HomeHumourEssaysTravelImages

Flying Blind

Chapter 11 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

Towards the end of my stay in Lanloup, I had to take some friends to an airport at Saint-Brieuc, the nearest town that might go so far as to call itself a city. They missed their plane for Paris, where they had a connection for London and Miami. It was too late to make Paris by train, it was too early to roust out the local air taxi-driver; it was either too early or too late to do anything. A pilot working for a small airline took pity on us. He said he could fly them to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, only twenty-five minutes away, where they could catch a flight to London. He had time to make the round trip with his little twin-engined plane before going out on his next run. The only trouble was the price. It bothered him because it was too high. He didn't own the plane, he was just the pilot.

My friends calculated the cost of riding to Paris and spending a day there, and decided that the price wasn't all that high. The pilot, who probably wanted to make sure that we got our money's worth, invited me along for the ride to Jersey and back. I ran outside the airport and locked the car, then we were in the plane. The pilot warmed the engines up, we sped down the asphalted runway, probably the safest stretch of road in Brittany on that Saturday morning, and we were airborne. We soared over the hedgerows of the farms next to the airport and tipped a wing at the city of Saint-Brieuc with its three miles of superhighway, its handful of high rises and supermarkets that give its inhabitants the illusion that they are not three hundred miles from Paris.

Then we were above the sea. It ran black under the clouds that had seldom left that Channel coast of Brittany during the time I spend there, the clouds that Merlin the magician sends over his country to keep it as pure as Galahad's heart. The sea looked calm, except for breakers on some offshore shoals, but a green freighter pitched heavily as she made her way west. She seemed to be sitting in a puddle of foam. I started to regret all that sharp air down at the wavetops that we were missing and it was all over. Jersey lay ahead, basking in the sun, the Tahiti of the North, the pilot told us jokingly. He came in so smoothly that we were well on the ground long before I realized we had landed. We taxied up to the terminal, I got out to help unload my friends' bags and to exchange a few words of English with an Englishman, then we were back on the runway and airborne for Saint-Brieuc. In the copilot's seat, I had a choice between the din of the engines and the gibberish on the headphones, first in English, then in French as we neared the mainland. We landed at Saint-Brieuc, drenched as usual, and I drove back to Lanloup.

The adventure was over, yet was it an adventure? It left me numb and weary, I could not work that morning. I had to take a nap. I only started to wake up that afternoon when I took my bike to Paimpol to buy some country bread from a baker near the railroad station. I could breathe the blue sky, the sounds in the hedgerows were not the clatter of propellers, my feet pushed down on the pedals or pulled up on the toe clamps. I did not have to try to keep them out of the way of rudder pedals. I was alive, I wasn't just watching live 3-D television on a panoramic screen. I shall be forever grateful to my friends and the pilot of that little plane for my hop to Jersey, but I traveled so much more on the bike from Lanloup to Paimpol via Plehedel, Kerfot, and Saint-Yves.

I think this is so because airport-to-airport travel and superhighway travel and so much travel today is horizontal. We are always in the same layer. We are like the great fish that, according to some oceanographers, travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic in water that is always of the same temperature, going through the tropics at abyssal depths, never changing their environment despite the thousands of miles they put behind them. We go from Holiday Inn to Hilton, from Hilton to Inter-Continental, we never leave home, we are like the kings of France who traveled from castle to castle with their courts---and we know what happened to the kings of France. Once there was some satisfaction to this, airports were not much bigger than the runway at Saint-Brieuc and planes slipped in and out unobtrusively as we had done on Jersey. But the faster we go as we pursue happiness, the less chance we seem to have to catch it. The Saturday Review once quoted Blaine Cooke, a senior vice-president for marketing services for TWA:

Have you ever gone to Kennedy, stood in the International Arrivals Building, watched people come through from the customs and whatnot out in the concourse areas? Now most of them, like 70 per cent of them or so, are people who have just come back from vacation and what you should expect to see... is a uniform array of smiling happy faces.... But you see a distressingly large number of people who look harassed and sort of overdone, people who look almost as though they were glad the goddamned thing is over, you know.

I once flew from Paris to Helsinki with stops at Amsterdam and Hamburg. I was in a Caravelle without in-flight movies, onboard stereo, or multigowned hostesses to pass the time away. There was nothing to do but read. I sat in the obsolescent bird grinding its way at twenty-nine thousand feet from Hamburg to Helsinki, my knees jammed against my chin. This was the commuter's version, no doubt intended to squeeze the last franc or finmark from the aging craft before it finally gave way to metal fatigue.

