Loire 1 - Leonardo's Razor

When I think of the town of Amboise, the Chateau Clos Lucé, and Leonardo da Vinci, I want to get a shave.

Not because of Leonardo’s later-life commitment to growing a long beard, but rather because of his life-long commitment to growing his brain.

When I found out that our holiday in the Loire Valley would take us through Amboise and past the manor where Leonardo spent his final years, I was thrilled and wanted to use this as an excuse to study his work and life anew.  I bought three different versions of his notebooks settling on one that seemed readable and visual.

Leonardo’s persistent curiosity and thoughts on art, science, and technology rub off and tweak the way you look at things.  But some passages seem like fragments of thought and confound, and I might have put the book aside had I not seen explicit references to Amboise and the Loire River.  This spurred me on to the end of the notebooks and presumably stuff written near the end of his days.

He shifted from science, engineering, and artistic technique to just telling stories.  Funny stories.  


In one, a priest travels across the Tuscan countryside sprinkling holy water on the plants, the pastures, and the people.He enters the great artist’s studio and sprays a few drops on unfinished paintings.

When the painter moves to protest, the priest stops him and says “Say not a word, I will receive my rewards one hundred-fold from the heavens.”  As the holy man leaves the villa, the artist, presumably an avatar for Leonardo, goes up to the second floor and dumps a hundred-fold of the water on the priest.

It cracked me up.   It was only a little funny, but I laughed most thinking of Leonardo da Vinci as a humour writer.

The story that touched me the most though was one about shaving and a razor.  In it, the razor is an anthropomorphic character.   He, the razor, shines brilliantly when opened up and remains sharp when at work.

But Mr. Razor is a lazy guy and thinks that cutting through the gnarly beards of the peasants is beneath him. He likes it best when he is closed up inside the nice warm cover and at rest. Eventually, the razor gets his wish, and the barber leaves him alone.

But he slowly rusts up and is of use no more.

By this point, you know he is not talking about a razor but rather a person and more specifically a human mind. When it is open and active, it is brilliant.  Closed and idle, it seizes up.

Leonardo was about my age, mid-sixties, when in Amboise and thinking about such things.  I could easily relate and resolved to try and buy an antique razor in the Loire as a souvenir and reminder to keep an open mind.

But about a week before we left I found myself telling Leonardo’s stories to my barber at the Beacon Hill Mall in Ottawa. He pulled open a drawer and picked out an old razor in its case and gave it to me.  I tried to decline, but the barber insisted saying he had three old ones like it.  But he said this one was at least eighty-years old. Later, I read online that the company named on the blade stopped manufacturing this model around 1890.  

The razor sits in a glass display case in my den – opened up, shining, and inspiring.  I am definitely going to take all my haircut business to the Beacon Hill barbershop from now on. But it doesn’t seem like enough. 

So, when I think of Amboise, Clos Lucé, and Leonardo, I also want to get a shave.

Loire 2 - Water and Watching

“I want to get one with rushing water,” I said to my wife. “Maybe even one with me standing over it.”


I wasn’t talking about the bathtub or bidet. I wanted to get a souvenir photo with water, Loire River water, water flowing around l’île d’Or  - the island at the upper rim of the town of Amboise.  





Amboise has a lot of photogenic material; the sprawling Royal Château with its ornate chambers, grim passageways, geometric gardens, and quirky chapel. Below its walls, medieval buildings and streets beg to have their pictures taken.  

Even better visuals lie a few kilometres away at Clos Lucé, the manor where Leonardo da Vinci spent is final years thanks to the French King, François I, and the nobles and peasants he plundered and taxed to pay for it.

When Leonardo arrived here in 1516, the packs on his mule carried the Mona Lisa and the other paintings that eventually ended up in the Louvre.  He also brought his famed notebooks and drawings.


Today Clos Lucé (evoking the Virgin of Light featured in its chapel) celebrates its ties to the great artist and thinker with a museum, a park, and installation art - the latter having been inspired by those materials.  

Thanks to the volunteer efforts of IBM employees, the imagined inventions and designs described in Leonardo’s drawings and notes have been built as working models: some full scale, some in miniature, some inside the home, and some operating outside in the park.

