Traditions and Services

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The ride was ugly today, so you get pictures of food instead.

Written Monday, January 26, 2009

Today’s Route

Well, today could have been better. I was so elated by the change in weather that I should have known it wouldn’t hold. I woke up this morning to the sound of rain and a wet bike and it was so cold, down to 6c for the whole ride, that I was back to the leg slapping and arm flapping the whole ride.

My bike needed oil and I stopped in at a bunch of mechanics who said they don’t do scooters, and of course all the scooter shops are closed on Mondays. Of course. To them it’s totally natural, “Of course all the scooter places are closed. It’s Monday! But we’re open of course because we’re a car place, but of course we don’t change oil for scooters.” Of course. The guy said it wouldn’t be a big deal to ride 200km today, the oil light comes on and you have another 1500km. I’ll get it changed tomorrow when the scooter shops are open.

I crossed the Rhone River delta from Montpellier to Aix-en-Provence today, a really ugly stretch of land that’s been developed and just kinda used over and over. I know this land has been inhabited for as long as the Loire has been, but here somehow they’ve let modern civilization have its way with the land whereas in the Loire and Dordogne they’ve defended tradition and think about beauty with daily decisions. Or maybe they don’t think about beauty as much as they think about doing it the right way, traditionally, and their traditions just happen to be beautiful.

Whenever you enter a town in the Loire (or most of the country, actually) there’s a sign that advertises some of the services they offer: “Courdemanche: Here you’ll find a bakery, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar and a market on Thursdays.” I learned from some Brits (who own the cafe/restaurant/general store/fish licensing office in St. Pierre) that when one of those essential establishments goes under or the proprietor dies, the town will buy the land then give a grant to anyone who buys and runs the business. This way they protect their way of life and ensure that a town has all its services covered. If this doesn’t happen, then that little corner is turned into a house by a foreigner and the town loses its cafe, and after a while it’ll lose its bakery and then people will go to the SuperMarche for their bread and coffee, and the town dies. This has long since passed in Britain while in the US we never really had comparable traditions in our cultural narrative. Maybe in the good ol’ days, but our country is too young, capitalist and ethnically mixed for this to have been very well established. And god forbid we let our government support these services. That sounds like socialism!!

[In fact, the City of Seattle financially helps farmers’ markets that use city land. This is unequivocally a good thing for our city and region (we support farmers from all over the Puget Sound) in terms of economics, civic health and actual physical health. We lost the Sonics, which hurts, and apparently people were pissed about the City fumbling the recent storms, but when it comes to things like pushing a youth violence initiative, trying car-free Sundays, invigorating civic life in South Lake Union and instituting fees for plastic bags (why not just ban them?) our Mayor is focusing on improving our way of life instead of just our economics. It will be interesting to see how his re-election plays out considering that these things aren’t generally appreciated by the American populace.]

According to those Brits, the cafe owners, socialist ties runs deep in the French countryside, people have a healthy mistrust of the central government. It reminds me of American smalltown folk, as both groups would be unhappy to learn.

While we’re on the subject of services and tradition, I’m visiting a lot of McDonald’s on this trip for a very simple reason: they all offer free, unlimited WiFi. The McDonald’s are, for the most part, pushed to the outskirts of cities where they can’t be eyesores, and they’re not nearly as ubiquitous as in the US (you wouldn’t find one in a small town) but if I find one on a day I haven’t checked my email I almost always go in and buy a hot chocolate and update the blog or chat with Azure if she’s on. McDonald’s has a great niche. There’s often a few other people using their laptops in there in the same way you’d find people at cafes in Seattle, young professionals who need to get online but also want to get out of the house, and since the French are so behind on all things Internet, the most reliable WiFi is at “MacDoh”. Nobody really wants to go to McDonald’s, though, so maybe someday local cities and towns will start offering this service in recognition of a small change to the way of life.

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