Finding myself in Paris on All-Ireland Sunday, I made my way to the nearest Irish bar, the well-known Galway Pub on the Quai des Grands Augustins. But not having a dog in the fight, or even a neighbor’s dog to cheer or envy, I was soon distracted by the other sporting drama that was about to be unfolding.
Outside, on the sun-drenched banks of the Seine, locals and tourists lined up for the impending arrival of the Tour de France. Even the twin towers of Notre Dame seemed to be looking down expectantly on the corner of Boulevard St. Michel, from where the peloton would make its formal entry downtown.
It was a balmy 27 degrees along the river, while inside the pub felt at least 10 degrees warmer from the combined warm fronts from fans of Kerry and Galway.
So I finally fled to the cooler terrace tables: one eye on the nearest TV, the other on the growing excitement around the corner. And as I hovered between those two great events, I was struck by the Kulturkampf—or cult wars—that went along with it.
Seeing GAA in such circumstances certainly seems to imply almost religious devotion. My occasional excursions from the sunny riverbank to the pub’s dank interior offered a glimpse of what it must have been like in Irish criminal law to attend mass in a cave.
Mind you, at least the GAA devotees got a full 70-minute service. For those who adored the other spectacle, however, the climax was a fleeting affair. About 20 minutes after the football ended, Boul’ Mich’s tour headed to the river bank and was over in seconds.
The surviving competitors seem to have become supermen along the way. Or at least, in accordance with Flann O’Brien’s molecular theory, the men and bikes appear to have fused personalities
But if you’ve watched the three-week intro on TV, following the cyclists up and down the Alps and Pyrenees, over dusty cobblestones in Picardy and through the scenic grasslands of central France, it’s still an electrifying moment when they finally get through You drive through stationary world.
The surviving competitors seem to have become supermen along the way. Or at least, in accordance with Flann O’Brien’s molecular theory, the men and bikes appear to have fused personalities. Even the odd straggler cut off by a puncture, a crash or self-sacrifice for a key teammate passes in a flash of unimaginable speed.
The other takeaway from attending the event in person is the extraordinary number of motorized vehicles accompanying them.
These range from the race car, bike cameras and support teams, to the various people – central to all major events – whose only function seems to be to cast shapes. Nobody sits on the bike. As I later realized, the defining smell of the Tour de France is petrol.
The day before, another sporty pilgrimage had taken me to Asnières-sur-Seine. Asnières, a northwest Paris suburb also on the Seine, is best known for being the setting for some famous post-impressionist paintings by Van Gogh and Georges Seurat. But it also houses the most exclusive pet cemetery in Paris, the Père Lachaise of pets.
Among the famous dead is Rin Tin Tin (1918-32), a German shepherd who had his big break in films filling in for a deranged wolf and later became such a guaranteed box office hit that he was known in Hollywood as “mortgage lifter”.
There is also “Barry” (1800-1814), a St. Bernard whose heroic career in mountain rescue is summed up in an epitaph that could be the slogan of a movie: “Il suiva la vie à 40 personnes. Il fut tuè par le 41ème” (“He saved the lives of 41 people. He was killed by the 41st”). Like many movie tagines, this one is a lie. Barry survived all of his rescue efforts and died of natural causes.
Many cats and at least one hen are also buried in Asnières. There’s even a bee (“Bee Nfluencer 2019-2021”) under a suitably small tombstone, although she was also apparently a celebrity, with 250,000 followers on Instagram.
But I visited Asnières mainly to pay my respects to Troytown (1913-1920), the great Meath racehorse who, like his two-legged compatriots Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, has earned a permanent resting place in Paris.
Despite a habit of plowing through fences rather than jumping over them, he won several major races including the English Grand National and the Paris Steeplechase. Among those he did not win was his last, when he returned to Paris in 1920 and took a shortcut once too many times.
Unlike Beckett, he had tried again, failed again, and failed worse. Unfortunately, his grave is also a bit neglected these days, piled high with leaves and sprouting bushes. On the other hand, this may be appropriate. Perhaps a molecular exchange is at work here, too, as the now immortal horse merges with at least one of the obstacles he had so much trouble jumping over.