Again, more material and more spots for travel souvenirs.

But I wanted a photo with water.

Leonardo lived in comfort and esteem in Amboise.  But with age creeping into his hands and his enthusiasm, he didn’t paint, draw, or invent much.  He planned parties, thought about armaments, dabbled in architecture and thought a lot about water.

The few surviving pages in his notebooks that clearly associate with his final days in Amboise concern the flow of water and include intricate drawings of the Loire as it squeezed around l’île d’Or. For me, this meant that a walk over to the island and a few shots of the water at its western tip would bring me as close to Leonardo’s memory and mind as anything in Amboise or in the museum.

 Da Vinci was immensely curious and committed to figuring things out for himself from recorded, measured evidence. 

You can feel this attitude rubbing off on your mind after reading a few dozen pages of his notes.  Though I struggled with some of his writing, 
those sections on water intrigued me not only because of the link to Amboise, but also because I couldn’t figure out how da Vinci managed to see the ebbs and flows in the detail that he did. 

To my mind and my eye, rushing water moves too fast to recognize any patterns let alone record and understand.

Standing over the river on the motorcycle-busy bridge, we not only photographed exemplary water but also easily video recorded it on the iPhone.  


We took other shots of waterfalls at Clos Lucé.  

They made souvenirs of the kind I wanted, and we prepared to leave for Chenonceau the next day.


That night, watching the water in very slow, adjustable motion on the phone, I was satisfied, but lacking illumination.  I did not feel any closer to seeing the things Leonardo recognized with his naked old-man eye and the image-recording technology of five hundred years ago. 

Today fluid dynamics research draws on slick animations, and some scientists would regard Leonardo’s observations and insights as trivial. But I am not one of them and remain in awe of a brain that could generate its own simulations and images of complex patterns from simple, but careful observation.

I thought about this a lot in the following days as we walked down the streets, through the forests, and across fields that have not changed that much since Leonardo’s time and his slow trip from Italy to Amboise.   

It struck me that the trick may not be to slow down the water, but to slow down the water watcher.  Leonardo lived in an era and in a way that put him in harmony with slower things, with thinking in a slower way, and with the capacity to imagine in detail - all framed by a lifestyle conducive to careful observation, contemplation, and reflection.

Though 21st century technology opens up new opportunities to learn and create, it may impede other, more fundamental human skills.

I am not sure how to recapture this ability and this way of thinking.

But it seems to me that one might have better luck standing over the water than racing by it on a motorcycle.

Loire 3 - Forest Fantasies




"Koo Koo, Koo Koo."

"What's that??

"What do you mean??," Michele said.

"That sound - it sounds like a cuckoo clock."

"Yee ah - ah - and you never heard one before?"

"Not in a forest."

"You've never heard of a cuckoo bird ?"


My wife, born in Germany, knew the sound and the bird well.
Me.  I thought it only existed in the imagination of old clockmakers.  I never knew that it was a real bird.  I turn 65 years of age in November.

The cuckoo, which derives its name from its subspecies (the Cuculidae) not from commentary on its mental state, evidently can be found almost everywhere with the exception of northern places like my native land. 

The most common form haunts European woodlands like the venue for our conversation and our hike that day, the Forêt d'Amboise.

 
Influenced with new knowledge, I looked at the forest and the experience of walking through it differently for the rest of the day.  What started out as tranquil and commonplace suddenly seemed exotic and a little exciting.  

I noticed wild flowers and plants that you don't see in Canada, and I looked up at the gnarly pine trees with a kind of wonder.    

Later in the day, deer crossed our path, and I remembered that this was once the royal hunting grounds. I felt for a moment that we were having a 16th century experience.

"You know what?," I said. "I can easily imagine myself living in this forest in medieval times, surviving on wild foods, and maybe poaching deer for the poor like a kind of French Robin Hood."

"Koo Koo, Koo Koo."

"What's that ?"

"Oh, nothing," Michele said.

Loire 4 - Wine and Winning Tickets

I may be one lottery ticket away from obesity and alcoholism.

Eating at home in Ottawa means leafy, low-fat foods and mineral water – until Friday-night pizza and wine.  The end of the week break from routine encourages relaxation and rewards the good dietary behavior of the preceding days.

