We Got A Cat

We had to. We’ve been here for nearly a year, catless, and Beloved Wife is in serious cat deprivation mode. I wake in the middle of the night, as men my age often do, to find her looking at cat videos on her tablet. We’re talking a need for an intervention here; she recently discovered an app that generates the sound of a cat purring. She says it relaxes her.


So we got a cat. We visited the local animal shelter, to be selected by a cat. And we promptly were; the moment we entered the cat display area, a handsome young orange chap walked up to me and announced, “You shall be my people. Take me. Now.” And we did.

So, what to name him? All of my suggestions were dismissed out of hand, and were rudely treated.

“Bob”? “No.”

“Earl?” “No”

“Frank?” “NO”

“Glen?” “NO. Stop it.”

“Eugene?” “STOP.”

“What?”

So we decided to name him Luche (loo-shay).

Luche-Pringe, is the name of our village, but folks call it Luche. We love the village, so we named him Luche, and our French friends loved it. It’s been a week now. So far he doesn’t respond to his name.

This evening, round about dinner time, Beloved took out a couple of small steaks for me to grill. Leaving the the steaks on the counter to make a brief visit to the powder room, as women her age often do, she muttered something unintelligible about keeping an eye on something or other. When she returned she said, “What did you do with the other steak?

I didn’t need to answer; the answer was there on the floor. Said Cat had grabbed a steak, hauled it down onto the floor and dragged it over to his food bowl, where he was eating it, not in guilt-driven haste. Oh no, he was dining.

“IT’S THE BUMPUS HOUNDS!” Beloved Wife yelled, “WE THOUGHT WE GOT A CAT, BUT WE GOT THE BUMPUS HOUNDS!”

We’ve scrapped “Luche.” Now and forever, he is “Bumpus.”

He’ll get over it.
I’m sure you understand.

The perp hides in the laundry basket.

Circus! Circus!

Americans have a cultural memory of a time in the 19th and early 20th century when The Circus Comes to Town. One night the caravan shows up on the outskirts of town and people wake the next morning to the magical site of a gaudy, colorfully painted tent–the Big Top. Animal wagons are clustered together, with a makeshift corral holding strange animals. All over town, light poles, fences, and store windows are festooned with posters announcing the arrival of the circus and show times. The Circus is here! It will only be here for a day or so.

There is excitement. Kids flock to the field, watching the circus coming to life, unfolding before their eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of, well something...maybe a peek inside the tent, maybe a clown half-dressed preparing for the show, maybe an elephant, or a tiger, or a camel. Maybe an offer of a free ticket for lending a hand. Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, after the last show the tent will come down and by morning the circus, the trucks, the wagons will have disappeared down the road to the next stop.

It’s all a fading memory now, something of a myth. These days going to a circus in the US means a trip to the nearest large town or city to the Arena, home of wrestling, monster trucks, and concerts. Not in France, not in Europe. Here, The Circus still Comes to Town.
If you spend any time driving around France you will inevitably come across a most strange site–wild animals, circus animals, grazing on a traffic circle or a roundabout on the outskirts of a town, sometimes in the middle of town. It is, to our amazement, not an unusual sight. It means there is a circus in town. Drive a bit further and you will come across it–the tent, the trucks, the animals, and the people–circus people.

It happens all the time. It is something we have witnessed regularly as long as we’ve been coming here. Not long ago Anthony and I were in Le Mans to do some shopping. We were in a heavily developed commercial area, when I looked out the car window to a small open area among the stores.

“Ah, Anthony, that is a camel over there, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

“Thought so.”

One day recently Karen and I were having lunch at a restaurant…not in Le Mans…when I looked out the window to a field next to the parking lot, and there were two camels grazing, usually a sure sign a circus is somewhere nearby.

In a normal year lots of circuses roaming through Europe. Many seem to be Italian. Some are big, with massive, gaudily painted trucks, huge tents, and large companies of well-kept animals. Others, unfortunately, are poor. They are raggedy affairs with tiny tents, unhappy-looking animals, and only a few trucks. They and their posters are quick to let you know they are “for the children,” code for, don’t expect Cirque du Soleil.

