘Oh my god, I’ve lost all feeling in my genitals except for some pain!’ ‘Yes, cobblestones make celibacy so much easier!'”)
  • Glasses or sunglasses. You know what sucks? Getting bugs in your eyes. Or dirt. Or leaves. Or blossoms. Protect your eyes.
  • helmet. You only get one head in life. Besides, it completes that roadie look that you’re now sporting. Yeah, all this stuff might make you look like a dork, but you’re a comfortable dork who is protected and dressed in layers.
For touristing – Male / Masculine IDed people
  • swim trunks. These also work for shorts. (and a swim shirt if you get sunburnt easily)
  • A short-sleeved shirt with a collar. (2 if your bike jerseys can’t be worn around as regular clothes)
  • a tie or bow tie. (seriously)
  • Pants that zip into shorts
  • Pants
  • A hat or two. I take two hats. One keeps the sun and rain off. The other is warmer and more formal looking. Both pack flat.
  • A nice swearer. You throw on your pants, collared shirt, you bow tie, your more formal hat and your niceish sweater and suddenly, you can go anywhere. (If you don’t do a nice sweater, bring a blazer)
  • Nice-ish shoes. Well, you can’t go anywhere unless you have niceish shoes. I want to pack light, so I just got tan shoes which are really comfortable and sporty enough for biking, but nice enough for the Mister Rogers look described above. I kept gravitating to the golf shoes at sports stores. I can’t tell you how alarming it is to discover an interest in golf shoes.
  • Flip flops or tevas. For avoiding athlete’s foot in shared showers
  • Two pairs of underwear. One if you can get the super amazing fast drying kind, but make sure it breathes or you’ll be unhappy.
  • 2 or 3 pairs socks. Yeah, that means you’re always hauling around an extra pair of dirty socks, but we can pretend. I’m going to investigate biking socks tomorrow.
For touristing – those who prefer femme clothes

I got help with this list, but I’m not sure about it.

  • swim suit.
  • A piece of fabric that you can wrap around your (silly) bike shorts for an instant skirt. If it goes past your knees, that’s a bonus for getting into churches.
  • one or two shirts. (Two if your bike jersey is too silly to wear around town.) Make sure at least one of them covers your shoulders so you can get into churches.
  • Pants that zip into shorts.
  • Pants OR a skirt or dress.
  • a nice looking sweater or other wrap
  • Nice-ish shoes.
  • Flip flops or tevas. For avoiding athlete’s foot in shared showers
  • Two pairs of underwear. One if you can get the super amazing fast drying kind, but make sure it breathes or you’ll be unhappy.
  • One or two sports bras or tanks with one of those bra thingees built-in. These also work for undershirts and can be used instead of the bottom layer when biking.
  • 2 or 3 pairs socks. Some of these might have to be matched with your nice-ish shoes. You know how to do this better than I do.
  • a hat
  • bling. For looking dressy when needed. (Let’s put makeup in the “bling” category.)

Camping gear

  • Tent. Light is good.
  • Sleeping bag. Light is also good, but you want one that will keep you warm enough at your lowest likely temperature.
  • Flashlight

Optionally, of course, you can add pads to sleep on and a little cooking kit and a light weight espresso maker and dishes and all the other cool camping stuff. Depending on what you want to take uphill with only the power of your own muscles.

Toiletries / first aid

  • tooth brush, tooth paste, normal stuff, you know the drill. Make sure to also bring dental floss as it not only prevents cavities, but can also be used as a clothesline and to repair ripped fabric. don’t get travel versions of these things, just bring a regular size.
  • soap, shampoo, conditioner, comb, etc. Again, you know the drill. It’s possible in some places to find shampoo in bar form. This is way lighter, takes up less space and is more economical.
  • razor, shaving soap, etc
  • A pack towel. These are tiny, light weight microfiber towels that dry out really fast. Worth the price.
  • Sun block. and after-sun lotion. If you go to a drug store in France and ask for after-sun lotion, they will sell you the most soothing moisturizer ever, which totally helps sun burns. It may still be the case that European sunblock is better than American due to differing regulations.
  • Hand sanitizer. Keep a small bottle of it in your pocket at all times. This will make you happy and keep you from contracting strange toilet doorknob-borne illnesses.
  • toilet paper. Especially if you’re going to camp.
  • some sort of clothes washing stuff. you can bring laundry powder or super-concentrated laundry soap or just use your bar soap / shampoo, but you’re going to end up hand washing your underwear and socks, so you’ll need some kind of soap for it, even if you take all the big stuff to laundry mats
  • bug spray. DEET repels ticks.
  • vitamins – keeps you healthy even with a weird tourist diet
  • any pills or medicine that you take, including for allergies.
  • pain killers
  • moist towelettes. For cleaning wounds.
  • a tiny bottle of vodka. For cleaning wounds.
  • band aids.
  • ointment that can be applies to things like rashes, dry spots, bee stings, etc
  • a sewing needle that can use dental floss as thread.
  • tampons or whatever if you need them. This might be a good time for the diva cup, but it’s not a good time for luna pads. Unless you want to bike around with nasty, bloody, dirty, washable pads. If you are really that granola, may I suggest a water-tight container filled with water and hydrogen peroxide / oxygen bleach? Stick them in there until you can clean them properly. (Same goes if you have a baby with you that uses cloth diapers.)

