Day 12: Thurs 11 June, Bourges–Vallon-en-Sully 68 mls (598)

A photograph     Cycling out of Bourges, towards the Meridian, which passes two km west of the cathedral, I come upon a poster that sums up my problem with the city. It says, ‘Like me, become an ambassador for Bourges.’ The photograph is of a man in his sixties, but the modern, healthy, prime-of-life sixties, white hair cut en brosse (to express vigour), direct gaze of penetrating eyes that engage and yet are slightly elevated as if he sees beyond; a serious face, but with a slight crinkling of the eyebrows to show that he hasn’t quite solved all life’s problems, he accepts that life can be a funny old thing, but that, whatever comes up, you can trust him to be on top of it. A dark suit, a restrained silk tie, a formal shirt that yet has a fine check and button-down collar. It is a calculated photograph, carefully calibrated. It is a political photograph. Seeing it, I am reminded of Barthes’ essay ‘Electoral Photogeny’. In such a photograph, the man’s effigy both elevates and distances him, while at the same time establishing a complicity with the viewer – this is a man you can trust to act in your best interests (even if you haven’t realised they are your best interests), who will apply his best efforts (so much superior to yours) to ‘being an ambassador’, and by so doing, both relieve you and strip you of engagement. All contradiction is resolved. ‘All this coexists peacefully in that thoughtful gaze, nobly fixed on the hidden interests of Order,’ concludes Barthes. The photograph mediates. And this is a city that feels so well-organised, smilingly opaque, that it feels all mediated. But perhaps, arriving late, and leaving early, I haven’t given it a chance, now that I’m leaving … Returning to yesterday:

Bourges     The atmosphere has been building all afternoon, and it is hot and heavy, close, when I arrive around 5pm. I cycle past a fine trompe l’oeil medieval scene on the side of a house, a crooked town centre, all on the flat, but that one can imagine riding into.
But the city centre itself is foursquare and steady, solidly prosperous, and without such jeux d’esprit, such off-centredness; even a fine medieval carved-wood facade looks over-finished. From the bruised gloom bursts a short, large-dropped shower that wets and adds to the humidity, without clearing the air.
They are smilingly pleasant in the tourist office, but I am finding this a hard place to like. It is similar to Amiens in its layout, with citadel and cathedral on high ground at the centre, and river and marshes (now recuperated for recreation), to the north. But whereas Amiens felt open, lively, and rather ramshackle, Bourges feels prosperous but ponderous, smiling but stolid, solid but dull.

Bourges Cathedral     Perhaps it’s my mood, but the great cathedral also strikes me as ponderous and dull. It is the most southerly of the ring of Gothic cathedrals around Paris, and was modelled on Notre Dame. But, without transepts, with five aisles, and very little light from the apse, it is dark and uninspiring, a dark barn, a retail shed of a religious place. And outside, even the fine array of flying buttresses looks more like careful engineering than daring-made-stone. Is it simply the lack of the visual excitement created by Amiens’ water-spout gargoyles, or the buttress-upon-buttress of Beauvais? Maybe they were cleverer builders than at Beavais, and they didn’t need Amiens’ waterspouts because it’s drier here? But they could have come up with something! This a place built within bounds, there is no risk, no inspiration, no aspiration. Light is excluded, and the stone weighs heavy. Even the highly-decorated West front, with its division into five, looks fussy, grandiloquent rather than grand.
Disappointed, unsettled, I head for the youth hostel. Which is another disappointment. It is a grudging place, run more for their than the travellers’ benefit. The way to judge a youth hostel is by its breakfasts. I will see tomorrow.

Music     I go out to find food. I walk past the West front of the cathedral in the evening light. From inside, from behind the eruption of detailed carving, comes a thrilling, crazed combination of bagpipes and organ, the bagpipes piercing and keening, the organ thundering solid masses of spectacular chords. What mad goings-on inside, the organist freed from liturgies in a clashing, harmonising battle with his virtuoso bagpipe-playing friend (perhaps Michael Aye himself?), imagine the delight on their faces! What must it be like inside, the cathedral unlit, a couple of candles creating strange, trembling shadows, the vast dark, the rumbling in the blood in each of them, the contrasting notes from the two instruments vibrating every surface? I try the door. It is locked.