It works most of time. 

But on vacation when relaxation becomes a preoccupation, the good behavior part falls to the side and the whole strategy faces a test – one that brought repeated failure when we walked the Loire Valley this spring.  

Our trek ran about 120 kilometres through forests, across fields, and down country roads.

The fresh air and illusion of exercise made it easy to justify indulgence at both ends of the day.  It started with grazing on piles of pastries and pain au chocolat.  Later we hit the cheese plates and chacuterie in cafés ending with multi-course dinners dripping in sauces that demanded the acidic offset of wine and more wine and some beer.

For a few days, this didn’t seem like much of a problem.  Our vacation package included meals and that  made the travel company responsible for what was put in front us and what went into us.

But after a week, we noticed that wine, usually by the bottle, was an automatic addition to dinner – and sometimes along with a “dee-gest-eef,” “an a-pair-a-teef,” and “a what-the-eef.”  We felt stuffed and dozy more often than our ideal. 

“How do the French stay so slim ?”

“They eat small portions and smoke a lot.”

We tried the smaller portion thing and inhaled secondhand smoke for half a day, then slipped back into holding our noses, opening our mouths, and looking for more French food.

“Maybe, we should carry around one of those long baguettes like they do,” I said. “Just in case we need a snack.”

I asked why they didn’t serve wine on the commuter trains and whether melted compté might go good with granola.  At this point, I realized that a problem loomed and wondered how hard it would be to return to a normal diet back home.

As I thought this, we ordered another bottle of wine and talked about the process that leads to problem drinking and eating, when these bad habits take hold, and whether circumstance and money were all that separated us from the drinking and diet abyss. 

The trip came to an end before we ventured an answer to that question – it might have been “Maybe,” “I guess we should start watching it,” or “Who cares?”

Back in Ottawa and our normal setting, we found it easier than feared to get back on the leafy greens and mineral water wagon. I guess you can safely indulge and court excess without permanent dietary damage after all. 

Still, I don’t think I will buy lottery tickets for a while. 

Loire 5 - The Château de Chenonsore


Our plans to visit the Château de Chenonceau made me a little afraid.  

Famous for gardens, architecture and a history coloured by powerful women, the Château is pretty cool, and Michele’s enthusiasm for the place was powerful too.  Before our trip, she read several books about two of the ladies: 16th century Henry II’s wife Catherine de’ Medici and her rival, the King’s mistress Diane de Poitiers.  We talked about this and other Chenonceau stories, many times in the weeks leading up to our holiday in the Loire Valley.   

But, as I said, I was a little afraid. Not of the powerful women past and present. But of my foot.


It hurt a lot.

I had plantar fasciitis, an inflamed tendon along the heel.  Not the ideal companion for a walk of some 120 kilometres down roads, through forests, and across vineyards. But there was little room for backing out.  So, I rested my foot and braced for the first leg of our holiday through the La Forêt d'Amboise to Chenonceaux (the town with an 'x').

I hoped the pain would be intermittent.  It was.  Only every other step hurt.  No Pain. Pain. No Pain. Pain. No Pain. Pain. And so on for that inaugural seventeen kilometres.

It makes it hard to daydream and just relax; instead I found myself paying a lot of attention to the terrain and the details of the walk. 

“Does it hurt less on flat surfaces?” “Or did the broken mud and rocks help by alternating pressure points?” “Should I tie my shoe tighter or loosen it a bit?”  “Where are we now?” “How far?” “Could a cab find us in the forest?”

You could say I savoured the walk that day as the location and ambiance of every step, or at least every second step, is burned into my memory. 

We arrived at Chenonceaux in mid-afternoon and checked into the Hotel Rosarie.  At the front desk, we learned that Elenore Rosevelt once stayed there, and I was impressed. 

The room was nice, but the grim, grey visage of a woman in black stared down at us from the wall.

“I wonder if she is Rosarie – that is a woman’s name isn’t it?”

“Maybe the artist caught her in a bad mood.”

“Maybe, she had plantar fasciitis.”

The Chateau was still open for the day.  It was three blocks away. Michele’s enthusiasm and the look on possible Rosarie’s face nudged me out the door for another walk that day.  It soon seemed like a mistake. Three blocks was enough to push the pain into the barely bearable. Limping and wincing, I suggested we split up at the castle so Michele could be free to explore the place she had read so much about.  

