Touring

“Maybe that’s our bus,” I say, as my coworker Joanna and wait to go to a stage of the Tour de France. I’ve been anticipating this for days.

As the bus passes us quickly, we see just a glimpse of it.

“Ah, no,” Joanna says. “That’s the team Askana bus. Lance Armstrong used to bike for them.” Behind this bus, a few more cars, painted heavily with Askana logos and carrying many bikes on top of them, pass us.

Oh, okay. Lance Armstrong. Cool. Dopehead, the French say.

Another bus followed by bike-loaded car passes again. It’s definitely not ours, which is already ten minutes late.

We stick up our thumbs (sorry Mom). Zip. Zoom. Zap. No one picks us up. Finally, our bus comes (my Mom sighs).

We arrive at Albertville, a small city you’d never think would host the Olympics. It did, in 1992; at least, the banners say so. Maybe it’s just a marketing gimmick. A sign points to the Stade Olympique, where the cyclists are supposed to start, according to Joanna.

We walk a little, see some decorative flags, and keep walking. A voice comes from a black van, labeled Le Tour de France. It has a loudspeaker. Someone is speaking in the loudspeaker. Someone wants me to buy something “official.” Someone gets rejected.

A crowd walks with us, albeit a thin crowd. A child wears a yellow cyclist’s hat like a banana peel. Another child waves a flag that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Albertville Olympics. A masked man, dressed completely in black, walks past, pushing a fake coffin on a cart.

It is a lovely day at Le Tour de France.

After passing a group of 40 middle aged men all wearing the same outfit, we find the starting line, where voice introduces the cyclists over loudspeakers. Everything is extraordinaire. Everything is incroyable. Everything is français.

I find a vendor’s booth. I buy a shirt. I am a tourist, who likes buying shirts—just not out of vans that yell at me, saying they are official. Joanna tells me my shirt is pretty. It is a pretty day at Le Tour de France.

The Olympic torch stands nearby, just in front of the stadium, which seems to be a glorified version of my high school football stadium, which was more like a big grandstand by a field. The torch is nice.

We are hungry, and since France is not really the fast food type, we walk along the route to find a bakery. We think the cyclists come this way. There are other people here along side the road, and crowds are always right. Right?

As the starting time of the race approaches, we sit in shade, eating sandwiches. I try a fancy strawberry something. As I finish the treat, which was of course, lovely, the bikers emerge in the distance.

I put the fancy strawberry something down. I grab my camera. In a second I take a picture. I put down my camera. In another seconds, the peloton (the group of bikers) has passed.  

“Do you think there are more coming?” I ask Joanna.

Cars with extra bicycles on top drive by. They are almost racing. That’s my spot, I think. None of these 50 kilometer climbs for me. I’ll watch from the car.

Now, there are no more cars. People start to gather in the street where the cyclists have just passed. Fans who rode their bikes to the event, including the group of middle aged men all wearing the same clothes, ride away.

I have a picture, and a t-shirt. Whoopie!

After waiting an hour, our bus comes, which then takes us home in 45 minutes. At home, I watch the tour for 15 minutes, and there are always cyclists on the screen. A man in a leotard sprints alongside one of the cyclists, and two men draped in flags run alongside another one. It is the last part of the stage I watch before going to work in the afternoon.

Extroadinaire. Incroyable. Français.

Yes, Yes the Lord has been good to me.

Ruling

For the past two weeks I have been visiting art museums in Brussels and Paris. After 5 museums, including Le Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Musée Magritte, I’ve come up with 10 rules of proper museum etiquette, mostly for other tourists.

1. Don’t take a photo if you are not going to actually look at the piece. Why would you do that if you don’t want to look at it?

2. When standing in line, pay attention to how you are holding your umbrella, being careful not to hit the poor umbrallaless man behind you. Be especially careful not to poke his eye; he already has enough problems.

3. Don’t walk in front of the man trying to enjoy a painting. If you were as beautiful as the painting, he would have already taken pictures of you.

4. Listen to the employee who is quietly telling you to be quiet. Just because he says it with a french accent does not mean you can pretend you don’t understand.  

5. Read the sign on the door. If it it says Emergency Exit, don’t try and open it unless you want thousands of people to stare at you for setting off an alarm that would make Mona Lisa frown. Fortunately for you, most of this old doors are so tall and heavy, you could not open them anyhow.

