Day 1. Monday June 1, 2015 … Chantilly … 20 miles/20 total … The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. With a bike

1 seeing chantilly

I’m in Chantilly.

The one in France.

It’s just north of Paris, a short bike ride from the airport.

It’s 4:22AM (Tuesday morning) and I can’t sleep. Despite the Ambien I took seven hours ago. My neck hurts. A lot. Can’t find a comfortable position on this uncomfortable, saggy bed. My battered & traumatized brain won’t calm the hell down and my anxiety/stress level is way up. Despite the Lexapro I took 20 hours ago at the airport. Should I take another Lexapro? I’m gonna. Hang on…

OK, I’m back. Took the Lexapro. Let’s hope it works fast.

Why am I here? In Chantilly?

Well, I have a TBI (that’s a traumatic brain injury, and, trust me, they don’t use the word traumatic lightly).

Was on a bike ride: April 20, 2014. A beautiful Sunday morning. 11:47AM. And a very drunk driver hit me. And sped away. Was knocked unconscious, had a fractured skull and the TBI. Woke up four days later in the hospital. Didn’t – and still don’t – remember a thing about that day.

BTW: They caught the bastard. He’s in jail, two months into a five-year sentence. And no, I won’t say or write his name. Ever.

I’m a newspaper reporter.

Actually, used to be a newspaper reporter. Not sure what I am now. Got laid off by the Examiner three weeks ago. Nothing personal, they said. Circulation and revenue are down, we need to make some cuts. Sorry Marc, you’re one of the cuts. We don’t need a general assignment & enterprise reporter who also does a weekly humor column. We’re going in another direction. What direction? We’re not sure, but it’s a different one. Don’t ask so many questions. Thanks for all your good work the past 10 years. We’re giving you and everyone else we’re laying off a week’s severance pay for every year you worked here … up to 5 weeks.

 

So, there you have it, that’s why I’m here in France.

In Chantilly, starting an epic French bike trip.

And can’t sleep … without Maddie. I miss Maddie so much it hurts.

***

OK Marc, enough with all the whining. They get the picture. Get to the bike trip part of the bike trip.

Let’s just say it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts.

My flight from Philadelphia left at 8:50PM Sunday (that seems so long ago) and arrived at Aeroport Charles De Gaulle at 8:35AM Monday. Paris time. Tried to fall asleep on the flight, and did … 20 minutes before we landed.

Waited at the baggage carousel for my bike and my panniers.

Panniers?

They’re the bags you attach to each side of the rack on the back of your bike. They hold all your stuff. And you need a lot of stuff when you’re on an epic French bike trip. Pannier is a French word, and I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce it. The R might be silent. There are a lot of silent letters in French. It’s confusing.

My panniers rolled out onto the baggage carousel, but no bike.

Where the hell is my bike?

Why isn’t it coming up the baggage carousel? Everyone else from my flight had their bags and was long gone. It was just me – and my panniers – and no bike in a big, cardboard box. Started stressing out. Big time. How the hell am I going to go on a bike trip without a bike? You kind of need one. Otherwise it’s just “a trip.”

Is it gone? Lost? Stolen? Evaporated? Do I have to go into Paris and buy a bike? Is this an omen? Should I get on the next flight home? Can I just curl up in a ball in the corner of this airport and cry myself to sleep?

Finally decided to find the Air France luggage office, walked in … and there it was, my bike in a box. Sitting there. It seems the big, bulky, cardboard box was too big to go through the baggage carousel, something I should have figured out a long time – and a lot of stress – ago. Hey, give me a break; I have a TBI and just spent a sleepless night on a stupid airplane.

Dragged the box out of the Air France office, found a semi-quiet spot in a corner and started putting my bike back together. And had all sorts of problems getting the damn handlebars back on. I’m a pretty experienced cyclist and can fix flats and dropped chains and replace brake pads. This was the first time I’d ever disassembled and packed my bike into a box, and then tried to put it back together again.

You know, the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. With a bike.

 

The pedals and wheels were a breeze to put back on. The handlebars were a different story. You have to thread this long screw down through the stem and into this little nut that you can’t really see.

My manual dexterity isn’t quite as dexterous as it once was. Neither is my patience, which wasn’t the greatest to begin with. Now, I get stressed out and anxious and impatient so much faster than I used to, which, like I said, was already pretty fast. Even with the Lexapro. Damn TBI.

Let’s just say I was anxious, stressed out & pissed off as I tried to get the handlebar screw back in place. My stuff was strewn about every which way, was mumbling curses to myself, as hundreds of people from all over the world walked by, staring at me like I was Crazy Airport Guy.

OK, they may have had a point.

Couple of times had to take a step back from my bike and the stupid handlebar screw, take a few deep, cleansing breaths and try to relax.

Finally got the screw in, the handlebars on properly and my bike back together, and could dial down the stress level. Felt a little better. Put the panniers on, put the handlebar bag on the handlebars and used a couple of bungee cords to attach my small knapsack on top of the panniers on the back of my bike. A guy I know, who’s biked across the U.S. and around Europe a few times, told me I absolutely, positively had to bring at least four bungee cords and a roll of duct tape with me.

“You can fix anything and solve any problem with bungee cords and duct tape on a bike trip,” he said. “And, for some reason, gray duct tape works best.”

“Really? Gray?”

“Nah, I’m just messing with you Marc, every color’s the same.” Nevertheless, have a roll of gray duct tape with me.

You never know.

***

At 11:36AM, finally rolled my bike out of the airport terminal … and into France. My epic bike trip had begun. And yeah, people look at you kind of funny when you wheel a loaded-up bike through a busy airport. Screw ‘em, they’re jealous. Had a map of the airport from the information booth, and all I had to do was find the periphery road. It winds around the airport and would take me to the D212 road that would then take me in the direction of Chantilly, where I planned to find a hotel and spend the night.

Easy, right?

Not exactly.

All the signs outside the terminal pointed to the A1, the French equivalent of a big American super highway/turnpike. Didn’t want to get on the A1. Not on a bike. It may be illegal. Definitely dangerous. And I’m kind of petrified of dangerous, traffic-filled roads. For obvious reasons. Went a couple hundred yards in every direction, around and around, looking for some sort of sign or side road that would lead me to the periphery. Nothing. Finally, frustrated and pissed off, which is the exact opposite of how you want to start off an epic French bike trip, started following the signs toward the A1, hoping for the best. From the map, this seemed like where the periphery should be. After about half a mile, and before I got to the A1, saw a road up above me, crossing over the road I was on.

 

“This has to be the periphery road,” I mumbled. “But how the hell do I get up there?”

Went a little further, hoping I’d find the access road up to the periphery, but again … nothing … and I was getting closer and closer to the start of the actual A1. More and more cars were zooming by. Was getting more and more nervous, anxious and stressed out. Turned around and rode back under what I thought – and hoped – was the periphery, and decided had no choice but to climb the steep, rocky embankment.

Started up and immediately realized it was a suicide mission. My bike, what with all the panniers and bags, my laptop, toiletries, underwear (five pairs!), must have weighed 70 pounds. Maybe more. There was no way I was getting it up the steep embankment. Not in my weakened, post-incident (I will never, ever call it an accident) condition. Sat down on the side of the road, fought back the tears, and tried to figure out what to do. Stuff like this never used to bother me or stress me out.

“So, Marc, how was your bike trip through France? Amazing, right?” “Well, I never actually made it out of the airport.”

“Voila!” I shouted after a few minutes … and took my panniers and knapsack off my bike and carried them to the top of the embankment, slipping and falling once, skinning my left knee. Hey, it’s not easy climbing up the side of an airport mountain in clip-in bike shoes. Went back down, super- extra carefully, got my bike and managed to push it up the embankment without falling. Barely. Reattached the panniers and bags. Bungee cords in place.

Mission accomplished. Off I went.

The road was the periphery. I think. Must have been. Rode a couple miles, past a bunch of big hotels, came out the other end of the airport on the D212 and headed north to Chantilly. My back and neck only hurt a little. Felt good to be on a bike. In France. Finally. As soon as you ride into Chantilly, you turn a corner and there it is … this amazing French castle. Then again, all the castles here in France are French castles. Or chateaux, as they call them over here. And they’re all probably amazing. It’s not like some rich king or duke or marquis is going to build a small, boring castle. All the other kings, dukes & marquis would mock him relentlessly: “Hey Henri, your chateau is merde.”

There were moats and gardens surrounding the chateaux in Chantilly, and turrets and spires all over the façade. Felt a little better as I sat in the gardens and tried – somewhat successfully – to relax.

And then I got sad. Really sad.

And tired. And thought about Maddie. She should be here with me. She’d love Chantilly.

***

Started this journal 23 days after the incident. This was about the time the fog in my brain lifted enough for me to begin to process my thoughts and write them down in a somewhat clear and coherent way.

My neuropsychologist thought keeping a journal would be a good way to help me organize my thoughts, deal with my depression, anxiety and stress, retrain my brain and eventually help me get back to work at the Examiner. The neuropsychologist was right. Keeping a journal helps. Now, writing in my journal is a habit, something I have do every day to try and make sense of everything that’s happened and is still happening to me.

BTW: Never knew there was such a thing as a neuropsychologist until I started seeing one. Did you? Didn’t think so.

