Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96 of my midlife gap year)
8:20 pm A Restaurant in Bayeux
It’s nice to be in a city again. Bayeux is compact, beautiful, and busy with visitors. The helpful tourist office found me a reasonably priced chambres du hote on the edge of the city centre which I’d never have noticed myself as it’s located over a hair salon. My room is quite pink, and I like it.
Sometimes I ride past ‘old’ buildings, but mostly I’m riding in modern France – physically and mentally. This past week I’ve been mired in World War II – history, but of a modern sort. Bayuex is a reminder of the depth of human history here. It was founded in the 1st century BC but there is evidence of older occupation by way of fortified Celtic camps and indications of Druid activities.
Bayeux was the first city liberated following the D-Day landings. The Germans were drawn off to defend more strategically important locations so Bayeux was spared destruction and is – on this late summer’s evening, a gorgeous place to stroll.
The mass of tourists promises conversation, I hear English on the streets – but I’m feeling stuck in my cone of silence. I know there are chats for the asking, I just can’t find the … energy? Nerve? Conviviality? To bowl up to an English speaker and say “hello”.
So, I’m here – in this poorly chosen restaurant with a poorly chosen meal.
Jim says I should get out more – he’s right – but getting out more equals getting lonely more. This is the space of loneliness: dining on a Friday night, alone, in a strange city. I am surrounded by couples and families. It’s a lovely city, and I’d like to enjoy it, but lonely plus a disappointing meal makes me grumpy and sad. The irony is that my response to loneliness is a wish to be alone.
Saturday 29 August 6:33 am (Day 97) – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux
I’ve been awake for nearly an hour.
At the American cemetery a British father with two sons under 10: the older says, “So he survived?” Dad looks around and says, “Does it look like anyone here won?”
While I appreciate what Dad was doing there – those boys and men, interred there, may have lost their lives – but that we’re not all speaking German, and are living in free, democratic countries – they won. They most definitely won.
I’ve had an email reply from Robert – which is nice, he’s pleased I’m reading Selected Poems. I’ve typed up my ‘poem’ about reading his poems – as it exists so far … it’s … okay. Not sure if I’ll send it to him – that’s a bit nerve wracking, really.
[I]t seems that someone who wants too much to get things is also someone who fears. And living in that fear cannot be free. (From Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (Part Two, III, Epistulae I, xvi)).
My freedom on the road is borne of some of this fearlessness – not a bravery but a lack of worry and want. Others tell me they see it as bravery, but I think bravery is mostly in the eye of the beholder.
11:15 pm –Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux
Bayeux has been at the cross-roads of clashing civilisations going back to the Roman arrival in Gaul. Later the Vikings came and then the Franks and the English. So, I guess, there’s something appropriate in the city being associated with one of the oldest artistic renderings of human warfare.
The Bayeux Tapestry, which I saw today, was made around 1070. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The 70-metre-long tapestry (really an embroidery) is a series of panels with some (Latin) text. The museum supplies a little audio device which explains the tale as you move along at a steady pace in what is, basically, an ever-moving queue of tourists.
It’s gorgeous, the colours vibrant, and it’s just generally in very good nick for 945-year-old cloth. While the names of famous men are attached to its history it’s important, to me, to remember the work itself, the stitching, and so the fundamental artistry, is the work of women. Anonymous 11th century English women – and they have done a stellar job.
But it is a depiction of war and I am reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice, have been played out way too many times.
Aside from successful touristing, the day was insanely productive: bike fixed (I’d had a wee gearing problem and the brake cables needed adjusting) – they charged me nothing, so I bought a new cap – Australian green & gold with kangaroos no less; Intersport sold me expensive but fine knicks to replace my old, inexpensive, but fine knicks.
This evening I washed my clothes at a laundrette and had take-away sushi for dinner – pricy but good. I chatted with Jim on Facebook – which was nice, as always.
Then I went out to see the Rendez-vous a la Cathedrale – Les Lumieres de la Liberte – a projection and sound show on the 1797 tree in the Cathedral courtyard – 10 stories of liberty from across history. The WWII section was haunting in its way, the Flower Power one fun and lovely.
(Not my video – it’s the whole show, so a bit long – but you may enjoy bits and pieces of it.)
A few drops began falling just at the end of the show, which became steady rain, then torrents by the time I got within about 200 metres of home.