The pizza man     Walking back across a car park of fiercely-pollarded trees, a pizza van is open for business. But no ordinary pizza van. In the back, behind the serving hatch, is a large, open oven burning red with logs. The pizza man takes the order (from a list of twenty or more), and chatting the while to the customer, takes a piece of dough, passes it quickly first this way then that way through a mangle to produce a paper-thin base, then with rapid sweeps he coats it with tomato and grated cheese, and the pieces of chicken, tomato, pepperoni, prawns, mushrooms, whatever, to make up the pizza. All this done with quick, precise movements. He slides a flat wooden shovel under the pizza and pushes it into the furnace, to the edge of the burning logs. Surely it will burn? No, with practised dexterity and skill – this man is an artist! – he manoeuvres it round four times with his paddle at exactly the right moment, so it cooks in from each edge. Then he pulls it out, places it in the box that he has in the meantime made up from a flat sheet of cardboard, labels it, passes it across, already turning to the next customer. I open my box. The pizza is burnt at the edge, but a flavoursome burntness, and it is cooked through to the middle. He is a master artisan, a practical genius. How I admire hand skills! But he’s also a salesman. I note how he engages each person who comes to the van, to hold them no matter how busy he is, to get them in the queue, and the way he begins the next pizza while this one is in the oven, turning from his preparations just in time – quick! we want to shout, it’s about to burn! – to turn it deftly through another ninety degrees, a constant banter and by-play.
I sit on a wall, watching him cook, and eat with relish, with a beer, and then return to the empty, disappointing hostel.

The place of Bourges     And yet in the night, these thoughts about Bourges. An important centre since Celtic times. It was the capital of the Bituriges, and the one Celtic city Vercingetorix spared in his scorched-earth policy in his war with the Romans. It is almost at the centre of France, and surrounded by rich farm land. It has, my 1931 Geography tells me, ‘remarkable nodality’, with six main railway lines, and a dozen major roads radiating from it, as well as commanding important east-west and north-south routes.
It is on or near several of the lines that are taken to divide France. The Highland–Lowland line, from Biarritz to Strasbourg. The Oc–Oïl language division, that curves up from the mouth of the Gironde estuary to just south of Bourges. The St Malo–Geneva line, that has long been taken to mark the division between the mature north, and the undeveloped south where the people were supposedly less literate, smaller, shorter-lived, more criminal, with a more backward agriculture, and in general less enterprising. It is at the southern edge of the reach of the scholastic Île de France, and on the northern border of lively Aquitaine, home of the Troubadours. It could be the great unifier. It should be the capital of France! Indeed Louis VII did unify north and south when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he was crowned here in 1137. But then he divorced her, precipitating 300 years of war. No, France will always be centred on Paris, Bourges, for all its centrality, will always be peripheral.

