We arrive in Provence, specifically the Luberon, my favorite region of France. Rosé wines flow with pink flourish, ripe olives soaked in oil and herbs precede every meal, and fresh vegetables crown lamb and seafood platters. The crusty bread, as always in France, is addictive. My taste buds are tantalized, anticipating meals to come.
On a really good day when I hold my head high, I’m all of five foot three. I’ve always wished I were taller, but especially when I’m in this part of the world. Everything on the table appeals. With five more inches, I could eat so much more without worrying about calories and my thighs.
Today is Bastille Day, July 14, celebrating France’s independence from the king. The window of our hotel room in Roussillon, a charming amber-red hilltop hamlet in the heart of one of the world’s largest ochre deposits, looks over the village’s one main lane. A young Maman and her two sons, one with a baguette under his arm and the other munching a pain au chocolate, stroll home from the boulangerie. The children clench French flags in their tiny hands and sing La Marseillaise. “Le jour de gloire est arrivé!” The day of glory has arrived!
We’ll celebrate the day by catching up with the twelfth stage of the Tour de France. At 1pm, more than two hours before the cyclists are expected, we pull our car to the side of a country road that runs into Departmental Route number two. The D2 will take racers up to and through the picture-perfect perched village of Gordes and then towards Mont Ventoux, a critical climb in the annual competition. Despite the fact that it’s mid-July, temperatures are cool. The Provençal sun does its best to prove it’s summer, but the chilly bursts of the Mistral wind keep us wondering. It’s jacket-off, jacket-on weather. Dozens of onlookers line the road, holding tight to hats, blankets and picnic goodies the wind attempts to whip away. A group of children in striped blue, white and red tees, jump up and down chanting, “Allez! Allez,” willing the athletes to arrive. We overhear that seventy bikes will eventually pass us by.
Every six or seven minutes, a staccato stream of police cars, motorcycles, and sundry security vehicles whiz by. Each time the crowd hears them approach, ears perk up and heads pivot to look down the road. There are many of these false alarms. Joe takes out his phone to catch up on news and I lie back to avoid the wind and soak in the sun. The young men on the slope behind us jam on drums as the minutes and finally hours tick by. At long last we see and then hear helicopters in the distance; two hover over outlying vineyards and two approach. Spectators crane their necks to follow the whirlybirds. Anticipation mounts. It’s palpable. Cowbells clatter. Whistles ensue. The crowd noise swells and the Mistral blusters full force. Even Joe chants enthusiastically, “Allez, allez!”
We have a perfect spot on a slight rise above the road’s shoulder. In a flash, a media photographer jumps out of a black security car and scrambles up the sandy bank, trying to elbow his way into our exact spot. We congratulate ourselves for choosing our position well and hold our ground, feigning ignorance to his offensive. He can stand shoulder to shoulder with us if he’d like, and so he does.
What we expect to see is a line of lead vehicles followed by a peloton of sleek bicyclists. What we actually see is a scramble of color and promotion, hawking and horns, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. Who knew the Tour de France competitors would be heralded by a Mardi Gras-like parade of floats hurtling thirty-five miles an hour down a country road, tossing not colorful plastic beads, but samples and t-shirts? It’s a mad scramble for just a bit of loot.
A man on a swing promoting sausages paper airplanes coupons and special offers into the crowd. Teens on a bed pitch packets of madeleines. Is this happening in France? Who said the French don’t let their hair down? A float for the adhesive brand, Bostick, tosses glue sticks from under the banner, “Voulez-vous coller avec moi?” Do you want to stick with me? It’s a relentless procession of dozens upon dozens of floats: a yodeling van promotes Swiss Tissot watches; fluorescent cars lob bags of chips; French fry girls fling coupons and hats; the Michelin man sings about tires; cheerleaders chant about cheese. The Bic float hurls pens (how did I not know Bic was French?) and I can’t believe no one is stabbed by a ballpoint flying at such speed. A man in a pool on a flatbed truck shouts through a bullhorn, “C’est bon ça – ce sont des jolis cadeaux!” They’re all good, these pretty gifts! Can there be this many official sponsors of the Tour?
Finally, after a substantial lull and waning wind, we see the first group of a dozen competitors approach from way down the road behind a rolling wall of security. The crowd goes wild. The frontrunner in the yellow jersey, British biker Chris Froome, is in the second pack. The cyclists fly by in a blaze of color amid earsplitting cheers. We’re just above the fray but the crowd is verging on swarming the riders, no barriers holding them back. In the flash of a few minutes, the excitement is over, the crowd quiets, the road is empty, and families disperse. We’re left in the wake. The race has moved on.
It’s no wonder that ninety minutes later during the final climb up Mont Ventoux in advance of the finish (moved six kilometers from the scree-strewn summit to avoid winds that threatened to blow riders down), spectator proximity plays a role in the race. In a melee of a media motorcycle, a fan and Froome, the leader ditches his broken bike and runs up towards the finish line. Although losing many minutes, officials declare that he maintains his lead.
Sun-soaked after an ebullient day celebrating La France and being buffeted by a fierce Mistral, we have dinner and wine and collapse into bed.
At one in the morning we’re awakened by a call from our daughter.
“I just want to be sure you’re okay.”
Why wouldn’t we be okay? I think in the fog of leaving a dream. “We’re fine, sweetheart. What’s up?”
It sinks in slowly, what’s happened in Nice, and then we’re jolted — suddenly, fully awake. The news is devastating. The frivolity of the day, forgotten in an instant. That’s how it happens with tragedy. Pain deep in my chest.
We assure Caroline that we’re hours north of the Riviera and ask her to let her brother , Chris, know.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Je suis Nice.