I’m definitely still in recovery mode, mentally and physically. Had 19 broken bones. I think. Was never clear on the exact number. What’s the difference if it was seven broken ribs or eight broken ribs? It hurts the same. A lot. Let’s just say stuff was busted up from head to toe and what wasn’t broken was bloody and/or bruised & battered. My biggest issue right now is this damn TBI. It’s a bastard. And I may have a little PTSD mixed in with the TBI, according to my neuropsychologist. Yep, the TBI/PTSD daily double. And, I have all the depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress-related issues that come with TBI/PTSD.

It’s now 5:44AM and I’m going to close my laptop and try to sleep for a couple of hours. It’s been a long couple of days. Hope some of the above makes some sense, as I’m a little delirious, what with all the sleep deprivation.

This is the end of Chapter 1, to keep reading, go to the next post… it gets even better! And remember, you can order the entire printed Numbskull

 

I also have a new Biking France Blog, with stories about all my new and real French biking adventures. Here’s the link. Thanks. OK, now get back to the Numbskull.

Day 2. Tuesday, June 2, 2015 … Soissons … 50 miles/70 total miles … My $140 waterproof panniers aren’t as waterproof as advertised

2 stuff copy

I didn’t.

Fall back asleep, last night. May have dozed off for a few minutes, but mostly tossed and turned. Finally, at 7:57AM, admitted defeat, got up and went to the café next door for coffee and two croissants.

Jet lag sucks. Combine it with a TBI and it super sucks.

But I do love croissants (and pain au chocolates). And, I’m already quite good at pointing and saying “Deux, s’il vous plait.”

BTW: That means “two, please.”

BTWA (the A is for again): When an American holds up two fingers to indicate we want two of something, we use our pointer finger and middle finger. Like the peace sign. Go ahead, try it … I’ll wait.

I’m right, aren’t I?

When a French person does it, they use their thumb and pointer finger. So, when an American uses their pointer and middle finger in France to indicate two, it confuses the hell out of the French. They’re not sure if we mean two or three. Or peace.

BTWAA: One croissant or pain au chocolate is never enough. It must always be two. Sometimes three.

***

Wait, before I forget all the details, must write about the flight over to Paris and the guys sitting on either side of me. Damn, this would have made a great column for the Examiner. And by great, I mean funny.

Window Seat Guy was a rather large, older man (60?) whose largeness spilled over onto my seat. Let’s just say I wasn’t getting a piece of that armrest. Aisle Seat Guy was about the same age as me. I think. Me? I’m 34. My birthday was a few weeks ago: Two days after I got laid off at the Examiner. Happy birthday Marc! Anyway, Aisle Seat Guy was thin, but a total armrest hog, which meant I wasn’t getting a piece of that armrest either. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable flight. My neck was already starting to hurt. So was my head. This was my first flight since you know what, and I was worried about flying and how it would impact my TBI.

 

Aisle Seat Guy: “Have you ever read Lonesome Dove?”

Me: “No.”

He showed me the paperback copy of Lonesome Dove he was reading.

Smiled politely at him.

Aisle Seat Guy: “You’ve never read Lonesome Dove? I can’t believe it. It’s the greatest book ever written. It won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s an epic western adventure about …”

Window Seat Guy: “Hold on a second, the greatest book ever written is Guns of Navarone. It’s an incredible World War II story about the…”

Aisle Seat Guy: “Guns of Navarone, are you kidding me? I’ve read it and I’ve seen the movie. It’s OK, but it’s no Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry is a genius I tell you, a genius.”

On and on they went, until finally, mercifully, dinner was served and they shut their yaps for a few minutes. Debated whether or not to tell them The Three Musketeers is the greatest book ever written. Decided not to, worried I’d prolong a literary debate I had no interest in being part of.

It seems Aisle Seat Guy travels to Paris once a year for business.

Aisle Seat Guy: “I read a third of Lonesome Dove on the flight over, a third while I’m in Paris and a third on the flight home.”

Me: “That’s cool.”

Thought about telling him maybe it was time he got back to reading the first third of Lonesome Dove, but decided against it. I’m working on being nicer and more patient, and Aisle Seat Guy may have been a test.

A really hard test.

Just before we landed, Aisle Seat Guy offered me his copy of Lonesome Dove.

Me: “I couldn’t take it, you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of it in Paris and on the flight back.”

Aisle Seat Guy: “No problem, I always bring an extra copy with me. Just in case. It’s in my suitcase. I’m on page 157, so I can pick up right where I left off tonight.”

Wow, he brings a spare copy “just in case.” Just in case of what? Is there some sort of sinister gang of book thieves roaming the streets of Paris, preying on Americans reading Lonesome Dove? And do they only steal books written by Larry McMurtry, or do they also swipe books by other popular authors?

Didn’t want Aisle Seat Guy’s copy of Lonesome Dove, but it seemed vitally important to him that I take the stupid book. So, I did. Forgot to pack a book, so what the hell, now I have something to read. Maybe it will help me fall asleep. Probably not.

Aisle Seat Guy: “I guarantee you’ll love it and will thank me.”

BTW: My brain and my TBI can handle flying. Felt fine. That’s a relief. Had visions of excruciating, pounding headaches as the plane gained altitude, followed by quiet, yet desperate whimpering for seven hours.

***

OK, back to Day 2 of my bike trip, or Sleepless in France. No wait, Sleepless in Soissons. That sounds better, although it only works today.

I’m in Soissons, which is about a 50-mile ride from Chantilly, and it’s 3:46AM (Wednesday morning) and, surprise, surprise, can’t sleep.

Yet again.

So, I’m writing.

Again.

The plan had been to keep going through Soissons – it’s got a giant cathedral and not much else – and then ride another 20 miles to Laon and stay there. It started raining about 25 miles into the ride and was still raining when I got to Soissons. It was cold, wet and I was starting to shivering and shake. Plus, was really tired from the whole jet-lag, lack-of-sleeping thing and from riding the 50 miles.

“The hell with it,” I said when I got to Soissons, and got a room at the Hotel Du Pot D’Etain and immediately discovered my brand-new, $140 waterproof panniers aren’t quite as waterproof as advertised.

All my clothes were at least damp and some were soaking wet (the ones on the bottom). Spread everything out anywhere and everywhere I could find a place to spread them out: the bed post, the hook on the bathroom door, the douche (that’s the French word for shower and yes, immature people – like me – think it’s funny) and on the radiator, which wasn’t on even though it’s pretty darn cold. Stretched two bungee cords from the bed post to the window and hung the rest of my clothes on them. Thank goodness for bungee cords.

If my stuff isn’t dry in the morning, I’ll find a Laundromat and put them in the dryer.

Let’s just say getting around the room was difficult with stuff hanging everywhere. It was like one of those Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies where there are all these multi-colored laser beams filling a room and guarding some giant diamond or a highly toxic, mutated strain of a virus that will kill millions of people. Tom has to twist and turn and gymnast his way through the laser beams.

 

I’m no Tom Cruise (that’s a good thing, right?), and almost killed myself going to the bathroom in the dark. Turns out you can clothes line yourself on a clothes line. Guess that’s where the phrase comes from.

Thank goodness my laptop was in a large – and actually waterproof – Ziploc bag, along with Lonesome Dove, which I started reading a few hours ago to try and help me fall asleep. It’s pretty good. Aisle Seat Guy may be on to something.

Still can’t fall asleep, so I might as well write some more.

Tonight’s topic: cycling.

I’m a pretty experienced and strong cyclist. Well, I was a strong cyclist before that bastard almost killed me. Not so much anymore, but I’m determined to get back into biking shape. Uncle Steve took me on my first bike trip the summer before my senior year of high school. To Vermont. Lots of mountains. It was great. Learned how to climb mountains and turn beautiful circles with my pedals. The next year we did upstate New York. Lake George, Lake Placid and lots of other lakes. And more mountains. Still great. Was hooked on the whole cycling and bike-trip thing. We skipped a year and then did the Skyline Drive in Virginia, which is one huge mountain. It was amazing. We skipped another year and did the C&O Canal, finishing up in Washington, D.C., which was where Uncle Steve lived. That was our last bike trip. Uncle Steve was diagnosed with brain cancer about three months after the C&O trip and, well, he didn’t make it.

Really miss Uncle Steve and our bike trips. He would have loved biking over here in France.

OK, on to Chapter 3…Marc sneaks into a church and has a vision

Day 3. Wed., June 3, 2015 … Laon … 50 miles/120 total miles … My chin was made of metal … and my chest was a magnet

3 Laon street

Another night of tossing and turning and not much actual sleeping. What with the whiplash, broken shoulder and back issues, it’s really hard to find a comfortable sleep position. Used to sleep on my stomach. Not now. Hurts my neck. Have to sleep on my side and don’t like sleeping on my side.

They have these things called whiplash pillows. They’re expensive and are supposed to eliminate the pain in your whiplashed neck.

They don’t. A lesson that cost me $200.

This makes three mostly sleepless nights in a row.

BTW: My clothes were sort of, mostly dry this morning. Spent about half an hour in the bathroom, drying out my underwear with the annoyingly unpowerful hair dryer. May have burned out the motor.