I visited it too, but I did it by walking a few metres and then sitting down, walking a few more metres and sitting down again, each time hoping that the old wooden benches were for that purpose not works of art or parts of the displays.

I found that the sitting and resting gave me time to reflect and notice things that not everyone catches - like how the intertwining of Henry and Catherine’s initials create the letter D on the ceiling of the bedroom. 

I would have missed the full effect of the gallery hall without sitting long enough for the crowds to move on.  And outside, if you sit down on the rail by the bridge, you notice the boaters and the flow of the River Cher. (Cher - there’s another powerful woman).

Michele found me by the tower and wanted to walk around the gardens.

I couldn’t do it and instead sat on another bench, one overlooking them. 

This was not bad either.  Again, I rubbed my foot and told myself I had been given an excuse to rest, to be more observant, and absorb another vantage.  

I thought about all the people who walked around these halls in high heels and what it meant to be a woman in those times.

As we walked back to the Rosarie, I noticed something I had missed on the walk down to the Chateau.  

It was late April, time of the Presidential elections, and we passed posters of Marine Le Pen. Once again, I winced.  

This time, I thought about other features of French history, Catherine de’ Medici’s role in the persecution of the Huguenots, about my foot, and how we react to the pain that comes our way.

If we ever go back to the Loire, I hope my foot flares up again, or, rather, the memory of it and of how to see pain, not as a reason to be afraid, but as a prod to stop, reflect, and look at things from a different perspective. 

So, I wrote this.

Loire 6 - Dung et D'Artigny,


When you go on a Loire Valley walking holiday in the early spring, you have to be prepared to check into hotels rain-soaked, mud-covered, and, sometimes, with shoes dipped in dung.  The awkwardness is usually ephemeral and easily suppressed.

But if you are trudging your wet, muddy, smelly body up the steps of the palatial Château d’Artigny, a castle-like hotel and spa near Montbazon, it’s hard not to feel a little hesitant and gauche.

We did. But we also felt tired and ready to get into a bath and a bed, and any anxiety turned out to be unfounded.

The people on the front desk greeted us as if we were visiting royalty, and they checked us in to the hotel early and smoothly.  Soon, we were recuperating in our roomy suite overlooking the front lawns.

“They make you feel like you are the most important guest in the hotel,” I said.

“Yeah, like they had no other concern, but your comfort,” Michele observed.

Later in the day, we realized that our observations were more astute than we might have guessed. It turns out that the late spring is a slow time of year for the hotel, and we were, in fact, almost the only concern.  We didn’t see any other guests all day.

This was great at the spa. 

The hotel has a tunnel from the castle so you can get to the spa in any weather in just shorts and sandals. It has a Turkish bath-style steam room, a sauna, and a jacuzzi-equipped pool.  All good stuff if you have been walking through forests and over hills in the rain all day.  Not so good, if the sauna, steam room, and pool are crammed. 

They weren’t.


We stayed in the spa for an hour or two with all the rooms and facilities to ourselves.  We used two or three towels each; we steamed and swam until we could do it no more.  Later that evening, three waiters fussed around us as we worked our way through the multiple-course dinner and multi-form beverages in the elegant dining room.  We had been warned that the Chateau insisted on semi-formal dress and no-dung footwear for dinner so we were relieved to have such a positive reception.

But, then again, we were alone.

Our solitary status at dinner was, in part, due to our Canadian dining habits that induce hunger well before 9 PM when the European-sounding guests arrived to share the room with us. Not many though, and the next morning as we headed down to check out I thought that the Château d’Artigny was kind of lucky to have had us. 

“I mean, after all, it’s not a real Chateau in the 16TH century Chenonceau and Amboise sense,” I said. “It was built about a century ago by a perfume maker who liked to party and cover his ceilings in tacky art.”

“So, why didn’t you study perfume making in school?” Michele said.

Despite her insolence and with the previous day’s odors sweated and jacuzzied away, I felt smug heading to the front desk for check out.  

This did not last.


