Friday, June 15, 2007

the vagabond soul

Lines composed Sunday morning on the back of the Berry on the canal de Garonne on our last day of our trip.

We stop this morning at a bridge that leads to Sérignac. I unload the bike and prepare to make a quick into the village for a couple of baguettes. As I start to leave I notice an elderly seated on a bench under a nearby maple tree. Next to him, leaned on the ground is a touring bike with packs and assorted articles of clothing draped over it. I ask him for help finding a bakery. He is eager to help.
I set off on the bike and when I return 20 minutes later, Tess and Colm are eager to show me the cookies they were just given. I notice a package of opened cookies on the bench where the old man had been earlier, then I see him emerge from our boat with a big smile and a cup of coffee in his hand. Beth hands me a cup too and the three of us have a nice chat on the bank of the canal.
His name is Jean. He tells us the he is 72 years old and he is making his second tour of France. He is clearly pleased to be alive and kicking and telling his story. His French is easy to follow. He is short, wiry strong, with silver hairs bristling above his open shirt buttons. He plants his feet where he is and holds forth at ease in his skin and with us. Each of us take turns inquiring about the other. He listens attentively, never in a hurry to interject but always more than happy to elaborate when asked to. When he gets going the words tumble out like mountain water running over rocks.
He speaks of his many jobs all of them manual labor. He's worked the fruit harvest, the vineyards, been a handy man...he's lived almost his whole life on the fringes of human settlements, preferring to construct makeshift cabanes on the properties where he worked, habitations he could easily and quickly dissassemble if and when the occasion demanded. He has several children, several of whom have inherited what he calls the wandering gene. In his youth he traversed the country on foot. More recently he has led a horse and cart about, giving children rides whenever he arrived in a village. Only three weeks ago he had finally sold his horse and decided to set off on a bicycle for his grand tour. This time, he says, there are no constraints, no itineraries - liberté totale.
To illustrate he explains how a few days earlier he had been riding into a strong wind. At a given point he realized that he no longer wished to go that way, so he turned around and went downwind. Once, I did the same thing in the Alps, he adds with a sly smile. I got to a certain point, it was so steep, I just turned around and went downhill. Jean laughs, and we do too. He is self deprecating but refreshingly unapologetic.
Jean is one of those vagabond philosophers, someone who conjures another era. An era populated with names like Woodie Guthrie and Tom Joad. A look at his bike and gear confirms this impression. He's the opposite of the spandex types who cruise remorselessly and relentlessly with laser like focus up and down these bike paths. It's an ungainly and ad hoc set up, with ropes and bags. Jean doesn't knife through the air; if he could, he would catch it like a sail.
I've met other vagabonds and like him, one of their signature characteristics is that they are tale tellers. The story Jean composes for us is colorful and populated by oblique references to children and spouses, former lives and wives. Like all well worn things it is a bit threadbare. It won't do to scrutinize it too carefully or to tug on any of the loose ends. Unlike other wanderers I've run across , however, Jean seems to be genuinely curious to hear our stories as well. He is equal parts audience and performer.
He asks us how we like France, a question we have fielded more times than we can count by now. Beth mentions missing the wide open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. She evokes the empty stretches of territory largely devoid of humans.
"I think I would like it there," murmurs Jean.
When I ask him what his favorite region in France is he shrugs.
"Everywhere you go it is always prettier somewhere else. It never changes. Every place is the same. The people everywhere the same. Each village has its thieves, its liars and characters. Sometimes I pass by a monument or a cathedral. It's beautiful, impressive to see but I have no desire to go inside because it will be just like all the others. It's the same way in talking to people. It's pleasurable to meet new people, like you - to speak with them for awhile, but in the end, we are all the same. There is nothing new to learn, only the pleasure of meeting. And so I keep looking for something new and different. I know that it doesn't exist, but I look for it just the same."
Jean laughs as he says this last line. It is a disarming performance. I laugh too though I almost feel like applauding. Listening to Jean you are tempted sorely to believe that one might be able to travel eternally downhill, to always have the wind at your back, that one need never stick his face into the teeth of elemental forces.
A half hour has slipped by as quietly and effortlessly as the water nearby. It is time to untie the boat and let that water take us home. We take our leave from Jean. He gives kisses to the kids who are tickled by his whiskers. We leave Jean under the shade of the maple tree by the bridge leading to Séringac. In a few short minutes we are underway once more.
Not too long afterwards, we see Jean one last time as he overtakes us on the bike path, his chaplainesque figure mounted lightly on his ungainly bicycle. We wave and watch him outpace our boat until he has ridden completely beyond our sight along the canal which seems to stretch before us without end....
I've relinquished the wheel to Tim and Beth. I sit here in the bright sun on the back of the boat, my legs dangling over the propeller, I look straight ahead into the spaces through which we have already traveled twice, both going and now coming back. Behind me, approaching my blind side, is a future composed of elements both familiar and unforeseeable. The present churning moment seems composed of things already known and already receding into strangeness. The widening wake of water trailing behind the boat obscures the subtle corrections constantly being attempted at the wheel, averaging out all of our decisions and indecisions into a single vector, angling from here to there, utterly indifferent to which here or which there.
Perhaps it is a trick we play on our own minds - the story that this here-and-now is unique and different from that here-and-now yesterday or yet to come. Perhaps it is a way to satisfy a nagging need to justify the restless vagabond spirit or to fend off the suspicion that we're going nowhere, getting nowhere, and that we've only just arrived from where we've never stopped starting.
Bob Dylan wrote, "it takes a train to cry."
I'm on a boat.


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