Romanzo Italiano. A circus we came across along the way.
Molto Bello Romantico
The sky really looked like that above this circus for about ten insane minutes before sunset

Most surprising, when you happen across one of these circuses in preparation mode, the area they have taken over is largely open to the public. You are allowed, almost welcomed, to wander about as they prepare, to look at the animals, watch the work in progress, and to talk with circus people who mostly seem happy to interact with you. It is not unusual to see parents with kids wandering around the trucks and vans and tethered animals–camels, horses, emus, and other non-threatening creatures, or queuing up near the cage trucks with lions and tigers while the roustabouts go about their work.

Several years ago when we were staying in the Aude in a small village a few kilometres from the large town of Limoux, we came upon a circus being set up in what had been up until that day an empty field not far from the grocery store that was our destination. Sensing a photo op, we got out and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was busy setting up the tents. When he found out we were Americans he immediately began apologizing for his circus, saying it was “Not like Barnam and Bailey.” We assured him we were glad to hear that. Later that evening we experienced something magical in that tent, and we discovered the man we had talked with was the Ringmaster.

An unexpected evening of magical moments and images in a small travelling circus in rural France
Comedia del Arte juggler
Night Circus in the Aude

It is all uniquely European, and despite any misgivings about the nature of zoos and caging of animals, utterly charming.

“Ya know, that’s just something ya don’t see a lot of back in Maryland.”

Central Casting

A British friend of ours, a very funny guy named Ronnie, who lives in the north of England, tells a very funny and self-deprecating story about his one and only trip to the US. He had nursed a desire to visit the United States for years, and with much excitement, managed to convince a buddy to join him. They flew non-stop from London to San Diego (Good Lord).

Shortly after touchdown the plane stopped at the gate and Ronnie, face plastered to the window, spotted the ground crew jumping into action.

“Look, look!” he sqweelled, “”Look, Americans, AMERICANS!”

“Of course they’re Americans ya moron, “ said his buddy, “We just landed in San Diego.”

In a way, we have had similar experiences here in France, especially in the early going. We were driving through a small village in Normandy one day on our first-ever road trip, when we came up on an elderly gentleman (I know, who am I to call anyone elderly?), riding a bicycle, wearing a beret, with a baguette slung under one arm. The two of us swapped simultaneous double-takes and had the same reaction.

“Oh, my God, look at that. It’s like something right out of Central Casting!” It was like every caricature we ever had of what it was like in France. Old guy. On a bike. Wearing beret. With baguette. It was a moment that drove home the fact that yes, we were indeed in France.

But of course it wasn’t a caricature. It was every day France. And that became clear as, over and over, we saw the same sort of thing in different villages, all over France. At one point I even wondered, “Hey. You think it’s the same guy wherever we go?”

But then one day it all became clear to me.

“I’ll bet you French Department of Tourism is behind it. All over France they hire old guys to drive around on bikes, looking picturesque for the tourists. Every morning they show up at work, they get issued bikes, berets and baguettes and off they go. They get extra if they have a Gauloises dangling from their lips.”

I was kidding of course. But just a bit.

And Now For Your Viewing Pleasure…

France, we have come to understand, is a country fraught with contradictions. Nothing epitomizes that more than French television. Curling up in front of the TV for an evening’s entertainment can be both informative about French culture, and utterly baffling. It is, in the end, quintessentially French.

Sometimes, (quite often, actually) we get the feeling that the French do things just to be different from anyone else, whether or not it makes sense. Or kills somebody, like priority à droit. Sit down for TV one evening. You immediately discover that French TV shows don’t start at the top or bottom of the hour‒they start whenever they want. Ten minutes to the hour seems to be a fan favorite.

French TV shows don’t run for 30 or 60 minutes. They run as long as they want, because, like so many other things in France, there is just the right amount of time needed for this program and it runs as long as necessary. The Correct Amount of Time.

We have basic cable here, which gives something like 25 active channels. There are a few national channels, France 1 or France 2, etc. Then there are regional channels that are programmed for the area where you live, which for us is the Sarthe, along with some other nearby regions. To be honest, we tend to skim through the channels and when we watch TV at all it is during the evening, so I’m not entirely clear about programming differences among them, but evening programming on many channels seems to be a lot of panel discussions and talking heads over news footage. The regional channels are where contradictions flourish.

The French as a people are enormously, unabashedly proud of their culture and their history, far more than Americans are of theirs. It is part of French DNA. They have a pride in being “French.” They have a history that goes back two millennia. They remember and celebrate it, and actively work to teach new generations the significance of that history. They work to maintain “Frenchness” under assault from the onslaught of Americanisms and the English language. Virtually every night you find at least one channel, often several, showing programs devoted to French history‒documentaries about the middle ages, one of the World Wars, archaeologists unearthing a new find. And travelogs, wonderful travelogs promoting the enormous diversity of the regions of France and giving us great fodder for future road trips.