6. Stop taking so many photos.

7. Be willing to let another person walk past you first, even if it means waiting five seconds to take a picture. If this does not work, tomahawk your enemy with your umbrellas until they retreat. If this does not work, just shove them out of the way and act as if it were an accident.

8. Don’t spend your whole day trying to get to the Mona Lisa. You’ll won’t be able to see it because the crowd around it is too big and the person in front of you is too tall. The painting is overrated anyway, and you’ve already seen it in books a hundred times.

9. Don’t take a photo of someone who is more than three feet away from you, because others won’t be able to walk past you without making a cameo in your picture. Besides, tourists are here to see artwork of human beings, not actual human beings, who are much harder to find beautiful, particularly the ones who don’t look like the statues of Greek gods, which you are admiring immensely.

10. Don’t be a snob who worries more about the behavior of other museum goers than the fact that you are viewing rare, world-class art. That would be sad.

Oops.

Shivering

Snuggling against a plastered wall, I sit on a dry spot of wood on an otherwise wet porch. An overhang of roof protects me from the rain. I remain unscathed, except my feet, which my long legs can’t keep out of the rain. My feet garner no feeling, save the tightness of my sandal straps that wear my skin raw.

Despite my jacket, I shiver. Even when I sit and return to my own apartment, my feet remain numb and my whole body shivers. Home is not always warm, especially when it is only home for five weeks.

I sit outside because it is the only place where I receive internet. My apartment lacks web access, and when I walk a hundred feet to tap into my host family’s internet, they prefer I remain outside the house. They have given me much, so I understand.

Five weeks ago, I came to this French farm. I was shivering the day I arrived here, too; I hadn’t slept for two days. My heart shivered more than my body, but still, I was cold. I cried hard on that first day, and from then it’s been a journey into what sometimes feels like the most foreign country in the world—myself.

When I signed up to come to France, I didn’t want the cold—it’s summer after all, and I’d had enough rain from the Oregon Spring. But this shivering is telling me one thing—I need warmth.

For weeks I have walked back and forth between my apartment and my host’s home, hoping to send this email or hear from that friend back home. Though many of my messages have rejoiced in the beauty of the mountains and the kindness of the people here, I have also regularly written of my loneliness and sadness.

Only one computer can use the internet at a time, so many times I have walked over and clicked on my browser, only to receive the message, “You are unable to connect to the Internet at this time. Please try again.” I go to great lengths to send an email or talk to a friend on Skype. I’ve already tilted my laptop upside down to keep rain from hitting the screen, and I’ve waited outside for thirty minutes late at night, hoping Internet would come soon.

When I need my family, and when I need my friends, I wait, and I shiver for an embrace.

But my numbness won’t make the internet connect. Sleeping Americans can’t feel my body’s temp, and a French host family can’t understand the words of a shaking English mouth. Sometimes, the only source of warmth is my own body.

I wiggle my toes and rub my feet with my hands, but I find that it is vain. I find that by myself, I am only a cold, cold man, who has nothing to feel but his own numbness.

So on cold nights like these, I hop into my sleeping bag and say a small prayer:

I give you myself from my head to my toes

from my left to my right

from my back to my front

from my inside out.

As I begin to fall asleep, warm blood rushes to my extremities, and I know it is Christ’s; I am told he shivered, too.

Loving

We walk to church, Denise, you and I. The church bells ring to the extent of annoyance, bidding us to mass. 

You wear a light blue polo, the one you have been wearing for two weeks straight, only you have a sweater over it. No smear or stain marks your shirt. You have treated it well.

You know this church well, after 84 years in Versonnex, the village you have never left. Here, you were baptized as an enfant, married as a young woman, and someday, you will be buried here. Through it all you have come, often, to partake in the blood and body of Christ.

No, you have never left Versonnex. Its hills have shaped your feet, its rain has grown your crops, and its cheese has kept you strong. You handle the cheese well enough to keep it from shaping your stomach, and though your skin wrinkles, you are steadfast, and you can walk on your own.

When I first came here, I asked you if you remember the Second World War, and you told me that the Nazis gassed four of your family members. Not all the French resisted Hitler’s regime, but your family did. Faithfulness is in your blood.

Later, you shared more tragedies with me—your parents both died in the same week, your uncle died from oppressive, industrial smoke, and your husband, he has been gone for ten years. Versonnex survives them all.