***

Left Soissons a little after 10AM. The plan was to ride to Laon. It’s only about 20 miles from Soissons, so took the long way. Headed east to Fismes, where I had some lunch … and fell asleep in a little park next to the church. Lay down on a bench by the church for a minute, it was sort of comfortable in a wooden-bench kind of way … and next thing I knew it was half an hour later. Hope this doesn’t screw me up tonight.

When I woke up, my neck was stiff. And sore. More than usual. The lingering effects of the whiplash. My lower back was also stiff and sore. More than usual. The lingering effects of the three compression-fractures of my vertebra. Did some yoga (Maddie was big on yoga and took me to classes all the time), felt a little better, and started riding. It rained a little, got wet, it stopped raining, gradually dried out.

 

BTW: Now pack all my clothes in the plastic bags you get at the grocery store, and then put them into my not-so-waterproof panniers. Better safe than soggy.

***

Got to Laon. It’s an ancient city perched high atop a cliff that juts up out of the flatlands below. The cliff is like 300-feet high and about a mile long. The city on top is filled with all these old, stone buildings, including the 12th- Century Gothic cathedral. It’s called Notre Dame. The towers of the church are decorated with dozens of statues of oxen. Oxen? It seems these beasts of burden hauled up all the stones they used to build the church and all the buildings and ramparts.

Got a room at a hotel near the train station at the base of the cliff. Took a shower, another nap, had something to eat and finally headed up to the top of the cliff to explore Laon. You can take the POMMA 2,000 cable car, but decided to walk the ancient steps. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes ancient, but I’m going to call all the stuff 500 years or older ancient.

It’s 297 steps to the top (I counted). Had to stop and rest and catch my breath four times. Stairs are tough. Should have taken the POMMA. Would have, but I’m a bit stubborn (get this from Dad) and kind of cheap (Dad, again) and it cost 2 Euros. Plus, one of the goals of this trip is to get my body back in shape, and taking the POMMA 2,000 isn’t going to get me there. Plus, all the riding and walking should tire me out and help me sleep better tonight. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably not. It’s worth a shot. My left ankle was throbbing by the time I got to the top. It’s the one that got broken. Forget the exact name, but it’s the kind of break where the muscle pulls away from the bone and takes a piece of the bone with it. Yeah, it hurts as much as it sounds like it would hurt. Feels OK when I bike, but starts to hurt when I walk a lot. Probably shouldn’t walk a lot. Or climb 297 ancient stairs.

Wandered around town, wound up at Notre Dame, noticed a couple of television trucks parked outside and lots of people milling around. Everyone was dressed up and seemed excited about something. The tourist office is next to the church. Went inside.

“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked.

“Yes,” the women said.

Asked her what was going on at the church: A free concert this very evening by the Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France that was being broadcast on TV.

Although the concert was free, you needed a ticket.

“Can I have une billet please.”

Billet means ticket, and I have no idea if I pronounced it properly. Think

the T is silent.

 

She looked at me with a look that I can only describe as one of contempt, as if tickets for an event of such importance would still be available an hour before the start of the concert.

“We have no more tickets,” she said, shooting me another haughty look. “They have been complete for weeks.”

***

No way was I going to let the lack of a billet prevent me from hearing the Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France play in a 900-year old church perched on top of a cliff and covered with oxen.

Come on, how often do you get a chance for something like this?

Got in line, toward the back, and waited and waited. They finally opened the doors and we started filing into the church. “Look like you belong and have a ticket,” I told myself as I got close to the entrance. My plan, if someone asked for my ticket, was to go totally dumb American on him (or her). “I do not understand, Je ne parle pas Francais,” I would say over and over until they finally gave up and let me in, shaking their head in disgust and exasperation at the stupid American without a billet. Hey, we already have a reputation for being rude tourists, so why not use it to my advantage?

Amazingly, nobody asked to see my billet … and I waltzed right into the church and took a seat in the back, in the unreserved section. At least I think it was the unreserved section. Nobody said anything. Or asked for a billet. Waited for the start of the concert, and the sun started setting. As it did, the red and blue stained-glass windows got darker and darker and finally went black. It was quite beautiful and peaceful. My brain was calm.

The Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France was wonderful. Their first number was something by Mozart.

The only problem was the cymbals. Holy crap were they loud. And hurt my head whenever Cymbal Guy crashed them together. At one point, Cymbal Guy smashed them together five or six times in a row. Thought my brain would explode.

Noise has been a problem since the incident.

And bright lights.

And lots of other stuff.

It’s a long list. Too tired to go into it now, but let’s just say cymbals are now at the top of the list.

By the start of the third or fourth song (I know song isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure what else to call it … Movement? Piece? Number?), was starting to get a little drowsy and soon it was like my chin was made of metal … and my chest was a magnet.

Clank!

 

Third nap of the day.

Dreamed Maddie was sitting next to me in an ancient white-stone church atop a cliff. We were holding hands, listening to an orchestra, smiling. Maddie looked so beautiful. We were so happy. It felt so real.

And then my dream changed. We were on bikes. Here, in France. Fields of sunflowers. Smiled at Maddie. And suddenly, without warning, a car slammed into Maddie. She went flying.

Woke up with a jolt.

And started silently sobbing. The tears just streamed down my face, and dripped onto my pants. Couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to stop. The lady sitting next to me stared, looked concerned, whispered something in French, and handed me some tissues from her pocketbook.

“Merci,” I sobbed.

Maddie should be here with me.

But she’s not.

She’s dead.

Murdered. By the bastard who hit us on April 20, 2014. At 11:47AM. She died at the scene from a broken neck. I was lying 20 yards away. Unconscious. Couldn’t help her … couldn’t hold her hand … couldn’t tell Maddie I loved her. The thought of her lying there, battered and broken, and not being able to do anything to help her … well, I just can’t get it out of my mind. Picture that scene all the time. Her lying there. Me lying there. Dream about it. And always wake up with a jolt, and in a sweat. And start sobbing.

I was so out of it and busted up, drugged up and foggy in the brain after I woke up in the hospital that they had to keep telling me Maddie was dead two or three times a day before it finally sunk in and I stopped desperately asking: “Where’s Maddie? Where’s Maddie? Where the hell is Maddie?”

Refused to believe it.

My parents told me, Maddie’s mom told me, a police officer came to the hospital to ask me questions and told me. He asked me what I remembered. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing.”

We were on a bike ride, getting ready for our wedding-anniversary bike trip to the Loire Region of France. We’d been to France together once before. Six nights in Paris on our honeymoon. Loved it. Had been talking about a Loire bike trip for years and we were finally gonna do it. Were so excited. Maddie spent a semester of college in Paris and she did a four-day bike trip in the Loire with some friends. We were going to recreate her trip, and then keep riding to another couple of castles. Ten days on bikes in the Loire. It was going to be so amazing and so romantic. I was going to write a book, Biking the Loire, that we’d self-publish as an eBook. Maddie was going to take all the photos. She’s a great photographer. And the next year (which is now this year), we’d bike through the Dordogne or Bordeaux, maybe both if I could

get enough time off from work. Or maybe Provence. More eBooks. More romantic bike trips.

All of that’s gone.

And now, here I am, in a church in Laon, without Maddie, listening to an orchestra, the tears streaming down my cheeks.

Chapter 4 is next … We learn why this book is titled Numbskull

Day 4. Thursday, June 4, 2015 … Reims … 45 miles/165 total miles … Remember that scene in Wayne’s World where…

4 Day

Finally, a decent night’s sleep last night, and owe it all to Ambien. Took one Ambien my first two nights here, the prescribed dose. Last night, in Laon, took two. Was desperate for a good night’s sleep. And knew, after my near- nervous breakdown in the church, that I’d never be able to fall asleep without some extra help. Can’t sleep without Maddie. We used to cuddle and spoon, talk and laugh, get drowsy and fall asleep.

Feel a little better this morning. Almost back to normal, or at least my new, post-murder, without-Maddie, TBI normal. It’s been so long since I’ve felt normal that I can’t really remember normal.

Can’t Remember Normal, now that’s a good title for a book.

Anyway, don’t have enough Ambien to take two every night, and probably shouldn’t. OK, definitely shouldn’t. Don’t even have enough Ambien left to take one every night. Have 34 left (just counted) and will probably be here at least 40 more nights.

Will have to skip the Ambien some nights, but not yet … not quite ready. Need my Ambien. Need my sleep. Maybe I won’t take one Saturday night. Or maybe I will.

And yes, I’ve become an Ambien addict.

And maybe a Lexapro addict.

Have 42 Lexapros (just counted). My doctor prescribed this anti-anxiety, anti-depression pill months ago. Helps a little, but makes me feel a little out of sorts. Can’t quite explain it or pinpoint exactly what’s different, but I just feel a little off. A little not like me. Needed them at first. Not sure if I still do. But afraid to stop taking them.

Hey, Out of Sorts, that’s another good title. And yes, all these possible book titles are getting annoying. I blame it on all the sleep deprivation and will try and control myself. Wait: Sleep Deprivation. Nah, sounds too clinical.

Anyway, think I’m going to stop taking Lexapro in a couple of days. Have started to kind of relax and feel less anxious since I’ve been over here, especially when I’m on my bike. At least I think I’m feeling less anxious. Can’t tell for sure. Then again, the whole trying to fall asleep thing every night is stressful and makes me anxious, which makes it harder to fall asleep.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Here’s the dilemma, the thing I’m confused about: I have a TBI, an actual brain injury, a physical problem. It’s like a broken bone, but in the brain. I suffered a broken brain. So, if all my lingering anxiety and depression are symptoms of a TBI, which all the doctors (and the Internet) say they are, do I have a mental problem or a physical problem?

