"You will bring about the destruction of the German
war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the
oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for
ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an
easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped,
and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely....The
free men of the world are marching together to
victory. I have full confidence in your courage,
devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept
nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us
all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this
great and noble undertaking."
- General Dwight D. Eisenhower giving the D-Day order on June 6, 1944.
"Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in
looking together in the same direction."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
"Passion rules us all and we obey. What other choice
do we have?"
- Joss Whedon
My arrival to France was accompanied by a strong case of deja vu.
I was perched on the uppermost deck of a southbound ferry, the cliffs of Normandy seemed to appear like a ghost from out of the fog.
Although I'd never been there, I was certain I'd seen this place before. Then it came to me. I'd seen these cliffs before in the the opening scene from the film, "Saving Private Ryan." The film that captured the Normandy invasion of World War II with horrific accuracy.
In the moments before the ship touched the shore, I ran my eyes from the beach, up 150 feet of striated rock, until they landed on a succession of cement gun bunkers at the top. For a moment, I imagined these same bunkers infested with Nazi soldiers, and a barage of artillery fire.
I wondered what went through a young soldier's mind as he approached this scene from a boat, with hundreds of bodies floated in the blood-soaked seas. It must have felt like certain suicide.
Then came another memory.
It was a letter I had received a few years back while I was working at the newspaper. It came from an elderly Frenchman I'd met several years earlier on a bike tour of Provence. In it, were a series of yellowed newspaper articles that detailed how American forces had liberated his family's tiny French village in a time before I was born. The letter contained only two words scrawled at the bottom right of the page. They read simply, "Thank you."
All of this seemed a clear reminder of why I was here.
It had been nearly eight months since I'd detached from my normal life, just so I could attach myself to others. In my heart, my purpose was clear - to illuminate the fact that we are one human family; that we all belong here, and that every life is sacred.
When I felt the gentle tug of gravity, the ferry boat had arrived in the harbor at Dieppe. I packed up a few things, rolled my bike off the boat and began pedaling west. As I did, I settled into a gentle rythym.
When 45 miles had passed beneath my tires, I came to an overlook and stepped off my bike. I peered down at a medium-sized town, surrounding a by a blue-green harbor, the water peppered with boats.
Just up from the harbor was the city center, split by the spires of two mammoth cathedrals. I had arrived at my first destination. The city of Fecamp.
As I descended a hill, I crossed a bridge into the heart of town where I pedaled past a row of shops overflowing with wine, cheese, meat, produce or seafood, pastries and chocolate. Drifting amongst all this was the ever-intoxicating smell of fresh baked bread.
I pulled off the road and dug out a scrap of paper with a number scrawled on it, then began scanning addresses on the Route de Phare. As I was asking directions, I heard someone call my name.
"Rick!" I heard, and turned to see a woman in a second-story window smiling and waving. It was Sylvie David, mother of my French friend Jeremy David, who I'd met on a previous bike tour across Tanzania. When I arrived at the front door, I introduced myself to Sylvie, and her husband, Dominique, and later on, their other children, Rafael and Timothy.
For three days I was a guest of the David home. They welcomed me in, and served me homemade meals that included casseroles, seafood, wine and homemade desserts.
During the time I was there learned that Sylvie was a talented and passionate photographer. We stayed up late into the night looking talking about the subject, then looking through her work It was refreshing for me to witness her enthusiasm and heart-felt images.
The second morning, I arose to the sound of a marching band playing in the center of town.
Sylvie informed me that there was a port-side ceremony going on to comemorate a group of elderly Navy veterans, and I went down to take a look. When I arrived I had the good fortune to photograph this small French community as they paid honor to those who had guarded the local seas.
That afternoon, Dominique, Sylvie, Rafael and I drove me to another village where we walked among a series of spectacular arches, cliffs and viewpoints.
As we walked, Dominique and I engaged in a conversation of fractured English and French. At each viewpoint, Dominique would put his arm around my shoulder, and shout, "Regardez! (Look!), as if he were collecting the beauty before us and offering it to me as a gift. In many ways, I guess he did.
The farther we walked, the more our grammar-less conversation began to deepen. Somehow, we landed on the subject of life. We spoke about the preciousness of this life, and our apreciation for the present moment.
It was then that Dominique informed me he was leaving the next day to fly to and Island off Madagascar. Once there, he would spend the next four months pursuing his passion of teaching a group of young students.
The subject seemed to give Dominique pause.
He stopped for a spell, and spent a moment staring out over the sea. When he turned back he seemed to look deeply within me. Then a tremendous smile came to his face.
He once again placed one hand on my shoulder, and shouted, "Carpe Diem!"
During the ride home, I thought of Dominique's impending departure, then became acutely aware of a tense silence between he and Sylvie. She would spend the next four months without seeing her husband.
Then, just before we arrived, I watched as Dominique silently reach over from the passenger and gently place his hand into hers. It was a moment that touched me deeply. It occurred to me that Dominique could well have been embarking on a four-month trip to the moon, it did not matter. The truth was that there was something strong that held these two together. That something was love.
The next morning I got up and said my goodbyes to the David Family, and it wasnt long before I'd returned to my life as a rambling cycle-monkey.
