Category Archives: coffee

Leaving Ireland with Melancholy and Hope

17 – 22 August 2015 (Days 84 – 89 of my Midlife Gapyear)

Monday 17 August 11:30 am – Flanders Cross

And just like that, time is fleeting. The Kilkenny Arts Festival is finished and all my new acquaintances have begun to fade away.

I returned to Kilkenny via Dublin sharing a festival courtesy car with American author Jane Smiley and her husband Jack. They were both lovely. We talked about Australia. (Jane wondered why the people of Adelaide think so little of their city. “They live there even when the festivals are over,” I said). Not surprisingly, for an Iowa person, she has Chicago connections; I said that I grew up in the Skokie part of Evanston, “I see,” she said, “why you moved to Australia.”

Once back in town I was, again, helping Cornelia and Hazel. Then we had dinner and went to Druid Shakespeare. There we met a friend of Cornelia and her sister from Australia. Perhaps she missed that I’m from Sydney – when I asked where she was from she said 4 ½ hours north of Sydney. Yeah, where abouts? Sort of Armidale – yeah, where abouts? Walcha. Oh, sure, I know Walcha – inland from Port Macquarie. She was amazed.

When we were leaving Druid Cornelia exclaimed at how terrible that actress’ voice was. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my opinion. She’s like some sort of Nicole Kidman-looking love child of William Shatner and Al Pacino.

We went on to The Set Theatre for the Brooklyn Rider, Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill Marble City Session. So good – such beautiful, beautiful playing. I saw Robert Pinsky there at the end of the show and it pleased me that it pleased him to see me, “I thought you’d gone,” he said.

Then yesterday, Sunday, was the last day of the festival.  The finale gig at the Cathedral was fantastic – really amazing.

I expect to long have very fond memories of this time here – my time spent on the festival – the people I’ve met, the performances I’ve seen.

Monday 17 August – 5:55 pm, Kilkenny

I’ve gone and bought watercolours. I won’t paint if I don’t have them, now I do, so it’s a matter of finding time to use them.

Cornelia and Matthew are mother/son-ing. I’ve had an ice cream at Kitty’s Cabin. A gaggle of local youths hang about nearby with their ubiquitous hurling sticks – I wonder how often they are used as weapons?

Tuesday 18 August 12:40 pm – Waterford, The Larder

It’s a beautiful day – sunny and warm.

My bike is having it’s wheels trued. I’ve wandered Waterford – basically to find places: bicycle shops, phone repairs. My phone – the cable connection is fucked – is irreparable (a lesson in getting something unbranded).

The coffee here, at the Larder, is passable and I’ve had a nice chat with the proprietor – Patrick Murphy (really, he was born in England of an English mother and Irish father, they didn’t think they’d be moving back, but they did when he was four).

He’d been in retail most of his career but decided a couple of years ago to take a crack at a café. He was talking of Celtic Tiger times when everyone was flush. He worked at an electronics retailer and new TVs came in. He went to discuss how to display them and the manager said just stack them by the door – they’ll sell. Patrick was like ‘is this what this trade I’ve been working in all these years, the skills I’ve gained, come to?” He quit that day. He told this story to say all that all that wealth had made the Irish loose and careless with money. One good thing to come of the GFC, he thinks, is that people care more about quality now and this has something to do with the improvement of coffee in Ireland (though, let’s be honest, they still have a way to come).

I’m feeling keen to be riding again and also a bit weird that I’ll soon leave this place. And a little – just mildly – disappointed for not having gotten more writing done. But this week remains.

4:10 pm – At the library

Cornelia described this building as a Celtic Tiger building. Built to be a mall with major retailers but left standing empty when the GFC hit. It’s still basically empty but with council business – a library and regional office in part of it.

I have to admit that Robert has taken a hold in a space in my brain. I think the conversation I had with him was among the best I’ve had on this trip. I really enjoyed swapping Clinton stories with him and talking about American politics with someone quite attuned with the ways of that world.  I’m not sure I’ve recorded some of the Hillary Clinton stories he shared. He was a young professor at Wellesley while she was there. He was teaching an American Poetry class to arty young women who were sure the revolution had come or was nearly upon them, it was 1968. They were discussing a poem which mentioned a lawyer. And the response was “who would want to be a lawyer, or marry a lawyer? Ugh, how horrible”. And then a few of them saying “Hillary Rodham” chuckle, chuckle. It was the first time he heard her name.

He was at the commencement where she spoke. It had been the tradition of the school that a student did not speak – she was the first – and it was controversial. The main speaker – who went before her – was US Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, African-American and Republican; he spoke of patience and incremental change, of letting the system work. Hillary, in response, abandoned her prepared text to say something along the lines of, “Senator, we were hoping you’d have something to say about how we can solve these problems, etc.” Robert said that it was measured and well-delivered – that he went away thinking: This is an impressive person.

Hazel asked him about his Simpsons’ experience. He had flown to LA just before 9/11 – on one of the same flights that was highjacked on the day. He imagines (or knows) it was the same crew from his flight that would have been on that one. With air travel grounded, he was stuck in LA. The Simpsons crew took him under their wings. “In my circle, I’m considered by some to be funny,” he said, “but with them I felt an amateur surrounded by Olympians.”

I’d be quite pleased to make a friendship of it.

Wednesday 19 August – 10:22 am, Flanders Cross

Wispy clouds washed pink by sunset with crescent moon.
One of my final Irish sunsets.

On the drive home last night Cornelia said of her mother, “Her worry is deep and awesome.” I thought that was beautiful.

We were on our way from Waterford and stopped in at Bobbi’s where we were invited in for a glass of wine. She and her youngest daughter live in this mad beautiful manor house with views of green rolling hills and sheep. She lived in Australia for six years in the 1970s working as a station cook in the Outback. She told a story of visiting an Aboriginal community south of Katherine with a didgeridoo player of her acquaintance.

9:07 pm – Flinders Cross

I’m really beginning to stress out about whatever comes next. I was hoping to visit the French family with whom I rode in Wales in Caen. They’ve had to cancel – which puts me at a looser end.

I am looking at a two-week German class. Is that a good investment? Worthwhile? Or should I just ride from Cherbourg and stop worrying? Should I head to Germany on the shortest line? Or the Belgian border following the coast? Find the quickest way out of France? Or spend another €100 on the train out? Fuck if I know. Fuck if I know. I’m ready to go – but to where?

I emailed Robert Pinsky today – anxious to see if he replies and if he does, how.

Thursday 20 August, 7:17 pm – Flanders Cross

This morning I woke stressed by indecision, of uncertainty about where to go, and how to spend my time.

Cornelia suggested that I settle in somewhere for a month. This led to the idea of doing a four-week German course in January rather than two-weeks in October. It makes so much sense. I’ll sleep on it but it feels right and like a burden has been lifted. I can just ride from Cherbourg – head up the coast, the D-Day beaches. I’ll get to Berlin in time for my flight, easy.

And then I had an email reply from Robert Pinsky. Which pleased me.

I’ve dipped into his Selected Poems and think I’m going to like his stuff.

I have never been good at reading poetry.

I like to read faster than poetry invites. Poetry seems to require a deliberative reading which I have, so far, been unwilling to offer.

But maybe now is the time. Maybe it’s the time in my life to be a reader of poetry. Perhaps even a writer of poetry. And perhaps my meeting Robert is a bit of influencing good fortune.

Friday 21 August 12:25 pm – Umi Falafel, Dublin

I woke early. I’m excited about getting going again. I like the plans I’ve settled on. Glenn was coming up to Dublin, so I’ve tagged along to look for knicks and eat at this restaurant again.

I quite like this from Robert’s Gulf Music:

“… but the immigration papers did

Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas

As he signed, he must have thought to himself

The Yiddish equivalent of ‘No problem’, Mah la belle”

11:41 pm – Flanders Cross

Things are happening as they ought: I only rode 15 km in Ireland; I’ll study German in January; meeting Robert. As is ought. Fortuitous but as they ought to be.

To read and write and paint and take my time. To think and meet and learn. Poetry, reading poetry, enforces deliberation. Deliberation is good.

We’ll see, we’ll see.