But immediately after one of those documentaries, right in the middle of “prime time,” you get a French-language dubbed, decades old episode of…wait for it, wait for it… “Columbo”! Or “Pawn Stars.” Or “Counting Cars.” Or “NCIS.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Our particular favorite is a TV show that is impenetrable but, like a train wreck, impossible to stop watching, called “Fort Boyard.” The show has been on since 1990, and variants of it are done in an astonishing number of countries around the world, all similar in theme to the original French version filmed in an abandoned fortress standing off the Charentaise coast.

It is almost impossible to explain this show. The short version is, two teams compete in a series of challenges to win money for a charity or some worthy cause. The things they must do are so dangerous, and often so politically incorrect by contemporary American standards, one would expect it to be shut down in a nonce by insurance regulations or a woke mob. Dwarfs (ok, little people(?), but now including women), dressed up in ridiculous costumes shepherd contestants through a series of challenges to obtain keys that will unlock the vault at the end of the show, where contestants have a small amount of time to rake in “gold” coins and escape through a gate before it drops and tigers are released into the room. Really.

But wait, there’s more: The Challenges! Catapulting a contestant off the top of the fort into the ocean, trying to hit a tiny target. Riding a bicycle on a wire stretched across the gaping courtyard of the fort, 50 feet or more below. Crawling through a room full of spiders, roaches, scorpians, and snakes, in the dark. And my personal favorite, a completely mad and hilariously funny “chef” forcing contestants to eat an entire plate full of a nauseating melange of “ingredients” in which the object is to keep it down and avoid blowing lunch. Worms, natto, durian, blood, feathers. Maybe some raw bass guts. Mixed together in a “bass-o-matic.” Great stuff! I could go on. There are wizards, and scantily clad ladies. Games of skill with fantasy Olympians and pre-adolescent martial arts champions. The details and wackiness seem to change each season. Everyone in France apparently knows “Fort Boyard.”

You sit there and watch this thing, and my goodness, it seems like its been going on for a while, and you look at the clock and realize this program has been on for two and a half hours, and they’re not close to the end! And there hasn’t been a commercial break.

That’s when you discover yet another convention of French television, something inconceivable to the American TV Executive: There are no commercial breaks in French television. All commercials run in a single block before and after the programs. The commercial block might be ten or twelve minutes long, but get thisevery commercial block is prefaced with a graphic that says “Promotion.”

They actually give you a warning that you are about to be hit with a block of commercials. It is sort of a “Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! Commercials Ahead!”

Not that French TV commercials are all that bad. They’re a fascinating contrast to what we see in the US, and an interesting glimpse of French culture. There seem to be two kinds of voice-over, no matter what you are watching. One is a woman (it sounds like the very same woman all the time), who breathlessly whispers to you about the product she’s hawking, be it frozen pizza or cleaning products. The other is a slightly manic male voice, trying to cram 60 seconds worth of copy into a 30-second spot, sounding like Crazy Eddie. We often look at each other and say, “I have no idea what that was about.”

The other thing you cannot help noticing is how much commercial copy and advertising verbiage, spoken or on-screen text, is English. You will hear a French voice rattling off in French, and then seamlessly work in “Fast!” “Quick!” “Amazing!” (sometimes an entire phrase in English) before returning to French. It’s startling, and I’ve often thought “When would you ever hear a commercial in the US where the announcer momentarily slipped into French then returned to English?”

There are fascinating contradictions in French TV, contradictions that mirror the contradictions in everyday life here in that tug of war between Frenchness and the invasive quality of the English language and American culture. But, predictably, there remain some constants, some immutable laws of nature that prevail, whether in the US, or here in France.

Like, Beloved Wife can’t work the remote here, either.

Evolutions

From our first arrival in the village acquaintances and friendships seemed to be extended almost effortlessly, some almost spontaneously. In moments of reflection we admit that, unbelievable as it sounds, we have acquired an ever-growing circle of friends, a circle larger and a social life infinitely more active than anything we had back in the States.

It sounds like overstatement, but it is true. We never know when our phone will ring, we will get a text, or someone will show up at the door with an invitation to do something: play pétanque now in the park, meet in half an hour at the café for a beer or coffee, meet at the guinguette for drinks, be at such and such a house for dinner on Saturday.