The machine rejected my credit card.  Same on the second try - and the third.  The other card was rejected as well.  We did not have Château d’Artigny levels of cash and learned that the closest ATM was in town, about an hour’s walk away.  We sweated, we smelled. 

Then, suddenly, one of the hotel staff in the back announced that the problem was with their system.  The front desk woman apologized, and her boss came out and apologized profusely offering to help with arrangements to our next stop.  Happy that they took the credit card in a manual, written-number fashion, we smiled and headed out the door.

Later in the day, we agreed that the Château d’Artigny was a great experience and that everyone coming to the Loire for a walking holiday should consider doing it in the early spring too.  Though they should be prepared for rain, mud, dung, and the ever-present possibility of embarrassment.   

Loire 7 - Backyard Villandry

Walking through the garden complex at Château de Villandry, Michele’s attention fell on the geometric patterns, the different colours, and the soft smell of the flowers.  

My eyes rested on the poor schmuck hunched over the shrubs grooming them with a handheld trimmer.

Shaped like a horseshoe, he looked like the bad example in an occupational safety poster.  I could not imagine how his future would not hold crippling pain and surgery.


Days before, we sat in a park outside another castle watching Millennial-age groundskeepers scurrying around with strapped-on, gas-powered trimmers, ear buds, and straight backs.  In contrast, the older staff at Villandry seemed more traditional, artisanal, and nuts.

Gardening has always struck me as hard work, and the intricate, structured form it takes in France seems especially so.  

I favour the English garden: wild, informal, and unkempt.

“It became popular in the 18th century, right around the time they started freeing the slaves,” I noted.

These thoughts occupied my mind when Michele suggested that we try to recreate a little bit of Villandry in our backyard in Ottawa.  She visited the garden shop at the Chateau, stole some ideas, and expanded on her plan the rest of our holiday.

My contribution to the conversation was a bias for those English gardens and, if necessary, planter boxes that were waist high.  I also argued for more, but smaller boxes that made it easy to reach the plants or to weed.  I did not want Villandry-style bending and straining in my backyard.

So, we approached the project from two interests. Her aesthetic one.  My anesthetic one.  

Within this frame, we crafted plans for building our mini-Villandry and kept talking about it after we came home from our holiday.  The first step meant weeding and prepping our existing garden.

“Doesn’t it make you feel younger – the fresh air, the exercise.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling a growing kinship with the younger French grounds crews, the ones who favoured  strap-on, gas-powered equipment. 

Then, we visited Ottawa garden shops and home renovation stores.  We measured our garden and measured things in the stores.  We bought seeds, and we nurtured them in pots. We were ready to implement our fully developed plan. Then, I added up the cost.

Ouch.  It turns out my mix of ideas were a lot more expensive than the straightforward, though labour intensive, Villandry-style garden.  Maybe back pain wouldn’t be all that bad. 

That Sunday as we worked in the yard, I considered withdrawing or adjusting my demand for waist-high planters and English garden elements. But, before I could raise the question, Michele decided to move a heavy wheel barrow around the corner of the house by hunching over in the shape of a horseshoe. 

She lies recuperating and looking at pictures of waist-high planters, electric hedge pruners, and English gardens.  

I’m looking again at images of Villandry.
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Loire 8 - Azay-de-René



René Descartes makes me laugh.

Not his writing and not his philosophies; just his name – when printed on Loire Valley tourism brochures and websites.

The Loire likes to celebrate its literary connections, and often it seems valid.  Rabelais regularly teased his home town of Chinon in his books, and Honoré de Balzac wrote many novels and swaths of La Comédie humaine at the Château in Saché.

But Descartes, though born in the Loire, didn’t hang around long, leaving forever while still a child. He never wrote or said much that betrayed his Valley roots and wasn’t even all that firmly French. He spent much of his productive thinking and scribbling life in the Netherlands.

These facts have not deterred the promoters of Loire literary links.  In fact, La Haye en Touraine, the town where Descartes was born, changed its name to emphasize the association for all time. It is now known simply as the Village of Descartes.

For this reason, I smiled when we checked into our hotel in Azay-le-Rideau.  Just off the dining room, a closet or storage room has been dedicated to and duly named in honour of René Descartes. As far as I can tell, he never set foot in the closet or the town. 