Saturday 22 August, 4:05 pm – Pulling out of Rosslare

Farewell, farewell Ireland. I’m feeling a little wistful, a little sad to go. My time here was spent in unexpected ways – but it was good for me. Friendships made, forged. Decisions. Ideas. Realisations. Just settling in for a time.

A family - mum, dad, and pre-teen son and daughter, with me - standing in a green field, arms around each other.
With my Irish family

6:00 pm

I’m reading family scenes in Jane Smiley’s Some Luck and looking at the groups all around me.

There were dolphins – everyone rushed to the window to look – not me. I didn’t want to leave all my stuff at this table un-monitored.

I am alone again.

A melancholy selfie of a woman in a blue jumper on the deck of a ferry, cloudy day, dark sea, a bit of Ireland in the distance.
On my own again, farewell Ireland.

9:00 pm

I’ve painted a watercolour of the sea beyond my window while listening to a podcast of Robert speaking on modernism someplace once upon a time. He’s a smart man, knowledgeable and interesting – which shouldn’t be surprising, he’s been at this thing he does for 50 years.

Here’s the thing about the intelligence others see in me, and which I see too, albeit less clearly – why can’t I figure out what to do with it? How to use my smarts, my talents, to produce, to create – to leave something?

Listening to RP, reading his stuff. Reading Jane Smiley’s novel. Admiring all the artists at Kilkenny, I feel the twinges of regret for having not done more with my 46 years.

Time to retreat to my cabin to eat biscuits. Tomorrow I ride. And seek. Seek. Something. What am I seeking? I don’t really know. But, in the meantime. Just. Be. Here. Now.

The gloaming: Low clouds over a gently rolling strip of Ireland on the horizon, the foreground calm steel-coloured sea.
Goodbye Ireland

Coffees and Jews in Dublin: Wednesday 5 August 2015 (Day 73)

11:50 am Wednesday 5 August – Kaph

A lot – Dublin reminds me of Melbourne a lot. Maybe because they are both river cities with dubious weather. But they have Sydney’s pedestrian-crossing system, though, same buttons, same sound – which is strange.

This is the café suggested by Baz – it is not like Melbourne. They call a macchiato and ‘noisette’ (I guess it’s the French name for the same thing) and it’s meh – a little thin and bitter. So, the bitter is like Melbourne but … you know, not so nice. (The music is good, though).

It's a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.
It’s a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.

Speaking of Melbourne … Laura2 will arrive in Chicago the day after me. TOTALLY STOKED. I’m now looking forward to Chicago. And Dave has asked when I’ll be in New York City. I thought he was off to Istanbul. So some plans for America are falling into place.

3pm – Joe’s Coffee (after the Irish Jewish Museum)

It rains, it stops raining. It’s windy. Or not. The sun shines. Or doesn’t.

The view from Joe's Coffee
The view from Joe’s Coffee

When I arrived at the Irish Jewish Museum the first person who greeted me called me sir then excused his error by noting I was wearing trousers.

He proceeded with his spiel until I was, eventually, rescued by Jason – who was embarrassed for the other fellow and apologised.

He showed me around the old synagogue portion of the museum and we had an interesting and lengthy chat. They don’t get a lot of visitors.

Which is a pity as the museum is actually quite interesting. I learned that Sephardi Jews (those from the Iberian Peninsula) settled in Ireland in 1497 – following expulsion from Portugal. Though there are records of Jews in Ireland even earlier – back to a first reference in 1079. More recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries, whole communities were fleeing Eastern Europe and some settled here in Dublin.

Each group set up their own little prayer room. Eventually a rabbi came from Belfast to bring the community together. That was Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1919-1937 before going on to fill the same role in Israel. (Rabbi Herzog, by the way, was a fluent speaker of Irish.) He was the father of Chaim Herzog, the 6th president of Israel, who was born in Belfast and, Jason asserted, spoke English with an Irish accent (though I’ve listened to some clips and don’t really hear it).

He showed me a mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from a material from a wedding dress and other bits and pieces. A fabric scholar had looked at it and was able to identify different parts of the old Yiddish homelands the various bits came from.

Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated clothes including a wedding dress.
Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated material including a wedding dress.

He said the synagogue, which was cobbled together from the upstairs rooms of adjoining houses, had operated until … I think the 1970s or so. “One day the rabbi turned up and there were only 9 men – he locked the door and that was that. Jason imagines him saying: Feck it. If they can’t bother to turn up neither can I.

We had a long chat, Jason and I, about this and that including that six new synagogues have recently opened in Indonesia. He said these are for Christians who have converted. That they had found greater truth in the Old Testament than the New and went to the source. Now some rabbis are going there to teach. I haven’t found a lot about it on line, but there is this one article.

11:20 pm – Abbey Court Hostel

Seagulls – the sound of them, I can hear them here in the hostel.

I visited the Little Museum of Dublin – which is a quirky fun museum full of objects donated by Dubliners. You see it with a guide who tells the story in a loud, theatrical, not-as-funny-as-he- imagines way. He was sort of red in the face and too big for the room.

There was a special exhibition on about U2 and, frankly, it was crap. One small room, only a few artifacts. The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition doing the rounds of Australia shat all over it.

The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.
The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.

For dinner, I met up with my friend Tom, last seen in Paris. He’s here working at the Greenpeace International meeting. We went to a place that sounded good on line, and was – I had the corned beef with mashed potatoes and beet root. It was a huge serve and very very tasty, indeed.

Afterwards we walked back into the city centre before going our separate ways. I looked around for someplace to have a drink but nothing makes me feel lonely quite so much as trying to find a bar I want to go into, on my own, at night.

So, I just walked around some for a while instead.

Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin

Such a pleasant and full day: Saturday 1 August 2015 (Day 69)

Saturday 1 August

I worry I’m not paying enough attention to the details lately and will have less to say, in the blog, in the book, when I get here. I fear that I’m not engaging as much as I was at the beginning of my journey.

Today I went for a bicycle ride with Jerry (whom I recently met at the shop with the door to the pub ) – he’s Scottish and married to Helena, an architect and friend/colleague of Cornelia. The day was dry but chilly and the ride was lovely. The roads are unmarked and it would have been super confusing without a local – a discovery which made me happy not have not yet set off to ride Ireland.

We rode for an hour talking of cycling and family and travel. They have three girls – one a bit older than Matthew, one a bit younger than Isabel – or about the same, and a younger one.

In the afternoon the sun shone gloriously. Glenn (Cornelia’s husband) and I went off of a bit of a photo safari. We also stopped for a coffee. It was nice getting a bit of time to have a good chat with him – such a lovely guy. He’s something of a rock star of the wood turning world and a superb hobby photographer to boot.

Playing with the filters on my camera on our photo safari.
Playing with the filters on my camera on our photo safari.
Ran into Muhammed Ali on our photo safari.
Ran into Muhammed Ali on our photo safari.

In the evening, we had dinner at Jerry and Helena’s – which was nice.

While we were there Matthew finally solved the Rubik’s Cube. He’d been working away at it for quite a while and was so pleased to have gotten it.*

Finally did it!
Finally did it!

I keep saying ‘yes’ to things which means I’m not getting as much work done as I’d like. This coming day and a half, until I go to Dublin, need to be productive. I need to do some research about my onward journey, make some plans, book things.

The weather this evening is shocking: heavy rain and wind. Everyone keeps telling me how magnificent last summer was.

Dublin beckons.

*He would go on, over the course of the summer, to really master it, at speed. The distinctive clackity sound of the cube being worked became a soundtrack to day time in the house.

Crossing to Ireland with Pierce Bronsan: Sunday 26 July 2015 (Day 63)

It rained overnight and now it’s an ugly day – windy, cool, rain blowing about.

I’m enjoying the laziness – I’m having a (not bad) flat white with a pain au chocolat. I wrote post cards. I’m watching pedestrians in the rain.

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My hostel host recommended the pasties from Ffwrn but they’ve sold out. (I’ve no idea how to pronounce that, by the way.) I’m having a delicious savory pie instead – cooked on site in their wood-fired oven. This is someplace, if I had a bit more time, I could have settled in for a rainy day of reading, punctuated with baked goods.

But instead I buy some anti-motion sickness pills, repack my bicycle, and roll down to the port. In the rain.