One day last December we found ourselves needing a passport photo for another bit of paperwork for the beast that is French bureaucracy. Reflexively, I suggested going into La Flèche to the big grocery store where they have a photo booth. Karen suggested going to the little photography studio just off the town square, about fifty steps from our front door. I resisted. It never occurred to me, even though we routinely stop to look at the window displays that change with the seasons.

Entering the shop we were greeted by a smiling bearded Frenchman right out of central casting. We launched Standard Operating Procedure for a conversation in a business establishmentapologizing for our French.

“Bonjour, monsieur. Je suis desolé. je suis Americain, et…”

“It’s OK. We speak English!”

To our left was a woman we had not seen when we entered, speaking English all right, fluent East Coast English. This was how we met Alexandra and Christophe.

Alexandra…she often goes by “Alex”…is extraordinary. She is multilingual. Born in London, having lived in Venezuela, Spain, the US, and France, she speaks fluent English, Spanish, and French (and probably more). She spent one year as a teen in Massachusetts, and speaks impeccable English with a Mid-Atlantic accent. She writes and reports for the regional newspaper. She is embedded in the local political scene, is on the village council, and if there is anyone in the entire village and environs that YOU want to know, it is Alex. She is wired into the community. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She is generous, caring, and funny as hell.

Meeting Alex was like grabbing the brass ring. She and Christophe have been a blessing.

Alex cooks; she loves food and cooking. Karen cooks and loves food and cooking. Alex and Karen are readers and they share many interests. In fact they share many remarkably similar interests. They like each other. They clicked from their first meeting, and that is a beautiful thing. What began as a tentative request by Karen for someone to tutor her in French (turned out to be Alex), quickly became friendship.

Alex is Karen’s missing link. The biggest thing missing for her in France is a soul-deep friend, a woman she can talk to, connect with, and feel kinship to. From the beginning I have had that with Anthony. Call it a male bonding thing, a deep connection. Karen has missed that kind of relationship all this time, and suddenly, with Alex, she has a completeness that was missing. She has a buddy. She has a playmate just as I have a playmate in Anthony.

Anthony has always fancied himself the guy who knows everybody in the two villages of Thorée les Pins and Luché-Pringé, but he didn’t know Alexandra and Christophe, and was mildly rattled when we told him about socializing with them and some of their friends. Somehow it didn’t seem right that these Americans knew people he didn’t. At one point he said to me, only half-joking, I suspect, “I wanted to keep you for myself.”

He kept telling me I had to introduce him to them and I kept telling him yeah, some day. They want to meet you, too. Then I’d go on and tell him about something else we did with them, just to give him the business.

Next gathering at Alex and Christophe’s place Anthony and Cèline were invited, and it was interesting to watch the initial interaction. It took a few minutes of cautious eyeing up of each other, and by the end of the first glass of wine they were all old friends, comparing notes on who knows who. The connection was made.

The two wings of our friendships have connected, and they are now friends as well. They have all been absorbed into our circle that never seems to stop growing. I have the added bonus of being able to needle Anthony that if he needs help meeting people in Luché, I can probably arrange an introduction.

Along the way, something extraordinary happened, something that struck Karen and me almost simultaneously. It was one of those moments when we realized with astonishment that we were experiencing the same thing.

The weather turned warm, flowers were blooming, and the village was stirring from the end of winter, the confinement, and the simultaneous arrival of Spring. Signs were posted that the park facilities along the river would soon open; bikes would be available for rental, along with canoes and paddle boats. The camping area along the river would open, after months of fear that the season would be lost. Luché-Pringé, a small quiet village most of the year, is a destination for camping vacationers, and normally the excellent campground fills up in summer, with “campers” drawn by the recreation area on the river bank, the pool, and the poolside bar.

Then it happened. One day, seeing all the signs of approaching summer, I felt it. For the first time in my life, I thought, “Oh hell, it’s going to be tourist season.”

I thought, “Damn. There will be more traffic in the village. Hell, I’ll have to get up earlier to get to the boulangerie in the morning, because they’ll sell out sooner because of the tourists. I’ll have to stand in line because of the tourists.”

Karen admitted she had been struck with the same thought. For the first time we had instinctively thought and felt we were on the other side of the fence. We now felt part of the us, and no longer one of them. We had that sense of mild intrusion on our normal routine the presence of tourists brings, and at the same time a kind of confirmation of being local, no longer an outsider.