Or both?

And do any of these pills help?

None of my doctors, or even the Internet, has been able to answer these all-important questions. The doctors all say: We don’t really know. We know a lot more about the brain than we used to know, but it’s still a mystery. And it will take a year or two for your brain to heal from the TBI.

Maybe longer.

Maybe never.

“So Marc, take the Lexapro, if you want to,” said the doctor who gave me the Lexapro prescription. “Or don’t take it if you don’t want to. It’s up to you.”

Thanks, that really helps. Or doesn’t help at all. It’s up to you to decide if I’m being sarcastic.

My brain does seem to be healing and my anxiety and depression are getting better. Then again, the progress is so damn slow I’m not really sure. It’s not like I can measure it day-by-day or even month-by-month. It’s more like three-month periods. A quarterly report. I’m a little better now than I was last quarter. Profits are up slightly.

Or maybe, I just want to believe my brain is getting better. Maybe I’ll never get back to who I was before Maddie was murdered.

We were – of course – wearing helmets. They say my helmet saved my life. It didn’t save Maddie. Despite the helmet, my scalp was ripped to shreds.

“Why was my head ripped to shreds if I was wearing a helmet?” I asked one of my doctors.

It seems that the impact of my head hitting the windshield of the car and then the pavement was so great that my helmet pushed against my head and just ripped up flaps of skin as it worked its way across my head. Even though it was on pretty tight. One doc compared it to getting scalped. Don’t like thinking about this analogy or image – and wish he hadn’t used that word. And wish that scalping wasn’t mentioned in Lonesome Dove on a regular basis. It took about 50 stitches and staples to put my scalp back together again – and pulling out all those stupid staples a week after the incident was totally painful.

 

“What does this feel like?” the doctor asked as he examined my scalp a few weeks later.

“What does what feel like?”

“When I touch the spot on your scalp where you suffered the fractured skull.”

“Are you touching it?” “Yes.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t feel anything.”

“How about this,” he said, apparently moving his hands around my scalp, touching different spots.

“I can feel that,” I said as he moved from the left side of my scalp to the right side. “That hurts a little.”

Apparently a portion of the left side of my scalp is numb.

“It’s nerve damage,” the doctor said.

“When will the feeling come back?”

“It’s hard to say. Nerves take a long time to regenerate. A year or two, maybe longer.”

In the meantime, I have a numb skull.

Hey wait, Numbskull! Now that’s a great title for a book.

The Adventures of Numbskull

The Numbskull Chronicles

Numbskull Rides!

Lonesome Numbskull

***

Back to the bike trip…

So, I’m in Reims, the headquarters city of the champagne region. Remember that scene in Wayne’s World where the pompous jerk played by Rob Lowe explains how Champagne is a region in France. And only champagne made in this region is officially champagne and everything else is just sparkling white wine?

Well, this is the Champagne region, the place where they make all the champagne.

Several of the big and famous champagne makers – Piper-Heidsieck, Mumms – offer tours of their caves, but wasn’t up for something so touristy. Here’s what I like to do every day: ride as far as I can and enjoy the scenary, find a hotel, take a shower, maybe a nap, wander around town, eat something, drink until I’m a little tipsy at a cafe, then head back to the hotel and hopefully fall asleep and stay asleep until dawn … and then do it all over again, day after day after day.

Other than the staying asleep part, I’ve stuck to the plan. I’m especially good at the drinking until tipsy part. Being tipsy makes my brain feel better. More relaxed and calm. And probably disrupts my sleep. It’s a Catch Vingt- Deux type situation.

Museums – and tours of champagne caves – are tough for me. Too many things to take in all at once. Too much information for my brain. Too many people talking all at once. Too much noise. Too many colors. And patterns. And things to look at all at once. Or read. Or remember. Too much brain stimulation. Circuits overload. Get really tired. And stressed out. Brain hurts. Have to get out.

Instead of going on a champagne tour, I wandered over to the Cathedrale de Notre Dame. According to my Let’s Go France book (the only book I have other than Lonesome Dove), the current façade dates back to 1211 and has 2,306 opulent statues of angels, prophets and saints. That’s strange, I only counted 2,212. Only kidding, didn’t count all the opulent statues. That would be a little psycho. And 26 French kings were crowned king here, dating back to Clovis in 498.

That definitely makes this place ancient.

The incredible, stained-glass windows were designed by the famous artist Marc Chagall (I know he’s famous because I’ve heard of him) and are totally mesmerizing. Must have sat in front of Chagall’s stained-glass windows for an hour, maybe longer. And only fell asleep once. Think I needed a quiet, peaceful place to sit and reflect and be in the moment. That’s something Maddie always said: “Be here, be now, with me. Stop thinking about what’s next and enjoy this moment.”

Unfortunately, all I could think was: Why isn’t Maddie here to enjoy this moment with me? Have had a hard time enjoying the moments since Maddie was murdered.

***

 

OK, it’s time to try and stop feeling sorry for myself and plan tomorrow’s ride. Planning keeps my mind from wandering back to thoughts of Maddie. Think I’ll stay another day here in Reims and ride through the champagne vineyards south to Epernay (the other important city in the champagne region) and look for Rob Lowe.

Between Google maps and the actual, old-school Michelin paper maps that they sell everywhere over here, it’s easy to plot out a day’s ride. Hang on a second, I’m at a café and my expensive glass of champagne is empty. It’s such a beautiful night and I’m feeling really relaxed and my brain is a little less fuzzy and foggy than normal, so think I’ll get a second glass …

 

I’m back … and trying to sip my second glass of champagne super, super slowly. It’s 7 Euros a glass.

BTW: They have Wi-Fi here at the cafe – and they pronounce it Wee- Fee, which is funny. So, could check my email, post a photo or two on Facebook, put out a Tweet or a photo on Instagram or even Skype someone. Nah, just not up to it. Not quite ready to reconnect with the world. Too exhausting. Maybe soon. Mom and Dad are probably worried.

As I was saying/writing: Love a good map and the Michelin maps are about as good as it gets. There’s so much information on them and I’m starting to get good at deciphering all the data to plot and plan the most scenic rides with the least amount of traffic.

Traffic makes me nervous. Which leads to anxiety. And stress. And makes my brain hurt. And yes, lots of different stuff makes my brain hurt.

The roads on Michelin maps are color coded by how busy they are. A red-and-yellow-striped road is a super highway, like the A1 at the airport. Bikes aren’t allowed on these toll roads. An all-red road means it’s a fairly major road. You can ride a bike on a red road and some have bike paths that run parallel to them. But it’s better to stick to the yellow roads, which are quiet country roads. Better yet are the white roads, which are even quieter country roads. I’ll add an extra 10 or 15 miles to my daily trip just to stay on the yellow and white roads and avoid the red roads.

The Michelin maps are also great about letting you know when you’ll be going up or down a big hill or mountain. A > symbol on a road means a climb of 5 to 9 percent, a >> symbol is a 9 to 13 percent climb and a >>> means avoid this road at all costs! It’s more than a 13-percent climb and should only be attempted by a professional cyclist who weighs 146 pounds. Fotunately, there are very few >>> roads. Think most are in the Alps.

Used to be a really strong rider who could handle the >s with ease and the >>s with only a medium amount of discomfort once I found the right gear and the right rhythm and started turning my beautiful circles. Now? Not so much. The >s are pretty tough. Haven’t hit a >> yet … and not looking forward to it. Maybe, by the end of this trip, I’ll be back to where I was before you know what happened.

Uh-oh, it looks like there are several >s and a couple >>s on the ride to Epernay and back tomorrow.

Keep reading, and remember, if you like Numbskull, you can buy the entire printed book (which is the way books were meant to be read). Sorry for all the blatant advertising. Then again, if I was really sorry, I wouldn’t do it.

Day 5. Fri., June 5, 2015, 2015 … Reims … 55 miles/220 total miles … If they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

5 Champagne

Sleep update: A so-so night last night, helped by the champagne. Think two or three drinks and an Ambien are about the right dose. I know: You’re not supposed to take Ambien when you’ve been drinking. But, it seems to help me fall asleep. Then again, maybe it’s why I wake up three or four hours later and can’t fall back asleep. Should probably cut back on the drinking. Nah, there’s nothing else to do at night. And it helps my brain calm down.

BTW: Right at the start of Lonesome Dove, Augustus fetches the jug of whiskey and has a few belts. It makes him feel “nicely misty inside … foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills. He seldom got downright drunk, but he did enjoy feeling misty along about sundown…”

Wow, this pretty much sums up how a couple drinks make me feel at the end of the day. Maybe Gus got thrown from his horse and hit his head on a rock, and is battling a TBI he doen’t even know he has since nobody back then knew about TBIs. Or concussions. A couple of drinks sure does make you feel all misty inside and makes you forget your wife is murdered, your scalp is numb and your brain is scrambled. And makes you feel as cool as a morning in the Champagne hills.

BTW: That guy on the airplane was right; Lonesome Dove is pretty damn good. And, it’s 945 pages, which should last me most of the trip.