I thought it was funny.

But after crossing the courtyard to our room, I found another door and another name - La Fontaine - another French writer and another one not really associated to this region.   At this point, I noticed other decorations – an old student desk, bookcases, and a display of rulers, inkwells, and drawing tools.  

The Hotel de Biencourt, it turns out, housed a school for centuries, and the décor and the literary room names honour these times.

But the history that draws guests to the hotel and to the town revolves around the 16th century Château a few blocks away.  The Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is a typical Renaissance castle and popular because it seems to rise up magically in the middle of the river and because of its sketchy backstory.  

The extravagance of the castle was kicked off about five hundred years ago by a character named Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours and Treasurer-General of the King's finances.   Berthelot didn’t finish the project.  He had to flee into exile when his family came under suspicion for financial indiscretions – indiscretions of the kind that carried the death penalty.

Walking back to my room, I imagined the 19th schoolmasters pointing to the castle and reciting this cautionary tale.  


Hey - Maybe celebration of Descartes isn’t to attract tourists to the great things in the Loire, but rather to tell the youth that they can achieve great things if they leave.
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Day 9 - Dinner with Rabelais



For many years, if asked to name the ideal dinner companion from history, I would scratch my chin, look to the ceiling, and say “François Rabelais, I suppose.”

A pretentious answer and effort to flaunt my interest in humorous literature. It was also a little dishonest.

I never really knew much about the 16th century French writer; I skimmed some of his stuff on Project Gutenberg and read Wikipedia, but that was about it. I think I was enamoured with the idea of François Rabelais and with being labelled Rabelaisian rather than being any kind of student of his work.

 

Known for an unusual mix of fantastical stories, crude jokes, and biting social commentary, he poured out volumes of satire at a time when such activity could see your blood poured out on a dungeon floor.  

I like that, but again I was a bit of a fraud.

“Hey, guess who was born in Chinon ? - your hero Rabelais,” my wife said the night before our walking tour of the Loire took us to this town. “But I guess you knew that?”

“Uhh, yeah, right,” I said, picking up the iPad and tapping Google Chrome. 

That night, I read bios, online travel guides, and, with greater resolve than before, those quirky books on Project Gutenberg.  

Most of his stories follow two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, a father and son duo who celebrate excess in many forms.  Eating, drinking, urinating, and other activities that no doubt amused some unpolished audiences of the 16th century.   

But you don’t have to read too long to recognize a more sophisticated agenda, one aimed at skewering the church, the state, and other authority in stories like that of the corrupt clergy, “the Holy Bottle,” dim-witted leaders, and “the land of Pettifogging.”  

I loved it.   

I can’t say it was an easy read nor did I catch every allusion.  But the imagery and language seemed different from anything I had ever read.  I worked with the English translation, but because much of this was generated during the 16th century, it probably reflects well the creativity and playfulness that I had always presumed of Rabelais.  The drinking and urinating stuff was pretty funny too.

Though scholars still debate the precise location of his birth, Rabelais clearly regarded himself as a Chinon native son, and his stories have many Chinon references, often poking at his birthplace in a lively way.  Though Chinon, with its fortress, its museums, and its firm association with Joan of Arc, has other things to celebrate, it lets you know in its promotional literature that it also gave us the venerated, but fun-loving Renaissance writer. 

The next day we walked into Chinon, found our hotel, and, despite the rain, made a pilgrimage to the waterfront and the statue of the local literary hero.  Inspired by an early, though not contemporaneous, portrait, the statue presented him robed and seated as someone of dignity, but the face was that of a grizzled, later life rascal.

“Hey, he kind of looks like you,” my spouse-photographer said. “I’ll try to show that with the angle and the light.”

“Oh, thanks.”

That night, about three blocks down the Quai Jeanne d’Arc at the Lion D’Or café, we had lots to talk about. 

The fortress, the walk through the vineyards that day, and the next stop on our route.

But I bubbled with enthusiasm about Rabelais - his life and writing not his appearance so much.  I confessed the obvious and what my dinner companion suspected  – that I had learned most of it the night before and had just read the Gargantua and Pantagruel books for the first time.  Though I monopolized the air time beyond the edicts of considerate conversation, Michele indulged me and agreed that Rabelais was quite the character and that we probably could use more of his kind today when authority begs comical critique.