Other stuff

  • Pocket knife.
  • hand pump
  • tire patch kit
  • bike lock
  • blinky lights
  • rain cover for seat
  • clip to keep your pants out of the chain (unless your chain is covered)
  • if your bike folds, get a canvas cover for it.
  • water bottles or camel back thing (or both.)
  • camera (w/ film or extra memory stick)
  • rechargeable batteries and charger – for your camera and your lights and flashlight. These can be purchased very cheaply in Europe. don’t bring your own from America. (or vice versa.)
  • (optional) cell phone. Get it unlocked before you leave.
  • maps.
  • travel book.
  • diary or laptop. (yeah, seriously, but be careful.)
  • a pen and some paper
  • a watch. analog watches can be used for navigation

augh, that’s so much stuff!!!

No it’s not. Especially if you get the REI/ travel versions of listed clothes. They pack very small. You want to carry as little of this on your back as possible, so look into saddle bags, back racks, front racks, etc. If you have a brompton, get the front luggage attachment and the back rack. There is a 28 liter bag that can go on the front and carry all of this stuff for one person with no problem. They also have bags that specifically fit the back, but 1. Your tent might not fit. 2. The way the bike folks makes this back rack hard to use, unless you’re towing a dog, in which case, you’re not folding the back up anyway.

this sounds complicated

It’s not. You’re taking all your normal tourist stuff minus a few street clothes and plus a few bike clothes. And a few bike gadgets. A lot of this stuff can be picked up as needed. I didn’t add bandaids to the list until Cola cut her foot in Berlin. (alas.)

this sounds expensive

Cheap acrylic clothes dry fast too. Buy used when you can. Borrow when you can. Silly bike clothes are more comfortable but not required by any means. (I never owned padded shorts before this summer.) Camping is really cheap lodging. You can buy food at delis and bakeries and eat it outside. Also, being on a bike means not having to buy metro or tram tickets. If you buy a used bike and sell it at the end, I don’t think this ends up being any more expensive than any other vacation.
However, budget more money than you think you’ll need. You may end up in hotels more nights than you expect and you might need bike repairs, etc.

This sounds hard

So start with an easy ride. If you follow the Loire, for example, there is always a downhill tendency, since water always flows downhill. The towns and villages are pretty close to each, so you can find lodging (although maybe a hotel) at many, many points along the way. If you have a problem along that route, the locals will help you out as much as they can. Seriously, if you do an easy ride, you don’t need to train in advance. It might be a good idea, but it’s not required. (All the usual disclaimers about seeing a doctor before starying to exercise apply.)
But seriously, don’t strain yourself. Pain is a way of telling you to take a break for a while. This is not sprinting, so you shouldn’t ‘feel the burn.’ Stretch when you stop (not when you start) to keep from being sore the next day. If you feel like you’ve pulled something, take a day or two off from the bike and walk around instead. Eat fruits and vegetables. Make sure you get enough iron, because you’re probably going to end up with a lot of bruises, alas.

Back from France

I’m back and I want to share all. I wasn’t sure where to start, especially since the trip ended much as it began: biking across Paris, towing a dog, trying to make a train connection. The second trip was a bit more hectic than the first because it involved a much farther away train station, a shorter time and a case of wine. Some Parisian yelled «Bravo!» as I struggled uphill across and intersection, trying to pick up speed to make the train on time. We had an hour and 5 minutes, two foldy bikes, a foldy trailer, dirty clothes, camping gear and the aforementioned dog and case of wine. And a medieval-style bugle that I bought in Orléans. 20 minutes to unfold everything. 20 minutes to bike from Montparnasse to Gare du Nord, 20 minutes to refold. I highly recommend sprinting across Paris with so many things, especially down the hill from the Sorbonne to the Seine.