I rode all day, until the dusk turned to night, then found a secluded spot where I pitched my tent on the edge of a cow pasture. That night, as I curled into the relative warmth of my sleeping bag, I remembered something Sylvie had said to me the night before. She said, "I've always dreamed of being a dancer, but now I am just too old."
When I responded to her, I thought of this bicycle tour which I had embarked on at age 42. This coincidentally being the same age as my mother, the year she died.
"Too old, Sylvie?" I replied to her. "In this life, there's no such thing."
• • •
In the time after I left Fecamp, I cycled south and covered a 450-mile stretch of west-central France in just more than five days. The result wasn't pretty. When I landed on the outskirts of Bordeaux, I felt as though I'd been strapped to a wrecking ball, then alternately forced to ride a belt sander.
The only thing more pathetic than me at this point was my wine budget. Here I was in the wine capital of the world, dying to expand my palette of French wines, with a daily wine allowance of about a euro and a half.
As depressing as it was, that left me sampling only the lower rungs of France's vintage ladder. One night, while sipping a thoroughly unsatisfying vintage, I momentarily fancied myself filling a niche by writing reviews on France's worst wines.
I pictured them reading something like this:
"At first sip, the 2006 Chataneauf Cheap De Suille may display the subtle hints of cat urine and battery acid, but never mind that. Just be prepared for a finish that rivals a lemon floating in a mud puddle."
The review would conclude:
"Although De Suille may not be versatile enough to go with chicken, fish or pork, it will most certainly have your tongue curled like a pig's tail. Taste De Suille and experience the true grapes of wrath!"
With a sour taste in my mouth I finally made my way into the center of Bordeaux, and was greeted there by the warm smile of good friend, and extraordinarily talented photographer Eric Jarvis.
Eric came to Europe regularly, usually, to accompany his Hungarian wife, Beata, when she returned to visit home. This time, Eric had been kind enough meet me in Bordeaux to generously replace a boatload of rather pricey camera and computer equipment that I had trashed over the last seven months.
He assured me that upon my return I would be indebted to him in a form of indentured servancy.
Besides lending a hand, Eric had also come to Bordeaux to photograph the area, and sample some of the world's finest wines.
We had come to the right place.
In its 2005 annual report, the Bordeaux wine council stated that in 2004 the region had produced a record 667 million hectaliters (1,000 liter units) of AOC wine.
"The odds are in our favor," I assured "Jarv." And we set out to find at least one good bottle.
We acted on a suggestion from the Office de Tourisme, and hopped aboard a train to the nearby UNESCO heritage village of St. Emilion. After wandering the cobble and limestone village and shooting some photos, we were rather bummed to find that all the wine-tasting chateaus were closed. Thats when I spotted a rather French looking man and asked him if he knew a chateau that was open.
He smiled and said, "Well yes, mine!"
As luck would have it, we had stumbled on the right person.
He was Jeanfrancois Carrille, owner of the Chateau Cardinal-Villemaurine.
Before long, we walked through the doors of his chateau and where he turned us over to his son Paul who led us on a private tour.
Paul explained that the small estate covered a seven-hectare area surrounding the chateau and that they produced roughly 47,000 bottles annually. He whisked us past giant aluminum vats, tanks, then bottling and labeling areas before towing us underground.
Stooping our heads into tungsten-lit limestone caves, Paul led us through a labyrinth of limestone that contained an endless mass of barrels and bottles.
"Our family has made wine here for four generations."
Although the cool February air that seeped in from above was a perfect temperature for aging wine, it was doing little for the circulation in my fingertips.
I danced in place trying to keep warm, until Paul took us back upstairs and grabbed a glass sampling tube. We watched as he dipped it deeply into a barrel, then poured a sample into three glasses. As we shivered in the coolness of another limestone vault, the complex taste of Cardinal's newest 2005 vintage warmed our insides.
Eventually Paul led us into Cardinal's tasting room where he opened several bottles, and we sampled selection of the chateau's high-end wines. After a tasting, Eric settled on a few bottles, and I honed in on my personal favorite, Cardinal's 1998 St. Emilion
Grand Cru. That night Eric and I stayed up late, sipping wine, talking photography and telling funny stories about the past. When the next morning came, he packed up his things, I and I hugged him goodbye.
A day later, I boarded a train to take a break from the bike, and get in a long weekend of skiing in Geneva.
When my bike made a stop over in Paris I spent the afternoon walking a lazy loop from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower.
That evenining, as the sun was setting, I peered out over the shimmering red waters of the Seine River. As I did, I pondered what my life would look like when I returned to the states.
Then I remembered something Cardinal winemaker Paul Carrille had said during our visit.
"For me," he said, I could never sit at a desk from 9 to 5. Winemaking is my passion, my way of life."
With that, it occurred to me that the people I had run across in France had shared this common theme: passion
Passion for work, art, love and life.
As I raised my camera to shoot a photo of the Eiffel Tower above the mighty Seine, I couldn't help but hope that some of that passion had rubbed off on me.
Editor's note: Former Appeal photographer Rick Gunn is on a two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read the full version of this story and see more photos, go to www.nevadaappeal.com and click on Wish Tour or visit rickgunnphotography.com.
WHEN: Jan. 26-February 2006
WHERE: France: Dieppe, Fecamp, Alencon, Conlie, Angers, Cozes, Bordeaux, Paris
MILEAGE LOG: 7,080-7,502
ELEVATION: Sea level-200 feet