The other day, I saw one of your young friends, Florian, who wears sunglasses like bono and drives a moped. Usually, he asks about you, imitating your grumpy voice, and he asks again this time. Explaining to me that Florian lost his mother at a young age, your son Gilles says that you tried to fill in as best you could. Of course, Florian lives in Versonnex too.

As we walk to mass, Denise, you and I, I am not sure what to say, so I mention the beauty of roses as we pass them. I am used to asking people questions, but where does one start when talking with 84 years of work, courage, and laughter?

We arrive at the church, and you tell me Versonnex started building it in the 17th century. As we walk in, you show me an ancient painting, of Peter, of a rooster, and of denial. You don’t seem much like Peter, Denise.

Like you have been doing for so many years, you receive the words of the priest and a wafer—was it bread when you were young? You have done this since childhood, and you will do this until death.

And that’s why, when we arrive at your home, I know I have not had communion bread for the last time this evening. You will insist that I take more after I have already told you I am full. And I know now, Denise, that every time you insist that I eat more, you insist not because that is what you have always done, but because you are inviting me into a life of faithfulness, the kind of faithfulness that wears the same shirt for two weeks, that remains steadfast in suffering, and that lives in a village in the mountains of France for 84 years.

Travelling

Sitting outside the local post office with his dog, a man places his cup out and waits.

I walk past him.

Inside the post office, I wait in line, and then have a confusing interaction with the lady behind the counter.

“No, those stamps don’t work internationally,” she says.

“Oh, okay, I will take the other stamps then,” I reply.

“Okay that will be ten more Euros.”

“I already gave you that much.”

“No it’s 10 more Euros.”

“But I just want the international stamps.”

“Oh, okay.”

It’s hard being a traveler. Things take a while to make sense.

After dumping postcards to Oregon, California, and Alaska in the mailbox, I walk past the man and his dog for the second time. Realizing I am going the wrong way, I turn around. This time, I go to the other side of the road so I do not have to walk directly past the man again.

That’s bad, I tell myself, so I change my mind.

Being a traveler with only a little money in a small town, I decide I might as well go talk with him. I need to learn French, so I offer to give him some money in exchange for a language lesson. He declines, but we still talked for a while.

“What do you want,” I hear him say. I don’t know what I want, I think, but I’d like to practice French with you.

Dominique leads me to a shady area, where we both sit down by the road. Together we set down our backpacks and lean against the cool, stone wall.

“My name is Dominique, but some call me (insert some word I can’t spell in French that indicates his hometown).”

“You are from Marseille?”

He explains to me that he is originally from Marseille but has travelled and lived throughout much of France. He now lives in this town of Rumilly in a one-room apartment. He has a wife, who has two children. He does not call them his own.

“Rumilly is boring. There is nothing,” he tells me. “Chambery is good. If you want women, go to Chambery,” As Dominique speaks, he motions his hands around his chest, shaping breasts.

“No thanks, I have a girlfriend,” I respond.

He continues to talk. I understand some of what he is saying.

Repeatedly, I hear Dominique say, “I don’t judge you,”

That’s nice to hear, I think, but also kind of strange. What would he have to judge me about—being in a relationship where I don’t see other women?

 He says it to me again.

“I don’t judge you.”

Confused, I accept his kindness. Later, I hear him say “homosexuelle.” That’s why he would say, I don’t judge you; we live in a world where we have to clearly state that we don’t judge someone for them to fell safe, because they are in a people group known for being judged.

“Oh, I am not homosexual,” I say. “I have a girlfriend.”

“But that’s not what you said,” he replies.

“No, I said I had a girlfriend.” I respond.

Though in my mind I had said une petite-amie (girlfriend), I had actually said, “un petit-ami (boyfriend).

After clarifying my sexual orientation, Dominique tells me a little more about his life. Pointing to scars all over his body, he tells me he is in bad health because of all the drugs he’s done. Pulling up his shirt, he shows me a scar above his hip, and talks about some problems with his pancreas. He says that he con’t wear shorts like me, even in the hot sun, because he is ashamed of all of the scars on his legs.

He opens his wallet and shows me some pharmaceutical drugs he’s taking to help.

I sympathize with him and affirm the difficulty of his situation, but I don’t have much more to give.