They are showing Mama Mia on the ferry. As many times as I see this film it still makes me happy and a little teary. I have an enormous, inexplicable, soft-spot for it. That’s not quite true, but explaining it would probably be more tragic than leaving it lie.

The ferry arrives late into Rosslare and my train has come and gone. So I get a bus to Wexford where I’ll meet Cornelia.

The radio was playing Van Halen’s Jump when I boarded, which makes me a little sad. It’s a reminder of my ex-husband as I arrive another place I thought we would visit together. Ah well. Let’s think about Pierce Brosnan’s tragic singing instead.

It’s so bad, it’s charming.

A big trip is just taking the long way home: 18-20 July 2015 (Bath-Monkton Farleigh-Bristol-Cardiff)

Saturday 18 July 10:40 am – Colonna & Smalls Specialty Coffee (Bath) 

There were two young women in my hostel dorm last night who set an alarm for 4:15 am – snoozed it twice and took an hour mucking about. Selfish defined.

I’m spending the morning having a look around Bath before riding to Amanda’s in Monkton Farleigh – a village at the top of quite a hill not far from Bath. Amanda, you may remember, is one of the members of Tom Bailey’s band – among other gigs. Her steadiest of which is with the Psychedelic Furs, having played with them for 13 years.

I’m fortifying for the ride. The good coffee places here, well the one’s I’ve been to so far, are very scientific in their approach – there’s a lot of weighing and measuring. Same with Toby at No 35 Cofffeehouse in Dorchester. It’s good but all a bit fancy and ridiculous. I paid £2.40 (A$5.20) for my macchiato – not worth it. Toby’s was $3.25 – totally reasonable.

There’s a dude writing with a fountain pen and a wee pot of ink. That seems very Bath. It’s a hoity-toity place. Beautiful though.

£2.40 (A$5.20) - Really?
£2.40 (A$5.20) – Really?

Midnight – Amanda’s Back Garden, Monkton Farleigh

While I’m thinking of it:

– Riding: I cover less territory but see much more.

– A big journey is just taking the long way home.

This week has felt super long. It was only last Saturday that I was in Southampton … bizarre.

I think it’s to do, in part, with being back in an English-speaking environment. I’ve had more conversations, longer and more complicated conversations, this week than I have had in two months.

Riding here – getting up the hill is the single hardest thing I’ve done on this trip.

I rode out of Bath along the river then climbed up away from the river – up a decent hill. Then there was a bit of flat through a town and across the A4. Then I stared up Bathford Hill, which was tough but rideable – I just stopped a few times.

But when I turned into Prospect I just had to laugh when greeted by an incline of 25-30 degrees. It was like that for 150 metres then I turn a corner, and it’s just as steep, for another hundred – but through a forest, it was actually really lovely and quiet as I pushed 5 – 10 metres at a time. Then it shallowed to a rideable angle and I was rolling into Monkton Farleigh– well the edge of it.

So much worse than it looks
So much worse than it looks

I found a 13-year-old kid with a sequined marijuana-leaf hat and pierced eyebrow idling in front of newish houses and he directed me towards the pub. And from there I found Amanda’s.

I recognised, as I had been pushing my bicycle up that hill that, one, I probably couldn’t have done it two months ago, that I wouldn’t have been strong enough, or maybe wouldn’t have believed I had the strength. And, two, as with so many hard things – if I take my time and do it one bit at a time, I get there.

Amanda has a charming little row-house in this crazy cute village.

Apparently the area is popular with musicians – Peter Gabriel is over there, a member of Duran Duran in that village, one of the Tears for Fears guys is a native.

The views of the countryside from around the village are fantastic.

Amanda is … intense and very talkative and interesting. I really like her.

This evening a couple of her friends came around and we all went out to dinner then, too, a big looping walk around the village. As we did we passed the Lord of the Manor (really) out walking his dogs. A big proper dog and a little excitable mutt who said hello to each of us before Amanda led him back in the direction of his master who hadn’t broken stride though one of his dogs was lagging way behind.

And now I’m settled cosily into my tent, my wee travelling home, down the bottom of her garden. So nice.

Camping in Amanda's Garden
Camping in Amanda’s Garden

Sunday 19 July 8:55 pm Bristol YHA

Some days I’m cruising along feeling good about things and then – bam, defeated.

The ride from Monkton Farleigh to Bristol was lovely, and mostly on the paved Bristol to Bath Rail Trail.

Bristol is multicultural – more Muslim and people of African descent than I’ve seen in a while – and a bit reminiscent of Australia’s Newcastle (working class, revitalised/revitalising, a seaport town).

The Harbour Festival was on – masses of people eating crappy food from vans and drinking overpriced beer from tins and plastic cups. The YHA is in the midst of it. I tried to go to the shop – but it was full of festival-goers. I tried to get beyond the chaos but got turned around in Old Town and found myself back in it. I went into a good looking pub with Mac & Cheese on the menu but the kitchen had closed.

There’s an older woman in my room who was sleeping when I arrived at 6 pm. She has been in bed ever since. A while ago she stirred to tell me she’d forgotten her PJ’s at the B&B.

I’d like to go have a look around but I’m defeated by the crowds and my bad maps. There’s stuff I should do – work, emails, etc. But … just like that … defeated. Grumpy too.

It’s still light. There are lots of seagulls circling and cawing. People in a pub are singing.

I’m going to read and sleep and hope for revived spirits come morning.

10:30 am Monday 20 July – Bristol

I feel like I’m hitting a wall. Not sure if that’s hormonal or just because I know a rest is coming. Or the expense of the UK. Or just the thing of being defeated by Bristol yesterday.

Trying to go easy today – I’m out looking at Bristol.

There are quite a few families out walking and looking for Shaun the Sheep statues which are spread about the place. (The Wallace & Grommit guy is from around here.)

Shaun & Me
Shaun & Me

12:05 pm – Small Street Espresso

This is the first macchiato I’ve had in a long time that I’d describe as, basically, a macchiato. Double shot with a splash of milk and dollop of foam. It’s made with their house roast – which has an edge, but is nice. I’m having a salted caramel brownie too.

A proper macchiato and a salted caramel brownie.
A proper macchiato and a salted caramel brownie.

Feeling better for proper caffeine.

There’s definitely a funkiness to Bristol it would take much more time than I have to really delve into. But there’s something about it which I like – it has a good energy.

I’ve decided to simply take the train to Cardiff today. It’s just that sort of day.

Tired. Ready to spend some days in one place. Unpack everything. Wash everything. Get and feel caught up. Feel like I know what’s happening financially.

10:55 pm Cardiff – Richard & Iona’s (Cardiff)
I think all the Warm Showers hosts I’ve stayed with are better hosts than we were, my then-husband and I. I’m always fed. We gave options. In the future I’ll always feed people – it’s so nice.

There’s a French family here too. They weren’t scheduled until later but changed their plans and Richard and Iona couldn’t say no.

I’m pleased to be in Cardiff, in Wales. I like places where, against all odds, a people have held onto their culture.

I’ve done laundry. It’s drying in my room and I can smell it – lovely.
Ending the day in a much better head space than I began. Nice.

 

Where I Can See it Beyond the Hedges, the English Countryside is Lovely: 14-17 July 2015 (Dorchester, Sherborne,Salisbury, Pewsey and Bath)

I’ve decided to take a different approach with this blog and see how it goes.

My posts have been overly detailed. Meanwhile over on Instagram I’ve been posting one photo from each day – the best photo, the one I like the most. The pressure of detailed posts – a pressure entirely of my own making for, as grateful as I am for my few readers, you are few and undemanding.

So I’m going to take a similar approach to the blog as I’ve taken with the photos – I’ll tell you the best story of the day, the most memorable thing, or the observation which has best stuck with me. Let’s see how this goes. Feedback is appreciated.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

I wake to a grey day in my expensive hotel room in Dorchester and slowly get myself ready for the road.

I have the best coffee since Sydney at Number 35 Coffee House and enjoy the warm conviviality of Toby (the owner/barista) and his regular customers. They ask about my trip and suggest I’m having a midlife crisis. I correct them. “This trip,” I say, “is the clarity after the crisis.”

