A haven of level sleepiness - Pedalling to the pictures - CycleBlaze

March 23, 2022

A haven of level sleepiness

Barges float in rows as they wait for their winter cattle
Heart 7 Comment 0

WE ARE at the bottom of the sea. Or we would have been before the monks arrived.

  We are in the Marais. Some time before we got here, back in ancient history, men settled and fished and, where it was dry, bred animals and grew food. Then came men of religion, monks eager to have land and solitude, and they perfected the drainage ditches that the ancients had pioneered before them. Their work left a squelching, dark mass that time and wind dried into a land of fertility.

  It is, of course, marble-rolling flat. But it is not dull. Quiet roads run edged by dark water clean enough for leafy plants. A man could lose himself in a web of unsurfaced paths as complicated as any Moroccan souk.

Patrice explains the waterways and their history
Heart 1 Comment 0

  Hamlets of neat, unpretentious houses arrive every so often in a flicker of white and pastel. Some announce their names; others do not. How many who live here are in families of long standing and how many are escapees from Paris, I do not know.

  Many villages have their own port. But forget fancy ideas of luxury cruisers and satanic freighters. A port here is a concrete or unsurfaced slope into the water. Even now, cattle are driven down to the edge and persuaded into flat-bottomed, shallow-sided barges.

Cattle are boarded nose-to-ground on shallow barges sometimes made of concrete
Heart 5 Comment 0

  The cattle, of a particularly hardy breed, arrive to winter on grassy islands unreached in any other way. There is more soft pasture there. They stand flank to flank on the barges, heads held low by chains attached to rings little higher than the water.

  "If the cattle could see where they were going, they'd panic," Patrice explains. He and Anne-Lise live in town in a wooden house surrounded by vegetables and flowers. Their souls, however, are here on the marshes.

  We follow their lead, pausing now and then because even the best can take the wrong track, rattling between trees and occasionally over narrow bridges of improbable steepness.

Heart 1 Comment 0

  "Descend from your bicycle," the signs say, and only the fit and ambitious do otherwise.

  The bridges withstood a storm a few years ago but many of the trees did not. The wind blew them into heaps against buildings and across paths. It took weeks to liberate houses and those within them.

Heart 5 Comment 0

  It could have been done by bulldozers and mechanical grabs, and doubtless it often was. But Patrice saw a chance to call on the area's long-term unemployed, those who had given up hope of working again.

  "They wanted to work but nobody would employ them," he says. "They rarely do if you've been out of work for a long time, perhaps if you're willing but you don't have obvious skills.

  "They could have stayed at home. But they'd walk for two hours to enroll. And they worked and worked for the pleasure of working."

  Not all of them were reinserted into society, as French puts it. But many were. And they all felt for the first time that they'd proved their worth, restored their pride - and shown that the poor are rarely poor because they're lazy.

Heart 6 Comment 0


Rate this entry's writing Heart 15
Comment on this entry Comment 0