Jacques Couer     Bourges’ most famous son is Jacques Coeur. At the time of Joan of Arc he founded a business empire, based on trade with the Levant, that made him within a few years the richest man in France. His money enabled Charles VII to push the English out of Normandy. He built a spectacular palace in Bourges. He was a confidant of the king, and reformed the mint for him. The Celtic Bituriges means Kings of the World: Jacques was an early Master of the Universe.
But his wealth was his downfall. He had taken too much trade from other merchants, and lent money to too many nobles who didn’t want to repay him, and therefore had an interest in bringing him down. He was found guilty of trumped-up charges of treason, and his enormous wealth distributed among the king’s allies. He never got to live in his new palace. The man on the poster, the Ambassador for Bourges, would approve Coeur’s entrepreneurship, but shake his head at his lack of understanding of tall poppy syndrome: one must get on, but be clubbable, Bourges-style.
Hardly of interest to me, the story of a man obsessed with building a financial empire. Even his opulent high-Gothic palace looks like overblown Gothic revival. Except that there was talk that he was an alchemist, literally ‘making money’. This was stated as fact in Fulcanelli’s seminal Mystery of the Cathedrals. And esoteric images have been found in the decorations of his palace. He was in Syria in 1432, and made his money trading with the Arab world. And ‘alchemy’ is an Arabic word. (From which chemistry developed. ‘But if you look at the history, modern chemistry only starts coming in to replace alchemy around the same time capitalism really gets going. Strange, eh? What do you make of that?’ Pynchon. A thought for another day.) But the true aim of alchemy is the transmutation of the self. Meanwhile, there is the gnomon in the cathedral.
This is a narrow brass strip let, on a north-south line, into the nave floor. The sun shines, through a small hole made in a stained-glass window, onto this line every day at midday. Its position on the length of the gnomon tells which day of the year it is. It was used to determine Easter. This reminds me of the gnomon in Saint-Sulpice in Paris, which Dan Brown, in his hectic holy grail thriller The Da Vinci Code says is ‘built over the ruins of an ancient [Celtic?] temple to the Goddess Isis’. He says it is on the Rose Line. Okay, he conflates it with the Paris Meridian, which in fact is several hundred yards to the east. But parts of Bourges are on the Paris Meridian. Saint Roselin’s (Rose line) day is 17 January. Saint Sulpice was bishop of Bourges and died there in 647. And his day is – 17 January. He was buried at a monastery near Bourges, and his tomb soon became a place of miracles. What if the monastery, and tomb are on the Meridian …?

And the idea of making a hole in a stained-glass window to allow in a ray of light brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s ‘there’s a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.’ The idea that the ‘real’ light is too bright for us to endure, that material and conceptual reality exist to filter and ‘colour’ it, so we can live in a sensory world. And how well that hole in the many-coloured narrative of the stained-glass window, letting in the pure light, illustrates it! Moments of sudden insight give us apprehensions of it, the light beyond light. It is an idea that is basic to all esoteric and religious thinking. It was where I turned when I ‘lost my faith’ in the rational world-view of my education. And something in me feels, however faintly, that there is a bigger world, that the rational/scientific is a man-made room, A Truman Show world, its firmament a painted ceiling, within a so-much bigger world.

So, this is one of the chakras I am visiting along this spine, reflecting my time at the esoteric bookshop. I am spinning a new connection up the Meridian to Paris, and down the Meridian to Rennes-le-Chateau.

The Meridian crosses the road at Pierrelay. There is no sign of it. But Saint Sulpice was buried in a monastery which lay ‘in a most lovely place between two rivers with pasture and wood and vineyards in great number, with fields and rivers flowing between huge plains so that there, the inhabitants may be seen to possess the image of paradise.’ It could easily be here.
And buried in the crypt of Bourges cathedral is the Duke for whom the Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry was made, a book that recorded the long agricultural prosperity of the fifteenth century, 70 years of good harvests, a sort of paradise.

Breakfast     The breakfast at the hostel had been as poor as I feared, hard bread, jam, and weak coffee. A young Norwegian couple were stoically eating when I entered. I showed them how to eat French style, dunking jammy bread into a bowl of coffee. But the girl is so fastidious that she has managed to eat a breakfast of shrapnel-flying bread on a 7 inch square of napkin, which she then folds carefully with the crumbs inside, leaving the table spotless. They are inter-railing, heading now for Lyon, and then to Italy. I say, stay in north, Florence, Venice. France in four days, Europe in a month. Europe’s greatest hits. But of course they are young, it is a scoping trip, finding places to revisit when they are older, still together in twenty years, with the kids. I say that the Norwegian currency is strong. He says it has fallen with the oil price drop. I say at least your country looked after their oil revenues, investing them in sovereign wealth funds, while we spent ours. He says, before the oil we had only fish. And after? I ask. Maybe something else will turn up, he says. The young.

