Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rainbows and ponies

One of the delights of living in Alsace is the incredible network of bike trails that meander through the countryside like rivulets of melted cheese. Roughly 8,000 kilometres of melted cheese, if one can imagine.

I had purchased a new-to-me bike to replace the retro-styled 400 lb one that was stolen from my apartment lobby in December, yet so far had only used it to make the trip out to Amynah’s lab for my French lessons. Amynah had taken it into her head to go to a town called Molsheim, which is the terminus of a cross-border bike trail (the other end is the German city of Offenburg, where we plan to go next week).

We didn’t end up hitting the road until 3PM (a “getting to know you meeting” with a guy I’m planning on doing a language exchange ended up going longer than I thought, forcing us to have an impromptu lunch, the rough nature of which was revealed by the presence of but a single cheese on the mid-feast cheese plate).

The weather was perfect when we headed out – very little wind, temperatures in the high twenties, only a few clouds of innocent aspect.

We had no real idea how far Molsheim was, nor did we have a clue as to what delights the town held. We weren’t worried about that however - it rarely matters in Alsace, since every village reminds me of still-in-their-boxes collectors’ items: “Each one unique! Get the whole set! Bound to gain value over time!” The only thing missing is a little price tag and certificate of authenticity.

The trip started off well enough. The path followed a tiny canal that seemed too small to be for navigation. Perhaps it had originally been meant for irrigation. As always, we were out of Strasbourg and into the countryside in a time that I still find surprising, accustomed as I am to fighting through the thick cocoon of suburbs that envelope typical North American cities.

It being a delightful afternoon, the path was chock full of Sunday strollers, rollerbladers and fellow velocipedists. Now, despite the fact that neither of us are exactly athletes, we were passing everyone on the path, except for the spandex-tube-clad hardcore dudes on the racing bikes.

Amynah attributed this to our North American impatience, though the fact that we were probably the only ones on the path with any sort of destination probably helped. Not knowing how far that destination lay was plenty motivation to keep up the pace as well.

Not to say that taking it easy didn’t have its merits – farmers fields gave way to quiet woods, in which isolated cottages nestled beside babbling brooks. Horses played in grassy fields while cattle grazed nearby. I think I even saw a little deer cavorting with his talking rabbit friend.

Nonethless, it all merged into a greenish Doppler blur as we zipped past at top speed. For we had to make it the wonders of Molsheim, whatever they might be.

Well, we were not alone. The closer we got to the town, the more the bike path cleared of all the human detritus that was slowing our headling pace. In a way, we thought that we would be able to have a an ice cream to cool down, a coffee to perk up, and then a nice stroll around a quiet French village.

It looked promising at first – we passed an old Jesuit College and city walls before coming to the Medieval city gate. However, once we made it inside, we were immediately assaulted by a veritable army of bugs.

VW bugs. Turns out there was an automobile enthusiast convention in town, and the place was more full of German engineered vehicles since 1944. Like any auto show, it had a semi-proficient country-rock cover band, trophy girls, and mustachioed dudes in cowboy hats (apparently blissfully unaware that VW Bugs aren’t exactly macho vehicles).

I suspect the reason the Buggers (ha!) picked Molsheim is because it is home to the Bugatti Foundation Museum. That this was an Italian motor company makes no difference – the first syllable of the name matches, they make cars, so bring on the Herbies!

Needless to say, the amplified cries of “Est-ce que vous êtes pretes pour rock and roll?” and the awe-inspiring hum of one hundred VW engines revving weren’t exactly relaxing, so we beat a hasty retreat.

Now, despite the fact that we have a nearly unblemished record of being caught in torrential downpours on our Sunday excursions, I decided to tempt fate and stop in a little town called Dambach on the way back, since it looked pretty. These little villages are funny, in a way – it is hard to comprehend how small they are. Dambach, for instance, occupies an area smaller than a shopping mall. You could easily fit Wolfisheim, Riquewihr, Kayserberg and St Marie aux Mines in the parking lot and still have room for the Toys ‘R Us.

SAdly, if Alsace is the West Edmonton Mall of pretty malls, Dambach is the Gap – enticing store front, nothing that interesting inside. On the other hand, if you look closely at the roof of the mansion in the background, you can see and excellent example of the colourful tilework on their roofs.

So we hit the path back, hoping to make it home before dark. Though we were pretty tired from our sprint out, we set a good pace, and since it was close to dinner there was nothing else on the path. Or so we thought.

In fact, the crepuscular hours in France, as in Canada, are prime “flying around irritatingly” time for Mayflies. It was a horror show. They got in our eyes, in our clothes, behind our glasses, in our ears. Any time I tried to talk they’d fly in my mouth. It was horrific. At one point I looked at my bare arms only to see them writhing with hundreds of the little monsters trapped in my arm hairs.

When the first drops of rain began to fall, it was a welcome relief. The cold drops were refreshing, and it seemed to clear the bugs away. It intensified slightly, but not enough to cause real distress, but enough to clear the air of the plague.

"What's that idiot doing taking our photo? Can't he see it's starting to rain? Moooo-ve it!"

Soon, the rain stopped. We passed through a zone where we had brown fields just beginning to burst with green stalks of corn on our right. On the left the canal, and beyond that cavorting horses. Framing it all, an arc en ciel.

I then had one of my God-I-love-this-place moments. It’s all rainbows and ponies here.

About five kilometers from Strasbourg, France decided to quell my ardour, by dumping a few hundred gallons of water on it. First, a rumble of thunder, as if God himself were saying “Pedal fast, little man. Try to outrun my wrath!”

We couldn’t. It rained, and rained. Those few people still on the path took shelter under the trees, looking at us in bewilderment as we zipped by, soaked and trying to see through our fly-speckled sunglasses.

Worse yet, the rain stopped as we got into Strasbourg – apparently it was an extremely localized storm. Drivers slowed to gawk at us, probably certain that we had fallen into a lake.

The laugh was on them, for we were harbingers: as we locked up our bikes in the local parking garage (they have parking garages for bikes here, can you believe it?) the skies opened up again, but this time with the obvious purpose of sweeping all of Strasbourg into the Rhine. Buckets of water cascaded from the heavens while tourists and locals scuttled into doorways to take shelter.

Not Amynah and I though. We strode confidently through the tempest as the townsfolk looked upon us in awe. We would not cower before thunder, lightning, flood, plagues of bugs or plague of Bugs. Not today. For this day, we were the conquerors of Molsheim, Lords of Strasbourg and Viceroys of the Velocipede.

We graciously ignored the plebian muttering of "Ils est fou!" as we passed.

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