I read Farewell Victoria, by T.H. White as the lady next to me took her carton of Marlboros and her flask of Ballantine's from the flaxen-haired Finnish hostess who announced our stops in four languages. I read White wailing how Edward VII had driven a motor car, thereby bursting the bounds of the English country as the limit to daily travel. It was Edward VII who was finally responsible for sending me skittering through the sky from Paris to Helsinki on a long Sunday afternoon. I wished that I had the time to cycle from Paris to Helsinki, to load my wheels onto a schooner that would ferry me across the Baltic. Then I could have learned the way from Paris to Helsinki by the touch of my feet. Then I could have atoned for the crime of Edward VII, I could have made my trip in a chain of days an English county long, stitching them together from Paris to Helsinki.

If we traveled like that, we would get more than the same image moving from one airport to the next. Fifteen minutes in Amsterdam, time to take the Travelator from Gate 26 to Gate 33 and back again, to watch the planes sliding by slowly behind the big glass walls. Amsterdam is a plain, stiff terminal, halfway between the ornateness of Orly---that complex of department stores, boutiques, snack bars, restaurants, art galleries where getting on and off airplanes is only incidental and most of the time inconvenient and where the main source of income comes from the parking and entrance fees paid by the Parisians to see their new Versailles---and the airbus stops of America where air travel is classless travel. Amsterdam was only a water stop for us on the way to Helsinki, fifteen minutes, a chance to drink a Schweppes in Holland and urinate it in Hamburg forty minutes away.

Airports are getting seamier, even in Europe. There was a lady in the men's washroom at Hamburg airport, a little saucer filled with coins on the table in front of her to remind you that someone had to change the towels and fill the soap machines. There was one, too, at Orly airport. Business must be getting better in these ground washrooms now that the jets have speeded flights to the point where there is no time to use their airborne comfort facilities. Soon, no doubt, there will be stand-up urinals on the planes. It must hurt the operators of the commuter Caravelle to see all that space going to waste in the underoccupied johns, to know all the money is going unmade. There must be a better way. One could rotate passengers through the toilets, thereby giving them a chance to move around, to make acquaintances. Or else one could put potties under their seats to dispose of all waste products once the intrepid Phileas Fogg, the latter-day Marco Polo, has been fed from some kind of a pipeline, conveyor belt, over his head. He will never have to move, he will perhaps be transported from aircraft to Travelator to destination all the while keeping his safety belt loosely buckled, occupying the same seat all his life until he arrives at the gates of heaven to be greeted by houris, hostesses flashing their porcelain smiles, catering to his every wish as long as he suppresses every whim while he sits through eternity catching oldies on Channel Infinity.

I know another way to reach heaven. Just stay on the Empress' Road after Marnes-la-Coquette. Follow it all the way to Picardy Hill, cross a main highway and veer left almost at one into a forest lane. It runs past a farmhouse and a few pastures that somehow have been allowed to live almost within sight of the Eiffel Tower but out of sight of drivers on the Autoroute de l'Ouest that runs behind a screen of trees so that nothing can distract the Parisian as he heads a hundred miles out for a glimpse of a farmhouse and a few pastures.

Ideally all traveling should be done as a gradual spread, an apprehension of territory from a starting point, perhaps one's birthplace as it was in the days before the wheel or, to be more accurate, before wheeled transport became available to all. Then one traveled in ever-increasing circles, combing, mowing, cropping everything within the circle like the cows that farmers attach to a stake. Gradually, the radius of the tether was lengthened so that, at the end of a lifetime, one was perhaps ten or twenty miles from home plate, but with no shadow zone inside the perimeter of the circle. Then one knew one's world like the ant and the bumblebee, the sniffing dog or the munching cow.

In those days before nearly everyone was in a chair on wheels destined to put him before his time into a wheelchair, in those days only a few toured. The others could travel by successive states of being in different places, no blur of images melting into each other like Dali's watches. Each journey was a Bayeux tapestry, a detailed canvas of minutiae, some even carved in bas-relief, not a strip of frames flicking through the movie projector faster and faster until Gone With the Wind becomes a ten-second spot, until the Atlantic with its mountain ranges of combers, its fields of foam, is nothing but a whoosh of Concorde riding on its smoke, smell, and sonic bang.