It’s pelting – torrential, tropical nearly, with thunder and lightning too. The last rain this heavy might have been on the Australian leg of my journey.
At 7 the church bells were pretty insistent on waking everyone. I’m surprised I fell back to sleep. If I’d gotten up at 7, I might have packed away a dry tent. Now, and since just as I woke, there is a steady pitter-patter. Riding in this sort of rain is not too terrible but I’m growing weary of it, as a constant companion.
I’d like to get to Bayeux today – but that’ll be hard if I just sit here in the rain. Hard in the rain and with two cemetery stops. We’ll see. I don’t want to go out in the rain right now. I really don’t.
10:40 am – The Café at Camping Le Fanal: Still Raining and Feeling Sorry for Myself
Worst morning weather so far.
Who is Cool Kids by? No idea – it’s playing for the yoga class going on in here now.
It’s hard to make quiet my friend when there’s little quiet.
There’s noise and voices and people – but I haven’t the skills to talk to them. Simple … simple conversation doesn’t satisfy. The cuts come both ways – I’m in a cone of a monolinguistic silence or really muteness and the sort of conversation I crave is highly articulate – something erudite and clever.
Between the rain and the silence, I’m feeling sad. On the bicycle it’s fine because I can make quiet my friend. I can have my imagined conversations.
God, it’s miserable – just pissing down.
Maybe I should just pack up the wet tent and go anyway? It’s just rain. Sigh.
This place is making me sad.
Okay, I’m sure the radio announcers aren’t saying “Shitty FM” but that’s what it sounds like. Time to go.
In the display – pictures of Nazi boys, maybe 17 years old, happily surrendering. For their peers lying here I feel sadness – too young to have agency. But the men buried here – maybe they didn’t ‘deserve to die’ – maybe they didn’t personally round up civilians (Jews and otherwise) and send them to their deaths. (Those who did – for them I will reserve “deserved to die”.) But I’m glad they are dead, all of these Nazi soldiers, in so far as they – or some of them – had to die to liberate France and ultimately the camps. And these boys and men – they have graves.
I think of the concentration camp soil at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The soil on which the greasy human ashes of thousands fell – that’s the best we can do for those victims – here is some soil which may contain a smidge of DNA from whole families.
I don’t know that Nazis deserve the dignity of this cemetery – even if they were someone’s sons, brothers, etc. Jumbled in a nameless pit would be about right.
All that – and while looking at my bicycle noticing all the German bits – Schwalbe tyres, Abus locks, Ortlieb panniers.
I wrote in the book at the German cemetery: “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.”
As I was leaving a tour bus full of retirement-age Germans arrived. So so weird. One fella wandered over to admire my bicycle – we tried to exchange a few words but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to do so. A real pity – we had common ground in my bicycle and I was deeply curious what had brought him here today. Is his father here? An uncle perhaps? How does this place feel for a 65-year-old German?
It rained more than it didn’t today – no clear spells until the usual one at, like, 8pm. The ride today was map reliant – gone were the good bicycle-centric road signs – but pretty straight forward and easy enough. All the fighting zones feel ghostie and blood soaked.
Pont du Hoc – where the US Army Rangers scaled a crazy cliff to take some German guns, is American run – so everything is in English first. And there are water fountains plus soap & hand driers in the toilets. Sorry, bathroom.
People look at the bike, at me, with a sort of admiration or envy or wonder but not like I’m nuts.
I was dead keen to find a hotel tonight but this campground appeared first, so here I am, night four under nylon and surrounded by the (mostly) French, which is good. As it should be – though tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a bar with fluent English-speakers.
(There’s a pair of hedgehogs making noises out there – they are snuffling around near my bicycle. There are also goats insecurely penned in what I’m calling an old German defence on the sea side of the campground. We are on the headland of the western end of Omaha Beach.)
I walked down to the beach tonight. And nearly wept. It was high tide – waves lapping into the break wall behind which the landing troops sought a little shelter. There’s a memorial – from the Army Reserve, I think. There’s also a hotel, a place to rent kayaks and paddle boards, people’s summer homes. Life goes on.
The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I’ve taken few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.
It’s been a tough day – in the rain and the places I went, but good too. Always good.
I’m still reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and writing my own poem about reading his poems. I’ve nearly finished the book, the poem … still needs work.
The Western headland of Omaha Beach
Where a German bunker houses sheep
And the French enjoy their beach hols
Had I been on this spot on 6 June 1944
The sights would have haunted me into oblivion
Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96), 8:15 am
Omaha Beach Campground: OMG Sun!
