Sunday, July 26, 2009

July in France

Tomorrow morning I’m sure to wake up and start going through Tour de France withdrawals, after having watched it faithfully every morning live on TV for the past three weeks. And during that time I’ve been in a constant Tour-haze in which I check the standings and interviews randomly throughout the day, constantly second guess my choices for that day’s online Fantasy Cycling, and always count ahead to see what time it is in France. Oh, they’re waking up now in France. Then, They’re having lunch now. They always start racing hours before I actually wake up, making me feel very lazy.

Why do I watch the Tour so fervently? It all started when I was a kid and my mom watched the Tour de France every summer. The Tour couldn’t have been farther away from our little rural Midwestern town of 3,500 people, but every July, France entered our living room. I knew it must be special, if my mom watched it.

Years later, I discovered excellent coverage of the Tour on the Versus channel, and here I am. It’s the only sport I can actually explain to someone and can actually understand the pre-stage discussion by the commentators every morning. Little-Ol’-Me can actually discuss rules and strategy of a sport. Go figure.

This year was the 96th Tour de France, and it is fascinating to look at old black and white photos of the race, back when they didn’t have cars to follow them for support, when they rode on unpaved roads and smoked cigarettes on their breaks -for their health. In contrast, the science that goes into the race now is unbelievable, making the guys super-aerodynamic.

The cameramen themselves are impressive on the Tour, riding on motorcycles for hours every day, backward, filming the important strategic moves or simple smiles or grimaces of the riders. And the helicopter cameramen follow the line of cyclists as it snakes across the French countryside, past fields of crops, along rivers and the sea, through valleys and over mountains. My favorite shot from this year’s tour was when they caught three white horses running in a field as the cyclists rode by. Oh – and also the shot of the snail who was slowly trying to cross the road as the cyclists flew by in a blur behind him. The cameraman patiently focused on the snail who was lucky enough to be too slow to get into their path.

Of course I’m incredibly inspired by the riders in the Tour. Few sports require such endurance. I love watching them climb the Alps and marvel when they climb past the tree line, their faces stoic with concentration. And they reach incredible speeds as they ride the straightaways, risking crashes that could end their dreams for this year’s Tour. And you can’t use the word inspiration without mentioning Lance Armstrong. Seeing him ride again is like welcoming back an old friend. I even donated to his charity.

Someday I will go watch the Tour live in person; I have no doubt that I will. And I’ll probably shed a few tears as they pass by me. I always tend to get overly sentimental at events where so many nationalities gather together. Men from all over the world join together on these teams, and all nationalities wait patiently together on the roadsides for hours, just to root them on.

And the French people also love their Tour. Knowing the helicopter will possibly put them on TV, farmers construct intricate designs in their fields, shaped like bicycles or spelling words of encouragement. People stand atop castle turrets and wave at the camera, and this year someone released hundreds of yellow balloons as the peloton passed. Their enthusiasm is infectious, even here in my living room 5,412 miles away.

And let’s face it, the Tour is just plain romantic. The commentators have great English accents and gracefully pronounce all the French names of the chateaus and cities they pass. The gorgeous countryside passes by every day, in real time, and I get my own personal tour of France. And sometimes it rains, and I watch through a rain-speckled camera lens as the guys try not to crash but seem unfazed by the downpour. Even the podium presentations at the end of every stage are foreign and romantic, as the podium girls kiss each winner when they receive that day’s jerseys. I never can guess how many of those European cheek-kisses each rider will give. Most riders do two; some three; and a few get four. I’ve always liked those kisses, and I missed them when I moved back to the States after living in Europe years ago.

I guess I should mention this year’s winner, the dark and handsome Spaniard Alberto Contador. He never faltered the entire race, proving that he was to be the overall champion. But instead of writing about him, I want to mention the man who finished last. Yauheni Hutarovich. From Belarus, he finished in 156th place, with over four hours between him and Contador. More than twenty other riders didn’t finish at all, due to injuries from crashes, finishing too far behind the pack and being disqualified, or simply needing to drop out. The ones who finished survived the heat, wind, and rain, climbed mountains, rode 3500 kilometers, and inspired television viewers around the world, including one thirty-something woman who watched faithfully every day, often going late to work so she wouldn’t miss that day’s finish.

I’ll be going to France again next July. Won’t you join me next year?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Thank you, Golden Arches.

After going to the dog park the other day, I ran into the nearest McDonald’s to use the restroom. When I reached out to grab the handle of the restroom door, I suddenly got a little thrill. It was kind of a déjà vu feeling, as if I was remembering something good. Puzzled, I did my business and then finally it hit me. I hardly ever go inside a McDonald’s, unless I’m traveling. That’s why I got the good vibes from the McDonald’s restroom of all places! It flashed me back to recent road trips to the beach in California, summer childhood road trips with my Mom, and trips through Europe where you could always count on a good ol’ McDonald’s to have
comfortable facilities.

I have to say that it scares me that within a span of about three weeks, this is the second time I’m extolling the virtues of a big chain restaurant. But I’m not waxing poetic about Quarter Pounders or Big Macs; I’m merely thankful that we live in a society where we can do our “business” in comfort.

