Once Upon A Time In France: Commercial Caravan, Vaccination Validation, And Cannes Can

Dreaming of Champagne

After almost seven years in France, we finally caught our first live glimpse of the famed Tour de France. Each year we’d scan the route of this epic bicycle race to see if it would pass near us in the Southwest of France. But the timing and locations never aligned. The year riders rolled through the heart of Toulouse, just blocks from our apartment, we were in California.

So we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the final stage would pass right by our new apartment in Le Pecq, a town west of Paris. And yes, I am burying the lede a bit here: We have moved from Toulouse to Le Pecq. But that’s a long, tragic story that I’ll save for another time. For now, what matters is that we live just next to the town of Saint-Germain-En-Laye where the riders would climb a hill that for me is gargantuan pedaling effort and for them is something less than a speed bump.

Sunday afternoon, like the American dorks that we are, we carried our camping chairs down the street to secure a spot along the sidewalk about 4 hours before the bikes would pass. We had no idea whether the streets would be mobbed, or whether the French cared much about this annual institution. As it turned out, we had the sidewalk to ourselves for a couple of hours as we gamely cheered random amateur bikers climbing the hill in a joke that was stale from the start but provoked enough smiles and hand waves to keep it going. During the early moments of our vigil, a police officer walking by shook his head, tapped his watch, and laughed at us.

The thing we learned about the Tour is that about 2 hours before the riders flash by, there is a caravan of some sort. What we knew about the caravan was that it was a kind of parade and that like all good parades, people would be giving away free stuff by chucking it from the backs of their vehicles into the crowd. Of course, one knows that this free stuff is a priori likely to be worthless garbage. Yet the allure of free stuff is such that we were determined to grab our share even if it meant battling little children in a scrum for some kind of idiotic swag that we would throw away as soon as we got home.

Roughly around 3 p.m., the sirens of police cars signaled that things were about to get serious. As it turns out, the caravan is a publicity parade, a stream of modified cars driven by the Tour’s sponsors. While there is a tendency to view the French as an exotic breed of humans, more refined and cultured than their grubby American cousins, the brands in this commercial caravan offered proof that their tastes can be every bit as basic.

We tried to milk our advantages by strategically choosing a spot on the main hill entering down. Drivers, already going slow, would likely be even slower. Also, my wife had picked up a key piece of intelligence: Goodies are mainly thrown to kids. So we sidled up to some unsuspecting French youngsters who were no doubt too innocent to match our conniving.

Still, the pickings were slim. A packet of coffee flew overhead. Some other goodies slipped through my hands. The woman on the back of one of the Haribo cars was clearly having some personal issues and had decided to exercise her demons by flinging packets of candy as hard as she could into the crowd. One bag of candy caught me in the stomach and knocked me back a couple of steps, but I maintained focus and grabbed it triumphantly. I don’t even like Haribo.

The most distinctly French thing about the caravan were the cars driven by the CGT, Confédération Générale du Travail, one of France’s largest labor unions. We snagged a CGT tote back to go along with the various keychain rings, luggage tags, and other snacks. In all, it was a predictably pathetic haul of useless stuff.

Eventually, of course, the riders appeared about 2 hours later. This stirring scene of some of the world’s greatest athletes lasted less than 1 minute or about a fraction of the commercial caravan. Whoosh. It was over.

In any case, the final stage tends to be more ceremonial than competitive. Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia won the race for the 2nd consecutive year and he had dominated since the early stages sucking most of the drama out of the Tour.

As for us, the Tour offered just enough inspiration to get us planning our own biking adventure later this summer.


Vaccination Validation

It turns out France has something else in common with the U.S. The nation is riddled with vaccine refusniks.

Fortunately, President Emmanuel Macron finally put his foot down last week by announcing one of the most aggressive uses of a Health Passport. In this case, the Health Passport must show that someone is fully vaccinated, had a recent Covid test, or is recovered from Covid.

In a nationally televised speech, Macron announced that vaccinations would be obligatory for health workers. He also said a Health Passport would be required to enter any leisure or cultural event with more than 50 people, including movie theaters and museums.

Boom. It worked. The next day, more than 962,000 people had booked a vaccination appointment on one of the main medical platforms, Doctolib.fr. Over the course of a week since his speech, more than 3 million appointments have been booked.

This led somewhat improbably to a viral video by Jimmy Fallon who tweaked the French for being willing to get vaccinated to “eat goose liver with strangers” but not to protect their families:

Unfortunately, this also provoked a vocal minority to protest the new rules, decrying the use of Health Passports as a Nazi-like intrusion into their lives.

Fortunately, polls show that Macron’s latest measures are very popular. Alas, they are coming a bit too late as the Delta variant has sent cases soaring here as they have elsewhere. Restrictions like masks in public places and curfews are slowly being reimposed.

It’s amazing to think that after 18 months of the pandemic, people are opting to prolong restrictions by refusing to be vaccinated. Science delivered a safe, effective solution. People bickered over whether to use it. History will look back at this moment with puzzlement.


Cannes Can

On a more optimistic note, the International Cannes Film Festival returned this month after being canceled last year. Even with limitations on attendance, it was a welcome relief to the tourism industry which is still facing iffy prospects this summer due to Covid variants. Indeed, hotels are typically booked a year in advance but this year they were running promotions to convince people to attend at the last minute.

As for the festival, it otherwise seemed like a typical year as stars walked the red carpet and films generated buzz. The most notable films included “Annette,” a musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.

French horror movie “Titane” won the grand prize. Director Julia Ducournau is only the second woman to win the top award at Cannes.

Still, her win might be best remembered for Spike Lee accidentally announcing the prize at the start of the ceremony rather than the end:

And though “Titane” had been hotly tipped as a prime contender for the Palme, that reveal came much earlier than intended: At the beginning of the closing ceremony, when the jury president, Spike Lee, was asked to announce the first prize of the night, he misunderstood and read off the first-prize winner instead.

In fairness to Lee, the French are terrible at giving clear instructions.

Given the age we live in, Lee’s mistake wasn’t the event’s biggest viral moment. Instead, it belonged to this cast photo from Wes Anderson’s latest movie which immediately passed into meme legend:


Dreaming Of France

In the midst of moving madness, we snuck away for our first visit to the Champagne region. The classic thing to do is to start at Reims, but we bypassed that for a night in Épernay where we took a Champagne tour at Mercier and then strolled down the Avenue de Champagne in search of additional tastings.

But we were most charmed by Hautvillers, a village just to the north where we stopped randomly Sunday morning for coffee and croissants and to see the burial place of Dom Perignon. Several Champagne houses were open, a delightful surprise for a Sunday morning, and we stopped at one before hitting the road.


Great Reads

So much to catch up on as our move has scrambled my schedule. But here are just a few pieces from the past couple of weeks worth your time. Lauren Collins of The New Yorker interviews Omar Sy, star of Netflix’s “Lupin.” People are going crazy about the re-opening of La Samaritaine, Paris’ second-oldest department store. Lindsey Tramuta looks at some of the alternative tours of Paris that focus on slavery and women's history. The New York Times features a Paris-based company trying to grow foie gras in a lab. Anne Swardson explores on foot some of Paris’ less touristy neighborhoods. Summer Brennan continues her series of profiles of courtesans of the 19th century.

And finally, the Guardian’s Kim Willsher has this delightful profile of Jean Paul Gaultier:

Gaultier is the perfect interview subject if you have limitless time and not, as in this case, one hour. His brain is as hyperactive as his hands, producing answers that whirl off in unexpected directions until he stops to ask: “What was the question again?” 

Chris O’Brien

Le Pecq, France