From Pierrelay I cycle through the lanes, heading for the D73, the road south closest to the Meridian. There are many cyclists out in groups, they flock together, French cyclists, and I exchange noisy greetings with them. At Trouay the village shop and PO are newly reopened, by a North African couple. She is headscarfed and calm, good with customers, he has the restless energy of the ambitious. They speak French to the customers, Arabic (I guess) to each other.

The Line of Occupation     Leaving the village, I come, with a shock, to a marker for the Line of Occupation established by the Armistice of 22 June 1940. I am about to cross from Occupied France into Free France. I’ve read about it, how in the north they chafed at the privations, the indignities, the shame, in which any reaction was treated harshly, and each had to make his existential decision to be collaborator, accepter, resister. While in the south many were happy to have got rid of the third republic and its ‘Jews and lefties’. Some were happy with Pétain’s fascistic leanings, seeing Britain as the enemy. Others thought, at first, that he was a cunning patriot, playing the long game, and planning to rise up, at the right moment, against Hitler. And I imagine the difficulty and the indignities involved in simply getting across to Bourges to trade.
It was expected, the Armistice, to be interim; a final settlement would be made when Britain saw sense and sued for peace. ‘The immense majority of the population welcomed the armistice with infinite relief, and the Republic disappeared on 10 July to general indifference.’ (Gildea.) The Armistice of 1940 deliberately mirrored, in reverse, that of 1918, which had in turn reversed that of 1870: Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, heavy reparations, a limit to the size of the army. It was signed at Compiègne, the same place, and in the same railway carriage as that of 1918. The Germans occupied all the Atlantic coast, the industrial and mining areas of Northern France, Paris, and the rich agricultural lands of Beauce and across the Loire to Bourges.
The Line was crossed by the Germans in 11 Nov 1942 when the Allies landed in North Africa, and the whole country was occupied.
Némirovsky’s Suite Française gives a vivid account of the chaotic and self-serving flight south before the German advance, and of the difficulties and compromises faced when occupied by a powerful and ruthless enemy.

What to think? How simple for we British, isolated and bombed, but moated and ‘in the right’. How difficult for the French to come to terms with capitulation, ‘Collaboration’, Resistance’. And no wonder the speed with which France embraced a new European order after 1945, to end the cycle of wars. (Which achieved the Kaiser’s aim of a Franco-German customs union, and Hitler’s of a Europe united under German hegemony.)
And perhaps no wonder Britain’s uncertainty with that new order, our ‘holding out’, giving a boost to our own brand of exceptionalism, the aloofness of the island race, the clinging to its memory of being the great imperial power.

I head straight south. The wind is from the south-east, but it is light, and the sun is warm. There are shaved fields where the hay has been harvested. The winter barley is well ripened, peach-coloured, ruffled by the wind as by a soothing hand. It is a wonderful cycling day. And there is little better than cycling in France on such a day.

The Centres of France     At Bruère-Allichamps I come to ‘The Centre of France’. There are many ‘Centres of France’; I will visit several today. This one is marked dramatically, at the southern end of a 35 km dead-straight road from Bourges, by a Roman military marker topped with a French flag, in the middle of the road. It was recovered from the cemetery where it had been used as a gravestone for 1500 years, and set up on a small traffic island at the crossroads. It was Adolphe Joanne, a nineteenth-century writer of popular travel guides (they became the Guides Bleu) who designated this as the Centre. It’s now a D road, bypassed by A71, with little traffic, snoozing quietly in the midday sun, shops closed, low noises coming from the bars and restaurants at the crossroads. But it was once a Route Nationale. I remember these racetrack villages, smelling of diesel, coated in a film of burnt rubber and brake-pads, shaken by the vibration of noisy lorries,. I can imagine a motorcyclist heading north, dipping out from behind a lorry at the beginning of the 35km straight, accelerating towards the open road, imagining the speed he will reach, and wrapping himself around the unexpected, flag-topped centre of France.
There is a worn ‘la fête du tour’ official Tour de France logo stencilled on the road. It passed through this centre of France in 2013. Barthes writes this about the Tour, ‘I believe the Tour is the best example we have ever encountered of a total, hence an ambiguous myth; the Tour is at once myth of expression and myth of projection, realistic and utopian at the same time.’ Realistic and utopian at the same time. Ah, la France!

