Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Le Tour: Not Like a Box of Chocolates

Writers employing simile invite danger into their prose. The temptation to cobble two items together to paint a vivid picture for the reader often leads to vague and ridiculous bedfellows. Despite the cultural touchstones of leaders like Forrest Gump (“Life is like a box of chocolates…”), simile used without forethought descends into the absurd: Life is nothing like a box of chocolates, which have the varieties printed on the inside of the cover, for the very purpose of avoiding the unknown that Mr. Gump and his mother were trying to explain. So when I say that innkeeping is like the Tour de France, I understand fully the pitfalls awaiting.

I’m guessing most readers have never watched the Tour de France—or, as it’s referred to in France, Le Tour. On the surface, grand tour bike racing (where racers spend up to three weeks racing a single race) may appear to many as a ridiculous way to contest sport. From 10,000 feet, it looks like the same thing over and over: Preying Mantis-shaped humans climb aboard space ships disguised as bicycles, then spend most of their time huddled in a great mass, until they’re 300 meters from the finish, when they all start sprinting, and after 200 kilometers somebody wins.

Looking at innkeeping from the same time and distance produces not dissimilar results: people check in, the innkeepers educated them on the local offerings, breakfast is served the next morning, people depart, room are cleaned…and then people check in again. While the cycle for innkeepers is not three weeks, it’s still a cycle: winter, summer, autumn; check-in, sleep, eat breakfast; lather, rinse, repeat.

But drill down into these two things and differences are nuanced, at best. Le Tour—and its two other grand tour bookends, the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a Espana—is one of the most human cultural events to happen in sport. Riders are on teams, and the teams race together and against each other year after year. During the race, riders converse and plot with each other—even if they’re not on the same team. For instance, during one of the stages this year, Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean riding for team MTN-QHUBKA, won the right to wear the Polka Dot Jersey signifying the best climber so far During one stage that featured three climbs, all with points at stake, Teklahaimanot was discussing strategy with the two other cyclists who were in the chase for that jersey. After some conversation between them while riding, the two other riders deferred to Teklahaimanot, allowing him to become the first African to win the King of the Mountain Jersey during a stage of Le Tour.

Cooperation like that is not unknown among innkeepers. When the health inspector is in town, phone lines blaze with warnings between innkeepers: “Hose down the kitchen, get the goats back outside, and for God’s sake, put some pants on! The health inspector is coming!” Assuring full occupancy is also another area of synchronicity, at least in this town: “I’m full for next weekend, and I just got a call—want me to send them your way?” the same holds true with undesirable guests: “I just had a guy walk out, and I think he’s coming your way. Turn out the lights and lock the door.”

Le Tour and innkeeping are alike within the narrative element, too. This year I’ve been regaled again with the EuroSport commentary of Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly. Kirby is a distinguished professional broadcaster who can handle the most nimble of pronunciations. Kelly is a retired Irish cyclist whose lilting delivery provides a soft and solid bass line upon which Kirby dances and parries. Some of my favorite lines from Kirby:

  • ·      On the disposition of a cyclist whizzing down an Alp at 80 kilometers an hour: “Oh, and it looks like several riders have run into a herd of goats meandering across the road. Well, Sean, after a tussle like that, some of the riders look chuffed, not to mention completely knackered.”
  • ·      On local fishing opportunities: “Sean, this is the place to go if you fancy tickling a trout.” (Full disclosure: I thought “tickling a trout” was a sexual metaphor.)
  • ·      On the Tourmalet ski area condos, in the Pyrenees: “Who on earth signed off on that as an architectural structure? I know it’s supposed to mimic the mountains, but it looks like a collection of shoe boxes, Sean.”
  • ·      On history: “This particular village was home to a local conflict in the fifteenth century called The War of the Maidens, which turned out to be a bit of a transvestite tussle. I don’t think our riders will face any such sartorial schisms today, do you, Sean?”

To his credit, Kelly never rises to the bait, remaining calm and focused on the race: “Well that may be true, but I think Alberto Contador would be happy just to survive this climb intact.”

The breakfast room hosts similar declamations from innkeepers imparting local knowledge.

  • ·      To the seriously out of shape, flip flop-wearing guests who want to hike Mt. Mansfield up the Hell Brook trail: “That ain’t gonna happen. Here’s a coupon for the Toll Road.”
  • ·      To the TripAdvisor-reading guest who thinks he knows what the best restaurant in town is: “Didn’t you hear about the chef’s recent divorce? And his recent bout with the flu? And that incident with the goats in the kitchen?” (He wasn’t part of our phone tree.)
  • ·      To the guests who think they are going to drive over Smugglers Notch in the winter because their GPS told them they could: “Take some extra blankets.”

How much more could Le Tour be like innkeeping? Your imagination is the only limit. But I will tell you this: goats are probably involved. And they won’t be using “like” or “as.”