lundi 8 août 2011

My own personal strike

The road home across the fields

Bastille Day weekend. We left on the motorcycle for Dordogne and rode for hours down past Chartres, across the wheat fields of the Beauce past Châteaudun and Vendôme to Blois, on to Tour and to the highway south towards Bordeaux. We'd get off in Angoulême and take the "routes" through the villages: Sainte Catherine, La Rochebeaucourt, Vertillac, Ribérac and on to Mussidan. We passed the aires d'autoroutes, with their stations services announcing 1.60 euros a liter for 95 octane gasoline.

I do my best mental math passing stations services. 1.60 euros at the current exchange rate is $1.42. It hasn't changed much since July 11. A gallon is about 3.79 liters.

1.60 euros a liter translates into 1.42(1.60 x 3.79) = $8.61 per gallon.

OK, so we get universal, single payer health care that is the best in the world, and probably some other stuff, but I remember when it was about 1 euro a liter, and the euro was trading at more or less parity with the dollar.

Those days are long (about 9 years) passed.

I rode along behind my husband, glad we had taken the motorcycle at about 6 liters/100 km, versus the BMW wagon at more like 10 or 11 liters/100 km, and my heart felt heavy for a generation entering a world where it is normal to pay what I treasured for a week's groceries while in college on a couple liters of gasoline. How, I wondered, were they going to do it? How many, I asked myself, watching the Charente pass alongside our motorcycle, would be staying home this summer, owing to the cost of a tank of gas?

I felt indescribably sad.

When I got home, I took my bike out of the garage, newly equipped with an easily removable front basket and saddlebags to let me take it on errands, and told my car, even my motorcycle, that we'd not be seeing so much of one another; I'd be using my bike for as many kilometers of necessary transportation as possible. On a daily basis, if it came to that, all the way into Mantes, or 14 km one way, or up to the post office and supermarket, about 5 kilometers from home. I'd also had it outfitted with a small device that tells me how many kilometers I have traveled, my current speed, my average speed, and the time of day. I can reset it. I don't bother. I like watching the kilometers add up. 100 for the month of July. That's a good 12 liters of gasoline, and at 1.60 euros or so the liter, that's more than 16 euros saved.

My own private strike.

I like to imagine the liter bottles lining up toward the horizon out beyond my handle bars, and with the basket and saddle bags, here is a list from a recent shopping trip of everything I could carry home:

2 1 liter bottles of eau gazeuse
1 1.5 liter bottle of Coca-Cola
1 1 liter bottle of milk (demi-écrémé, or a little lighter than whole milk... that's a joke)
12 saucisses and merguez
6 chicken breasts
1 package of 6 "minis" pain de campagne
12 free-range eggs
2 avocados
3 pears
1 bunch of organic bananas
1 kg pommes de terres nouvelles
1 bag of arugula
1 bags of hard candy (for my husband, who after more than 20 years smoke-free, still wants to smoke)
1 box of cereal
1 package of galettes de sarasin
1 pack of 6 slices of ham

Since it's only 4.5 km home, I take the longest way possible and ride as fast as I can.

But, there was more than my own private strike. There have been months of a frightening lack of motivation to move, and something about turning 50 soon has been leading me back into my past, like when I was in high school and then college in New York City, and all I had for transportation was my Peugeot uO10 bike.

Mine was blue, and God how I loved that bicycle. It was the first thing I ever bought with my own money, from my first job, waiting tables at Bergson's Ice Cream & Sandwich Shop in the mall where I grew up, and I probably paid about the same thing they are going for today.

I rode it to work, I rode it for pleasure. I raced trucks just like in the movies, and I felt the thrill and the pride of using my own body's energy to move like the wind. It lasted until one summer, when I left it in the storage area at St. A's at Columbia, and returned to find the frame bent. Someone had taken it out and had an accident and never confessed they'd ruined my bike. It was pronounced beyond repair.

I never threw it away. Like my old skis, it's at my mother's home, purgatory for things I loved but couldn't justify paying to have shipped in the container here, along with my son's worldly possessions -- all except his baby and toddler years toys --, my books, and a bunch of IKEA furniture I need to have my head examined for paying to ship.

I'd ride my bike again, I decided, just like when I was 16, and 24.

My bike now is a Marin San Rafael. One of the first splurges I permitted myself once I was working again as an architect, when Sam was in elementary school. He got one, too. I justified it by the hills in Greenwich, but Sam never proved to be anything near an avid bicycle rider. He distrusted his bicycle and its brakes, and we scarcely used them, but they came here, and I have ridden mine, on and off, over the 9 years since we arrived. Less than I ever thought I would. First of all, my husband has a tank he can't ride more than a few kilometers without dying (not motivating), and second, we live far away enough from anything to make riding one's bicycle to get to it a chore. Unless you see it in health and philosophical terms.

Which I do.

Riding up to the curb by our house the other evening, my bike loaded with the weekend's groceries and winded from taking the long way home, I came across my neighbor, just home from their family vacation in Corsica, coming out of his house. Usually, he would cross the street to "faire la bise", but I think something about my physical state kept him on his side of the street. Feeling rather proud of myself (he runs regularly, which is more than I can say for myself these days), I explained what I was doing, my private strike.

"Ah, c'est bien quelque chose qu'on ferait aux States," he said, with a touch of playful admiration, just playful enough to be construed as ironique, or teasing, but just admiring enough to pass for -- admiring. I chose to accept the latter.

It's funny how anything that wouldn't necessarily cross one's own mind must belong to another nation, if the mind it does cross has anything to do with another -- nation.

Like my brother-in-law français once remarked during a dinner party, when my husband and I were glad to be separated by several friends, with more than a touch of astonishment and bewilderment of my marriage, "everything takes on international proportions in your relationship."

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