Oh, what is this golden burning ball in the sky which lights the world?
And where is my blanket of cloud?
The tent is damp with condensation and dew which sparkles in this strange morning light. May it last, may it last.
There was a gaggle of French road cyclists hanging about when I arrived. One went to pee in the bush – really? I looked at him – I wish I had the French, but still I said, “There are no toilets? Nice way to show respect.”
I sighed entering.
It was noon and a bell was tolling the hour. Then a carillon played something really tacky – I think it was The Yanks are Coming.
And then in among the graves in the shining sunlight – all grandiose American Americaness.
The cemetery is profoundly beautiful, and I felt a deep sadness looking at this sea of graves – all these lives sacrificed – all those futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me through the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.
These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland, and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, had relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.
I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonets.
Looking for somewhere to eat my lunch I, strangely, found no provision for people to sit somewhere away from the graves. The signs even said no eating of food or picnicking anywhere – including the carpark – I ignored it, finding a bit of shaded grass next the parked coaches.
Another bus arrived disgorging a herd of Americans – tethered by earphones to their leader. I thought: I would rather stay home and watch travel docos than travel like that. I thought again of how I may cover less ground but see so much more.
I thought about how motorized travel is mediated travel. They ride in their buses – sleeping against the window, emerging to a ‘place to visit’ having not experienced anything of the in-between.
They are barely here at all.
After my lunch (with a side of superiority), I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieved sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.
Today’s ride will bring me closer to the landing zones of D-Day – I’ll be following Utah Beach much of the day. This campground is filled with holidaying European families, including some German-speakers. There’s a dissonance in that.
Over a breakfast of pain au chocolates I’ve continued to read Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and write my poem about where I’ve read them.
And in the morning
With Irish tea and the crunch, chewy, (not too) sweet of ‘deux pain au chocolat’ from the bakery van.
Three blonde German-speaking children appear and I think: D-Day beaches – weird place for a German holiday.
It’s grey, windy, and cool but, for now, not raining.
11:35 am, St Vaast-la-Houge – To Ride is to Feel Alive
I’ve ridden 30 minutes in the wind and the rain. I’ve stopped to just get out of it for a bit.
To ride is to feel alive – to really feel it in a way too often masked by all the modern comforts and easy-ways we’ve made for ourselves.
I feel my heart beating and my blood coursing and not in some sort of urban panic or frustration or some professional (or financial) anxiety. And not from some manufactured ‘exercise’- but from transporting myself and all I need from last night’s rest to tonight’s.
I experience the weather – feel the wind and the misty Atlantic rain gathering on my face until the weight of it brings it coursing toward my chin.
In a car – it’s like you’re playing a boring, frustrating, but dangerous video game. You’re watching TV. You’re sitting on your couch.
The rain kept my camera in the bag most of the day but with my mind on poetry and my emotions being stirred by how the past is vividly on display, everywhere, here – when I stopped to get out the rain I recorded this ridiculously overly earnest bit of spoken-word picture-making. (The rain was also pretty loud so I was over-enunciating too boot.)
I saw a memorial disc on a house – as new as yesterday – commemorating it as the landing place of a particular officer from the 82nd Airborne on the morning of 6 June 1944 – something in French about the soil of France and the beginning of the liberation.
And I thought: You boys. You crazy, brave, ignorant, terrified boys. You are not forgotten here.
The ride today – other than being (mostly) wet and (mostly) windy was beautiful. (Mostly) flat and (mostly) small quiet roads – not too much on dirt or gravel, and, generally, near the sea.
In a moment of sunshine, I came to my first German pillbox in a field of French cows.
(French cows, French milk, always make me think of this scene)
I stopped at the second pillbox I passed, to lean my bicycle and reorganise some. I didn’t want to touch that Nazi cement. Is that weird? Maybe. But I didn’t want to. So, I didn’t. My bike did but not me.
l almost stopped at a farm camping ground but pushed on thinking I’d go all the way to Carentan but came to this campground with a restaurant and I was home.The steak and chips and beer for €12.60 and now a ½ litre of red wine – very happy. But there are two whingy noisy small children putting lie to the myth of well-behaved French children.
10:25 pm – Tent
In comparison to how we think of the WWII generation – we are miserable at collective action. The EARTH is becoming less hospitable to our species and we can’t agree to do something.
