FRANCE ON A HARLEY
I was jetlagged and so was Cindy, and I’d just put diesel in the tank because I didn’t know the green pumps were diesel. The Harley was offending people it was so loud, and it was starting to put out a trail of black smoke because of the diesel, and then came a soft rain, which made seeing where we were going just about impossible. All the road signs were of course in German so we weren’t sure we were on the right road to France. My adrenaline was pumping and I was starting to worry.
We were on our way to Strasbourg on the autobahn from the Frankfurt airport, having just unpacked our sapphire-blue Harley Springer, which came strapped to a pallet as free luggage all the way from Vancouver—with a return ticket I didn’t want to use. It seemed like a great deal at the time—free transport to Europe for our Harley and then our own breezy open-air motoring about France, combined with high miles-per-gallon. How extremely practical! What could possibly go wrong?
We had equipped ourselves with up-to-date walkie-talkies which never worked, so we communicated in frustrated shouts. I quickly discovered too that my well insulated gloves made shifting and braking dangerously difficult, obliging me to opt for permanently frozen fingers.
We were surprised how often it rained over here—we kept having to stop under bridges to change into and out of raingear—and how difficult it was to find a safe place for the cycle at night, plus worrying about dropping it and not being able to pick the damn thing up again. We had never taken it on a long trip like this, and we were quickly exhausted from riding such a loud, vibrating behemoth while navigating a foreign terrain. After a week I just wanted to stay in bed, any bed, but we had a mission and only two weeks to accomplish it.
Colmar was a good place to rest for a couple of days, since we’d been fueled by adrenaline for the past week, getting ourselves ready, getting the cycle on the plane, and sleeping nary a wink on the flight from Vancouver to Frankfurt. Our first night, with no advance reservations, we found a decent hotel with protected parking and slept like the dead. The next day we wandered around in a daze, checking out the touristy shops and “art,” and although the town was nice enough, attractive even, we felt out of place. In a restaurant we were instructed by a commanding waiter who basically told us what we were going to eat (the special of the day), and the right way to partake of cheeses (from bland to pungent, no exceptions). We weren’t exactly passing for French.
FROM STRASBOURG TO BESANçON TO NANS
From Colmar we rumbled south to Besançon, always on the small roads. Other cyclists were friendly, raising a wave as they passed, but we were seriously outgunned by the Ducatis and BMWs, which passed us sounding like mosquitoes on steroids. The Harley made us conspicuous Americans, especially the noise it made, which we found out was an illegal level of decibels over there. We made our way slowly, still struck by the strangeness of everything and throwing off echoes of thunder and lightning by virtue of changes I had made to the mufflers. Stopping for the night, I had to manhandle the machine into an extremely awkward space in back of the hotel down in a locked cellar chained to a post, a complicated maneuver where I almost dropped it several times.
I began to realize how much of a liability this beast was going to be. It attracted far too much attention; people stopped and gaped everywhere we went. I began to covet the common modes of transportation all around us, especially the quick, anonymous and relatively quiet cycles that zipped past us so efficiently. The Harley was beautiful but it would have been dauntingly heavy work even if I hadn’t already been exhausted.
Besançon is an attractive university town of less than 100,000 souls that seems strangely difficult to enter and very easy to leave. Over the years it has become moderately less confusing to negotiate, and has received heavy investment as a World Heritage Site. We noted that Victor Hugo was born there and promised ourselves that we would return for a closer look in future, but today we were on a mission. It was still possible in those years to motor directly into the center of town—nowadays it’s all pedestrian—but we were quickly lost and confused and embarrassed by our own conspicuousness. I relied on Cindy’s map reading genius to orient us and extract us from the maze, and after finding an inn, we fell exhausted into our little French bed-cum-hammock for another jetlagged all-too-brief slumber.
Cindy is never without a plan, whereas I pretty much just go where you tell me to. She had been reading about a little village that was dubbed by her British guidebook as, not only “the prettiest of them all,” but unknown to tourists—except for the Swiss cognoscenti (being so close to Switzerland). To get there, we roared off through an increasingly mountainous region full of forests and rivers, often getting lost because the road signs refused to tell us how to actually get there from where we were. Eventually we found ourselves in another lovely town on a river surrounded by cliffs, named Ornans, advertised as the birthplace of Gustave Courbet, complete with Courbet museum. We knew there was a road from Ornans to our destination and on the map it looked close. But we could not for the life of us find the road. People in Ornans took to holding their ears as we rumbled back and forth through the narrow streets looking for the turn-off our map swore was there.