I have worked both sides of this travel street. I have whiffed a cognac in a Constellation between Calcutta and Bangkok and then I was grateful for the capsule of my American civilization that Pan American had provided me after the city of Calcutta, an animated cartoon by Hieronymus Bosch. I can remember a cow trotting purposefully alongside the bus that took us out to the airport, perhaps even the sacred cows had enough of Calcutta, o Calcutta, o sacré vache. I have overflown the Aegean at two thousand feet, I have landed in grass at Skopje; I once flew out of an airstrip next to a Colombian steel mill with the pilot of the company's DC-3 putting on all power and the priest sitting next to me putting on all prayer, both of them getting us over the clump of trees that marked the end of the strip.

There is always that happy moment when the medium has not yet changed the message, when an aircraft got you from one real place to another, when an automobile just went faster than oxen or horses over the same roads. That is a privileged moment, it can never last, the laws of diminishing enjoyment must come into play. Only ships and trains are relatively immune. The sea quickly heals the gash left by a steamer's wake, the night and the silence take over after a train has gone by. If the line is not electrified, then grassy cuts and embankments can join the natural relief for mile after empty mile, the road-bed itself a scar as faint as the ones left by good surgeons. Railroad builders were good surgeons. Unlike the highwaymen, they did not kill the patient by trying to show their skill in unnecessary major operations.

Now that the moment is gone for me, my collection of airline bags gathers dust in closets, mementos of the days when I got a new bag with every flight, the days when the Organization sent me traveling first class. Those days ended when the Kennedys came to Washington and insisted on everyone, particularly kith, kin, and kinlaws, traveling economy on official business for the benefit of photographers. So the bags molder in closets with my memories while I travel by the Nord Express, the Scandinavia Express, the Phocéen, the Night Ferry, the Lake Shore Limited, too. All that's left of the New York Central service between Albany and New York is the names of a few trains. The diner is a stand-up counter, a Nedick's on wheels, a rolling Riker's, the coaches are the same as the ones I knew in my youth and so are the conductors, but both are a little creakier. The roadbed has not been taking all this lying down. It rears on its haunches, it arches its back, the train jumps, the bogies boggle, it's like riding a camel up and down over the dunes. I once rode into the Sahara at seventy miles an hour in a Peugeot 403 over a track of corrugated earth, but it was less like cameling than the Penn Central on the banks of the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie, mist hiding the opposite shore, hangered coats dancing to the music of the diesel's horn.

Not only do European trains run horizontally instead of up and down, but they always have baggage cars and luggage racks that enable you to take a bicycle along. I understand that in West Germany and Holland people rent bikes at stations, leaving them at other stations. I have never tried this but it sounds like a fine idea. I am for all kinds of ideas, a new one for every new situation. All-purpose vehicles lead to no purpose, we take the kids to school in the Old wagon that we drive to Los Angeles. In the old days, no one ever ran the 20th Century Limited on the tracks of the 42nd Street Cross-town, but we had no computers in the old days.

The advantages of using your own bike is that you have a taxi in your pocket when you travel by train. I have gone to Bordeaux and Saarbrücken from Paris, riding down to the station on a folding bike and putting it into the compartment where it sat over my fellow passengers' heads. They did not know that the damn thing weighed thirty-five pounds, but I did, and I sweated blue until I got it strapped into place. I have since traded it in for a take-apart model that is easier to stow and also easier to carry because the load can be shared by two hands.

Once on a New Year's Eve, I took a trip to London on the night ferry from Paris with the photographer. We pedaled up to the wagons-lits at Gare du Nord in Paris. The conductor looked at us, he asked us where we intended to put those bicycles. "In ze pockette," said the photographer, talking English so that he would take her for a foreigner. We did wedge them into the compartment before the train started for Dunkirk, where our sleeping cars would go aboard a ship to Dover. The night ferry is my favorite travel experience. In one night it offers the Orient Express, the Queen Mary, and the Flying Scotsman: French train, Channel crossing, British train, a breakfast at sea, another in England.

On the ferry, the crew had celebrated New Year's Eve on a previous voyage a few hours before. Mistletoe was swaying in the main salon or, perhaps, it stayed still, stabilized, while the ship rolled in the swell, her starboard side bared to the north wind. In the salon, two men were asleep in armchairs, their heads wrapped in their scarves to keep out the light. They might have been decapitated, one had his scarf tied in a giant necktie knot with only thin air above it. Their legs were crossed on the edges of their chairs, their umbrellas were crossed on the edge of their table, on the table two half-empty beer glasses, two cans of Ballantine's, one bottle of perfume, probably, wrapped in green-and-white-striped paper, a bowler hat planted on top of the package. The photographer was planted against the far wall, trying to sketch it all, kicking herself, kicking me, because we had decided not to bring the cameras on this jaunt to London. She had only the human eye and hand to try to recall a scene that needed a Cartier-Bresson.