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Toby at No 35 Coffee House in Dorchester knows what he’s doing.

Fortified, I pedal off for another English day of rolling hills, hedged roads, cute villages and slightly confused way-finding.

I am aiming for Shaftsbury. There are some big climbs and swift descents. Some smaller, quieter roads, as well as some with close-passing fast-moving traffic. The slightly scary moments go with the territory but I’m feeling good, strong. I’m enjoying the riding – finding real simple joy in it.

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The Cerne Abbas Giant (and his giant erection)

Pedaling through a cross-roads village something goes wrong with my front wheel. Luckily I am going slowly, around an easy bend with no traffic.

The bolt holding my right front pannier (bag) rack to the frame has broken off – the body in the hob, the head in the rack. It hangs loose. If this had happened on one of my earlier descents or with fast passing traffic I might have been in real trouble.

This is my first mechanical problem and it is real. I pull into a little park to assess the damages. I use a cable-tie and duct tape to secure the rack in place and strap that pannier onto the rear rack. That will have to do until I can find a bicycle shop.

I still don’t data on my phone but looking at my map I see I’m a bit closer to Sherborne than I am to Shaftsbury and that Sherborne has a train station. Worse case scenario I get the train to Salisbury tomorrow and there is sure to be a bicycle shop there.

I crest a hill and roll into Sherborne a bit after 6 pm. It’s adorable – old stone buildings, a big church. I’m following my nose into the Town Centre hoping to find some sort of accommodation, hopefully cheaper than last night.

I come around a corner and … Riley’s Bicycles! And they are open!

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Ha ha ha – Yes!

Not only are they open but welcoming and only too happy to solve my problem.

Mike, the proprietor, sends me to the Bakehouse B & B when I ask for a suggestion.It’s just back at the junction and run by Malcolm, I’m told.

Malcolm responds to my knock – I’d never have spotted it as a B & B. Yes, he has a room – – £50 (still quite dear but a lot less than last night), ensuite with breakfast and WiFi.

Once I”m settled Malcolm directs me to the best fish and chip place and the best pub. “The rest are a bit corporate.”

The fish and chips are great – I eat in front of the abbey, the bells ding-donging away – seemingly for no reason though perhaps a service was beginning?

The pub was lively with locals – a good pick. There’s a poodle at the table next to me.

And, yes, there is a train that will take me to Salisbury tomorrow – unless I ride.

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Fish and Chip picnic with the Sherborne Abbey
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Local ale at the Digby Tap

Wednesday 15 July 2015

I linger in Sherborne. I like it.

I eat the enormous breakfast offered up by the B&B: toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, orange juice and fruit.”There’s more if you like.”

I visit Mike and my bicycle – he’s replaced my awful bar-tape with a much sturdier looking option. My pedals were on their dying days – last night we’d settled on as close a pair to mine as he’d had in stock but overnight he realised the one’s he had on his own every-day bicycle would be better, so he’d installed those and will just charge £4 for them. She’s looking good and ready to roll.

I take the train to Salisbury – getting in trouble with the conductor for having not pre-booked my bicycle. I had no idea I was supposed to.

Salisbury reminds me of Baltimore. The narrow residential streets lined with rowhouses which cram the older portions of the centre of town are reminiscent of the back streets of Fells Point. I guess it’s all English architecture of a similar era.

I circle the cathedral and consider attending a concert beginning there shortly – Bach by Candlelight. But it’s piano. Had it been cello or organ I’d have sprung for it.

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Salisbury Cathedral

I’m camped at the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) and spend my evening there. I make dinner and enjoy a few beers. I chat with the bloke at reception for a while and then with some teachers from Germany who are accompanying a school group on a trip to England.

After a few expensive nights, it’s good to be back in my tent.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Just when England and her drivers and Australian-like roads are feeding a bit of home-sickness … and the Salisbury Plain – which reminded me strongly of home. Happenstance, kindness and fortuitousness will out again.

After the high- really – of the fortuitous stuff on Tuesday followed by the seeming challenges of sorting accommodation along the way – I was feeling … not down exactly, not low or sad but maybe just a little tired, worn out, wishing I could be home for a few days. There’s a plus in not actually having a home – all my stuff is stored with a friend, so there is no bedroom waiting for me, no familiar couch or shower. In some way that makes it easier.

So it is in a bit of a funk that I head off to find Stonehenge.

The beginning of the ride – while I was on National Cycle Route 45 – was lovely. The road was rolling, the traffic light, nice houses, thatched roofs, roses. But then more hedge – I’ve come to really hate English hedges as they leave you with a view of a hedge, road and sky.

I come to a junction from whence my plotted route has me going right and looping around the backside of the Stonehenge site. But I can go left for a shorter route, and here, at this junction it looks quiet enough and there’s a foot path. Both these promises are soon be snatched away and I end up pushing my bicycle along a weedy verge next to a dual-carriageway chockers with traffic. But I could see the bloody stones on the horizon, I wasn’t going to retreat to the quieter route.

Sometimes in this business of bicycle travel that happens – you just have to push, through shin-high weeds, breathing exhaust.

I got to a place with some parked cars and a walking trail sign pointing to Stonehenge. Huzzah!  I thought. But when I got there – like right there, within 200 metres of the stones, I was told I needed to have already gotten my ticket. I was a the bus drop off zone. So I rode the kilometer or so to the visitors centre, locked up, collected my ticket and took a bus back to the stones.

They are very big stones. In a field. On a hill. Strangely with sprinklers going – like normal yard ones I would have run through as a child. And surrounded by a United Nations of tourists. It was cool but not amazing.

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Stonehenge & Sprinkler

I pedalled off confidently and in the wrong direction on a busy and unpleasant road. I added 15 kms to my day with this mistake. The new mp3 player I’d bought in Dorchester pumped David Bowie’s Hunky Dory into my ears. I sing along, out loud, against the roar of passing traffic. Sometimes you just have to pedal on; sometimes you wish for an alternative but there isn’t one.

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The Salisbury Plain reminded me so much of Australia as to be disorientating.

At 5:30 or 6:00 I arrived at the end of the Salisbury Plain to a spot overlooking a village in a valley. It’s gorgeous. God-rays of sunlight shining through clouds, copse of trees, green fields, and I think – everywhere I’ve been so far, the countryside has always been lovely. Sometimes dull but always lovely.

Bicycle touring – you cover less ground but see so much more.

I roll into town prepared to pay what I would. I stopped a family out for a cycle and asked if there was a B & B about. They pointed toward two B & Bs just up the road. The first drew no answer to my knock, the second was answered by a bright-blue-eyed woman in her late 70s. Very pleasant, very English – so sorry full up. I asked about nearby camping. She suggested the Coopers Arms about ½ a mile away. There the bartender, when I asked about camping, said I’d have to wait for the publican to return in two hours, as only he could give permission.

But a bloke on the other side of the bar, who overheard my query, directs me to Matt who is standing next to me. Matt has a campground. I have a beer; Matt finishes his, then we pop my bike into Matt’s car to drive the two miles to his pub – with camping out the back for £5 – too easy.

Friday 18 July 2015

In the pub last night the locals put me onto a direct route to the Kennet & Avon Canal which would get me off the country highways more quickly. They said the first few miles were a bit rough but that it improved after Devizes.

I was only too glad to get away from motor traffic. But the route I’ve taken is longer and proves to be – after some kilometers – rough as guts. It’s just a worn path through tall grass beside the canal. It’s lumpy and slow going. But a beautiful place – the canal, the boats and the ducks.

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Along the Kennet & Avon Canal

The thing about riding in England is it’s never completely good.

The Via Claudia Augusta in Northern Italy was basically completely good. There were steep bits but the conditions for tackling them were completely good.

At Devizes, the path did improve but not as much as I hoped. For a while it’s graded crushed gravel. But now it’s just rocky and a bit lumpy. I have to keep an eye on it – keep a look out for potholes, or big rocks, etc – so it’s hard to enjoy the views. I’m tired and that I want to be at home feeling has returned.

I push on, into a head wind, and arrive in Bath. It’s a beautiful old stone city and in the summer’s afternoon it glows. It’s good to park the bicycle and find myself in a nice city.