Suddenly I remembered how the French do their signage. Assuming every halfwit knows which small destinations are on the way (and on the same road) to which big French destinations, their road signs only tell you about the large towns just beyond the small ones that you’re actually looking for. We consulted the map again. Just beyond our target destination was a town called Salins-les-Bains. We easily found the sign for that and left Ornans, climbing a steep winding road to a high plateau.
We rumbled through a few stark farming villages for about 20 miles and then entered a dense mountainous forest. The road narrowed. To our right was a precipitous slope that was thickly treed by conifers, birch and ash all the way down to cultivated fields. We could glimpse the farmland below to our right. To our left were cliffs and steep hills, also heavily forested. It became quite cool. There were no guard rails, and straight ahead there was a white horse standing in the road blocking all traffic.
Cars were stopped on both sides of the horse since there wasn’t room for a car to pass around him. Everyone ahead of us turned around carefully and went back the way they had just come. The horse stood athwart the road as if daring us to pass. Pretty soon we were first in line. Should we wait for his master to come retrieve him? How long could that take?
I grew up with horses and I’ve seen barking dogs quickly dispatched by a lightning-fast kick. I was taught from childhood to keep well away from a horse’s hind quarters. But this horse, on closer inspection, looked like a farm animal, used to tractors and machines and hubbub. This was not some high strung stallion that was going to shy and kick you into the next world.
Assuming a French horse is still a horse, he looked pretty easy-going to me. I decided we could ease past him with the softest possible engine sounds. We were already late for lunch and we really needed to get on our way. We put on our helmets and started the motor. The white horse turned his head and watched us approach his rear with a kind of bored look. He was big but not skittish. Finally, the folks on the other side standing around their cars all smiled and waved as we squeezed by.
We arrived in a beautiful village almost surrounded by cliffs and we could see it was traversed by at least two rivers. Green fields that stretched up toward the afternoon sun were dotted with cows whose bells you could hear as they cropped the grass, and the whole village was decked out in a riot of flowers. The sound of running water was everywhere.
We arrived too late to eat lunch, but Isabelle, the proprietress of L’Hotel de la Poste, made sandwiches of local Comte’ cheese and jambon (ham) with some very strange tasting wine made from a local grape called “savagnin.” We took a corner room several flights up which overlooked the farm next door. Her husband Gilbert found a safe spot to store the machine underneath the hotel and we settled in for a three-night stay.
That evening, after feasting like starving beasts on impossibly delicious truite au vin jaune made with the same savagnin grape, we slept like big cats with full bellies. The moon appeared in the easterly window, rising through mists and clouds and then slowly setting behind hills we could dimly perceive through the other corner window. The river Lison that ran close to the hotel wrapped us in a soothing lullaby, and we could sometimes hear the farm animals lowing and clucking. The June air was almost cold, and our sleep was restorative and deep.
Early next morning there were strange sounds outside, grunts and rhythmic footsteps. I went to the window to see a herd of thirty cows in full procession passing below the window and pouring into the main street and across the stone bridge that led to their pasture, leaving several steaming cow pies for cars to navigate around. All traffic stopped at both ends of the lumbering parade. The cows knew the way, or at least the lead cow did. The herd was followed by a young woman carrying a long wooden stick and wearing wellies, and a powerful-looking black dog who kept the laggards from wandering.
After breakfast, we walked the village, which at this time of year was overflowing with flowers, mostly geraniums. We peered into windows and doorways like little orphans, plagued by feelings of longing and exclusion. Could this be home? Later that evening, we passed by the house of someone who was pulling pizzas out of his ancient bread oven and serving them to friends gathered around a table amidst laughter, music, and smells of food and wood fires.