At Victoria Station, we pedaled off the train and through customs on our two-wheeled luggage carts. We moved up Regent Street to Oxford Circus, then down New Oxford Street at a slow roll, stopping, window-shopping. We went into a Far West shop in the Far West End. The photographer tried on a leather coat, fleece-lined, clear golden-white in color. I wanted to buy it, I had to buy it, it would be the saddest day of my life it I didn't buy it, I could go all over London and never find such a coat at such a price for the lady. A good salesman was working on us. I almost felt like buying the coat to reward him for his performance, it had been so long since I had seen such a salesman. But the amount of folding money one can carry on a folding bike is limited. The photographer had to choose between the leather coat and the secondhand clockwork locomotives in the shop we knew near High Holborn Tube Station. The salesman agreed to put the coat aside for an hour, not a minute more, and we slipped through the traffic on Oxford Street to the shop near High Holborn Tube Station. We never saw the coat or the salesman again.

When we returned to Victoria Station at the end of our stay, I had a great carton on the rack over the front wheel. I could hardly keep abreast of the red double-decker bus whose driver had given us directions to Victoria Station. I clung to the handlebars that just peered over the top of the load while we coasted through the night streets of London, their Christmas-season decorations twinkling at no one in particular, perhaps at us and the bus. The carton was full of locomotives, signals, wooden cars, all of them outsize with that poignant look of old artifacts manufactured from pressed steel and cast iron, an imitation of the artisan rather than today's plastics that imitate what had once been manufactured. The carton and the bikes all got into the wagon-lit with no trouble; the conductors were on strike that night and there was only a student who kept the heating system going so that the radiators would not freeze. Yet the train was jammed, for their airlines were on strike, too. We locked ourselves into our compartment and never came out until we were in the womb of the cross-Channel ferry. Sleeping inside a compartment inside a train inside a ship, one feels like the smallest of Russian dolls.

That was how I once traveled to Copenhagen on a Mission for the Organization. I brought my old blue bike with me in the baggage car of the Nord Express. The bike was expendable, I stripped it before I entrusted it to the railroad to save them the trouble of stripping it. The bike stayed in the baggage car while I slept in a wagon-lit with the bike pump, a spare inner tube, and the luggage straps in my suitcase.

I began my journey in the evening with the roominess of farming France outside my window. I have the porter to understand that if he remembered not to put anyone else in the sleeper compartment that night, I would not forget him the next morning (I can afford to be generous, the Organization pays the fare, it's just the tips that are on me). I cocked my feet up on the table that would lift to reveal a sink, and watched the world whirl by. Stone housed in Ile de France, brick to the north, rickety shaft heads of dying Walloon mines, the fires of the Ruhr, gas burning off at refineries, smoke coming from flat-topped girthy towers I had never seen before. Over the Ruhr, a red-orange polluted sunset almost as glorious as the ones over Hoboken and Secaucus.

Night and the sleep of the just, interrupted only by station stops when the banging, slamming hand on my cradle took a rest and I woke up, surprised by the silence. A short break on the train ferry between Germany and Denmark. Unlike the ship that runs between Dunkirk and Dover, this one did not have a channel of salt water flowing under the wagons-lits to wash away their droppings. Otherwise, much the same. A short sea voyage, a change of money, a cup of coffee, bracing air, a walk to windward, then back to the compartment. The trip from London to Paris is much more nautical than this journey through northern Europe where sea and land yield the same horizon, where there are neither cliffs nor beaches, but only green water turning to green grass.

From the train coming into Copenhagen, I could see wheat flattened by the rain. It was like blond hair that had been wetted, brushed, and parted. The eagles they fly high in Mobile, the trains they fly low in Denmark, just between the clouds impaled on village church steeples and the flat flat country between the villages.

