Here’s an old story, from my 1992 bike trip from Paris to Amsterdam, with stops in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium along the way…
An old guy on a bike: “Bonjour.”
He said this as he and his buddy pulled up from behind and then alongside me about halfway up a 4-mile climb to the top of what I think is the tallest mountain in all of Luxembourg.
Me (out of breath): “Bonjour.”
Old guy on a bike: (“A bunch of fast French words I didn’t understand.”)
Me: “Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous Anglais?” (I don’t speak French … Do you speak English?)
Old guy on a bike: “Ah oui. Are you British?”
Me: “No, American.”
He seemed pleased to meet an American halfway up the highest mountain in Luxembourg, which is about the size of Rhode Island, but still big enough to have a lot of steep and scenic mountains. They probably don’t get too many Americans up here.
Old guy on a bike: “It is a beautiful day for a ride. And not so hard for someone 20, yes?”
Me (breathing harder): “I’m 33. And it is a hard ride, yes.”
Old guy on a bike (pounding his chest in pride): “33! I am 60!”
Me (mumbling to myself): “Good for you, you old fart.”
The old guy on a bike then began talking to his friend in French. They both started laughing and looked at me with triumphant smiles on their old, wrinkled faces.
Old guy on a bike (pointing to his friend): “He is 62 and says this is an easy ride.”
And with that they stood up on their bikes, started peddling a little faster and began to pull away form me. What with me being 33 and an American, I wasn’t about to let these two old guys kick my ass. Unfortunately I didn’t have a choice – and they kept pulling further and further ahead and the pain in my thighs and lungs kept getting worse and worse. I sat back down in my seat and began to pedal slower, gasping for breath.
The old guy on a bike turned, gave me a wink and a wave and then they were gone.
Hey, I just realized something: I’m now 60, the same as the younger of the two “old” guys who dropped on the Luxembourg mountain. Holy crap, how did that happen? So fast. And, is 60 really that old? I don’t think so.
I wonder if these guys are still around. They’d be 85 and 87. So it’s possible. And, could they still kick my butt going up a mountain? It’s possible.
I wrote this after our 1993 honeymoon French bike trip…
“I am sorry for my English,” Jean Leloup said.
Fortunately, his wife, Genevieve, spoke perfect English. And, like many married couples who have been together for decades, the Leloups know what the other is about to say before they say it. Genevieve, who has heard this story hundreds of times, was able to fill in the appropriate words when her husband’s English failed him.
We were standing on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The wind was whipping off the English Channel and the waves were crashing against the 100-foot cliffs.
All I could think was: How did they do it? How did the U.S. Army Rangers scale these cliffs on D-Day (June 6, 1944) with the Germans hunkered down up above, firing down on them, and take control of this piece of the high ground now filled with the craters left by the Allied bombers and the burnt-out remains of the concrete German bunkers?
It was an impossible mission.
And yet they did it.
“My family lived in Lion-sur-Mer,” Jean began. This is a tiny resort town on the eastern edge of the Normandy invasion beaches. The Brits landed here, on what they called Sword Beach. We cycled through Sword Beach a few days ago.
“The invasion was the day of my 18thbirthday,” Jean continued. “The sea was covered with ships and at seven in the morning we saw four German soldiers with wheelbarrows full of mines burying them in the sand on the beach. The Germans passed right by us and didn’t say a word. A few minutes later the shooting started, and I have never run so fast in my life. I did not have legs, I had wings. Our house was 300 meters from the beach and we stayed in the shelter (in the basement) for three days and did not know what was going on.
“Finally, my father said, ‘Now I go out and see what is going on.’ He walked toward the beach and came around a corner and saw a British commando, with his face painted black. He saw my father and dropped to the ground, as did the other commandoes, and they all had their guns pointed toward my father. Fortunately, an officer in charge spoke French and my father warned them about the mines, and showed then which way to go. My father ran back to our shelter and he had chocolates and cigarettes they had given him.”
The Leloups live in nearby Caen, and are preparing for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Tens of thousands of tourists will visit this stretch of sand where more than 154,000 American and British troops launched the greatest invasion in history, signaling the beginning of the end for Hitler.
“There are no bedrooms left within 100 kilometers,” Jean said of the upcoming anniversary, which is a year away. “All our friends from the United States and Canada have already called asking to stay with us. We have no more room.”
The Leloups are now part of the story of D-Day. Everyone around here 60 and up has a story to tell. And, at Pointe du Hoc and other invasion sights, cemeteries and museums, you can often meet former American GIs who landed on that fateful day and during the chaos of the next few weeks. At the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, we met a schoolteacher from Ohio whose father flew gliders in the war and made it home.
The Ohio teacher was at the cemetery, which has close to 10,000 graves, looking for her cousin, a soldier who died on D-Day. She had pictures of her father, who passed away recently, and all the letters he sent home from France in a scrapbook she brought with her to Normandy.
Later that day, we saw her at Point du Hoc, and she introduced us to Jean and Genevieve Leloup. The teacher was visiting them as part of an exchange program. Jean, now retired, was a businessman and politician, and he attended the 40thanniversary of D-Day ceremonies.
“I met President Reagan,” he said of the 1984 event. “It was a great honor and I will be here (at Point du Hoc) for the ceremonies again (for the 50thanniversary).