1:45 am – Pee Break
I love the French devotion to the freshly baked. There was the boulangerie van at the campground this morning and here I was able to place an order tonight for two pain au raisin – available in the bar at 8:30 am.
Wednesday 26 August 2015 (Day 94)
8:15 am – Tent
And in the tent in morning showers (waiting for a break so I can make my way to the loo)
Mild breezes bicker with the trees, small birds twitter. Here it smells of a Chinese tent factory and me. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’
9:00 am – Full of sweet French pastry and almost, but not quite, enough coffee.
I’ll ride to the next town and hope their tourist office can supply cycling information for the neighbouring province – where Omaha Beach is.
In here – warm with scent of Chinese tent factory and of myself – sleeping breath, yesterday’s riding clothes – of effort and life. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’
2:05 pm – Caratans: Waiting for Rain (Which Will Never End) to End
I’ve become a little stuck here. I stopped at the tourist office and found nothing for the next department. Then I got ham from the charcuterie and F(ruits) & V(eg) from the F&Vie to make my lunch on a bench in a spot of grass next to a car park. The post office, closed when I arrived in town, was open after I’d lunched so Rob’s birthday card, Jim’s and VAL’s postcard are finally on their way. When I came out it was piss-pissing. I retreated to the arcaded shops where the tourist office is for un café in hopes it will pass – lessen – or I’ll just get on with it.
People – hiding from the rain – keep stopping, lingering, to look at my bicycle – propped and locked outside. Still it rains.
In a pizzeria in Caratans – foolishly waiting for the Normandy rain to stop (as if it ever does). Having un café – a husky-mix under the next table. Interrupted by West End Girls to which I semi-consciously lip synch.
Third night camping and four days of dialogues beginning, “Pardon, je non parlez francaise. Parlez vous ingles?’ I return to Samuri Song: When I had no friend I made quiet my friend.”
Perhaps it’s that in the quiet I’ve made a friend of Robert – that I fill the quiet with an inner monologue which is more interesting imagined as a dialogue? It is what it is – he’s the presence in my silence for now.
Not that I’m lonely – not too much anyway – okay – a little bit. I do wish I had internet and might find someone to chat with.
The SUN – THE SUN – fantastique!
The bloke in the tourist office said this much rain is unusual for August.
11:45 pm – Oppa
After two nights of wind and rain tonight the elements are silent but there is a thumping disco going here at the campground. And also, a complaining cow in a nearby field.
I ate dinner in the restaurant here – hopefully tomorrow night will be clear and I can cook. It’s hard when it keeps raining and there are no campers’ kitchens or even covered tables. Pizza & wine for €15 – €2 more than the campsite.
While I was eating some sort of entertainment began. I don’t know what it was – a game or maybe trivia. Kids and parents were being led by a loud, excitable woman with a microphone.
The music, the thumping, is fucking awful.
I think …
Oh wait, I think maybe, just maybe that’s Gangnam Style. Yup. Ha ha ha.
Oh, world you are funny.
Ah, there’s a slow song – promising for a midnight finish – oh, now it’s thumping again.
My first stop for the day tomorrow is the German war cemetery. That should be interesting – not sure what to expect.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday 1 July 2015: Montbéliard to Baumes Les Dames
My Warm Showers host feeds me a fantastic French breakfast featuring rich, beautiful, unhomogenised milk they buy from a local farmer several times a week. Elisabeth then rides with me to the edge of Montbéliard and sees me off with a cheery au revoir.
The heat quickly rises to the high 30*Cs and the French are hiding. Those who are out look wrecked, or determined, or a bit of both. I feel fine; I feel Australian.
What company I have comes from the beautiful grey herons which have been with me for a couple of days and the auburn hawks circling, as they have since I was in the Rhine Delta.
The tree-lined cycleway, running parallel to the river, is generally very quiet. I am immersed in blues and greens: fields, trees, the river, the sky. I am grateful for patches of shade and the cooling effect of the breeze generated by the speed of my pedaling.
I stop in a hot dusty-ish, hazy-ish and dead-fucking-quiet village for lunch. It’s the sort of town that would be in a Quentin Tarantino film if he made a modern French western. There are a few cafes open and not a lot of patrons for them. I have the plat du jour at the most inviting of them: melon and ham, bread, a bit of salad, ratatouille with two slices of pork and chips; an ice cream cake for dessert and a bottle of water. All that, air conditioning, and the use of a proper toilet for €13 – I count it a good deal.