It feels good!

INCOMING!

The French will tell you they don’t have flies and they don’t have mosquitoes (under duress they might admit to mosquitoes, but never on the second floor). They’ll tell you this with a straight face and absolute conviction even as they swat one away; even as stores sell fly swatters, fly paper strips, and those battery-powered tennis-racket bug-zapper things.

It’s hogwash, of course. It’s a belief system. And it is the foundation of another oddity: they don’t believe in window or door screens.

It sounds weird to say they don’t believe in window screens; it’s like saying someone doesn’t believe in ball pein hammers, but it’s true. You don’t find screens on windows. You find open windows, open to the world and to all the flies and mosquitoes that don’t exist in France.

Walk down a street in Paris or walk the streets of a country village and you will pass open windows. Big, wide-open windows. No screens.

Our friends who owned the cottage in the Aude where we stayed for a number of years finally got tired of the flies and mosquitoes that don’t exist (they lived with mosquito netting over their bed), and tried to get screens for their windows. They had to find a carpenter who would do it. They found one. He did it, reluctantly, apparently convinced it was an unnecessary extravagance by those wacky Americans. It took him several weeks to make them. Special order.

We sit here in our apartment with the windows closed, listening to the thud of flies and mosquitoes on the glass, looking across the way at our neighbors’ open windows and wondering, “How can they do that? How can their house not be full of flying insects? Do they just will them away?”

This belief that flies and skeeters don’t exist, which leads to no need for screens, is either concurrent with or the progenitor of something even more un-American: The French don’t believe in air conditioning.

It is ubiquitous in the USeverything has air conditioning. In France it is almost impossible to find. I have never been in a home that has air conditioning of any kind. In stores, restaurants, and offices it is exceedingly rare. If you’re hot, open a window. You know, the ones with no screens, because there are no flies or mosquitoes.

Air conditioning is viewed as some kind of super special luxury, so much so that if a business actually has it, there is a sign out front that announces it: Climatisation!

Restauranteurs believe the cure for being too hot inside is dining alfresco: eat outside, sometimes in the shade of an awning or canopy, sometimes under nothing except the sun.

Interestingly, while flies and mosquitoes do not exist in the mind of the French, they are quick to acknowledge and warn you of a charming thing called a Frelon, a hornet that shows up in mid-summer for a several-week long engagement.

These suckers have a buzz the sound of a small aircraft engine, and they’re huge. They could use landing gear and tail numbers. They get into the house through…well, you know where. When you draw the shutters closed you can hear them slam into them outside. And they will sting.

The only advantage you have is they fly slowly. They lumber. As aircraft go they are heavy bombers, not fighters, and so, armed with a tennis racket bug zapper, they’re moderately easy to swat down. Then you can pitch the corpses out the window, which conveniently has no screen on it.

Brake When Necessary

Say “karting” to most people in the US and they’ll think, “Oh, go-karts. How cute.”

Karting—the racing of “go-karts” is something less than a niche sport in the US; more a cult activity. Serious racers own their own machines, wrench them themselves, and participate in a very insular world of races in a scattering of regional tracks, very much below the radar of the general public. It is just about the most niche of all forms of organized motorsport in the US.

There are many Arrive-and-Drive tracks where the public can just show up, get into a kart and drive fast in 8- or 10-minute sessions against each other.  There are also tracks with Arrive-and-Drive leagues for people who wish to race seriously but don’t have the time or money to own and race their own machine. These are quite rare.

Having spent a major part of my career as a motorsports writer and broadcaster covering Indy Cars, NASCAR, and SCCA, no surprise that I have always wanted to race, but circumstance and finance made it nothing more than a pipe dream. An exhaust-pipe dream, I suppose.

A few years ago an indoor track opened about five minutes from our house, and I began spending a few hours a week running hot laps. Then an outdoor track opened with an Arrive-and-Drive league on what had been a parking lot on the outskirts of Baltimore Washington International Airport, also minutes away. Last year I finished eighth  in points in a league where I gave away more than 50 years and 100 pounds to the whippersnappers in the league. Which brings us to Le Mans.

During our stay here in France in the summer of 2016 I discovered what major league karting is really about. I had no idea.

In the US, almost all karting is similar to American short-track auto racing. Events consist of a brief qualifying period, then heats, and then a final, none much longer than ten minutes or so.  It is every man for himself.  That was karting for me. 