We arrived in Paris the day of the election. The streets were crawling with Gendarmes, prepared for possible unrest following the results.
First stop, was the bakery near where my apartment used to be. God, they make the best bread in the world. First thing off my bike and I step in dog shit. Yay Paris. Some older French ladies approached me and spoke to me about my dog trailer. Maybe it was the nice weather. Maybe it was the expectant air around the election, but probably it was the dog. I almost never had conversations like that when I lived there.
The streets were full of flics and first-time roller bladers. At every corner, there were grim-looking cops in riot gear and young people on wheels desperately clinging to phone poles. Xena was trying desperately to escape her trailer as we slowly crossed the city. Nicole rode behind me, repeating “good dog!” over and over again. She said the scowling gendarmes broke into amused smiles as they spotted the dog.
We arrived in Orléans later that evening and went to the tourist office, which was closed. They also had cops everywhere. I tried to call the campground listed in the guidebook, but they didn’t answer their phone. Rather than ride the 5km to the campground with the risk of having to ride another 5 km back, we went to the Ibiss, a 2 star hotel chain in Europe, roughly equivalent to the Motel 6 in the US.
And everywhere I went that day, I head over and over «C’est un chien!» It’s a dog! but I felt very proud of myself when a kid added, «C’est genial!» That’s brilliant! indeed. My goal was to take my dog with me and avoid the hassle of trying to find a sitter, but I don’t mind amusing the French also.
Over dinner, I learned that Sarko had won. I hate that guy. He said several months ago that the (poor, immigrant) suburbs should be cleaned out with a pressure hose, a comment that contributed greatly to the riots that followed shortly thereafter, leaving many cars burned. His parents were immigrants! He’s like the Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas of France. In the time leading to the run off, he actively courted supporters of Le Pen, the ultra-right nationalist who adores Joan of Arc. Not because she was an awesome cross dresser who could place a cannon, but because she drove France’s foreign enemies out of France – you know, like um, immigrants. Because immigrants are totally against the country they want to live in (yeah, I hate France and want to destroy it). And Joan of Arc was not accompanied by a huge bunch of Scots who were also foreign and there to help her.
As I was walking back to the hotel, I heard whistling and shouts. A huge crowd of youths came up behind me on the Rue de Jeanne d’Arc. They had a bedsheet banner that had an anti-sarko slogan on it. Other folks were joining them as they marched. The joiners had their cell phones in hand and busily SMSed and called their friends to let them know to join in. (I heard one guy saying something about “le podcast.”)
as they marched down the largest street in town, towards the cathedral, under the huge patriotic banners and flags the town hung for it’s yearly festival, the older, whiter, richer Orléanaise leaned out their apartment windows and looked worriedly on the crowd below. In the expensive apartment, old white folks worried. In the street, a young, diverse crowd marched, whistled and gave speeches.
WhenI heard Sarko won, I was disappointed, but not surprised. The poll numbers were in favor of him. He was running against a woman. Her “yay I won” speech after the first round was wooden and boring in a manner unsurpassed by even John Kerry or Al Gore (although maybe Bob Dole could give her a run). But still, I hoped somehow she would win and I was angry that she hadn’t. But then, I saw these other angry kids and marched with them for a while. They were unhappy, but engaged. Their actions demonstrated hope. They weren’t in the street just because they were angry. They were in the street in their smallish town because they knew it mattered. Their participation in this semi-spontaneous march meant something, not just to them and the worried old folks, but to their whole nation.
I felt tears in my eyes. How can such a great country be so stupid? I went back to the hotel to sleep.

Freedom Machine

Last night, over dinner, the subject of bicycles came up. Who invented them? “It was the Dutch, certainly” asserted the Dutch woman. “No, I think it was the British” said the Brit. Nicole thought it was Americans. I thought it might be the French, given the large section on bicycles in the Musée d’Arts et Metiers.

After reading the wikipedia article, well, it’s not so straightforward, but it seems like Nicole and I were both right. I remembered this morning that there’s a plaque in New Haven, Connecticut which says the bike was invented there. What’s more interesting though, is the bike’s feminist import.
The big wheel bicycles were considered inappropriate for women (and were also very dangerous), but in the 1880’s, an English inventor came up with a “safety bicycle” which had pedals, a chain, small tires: the modern bike. “It was the first bicycle that was suitable for women, and as such the ‘freedom machine’ (as American feminist Susan B. Anthony called it) was taken up by women in large numbers.” The wikipedia article goes on to state,

The impact of the bicycle on female emancipation should not be underestimated. The diamond-frame safety bicycle gave women unprecedented mobility, contributing to their larger participation in the lives of Western nations. As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they embodied, and so the bicycle came to symbolise the New Woman of the late nineteenth century, especially in Britain and the United States. Feminists and suffragists recognised its transformative power. Susan B. Anthony said: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” In 1895 Frances Willard, the tightly-laced president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, wrote a book called How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, in which she praised the bicycle she learned to ride late in life, and which she named “Gladys”, for its “gladdening effect” on her health and political optimism. Willard used a cycling metaphor to urge other suffragists to action, proclaiming, “I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.”

And then, alas, bikes fell out of favor in the US, replaced by cars, and the status of women dropped. But then, “In the late 1960s . . . bicycling enjoyed another boom. Sales doubled between 1960 and 1970, and doubled again between 1970 and 1972.” And continued to grow while the second wave of feminism was also getting going. Coincidence? A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Take that bike away from the fish and give it to the woman, it’s her freedom machine.
Um, seriously, biking has a number of leftist benefits, but perhaps among them is some sort of inherently democratic, egalitarian nature. Bikes to do not seek to dominate and control in the manner of cars. They are self-propelled and thus reliant only on the rider for power, but at the same time, close to the terrain. Power without dominance. Maybe bikes are inherently feminist.