Le Grand Tour: stage five
We awoke Friday morning to sombre news. There’d been an attack. Dozens were dead and many more were injured. In Nice, a truck had driven into the Bastille Day crowd, and there’d been shooting.
I swiped to the homepage of the Times and read an account in the 4-a.m darkness. François Hollande would soon hold a press conference to announce that the country was in mourning. France and all that it stands for had been struck.
There was no time to watch or read more though. We were set to depart Bordeaux for Nantes at 5:30 and had to eat breakfast. It was a half-hour drive to the start.
I’d experienced the build up to the Bastille Day celebrations the day before, during an easy tour around Bordeaux. Workmen were hanging blue, red, and white flags all over the city. They were setting up gates by the Place de la Bourse. Throngs of happy people wandered through the alleys of the city centre, past its grand monuments. Crowds filled the main shopping streets. The cafés by the river were packed, their guests spilling out onto the sidewalk, where they laughed and chatted with glasses of wine and bottles of beer in their hands, while their children played all around them. People were out running and walking, rollerblading and cycling — families, friends, lovers. The city was alive, readying itself for the night’s festivities, the fireworks and partying in honour of the republic — liberty, equality, and brotherhood.
In Nice, it would have been much the same. But, I now read, the festivities there had ended in carnage.
At once, our ride seemed insignificant and extravagant, incongruent with the real suffering the victims’ families, friends, and lovers faced. Somehow, I felt, we should mourn as well, if only as a gesture of respect and solidarity. I didn’t know anyone in Nice but I was in love with France and the French way of living, and France had been attacked.
Nothing we could do was going to help anyone though. We’d might as well ride. We’d might as well press on.
Freek had flown in the night before, just for this stage, and, although he’d just had 3 hours of sleep, he could hardly contain his excitement. He reminded me of myself a couple of weeks ago.
Then, before either of us was really awake, we were riding through the rolling vineyards north of Bordeaux, where row upon row of dark, swaying shadows traced the lay of the land, and sunflowers glowed by the side of the road. All I could think of was liberty, equality, and fraternity.
I tried to remember definitions, but when I thought of liberty, I thought of long, swooping descents — the freest freedom I know. And when I thought of equality, I thought of the wind — the fairest arbiter of ability, talent, and virtue I’ve met. And when I thought of fraternité, I looked across at Freek, at the grimace he wore on his face when we rode into the wind, his smile when we went downhill.
We were in this together, brothers in arms, if only against the wind.
As the sun rose, the flags were already flying at half-mast in each village we passed — their red, white, and blue flapping powerfully against the wind. When I saw those flags, I thought of the people. There they were, the farmers on tractors and old women buying bread, gentlemen and ladies sitting outdoors at old iron tables, enjoying their first coffees and pastis and cigarettes.
They were asserting their freedom, not harming anyone but themselves, and I admired them all the more for it.
As the day wore on, the wind blew harder and harder in our faces. When I got frazzled, I thought of those flags.
Most cars waved when they passed us, but a few were aggressive. When one was hostile, I blew it a kiss and rode on. This baffled the driver, but was better than escalating the situation. It was better than letting our anger get the better of us.
The French were out sunning themselves on the beach and swimming in the sea, driving fast and enjoying long lunches and afternoon strolls.
The tricolour was flying at half mast, but it flew proudly.