The clouds have steamrollered the land here, ironing it out for trains and cyclists. Training in Denmark really is like flying three feet off the ground at seventy miles an hour. Look at the woods. If the trees are young, their trunks vanish, you rush by a canopy standing on a thin haze. If the trees are thick and the sun is out, watch the treetops. Light comes through in pierces and jabs elongated by the speed of the train, a swim of black-and-light that gives away its true nature of leaves and branches and twigs only if you follow it with a rapid swivel of the head, allowing the eyes to catch it for an instant.

The Danish countryside is a delight to the eye. No suburbs, so slurbs, just fairy cottages, thatched roofs, contented cows, empty roads. Nations that are good at putting together countrysides are less gifted for cities (and vice versa). That must explain Copenhagen, where the authorities have made pornography available because so little else is.

It takes a bit of acclimatization, that porno does. You pick up a Herald-Tribune at the newsstand of a proper hotel and there's a Sexikon or a Sexpedition or a flyer for a Real Live Show next to it, illustrated, in color, glossy. The Danes are prim in appearance, but the porno is everywhere. A grandmother running a stationery store has a wall full of the stuff, covers splashing coitus and genitalia, God knows what the insides must be like. At night when the newsstands are closed, automatic vending shops sell porno next to Treets Bars, frozen shrimp, Tampax, and forty-watt light bulbs. It is a year-round all-round sex fair in the round.

The word is that sex crimes are down in Denmark and I am wont to believe it. No one can eat a steak after visiting a slaughterhouse, no one could be a peeper here in Copenhagen where one must skulk down alleys, slink along deserted lanes, lurk behind corners to get away from the porno press. It is an interesting test, this ignoble experiment by the Danish government. If it works, sex will die, smothered, saturated, satiated, and, perhaps, love will get a chance again.

When I got off the train at Copenhagen Station, I picked up my blue bike at the customs counter and rode off to the Hotel Minerva where the Organization had booked me a room for the duration of the Conference. There I was informed that the Hotel Minerva had overbooked, I had ridden off to the wrong hotel. I had to change deities, from the Hotel Minerva to the Hotel Apollo.

Apollo was halfway to the Copenhagen airport. Three buildings, Horton's Ice Cream sandwiches upended. Except that Horton's Ice Cream used to come in three flavors, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, while these buildings are tasteless, odorless, not to be taken internally, they must be teratogenic, too, but that is to be proven after a generation has lived in them. The buildings probably will not stand for a generation, they will lie down, each filling the open space of mud and parking lots that separates them. Then they will only be two stories high and my eighth-floor window will look straight into the black morass where a Dutch tour bus was parked. This will be an improvement over the void onto which my window opened, a hinged glass wall, one push and you're over the edge of eternity. In the on-season, the hotel is a student's dormitory. It must have been built this way to keep up Denmark's quota of the Scandinavian suicide rate. You don't need a gloomy Sunday or a blue Monday to sail out the window here, all you have to do is wake up in the middle of the night and fumble for the bathroom door without your glasses.

I used to get away from it early in the morning in the hour or so of life I had before the slow death of a Conference in an airless Conference Hall. First I took the bike to the open-air automatic porno-shop-Tampax-vendor-beverage-dispenser for a cup of black coffee. This got me to a bakery where I soon became well known. Without a word, the baker's wife would bring me out a half-liter of milk, then she started to scoop Danish pastry from her tray in obedience to my pointing finger. I would brush the crumbs from my shirt, mop the milk from my hands, and I was off to the fishing village seaside resort of Dragør. (I like the authenticity of that ø, you pronounce it with pursed lips; in Copenhagen, even the engines shout with an accent).

One morning, about two miles out on the road to Dragør, I saw a Jaguar with British plates coming the other way, headlights full on. Absent-minded, I thought, he must have been driving all night. A moment later, I got into the fog myself. Another first, I had never ridden a bike in early-morning sea fog. My black sweater was coated with a layer of damp gray wool that looked like my poor frizzled grizzled head, my glasses blurred, thickening the fog all the more. I stuck to the cycle path on the side of the road, secure in the knowledge that I could only crash into or be crashed into by another cyclist, nothing heavier than another cyclist. As I neared Dragør and the sea, the harbor foghorns grew louder, twin musical blasts calling to each other. The foghorns blew for me in my myopia, to keep me from going off the end of the road and into the rocks as I floated in the mist. In a fog as in darkness, cycling is almost like riding a broomstick, one's connection to the ground is not clear, the result is extoplasmic or oneiric, all the more so in a place like Dragør that looks like an illustration out of Andersen. The Danes still live in gingerbread houses, they even build new ones by the sea, leaving the glass slabs to foreigners and students.