FYI: I travelled to Normandy with the U.S. Army Rangers for the 55thanniversary of D-Day, six years later, in 1999. I had met, interviewed and written about one of the Rangers, Sid Salomon, for the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Bucks County Intelligencer. Sid – an amazing man and a real hero – invited me along on the Rangers’ trip, and it was probably my most memorable experience in all my years as a newspaper reporter. You can read more about Sid and the Rangers, as well as a lot more about biking in my eBook Biking Normandy
There’s a plaque honoring Sid at the American Cemetery in Normandy…
I was leafing through my biking France journals … and came across an entry from June 25, 1992. About poor, poor, pitiful Tom. Ah, I remember him and his sad-sack, lost-love story so well.
Tom’s story got me thinking: Hey, I’ve been doing this since 1990, when I became obsessed with cycle tourism and rode from Paris to Nice, then Paris to Amsterdam (1992), and somehow convinced Susan to go on a two-month French cycling honeymoon (1993). I’ve been “collecting” all these people and writing their stories over the years. It was only natural, what with me being a newspaper reporter. Maybe, just maybe, somehow, some way they’d make for an interesting book. And now, finally, technology has caught up with me! First this blog and then, one day, a bestselling book. Then the blockbuster movie, an Academy Award and …
So, here you go: The People I Meet (Story No. 1): Poor, Poor Pitiful Tom, an on-going series within the Biking France Blog. I don’t have photos to go with some of these stories & people, as they hadn’t yet invented smart phones in the 1990s. I’ll improvise. The photo in this story is from the artistic vision of Susan
What the hell happened to you?
Tom reeked of despair and desperation. So much so that everyone’s first question for him wasn’t the traditional and pretty-much mandatory youth-hostel inquiry: “Where do you do to school?”
Followed by: “What’s your major?”
Instead, it was: “What the hell happened to you?”
I met Tom at the bar at the youth hostel in Bouillon, Belgium. The youth hostels in Belgium have bars/pubs and serve delicious, high-alcohol-content Belgian monk beer for low prices. At least they did back then.
“What the hell happened to you?” I asked Tom.
Dumped in Vienna
This was all the prompting Tom needed to spill his guts. His long-time girlfriend, Kim, the love of his life, went off to Vienna for a semester abroad. She met and fell in love with a guy, and dumped Tom via a letter. A stinkin’ letter. I know this sounds horrible now, in the age of Skype and FaceTime, but remember, this was 1990. Letters were all we had back then. A phone call? Really hard back then.
Me: “That sucks man, that really sucks. Let me buy you a beer.”
Tom, determined to win back the girl of his dreams, had flown to Vienna. He showed up at Kim’s apartment, unannounced. Let’s just say it didn’t go as well as he had hoped, and she told him to beat it. Tom actually cried as he told me the story. It was kind of heartbreaking.
He got a bicycle – it wasn’t clear if he borrowed or stole it – and started riding. The map he used to navigate was a map of all of Western Europe. One inch equaled something like 1,000 kilometers. He might as well have been navigating with a globe. Somehow – and Tom wasn’t sure exactly how – he wound up in Bouillon. I’m not even sure if he knew what country he was in, as we were close to the French border.
Tom was out of money.
He had a ratty-old sleeping bag, no tent, and was relying on the kindness of strangers to survive. He’d spent the last two nights sleeping in the bowels of a dank, dark little football (soccer) stadium a couple of towns away. He’d met some of the guys on the team and they adopted him (like a lost puppy) after he depressed them with the story of his breakup. They fed him beer and bread, and let him sleep and shower in their locker.
Should I stay or should I go?
“What should I do about Kim? Should I go back to Vienna and try to get her back?” Tom asked me and another guy as we sat at the bar drowning Tom’s sorrows in delicious monk beer.
The other guy was French, and selling law books out of the trunk of his car. I’m not sure how that worked, or even what language the law books were in, but that’s what the guy said he did. I figured it was way too boring of a story to be a lie. I mean, come on, if you’re gonna lie about who you are and what you do, at least make up something a little more interesting. That’s what I did. I mean, that’s what I would do.
Me: “I don’t think going back to Vienna will work. Maybe if you give her some time it could work out.”
The wound was too deep and recent, and Tom was determined to somehow get back to Vienna to try and win Kim back. His mind was made up. The poor guy. I bought Tom one last beer, said goodnight and stumbled back to my bunk bed in the youth hostel and passed out. Like I said, that monk beer is strong stuff. Much better than Ambien, another thing we didn’t have back then.
It’s a suicide mission
I didn’t see Tom the next morning at breakfast, and eventually headed off on my bike. Two nights later, at the youth hostel in Namur, in the bar, I spotted a Dutch guy I’d met at the bar in the Bouillon youth hostel.
Me: “What happened to Tom?”
Dutch guy: “Who’s Tom?”
Me: “The really depressed American guy who got dumped by his girlfriend in Vienna.”
Dutch guy: “Oh, him. I felt sorry for him and bought him a few beers. But then, after a while, I got sick of listening to him go on and on about how he got dumped.”
Me: “Yeah, he is pretty depressing.”
The Dutch guy told me that Tom couldn’t pay his youth-hostel bill, and had to work there until he paid off his debt. He was cleaning bathrooms and dishes. He was then planning to make his way back to Vienna and win back the love of his life. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him.
I wonder what happened when he got there?
Actually, I think I know exactly what happened. It was a suicide mission. The poor bastard.