Cyclogeography: North of France

Last summer I cycled through North of France on my way to Portugal, this is my article about it.

Cyclogeography: North of France

The dew on our tents begins to drips as we slowly wake up, we pitched our tents last night near the French border town of Jeumont. But we have already crossed the border, the language border in Belgium is much more poignant than the national border between France and Belgium, a mere administrative border. Cycling out of the last ‘Flemish city’ into the French part, the division between culture and language floated in the air; signs were suddenly in French, towns were named French and in some ways the cities breathed the French identity. Belgium waved goodbye to us with a Jupiler beer brand sign and we rolled into new territory, from now on our roads were called D… and not N… anymore. This new country will guide us through the heart of Europe and arguably trough the fields were Europe was born.

First World War

Not even hundred years ago, these fields were abruptly taken out of their century old agricultural rhythm and were turned into the graveyard of Europe’s maniacal patriotism. Fields plowed with bombs, a suture crossed Western Europe hopelessly stitching the European continent, thousands and thousands of lives cut short in the mud, a senseless war of a forgotten era in a rapidly modernizing world. The industrial revolution in war crippled both sides into a static deadlock of years before it came into an end. Now Jeroen and I cycle of these over roads, most likely used for troop transport to the front and later as evacuation route for the wounded. The sun never managed to break through on the first day of us riding through these fields, the grey sky only adds to our wandering thoughts of this grim war. The repetitive motion of our legs takes us slowly to our new campsite for the night near St. Quentin, a place that saw fierce fighting as well.  A place for which is no room in the dwindling collective memory of the First World War, where Verdun, Somme and Ieper take all the memory. Almost 20,000 people lost their lives during 3 days of fighting around our campsite. Jeroen’s Nepalese dhal, a dish of rice and lentils, cooked on this campsite, fills our stomachs well after our long day of cycling and pondering about the war.

Rhythm of the seasons.

The next day the route takes us through sleepy villages that don’t follow the hectic rat race of the modern world. One would say that the time stood still in these small towns, the same grey stoned buildings line the streets as they always have, the old men on the communal park benches have remained the same: looking into the distance fantasizing about a long lost youth. As we cycle through these monuments of time, we are thrown into a time machine taking us back. The only clue that we are in the now, are the cars parked on these streets or the sound of tractors instead of animals  plowing the fields. These small towns live in a different time than we do; our time is focused on the next big thing: the next promotion, the next holiday, the next child, the next city, the new house or the new car: it’s a linear race to something intangible, always to something just out of reach. The time in these villages are rhythms of the seasons; the circular continuity of plowing, sowing, growing and harvesting. A century old circular pace only to be disturbed by the furor of the outside world.

The fields have long returned to their own pace but are dotted with memorials of the First World War, it seems that every 20 kilometer we cycle, another graveyard interrupts the static fields.  We are constantly drawn to these places of meticulously maintained graves, we park our bikes against the cobble wall and we walk through these rows and rows of unknowns. Every grave giving us just a name, while our minds fill in the blanks. Every grave represented another life cut short, a family in grief, a grim reminder of men’s worst.

Europe’s birth

Suddenly, in a town unknown to us, in a place far from the modern world, we notice something peculiar about the graves. The names are not solely French, but part of the field of graves have German names! Besides the fallen French and under the same sun and in the same soil, Germans are buried. It only reflects on the fact that these times go beyond the good and the bad side. War comes down to millions individuals suffering, there is no glory to be found.

In these fields I began to realize where the European Union is born. This shared graveyard symbolizes where people have transcended their national identity and embraced the ‘other across the border’, where diversity is celebrated and equal; the other not inferior. This is the place where the European Union was born, what an utter tragedy that it took another world war and 42 years before it manifested into the European coal and steel community, a first step into the European Union. Now France and Germany share an intimate friendship, forming a strong bond in the heart of the Union and this graveyard was the first step for this friendship.

As we leave these grounds we cross another border, the World War border at Vic-Sur-Aisne, where the scar of the trenches stopped and south of the city, the fields were unspoiled. We stop for lunch and we eat our peanut butter sandwiches while reading tourist information signs about the war and the town. The history of these places still streams freely through the DNA of the current day. We drink another coffee in a boulangerie near the medieval castle and set our sights to the next landmark; Paris.

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