On the days off that the Conference gave me, I roamed the highways and bikeways around Copenhagen. Once I got to Furesco, a lake north of the city, a public beach in the woods, all lawns, peace, and luxury, a country club for everybody. It was something like the beach on Lake Geneva at Morges in Switzerland, which looks like it was laid out for Bardot but which is yours and mine and ours for one franc fifty Swiss. Everything is bike-sized in Denmark. Dragør is so near to Copenhagen, closer than Harlem to Wall Street, yet so much more remote than Saint-Tropez. It is a lived-in live museum, perhaps a Mystic, Connecticut, without the admission charge and without the sadness of the little houses where there is no life after visiting hours. In Dragør, you can tell the local museum from the other houses. A sign on it says: "MUSEUM."

Back from the lakeside beach, I rode out to Dragør again to put the day to bed. There in the early evening, three or four kids were playing in a big rusty old fishing boat (with grass growing in its hold, don't ask me how). The kids worked winches, leaped from deck to deck, shimmied down the mast, crawled along the boom, long-haired blond little Vikings. More of them were having a wild time with a dockside crane operated by hand cranks. They had lifted one of their number high overhead, dangling him from the hook where he screamed and squealed more in delight than in fear. Later, the kids became still and so did the day. The gray sea and the sky were fused together by an unseemly tropical heat that floated big freighters on its wave, freeing them from the water. The world slowed to the pace of the ships, to my stroll along the pier. Alone, I cycled back to the Apollo.

I had to do my cycling in bits and pieces in Copenhagen. After a day's session at the Conference ended, I hardly had time to do more than ride down to see the mermaid at the harbor entrance. I would lose my sense of time; the sun sets so slowly in Copenhagen in July that it retards one's biological clock. The mermaid reminded me of a girl I knew with her high firm breasts not on speaking terms and her big muscular thighs shaped for swimming. Both the mermaid and that girl were built like seals, they undulate powerfully in the water. Often, I went to look at the rock in the water to see if the girl was still there. Then I would push onward almost to the harbor mouth, wheeling my bicycle, keeping it in check with a pat of my hand on its saddle.

One evening, we went past a yacht basin filled with luxurious craft flying red, yellow, and black flags, all German yachts in fiberglass, stainless steel, plastic foam, and chrome. One Danish boat, and old needle-hulled motor sailor, brought a catch to my throat. Take off the masts, add a stern cabin and she was Annabelle, my father's boat, a rakish randy rakehell out of the 1920s that was brought to life again just when I came home from the wars. I do not remember Annabelle all that well, I have no sentiment for her, but the sight of her contemporary in the Langelinie basin brought me back to the days when my father was alive, so much alive, wearing his yachting cap, giving us his orders, being that leader of men that he should have been, that he could have been were it not for the accidents of geography and history. When he went to Paris, he never failed to visit the tomb of Napoleon, that other runt on whom fortune had smiled more broadly, and that was the only monument in Paris that my father ever visited.

My bicycle and I swam with the mermaid back across the ocean and over the years to Annabelle and my father. It was a fine evening for that sort of traveling. The harbor was calm, the sea stretched fair. I rode along the waterfront. After the yacht basin, I came across a strange ship, white and bulky, sitting squarely on the water. She was American. The pimply sailor at the gangplank told me she was the South Wind, a Coast Guard icebreaker going up to Murmansk, from the mermaid to Murmansk, to do oceanographic work in the Arctic with the Russians. I like to talk to Americans like that, to sailors on ships in Copenhagen or Barcelona, to GIs in cars in Paris. I like to hear their accents innocent of any bilinguistics. I like to listen to them talk about what matters to a sailor from Hempstead, Long Island, on gangplank duty. He wanted to know what there was worth doing in Copenhagen, but he was not all that curious. He had twenty letters from his girl friend to answer and, besides, he couldn't leave the ship. I hope that he never got as far as the porno shop on Nyhaven Quay that I spotted on my way to the mermaid. I didn't have a chance to study the window, I just glimpsed posters of boots, whips, and black garter belts as I rode by. Poor porno, it's so self-defeating. What one seeks is down, deep down at the very roots, below the basement. Porno is the antithesis of all this, it is all surface, it is all conscious, oh so self-conscious, the more you take, the further I am sure it leads you from where you are trying to go.