In the afternoon heat I take refuge in what I’d call a washing shed. Once, there would have been flowing water and women would have washed their clothes, here, on these worn angled stones. It offers cool shade and respite.
It’s still hot as Hades when I arrive at the municipal campground near Baume les Dames. At its worst, the day must have been 40*C plus and with heat radiating off the bitumen. I pay €8.85 for my night’s accommodation and sit in the shade eating icy poles waiting for the heat to diminish a bit before putting up my tent.
Evening, and it’s cooling finally. I ride my unloaded bicycle into town to look for dinner. I’ve done this so rarely and it feels so light – I’m dancing up the hill into town. Baume les Dames is cute enough – more lively than my lunch stop, and I find an inviting looking pizza joint on a cobbled square. Kids are kicking a football and there’s a fountain splashing.
A revoltingly loved-up couple coo at each other to my right. They are hiding behind menus, which they are not looking at, gazing at each other, whispering, laughing. Ugh – coupledom, sometimes I miss it, sometimes I’m immensely grateful to be free of it.
Thursday 2 July 2015: Baumes Les Dames to Frisians
The alarm goes off at 5:15 and by 5:30 I’m making breakfast and getting ready for the day. I cycle away at 7:30 as the rest of the campers are just beginning to stir. I’m philosophically opposed to setting alarms unless absolutely necessary. Days in the 40*+ range call for desperate measures.
While riding in the heat without too much complaint does make me feel all Australian – I’m also Australian enough to know how dangerous it can be, how heatstroke can sneak up on you and lay you low something awful.
The early start helps but it is, again, stupidly hot – at least as hot as yesterday, maybe hotter and the cumulative effect is starting to take its toll on me.
Today’s ride is much like yesterday’s – along the river/canal with occasional forays into or near towns with, seemingly, no retail businesses at all. Elisabeth had said most have moved to the edges of towns (big boxes on the highways). An hour into my day’s ride I go through a little town and encounter a boulangerie van – a bakers’ van that does a circuit selling fresh bread and other bits and pieces. For less than €2 I get a pain au chocolat and half a baguette. France is seeming pretty cheap.
By 11 am I’ve ridden the 30 km or so to Besançon – home town to Victor Hugo. It’s a cool town built on an ox bow of river and guarded by a fuck-off looking heritage listed fortress. Winding, cobbled old streets open onto squares. I fail to take pictures – I blame the heat. And the ‘public toilets’ are guarded by money-expecting women. If it can be avoided I won’t pay to pee. For a coffee and a pee? Okay. Ice cream and a pee? Yup. Just pee? Not if I can help it.
I fail to find the information office and with it a source of WiFi. I also fail to find a post office. I think businesses are just more obvious in Italy. I do find a little grocer where I get fruit and vegetables, salami, biscuits, more sweetened condensed milk and yogurt. I look at the cheese and imagine it as a puddle of milk fat in my bag.
Since then it’s been a brutal slog in the heat.
In mid-afternoon I find a shelter near a lock on the canal. There are tables, a bathroom, tap water and shade. I end up spending a couple of hours there – napping, reading, just waiting for the burning ball in the sky to lessen its intensity a bit.
By 19:30 I arrive at the campground in Frisians. It looks pretty there, across the river – but it feels like a bogan-y, dead-end, shithole of a French town with pretty buildings including a chateau. The main street is not quite Port Kembala-dead. There is a pizza place, a kebab shop (in someone’s shed), a proper restaurant closed tonight but looking like a going concern; a Red Cross op shop, post office and a boulangerie – the most prosperous looking place in town.
This campground is the quietest I’ve ever visited. It’s me and a German guy with his dog – he looks all ultra-athlete-ish. Something extreme. When they say closed at 20:00 they mean it – gates go up and customers are turned away. It’s a municipal ground – €2, no WiFi.
I dropped my toiletry bag and cracked my deodorant crystal – may need to be abandoned. Then nearly slipped and fell in the shower. I had a hard moment – a wee brief sob – when I wanted things to be familiar and just a bit easier. I know I have a good run of familiarly coming up – friends to see in Paris, the UK, and Ireland, a shift back to the English speaking world. This is good – it’s all good – a little hard and with the heat I’m just, I think, worn down a bit. Made a little worse by the lack of internet, and the sense of connection it brings.
