“Lanced by the TOUR DE FRANCE”

My injury happened on the day of the start of the Tour de France; I was pulling the extra weight for my American teammate who could not handle some of the steep, uphill stretches along the banks of the Seine. Within fifteen minutes, I had lurched out into a seven block lead and she was nowhere in sight. It was a terribly hot day and I was drenched with sweat. All along the way, the crowd watched me struggle. My ears needed a good popping and all I could hear was my internal breathing. Perspiration beaded down my face and I felt so alone as my pulse pounded inside my head and the passing faces looked all alike. I was dizzy and I had a fleeting fantasy of diving into cool tropical waters. But I knew I needed to push on – my teammate depended on me….

Now that my back is feeling better somewhat, I can sit in front of the computer long enough to tell you this story:

Vicky & I were originally scheduled to return from Puerto Rico on July 3rd (arriving in Paris on July 4th.) We were enjoying our stay in Puerto Rico so much that we decided to extend our visit another day and fly out on the 4th. This was good planning because NOBODY is traveling on the Fourth of July. The airports were pretty much empty. No lines – and the best part – We didn’t have to strip so much in the security check. For once they didn’t ask to check my underwear for explosives residue.

The flight was actually enjoyable. No delays, no unusual problems or annoyances other than the French couple who let their rabid, screaming three-year-old run up and down the aisles. As I was about to grab her and flush her down the plane’s portable potty (that’s pronounced poh-TEE poor-tah-BLUH), a pissed off flight attendant relieved me of the task by chewing out the parents. I actually had a good night’s sleep after that and woke up as breakfast was being served.

Our luggage came right off the belt in record time – a rarity at CDG. As I grabbed the last suitcase – the one that keeps sneaking by the newly imposed weight and size restrictions – I noticed the mammoth was not ours. I put it back on the belt and turned just in time to catch a glimpse of Vicky’s name on an Admirals Club tag connected to a similar-looking safari trunk underneath dozens of other large suitcases on a large cart that a French porter was pushing towards Customs. An American couple tagged behind. I raced over to catch up with them:

” Excuse me sir, I believe you have my suitcase…”

[Irritated] ” Oh that CAN’T be! These are ALL mine! ”

” Well, if you would just stop for a moment and read the tag, I’d wager that it is NOT yours.”

It was mine. And now – the porter – did my work for me:

[Indignantly, in his best French manner]: ” Merci, monsieur, you have just made my job much easier! Now I don’t have to come all the way back here looking for the correct suitcase.

” There was no long line for taxis and our Vietnamese driver spoke to us in French as he drove us to the apartment. I had a hard time understanding him and thought how a month away from Paris – AND – being around so much Spanish in Puerto Rico, I would have to start all over again with my French. I asked him if there were any traffic problems due to the start of the Tour de France which would commence later that day: He answered no, because “today is the 100th Anniversary of the Tour de France.” I realized his French was worse than mine…

But I have to say that this taxi driver was one of the few in Paris who actually knew the shortest route to our apartment. He got off the right exit and managed to slingshot down the correct artery off of l’ Etoile. When we got to Pont de l’ Alma, our local bridge linking the Right and Left Banks, my fears were confirmed: The bridge was closed by the police due to the Tour de France. Frustrated, the driver began talking to himself in Vietnamese. I suggested we ask one of the several police standing in the intersection on how we could get across the Seine; I knew the Eiffel Tower – to the west – was the start of the race and there was definitely no way of crossing there. Geographical machismo must exist in Vietnam as well because the driver obviously thought that asking for directions was not a good idea…

“Les Invalides?” I suggested to the driver. The Pont Alexandre was two bridges to the east; surely we could cross there. When we arrived, the intersection was bare except for a nervous-looking plain clothes policeman who had slammed on his brakes in the middle of the intersection, jumped out of the vehicle and began diverting the three or four cars that were trying to cross the bridge. He came running over towards our car and screamed at the driver. I thought he was going to pull his gun on us. The driver certainly wasn’t going to ask him a question so I did. His only response was that this bridge is CLOSED!

