The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told begins…. send me YOUR travel essays!
My fantasy about renting mopeds came from watching the French teenagers bomb around on their bicycle-like Peugots and Puchs. I envied the cheap independence of the bad boys and girls gathered in packs at the cafes, their little motors growling. “Minous and Minettes” Benoit told us they were called. “Little cats.”
I was in Dijon on a summer study-abroad program. Benoit was a teenager who worked at the tourist kiosk at the center of town—the only acquaintance I would make among the French.
My co-conspirator in the moped fantasy was Miko. We met on the bus to Dijon, where he announced he was changing his name form Mike to Miko for the duration. We found an easy comradeship from that first conversation, in which we each revealed an identity carefully chosen for our summer abroad. We were outsiders—he a card-carrying member of the Indiana University Young Communists club, me a medieval-reenacting, belly-dancing Goddess-worshipper. From the moment that bus unloaded us at the university we were united in our mission not to conform.
In pursuit of non-conformism I decided Miko and I should emulate the rebellious adolescents by procuring mopeds of our own. Benoit provided the help we needed to negotiate the rental.
Miko was the one who brought Halim to the “Group Indiana” Independence Day party, putting in motion the most romantic episode of my summer, and my life. Fair-haired, whimsical, midwestern Miko was the perfect counterpart to the dark, earnest, Arab he introduced me to, and as besotted with him as I was. We made a perfect triad, except when it came to the mopeds. Halim was too serious about his studies to take an interest in our merry plan for two-wheeled adventures.
The machines Benoit found for us were really small moto-cross bikes, not the mopeds of the bad boys, but close enough. With the innocent confidence of children, Miko and I took on the autoroutes of Burgundy.
Fear keeps memory fresh. Easy now to feel the knot in my stomach, standing in front of the motorcycle shop while someone pointed out clutch, gears, gas … “Bon voyage” and we were out in traffic, killing and spilling until somehow we mastered the little machines, death as close as the Citrôen that just swerved past. Prayers for deliverance to the open roads and then one of life’s great pleasures: I’m young enough and old enough to be completely free in a foreign land with a wild loud motor between my legs.
Miko and I started out Friday morning, Bastille Day, leaving Halim practically in tears because we weren’t planning to be back until Saturday night. We chose the Route des Grand Crus, a twisty road through the vineyards south toward Beaune.
We hadn’t realized what a corner of heaven our summer program had brought us to. That forty or so miles of vineyards south of Dijon is world-famous. The Cote de Nuits wine region traverses a landscape that changes from flat farmland to valleys cut deep into the flesh of the land. Clusters of trees intersperse the tight rows of vines. Stone walls slice the fields into tiny plots, each producing a unique and famous wine. And every so often under the old trees at roadside are giant barrels with bright painted signs saying “Taste-Vins”. Picture Miko and me pulling over and popping off our helmets to taste yet another premier-cru, maybe tour the cellars if we want to get out of the sun.
The names of those villages I see now on wine labels: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, Nuits-Saint-Georges. And more of the same along the Cote de Beaune a few miles further south … every village picturesque, every town remarkable.
We chased happiness down the valley on our little bikes. Bad child joy to hear the engine noise go from loud to excruciating, bouncing off the stone walls as we slowed for the narrow villages. Embarrassing to be so loud, to draw attention to ourselves, but exhilarating to be so bad.
We arrived in Baune mid-afternoon, but we hadn’t counted on the crowds drawn by the Bastille Day weekend. No hotel room could be found closer than our dorms in Dijon. Disappointed, we headed back on the main highway.
It was early evening when we rumbled back into town feeling like we’d been gone a week. In honor of the holiday there was a fireworks display at the sports stadium. Miko and I found Halim and joined the dense crowd in the warm twilight, then went back to his dorm where Miko discreetly left Halim and me to our private fireworks.
The next day Miko and I started north for a spot on the map labeled Source of the Seine. For such a famous river it was a very modest spot, marked only by a little shrine to prosperity built by Napoleon Ill, a cafe with a rooster and a goat in the yard, and a picnic area. Even so, the thrill of mopeds in Burgundy held.
Mistaking our summertime for infinite, Miko and I left Halim each weekend for adventures that took us further afield—Montreux by train for the jazz festival, to Benoit’s parents’ country house to fish and play petanque. We returned to spend weekdays in French classes and evenings in cafes with Halim passionately discussing communism. Then Halim received his call, and Miko and I put him on the train for Russia. We returned to my room to huddle in my single bed, crying and drinking red wine that had suddenly lost its taste.
To soothe my aching heart I wanted to get back to the countryside. Miko obligingly fell in with whatever I proposed. We tried to rent the mopeds again, but the shop wouldn’t let us have them, and so we settled for bicycles.
The school term was over. We set out to fill the week before we were due at the airport, equipped with only foil space blankets and a water bottle for camping gear.
During the days we meandered south, roughly following the Saone river. At night we slept in randomly chosen patches of wood, in the morning snuck into campgrounds to clean up. Encumbered with two rented bikes we were frequently too exhausted to peddle, down to our last francs, we were occasionally mystified at our predicament. But every turn brought more breathtaking scenery, and Miko was a quiet and accommodating travel companion. We stopped whenever we felt like it, ate bread and cheese meals on hillsides and roadsides. The hole in my heart where Halim had been ripped away began to scab over.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was making an important discovery. The proper pace of tourism is twenty or thirty miles a day. Bicycles are the perfect tool for achieving that pace—although I prefer a motor scooter, if available. Bicycles are also the perfect tool for recovery from a soul wound. The changing scene, the rhythmic pedaling and breathing, the solving of quotidian questions of where to sleep and what to eat, are simply healing.
In the years since I have always been happiest among rural farmlands … England’s Yorkshire Dales, Italy’s Umbrian hills… and Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, for that matter. It is an essential of my character that cities are forever alien. Country (but not wilderness) is my spiritual home.
It’s hope that somewhere I am still racketing through Burgundy on a moped that makes me believe in the simultaneity of time. Do not tell me I cannot go back.
p.s. Mike Brockway, if you’re out there somewhere, get in touch!