That is, nothing to give besides a few important words. “I don’t judge you, Dominique.”

Standing

Crouching near the gravel, I brush away rocks to pull weeds.

Who made a weed a weed? Some of them are quite beautiful, covering cracks of a cement wall that would otherwise just look like—cement. Maybe Adam made them weeds when he ate one that he thought looked like fruit.

So I pluck weeds, bending low to the earth.

When I stand up, I get dizzy. My head squeezes my eyes, and my vision falters. The ground upon which I work seems so far south. I am not used to being so low—its not my middle class American life. Sure I’ve worked landscaping, but that only gave me acquaintances, acquaintances with land here, there, and all over the place. Trying to get to know land well at a landscaping company is like trying to get know 20 people you’ve never met before at a two-hour party.

Working the soil in another country isn’t much different either. I lean down to touch it, but it does not know me. I am from Oregon, and this French dirt isn’t. 

When I stand up, the elevation seems so high, as high as the all the garbage of the world dammed into one pile. Long have the earth and I been far from each other. I knew the earth well when Adam was here, but since Adam something has happened. Something that made flowers look like weeds.

When I sit down, I expect an office chair, because that’s where America tells its white men to go. Gravel nips at my thigh, telling me I don’t belong, telling me that those pointed rocks were made for the bottom of car tires and shoes, made to separate the mud of the earth from my foot.

Sticking in me, the gravel calls out—away, away! But I am trying to go to the land, to the land where woman is flower and man is flower, where weeds are flowers and rocks are flowers, where Adam and Eve find no thorns.

But that is not today. As I reach my hands down towards the earth, weeds sting my hands.  I look at the weed hard, but my eyes cannot turn thorns into crystals. Despite my hopeful imagination, weeds still cause trouble.

I am not used to the land, or its stinging plants and hard soil, so when I stand up, I get dizzy. 

"And the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls" -Simon and Garfunkel "And the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls" -Simon and Garfunkel

"And the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls" -Simon and Garfunkel

Landing

My plane descends towards Geneva, and the Alps greet me on my left. My neck hurts from looking through the window, one seat away from me.

I ride the train to a small French town, one hour from Geneva, and my neck still hurts from looking out windows. I pass a long lake and many mountains.

I call my host Gilles, and he is hard to understand on the phone. He speaks a few words in English to help me. He picks me up at the train station, and takes me to his home. It is my first time living in a village.

I have not slept for two days, so Gilles allows me to rest until I wake up. At the same time America is turning off its lights, I wake in darkness, and in fear. My country—gone. My language—gone. My friends—gone. Who am I, here, upon these mountains and hills of France?

Je ne sais pas.

At 11, I go to the kitchen and enjoy breakfast. Le pain from the bakery sits at the table. I partake of its coldness, though beyond its surface, it is warm.

I begin work in the greenhouse. It hugs me with its warm air. While my family sleeps in America, I arrange hanging strings to connect to young, northbound tomato plants. Everything feels north of here—especially the mountains.

As I walk about the farm, pulling weeds here and planting beans there, pressure from my heart begins to leak into my eyes. Tears begin to form, but they do not fall—not yet. Nearby me, purple flowers burst. A two hundred year old tree displays good posture.

Gilles and his mother bid me to lunch. Its only 1:30, and I am already full. I eat and enjoy their company. When I converse with them in French, I don’t know who I am. I have lost the words that created me. Gilles tells me I can take a nap.

I read for awhile, in the company of Ranier Maria Rilke, who comforts me. He spoke German and French, but some kind soul translated his book. I reach for his words, which seem so close, but my hands are paralyzed. I walk to Gilles’ house to see if I can contact home.

I use skype to call ma copine’s phone.

“Hi, this is Trisha’s phone, please leave a message…”

This time, tears fall. I send an email to my parents, grandparents and Trisha. I go back to my room and use a lot of Kleenex. I mumble prayers to God.

I go out again to work with Gilles. We gather harmful bugs from potatoes plants. Mountains with trees like cauliflowers rise near us, while Mont Blanc, coated in sugar, stands at a distance. 

Later that evening Trisha answers her phone. My parents and grandparents already emailed me back. They are praying for me. I leave Gilles’ home, and he pats me on the back.

As I walk back to my room, the darkness of evening comes, but I can still see the mountains, flowers, and trees that surround me.

This is how they used to take pictures.