Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Perpetual Tie

A decade and a half ago, I lived in Paris for six months while on a study abroad program.  I was finishing out my last semester of college in Europe vs. within the relatively safe confines of the sheltered bluestone campus in Harrisonburg.  It was a tremendous experience.  Not all positive, but all very real - certainly an education.

Early on in my stay there, after the luster of just being in Paris wore off a little, I recognized that it was still a big city, complete with all of the big city highs and lows you might find in New York or London or Hong Kong.  Non-directional septic smells.  Street sweeping dog shit.  Mean people.  But also, the best of the best: and at times that was Sports.  Indeed, one of the most profound experiences I had in Paris was taking the RER north to St. Denis, buying a ticket off a scalper, and watching a football friendly between Team France and Team Cameroon in a much-hyped match between what was, at the time, the Olympic Champs (Cameroon) and the World Cup Champs (France) at the Stade De France.

Outside of being just an absolutely huge stadium, the second most defining characteristic of The Stade De France is that there are basically only two levels - The Top and The Bottom.

The Top, where I sat, and much to my surprise, was almost 100% black people, mostly North and West African immigrants.  I wasn't bothered by this in any way - quite the opposite.  These were the warmest, most welcoming, and certainly the most excited people I had ever encountered at a sporting event, immediately prompting me to root for Cameroon instead of France.  We sat together, cheered and yelled and hissed at the refs, and all the while looked out across The Lower Deck, below us and a great deal closer than we were with a better view of the action - pretty much exclusively white Parisians.

The obvious and unapologetic segregation was shocking at first, but everyone there seemed to take it in stride.  The reality is that this was and still is a pretty accurate cross-section of France and Paris today.  The old guard - white people near the center of the city with the view and influence of it all - and the immigrants craning their necks from afar just to see.

I'll cut to the punchline on this one: France and Cameroon tied that night.  I didn't see anyone fight after the game, but I heard on the news the next day that there had been some serious brawls later that night - as so often happens in a tie, sometimes the fans will try to sort out the winner on their own.  Of course that doesn't ever work, but it was obvious to me then - December of 2000 - that the table was set for a real, hard, bitter struggle for what you might call "limited seating" between the haves and the have nots.

Such were the grounds, at least in the sense of an actual location, for the suicide bombings in Paris last week.  Of course, Cameroon is not ISIS, and that's not at all what I mean to imply.  I'm talking about the enormous gap itself - that space in the middle.  It's the perpetual tie in a game we insist on continuing to play over and over - the fact that I'll never convince you and you'll never convince me, and hate, death, and whatever hell may come, no one ever actually wins.

It's not just in France, of course; it's everywhere.   The divisive, unholy line.

I've been in exactly two sprint finishes in bike races - both times racing for the Win, and both times I've been beaten at the line.  Once, in 2011, I almost won the XXC at the Middle Mountain Mamma, probably the closest I've come to winning a decently big race.  I actually had a pretty big gap coming into the last downhill, and I played it safe in some pretty poor conditions while the guy behind me risked it, and he came from a long way back and outsprinted me at the line.  At the Urban Assault in Richmond in about 2009 or so, I led it out into the final straight, but Mike Hosang passed me, only I passed him back, but then he re-re-passed me to take the W.  In both cases, I was pretty psyched just to have been close, and I was beaten by really fast guys.  And, more than anything, we didn't tie.  Nothing in a bike race ends up being a tie.  There's a clear winner, and a podium, and a top 10, and everyone else too, and we can all move on and go home and feel OK about that.

But life is not bike racing.  Most things aren't.

Today - The Third Thursday of November - is Beaujolais for the French.  It's the day when the newly bottled wine of the year is uncorked, decanted, and served across France even though it's still pretty fruity and not entirely ready for consumption.  It's a national holiday and basically an invitation to call in sick to work tomorrow.  But after various credible threats around Paris and the rest of Europe this week, it will be no surprise if another terrorist attack hits France right on the nose again tonight.  I could be wrong about that, and that's one of the unfortunate effects of terrorism - that attack or not, we're all at least a little terrorized.

I've done a ton of bike riding in France over the years.  Ventoux.  Alps D'huez.  Normandy.  Arles.  Right through the streets of Paris and out past the Hippodrome and farther West out to Versailles and back.  But right now, it's hard to imagine.

The lines we draw are all so clear, now - that's the power of the internet.  They're Social.  Economic.  Cultural.  Religious.  Ethnic.  Political.  There are language barriers.   Financial gaps.  Dead bodies to reinforce the threat from the other side, whatever that side might be.  The distance from here to there is so enormous, people so far out of context with our own reality that perhaps we'd be better off just not interacting at all.  But we can see them all so clearly, and so far, that isn't helping.
I saw the gap - right across the waistline of the Stade De France, just like that night when France and Cameroon tied, and fought, and nothing was ever really settled.