In Europe it is an entirely different beast. Karting is endurance racing, with races that range in length from 2 or 3 hours to 6, 7, 12, 18, and the Grands Mammus, 24 or even 30 hours. Drivers, pilotes in French, are in the cockpit for up to an hour at a time, and teams require as many as six drivers for a 24-hour event; race rules limit drivers to maximum driving time per shift, usually from 45 minutes to an hour.

This kart endurance racing is enormous in Europe, and especially in France, where Le Mans is an absolute temple in the religion of speed. It is difficult to process what big business this is, and how prominent it is in the public awareness. It is the portal to major motor racing and it is serious business. Every one of the greats, from Michael Schumacher, to Lewis Hamilton, to all of the other current drivers on the F1 circuit came through karting.

There are major-league style tracks all over the country, indeed all over Europe. On any given weekend there will be multiple endurance races all around France, with fields of 30, 40, or more teams in multiple engine classes. In the immediate vicinity of the Le Mans automobile racing circuit there are no fewer than three major karting facilities and on the same weekend there are often at least two events being run simultaneously. When I say major league, I mean it; pristine track surfaces, wide runoff areas, grandstands, restaurants, bars (!), and track-view table seating areas.

One day back in 2016 Anthony told me his close friend Ludo Voisin is captain of one of the top teams in France, the Le Mans Racing Team (LMRT). They were competing in the karting 24 hours of Le Mans that weekend, and we were invited into the pits. The Karting 24 Heures du Mans, the big apple. It was a seminal moment.

We watched. We soaked it in. I asked a lot of questions. Before we left the track that day Anthony and I had made plans to dive deep into the sport, with a goal of driving in the 24 Heures du Mans on the Le Mans International track. Make that a bucket list item.

Since that day we have come a long, long way. We have formed a base three-man team, Anthony, me, and Anthony’s dad, Yannik. Ludo Voisin has taken us under his wing as mentor, and has signed on to be a team member when LMRT is not in the same race. And, oh yes, along the way LMRT placed on the podium in the 2019 edition of the 24 Heures du Mans! Good Lord.

As soon as I arrived in November we began practicing at the Le Mans area tracks (alas, the Le Mans International track is only used for races so there is no practice availability). Through December, January, and February we ran on courses including the world-renowned Alain Prost circuit, in all weather.

Oh, forgot to mention. They race in the rain here, no rain tires. Slicks in the rain. Practice, baby, practice.

In February the team made its debut appearance. Behold, the Grey Wolves Racing Team, GWRT. We may not be fastest, but we are the oldest, and we aim to finish!

Armed with Ludo as our mentor/race captain, the first race was 7 hours, on a grey (how appropriate), rainy Saturday. RAIN! It was a hell of a way to introduce myself to endurance racing. Forty-five-minute shifts; on for 45, off for 90 minutes, then back on for 45, for 7 hours. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and addictive. I could hardly wait for the next race, and we were triumphant at the end. We drove clean, we didn’t finish last, and by the end of the event we had become something of the darlings of not only the race organizers, but other teams as well. One race into the season and we were already well known and recognized around the pit garages.

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Le Mans style start. Anthony, second from right in the rain suit,  sprints to the kart at the start.

Soon after, COVID hit, the confinement went into effect, and racing came to a halt, but by June things returned to a semblance of normal. Lo and behold, race organizers announced a 6-hour event at the Le Mans International circuit—the Bucket List track!

Six Hours, three drivers. Ludo and LMRT would also be in the race so we’d be racing against them, although racing against them consists largely of moving over as they blow past. Which, as it turns out is exactly what happened as I was running at top speed down the back straight to one of only two places on the track where you touch the brake. A kart moved inside me and I gave a wave to let him know to take the corner, and it turned out to be Ludo, who gave a thumbs up as he slipped by.

Unlike in February it was a glorious, sunny, warm day. Like February it was exhausting. But we were running at Le Mans International! And I was thrilled., especially when after the fact, Ludo told us the 10 top teams in France had been in the field.

Grey Wolves Racing Team is alive and well. In mid-August the season resumes with a 7-hour event in Alencon, about two hours away from here, followed by three more races over the next three weeks, including another 3-hour event at Le Mans International, all aiming towards the biggest event of this season, an 18-hour race in October. Our ultimate goal: next spring, the 2021 24 Heures du Mans. 