France has felt flat out harder – I don’t know if that’s the heat, the language, that I’ve been at this for 39 days now, or what. But today has simply been hard. It’s been good too but the constant problem solving, decision-making, figuring out what’s next is wearing on me. Add small, but annoying stuff like with the deodorant or having to clean ants out of my food bag, or worrying that pine-sap is dripping on my tent, sees me pushed toward an emotional edge. Then I get a vicious leg cramp and, in a tent, all I can do is wait it out.
I need some good rest days in Paris.
Look – one thing at a time, one day at a time – don’t let the annoyances detract from the beauty of the river, the pleasantries with other riders, the freedom of being here and doing this. I’m living my dream – it was never going to be all roses and chocolates. And today is just being a bit hard. I should sleep. Tomorrow will be good.
Friday 3 July 2015: Frisians to Dijon
Another hot-as-fuck day. It’s been hard. I’ve found France hard.
The guy running the campground was weird – his dog and cat roamed around the place. I saw cat shit in the playground. I think he’s a municipal employee and gets the house with the gig. He’d just as soon not have guests. This morning the German ultra-athlete left his towel in the WC and, apparently, walked naked from the shower to get it. I didn’t see him, nor the other woman here. It was all of probably 5-10 seconds of public nudity. The campground guy – who’s also some kind of country cop, closed the campground gate, got in his cop car and went to threaten him with arrest. He also had words with the other cyclists who must have arrived after closing. Weird.
My friend Vickianne, back in Sydney, bless her, has booked me a room in Dijon near the train station. The heat got the best of me, the lack of WiFi undermined my ability to plan – I text messaged her before I went to sleep asking her to log into Booking.com as me and find me something in Dijon. And she has – it will cost what it costs, and that’s fine. There will be air conditioning and, probably, WiFi. It’s with a lighter heart I pedal out of Fraisans.
The riding was much the same as recent days: a quiet cycleway along a canal under the blazing sun. Fortunately, portions of the route are tree-lined. I slow my pace in the shade and speed it up when exposed.
I ride as far as Dole before getting the train into Dijon.
On the train – two African guys in front of me have travel papers rather than tickets. I’m guessing they are refugees. The conductor is clearly pretty annoyed to have to deal with it. I’m getting a vibe about public workers here. Well, it’s just two guys but noticeable – this guy and the one at the campground.
Dijon after three days of mid-30*s plus is devastating and definitely hotter than Sydney under the same circumstances. The city is all stone, pavement, marble – a lot of it white. It soaks in the heat and reflects the sunlight.
Dijon has a rough edge – beggars, homeless people, a roaming bunch of shirtless and drinking men in their 30s. I got off the train and was going to shuttle my stuff down the stairs (one load, then the next) but a fellow cyclist was clearly worried by this idea and brought my duffel bag down to me.
I went to the Beau Arts Museum – which Lonely Planet made quite a deal of. They have a lot of lovely old Jesus stuff in an air conditioned area and 19th and 20th century stuff – including a Monet and a Manet – in rooms so warm that an art person might really freak out. It was all a little ramshackle – some of the modern stuff was displayed attached to, like, chipboard. Really weird. Obviously badly underfunded.
I was going to go back out now but this cool WiFi’d cocoon of a hotel room is just perfect for the moment.
My heart is thumping GOOD MORNING as I climb out of Flaach to the clamber and clang of church bells. It’s 9:45 am and sweat rivulets down my face and back.
I pass fields of corn, wheat, beetroot, sunflowers, capsicum, cows and sheep. Kirchen, a sign on the side of the road promises. A man in a bucket hat is up a ladder picking cherries into a woven basket. His wife sits at a red and white checked cloth covered table with punnets of the fruit ready for sale.
Rolling down towards the river I’m halted and turn back at the sight of an Australian flag snapping in the Swiss sky. I find its owner – a local who just loves Australia. He’s been twice but still needs to cover the territory between Darwin and Cape York. Last year a cyclist from Tasmania stopped by.
I pass a café setting up on the riverfront and a trio of musicians carrying their instruments down a gravel road. It is a gorgeous summer day and I try to set the worries about distances and expenses aside and feel the simple joy and freedom of being here, now, riding. I climb, again, to a small Swiss town and then ride my breaks down a curving road to shoot across the river, back into Germany and a small village overlooked by an ancient looking bell-tower.
