Cycling in France Day 2: Angry Young Men, 1914 & 2012

The day started quite the opposite of angry, downright sleepy. I’ll get to the anger bit in a moment. For now, I’ll add that it wasn’t directed at me or anyone nearby. Back to the sleepy day, A mist surrounded me for the first few hours of cycling, which limited the views and lowered the temperature. I had to put on my rain trousers to keep my legs warm. (For American readers, I say “trousers” instead of “pants” because pants over here underpants.) The mist may have been helpful in an unusual way. It may have made the countryside a bit more intriguing than it would have otherwise been, since I was still in the middle of large fields.

When I cycled through Britain, I don’t think I saw fields this large. When I was cycling in the mist, it made for a peaceful sight. When the sun came out, the fields stretched on for as far as I could see. Just about the time the fields got a little monotonous, a small town would show up.

The peaceful feeling of the mist continued in the small towns, which I try to cycle through. These towns are about as big as Holdingford, Albany, or Avon, back home. They feel similar in many ways, but the buildings are mostly old stone, of different shapes and sizes. It’s rare to see a building made of tin or a plastic storefront. This goes beyond the absence of golden arches or a colorful truckstop. A building with any plastic or tin is rare. A building of mostly plastic or tin would appear extraterrestrial, in the small towns I cycled through.

Another peaceful part of the small towns was the lack of people. I have heard that France lives a slower lifestyle, especially on Sundays. Now, I’m thoroughly convinced. There were few, if any, people walking around the streets of the small towns, probably because there were no open shops to walk to. When I did see people walking around, I came to expect that a bratisserie, a café, was nearby. Overall, it made for a relaxing day of cycling.

The sun came out later in the day, so I was able to see longer views of the fields next to me. Eventually, I made a very rare choice, in my cycle-camping vacations. I chose to stay in a hotel when I was on vacation. As strange as it may sound to stay in a hotel while on vacation, there were some good reasons. Frist off, I couldn’t find any campgrounds near the town of Arras, which was my destination for this day. Some historic, sad, and courageous WWI battles were fought in Arras, more on that later. I also couldn’t find any youth hostels, which led to my unusual choice to stay in a hotel. The price was almost 10 times more than staying in a campsite, but I wanted to spend my time appreciating the history of Arras, instead of setting up camp and cycling to and from the city, from a campsite 10 miles away.

I made that decision a few miles north of Arras. Just as I was passing through the last of the large fields and into the city, I saw a large cross in a valley. I suspected it was a war memorial, since this is WWI country.

I peddled closer to it and found out it was a memorial, a tidy and well-kept cemetery in the middle of a large field. I signed the guestbook and read a description of the place. It was first created and used during WWI. The graves were primarily from British soldiers. Since I was in the American military reserve, and since my Dad was in the US Air  Force for 22 years, I’ve always felt a connection to American war cemeteries, but I was surprised at the connection I felt to these men, as I read headstones from men who are from places I’ve lived for the last 4 years. The headstones said things like “Surry Rifleman” or “London Infantry.” Dying in war is usually a hard way to go, but WWI was harder than most. If you have a moment, take a quick look at the pictures in Wikipedia. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wwi )This was war in the mud, sometimes shivering in the cold, sometimes sweating in the heat, in wool uniforms. Machine guns were new, and their effect was intense, but bayonet charges were still part of a day’s work. And, that was just the war on the outside. Closer to a soldier’s body, the lice and sweat were another common battle. Back in 1914, those men had reason to be angry, and sad. I walked away from that small cemetery with those thoughts in mind and respect for those young men.

The sun was setting, so I needed to get to Arras and find the Best Western. My sat nav got me there easily enough. The person at the desk wasn’t used to seeing a sweaty guy in cycle gear, imagine that. I carried my panniers up to the room, unpacked, and had a shower. After that, I wanted to go for a walk around the city center. I found a lovely, and very large, plaza with a cathedral on one end and shops lining lining the perimeter. It was a classic old-world European sight.

Unfortunately, the sounds were not classic. A rock band was playing by one of the bars, on the plaza. I tried to avoid them at first, but eventually, I walked by the band. It was typical hard rock, guys beating on their guitars with the amplifiers cranked. I stopped very briefly and looked at the lead singer. He was singing hard, just about screaming. I wondered to myself, “What are you so angry about? Have you fought in mud? Slept in the mud? Have you showered this week? Do you have lice biting you? Has a machine gun killed your friends today?” I kept walking. Our generation still has good reasons to be angry. The guy was singing, or screaming, in French, so I couldn’t understand the words, in many ways. Maybe he was singing about something meaningful. I just have my doubts.

I don’t let myself get too worried or bothered at night anymore. That’s a fast way to enjoy less of life. I now know that mornings are always better. I walked back to the Best Western with that thought in mind, and even enjoyed more of the old architecture of Arras lit up at night.

4 thoughts on “Cycling in France Day 2: Angry Young Men, 1914 & 2012

  1. Hey have you ever heard the Drop Kick Murphys song Green Fields of France? About a guy walking in a cemetery and stopping off at a gravestone to rest. It reminded me of your experience.

    A pretty laid back song for the Murphys…

  2. Wow, that song does a great job of showing how laid back can be potent, much stronger than screaming into a microphone–at least for me. I couldn’t resist watching the video/song a second time, in full screen. Of course, it’s not a happy topic, but unless we spend some time thinking about it, I worry we’ll repeat “the war to end all wars” more often than we already have. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_war_to_end_war ) Thanks very much for sharing that song.

  3. Hi Stephen,my grandfather was in France during the first world war,he and several of his friends went over to visit the war graves,he was in his eightys the last time he went,and his reason for going was to say good bye as he knew he would not be able to go again.take care and stay safe.Pat.

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