***

Today was a really hard but incredible day or riding through the champagne vineyards, about 55 miles and maybe six or seven >s and two >>s. Amazing scenery the whole ride.

 

OK, I admit it; I walked my bike up the last – and steepest – section of the second >> mountain. Technically, I don’t think it’s a mountain, but sure felt like one. The view from the top was fantastic. If I looked north, could see the cathedral in Reims. If I looked south, could see … what looked like three or four more big hills to climb on the way to Epernay.

Damn.

Think I may have overdone it a bit today, what with all the riding and all the hills. Can barely walk right now, especially up the stairs of my hotel. My thighs are screaming. My neck hurts and my left ankle, the broken one, is acting up again. Have a little bit of a headache. Need to sit quietly for a few minutes and regroup.

Anyway … went to the Moet & Chandon caves in Epernay and took the tour. What the hell, had to do it. According to the brochure, the one in English: “In this legendary subterranean labyrinth, the forces of nature have come together to create a uniquely ideal setting for the metamorphosis of choice fruit into the House’s luxurious wine.”

This has got to sound better in French.

Moet & Chandon has 18 miles of caves. They’re damp, musty and cold – and about 90 million bottles of champagne are aging in them at any given moment. Ninety million bottles!

The tour was in English and there were six other people: Two British couples and an American couple. And me.

At the end of the tour, we got a complimentary glass of champagne.

“Where is your wife?” one of the British women asked as everyone sipped their champagne.

Why does she think I’m married? How the heck does she … Aha, my wedding band. Still wearing my wedding band. Can’t take it off. No way.

“She’s not here.”

“Where is she?”

This woman was persistent.

“She’s not here.”

“Did she not come on this trip?”

OK, she asked for it…

“She’s dead. Maddie was murdered about a year ago,” I said and walked away. The woman finally shut up.

Sorry lady, but you wouldn’t stop pestering me. Actually, I’m not sorry. You pissed me off.

***

“Marc, why are you here?”

This is the question I asked myself earlier today, after I got back from Epernay. Was in the cathedral again, looking at the Chagall stained-glass windows. My favorite spot in Reims. Maybe my favorite indoor spot in all of France. So far.

Chagall’s windows tell “the history of Abraham and the last moments of the Earthly life of Christ,” according to the church’s website. It hurt my brain to look at the thousands of details and pieces of stained glass that tell all these Bible stories. Too much information to absorb. Brain gets tired. All foggy and fuzzy. This isn’t a very good description, but is the best I’ve been able to come up with. My brain gets the same way when I’m in the supermarche, looking at the seemingly endless rows of bottles of wine, or fruits/vegetables or boxes of crackers or cookies. It’s just too much information – too many bits of data – for my brain to take in all at once. Get frazzled and anxious and just pick something quick, anything, and keep moving. That’s why I like riding so much. The scenery – the clouds, the trees, the mountains and rivers and fields – are general, not specific and seem to relax my brain. All I hear is the wind, my tires against the road and my breathing.

The fog and fuzziness melt away.

It’s kind of strange – and maybe even ironic – that the best thing for my brain is riding my bike, the thing that got my brain messed up in the first place. No wait, it wasn’t cycling’s fault. It was that damn murdering bastard’s fault.

Anyway, instead of looking at the details of Chagall’s windows, focused on the bigger picture – literally – and this was much better. All the different shades of blue were relaxing and soothing and my brain calmed down and relaxed. Was like looking at the most beautiful ocean ever, and the colors changed whenever a cloud covered up the sun.

“So Marc, why the hell are you here?” I asked myself again (I’m writing this much later, it’s 4:46AM in the morning and, yep, can’t sleep, although I did get in about five hours before I woke up, which is pretty darn good for me).

And by here, I mean France, not specifically Reims.

The simple answer is that Maddie was murdered. I sold our condo and was halfheartedly looking for an apartment while waiting for the sale of our condo to close. And then, while waiting for closing day, got laid off at the Examiner. So, there I was: Alone, unemployed, about to be homeless, most of my stuff in storage, with no apartment to move into. The thought of trying to find a job at another newspaper somewhere in the Philadelphia area, or in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the United States, wasn’t appealing. Or easy, what with all the turmoil and downsizing in the newspaper business. Let’s just say the future of newspapers – and a career in them – isn’t promising.

 

The thought of finding an apartment wasn’t appealing. Neither was moving back in with Mom and Dad, who offered to let me stay at their place for as long as I needed or wanted to stay. All of the above stressed me out and made me very anxious.

As you’ve probably deduced, I’d slipped into some sort of mild depression that seemed to peak at about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. OK, maybe a 7. Sometimes an 8. A 9 every now and then. Like on Maddie’s birthday. That was one hell of a miserable, rotten day, especially when Facebook reminded me it was Maddie’s birthday. Getting back to work helped. Sort of. It kept my mind off Maddie for a few hours at a time, and my head and brain and neck didn’t seem to hurt as much when I was working on a story. There was, however, a price to pay. At the end of the work day, was totally stressed out and exhausted, and spent the nights – and weekends – in my green reclining chair, sipping a beer or two, resting and watching TV with Penny (our cat). Was too spent, whipped and dog-tired to do anything else. Have now seen every damn episode of Castle like three times and still can’t decide if it’s any good. It doesn’t matter. It helped kill time.

Hey, if they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

As the months dragged on, felt as though I was writing the same boring, boilerplate stories over and over again. Just wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic reporter I’d always been. Wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic person I’d always been. All I did was work, go to physical therapy and rest/recover. Was anxious and tired, and the stress of being a reporter, especially the stress of cranking breaking-news stuff out on deadline, was getting to me. Wasn’t fun. Nothing was fun. And yes, this is pretty much the definition of depression.

***

“Do you have any suicidal thoughts?”

At least three different doctors asked me this question. I think it’s something they’re required to do for a patient who’s suffered the loss of a spouse, almost died, has a TBI, maybe PTSD and is in the midst of a never- ending recovery. Or maybe, just maybe, my depression was a lot worse and more transparent than I thought.

“No, I haven’t thought about suicide,” I always answered, which was the truth.

Really, I haven’t thought about committing suicide.

I have, on more than one occasion, and somewhat regularly, thought that it would have been a helluva lot easier if I had died on April 20, 2014 right next to Maddie. It would have been lights out, no pain, no depression, no living without Maddie. Wouldn’t have had to put my body through hour after hour of painful physical therapy and rehab. Wouldn’t have to put my brain through hour after hour of thinking about Maddie, wishing I was the one who had died and she was the one who had lived. Wouldn’t be so damn sore and exhausted and anxious all the damn time.

 

Have come to the conclusion that being dead is easy. Requires absolutely no effort. It’s the process of dying that sucks. Especially if it’s a long and painful process. Remember my grandmother, back when I was 10 or 11, saying she couldn’t wait for her “telegram” from God. She was 77 and in terrible health, had suffered two or three strokes, couldn’t walk, could barely get out of bed and was living in a nursing home. Didn’t understand what she was talking about, what with being 10 or 11, and having never heard of a telegram. Even after my parents explained the telegram thing, and that God doesn’t actually send you one when it’s your time to go, couldn’t understand why Grandmom was ready to die.

Now I do.

And sometimes, think that maybe I did die on April 20, 2014 and this – my day-to-day existence – is what the afterlife is like. You spend eternity trying to recover from whatever it is that killed you. I don’t believe this, but hey, you never know. Anything’s possible. Plus, think this was the plot of some TV show or movie I saw years ago. Twilight Zone?

***

Was kind of relieved when I got laid off from the Examiner and got away from a newsroom filled with people who felt sorry for me. Tough to be pitied day after day. And everyone I interviewed had heard about what happened to Maddie and me. The Examiner ran stories on it, a couple TV stations covered it, it was all over social media – and then it started up all over again when the murderer finally took a guilty plea and got sentenced. Everyone would give me the look. You know: The pity look. And then they’d say something along the lines of: “I’m so sorry about Maddie, she was such a wonderful person … how are you doing? Really Marc, how are you doing?”

“I’m OK, I’m getting there,” was what I always answered, and then tried to change the subject.

As time went by, had less and less patience for people. All people. My family, my friends, my coworkers, the people I interviewed. The people in front of me in the line at the supermarket. And, as time went by, the stress began to build and build. There were a couple of time when I just about lost it in the newsroom. Totally remember this one day. Was working on a Sunday A1 feature about the new CEO of Doylestown Hospital and her big, $200 million plans to expand the hospital and how it would help the community. It was a Thursday and I had to get it done by the end of the day. This also happened to be the day the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board released the monthly numbers for the state’s 12 casinos – at 1PM. Vanessa, our casino beat reporter, had left the Examiner a month earlier and, of course, we hadn’t replaced her. Why replace someone when you can get the other reporters to do even more work? I got stuck covering the casinos. And damn it, couldn’t figure out how to get the monthly revenue numbers from the state’s 12 casinos onto the Excel spreadsheet that Vanessa had created and that automatically calculated the monthly increase or decrease in revenue for each casino from the same month a year ago. Totally needed this info for my article, and to give to the graphics person so she could put together the monthly casino revenue chart. Couldn’t get the damn spread sheet to work. And my editor was pestering me to get something onto the web.