” Place de la Concorde,” I said to the driver. At this point, I was almost beginning to learn a few words in Vietnamese. If we cannot get across there, I thought, we will not be driving – err – RIDING home…

Sure enough, we were not allowed across the bridge at Place de la Concorde. We were, however, able to head back west on the quai of the Right Bank. We passed the screaming cop again who was in a full sweat by now. The driver pulled over at la Passerelle Debilly, a pedestrian bridge just across the river from our apartment. This was as close as we were going to get. I paid the driver and he got out to help with the luggage. Now usually, Paris taxi drivers do not like their passengers to help with loading and unloading of luggage. But my safari mammoth was embarrassingly heavy so I reached over to grab one side to lessen the burden for him; well, he completely let go as I only had a half-assed grip on the bag and I went flying over the already unloaded luggage and landed face-first into a large tree trunk. My back said, “Ouch, we’re going to remember this.” And a few days later, my lower back did just that.

A policewoman was right there next to the taxi diverting traffic from a small street. I approached her and told her that we lived across the river; I pointed to our heap of baggage and asked if there was a humane way of getting home. She grinned at me as she shook her head to the negative. ” This IS the Tour de France, you know?”

The driver was so happy to unload us. Combined with the policewoman’s lack of concern and curt response, Vicky’s blood was beginning to boil. A string of Spanish curse words found their way out of her mouth and she threatened to write a nasty letter of complaint to someone. Exactly who? She wasn’t sure but she was ready to unload on someone.

Vicky during la Tour de France
Vicky awaits across the river for Robert’s
return to retrieve “round two” of the luggage;
the blue sign in the background is a diagram
of Robert being run over by two cars.

I was happy to be back in Paris. I was willing to SWIM across the Seine if I needed to. “Honey,” I told her, “I’m going to take a big load to the apartment; you stay here with the rest of the luggage. I’ll be back as soon as possible to help you with round two.” As I left, I heard Vicky threatening with more action against the French government. Someone was in BIG trouble!

To get across the pedestrian bridge, you must first go under the busy quai. An underground passage way. This means a lot of stairs. Not fun with heavy bags. I was drenched with sweat by the time I got to actual the steps of the bridge. Everyone was in t-shirts and shorts; I was in a long sleeved dress shirt and dress slacks. Big spots of perspiration on my shirt screamed, S-T-U-P-I-D
A-M-E-R-I-C-AN with WAY too much luggage…

I was now cursing the Tour de France. There is not a single Frenchman who doesn’t get excited over this bicycle race. Today there were two nouveau Parisians – two expats – who detested the whole damn thing. I really don’t think Americans would be interested if it were not for an American dominating the race. But Lance is not your typical American – after all, he speaks French fluently and probably doesn’t ask for ice cubes. He probably even sleeps with a beret on and instead of vacationing in Disney World or the Grand Canyon, he most likely has a house in Provence where he lives 10 months out of the year. The US Postal service sponsorship is ironic because there is hardly a USPS employee who could actually relate to such a guy. Another irony is when he has his victory yellow Tour de France jersey on (instead of the red & blue sponsorship colors), he is actually wearing the official colors of the FRENCH postal service – yellow and blue. Even though it is known as “The Tour de Lance”, the French have a lot of respect for him and almost consider him one of their own – at least that’s what the French mailmen think…

Americans pretend to be interested in this sport. But deep down, I really don’t think we do. It’s like soccer – er, uh, excuse me – FUTBOL: Another boring sport with no real action. I have a few suggestions for improvement: First of all, get rid of this time trial thing – I mean, a race is a race! First come, first served! The more you complicate a race, the less interesting it becomes. I want to be able to look at the riders’ positions and immediately figure out who’s winning. And this bicycle race would be a lot more interesting if they allowed rib jabs and razor blades. Although there were quite a few crashes in this year’s race, none were planned! They should allow the chase teams to orchestrate little diversionary pile-ups. You know – Wiley Coyote pours oil over the pavement on a sharp turn or someone jerks out a discreet, ankle-high rope across the final stretch. Points could be awarded for the most creative schemes…

Oh, and for soccer… I’ve always thought a few ball-chasing Rottweilers (no pun intended) on the field could add to the mix and liven up that game…. It might not increase the average score but it would make for better entertainment.