I’ve can’t believe I’ve been in England for a only a week. If feels longer.

Not quite my route.

Finding the Charm, Seeing the Race, Returning to my Native Tongue: 8-10 July 2015 – Paris – Le Havre/Ferry – Southampton

Wednesday 8 July 8:55 am – Tom’s Place, Paris

I head out thinking I’ll just get breakfast someplace. I look in at two cafes – the breakfast is €9.50 at one and €12 at another. For coffee, croissant, and juice. Fuck you very much. I find a supermarket instead, collect fresh bread and apricots for € 1.60.  I bring these items back to Tom’s flat, make myself a coffee, find my cheese, and voila: un petit dejuner.

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Un petit dejuner

I’ve moved from one friend’s place to another. I stayed at Carson’s for dinner last night then rode here around 10:00 pm. Tom is the son of life-long friends of my parents. He’s lived in Paris since the 1980s – mostly, I think, in this very flat. He’s an interpreter – these days he roams the globe working at various international conferences and meetings. He is, in fact, off working right now but will be home this evening. So here I am in the book-crowded quiet of his home enjoying my wee breakfast and watching the firemen in the station across the road getting ready for Bastille Day celebrations.

Riding across town last night was lovely, the temperature has dropped and Montmanse was lively and inviting. The temperatures have stayed low this morning, it seems the worst of that heat wave has broken. People are wearing jumpers.

The lack of easy internet access and not knowing when or where I will have it again is a problem. Preparing for that is what took up so much time on Monday – trying to collect maps, downloading documents, etc.

And I’ve realised that this coming run – crossing the UK, and on to Ireland feels more complex. I’ve had to think about how long I’ll be in the UK and book a ferry ticket on to Ireland (so I have two weeks to get from Southampton to Fishguard now). I’ve had to guess how much cash I’ll need and move British Pound Sterling on to my cash card. Then, too, I’ve been thinking about how long to stay in Ireland, what to do there, from which port to cross back to the UK and from the UK back to the Continent. It’s sort of doing my head in just a bit.

Breakfast is done, head is swirling, I think it’s time to get out and see the Musée d’Orsay.

1:30 pm – Tom’s

I have found Paris hard. The distances between things is always greater than they appear on the map. And I don’t know that its offerings compensate for the challenges. The landmarks are so famous as to be, sort of, underwhelming in person. It’s a nice city with pleasant neighbourhoods. But the “wow” moment, for me, remains the women drummers at the triathlon.

The D’Orsay was good. The art was well-displayed, the walls full but things weren’t too close together. The galleries were busy, crowded, but not intolerable. A lot of visitors seemed more intent on photographing the art than looking at it. What’s the point of that anyway? I can understand taking pictures of technique, of small parts of paintings, or even selfies with specific works. But many here seem to wander through the galleries snapping away but never really just looking with their eyes.

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At the Musee d’Orsay

I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here. Not in a negative way but … I’m here to just BE, and to EXPERIENCE, and to SEE, maybe. Is that it? Is that the point?

I mean – should I be more aware of what there is to see and get to see it? Spend the money, route my way to these places? Or just keep feeling my way along to the next anchor point while seeing what comes as I do?

The theme of this journey so far has definitely been BALANCE (appropriate for a riding trip):

  • Between Riding and Writing
  • Between seeing/doing what’s meant to be seen/done and just rolling through, experiencing
  • Between spending and scrimping

Paris, I think, brings all of this into focus because it’s a place full of “supposed to”s and also a place meant to reward wandering. I’ve done a little of the former and felt a little of the latter.

11:25 pm – Tom’s Place

On my final afternoon and evening the tide has turned and I get it.

I see the appeal, if not the magic, of Paris.

I had all but given up but after doing a bit of work I decided to go out and walk to Shakespeare & Co.  I walk through vibrant little streets with bustling cafes full of post-work drinkers and diners. I guess these are the back streets of St Germain, then those of the Latin Quarter. The Latin Quarter is very touristy but relaxed, no one is rushing or queuing. I get a banana and sugar crepe for a reasonable €3.

An oh-too-fashionable young man, long blonde hair just so, wearing a yellow blazer, stovepipe trousers, and blue leather shoes is standing on a corner, waiting, or posing. The good looking men are out too. Unfortunately, quite a few are smoking. (France: smoking like it’s 1990.)

I pass an art supply shop – I suspect of considerable heritage. There are beautiful, expensive, water-colour kits in the window – €60+. The colours are so bold and pure. I stop in my tracks to look. I notice the shop keeper and give him a smile, which he returns. It’s a nice moment and, for me, one that lessens my struggle with Paris.

Ah, Paris – okay, finally, I’m getting you!

Is it the change in the weather? Having been here a while? Having gotten out in the evening? (Last night coming from Carson’s had a good vibe too.) Whatever it is – I’ve turned the corner and am, at least, on good terms with Paris. Neutral, perhaps, terms – but we’re good.

After my wander, Tom got home and began talking. We went to one of his favourite neighbourhood places where he’s been a regular for 30 years. The owners came to say bon soir. The food was classically French. It was lovely: fennel salad with goats’ cheese, a steak with potatoes, and brie.

When was the last time I ate dinner in a restaurant with someone else? We finished up around 11pm. Tom paid, my shout when he gets to Australia. Not many can say this but Paris has been good for my average per-day expenses.

Tomorrow at this time I’ll be on a ferry to the UK

 

Thursday 9 July – Le Havre, 7:10 pm

I smell the sea for the first time in a month when I emerge from Gare Le Havre. It is a welcoming scent.

Although I’m on the overnight ferry to Southampton I’ve arranged with Warm Showers’ hosts Cecile and Guillaume to leave my bicycle with them for the afternoon while I go watch the race.  But at first it looks like I’ll be unable to make use of their hospitality. The peloton is still a couple of hours away but as I try to cross the route a policeman says firmly “Non! Impossible”. He insists it’s out of the question to think I’ll be able to cross the route until the race has finished.

I find a McDonalds to use their WiFi so I can message Cecile that I might not make it. Then I go looking for someplace else to cross. Soon enough I find a spot. For a while there I was worried I’d spend the next few hours leaning on my cross-bar waiting for the race.

Cecile lives in a cute house, on a cute street, up the hill from the beach. (Seagulls, lots of seagulls.) She is really friendly and welcoming. She shows me where the route is on a En Velo en Le Havre map. (Turns out she does bike stuff for the city.)

On the way to the beach I pop into a patisserie for an apricot slice thing and get a jovial lesson from the matron behind the counter on how to say “abricot.” I find a good spot on a corner where the riders will leave the beach and turn inland.

There’s a good crowd on both sides of the route with more in the nearby bars and cafes – some waiting on balconies, others watching on television.

Soon comes the caravan of sponsors vans – booming music, promo boys and girls strapped in but dancing and tossing rubbishy knickknacks with their employers’ names on them – like hats and bags. Madness from the crowd – adults and children alike dashing excitedly after the tatt. A bloke next to me waves for everything and dashes for all in reach. He gives most of what he gets to nearby kids but still it is the thrill of free stuff he is here for.

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Me Me Me – Throw the free stuff to Me!

Working on one of these caravan vehicles seems like a ring of hell to me. To spend all day, every day, for three weeks strapped to a mobile sound system pumping mind-numbing doof-doofy stuff while people clamour after useless shit you are throwing at them – I’d lose my mind. And you’d never get to see anything of the tour.

The crowd thins after the caravan has moved through.

Now and then some team cars, official cars, or VIP cars come through.  Around 5:40 pm the first helicopter appears over the sea, then over the road. Just as at the Giro – seeing and hearing the helicopters is amazingly exciting, it makes me a little teary, really. I’m not a Tour fan of long standing but for the past five or six years I’ve spent many an Australian winter night tucked up under a blanket, cup of tea in hand, watching these boys ride under the summer skies of France. And now here I am. So exciting.

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On the right, above the people on the roof – see it? One of the helicopters!

A ripple of applause chases the Cofidis rider with a 20 second, or so, lead, up the road. The peloton chases through followed by the stragglers but they are all pretty close together. I spot a few Green Edge riders but not Tony Martin in yellow. And then it’s done.  We disperse. Some gathering in a café to watch the finish – I join them, it’s someone other than the Cofidis rider. In the next bar I see that Tony Martin has crashed within the last kilometre, so time isn’t an issue if he’s okay.