 

SONY DSC
Grey Wolves Racing Team at Le Mans : Anthony Blot, Yannik Blot, and me, with Celine Blot, the Team Manager                                                                                                         Photo by Ludo Voisin

The chronological age of the team members (Anthony is the young punk at age 43; Yannik and I are 72), while giving some people pause for admiration, has also given rise to suggestions for sponsorships because of our demographic. Like hearing aids, glasses, and (not funny) funeral homes.

To give you an idea of the reality of this, check out the link below. It is a team video from LMRT who finished on the podium in Le Mans last year. Full screen is good.

And no, we’re not yet this good, but we are building an infrastructure.

https://youtu.be/wiYArM2XOnY

Stairway to Heaven

It’s out there, lurking, silently waiting for the opportunity to strike. A silent killer.

We made contact on our very first visit to Paris, but everything was new and different, and we didn’t notice. When we launched into the countryside on rambling road trips all over France we came to grasp its omnipresence and threat. It is everywhere.

It is an architectural “feature” found throughout western Europea feature designed to maim, kill, or at least embarrass the innocent, the unwary, the American Tourist. It is a small change in the level of a floor…only an inch or two, not a full step, something more akin to a little less than half a step.

It will be where you least expect it, and where there is no reason for it to be. Unmarked, with no warning or OSHA-approved signage, it lies in wait.

You will trip if it is raised; you will stumble forward if it drops. You will never see it coming.

We once visited friends in Brussels in an apartment with a long, sweeping stairway full of normal steps, except for the final step, which was one of these man-killers. In the course of three days every visitor and some of the residents were tripped by that final step. We all went down. When I mentioned it to our host, she casually allowed as how, “Oh yes, we all fall there.”

And that was when we named itThe Belgian Half-Step. BEWARE THE BELGIAN HALF-STEP!

It will be there, in bars and restaurants, in shops, in offices, and in homes. We are now on perpetual guard, calling them out to each other like artillery observers. At a restaurant Karen returns to the table after a trip to the toilet.


“Belgian half-steps. One in the hallway, another inside the bathroom.”

“Roger that.”

We enter an establishment and I instinctively scan the floor.

Belgian half-step. Two o’ clock”

“Got it” says wife.

During the Occupation in the Second World War the mysterious deaths of hundreds of Nazi soldiers were erroneously attributed to the Resistance. It was the Belgian half-step. Germans don’t have half-steps. They have goose steps.

Even today, each year hundreds of Americans get up from their restaurant tables to go to the toilet and are never seen again; their crumpled corpses are quickly hauled away in unmarked hearses. It’s not good for business if they’re seen.

You can find dazed tourists walking the streets with pitiful signs and photographs of missing loved ones, “Have You Seen Bob?” they will ask the locals, who give a quick “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas l’anglais,” then scurry away. They know.

They don’t tell you this stuff in travel brochures.

The French Sound. Potato Salad. And oh yes, Explosives.

The French make a strange sound when conversing that sounds for all the world like someone imitating a fart. They purse their lips and push air through to make a sound like, “brrrrrp.” It’s a sound that carries meaning like a word, and is part of the vocabulary. It can mean pretty much anything, but you know what it means from “context clues,” a wave of the hand, a shrug, or a head shift that accompanies it.

We were making good time, then we hit traffic around Paris, and brrrrrp.” And you know what that means.

I owe you 50 cents. Here it is.” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: Keep it.

Is 6 o’clock too late for me to pick you up?” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: No problem.


“What did you think of the movie?” “Brrrrp.” Meaning: It sucked.

Our French has improved (on a scale of 1-10 it’s still like, -2 for me, and maybe 2+ for Karen), but we’ve found ourselves unconsciously inserting this French sound into our conversations…oddly, when speaking French or English. When it turns up while speaking French we silently congratulate ourselves on how well our French language skills are improving.

                                                                 —

If our marriage ever goes on the rocks it may be because of potato salad. Not long after we met, the subject of potato salad came up. It has remained a point of contention for more than three decades, with no give on either side.

I grew up with Proper ‘Merican Potato Salad. The right kind, with hard boiled egg, lots of mayonnaise ( let’s not get started on “Kraft or Hellmann’s”), onion, celery. Proper Potato Salad.

Beloved Wife, bless her heart, poor thing, grew up mistakenly believing what she was eating was potato salad when, of course, it was not. It was some kind of potato-salad-like thing that included no hard-boiled eggs (strike one), a mingy amount of mayonnaise (strike two), and a first wave of “vinaigrette”‒which includes mustard, sugar, and vinegar (“Strike three! You’re outta there!”). Clearly not Proper Potato Salad.