Why are there so many Centres of France? It is as if, through this amorphous ‘middle’, far from the defined edges of the hexagon, the Spirit of France has wandered, is wandering, like some unhomed spirit, a lost Hermes, looking for its home, for ‘the Centre’. Having failed to find its definitive centre, heart, ever more definitions of the centre are thought up, and ever more communities claim to be located there. Even the language here is neither oïl nor oc; this is the zone of the Crescent, le Croissant, where dialects have elements of both. The zone of the croissant! France itself! Except that croissants in France are, these days, rarely crescent-shaped.
And perhaps this proliferation of centres is another sign of how France, uncertain of itself, is vehement in proclaiming itself.

A little further south, at the Centre de la France service station, is one of the simpler definitions –  the halfway point between the northern and southern limits of France. I photograph my milometer, 565 miles, and email ‘halfway there!’ It’s very hot now, and I apply cream, and roll down my sleeves.

A few more miles, and another centre, at St Amand-Montrond. This is the midpoint between the most northerly, southerly, easterly and westerly points of mainland France. And, according to one source, the southern limit of langue d’oïl. There is a Mirage fighter on a traffic island, donated by a former mayor. Where did he get it?
Over the sweet Cher, and through Drevant, which has a one-finger clock on the twelfth-century church, put there in 1790. Perhaps to symbolise the unifying, simplifying spirit of the Revolution that would soon metricate everything, including the days of the week.
On to the next candidate, Saulzais-le-Potiers. A small pyramid, topped by the tricolor, erected by ‘The Friends of old Saulzais’ it is in a cul-de-sac, and inscribed: ‘It was here that the calculations of the eminent mathematician and astronomer l’abbe Theophile Moreux of Bourges 1867-1954 determined the geographical centre of France.’ Moreux was a writer of popular astronomy and science books, a teacher in Bourges, where he built an observatory. He was arrested in Paris in 1943, aged 76, for criticising Hitler, and transferred to prison in Bourges. The German commandant, an amateur astronomer, discretely freed him after six months. I can imagine the conversations they must have had! Saulzais proclaims itself ‘Capital of grès rose.’

On to Vesdun, where there is a splendid 5m diameter mosaic map made from 60,000 coloured discs, which puts the village ‘at the heart of France’ (represented by a red heart on the map). This is the centre of gravity of continental France, the point of balance of the 36,453 communes, as calculated by the National Geographical Institute (IGN) in 1984. Next to it is a panel, with notes about differential and integral calculus, explaining how the calculation was made, and the number of hours taken to make the map (518). But both map and panel are disappearing under dirt and encroaching ivy. Perhaps, like la Meridiènne Verte, it illustrates a love of the grand gesture, but with a neglect of the detailed consequences.

It is very French, the many Centres of France. The logical French mind says: there is only one answer. The ingenious French mind says, yes: – but there are many questions.

Vesdun is a beguiling village, with its ‘Forest of A Thousand Poets’, and its flower- and rush-edged duck pond with a sign, ‘No Fishing for over thirteen-year-olds’. And it has an attractively simple church, built in the twelfth-century as a Benedictine chapel. In 1569 the village and its church were burned down by Protestants, so the chapel became the parish church. Its Romanesque carved capitals and frescoed barrel-vaulted ceiling (two frescoes survive) are a reminder of a faith of story and acceptance, rather than Gothic’s light and aspiration. There are frequent reminders of the Wars of Religion that divided France from 1562 to 1595, with Protestant followers of Calvin, a Frenchman educated at Orléans, strong in the south, confronting the Catholics at the Loire.