When I’m in another country, I stay far away from any type of American restaurant. I didn’t travel thousands of miles to eat American food! And I’ve been amazed at some of the toilets we’ve found! The first time we were in Venice, we had great pasta in a little restaurant just steps away from the Grand Canal. We sat at an outdoor table enjoying the cool night, sipping wine and enjoying our after-dinner cheese platter. After a while I went inside the tiny restaurant and then returned to our table and told Lance, “You have to go to the restroom.” He looked up from his wine glass and responded, “I don’t need to go.” I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. “No, you have to go to the restroom.” He finally understood, went inside, and then came back with a smile.

It was one of those hole-in-the-ground toilets. There were footprints in the concrete on each side of the hole, to show you where to stand; toilet paper was on a hook on the wall, and there was a button on the floor that allowed you to flush. Those toilets always amaze me; Europeans must have thighs of steel after all that squatting. Luckily on our travels we are usually able to find more comfortable facilities, but experiences such as this one remind me not to take anything for granted!

So, that’s why I appreciate McDonald’s. On a long beach-bound road trip across the desert, the golden arches are a relief. After driving hundreds of miles on a summer vacation, you can go inside a McDonald’s and know exactly where to go. And in the middle of dodging crazy European drivers, walking for hours through museums and cathedrals, and squatting painfully over rudimentary “toilets,” foreign McDonald’s can provide a small respite that allows you to head back into the fray. And the fries aren’t bad, either.

Monday, July 13, 2009

That was just so nice of him...

When I picked up George from the groomer the other day, a tall woman with a beagle cut in front of me in line to pay. I just stood there, nicely, not saying a word, wishing that the salesgirl would realize I had been waiting much longer. But she didn’t, so I nicely stood there and waited till the beagle-lady left and George was finally brought to me, sparkly clean and fluffy.

Sometimes people tell me I’m too nice. I smile too much. I let people treat me badly while I just sit and take it. While that may be slightly true, I also believe I just pick my battles. And I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. That tall woman probably didn’t think about the fact that she wasn’t next in line, so I forgave her (after inwardly cussing, of course). The Midwestern girl in me was taught to be nice.

In my hometown high school years ago, niceness was as big a virtue as popularity. Often the Prom King and Queen weren’t the most popular people, they were the nicest. It was just so nice of us to elect so-and-so even though she had a funny looking nose and was painfully shy. Oh, weren’t they a nice-looking couple?

I don’t always feel that “nice” is such a nice thing. It’s actually kind of a blah attribute, when you think about it. I’d prefer being labeled confident, independent, strong, or any number of less mediocre-sounding words. Nice seems kind of meek. It reminds me of my favorite line in the musical Into The Woods: “You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” Nice is awfully middle-of-the-road.

This topic makes me think of the way other countries view Americans’ niceness. They see our too-easy smiles as signs of weakness. Our smiles! Those things we value so much – that are such a part of us. Welcoming. Inviting. Friendly. It amazes me that many other nationalities have such a different take on such a deeply ingrained part of our culture. But this knowledge makes it much easier to take the attitudes of the French or the distance of the English. It isn’t rudeness or distain – it’s just a cultural difference that shouldn’t be taken personally.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe society needs more niceness, in this world where so many seem to believe their self-absorbed emotional rantings and petty desires trump all else. I will keep being nice as often as possible, in a “do unto others” way. But please don’t describe me as nice. I prefer adjectives such as fun, professional, optimistic, or even fair, amiable, or just plain happy. Pick anything but nice.

After writing these last few paragraphs, I sat in the shade at the dog park and suddenly heard a man yell across the park, “Don’t worry! I’ll get it!” I looked up and saw him headed for George, who was pooping. The man scooped it up in the doggy bag and threw it in the trash so I wouldn’t have to get up and do it myself. Before I could think anything else, I thought, “Boy, that was so nice of him.” And it really was.

Monday, July 6, 2009


This week marked the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s death. For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to know her, she was an artist, writer, painter, pianist, nature-lover, philosopher, poet, and all-around amazing person. And I have to say, writing that last sentence was difficult, because she was so much more than words could ever express.

Lance and I started dating about a year before Mom died, and one of my biggest blessings is that he was able to meet her. And even though their two meetings were brief, he was able to see how special she was. She was (and is) such a part of me that it was imperative that he understand. I am very lucky.

I wanted to include a poem of Mom’s here today, but it’s so precious to me that I’m afraid of putting her poetry on the Internet and having someone use it as their own. So, I will share a small paragraph of hers that I have always loved.

Mom taught elementary art in a school where sports were the priority, as they often are, and the Arts were almost always low on the list of school priorities. At the end of every year there was an awards banquet for all the kids, and Mom sat and waited through dozens of sports awards before she gave hers for Art. The superintendent always took the majority of the time, going on and on about each sport and each team, on and on about the excellence of athletes and the importance of the athletic department. Finally Mom couldn't take it anymore. She grabbed a crumpled envelope from her purse and furiously scribbled, completely changing the speech she was about to give:

"Art is not a competitive sport. Prizes are not given for making the biggest sculpture or painting, or the most paintings, or for mixing the bluest blue, or for drawing the straightest line. That’s not what it’s all about. The measure of art is really how each person learns to be sensitive to his environment and to his feelings – and how he learns to express that in his own personal way."

I hope you all have had someone in your life who has opened the world of Art to you. Its value is immeasurable. Mom taught me that.