One thing I hadn't been clearly cognizant of was the devastation that the First World War wrought on France. Verdun helped bring that home. Those buildings that survived the 10 month battle have bullet holes and gouges in the walls. Images show men and horses, tattered and surrounded by rubble. The re-build is obvious everywhere you look, and what it's difficult to imagine is the human story behind that rebuild. Nearly every village through which we've cycled has a war memorial to folks lost in the war, and each will have a tale to tell.
Before we came away on this trip I had, by chance, read All quiet on the Western Front which is set in France on the whole (I hadn't realised that it had been written from the German point of view, and there are some parts where the main narrator speaks of home and visits his family). The humanity and the universality of some of the themes such as friendships and suffering - as well as the poignant absurdities - really made an impact for me as I read. Some small details stuck with me such as a massive ornate mirror that one of the main narrator's friends (another soldier) loots and carries around with him, unscathed, for weeks. There was another where the friends load a cart with furniture and works of art onto a cart. They sit atop the unwieldy pile until a shell takes out the cart and some of the men.
It was the small details of humanity that for me, highlighted what it may have been like in France, rather than stats such as 100,000 shells being fired per hour, and 1 million deaths. It brings to life the pictures we see on many of the information boards we pass in tiny villages, along with the memorials for lives lost. The images often picture exhausted men, horses and mules standing in a devastated landscape of the broken shells of houses and lives. The endeavour required to renovate and rebuild in the following years has been huge, and, to me, partly captures both the worst and the best of human creativity and motivation.
While mulling on these thoughts as we cycled along, we approached a junction. As we approached a large blue sunshade (the type that folks have on their deck to shade a table), with a white frill caught my eye. The reason that it had caught my eye was that it was moving. An enterprising farmer, not having a tractor with a cab, had strapped the parasol to his tractor, and was happily mowing shaded by its expanse. The combination of problem-solving and rather lovely absurdity is still making me chuckle :-)
As it was another hot day (topping out at 42 degrees), we peddled hard along (mainly) quiet, flat-ish roads - only 3 reasonable climbs today. Our morning tea spot was a shady tree beside an almost deserted sports ground, with only a guy with a watering can, and another with a digger, to be seen.
All through our cycles there have been some interesting juxtaposition of the rural and industrial, and the old and the new. Today was no exception with, for instance a 16th century church outlined against the backdrop of a quarry. Others include fields of corn with a processing plant in the background, and the odd cheese making factory cheek by jowl with a barn that appears to be made of timber, wattle and daub, and lime plaster!
Sometimes you pass through some fairly heavy industry on the outskirts of a town, and Commercy was one of them. After an unpromising start though, we made our way to our hotel Hotel Cote Jardin (40 Rue de Saint-Mihiel, 55200 Commercy, Tél. : 03 29 92 09 09, email@example.com, Monsieur BOU Arnaud). The place is really nicely done out, the patrons really accomodating, and the breakfast delicious. There was a secure place for our bikes - and best of all, air conditioning in our room!
After chilling for a while (literally), we headed out into the delightful town (more to follow tomorrow as we have decided to take a day off to explore better...and make the most of the a/c) - knowing that we were going to sleep well for the first time in a couple of days.