Last week, I was in Beaugency, a lovely little town on the Loire about two hours South East of Paris and about thirty minutes from my favorite French city, Orléans. I arrived in the late afternoon. The next morning was a sunny but relatively cool morning, 24c (75f). When I arrived at the hotel, I noticed an advertisement for bicycle rentals. My interest was aroused. The Loire is a wide sandy veined river with abundant wildlife. Gulls, swallows and fisher birds can often be seen from the nearby roads. Bicycle and hiking paths align both sides winding through some quaint French villages. I am in high spirits because the day before I was blessed with some magical light and I made some very nice photos. In short, my blood was up and I was ready for adventure and exercise.
The hotel manager spoke pretty good English so I inquired about renting a bicycle. He says, “Oh yes, you must go along the Loire. It is very easy and very well-marked. No problem.” He gives me a map that seems fairly easy to follow and says that my entire trip, following his outline, would only be about two hours and ten kilometers. (Six miles) I eagerly agree to rent a bicycle. He takes me to his garage, and gives me a helmet, a pump, and a wrench, all of which he puts into a black bag hanging from the rear right side of the bicycle. I add my 1.5 liter water bottle that is easily accommodated alongside the tools. I am anxious to begin my journey, teeth visible.
Off I go, peddling through this picturesque little French village. On a cute scale of one to ten with ten being the highest cute, Beaugency scores a 9.9. Lush green vines over ancient stone walls, light dancing on the leaves in the cool breeze, birds singing, fairies flying – I ask myself, “where are the flies?” The smell of flowers filled the fresh air. About one kilometer into my ride, I noticed that my front tire seemed a bit low. Ah, the pump, no problem. I stopped at a park along the river, removed the intake valve cover to discover an unusual looking valve. Well the pump I now had in my hand was unusual looking too, no problem. Two unusual looking devices. Okay this is France, the unusual go together. I put the pump onto valve; almost instantly the front tire completely deflated. I call the hotel manager. “Oh, it’s not a problem. You must first remove the inside of the pump and turn it around. It is made for two valves, one large one small. You have small. No problem.” After turning the pump inside out several time and struggling with it for about twenty minutes I decided I needed to repeat Pump 101, and so I return to the hotel.
I arrived in front of the hotel and was greeted by a slightly exasperated looking manager. After having drug the bicycle for well over a kilometer through the town, I secretly wished for some comeuppance. He says in a voice as if talking to a simpleton, “It’s not a problem.” I replied, “Okay, please demonstrate because I can’t seem to figure it out.”
He eviscerated the pump several times carefully rearranging the innards differently each time. I note the “extra” parts that he carefully palmed. He makes multiple attempts; it doesn’t work. He says, “This is a problem with the pump. I get another.” He comes with an exact duplicate and I watch as he repeats every maneuver. He attempts to fill the tire. Over the huffing and puffing, I hear the din of buzzing flies. I volunteer, “I had one of these pumps that came with my bicycle in the US. I throw away.” Teeth bared, he hisses, “China.” He returns to the garage and emerges with a real bicycle pump and the look of a determined madman. Furrowed eye-brows, shoulders forward, knuckles dragging on the ground, the pump hooked on his thumb trailing behind. Elmer Fudd now has the rabbit in his cross hairs. This pump is one you have to use your feet to hold down as you pump air. Industrial strength. He attaches the pump and pumps vigorously. The tire inflates. Problem. I point out that part of the inter tube is extended beyond the rim and the exterior tire. He says, “No problem” and deflated the tire about three-fourths. I assist him in pushing the inter tube into the rim and say, “I think it is better to completely remove the tire to be sure it is not binding somewhere that we cannot see.” He says, “It’s not a problem” and pumps with even greater energy. Explosion. My ears are ringing. He returns to the garage for the fourth time and emerges with another bike. I ignore the fact that the back tire is a little low.
By this time every other semi-rational person on the planet would understand that the universe was not the least bit enthusiastic with the decision to ride a bicycle on this morning. Nevertheless, I am unmoved. In the distance I can see an old woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of her flower encrusted 16th century shop. I conjure up sweet smells of warm croissants, strong black coffee and scenes along an enchanting legendary river. Off I go. I follow the map and signs and sure enough everything is easily navigated. No problem.
I ride for about an hour and arrive at a Y. BZZZZZZZ – no direction indication sign. The French believe that since everybody harbors a secret desire to stay in France that they should provide little assistance. Their aid is – signage or the lack thereof. I ignore Mr. Frost’s advice and take the road most traveled. Two hours later, I am completely lost on a narrow dirt path alongside the Loire. I ask for assistance and get some directions to Beaugency. ‘Two lefts, one right go straight. It’s not far”. I pedal for about an hour and inquire again. “Two lefts, one right, go straight. It’s not far.” Everyone must learn direction-giving in preschool from the same teacher because no matter from where you ask or where you want to go, the answer is always the same. “Two lefts, one right, go straight. It’s not far.”
Along the way I noticed an a nuclear facility that seemed large enough to serve all of France and Italy. Hard to miss. There is a warning sign that if you go down this road further, you have no right to sue for damages related to being within 3km of this thing. Fortunately, I also recall its directional position relative to Beaugency. It was East and a little bit South. Illogically, I decide to ask again for directions. However, this time, rather than ask for directions to Beaugency, the direction to which no two people can agree except that it isn’t far, I now ask for directions to the nuclear plant.
Unfortunately, my French vocabulary doesn’t include nuclear. So I show them a photograph I made earlier of the facility. I point to my camera view screen and ask: “What way?” I receive wide-open eyes, small round mouth with rushing exhaling air and what I perceive as a trembling finger-pointing in the direction of the nuclear facility. I imagine tonight’s dinner conversation and a telephone call to French National Security. One hour and half later I see the facility and reorient myself to Beaugency. With this orientation now fixed in my near exhausted brain, I plowed along for another three hours through fields of corn, tilled farmland waiting winter planting and small villages. It became one of the hottest days on record, 34c (94f). I am a photographer so of course I am smartly dressed in costume-de-rigueur-photographic-fashion, black. I certainly needed to be in fashion! I am in France. I eventually arrive back at my hotel from my “no-problem-ten-kilometer-bike ride” after almost seven hours having covered approximately 35 km of often hilly and sandy paths. Dehydrated, sunburned and legs on fire. Nuked. I slept for two days.
The hotel manager was delighted with my request for additional stay and I understood differently how the bicycles fit into his marketing program. There was a fresh mail-order bicycle catalog with a number of pages earmarked on the desk when I checked out.