Another dimension to the ‘Centre of France’ debate is represented by Châteaumeillant. It is on the same parallel as Vesdun, 10 km west of the Meridian. It is, according to Graham Robb’s Ancient Paths, the mid-point of Celtic Gaul, where its central meridian and parallel cross. A couple of years before my trip, Robb had followed, also by bike, the Celtic meridian, a few km west of the Paris meridian, from Loon Plage, through Samarobriva, Mont César, Nanterre, Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, Châteaumeillant, to Axat in the Pyrenees. I will return to this book.

I have one more centre of France to visit today, 10km east of Vesdun, at Nassigny, where the IGN calculation puts the centre of France when Corsica is included. Close by is “le Grand Meaulnes air de repos” on the A71. And Alain-Fournier is why I have strayed 20 km east of the Meridian, as I will find tomorrow. This evening I cycle to Vallon-en-Sully, and find the camp site.

Vallon-en-Sully     It is a municipal camp site, on low-lying land between the river Cher and the Canal du Berry. It is on the Avenue of Sighs. It is very large, and very empty. Where to pitch? Thunder is rumbling round, rain seems imminent. Should I pitch under the trees, for shelter? Or would the trees draw lightning? I’ve no idea. I pick a place close to the toilet block, between a tree where I can lean my bike, and a table and bench where I can sort my things and write.
There is a man is working on the plumbing at the toilet block. I go over to borrow a hammer for the tent pegs. His dog, lying bored, muzzle on paws, springs up, all attention when he sees me approaching, a large wolf-like beast, energetic, curious, friendly. The man calls it mignon, a curious address (‘sweet’, ‘cute’) for such a beast, endearing. He is that sort of man, a tradesman, secure in his abilities, tough when needed but with no interest in masculine posturing, gentle in his ways. He thinks there may be a storm. When I ask who I pay, he says someone will be around between 8 and 9 in the morning. I ask about the showers. Yes, they’re working.
Minutes after I’ve got the tent up, there is a deluge. I throw everything into the tent and shelter. It is over in minutes, and the storm rumbles away. Just like last night. Was I really in Bourges last night? It feels like yet another country, this unknown heart of France.
I shower, change, and head into town, along the canal. It is wide and attractive, with lots of water fowl, and that greening, of rushes and shrubs, that comes with abandonment. The 261 km canal was completed in 1841, to take coal north from the Commentry to Berry and on to Paris, and iron ore south to Montluçon. It was closed in 1950, and sold to the communes it passed through for one franc a kilometre. This ‘sausaging’, as the information board so nicely puts it, has made recuperation difficult. But there is now a 20 km cycle path to Montluçon. This is tempting. But although taking me south, it would be away from the the Meridian. Montluçon is at the northern edge of langue d’oc. In le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier comments on its harsh ‘industrial’ accent. Nancy Wake, the colourful and deadly New Zealand Resistance fighter, led an attack on the Gestapo headquarters there, killing 38. In the forest across the river from Vallon was one of her centres of operation. There are colourful, sail-like sculptures by the canal, and a replica of one of the large coal barges is being built, clearly job-creation projects. There are signs about fishing: ‘Black Bass, Carp, no kill absolu, ne pas tuer.’ Why the English?

Walking into town I cross the Cher, a wide, shallow river, and pass le musée maquettes animées (working models), closed, of course. Is this a large village or small town? It has 1500 inhabitants, the same for a century. There seems to be no real poverty, but nor is there a sense of much happening. It is a place marking time. It exists out of habit. There are houses for €35,000. There’s no one around, no bars open. But the emptiness feels less of desertion, than of the home-centredness that is everywhere. The bakery is called Le Boul’ Ange, a contemporary name. But the funeral director’s, with its memorial à ma Mamy, makes me think of rural Ireland. There is a fine belle époche post office. Built in 1911, it advertises, in stone, ‘post, telegraph, telephone, savings bank’ – what was it like, this arrival, together with the newly-affordable bicycle, of ‘the future’?