Even though "le quart d'heure de Rabelais” refers to "not having  money when the waiter brings the bill", I still found myself saying to my wife “You know, I really do think I would like to spend an evening with Francois Rabelais.” 

“I think you just did,” she said.
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Loire 10 - Protest-Parade Poser

I am a protest-parade poser.  I am Canadian.

When asked whether I’d take part in the International March for Science (April 22nd – Earth Day 2017) in Paris, I evaded the question.  I work for a science organization, share the concerns, and knew my daughter would march in the Toronto parade.

Yet I can’t say that I felt the need to impress Rebecca nor to add my voice to fight for science.  The protest also fell on the day we were booked to head off for the Loire Valley, and I cited this as my reason for not going. 

Then on the day before, a colleague of my vintage, said “Aw  - come on ! How often do you get to go in a protest parade in Paris?”  I knew that this fellow baby boomer was recalling the French student protests of the 1960s.  Protesting in the streets, manning the barricades Les Misérables-style does seem like a very Parisian and just thing to do.

Checking the schedule for the march and the schedule for the trains, I learned that (1) we were to leave for Amboise at 1:30 PM from the Gare d'Austerlitz; (2) that March for Science was to begin at about the same time in the Jardin des Plantes next to the Gare d'Austerlitz.

So, as soon as we arrived at the station, I left an anxious Michele with our bags and ran down the street to the gates of the Jardin. I didn’t see any marching, but watched the setup, mingled with the crowd, and heard a few speeches. I took a selfie for my daughter and left for the Gare.

Looking out the train car window an hour later, I thought my participation was pretty tepid, pretty lame, pretty Canadian.  Aside from tuition-fee protests in Quebec and the Idle No More demonstrations for aboriginal rights, Canadians haven’t gotten off their butts very often or, at least, very vigorously in recent years. We are known as a people who sheepishly accept our lot, bow to big business and government, pay high bank rates and telecom fees, smile and thank our abusers, and say excuse me in the process.

Not the French.  They get worked up and scary even about things like peer-reviewed research and scientific data.

Knowing many people need convincing on climate change, on the benefits of biotechnology, and on the need for artificial intelligence, I felt a little uncomfortable amidst my fellow March for Science protesters. 

“You know, if that protest wants to influence ordinary people, they probably shouldn’t use a Frankenstein killer robot as their symbol,” I said to my wife. “They might have cranked back the megaphone a bit too.”

Nevertheless, I found myself wishing I could have marched in the protest that day and assumed that I had missed a unique opportunity.

A week and a half later, we were in Angers wrapping up our Loire Valley holiday and getting ready to catch a train back to Charles de Gaulle Airport and the flight home.  After a walk of 120 kilometres, it wasn’t bad to have a couple of days rest, but we were a little bored.  All of the shops, most of the restaurants, and even the museums were closed. 

It was the May 1st weekend.

La Fête du Travail is a big deal in France.  A day to not only celebrate workers and workers’ rights, but to campaign for more and to stage protest marches. This year with the presidential elections at the same time, the protests took a lively bent everywhere and, in Angers, they took the form of a long, noisy march right in front of our hotel on the main drag, Boulevard du Maréchal Foch.

The combination of nothing else to do and a wistfulness over missing the Paris protest prompted me to run down to the street and join the march for a few blocks. Again, I took a selfie and the bowed out.  

It was OK.  But I did feel like a poser. I wasn’t sure what was being protested exactly and what we were yelling and singing about - other than to let Marine Le Pen know she would not be invited to the post-parade wine and cheese.

The next morning, riding in the TGV to the CDG, I read online that other May Day marches had taken a violent turn with fire bombs, water cannons, Molotov Cocktails, tear gas, and injured police.  Protesters interviewed by the media said that they were fighting Le Pen and the Front National, of course, but weirdly they also promised to protest Macron if he got elected.

“These guys are nuts,” I said, thinking that sometimes not protesting makes more sense.

I rationalized that if the choice is violence or misrepresenting an idea, pursuing quieter and respectful avenues make a better statement on some issues.

But then again, I am Canadian.