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Monday, 28 May 2007

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.

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