Sometimes it’s good to act on instinct. Sometimes.
On Saturday, having returned from a trip to Yorkshire, I was quietly sitting down to relax for the evening when my son returned from playing cricket with a question.“Why don’t we go to Paris tomorrow?”
Why don’t we go to Paris any day of the week is my automatic response, but ‘tomorrow’ was going to be special. For the first time in its 99 years, the Tour de France was about to be won by a British cyclist. In addition to that, there was a very good chance that another Brit would win the final stage of the three-week tour on the Champs Elysees – for an historic fourth consecutive year. I’m not especially nationalistic – and consider myself a European first and foremost – but this was about to be a historic day.
And, more to the point, the sun was finally out and the shaded temperature of Paris was set for 26 degrees.
The instinct was to go. Then the intellect came into play. Was it viable? Could we get there in time? How much would it cost? Would I be okay to drive all that way on my own? Should we stay the night?
After searching the internet, we got a decent deal on the shuttle train across the Channel and a cheap place in Calais to rest our heads for the night, and so we set off.
I adore Paris. Something magical happens to me as soon as I enter the city. Being in a country where I only partially (very partially) speak the language might well make me feel alien or foreign – but I don’t. I feel incredibly at home in Paris.
When there was an influx of footballers from mainland Europe who wanted to play in the Premier League, there was an amount of disquiet from certain quarters. They were collectively known as “foreigners”. This word, used in this instance as a derogatory term, seemed totally inappropriate to me. They weren’t ‘foreigners’: they were fellow Europeans. I’m a European and so were they.
This is how I feel still. I’m a European; inclusive, part of a community that is wider than the constraints of island dwelling, and for me that feels good.
So Paris, for me, is just an extended part of my belonging. With the access and ease of the Channel Tunnel, it’s actually easier for me to get to Paris (and almost the same length of time) as it is to get to England’s West Country, or to South Wales. It’s certainly quicker to get to northern France from central London than either of those British places mentioned, so why don’t people do it? Why does it seem as though we are going on a great adventure when in point of fact, we are travelling for less time than it would take me to get from south-east London to the English Midlands?
Changing the way you think can really open worlds.
Back to the race, and we walked down the Rue de Rivoli to find a place where we could watch the race. Positioning ourselves in a small square with a golden statue of Joan of Arc, we waited patiently, assisted by a café at close quarters selling gallettes and ludicrously expensive jus d’orange.
At this point, we were feeling incredibly European for all our jingoism about Bradley Wiggins about to be confirmed as the Tour 2012 winner. We were surrounded by the beautifully eclectic sound of multiple languages; French, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, German – to name but a few. The Americans were in town too and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of this shared enjoyment and the camaraderie that was taking place.
And so to the Tour.
Having watched it throughout the last few weeks, enjoying the brilliance of the French countryside, it felt perfectly right to be in Paris for the final stage. Yet all this television viewing could not prepare one for the first sight of the peloton as they emerged from the underpass at the back of the Tuileries. Even though you knew what was about to happen, there was in incredible element of surprise as the cyclists hurtled by. An adrenalin surge rushed through me to the point that I could barely keep my camera in focus. It was indescribably exciting, exacerbated by the breathless quiet of the teenager beside me – wonderful.
Team Sky performed with improvised brilliance. The yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins was obviously apparent, but this stage of the race wasn’t about him. It was about teamwork, and for all the anticipation and excitement for him about crossing the line to win the Tour, he was merely part of a team, supporting another great racer to gain his historic accolade. Mark Cavendish, dressed in his world champion rainbow colours, was the man the team were looking after today, and look after him they did. The Sky ‘train’ worked its magic and calmly led the way to the double celebration.
The two egos of the team’s superstars were somehow lost in the need for team work.
The wait for the final circuit was as dramatic as it could be. The penultimate lap had opened up a gap between the breakaway leaders and the riders of the Sky team. That gap appeared to be unbridgeable, but as they emerged from the tunnel for the final time, the British team were out in front and it looked as though Cavendish was placed for glory. The crowd erupted, and it wasn’t just the Brits who were cheering them on. Nationalism was lost in that wonderfully global crowd. Everyone wanted Cavendish to win, or so it seemed. The excitement was at fever pitch, and for those who either don’t know the Tour or have tried to watch it but don’t understand the excitement, believe me, the passion in those final moments was tangible and audible; utterly breath-taking.
Other moments to comment on?
An American family standing next to us had recently moved to Paris for three years. As I had monopolised the front position next to the barrier for five laps, I suggested to the father of the family that he could take my place at the front for the next lap. His immediate response was, “No. This is your guy, your day. We’re just spectators in all of this. For you, it is something else!”
How great that there is such empathy in practice. In all the negativity we sometimes embroil ourselves in with gross stereotyping of nationalities, it is a healthy reminder that we are people first and ‘belong’ to nations second.
A family of Norwegians was keen to know whether I’d managed to get the photos that I wanted. The man asked me if I had a photo of the two Brits, and when I said that I had, he asked to see it. His enjoyment and pleasure that I had got the shots that I wanted was so genuine and heart-warming. If the upcoming Olympics have a similar feeling of collective enjoyment then we are in for a real humanitarian treat for the next month.
Of course, this blog would not be complete without a mention of the man who won the entire race, Bradley Wiggins.
Okay, he showed his physical brilliance over a period of 22 days, but what was equally impressive was the manner in which he took the victory. His humour, his humility, his feeling of honour for himself, his family and his team were all completely genuine. He was delighted and surprised at the messages of support from various people he said he looked up to: sporting idols, cycling companions, ordinary Tweeters – he was grateful for them all. He could see the genuinely historic nature of his win but it was almost too much for him, and his modesty spoke volumes as he almost honoured his achievement in the third person, as though it was a different human being from the man who was speaking.
Well done Bradley – a thoroughly deserved win. Bring on the Olympics!
Above all, we are humans who act instinctively, intellectually, with feeling for ourselves and compassion for others. We can marvel at the overwhelming stamina and physical perfection of these athletes and be drawn into the awe of a spectacle; spiritually uplifted by the combination of thoughts, feelings and imaginations.
We are three dimensional, and days like today exemplify this mode of living.
Capturing moments like these are wonderful. My son said it was probably one of the best days of his life. Acting intelligently in this way, I hope he has many more ‘best days’ to come.
Here are some more photos of the day.