“Marc, the Inquirer already has the numbers up on their web,” he said. “Shut the fuck up,” I wanted to yell at him.

“I’m working on it,” is what I said.

The more I tried to get that damn spreadsheet to work, the more stressed out I became. Finally, using this online website that can calculate the percentage change between two numbers (because there’s no way I can do it myself), was able to calculate the increase/decrease for each of the 12 casinos. Pounded out something quick for the web, then made a call or two to get some quotes for the print article to run the next day, and finally, after all this was finished, got back to the article about the new Doylestown Hospital CEO. Then, at 4:45, get an email from a local company announcing their CEO had resigned. Great. Had to scramble to get something on the web, and then do the damn print article. And then finish the hospital story.

In other words: A very busy, but not an unusually busy day in the newsroom.

There were about three or four times that day when I really, really had to take a few breaths and control my emotions and try and relax – or I would have gone into full freak-out mode and started yelling and screaming at people. And, once I started yelling and screaming, I’m not sure if I would have been able to stop.

***

Let’s just say France is about as far away from that newsroom and our condo and neighborhood and family/friends as I could get. Well, Asia is further (or is it farther? I’m too tired to figure it out right now), but I’m not sure how good the biking is over there. And maybe, just maybe, a bike trip in France is what I need to start to turn my life around. Yeah, I’m going with that: This trip is therapeutic mentally and physically and is important for my recovery. That’s why I’m here.

 

Think Maddie would approve. After all, we were planning a trip to Paris and then the Loire for eight days of biking. Maddie was totally excited about the trip. She couldn’t wait to show me around the Loire. Do I owe it to Maddie to go to France and bike my way around the Loire, or am I just using her death and my layoff as an excuse to ditch everything and ride around France?

It’s probably a little of both, which I still think would be OK with Maddie. And in a horribly ironic way, Maddie’s death is basically funding my trip. She was an elementary school art teacher. The benefits from the school district where she worked included a payment of three times her annual salary to the surviving spouse in the event of the employee’s death. It’s called a death benefit. An ironic term since there’s absolutely no benefit to Maddie’s death.

Plus, we – I mean I – did great on our condo, buying it low, during the Great Recession, and selling it pretty high, after the recovery.

Money isn’t going to be a problem for a while, even with all the out-of- pocket expenses I had to pay for Maddie’s memorial service and my medical bills. Then again, who the hell cares about money. Just want my life to somehow and magically go back to the way it was before Maddie was murdered.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

A couple of weeks ago, was watching CBS Sunday Morning and there was a segment on Carl Reiner. He’s the guy who created the Dick Van Dyke Show, teamed up with Mel Brooks to create the 2,000 Year Old Man and directed a bunch of the early Steve Martin movies. Carl is 91 or 92 and still pretty sharp and funny. He talked about his life and his comedy, and then he talked about the death of his wife. She’d been sick a long time, was totally bedridden for about a year. The end was near and Carl asked her to sing a song. She did, very softly and in such a sweet and wonderful voice that the hospice worker leaned over and whispered in her ear that she had a lovely voice.

She died a few minutes later, surrounded by her husband and children.

“Isn’t that a wonderful way to go, surrounded by your family, singing a song and having someone tell you that you have a wonderful voice,” Carl said, his eyes tearing up.

Maddie deserved an ending like this. In 60 years. She didn’t deserve to die broken and battered, lying on the side of the street.

Nobody does

Keep reading … Marc has a bit of an incident in the woods … and no it doesn’t involve a bear

Day 6. Saturday, June 6, 2015 … Compiegne … 70 miles/290 miles … No amount of clenching was going to stop it

6 sink

Sleep update: The same.

Lexapro update: Didn’t take one this morning. Let’s see what happens. Hope I won’t be anxious about not being anxious. Crap, I’m getting anxious just thinking about not being anxious. That’s the thing: Once you start worrying about being anxious, you’re immediately anxious. Like when I get in bed every night and start worrying about not being able to fall asleep.

***

Today was a beautiful day of riding, about 70 miles from Reims to Compiegne. Once I made it out of Reims, stuck to the small, quiet roads, through vineyards, farms and a little town every 10 miles or so. Stopped in Fere and had some cherries and a banana. In Villers-Cotterets, got a sandwich (frommage avec crudités on a baguette) and a Volvic from a pastry shop. Then headed toward the castle in Pierrefonds. And yes, I do seem to measure my rides in snacks as much as in miles. Volvic is my favorite French “still” mineral water, edging out Evian and Vittel.

Decided not to go in the Pierrefonds castle and to just admire it from the outside. I mean, come on, this country is filled with castles. Can’t stop and see every one of them.

Nature is my museum.

Book title: Nature Is My Museum.

The last 10 miles of the ride were on a path, through some woods where all sorts of historic stuff happened. The armistice that ended World War I was signed here on Nov. 11, 1918, in a railway car that became a shrine. And then, on June 22, 1940, after the Germans invaded France and took control of Paris, the French signed an armistice (a surrender?) with the Germans. To rub it in, Hitler had everyone do all the signing in the exact same railroad car on the exact same spot where the Germans surrendered back in 1918.

 

Hitler got his in the end. The railroad car is long gone, but there is a memorial.

***

OK, something infinitely embarrassing happened in the forest between Pierrefonds and Compiegne. So embarrassing I wasn’t going to write about it. But I will. This is my journal of truth – even the embarrassing truths. So, here goes: All of a sudden, and without warning, I’m riding along and had to go. Really bad. Not in five minutes. Now! And no amount of clenching was going to stop it. Think it was the damn frommage sandwich.

Wheeled my bike a few yards into the woods, got behind a tree, pulled down my bike shorts, squatted and, well, you know what I did.

And realized I didn’t have any toilet paper.

But did have a few pairs of socks in one of my panniers. Picked out the oldest, rattiest pair and, well … you know what I did.

And from now on, will carry toilet paper with me. A big wad in my front bike bag and a backup wad in one of my panniers.

BTW: The toilet paper over here is pink.

BTWA: Remember to go easy on the frommage during rides.

***

Got a room at the Hotel Lion D’Or in Compiegne, took an extra-long shower (because of the incident in the woods) and did some sink laundry.

Sink laundry?

It’s what you have to do on a long bike trip and, I’m proud to say, I’m getting pretty darn good at it. With the help of my Genie.

Genie?

Liquid laundry soap in a plastic tube they sell in the supermarche. Supermarche?
Oh come on, you can figure it out.

BTW: There’s a reason why I keep referring to “you” and am writing in my journal as if this was a letter or email to a friend. Years ago, early in my reporting career at the Examiner, an editor gave me some good advice.

“Don’t ever forget that whatever you write, people are going to read,” Joan said. “The victim’s family will be reading this.”

She was referring to an article I had written – and she was editing – about the verdict in a murder trial earlier that day. Guilty. I went with a feature kind of lead, something borderline inappropriate for such a serious matter.

Joan changed it.

 

“The man who was murdered has a wife and two children,” she said. “They’re going to read this. It could be the last thing ever written about this poor man.”

She was totally right and from then on, I always thought about the people impacted by what I was writing about. This doesn’t mean you can’t rip someone to shreds when they do something illegal or immoral, just make sure you do it in an appropriate and even-handed fashion and get your facts right. And be super-extra careful what you write about victims. I took this a step further in my weekly (and hopefully funny) columns and made them personal and fun, sort of like this journal (hopefully). The key is to connect with your readers. Is it working with you? And was that last sentence a little desperate?

Another lesson I learned from Joan was to always ask, no matter what horrible thing had just happened to someone: “Did anything good come out of this.”

Amazingly, the answer was almost always yes. No matter how horrible the situation. Wrote a series a few years ago on Leo, who was 73 and had just suffered a stroke. The story was supposed to be all about his recovery. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, loved to dance. The series was going to end with them finally back out on the dance floor and in each other’s arms.

Leo never made it. He had several more small strokes and, instead of getting better, he kept getting worse and further and further from the dance floor. And the worse he got, the more Mary Ellen took care of him. It turned out to be a love story.

“Did any good come out of this?” I asked Mary Ellen.

“Yes,” she said. “I love Leo more than ever and am so grateful that I’m here to take care of him. And our children have been so supportive and we’re all even closer as a family than we were before.”

So, did any good come out of Maddie’s murder?

Not yet.

BTW: The paper I used to work for is the Bucks County Examiner. Bucks

County is just outside of Philadelphia and has lots of history and arts. It’s where Washington crossed the Delaware and where James Michener grew up. I know the Washington part because there’s a town in Bucks County called Washington’s Crossing and they re-enact the crossing every Christmas. Covered it four times. Twice it was beyond cold and my fingers were so numb I couldn’t take notes. Know the Michener part because there’s like 12 things named after the guy: a museum, a library, roads, etc. Never actually read one of his books, but plan to one day. They’re longer than Lonesome Dove.

When I started at the Examiner, it was the fourth largest paper in Pennsylvania, with a circulation of about 125,000. We had a Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. bureau. We had 26 news reporters and seven sports reporters. It’s still the fourth-largest paper in PA (I think), but circulation is now less than 60,000 and our Harrisburg and D.C. bureaus – along with more than half our reporting staff (including me) – are long gone. In other words: we’re a fairly typical newspaper. It’s heartbreaking.