Over the years we have both become highly territorial about our recipes. If I’m in the kitchen peeling potatoes and boiling eggs, Beloved Wife will enter and suspiciously ask, “What are you doing?”

“Making potato salad.”

Want me to do it?”

“No!”

In my defense, I am treated just as rudely when I offer to help her get it right. In order to settle this dispute we have even resorted to dragging unsuspecting friends into the house to suffer a blind taste test.

Ok, no fudging here, none of this, “They were both wonderful” crap. You’re going to pick a winner, see?”

And they did. Mine won by acclamation and proclamation. Somewhat Beloved Wife says that is not so, that she won and is willing to call them up to confirm it. But I have no recollection of that. Not one bit.

Around the middle of June our friends Alexandra and Christophe announced that because of us they would hold their first-ever Genuine American Fourth of July BBQ. To make sure they got it right, they put us in charge of the menu. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Ahem. What are you doing?”

I’m making potato salad.”

Are you making The Proper Kind”

I’m making it the right way, if that’s what you mean.”

“Like with eggs and stuff?”

NO. I’m making my potato salad.”

But you can’t do that! It’s July 4th! We’re ‘Mericans. You need to make Genuine ‘Merican Potato Salad.”

I am.”

“But it’s our national holiday! You’re going to confuse the poor French with some kind of outlier, left-wing, pinko-commie, faux potato salad. Dear.”

She thought I didn’t see her reach for that knife, but I did.

Love You!” Love conquers all. Well, a lot

Ok, ok, I’ll do it your way this time, next time it’s mine.”

Ok.”

Came July 4th and all of the dishes Beloved Wife made were wildly successful, especially the Genuine Potato Salad. Alexandra’s teenage son Max hovered over the bowl, waiting politely for everyone to have some before snatching it away, announcing it would be his breakfast on the morrow. When I pointed out how much Max loved it, she gave me a “brrrrp,” a wave of the hand, and said, “He’s a teenage boy. He’ll eat anything.”

Later that evening we celebrated July 4th (and Proper ‘Merican Potato Salad) with a fireworks display orchestrated by Christophe. Ten days later we were at it again, and another border skirmish erupted.

Ten days later was Bastille Day, which is not what the French call it. They call it The National Holiday (sounds like some kind of political correctness has reared its ugly head). Once again Alexandra announced a celebratory BBQ, and would we bring more stuff like last time? Coming up: Round Two.

Whatcha doing, dear?”

“Making potato salad, and don’t start.”

What?”

You know what. I’m making my potato salad this time.”

They’re not going to like it.”

Nonsense. You agreed, remember?”

They’re going to be really disappointed.”

Shut up.”

What are you going to say when they complain it’s not as good as last time?”

Oh, for god’s sake, I’ll put hard-boiled egg in it, ok? Go away.”

And on the French National Holiday, we presented the gathering of unsuspecting French folks with a battery of delicious dishes, and somewhat-but-not-entirely Beloved Wife’s alleged potato salad.

During the meal I pulled Anthony over.

Hey, do me a favor, will ya?”

“What?”

“When you get a minute, slide on over to Karen and tell her you think the potato salad was better last time, and what did she do differently.”

But it’s good.”

I know it’s good. Just do what I said.”

But it’s good. Why should I do that? I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

Look, you’re a guy. I’m a guy. We need to stick together, Just do what I said.”

Oh, ok.” Heh.

A bit later Christophe hauled out the ordnance again, and in the glow of Roman candles I told Alexandra how much the French and Americans have in common.

We both like to celebrate our holidays by blowing shit up.”

During the pyrotechnics (better than the ones on 4 Juillet, by the way) I sidled up to Occasionally Beloved Wife.

So…Anthony said he thought last week’s potato salad was better.”

“Yes,” she said. “He told me.” She wasn’t pleased, and I started to laugh.

What are you laughing at?”

“I told him to say that.”

“You what?”

“Yeah, I told him to say that. He liked the potato salad.”


For a moment she said nothing, but gave me a truly magnificent malevolent stare.

“You see,” she said, “I knew it was a success. The boys cleaned out the whole bowl.”

Yeah, well” I replied. “They’re teenage boys. They’ll eat anything.”

Brrrrrrrrp.”