The Time We Were In A French Classic Car Rally


Laon, France. We visited Laon about a week into the trip, on our first full day in France; Tim thought (correctly) that Rebecca would enjoy seeing the 900-year-old cathedral there. I’d be tempted to combine Laon with some of the later French excursions, save that it was the site of one of our favorite stories of the trip.

The cathedral was built on the top of a mountain (a Huntsville-“mountain”-size mountain, at least), visible from miles away, and was surrounded there by the old city of Laon. Today, Laon is much larger, and the modern city has grown down the mountain and into the valley. As we’re passing through the new town toward the old town, we notice that it’s filling up with classic cars. We, however, are there for loftier things than a car show, so we continue on our way.

We visited Laon on a Sunday morning, so there was actually a church service taking place in the cathedral when we arrived. We joined some visitors who snuck quietly into the back, the beauty of the architecture complemented by the music of the voices raised in worship. When the service ended, we explored more fully a beautiful building that was in many ways a smaller version of Westminster or Notre Dame but still used primarily as a community church.

When we sat down to lunch in an Italian restaurant in the old town, the people next to us overheard us speaking English and spoke to us. English themselves, they were there for the car show, and assumed from the Alvis’ accents that we were as well. “What kind of car do you have?” Tim’s response that he was driving a Peugeot 308 was met with polite disdain, and their interest in us was extinguished. Quite all right, really.

We explore a bit more, including an old Knights Templar church, before finally being ready to leave. Tim heads down the road that should be the way out, down a hill on a one-way-street and under a bridge only to find barricades at the end of the short tunnel.

The car show, it turns out, has turned into a car rally, and the streets are blocked off to let it pass. Tim goes to ask the police officer how long we’ll have to wait, and is told four hours. At this point, more cars have pulled in behind us.

So Tim talks to the other drivers, and we succeed in all backing up the hill until we can finally turn around, and we begin looking for another way out. We finally came to another barricade, and Tim asked this officer how exactly we were supposed to get out of town.

The officer moved the barricade and let us through. Into the parade. Classic cars in front of us, classic cars in front of us, crowds gathered around, and us in our Peugeot 308. Which, to be sure, was a fine car that served us well on our travels, but isn’t exactly classic, per se.

The streets were lined with people watching the rally — cheering for the cars as they passed, taking pictures. Until we went past, and the cheering stopped and the cameras went down.

Tim and I were in the front seat; Rebecca and Mags were the in the back, and decided that they should make the most of the situation, so they began waving back to the crowd with proper waves that would have made the queen envious.

And, sure enough, the people began cheering again, and one or two pictures were even taken of the novelty of the 308 in the classic car rally.

We finally reached a point where we could make our escape, and got out of Laon as quickly as we could.

Laon was a beautiful city. The cathedral was amazing. The pizza was not bad at all. The templar church was a nice bit of history. It was a special experience, early in our time in France, being immersed in the architecture and language.

But we’ll always remember Laon for that time we were part of a French classic car rally.

Walking The Great War


The first year I did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, I portrayed the second governor of Alabama, Thomas Bibb. The second year, the regular Bibb portrayer returned, and so I was assigned a new character.
 
To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the change. Bibb was a more fun story than Turner Mayes, a local man who died in World War I, and I felt that I’m not the greatest fit for the character — I’m twice his age and twice his mass. But for the last three years, while I’ve occasionally checked on the availability of other characters, I’ve tried to do the best by Turner I could.
 
I was surprised by how immediate and present the Great War was during our trip, particularly the week we spent in France. I had an academic understanding of where and when and how the war was fought, but it did nothing to prepare me for how it had touched and scarred every where we went. There was perhaps more awareness in these centennial years, but the reminders and effects are permanent.
 
It had a particular impact visiting the site where the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” armistice that ended World War I was signed; at the museum there we saw images and artifacts of the war from throughout France. My travels did not take me to the places Turner walked, but here I saw where he had been. Between the places I visited and the things I saw there, and the stories of the family I stayed with, for whom the war had cost relatives only two generations back, Turner’s story became a little more real. A little more concrete. A little more visceral.
 
I won’t be asking about a different character for the Stroll this year. If I portray Turner Mayes for as long as I do the Stroll, it will still be the smallest token of deserved respect and gratitude.