September 10, 2015Riding in France: Days with Fallen Australian Soldiers
Back On My Bicycle in France – Riding from Cherbourg to Jonville
Bonjour (again) France
Sunday 23 August (Day 91 of my midlife gap-year)
11:35 am , Cherbourg YHA:
I woke to the ferry-wide announcement that we were soon arriving in Cherbourg. It was raining; perhaps I wouldn’t start riding straight away after all.
Waiting for my passport to be stamped and returned to me, the driver of a car – also awaiting their passport – sought my attention. “Excuse me!” he said, “Yes?” I replied. “Are you from Australia?” The guy waiting for his passport was also Australian and as a huge Oils fan, noticed and loved the Head Injuries t-shirt I was wearing.
Pedalling off in the now heavy rain, my face was soon streaming with it but I spotted and was able to follow street signs to the local hostel.
Of course, now that I’m all settled in here, the weather has cleared so I best go have a look at Cherbourg.
1:00 pm – I’ve Been Attacked by A Giant Hungry Seagull
It’s Sunday and most shops are closed. I found an open bakery and got a Croque Monsieur which I was eating as I walked towards the city centre. I just sensed an approaching mass in my peripheral vision when – swoop, snap, flap-flap to land, and there, a few metres ahead of me, was an enormous seagull gulping down my sandwich. All I could do was laugh.
It’s weird, but good, being surrounded by French and being back in my monolinguist cone of silence. I feel like a traveller again. And, ah, yes, back in a land still full of smokers, sigh. But there is almost acceptable coffee available everywhere, so that’s good.
4:40 pm, in a Parc: From Here …. To a Liberated Europe
This morning’s rain has given way to warm, bright, sunshine and a cloudless blue sky.
It would have been a beautiful day for riding – but I’m glad I stayed. I’ve gotten useful information from the tourist office and visited the Liberation Museum. I hadn’t known that the choice of the D-Day beaches was driven by the desire to capture Cherbourg. The Allies needed a port, a good one. The Germans, of course, destroyed the port facilities and the Allies had to put an insane effort in to clear it and get it operational again. But when they did, it became a busier port than New York – then the busiest in the world. The liberation of Europe – on the Western Front, anyway, began right here with the troops and materials delivered through the Port of Cherbourg.
I am struck by the idea that it was from here – this secured port and the materials it could deliver to the front lines – that the beginning of the end of the Holocaust originated and that soon those who could hold out until the troops got to them would be, forever more, Survivors.
11:30 pm YHA Cherbourg: First day back in France Counts as a Good One
It’s funny how a person can get in your head and settle in there. I’m reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and I’m having a conversation with him, in my head, which he doesn’t know about. I guess that sort of happens whenever you read a book but, in this case, it’s made a bit more peculiar because I am having an email conversation with him. A chat, an email chat, not so much really a conversation.
I think it’s been a good day. I’m back on the Continent, and back – sort of – on the bike. Someone liked my Oils shirt, I had that weird seagull incident, and the weather cleared. Cherbourg is lovely. I learned stuff about WWII which I hadn’t known before. I didn’t spend much money and I fed myself dinner, and oh – got good info at the tourist office (Do you have … bicycle tour? Oh, of course, yes.) And this is the second night in a row where I expected to share a room but haven’t had to, which is nice.
Tomorrow: I RIDE AGAIN!
2:00 am – Thoughts in a Wakeful Night
I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it was the tea with dinner, the excitement of riding again, or the little nap at 6:00 pm.
There are eucalyptus trees by the waterfront here. I plucked and crushed a leaf – the scent so strong. Home.
I’ve finished reading Jane Smiley’s Some Luck – which I enjoyed – but an e-book doesn’t give the satisfaction of closing the back cover.
It’s raining again – off and on.
In the parc this arvo there was a drug-fucked but friendly enough (not too friendly) French guy – who wanted me to take his photo (I didn’t) and later asked about my writing. I said I write about … stuff. Which is true. I wonder how these notebooks will read later.
They Sent Boys Such as This
Monday 24 August (Day 92)
8:25 am , Cherbourg YHA:
I’ve just met young Quinn of Utah – recently studying in England. An email from Dad provided the details of Grandad’s service – he landed at Omaha Beach – so he’s come to look.
Grandad was probably no older (probably younger even) than Quinn when he landed on D-Day. Quinn chose the Coco Pops for breakfast and dipped his baguette in the left-over chocolate milk. Soft-spoken, soft-eyes, wheaten hair. It’s hard to imagine such a boy, such boys, retaking Europe from Hitler.
But they did.
1:10 pm – Le Vast: Feeling the Joy of Bicycle Touring (Again)
Sigh, it’s so good to be riding again! To feel my legs turning, hear the wheels on the road, smell the salt in the air.
I’m toying with writing a poem about reading Robert’s poetry. Why not? I mean what’s the point of being out here doing this if I don’t follow some random ideas.
I’m only about half way through Selected Poems but I have some ideas already.
Where I’ve Read Your Poetry
[First line of the first poem in the book]
Keeping one eye on the changing colours of Mount Leinster as the sun set on my last day in Ireland
On board the Oscar Wilde sailing from Rosslare to France and wondering ‘does he have a tattoo on his right shoulder?’
In Parc E. Linis after a drug-fucked and bruised, but happy, young man interrupted to ask what I was writing about. I said ‘stuff’
When I meant – Cherbourg, D-Day, the first day, finally, counting toward the day when the survivors would be freed to tell the truth of the horrors visited upon them (again)
In La Vast – at picnic, beside the river Saire, under menacing clouds. Riding again – joyous (or joyful). Poem with Refrains – dog eared as a favourite.
4:45 pm – Camping Municipal de Jonville: It’s Raining in Normandy (Of Course It Is)
My new tent is being put to a test straight away – it’s windy and raining off and on. It started showering with intent just as I got everything into the tent. So far so good – I’m dry and it hasn’t blown away but this being the first use I am a bit nervous.
I have to pee and I’d like to shower – so I’m hoping it will lessen soon. That’s how it seems to go here.
It’s a joy to be riding again. The day was mostly lovely – a little rain, a few hills, a bit more than a little unpaved and muddy/wet road. I rode through what strikes me as a very French landscape – familiar, perhaps, from war movies?
It’s been exactly a month since my last riding day. On 24 July I rode 28.74 km from Laugharne to Tenby (Wales). Today it was 49.65 km and they felt pretty easy.
Where I read
Huddled, hunched and happy
In my new tent as wind shimmys the nylon
And Atlantic rain tap-dances (Jonville)
(Welcome back to riding: Tent cramp – right thigh, ow, fucking ow)
9:15 pm – A Sky of Fuchsia, A Navy Blue Horizon, a Dark Sapphire Sea
The rain has stopped. I went to the toilet, and on the western horizon below the clouds a burst of pink as close to the colour of my jacket, thongs (flip flops), and computer as I’ve seen – brilliant – a reminder that the sun is out there. I climbed a dune to get a better look at the sunset and at the sea as well. Heavy charcoal clouds remain, dropped to the sea. A smudge of navy-blue eyeliner marks the horizon – while the sea … what is that colour of blue? Dark sapphire perhaps.
But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.
Not only has the rain stopped and the wind relented but the sky is mostly clear. The Big Dipper – big and bold (it’s a plough in Ireland). And Orion – standing tall. I think we can see him in Australia – but he’s upside down.
Right now, I want the riding part of this journey to never end. To ride and camp or stay wherever day after day without destination or deadline. I feel like I’ve just kind of come to terms with a good pace and mindset. No worries about distance. Just ride. Of course, that’s especially easy on a well-marked route.