***

OK, so before I got distracted, was about to explain sink laundry. You can only pack so much stuff in your panniers. This means you have to do sink laundry every day or two, especially your smelly, disgusting bike clothes. Packed two complete bike outfits: socks, shorts, jersey and gloves, and am diligent about washing the stuff I wear every day right after that day’s ride.

Trust me, bike shorts stink after 40 or 50 miles in the saddle. And bike gloves, for some strange reason, smell even worse than bike shorts. How is it possible for your hands to stink worse than your butt? And yet, they do.

Laundromats?

They’re everywhere over here, even in the small towns like Compiegne. They call them Lavaries. They’re time consuming and expensive, like 10 or 12 Euros to wash and dry one load, so I’m only going to go to one every week or 10 days. That leaves sink washing between the Lavarie days.

Step one: The pre-wash.

Actually, prior to step one, you have to figure out how to stop up the sink so you can fill it up with warm water. Some sinks have working stoppers, some don’t. Think some hotel owners remove the stoppers just so us bikers can’t wash out our bike clothes in the sink. They’re a little obsessed with limiting the use of water and electricity over here. Which is probably a better way to go environmentally. Fortunately, the sink in my room in Reims has a nice rubber stopper. In a pinch, I’ve stuffed one of my dirty bike socks in the drain. It sort of works.

OK, next comes the pre-wash. Put a little Genie in the sink and fill it up with as much warm water as you can, put in your clothes, swish them around a bit, and soak the stink out of them for about 10 minutes. Usually take a shower while waiting.

Then, you drain the water out of the sink, fill the sink back up and wring out the bike clothes … drain the sink, fill it and wring stuff out again to get all the soap residue out. Two times usually does the trick.

Then, really, really wring every last drop of water you can out of the socks, shorts, jersey and gloves. This is my upper body workout for the day.

And finally, find a way to stretch a bungee cord or two across the window, hang your clothes on the bungee cords or on a hangar that you hang on the bungee cords.

Voila, clean and eventually dry clothes.

 

Was running a little low on underwear and T-shirts, so did a second load of sink laundry today: two pairs of underwear and two T-shirts. OK, my chores for the day are done.

***

So, what with all the clothes hanging up to dry, my small hotel room feels even smaller. Have noticed that all the rooms in all the hotels in France that I seem to stay in, you know, the cheap ones, are pretty much the same: Small, and dominated by a fairly large bed that almost always sags in the middle. Maybe they make the beds this way over here. And there’s always this long, skinny pillow that extends all the way across the top of the bed and is folded into one of the sheets.

I call it the log pillow – and log pillows are useless.

Every room also has a large wooden chest, an armoire.

The only reason I know these large, wooden chests are called armoires is the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine buys an armoire and Kramer has to guard it on the street. Then some street toughs steal it from Kramer while Jerry and George are getting soup from the Soup Nazi. Classic episode. For extra credit: What are the names of the two street toughs?

It’s strange, but everything you come across in life relates to something that happened on Seinfeld.

Even here in France.

I’ve also learned that there’s always a “regular” pillow or two in the armoire for the guests who hate log pillows. Keep that in mind when you’re in France and discover you hate the log pillows.

BTW: Bob and Cedric were the names of the two street toughs.

In Chapter 7 we learn the secret of Marc’s name … see if you can figure it out

Day 7. Sunday, June 7, 2015 … Lyons-la-Foret … 70 miles/360 total … A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

7 Day strawberries

Love this town.

Was going to keep riding, on to Rouen, but felt a connection with Lyons- la-Foret as soon as I got here, and decided to stay the night. Plus, was really tired. Think 70 miles is my limit. Maybe 60. And Rouen was another 20, and the thought of riding that far – to a big, loud city – and trying to find a hotel wasn’t appealing.

Plus, fell earlier today. My knee and elbow are scrapped up and throbbing. More on this later.

Lyons-la-Foret is a small village surrounded by forests, which you probably figured out from the name: Foret = forest. In the center square, there’s a huge, covered market with some sort of thatched roof that is higher than the building beneath it is tall. By like double. The town is filled with all these cool, half-timbered buildings. The brochure from the tourist office says Lyons is a Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This means it’s one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Damn, I sure have good taste in French villages!

According to the Beautiful Villages website, Lyons “stretches out its facades decked with half-timbering, colourful daub and bricks along the River Lieure. Shops busily ply their trade around the 18C covered market where other jewels of local architecture such as the Vieux Logis or former bailiwick that has since become the town hall can also be seen.”

Bailiwick?

It’s where the bailiff works.

Bailiff?

Someone with the legal authority to collect debts. You know: a loan shark.

The English translations of French tourist blurbs on websites and in brochures are hilarious, but probably not by design. Bet the Japanese translations are even funnier, but I can’t read Japanese so I’ll never know for sure. Will ask the next Japanese person I meet who speaks English. Hey, maybe I can get a job roaming the French countryside, by bike, proofreading and copy editing the blurbs on the websites and brochures of all the local tourist boards into proper English. Could team up with a Japanese man or woman, maybe a Tokyo newspaper reporter who was recently laid off. We could start a business.

***

OK, here’s the scoop on my fall. Was heading out of Beauvais and had to cross some railroad tracks. They went diagonally across the road, wasn’t paying enough attention, my front wheel got caught in the track at a funny angle … and down I went.

Fortunately, had slowed down to go across the tracks and was probably only going 9 or 10 miles an hour. Even more fortunately, went down on my right side, the side that wasn’t so badly injured and broken up in the murderous incident. Even more fortunately, didn’t hit my head. Another concussion could be really bad. Like former-NFL-player bad. I’m not saying this to be funny; I’m serious. Ever since my incident, can’t watch football any more. And I used to love to watch football. Can’t stand to watch the players smash their heads into one another. And can’t watch the Tour de France any more. Too many crashes. No more watching boxing. Or MMA. Actually, never watched boxing or MMA.

The fall today didn’t really hurt that much, or, maybe I’m immune to pain at this point. Sort of lay there for a minute or two, trying to calm down enough to assess the damage and determine if anything was broken or bloody and whether or not my bike trip was over.

Wiggled my right foot and ankle and everything seemed OK. Moved my right knee and hip around and, while my knee hurt a bit and was scratched up some, there didn’t seem to be anything broken. My right elbow was also scraped up, but everything was still working properly and nothing seemed to be broken. Took a few deep, cleansing breaths, stood up, dusted myself off, squirted some water on my scrapes, got back on my bike and started peddling.

Might be sore tomorrow, but think I’m OK.

I hereby solemnly promise to be extra, extra careful going across railroad tracks for the rest of this trip.

***

Have been avoiding the real world since France. Well, my real world. Have thought about, considered, been tempted to … and have yet to open email. Even though I’ve had Wee-Fee availability almost every night and have been online, looking up stuff about the towns I’m in or headed toward. Wee- Fee is everywhere over here. But what the hell, it’s been a week, and I’m sure there are a few people – you know, like Mom – wondering about me and maybe even a little worried. Like Mom.

Hang on, I’m going to reconnect with the world and open email…

Holy crap, 237 emails.

Most are spam. There’s like 11 emails from Rosetta Stone, and they all say the same thing: This is your absolute, last chance to learn French for only $199. This offer expires tonight. And then they send the same email two days later. This is what I get for going on their website once, more than a year ago, when I was thinking about learning how to speak a little French before our anniversary trip to the Loire.

Crowd Savings also sent a lot of spam. Hey, wait, I wonder what the word for spam is in French. Bet spam is still spam over here, in China and everywhere else in the world. Spam is spam. Could spend $199 to get Rosetta Stone and find out for sure. As for Crowd Savings, the most recent email was for an amazing deal for a 3-pack of Ahh Bras, in black, white and beige, reduced from $59.99 to $16.00. Wow, only $16.00.

Ahh, if only I needed bras.

Hotels.com sent info about hotels in Bayeux. How do they know I’m headed for Bayeux Oh wait, went on hotels.com a few days ago and looked for hotels in Bayeux. Damn, Mom has no idea where I am or where I’m headed, but hotels.com does.

And maybe the NSA.

Seven new people are following me on Twitter. Haven’t tweeted anything since I left the paper, since there’s nothing in the paper I want to promote any more and that’s the whole point of Twitter (at least for newspaper reporters). Haven’t posted anything on Facebook since I left for France, and don’t think I’ll start tonight. It’s tempting. It’s such an easy way to let everyone know where I am and rub it in that I’m biking in France and they’re not. Isn’t making your friends jealous the whole point of Facebook? But, if I post something, then people will comment and email me and I’ll have to answer them and … it’s just not worth it. Too much work. I like the fact that nobody knows where I am, and that I’m now all alone, with no responsibilities, no people to interview, no court filings to read, no articles to finish on deadline and no editors to make happy.

I’m free.

Only a few people know I’m here in France. And nobody knows I’m in Lyons-la-Foret. Not even Hotels.com. Moved out of our condo after the closing sale, holed up in a hotel for two days – and flew off to France. Wonder if anyone’s even noticed I’m gone? Maybe I’m the tree that fell in the Lyons-la-Foret and nobody can hear my desperate screams for help. Or me ordering another vin rouge.