I saw Copenhagen harbor mainly at sunrise and sunset, before and after the Sessions of the Conference. One morning I was rolling towards the waterfront when I passed a girl cycling in old jeans, older sandals, a shirt half tucked in. She was blond, she looked healthy and simple. I stopped to look at the mermaid, she went by and I passed her again in the little park of Castellet behind the harbor. She smiled, I do not know why, I did not ask, the mermaid was still on my mind. I kept going to the end of the Langelinie dock where the big ships tie up.

The other day, it was the South Wind, today it was the Cabo San Roque, a white Spanish liner from Seville, her lights still on in the early morning. Behind her lay an incredible steam tug, her stack ten times higher than her hull. Her name looked unpronounceably Scandinavian but she came from Split, the rust of all the seas from the Adriatic to the Baltic on her hull. Then I went back to the Cabo San Roque.

It is hard for me to tear my eyes away from the boat deck of a liner. It was there that my father stood when he arrived in New York back from his yearly business trip to Europe. I looked on the boat deck for his black overcoat, his gray hat, his face that exploded into a smile when he saw us. My childhood comes back to me in every seaport; I would hate to be of a generation that will see its childhood in every airport. What filthy places airports are beneath the glass and the soft voices coming from the speakers. Often, I rode past Copenhagen's airport on my way to Dragør and I have an image of silver planes rising on obscene columns of black smoke, their engines and their toilets wide open. They pour smoke taking off, they stream it landing, they generate a pall as they stand at the end of the runway waiting their turn to go. No, I would not want them in my childhood. I could not feel a kinship as I did that morning with the Jens Bang, a sleek black ship that moved into the city along the waterfront at the same pace I was keeping on my blue bicycle.

My time in Copenhagen was drawing to a close, the Conference was reaching the stage where it would discuss its Draft Report. I was able to slip out for a few minutes to replace the bracket holding the headlight on my bicycle. I got a new bracket from an old man who ran a small bicycle repair shop near the Conference Hall. I had to use sign language but he understood. He gave me the bracket, two wrenches, and a screwdriver to install it myself and charged me fifty cents U.S., all without saying a word. While I worked, he had a long conversation with his street sweeper who came by, steering a cart full of leaves and papers. The street sweeper had the look of the man who lives outdoors, who is paid for strolling, a professional boulevardier. He reminded me of the sweeper I saw one morning in the Bois de Vincennes, smoking his pipe, pushing his cart with music coming out of the transistor radio he had hung on the handles.

On the next to the last day, the Conference paused for a break. The delegates were herded into buses to relax, half going north, half going south. I had taken such outings in the past when I had no bicycle, but not this time. I needed the day to restore my aloneness, to get away from the rape of the mind and nerves that occurs in such a Conference. Your head is clamped between earphones as if in a vise, you cannot move, you are held motionless while the words are dumped into your head whether from the original speaker, a disembodied voice whose face is never seen, or from the simultaneous interpreter sewing together the worn tissue of ideas with the same old thread of connective phrases.

I biked away by riding up to Hillerød. I came back through miles of forest with a north wind behind me and no one on any side, no one to look pained as I sang "My country 'tis of thee" to the trees, as I bellowed off-key with the bike skimming past the birches. I scarcely stopped in Copenhagen for smörrebrod and pastry, raspberry tarts and whipped cream. I took on five smörrebrods and three tarts, I couldn't get much mileage out of that old blue bike even with a following wind. Then I was off to Dragør again to watch the sea roll out to meet the sky. This time it was a hard blue sea, light dancing on its ripples, no trouble telling it from the soft shimmering air. Sailboats fluttered from the pier, a blonde reading a paperback on the afterdeck of a big cabin cruiser smiled at me, I smiled back, we were just telling each other how lucky we both were to be on the dock at Dragør that day in the sun. I watched the ferries come and the coasters steam past, then I had to backtrack, pedal back to my room for my last night at the Hotel Apollo. The next time I saw the Dragør, it was the name of the home port of a blue freighter loading potatoes at Tréguier on the coast of Brittany.

I went back to Paris by train, my Mission was over. I have been fortunate, I guess, I have been able to work all over the map. But many can do the same. Let us get back to travel, not tourism, not the ultimate air journey by a converted ABM bursting high over Europe and MIRVing the customers down to their hotels in London, Paris, Palma de Mallorca, Rimini, Estoríl. Travel should become what it was not so long ago, not a way to waste time, not a vacation (the same root as vacate, "f. L vacare be empty"), but as the journeymen moved around, meeting their fellow guildsmen everywhere; as the pilgrims did, watching the great towers of the holy cities rise as they conquered the intervening distances with their staffs and feet. I don't say we should go back to going barefoot. I am all for the so-called soft technology (like the bicycle) that lets us make better use of our own strength or draw on nature's resources without eating up the capital.

