Here's where I woke up yesterday morning. It was a place blissfully without high-speed Internet access, which is probably why I slept so well. Much as I'm indebted to technology, I firmly believe the human brain is not wired to be in touch with others 24/7.
The Tour route this year has been a good one in terms of the "transfers'' -- the euphemism for the times the entire race entourage has to drive hundreds of miles between the finish of one stage and the start of the next.
Tuesday night's transfer looked short on paper, but it wasn't. The stage ended in Briancon and the start Wednesday morning was in Tallard, which meant that all of us had to traverse Gap.
This part of France is lovely and very hard to get around. The roads are all two-lanes and there are a ton of trucks sharing them with you. Lodgings are also few and far between.
Gap is a bottleneck under the best of circumstances -- the last time the Tour had a stage start there a couple of years ago, I got caught in a dead standstill in traffic with some non-amused drivers of Tour team buses, and saw the vaudeville spectacle of riders pouring out of the buses, hopping on their bikes and weaving through the jam to make sure they signed in on time.
I didn't have a room, and the race had booked up Gap, so I decided to get a place north of there near a village called Corps. What I ended up with was, in fact, a chateau -- just a modest one for $100 a night on a ridge overlooking the road that goes between Gap and Grenoble. I arrived very late, which always throws the cooks off, but they found a way to feed me. I ate almost alone under the stars; my only company was the chat de la maison prowling around, meowing and deigning to be petted.
This morning, the lady of the house, Mme. Charpentier, who grew up a couple villages away, told me she loves Americans. I could tell she meant it. "I was born on the 19th of August, 1944,'' she said. "That was the day the Americans came down la route nationale to liberate our village. My mother was only a couple of hours away from delivering me. I believe I wouldn't be here if they hadn't come.''
The first time I experienced this kind of volunteered information was when I was a teenager, hiking in Alsace. When I camped with French folks in those days, there was no freeze-dried spaghetti or other such astronaut food. You went to a village in the evening and went shopping for some proper vittles. I became expert at making crepes on a campstove.
I was assigned to go to the butcher's one day, and as soon as I started speaking, the woman waiting on me picked up on my accent and asked where I was from. When I told her, she came out from behind the counter and hugged me. "I haven't seen an American since the war,'' she said. I was startled, and very moved.
Years later, I was touring with my family in the Perigord region and rented a very dusty former parsonage adjacent to a church and graveyard. I saw a woman tending the graves one morning and noticed that many of the deaths had been recorded on the same date. I inquired about it, and she told me several of the men buried there were her brothers and father -- machine-gunned by the Nazis along with most of the men in the town because they were suspected of being in the Resistance. This woman was 9 at the time. I asked her how much she remembered. "Like it was yesterday,'' she said fiercely, 50 years later. She still lived next door and said she could never consider moving.
I never travel in France without thinking about how much people suffered here while two world wars were fought in their backyards and city streets.