Crowds were already lining up along Avenue Rapp, a cross street steps away from our front door. The owner of our little Italian restaurant around the corner saw me and gave me a big smile. “Have you been away in Italy,” he asked (he always asks us this question); I told him we had just come back from the US. “Ahh!” he said with a big, winking smile, ” You have come to cheer on Monsieur Lance!” Not wanting to dampen the spirit of the day, I didn’t tell him that I hoped to be within speargun range of Mr. Armstrong when he passed by…

But don’t get me wrong – I really have no personal grudges against the sport and I actually got a little caught up in all of the excitement. I was just merely bringing up a few perverse fantasies that some of us might secretly harbor…

I made it back to the apartment and unloaded the luggage in the foyer. Thank God the elevator was in working order. I knew Vicky was not having fun, so I rushed back to the drop off point. There she was sitting on the heap and looking like she was in a foul mood. “WHERE have you been?” she asked. I knew I was going to get this welcome. I pulled the camera out and took pictures of her to lighten the air. We laughed about our situation – but not without one final argument over the exact course as to how we were going to get back home. Most of our arguments are over directions. Vicky fired the first barrage: “I think we should go over the Pont de l’ Alma instead of through the underground passage way.” I tried to point out that the pedestrian bridge was the shortest direct route and that the Pont de l’Alma was actually an uphill walk from where we were. But I backed down and let her choose – Vicky was not enjoying this and I wanted to lessen her pain.

As we got halfway across the Pont Alma, a line of French National Police in semi-riot gear walked towards us shoulder-to-shoulder. There was probably a dozen of them and they had mean looks (they must study this exact look in Police School.)

I wanted to tell Vicky’ “told you so” but kept my mouth shut. The police were getting closer. They looked as if they were answering our challenge to a game of Red Rover. They nervously eyed our BAB’s (Big American Bags) and probably thought we were the first of George Bush’s preemptive strike against France. Here were the first two American suicide bombers…Let’s stop them!

“Bonjour, monsieur,” One of them asked with a surprising smile, “where do you think you are going?”

“Home”, I told him. ” We live just over there on 191, rue de l’ Université…”

Yeah right, his non-verbal gestures told me: And you probably teach French Literature at the Sorbonne…
” Do you have any ID with your address on it?

“Oh shit, I thought. Vicky and I gave one another the what-do-we-do-now look. Just then I realized that our address might be on our carte de sojours in our passports. Sure enough, it was. I showed it to the policeman.
He politely smiled, apologized for the inconvenience and wished us a good day. The iron gates opened up and we made for the last little stretch to Chez Nous.

We were so glad to be home. We did the taboo thing and immediately fell into bed even though it was only around noon. I could have slept through the night but woke up worrying about missing the race. The thought of a major world sporting event passing by our residence was too much to dismiss. I jumped up, grabbed my camera and headed out the door. I found a perfect spot on a sharp turn across from Les Champs de Mars, a small neighborhood brasserie not far from the apartment.

I know nothing about the players other than there was supposed to be close to 100 racers. At first, I took pictures of every rider who passed me. Then I realized only the ones with chase vehicles were official. The racers started one by one with big lapses of time between each rider. I watched for several hours and decided to call it a day. I had no idea where Lance was but I was tired of waiting on him.

I went home and fixed dinner. Vicky & I watched the event on television and finally Lance’s time was up. He was the last to race. As he got close to the Place de la Concorde turn, I decided I really needed a photo of him. I jumped up, grabbed my camera gear again and ran out the door. Amazing. In the time it took me to jump up, go down the elevator and walk a couple of steps to the corner, Lance made it past that point and was well out of sight. Already crowds were leaving. I knew right away I had missed that great shot (with the camera, not the spear gun.) Lance, old buddy, you are one fast son-of-a-bitch!

Several days later, I was in excruciating pain which stayed with me for several weeks. I am just now getting over what I worried was another ruptured disc.

Then I think about the poor guy who finished the race with a broken collar bone and realize what a wimp I am….

Sorry about the whining and the complaining, gentlemen. You really are incredible atheletes. Lance, I am glad you won and wish you the best. And if you decide to defend the title next year, I hope you kick ass once again.
We are proud of you and glad to call you one of ours.

….but I ‘m sorry – I still think it’s a pretty darn boring sport.

le Tour de France
Le Tour de France whizzes by our neighborhood brasserie. I have no idea who this guy is and the only reason he is featured here is because when these riders come flying straight at you, you pick the ones that are more in focus.

[Note: I know this is not exactly news worthy stuff, I mean, it’s only been a month since the race’s start; sorry, but if you are looking for breaking news, go to CNN.Com. I am in London as the Tour finishes up in Paris. I am sorry I missed the grand finale – I am sure it was more exciting than the start. It’s quite surprising that the Tour de France is back page news here. But I am a bit comforted that the Brits could give a shit about a little ol’ bike race. Then again, these guys go nuts over soccer and Beckham’s refusal to eat fried worms at a hosted dinner in China is front page news here ! ]

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