Time and circumstances have not enabled me to take any long trips exclusively by bike. But I have ridden with others who have. I once served as a guide through the Chevreuse valley for a young man who was getting into shape to make another summer round trip from Paris to Istanbul. He made light of the whole business, he said his main problem was mailing tires ahead to French consulates along the way.

Only on one occasion have I taken the road for more than a day. A friend drove me a hundred and twenty miles west of Paris with a bike and left me in some woods not far from le Mans. It was early on a Saturday afternoon. On the back rack, I had a toothbrush, a razor, and a pair of jeans so that I could change out of shorts and pass inspection in a hotel. I started back and, after five minutes, I stopped and ducked behind a hedge for the usual reason. Without the movement of the wheels, the accompaniment of the machine that I was energizing myself, I suddenly felt puny. There was nothing but that frame and wheels to get me home. The bike was a semiracer, I could pick it up with one hand, the whole idea seemed idiotic.

That afternoon, I pedaled under a cloud. I ran before a west wind, but I couldn't run fast enough. A steady rain sprayed me all the way, I was under a traveling shower head. I used the most obscure roads I could find on my Michelin map, the kind of roads that have no signs because only the natives are expected to use them. Twice, I took a wrong turning on unmarked intersections and lost two or three miles until I realized something was wrong because I was fighting the wind instead of lazing with it. I was in the Sarthe country that boasts its own version of the Alps. I did not find the hills all that rugged but I toiled on them. There is no ventilation on a bike in a following wind when a hill slows you and you are hunched under a rain cape.

Of the hundred and twenty miles, I planned to do only thirty that afternoon. Around six o'clock, I would have to start looking for a hotel near a main road. The rural lanes on which I rode were so deserted, so depopulated that there wasn't even a café along the way. I knew that if I started room-hunting much later than half past six, everything would be full of travelers tucking in their dinners before tucking in for the night. A car does have one advantage over a bike: as a last resort, you can sleep in it on a rainy night. I lost half an hour looking for a place off the main road. I landed by mistake in a new hotel that had been opened above a gas station but, in the end, I found lodging and a meal in a little market town, where my bicycle spent the night safely in an old stable.

I paid for the room in advance in case I awoke before the hotelkeeper. I did. I was up at six, shaved, toothbrushed, ready for the road at half past six; no, ready to fix a flat front tire. It had not gone all the way flat the night before; with its dying breaths, it had gotten me to a hotel and a bed. Fifteen minutes later, I was on the road, but only until the first bakery, where I coaled on chocolate buns and apple turnovers. You can always enter a country bakery through the back door in the early morning; the baker is pleased to get a little conversation along with a little business. It is not often that he sees others keeping baker's hours.

I got away from the main road and struck east once more, following the thick blue marker pen line on my map. The countryside changed as quickly as if I had Concorded it. The woods, hills, and hedgerows of the Sarthe were gone, so was the rain. I was rolling through the wheatfields of Beauce. I had the road to myself, not a sign of life except for the big hares that I kept starting. A bicycle is a good way to catch animals unawares. It is stealthier than a car, it smells like a human but it moves faster. The hare or the partridge times the cyclist as if he were on foot, he is up to them before they know it. In the wheatfields of Beauce, the hares are big and plentiful. They feed well and you can hear them thump the ground when they run into the fields away from the road. They're smarter than the Breton rabbits near Lanloup that cross in full exposure to get to the other side, right where the fox I saw one morning must be waiting to chase them.

Around Chartres, the wind rose along with the sun, raising my speed and drying me out. At Illiers, the first town, I got hold of a liter of milk, it fueled and cooled me until I cleared the plains and I could take cover from the sun at the outskirts of the forest of Rambouillet. Then my expedition was almost over; I soon got onto roads I had taken on a day's outing. It was all familiar as I returned to Paris through a green tunnel, in leaf almost all the way from the end of Beauce to the end of the Bois de Boulogne. Then I was below the Eiffel Tower and a mile from home, my toothbrush and my razor still strapped to the raincape folded on the back rack of the bicycle.

------

Chapter 12, Time is on Our Side

 

TOP OF PAGE