 

Did get a few actual emails from actual people. Three from Mom, which shows great restraint on her part. Bet Mom wanted to email me twice a day, every day. Mom’s emails, of course, described the weather back home in great detail. It seems they’ve been getting a lot of rain, but the past few days have been dry. Fascinating! She seemed worried about me, but tried not to sound too worried. A son can tell. Mom just wants to know that I’m OK, and having a good time, and wants to know where I am and where I’m headed and what I’ve seen.

So does Dad.

Speaking of Dad, I now understand a few of his age-related issues. He’s 72. For example, he doesn’t like restaurants so much anymore.

“All that noise,” he says. “It comes at me from every direction and I can’t hear what anyone at my table is saying. All I hear is bits and pieces of every conversation in the restaurant. It’s frustrating. Let’s just eat at home. Your mother will make you a nice dinner, a nice piece of fish.”

This is exactly what’s it’s been like for me since the TBI. It’s not as bad as it was at first, but is still pretty darn annoying. Especially the clanking and clanging of dishes and silverware in restaurants. They’re like a series of tiny smacks on the head, like someone flicking me over and over with their finger. If a waiter or busboy ever drops and breaks a dish … wow, that really hurts!

And certain laughs, like a high-pitched cackle or a really loud and abrupt snort or guffaw (I’m not sure what a guffaw is, but like the word) totally hurt my head. The high-pitched cackle seems more prevalent in women, while a lot of men break out in a machine-gun-like, staccato-like laugh that just might be even more painful. People tell me I flinch when someone with a high- pitched or snort-like laughs lets loose within earshot. Hey, now I know what the phrase “earshot” means. At work, someone two cubicles away had a really loud and annoying laugh, and she laughed a lot. Spent half the day flinching. Think this is another reason was relieved when I got laid off. Another few weeks of that laugh and my head might have exploded. And it’s not like you can ask someone to stop laughing. Or change the way they laugh. It’s like asking them to stop breathing.

Oh, and sneezing … let’s just say: ouch! You never notice how loud sneezes are until you have a TBI. And, there are as many types of sneezes as there are types of laughs. I’m now an expert in laughs and sneezes.

Anyway, the café here in Lyons-la-Foret is nice and quiet. No sneezing, minimal laughter. I’m sitting outside, and outside is always quieter than inside. The voices don’t bounce around off the walls so much and attack my brain.

Better email Mom and Dad …

***

Bonjour Mom and Dad:

So far, my epic French bike trip has been great. Did a have a little issue with jet lag the first few nights and some trouble sleeping, but I seem to be back on my normal schedule. Speaking of my normal schedule, I spend most of the day riding. From the aeroport, headed east to Reims, which is in the middle of the champagne region. Made a little side trip to Epernay and visited the Moet & Chandon caves, where they have 90 million bottles aging underground. Well, 89,999,999 after I left!

From Reims, I’ve been heading west, and should be in Normandy and the invasion beaches in a couple of days. Dad, I know you love WW2 history, I’ll email a few photos.

The scenery has been great, although a little hilly at times. And by a little hilly, I mean really hilly. Some would say mountainous, but I’ll stick with hilly. I’m starting to get in pretty good bike shape. Uncle Steve would have loved biking here in France. I sure miss him.

The food has been great, although I mostly snack during the day, lots of fruit and sandwiches, and then go to the grocery store and the local markets to get dinner ingredients: some bread and cheese and tomatoes and fruit, lots of fruit. Strawberries and cherries are in season right now and delicious. And I always get a little pastry. OK, a lot of pastry. Then I find a nice, scenic spot and have a little picnic for dinner most nights. Some wine may also be involved. I do eat dinner in restaurants every once in a while. Had a great pizza with sausage and mushrooms the other night. And some red wine. Love the vin rouge.

I’m feeling pretty good. A few aches and pains here and there from all the riding, but that’s to be expected as I get back into cycling shape. I’ve ridden 355 miles so far, which is pretty good.

My brain?

Don’t worry, it feels pretty good. I think all the fresh air and non- stressful, non-newspaper days of riding through all the great scenery have been good for me, and my brain, and it feels pretty clear most of the time. I think this trip is good for me.

Hope all is well, love you… Marc

***

BTW: My name is Marc Otto Cram.

Wait … take a second and look closely at my name again: Marc Otto Cram. I’ll wait.

 

Yep, it’s a palindrome. You know, the same backwards as it is forwards. Like: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Or: Mad as Adam.

Or, Mad as Marc. At Dad for giving me a name that’s a palindrome. He thought he was being so darn clever.

BTW: His name is Samuel Cram. His grandfather, Herschel Cramowitz, came over from the old country – Rumania – and the people in charge went and changed his name to Cram when Grandpa came through Ellis Island. Guess it was easier to spell. And yes, I heard “Cram it Cram” on a regular basis growing up. And worse.

Used to hate having a palindrome of a name, but what the hell, it’s kind of interesting and different and don’t mind so much anymore. It’s amazing how many people noticed it from my byline in the Examiner and emailed, asking if I knew my name was a palindrome.

No, you’re the first person to ever point that out to me! Thank you.

Several people included a couple of their favorite palindromes. The Panama plan one seems to be on everyone’s Top 10 list.

***

Was mostly honest with Mom and Dad in my email. While I don’t exactly feel OK, I don’t feel any worse than I did before I left. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit better in terms of the whole anxiety/stress/depression thing. They don’t need to know that I’m still not sleeping well or that I hit the deck on some railroad tracks the other day, or that my brain still isn’t quite right.

My sister also emailed a few times, wondering pretty much the same things Mom and Dad were wondering (she is their daughter). I’ll do some cutting and pasting and send her what I sent Mom and Dad. Hang on…

OK, all done.

BTW: She’s lucky and has a non-palindrome name: Jill Lynn Cram. Heard from my friend Jeff, one of the few people I told that I was headed to France to bike. He’s a cycling fanatic, and I knew he’d be totally jealous. Jeff emailed to say he’s thinking about coming over and meeting me for a week of riding. “Are you going to Provence?” he wrote. “I really want to cycle Provence. It’s supposed to be amazing and I really, really want to take a crack at Mt Ventoux. Were you planning on Provence and the Ventoux?”

Wasn’t planning on going all the way south to Provence. My mission is to do the Champagne region (done), Normandy (almost there), some Brittany and then spend a lot of time in the Loire. Then ride back to Paris and head home. Then again, it’s not like I have to be back on any set date, or have a job or a home to get back to. What the heck, maybe I’ll meet Jeff in Provence and take a crack at the Ventoux. Why not?

“What dates are you thinking of coming over here?” I emailed Jeff. “Think I can get down there by maybe July 10 to 15. Or a little later if that works for you. Sooner would be hard. If you’re coming, pick a date in that timeframe and a city to meet and let me know.”

***

Mt. Ventoux?

It’s this legendary mountain in Provence that’s part of the Tour de France every few years. The riders all say it’s the hardest climb ever, harder than any of the other mountains in the Alps or Pyrenees. They should know since they climb mountains on bikes for a living. I’m certainly not ready for something like Mt. Ventoux yet, but it’s a good goal to shoot for.

Got an email from Pervaiz, from work, who said he misses me, and that the rumor is more layoffs are coming by the end of the year. That sucks. Dolando from work emailed and said he’s leaving the paper soon to go back to school and get a teaching certificate. Probably a wise move. Just noticed that I wrote “Pervaiz from work” and “Dolando from work.” It’s not my work anymore, which is still pretty hard to believe. Am no longer a newspaper reporter. Wow. It’s all I’ve ever been and now I’m not even that any more.

What am I?

Who am I?

Our friend Michelle wrote that Penny is doing really well. Penny is our cat. Felt bad about abandoning Penny and leaving her with Michelle. Penny’s a really social cat, so I’m sure she’s having a blast with Michelle – and her four cats.

I just noticed I wrote “our friend Michelle.” The “our” is Maddie and me.

Maddie’s mom emailed, and asked a lot of the same questions as mom. So, I’ll email her what I sent my parents. Think Maddie’s mom blames me a little bit for Maddie’s murder. Maybe a lot. And I think she feels bad about blaming me, since she knows it wasn’t actually my fault. She tries to compensate by being extra nice to me, which only makes things between us a little more awkward. I understand, sort of. Maddie is gone and it’s devastating for all of us. Hell, I blame me for Maddie’s murder.

OK Marc, calm down. It wasn’t your fault. It was the drunken, cowardly murdering bastard’s fault. There was nothing you could do. Just thinking about it gets me all anxious and stressed.

All my email correspondence is done, time to head back to the hotel, the Hotel Du Grand Cerf. According to the hotel’s brochure I picked up at the front desk, it is located in “a healthy and restful climate ideal for wanderers.”

Guess that makes me a wanderer.

***

 

Heard back from Jeff already. And he’s in.

“Yo hammerhead, meet me in Bedoin on Saturday July 11 – that’s the only time I can get off this summer. It’s the base city of the Ventoux. Google it. I’ll figure out a hotel and get us reservations and make airline reservations and rent a car and a bike and meet you there. Don’t be late or I’ll kick your ass. Stay in touch and don’t get hit by any French cars before I get there. I’ll send more details.”

Yeah, Jeff thinks he’s funny.

“OK, it’s a date … love you too,” I emailed back.

In Chapter 8 Marc has some bike issues … and encounters an alien (OK, only one of these things happens)