Being seen as an outsider in a foreign country is normal because that’s what you in fact are, while feeling the outsider back in the US is less so for me because I keep thinking I should fit in better (another subject), but here we were in a version of “deep France” that even French people know little about if they live outside the region, and it was different from any part of France I had ever seen, full of high forests and rivers and very unfamiliar food. We were disoriented and somewhat on the back foot. The year was 1992, I was 52, Cynthia was five years younger, and we had two budding teenagers in tow with only two weeks to find and nail down an affordable, livable domicile. This village was where we crash-landed like one-legged grasshoppers.
The region is called the France-Comte’. It’s a hilly and mountainous region between Switzerland and Burgundy, full of forests and rivers, and it long resisted becoming part of France. Even today it has a distinct culture of its own. Wikipedia says this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franche-Comt%C3%A9
We found a large stone house that had been made livable recently by a couple who had installed heat, running water and electricity, exhausted their funds and separated. We were undeterred, in spite of the leaky roof.
Out of The Frying Pan
I had moved to Paris three times in the past for stays of up to a year, shipping furniture there at least once, with no questions asked by customs or visa authorities, and I had no idea that moving to a small village in the same country would be any different. Unbeknownst to me, outside of Paris there were lots of t’s to cross and i’s to dot, making it a certainty that we would meet plenty of officious and inflexible men in uniforms from the moment our stuff arrived. Maybe laws had changed since the 60s and 70s; in any case, we were in for a surprise.
We flew back to Missoula, packed up a 40-foot container, zipped back to Paris, crammed a rental car with kids and suitcases plus one calico cat named Iris (who soon became world-famous) and sped off to the village where we discovered to our dismay that our belongings were being held hostage by the customs office. They were convinced we could only be importing these beds and lamps and couches, thoroughly used though they were, to sell, and based on the (foolishly elevated) declared value, the VAT value-added tax (VAT) was estimated to be $10,000, which of course we didn’t have.
Nor did we have a bank account in France even if we had we wanted to pay up. I did have an American Express card, which, of course they refused to even look at, so there was only one solution—make a run for the nearest American Express office to get cash. Where was that? Paris? Too far. Cindy consulted one of her trusty guidebooks, which indicated Lausanne as the closest office.
I had one frayed, folded, emergency bank check in my billfold, which the guidebook promised would be honored at any American Express office. By this time, we had turned in the rental car and were back on the Harley, which Gilbert had kept chained to a post under the hotel awaiting our return. With the kids sitting on suitcases in the house’s nettle-choked courtyard expecting us to show up at any moment, and no cell phone to let them know we’d be at least five hours late, we hit the road, hoping our plan would work.
It did. I presented the none-too-pristine check and received the requisite Swiss Francs. We then roared back into France, stopping at a Credit Agricole in Pontarlier and changing it all into 60,000 French francs (which the worried teller cautioned us to hide very carefully), and took off to the douane (customs office) in Besançon. This little errand took nearly four hours. A year later we came back with a lawyer and got a full refund.
The house was darker than we remembered and the rooms seemed considerably smaller. At night, headlights from cars threw flashes of light through the bedroom windows (it never occurred to us to close the shutters). When there was any artificial light at all, it was from bulbs hanging from the ceilings; most rooms had none. Coming from Texas, we craved more light for years until a decade later when we up-scaled our furnishings for our B&B operation, buying lamps in profusion. No house in France has more lamps now.
The next day, several men from the village showed up to help us unload the truck—maybe they wanted to see our stuff or us up close, or maybe they just wanted to help; we couldn’t tell, but we needed them and were grateful. I know now that they would have appreciated a nice eau-de-vie when it was over.
We spent the day carting furniture and assembling beds. They seemed to enjoy the whole event, as if they were in luck to chance upon a celebration. We were curious specimens and this was a good opportunity to see us up close and take our measure.
The kitchen had been used with a camping stove (a two-burner model, now lifted out of the counter, leaving a hole), and the counter was propped up on stilts with nothing but empty space underneath. Everything had been abandoned in a state of disarray and filth, with huge piles of dirty clothes in the laundry room, most rooms without light, an infestation of flies in the living room so bad the windows were black—all in all a daunting level of filth. We could find no cleaning service nor could we hire anyone from the village; everyone refused.
Twenty-two years later when we sold the house to a celebrity chef and his wife it had become a silk purse. We had slowly and painstakingly turned it into classy bed and breakfast, doing most of the manual labor ourselves.