The Grand Tours are the three biggest cycling races of the European season: the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. They each last three weeks, for the one race – they are the longest sporting events in the world, probably, but for a spectator they last mere seconds. Strange.

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They race for three weeks; we see them for three seconds.

 

Friday 10 July 7:55 am – Portsmouth

Tony Martin is broken and out of the Tour de France.

Cecile and Guillaume were very welcoming – after the race I went back to theirs – hung-out, showered, admired their garden. We had dinner together. She made a salad which included tomatoes they grew themselves. Several years ago they rode from Quebec to Peru, back then their English was pretty good, now it’s gone a bit rusty but is still vastly superior to my French.

The ferry crossing was easy and smooth. Bicycles and motorcycles were on first so when I saw some motorcyclists had swagged-out in the children’s play zone – a padded area in a corridor – I swiftly joined them. My fellow campers were all make-shift, using jackets for pillows and the like, not me, oh no. I inflated my air mattress and pillow, pulled out the sleeping bag –  and I, admittedly, felt rather clever. All up I probably got close to five hours sleep – not great but sufficient, I hope, to get me to Southampton.

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Fortunately loud colours don’t keep me awake.

England. Weird. It feels, not surprisingly, familiar. My first stop was in a Victoria Park (how many of those have I visited?). People say “good morning” and I say it back – if they say more, I understand them. After 47 days in non-English speaking countries, it’s a funny, lovely thing.

1:35 pm – Nearly to Southampton

Tailwind!

A squirrel!

Two deer!

I walk into a village bakery and the Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ is playing. This is important because I am on my way to Southampton to see Tom Bailey and his band play Thompson Twins songs. When I was 14 the Thompson Twins were my favourite band. When I was 16 I met them, and was befriended by them. When I was 18 I was an intern on their final US tour. Through the magic of the internet I reconnected with Tom in, maybe 2008 or 2009. Not long after he was in Sydney and we caught up in person. Tomorrow I’ll see him play these fond old songs for the first time in 28 years.

The ride is green, full of suburban sameness, churches, dogs, Greens and Commons and kids playing cricket. As I near Southampton young mums walk with prams and an older couple sun themselves in lawn chairs on the bank of the Solent with industry on the far shore and container ships passing.

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You have to laugh when a country lives up to its stereotypes.

I’ve been following Sustrans National Cycle Route No 2. As ever, having crossed national territories (sometimes even provincial lines) the signage has changed significantly. In France, on the Eurovelo 6, there were fairly large signs (like this), found regularly. The route was mostly obvious and kind of predictable – it was an off-road dedicated cycleway bordering on a river. Now, here, in the UK – they have Sustrans routes. These combine on-road and off-road segments and intentionally connect city-centres to other city-centres and go through towns and villages. The signs are often just stickers on pre-existing road signs. Spotting them is sometimes a challenge – I got lost for 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, when I lost them. Now I know if I haven’t seen one for 300 metres or so it’s probably best to go back to the last one I spotted and try again.

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See the Cycle Route Sticker on the left? Also, this is where I saw two deer – crossing this road

I’ve stopped now to make a coffee and realise I’m very tired.

Evening – in Southampton

Lindsi, my Warm Showers host reminds me strongly of my ex-mother-in-law, just with different interests: a chatty, mature Englishwoman who regularly offers tea and food.

I found my way to Lindsi’s following her directions, asking for help once (novel to be able to do that – in English, with confidence the person I’m asking also speaks English) and using a train station area map.

Maps remain an issue. The off-line ones are too big for my phone. The paper ones expensive and covering small areas.

Lindsi has all I’ll need – I think I’ll simply photograph them and load the pictures them on to my phone. I’ll see if I can pick up some basic tourist maps as I go.

I went into Southampton centre this afternoon and found it is deserving of Lonely Planet’s snub (it’s not listed at all in my guide): bogany, full of shopping, and a little history – albeit very interesting history: Mayflower, Titanic, and the Launch of D-Day.

But tomorrow is all about my own history and revisiting a fun little slice of it – the simple joys of great pop music and old friendships renewed.

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From whence the “Pilgrim Fathers” embarked on the Mayflower, 15 August 1620

Paris Kinda Smells of Piss: 4-7 July 2015, Dijon to Paris

Saturday 4 July – 10:20 pm, Paris – Carson’s Place

It’s still light out and hot but a breeze has come on.

I got up early to walk around Dijon before it became an oven. I wandered the quiet cobbled streets winding past shops and churches. I stumbled upon the markets – Les Halles – and bought cherries, a wee round of chevre, and some bread.

Back at the hotel I worked on my schedule and plans for a while. I sent emails and messaged some possible Warm Showers hosts in Le Havre and Southampton. I haven’t received any replies yet, but my fingers are crossed. I checked out of my room and worked some more in the lobby – the hotel staff gave me a coffee, huzzah for small wins!

One of the funny things that happens when you are travelling by bicycle is you see some generally unexposed corners of hotels as they are offered as places to store the bike. Here I got to see the old basement discotheque which, based on the decor, has been closed for twenty-five plus years but it looked like they had just closed the door then began using it as storage. The bar was in place, booths, a starry ceiling, and a dusty dancefloor – I imagined Dijonese Lotharios “Stayin’ Alive” in a cloud of Gitanes smoke.

It was hot as an oven when, in mid-morning, I rolled to the station, bought my ticket, enjoyed the air-conditioned waiting room and, then, joined my train to Paris. I spent my five hours reading, writing, and gazing out the window at the passing countryside. It looked hot out there – rolling fields of wheat reminded me a little of Nebraska.

In Paris – I got a little lost but the riding was fine and I found my way to my friend’s flat. I’m spending a couple of nights with my friend Carson. She’s an academic attached to the University of Sydney business school and for several years’ running she’s had the job of accompanying a group of Sydney students completing summer internships in the French capital. She has taken to her part-time residence in Paris with gusto and has a genuine love of the place especially the neighbourhoods and their small beauties.

We went out to find wine and dessert to go with our homemade dinner. Now my clothes are washing and I’m listen to snatches of French drift in the open windows, the sound of a child crying, and neighbours doing their dishes.

The week’s exhaustion lays heavy on me, I’m ready for some sleep.

 

Sunday 5 July 10:35 am – Eiffel Tower

I’m sitting on a park bench nearly beneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s more brown than I remembered. I think of it as dark grey, but it’s more brown.

I had been warned but, still, I laughed to see it. Emerging from the Bir-Hakeim metro station I was greeted by the giant poster of a kangaroo on a beach which decorates the Australian embassy, and beyond – the Eiffel Tower.

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Bon jour, Skippy!

Carson told me we got the spot after the war. It’s built on land which had housed the railway siding where Paris Jews were rounded up for deportation and (mostly) death. When the French put the space out to tender after the war only Australia and Germany put in bids. No brainer.

The Paris Triathlon is underway.  At the transition zone between the riding and running there’s an all women drum troupe. Black and white, fit and not. They are amazing – powerful with rhythmic energy. I get goose-bumps imagining how wonderful it would be to hear that as you leave your bike and start running. The next time I’m struggling up a hill or through difficult riding conditions I’ll try to remember these women.

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I wish I had an audio file to share,they were great.

9:13 pm – Carson’s

Paris has defeated me today. Twice I went out to try to engage with her, and both times … defeated.

This morning from the Eiffel Tower I had plans to walk here and there but only got as far as the Arc de Triumph. As a Tour de France fan I was keen to examine the surface of the Champs Elysees– I gazed at the Arc and watched tourists wander in traffic to get ‘perfect’ selfies then I retreated to the Metro and back to Carson’s.

Maybe because I’ve been riding quiet cycleways through towns and villages for a couple of weeks now but I’m finding Paris just too crowded. It’s too much of a tourist town without many Parisians – and fair enough – it’s the height of summer and full to the brim. There are immigrant/refugee touts everywhere with Eiffel Tower trinkets and selfie sticks. And while I admire their fortitude and efforts to make a living there’s only so many times you can politely refuse.

