I didn’t get her name so let’s just call her Madame Secours — which is French for rescue, and in this case, it’s fully justified.
I was lost in France as I have been since I picked up a car in Valenciennes at the beginning of stage four. Covering the Tour is, as the title of the Jim Carrey movie suggests, a series of unfortunate events. (I might add that it will stress the crap out of you.)
In my case, one of the major events was, I don’t have a GPS unit like every other writer or photographer who has done a Tour de France has. They learned the hard, painful way as I am learning now. I’m in the fool phase — quelle misere.
There’s a catch-all phrase the press corp uses to describe whatever mishap has befallen them each day — car stolen, dropped computer, non-functioning wifi, lost passport, lost human being, night in jail, held at gunpoint, missed start, finish, interview, slept in car because you couldn’t find hotel, stale croissant — could be anything.
Point is, the person covering le tour will simple say to the other tour veteran: “it’s the tour.” Which means, basically, shit happens, the shit that only happens in a three week insanity circus like Le Grand Boucle. You don’t have to say anything else, they know exactly what you’ve been through and they’ve got a dozen stories to top yours.
Back to Madame Secours. Not having said GPS unit, I’d already gotten lost a half dozen times between Montargis and the stage six finish town of Guengnon. I’d run through my stock, screw-up du jour, supply of obscenities. Now I was simply screaming at the top of my lungs the F word over and over until my vocal cords reached the snapping point.
I was somewhere in the middle of the Loire Valley missing the world’s biggest bike race and paying thousands for that distinct pleasure. I don’t know what the word “backwater” is in French but I jerked the car over in some deserted little town that died years ago.
There was a bar-tabac and a pharmacy to chose from — I chose the bar on the assumption that it would be easier to get information out of them. If all else failed, I could come back for pharmaceutical help, like a sedative or pain killer.
I walked into a small, one room bar, short counter on the right, empty except for an old French lady. Faded soccer posters lined the walls. There was a plump gray cat asleep on the counter top and a pregnant dog dozing at my feet. I explained in French that I was lost, tired and depressed. She said she had to get her glasses.
Into the dark back room she went, then returned with glasses and a roadmap with the year 1995 at the top. Okay, lost and going back in time. I pointed where I wanted to go and she sat down with the map — which was close to being several shards of map. Slowly she pinpointed our location and the destination and she then wrote me the step by step directions.
It kills me that I didn’t think to ask her name, how old she was, the name of the bar or the nom de backwater. The encounter was all about solving my immediate problem. I doubt her husband was still alive. She had white hair, a wrinkled, reddish neck and upper chest and a face that spoke of too many days in the farm field or too many nights with a bottle of wine. She was a sweet heart.
I reached the finish town of Guengnon an hour before eventual winner Mark Cavendish of the HTC-Columbia team. By that time I’d sufficiently recovered my wits to wish I’d spent more time with her, gotten her story, paid her the compliment of staying to talk instead of rushing off to chase a bike race.
In the end she will be what I remember most about today and perhaps that’s true for her as well. She’ll tell the locals of the tall, sweaty, American who stumbled into her bar with his anxious pacing and broken French.
These things happen and will surely happen again tomorrow. Disasters form of the adventure. “It’s the tour.”