The Martyrs of Vingré     Buried in Vallon is Jean Quinault, one of the ‘Martyrs of Vingré’, a victim of another element in ‘the future’. In November 1914, following an engagement with the Germans, twenty-four French soldiers were accused of deserting the field. At their courts martial, they said the Lieutenant had ordered them to retreat. He denied this. Found guilty, six were selected to be shot, in accordance with an order from High Command for actions ‘to help combatants rediscover their taste for obedience.’ In his last letter to his wife, Jean Quinault wrote, ‘Last letter from me, dying on grounds I don’t know the reason for. The officers get it wrong, and we have to pay. I never thought I’d end my days at Vingré, and especially being shot for so little and without being to blame.’ There is the palpable sense of unfairness, generally felt, expressive of the distance between the soldiers and an incompetent and callous officer class. Céline expresses it vividly in Journey to the End of Night. There were several mutinies at the French front. After the war, pressure led to an inquiry, which found that the lieutenant had lied at the court martial, had indeed ordered the retreat, and in fact been the first to flee the line. The judgement against the men was annulled, and the withheld widows’ pensions paid. A case was brought against the lieutenant for perjury. He was acquitted, for ‘lack of evidence’. An attempt to prosecute the trial officers was ‘classé sans suite’, ie buried in the files.

I return to the camp site, and go to the bistro by the river, close to the canal. There are two parties outside, one of young men, eating and drinking good-heartedly, the other a large family group, with the usual comings and goings of adults and children. I order the dish of the day, souris d’agneau – smile? cheek? It’s a lamb shank, the meat falling tenderly off the bone, with chive mashed potato, and a vegetable-filled half tomato.
I sit, under the trees, in the warm evening, eating a delicious meal, and drinking beer. A few late birds sing, and the river purls softly. I am on my own, while enjoying the  goings-on of the groups close by. Who am I? Does it matter? Where do I belong? It used to be that in a town like this, having walked around it alone, I would imagine myself living here, finding my place, that a me-shaped place was waiting for me. Or else I would assert my atomic individuality, my separateness. And in a bar like this, after my second, or third beer, I would experience myself as the still point in the swirl of the surrounding and everchanging; or cast myself as the perpetual outsider who lives independent, the wanderer over the face of the earth paying, gladly, the price of his integrity. (‘I paid the price of solitude, but at least I’m out of debt.’) Now? None of these. I live a life. I live anywhere. I belong nowhere. I inhabit a mental universe. There is no one, and I wish for no one. The last chance came and went. There won’t be another.

As the young men amiably settle their bills, notes passed back and forth, and the family party starts to break up, the young man I’ve seen moving attentively between tables comes over, asks how was the meal. He is the owner, this is his first week of business. A good start, I say, pointing to the number here. He has come from Calais to open this place. I say that’s where I’ve come from, by bike. He acknowledges this, but doesn’t follow it up. It is that French characteristic that might be a lack of interest in anyone else, or a respect for the other to be himself.

On my way slightly tipsily back to my tent I come upon a sign telling campers what they should do in the event of an ‘inondation brutale’, illustrated with a twenty-foot wave overwhelming a tent. I had  seen a sign of a man running next to water, with a large direction arrow, and thought he was heading enthusiastically to a designated bathing place. Now I realise it’s the direction I must flee for my life in case of said inondation brutale.

So I go to sleep, my small tent the only one in the middle of a large, empty campsite, with the wind moaning through the trees in the Avenue of Sighs, rain pattering then driving onto the tent fabric, with a rising river on one side and a filling canal on the other, trying to remember which way the cartoon man was running.

References:
Barthes, Mythologies, ‘Electoral Photogeny’.
Ormsby, France p157.
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day p88.
Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance p38.
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code p121.
Barthes, Mythologies, ‘The Tour de France as Epic’.
Robb, The Ancient Paths p78.

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