On the Metro back to Carson’s I was reading through my Lonely Planet and realised that today being the first Sunday of the month, that some museums would be free. So having regrouped and refreshed a bit – and having gotten a spirit-lifting “yes” from a host in Southampton – I set out in the afternoon for the Musee D’Orcy. Arriving, I found as long a queue as any I’ve ever joined. After about 15 minutes I arrived at a sign which indicated that from here it was a 30-minute wait.

Hmmm … maybe not. I was scheduled back at Carson’s for drinks so I’d maybe only get 20 minutes in the museum. Another day, I’ll just have to pay. So I went walking along the Seine heading for the Memorial for the Deported located on the island with Notre Dame. The queue for the cathedral was at least as long as the one I’d left at the museum. The Memorial was closed. Yup, Paris has defeated me today.

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It defeated me, but, still – Paris.

I offer these observations:

  • The city often smells of piss.
  • I hear English everywhere.
  • On the way home I wandered up Rue Daguerre; it was lovely and charming.

Tuesday 7 July 10:30 am – Le Poutch

This was an Australian café – the Tuckshop – but the Aussie owners have moved on. Now there’s an American woman running it with a changed name but she’s kept the flat white on the menu. It was pretty good but at €4 not habit-forming.

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Flat White – Paris style.

Paris still … meh. Yesterday I worked pretty much all day and got through maybe a third of my list of things to do – administrative stuff, bookkeeping, writing, clearing out emails, planning, processing photos, etc. This morning I’ve ventured out afresh and got an early start to beat the heat, the crowds, the rising smell of piss. I followed the Lonely Planet walking route around Montmarte. The area is a bit cute. The church and the view were nice. Now the heat has come on again, maybe it’s the heat married with a bit of attitude but Paris underwhelms me. It’s dirty and overflowing with tourists; it smells of exhaust and urine.

Let’s see what the Musee d’art et histoire du Judisme has to offer. Then the Memorial de la Shoah.  This won’t be depressing at all.

11:55 am – At the Musee d’art et histoire du Judisme

One, again – a heavy police presence outside. Then through security to get in, stuff through a scanner and two procedure entry: open a door, stand in the middle, then open a second door, all while being observed by security.

Frankly, it really angers me that that is necessary. It is, I understand that, but it angers me that it is. Not enough to have slaughtered six million of us 70 years ago, oh no – still targets. Seriously haters – we’re 0.2% of the world’s population. There are a whopping 14.2 million Jews – and we’re your problem? There are 26 cities with more residents than there are Jews in the world. There are 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, in fact Wikipedia lists 10 religious/spiritual groups as more populous. Including Spiritism – I’ve never even heard of Spiritism, have you? There a million more of them than there are Jews. So, frankly, haters, can you kindly fuck off.

Once over the annoyance caused by the security which is required to try to keep crazy, fucking, murderous assholes at bay I found the Museum was really very good. A collection of art and artefacts from across the history of Jews in Europe, France. Interspersed with the permanent collection were photographic portraits of modern Parisian Jews with short snippets of interviews with them.

It makes me want to assert my Jewishness more strongly, to identify, and sort of plant my flag and say FUCK YOU. We’re here, we’re European. This is the continent from whence my people sprang. Yiddish culture is as much European as French or Polish or whatever.

5:49 pm – Carson’s

Happily, I didn’t have a lot of time for the Shoah Memorial – it was so hard. Made harder by being in the place it actually happened. A place where people were rounded up and deported to their deaths. And recently. And well documented. And there are armed military personnel outside and heavy security to get through to get in.

In the basement there is a crypt with ashes from victims – collected from several concentration camps – mixed with Israeli soil and marked with an eternal flame. Nearby are the French police files of all the Jews.

So, so hard.

The Rhine and Lake Constance … I’ve heard of those – 25 June (Day 32)

Aldi is called Hoffer in Austria and before leaving Bludenz I get an Austrian SIM card here for less that EUR 2. Sarah and Tobi had helped me research my options – to keep using my Italian SIM is too pricey – and the Hoffer card looks a good deal. Now if I can just make it work. I’ll need help from tonight’s host with the German, I think.

I won’t say that more of my German has returned but I am feeling more confident about using the little I have. My ear seems to be tuning more to the sounds of the language and picking out the few familiar words as they flash by. My Italian – poor as it is – is much much better than my German.

As promised the day’s ride is almost entirely flat or downhill. The sun shines, the big mountains retreat behind me and are replaced by low green hills on either side of the River Ill. With school holidays nearly upon us it looks like Austrian schools, like their Australian counterparts, fill the final days with outings. The cycleway teams with school groups.

Near a vibrantly greeny-blue lake – allowing one such train of 12-year-olds to pass, I meet a Dutch couple I judge to be in their 70s. It’s taken them 13 days to ride here from home. They are riding into Northern Italy, retracing my path, more or less, as far as Verona, then to Venice, Florence, and Cinque Terre with a return to the Netherlands via Basel. They will ride for about six weeks.

So many of the cycle tourists I’ve passed along the way have been, let’s say, mature aged – which is fantastic. Most are on regular pushies but many are on electric-assist bicycles. I think it’s such a pity that more of their age-peers in Australia can’t enjoy such trips for a lack of safe and welcoming infrastructure.

The river and the cycleway join the mighty Rhine – wide, swift and icy blue-green.

I stop and make a coffee gazing at Switzerland on the far side and thinking land borders are magnificent (if your neighbours aren’t inclined to invade).

After the coffee I begin missing Australia. Well, Australia’s devotion to public toilets. Along the Via Claudia Augusta there were at least signs letting me know what services could be found in nearby towns, and the path traversed villages – nearly all of whom had a bar – so for a EUR 1 espresso a visit to a toilet was purchased. But this route, now – while lovely – skirted towns, had no informative signs and provided no amenities of its own.

Late in the afternoon I come to a Radler Bar – or cyclists bar – attached to a swimming pool and water park. I have a low-alcohol citrusy beer-thing Tobi had introduced me to called, as well, a Radler – basically a very refreshing light beer drunk by cyclists and other sporty types mid or after sport. Top marks to you Austria.

My day’s destination is Hard – a town near Lake Constance – where I am being hosted by Berni from CouchSurfing. Because my phone isn’t working I had cleverly looked up where to find WiFi in Hard and soon find myself having an Austrian McDonald’s cheeseburger and using their WiFi to connect with Berni.

We meet at one of the farms where she helps out – as in Burgeis – cows live in town, beneath their owners homes, and there are paddocks here too. Berni has moved to Hard from Vienna with dreams of farming. For now she still has a day job in a bank but is learning the ropes from a couple of different farmers in the area. She shares this with me as we sit in the sun drinking beers at the farm – cows lowing in the background and neighbours enjoying drinks in the garden on this warm summer’s evening.

Back at her flat we share a meal and good conversation. She helps with the phone – which proves slightly more challenging than hoped, but comes right in the end.

Given the uncertainly I felt arriving into Bludenz – I’ve had a really nice days riding, a sociable evening and I fall asleep knowing  what the next few days, at least, will bring – it’s a nice feeling.

Leaving Australia – Flying Forever – Arriving Finally in Milan

I write from seat 70J of Qantas Flight 127 halfway through the first leg of my three-legged journey to Milan.

We are somewhere over the Arafura Sea, perhaps – my last view of Australia passed across the portal some time ago. It was a beautiful view of reddish earth and worming watercourses meeting the blue of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Gulf of Carpentaria

I’m listening to Blue Sky Mine on the in-flight entertainment system –

I could not believe the stars of Warburton were waiting for me.

Those stars will appear tonight in their dense wondrous clusters over that remote Western Desert hamlet. As they will tomorrow. And the next night and the next; as I lay beneath a northern sky.

I’m excited and tired. I feel both the warm bolstering support of my mates and a little pressure to have the trip they expect – a pressure that is all me, not them. I am on the verge of a year of days – each of which stands on its own, clearly separated from its neighbours both by being actually different and through a sort of presence that comes with dealing with New all the time and of solving problems as matter of course. I feel like I’m going to thrive, be super present, be in my element, use my strengths, do things I like doing … all that good stuff. That’s how I feel about it but I fear weighing the thing down with expectations.

This day came as it always would with a last final rush of disbelief and a mistaken fear that I am unprepared. I am deeply ridiculously prepared. I have, in someways, been thinking about this trip since I was a teenager and in practical terms I’ve been planning for nearly a year and a half.

From early on I wanted it to be an organic journey – something I made up, more or less, as I went, with certain anchor points to aim for. That’s pretty much how it’s looking right now – I have plans for this coming week in Milan, some ideas of which direction I’ll point my bicycle in the coming weeks but nothing solid, and a ferry ticket from Le Havre to Portsmith on 9 July. I’m uncomfortable with not having sorted the first week or two of riding but recognise it is as it should be. That making it up as I go holds the life of the thing. Discomfort can be a creative energy.

I fell into conversation with my seat neighbour. We came to speak of my relationship with Australia. I spoke of the waves of Australian cultural exports which reached me in 1980s America which included Midnight Oil. He mentioned their street gig in New York. Which I was able to say was 25 years ago today because Jim had said so an hour earlier.

 

You know, I’m not generally a name dropper but he’s like how did you know that … we spoke of the Oils and other Australian music as Sydney disappeared from view.

Wait … what? I was going to Hong Kong (diverted due to weather to Manila – how my already long day became monumental).

I’m sitting on the tarmac in Manila watching episode one of season seven of Mad Men. A storm in Hong Kong had us diverted – the smidge of compensation was a beautiful sunset illuminating great walls of curvaceous clouds. But this is going to be one very long day. When we do take off it will be nearly 90 minutes back to Hong Kong and then who knows what will happen there with my onward flight to Doha. It’s an adventure.

To the credit of the customer service people in Hong Kong we Doha-bound passengers were efficiently gathered and rushed across the airport to join a flight just before it took off. To London.

There comes a point when being on an airplane almost becomes the totality of one’s reality. Right now I’ve been on board for 23 of the last 24 hours with nearly four and half more on this flight, a two-hour turn around at London then whatever it will be to Milan.

I’ve slept and watched a few movies. My newish attitude toward long-haul flights that it’s just time; this attitude is being tested but has mostly held sway. To say I’m glad that my next scheduled flight isn’t until October is a huge understatement.

As I was originally scheduled to have a nine-hour layover in Doha (oh how I long for that missed hotel room) I will arrive in Milan at pretty much the same time as originally scheduled. My luggage – that is my bicycle – well, I know it’s not on this flight. Nothing to be done about it right now so I can’t worry too much. Hopefully I’ll have time in London to talk to Qantas and find out where it is and when I might expect it in Milan. I’ll be there all week and I have travel insurance.

We’re flying over early Monday morning Russia.

Trying to see some sort of positives ….

  • This day and a half in the deadening void of economy flights will serve as a hard full-stop between before and after. It’s a hard double return on the page breaking up the getting ready from the going.
  • I’ll hopefully get to ask questions about my luggage to native-English speaking Qantas staff.
  • I’m accidentally following the most-common traditional path of Australian gap-year takers: Sydney to Hong Kong to London.
  • The last time I went to Europe for open-ended travel – when I was a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass – I flew into London.
  • My first international flight landed at Heathrow, too.

Might try to sleep some more. Four hours to London.

….

And now, in the final leg of this very very very very very long long day of travel here I am in seat 13A on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Milan – Malpensa. Were it clear I would be looking at France down there.

Our approach into London came in right over the city – and even after all the travel I had to smile at the totally unexpected view: Tower Bridge! The London Eye! The House of Parliament and Big Ben! Yeah … wow. The Thames, brown sinuous silvery.

Um, London? I wasn’t supposed to see you until like July. But whoa – hey, look Tower Bridge.
And the Houses of Parliament! Big Ben! The London Eye!

All things considered I was doing pretty well and still in good spirits right until I dealt with a British Airways customer service representative who greeted me with an accusative and unsympathetic tone.

The first guy I spoke was pleasant and easy to deal with but he couldn’t help with my question about baggage and sent me to another counter. There, I began by saying I’d been flying for 27 out the last 28 hours and asked for her to bear with me – I’m a little out of sorts. I explained my situation and provided all the paperwork I could. She looks my details up on the computer says, not asks, that I’ve come in on a Virgin flight, not BA. No, I assure her I’ve just disembarked from the British Airway flight from Hong Kong. She tells me the computer says I was on a Virgin flight not a BA flight …. Well, um, I wasn’t. That sort of set the tone.

She looked at my onward paperwork and told me the people in Hong Kong hadn’t done it right – not with any, you know, charm or humour but like I had something to do with that. “If I ever see them again I’ll be sure to let them know.” She issued my next boarding pass and said I was done. And my luggage? I said – she said she’d added it to the system but couldn’t tell me more and to ask at the gate.

As I was putting my paperwork away she noticed a docket I was given in HK – which I had shown her earlier to her disinterest – and she says “You didn’t give me this.” A regular charmer she was, definitely the right person for customer service.

After leaving her I had a little, you know, total meltdown. Head in hands, weeping, struggling to breathe evenly. Eventually moving from general view to the limited audience of the ladies. There, someone, a worker of some sort, asked if I was okay – she was the only one who did. I thanked her for asking, explained why I was so out of sorts and assured her I’d be okay. It was then that I also realised that I felt like I was still on an aeroplane – you know feeling the movement.

Luckily the people at the gate were much more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful – they at least were able to tell me that my bags weren’t at Heathrow and were last in the system in Hong Kong. She assured me that they would be following me and that, generally, they put them on the next, most direct, route to one’s final destination. So we’ll see what they say in Milan.

In the meantime I had been using the free WiFi to message Jim and Vickianne asking them to ring Qantas in Sydney and see if they could learn anything. Unfortunately I finally got a reply from Jim as I lost signal joining the bus to the Milan-bound plane.

Boarding, I asked the flight attendants for water and if they could tell me who won Eurovision. They had been voting when I boarded in Sydney and I hadn’t been able to learn during my long, long, long day. Sweden, the favourites – had taken it out. One more win and they will either tie or move past Ireland for most winners. Guy Sebastian had come fifth: which – especially in my state – made me rather Aussie proud.

They showed the safety video first in English, then in Italian – I listened, recognised a few words, and was struck in a way by the reality of this journey. I think that moment marked the transition from this buffering void of tin-can travel to the beginning of my actual journey.

I wanted to say something of the final days in Sydney … of the way, in the end, it rushed up to greet me. That I was prepared but not quite as ready as I hoped. But still got out on Saturday afternoon to soak up something of the city. Earlier I’d run some errands at Burwood – I’d bought a luggage scale …

HOLY FUCK – THE ALPS!

… and had a final coffee from George at Mrs P’s – my final Australian piccolo for the year.

I went home and sorted the packing and felt I was in a pretty good place with it. Went to the city and rode the Manly Ferry over and back. Getting at times a bit emotional about it but resolved to just be in it, with it, enjoy the view, the rise and fall of the swell, the throb of the engines. Coming back with the Vivid lights – it was really good.

I promised myself that later I would let myself just feel what I felt and not push it away.

I’d hoped to meet Erin and Jonathan at Hart’s but they had pushed back their meeting time too late for me – I got the bus home, began disassembling the bicycle. Jim arrived with bad but necessary pizzas, red wine and a willingness to help or simply keep company. Not long after Vickianne came home. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on SBS – Jim had never seen it. NEVER SEEN IT.

We were done around 1:30 or 2:00 and then I wept, I let myself feel what I was feeling – what was it exactly? It wasn’t fear or worry that made me weep. It was a certain sadness … a sadness at leaving Sydney for so long, for leaving my friends for so long – a sadness that was real and unassuaged by my joy and excitement for the trip itself. Maybe a touch of sadness too that … while everything has long since been done and over with Mitch that my leaving for this solo mid-life gap year is a hard mark between before and after.

….

I’ve been at Malpensa for two hours. Finding it strangely hard to break orbit from the flying world. My bags are … someplace and I’ve filed the paperwork to encourage them to find them and deliver them to me. I’ve bought a SIM and await its activation. I’ve had an espresso and a donut.

 

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