I arrive at a bit of road closed to motor traffic but not cyclists. The town of Leinheim is having a festival – I’ve just missed the parade but I get a sausage and use the portaloo. The whole town, and more, are in a giant tent drinking massive beers – whatever the festival is it seems to have something to do with bicycles. There are heaps around and the posters for the festival include a sort of crest with a bicycle.
Many may think me quite bold and brave to make this journey – I don’t really feel that way about it and in these types of situations I am simply neither bold nor brave. My ex-husband would just bowl into that tent and, with almost no German, find a table, make friends and, generally, throw himself into it. For me, being alone and not speaking German are two very good reasons to simply mount up and ride on with the excuse of hoping to make it to Basel.
Stopping at a garden restaurant in another village for lunch, I sit at a large table and am soon joined by other diners. Service is slow but the day is nice and the sun will shine until 9 pm at least. Couples with elderly parents sit at several other tables. A bloke in my direct line of sight stares at me and nothing will shake him – it’s the only clue he might be a bit special.
At my table: a trio of two women and a man in their late-60s, a slightly younger German man with some English (and a refurbished 1950s motorcycle) and a Swiss cyclist about my age – also with some English. The motorcyclist is gregarious and a bit handsome; he takes up the task of making a group of the lot of us. He asks how I ended up here for lunch and I say “I was hungry.” Later I am asked when I worked and I say: “Last year and next year.” Jeez they think I am hilarious.
I’ve been riding long enough now to realise that 50 – 70 kilometres is what I can comfortably do every day. Some days maybe as little as 30 kilometres; some maybe as much as 80 or 90 – but not as a usual thing, no. Thinking about my capacity is part of thinking about the bigger challenge of finding the right balance amongst riding, sight-seeing, socialising, writing and getting everyday stuff done (bookkeeping, processing photos, keeping up correspondence, etc). I’m here to ride but if I ride all day I’m too tired at the end of the day to get other things done.
So come mid afternoon when I’ve ridden some 70 kilometres on a 30 degree Celsius (plus) day I decide it’s time for the train to Basel.
28 – 30 June: Basel & Montbéliard
Basel is boring. Well, I find it boring – quiet, boring and expensive.
“How expensive?” you ask – I saw espresso going for 4.60 Swiss Francs at a café in the centre of town – that’s A$6.44, for a short black. Closer to where I’m staying I saw one for 2.50 Swiss Francs or A$4.90. My Mini Moko stove-top espresso maker is paying for itself.
I am finding that the cumulative exhaustion that comes with long days of riding leave me too flat on my rest days to actually get out and see the place I’m resting in. I’m really just happy to sit here at the hostel, making plans for the coming weeks, doing administrative stuff and mucking about on Facebook but Basel is out there – a city I’ve never visited before and am unlikely to ever visit again. I should see something of it.
So I go out and what do I find on this hot, humid, Monday evening? Not much. Not many people, nothing much happening. Maybe I went to the wrong places. Maybe everyone stays home on Mondays. Or maybe Basel is just boring.
Here are some good things I can say of the place:
It has cool trams (and a free pass for them was provided by the hostel)
France and Germany are nearby
I enter France before leaving Switzerland. One end of the train station is marked France – entering, one finds ticket machines for the French trains, and the old customs offices – seemingly abandoned, or, at least, very very rarely used.
I roll my bicycle on to the French train with ease – a good first experience with France. At Mulhouse station, as I’m getting my bearings, a gentleman approaches and offers to be of assistance. He points, then leads, then explains in simple English how to get to the Eurovelo 6 Cycle Route which I will ride from here. This is my second good experience with France.
I spend the rest of the day riding along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin to Montbéliard. It’s flat easy riding and mostly pretty. Along the way I pass this memorial:
I circle back to have a closer look and, to be honest, it makes me a little teary. 70 years on and here is a small, innocuous but maintained memorial to a handful of men who lost their lives fighting for the freedom of France (and the world). My third good experience with France.
It’s quite a hot day, in the low 30s I’d say, and a weekday, so there aren’t a lot of other people out on the path. Near towns I see a few walkers and near the locks there are occasionally workers but mostly it’s just me the canal and the sunshine.
I’m passed by a rider going the opposite direction – he says ‘bon jour’ and I reply in kind. About 10 minutes later he comes back alongside me and begins a conversation in simple English: where are you from? Where are you going? These sorts of things. Quite normal. Then, apropos of nothing he says: “I have a big dick.” I say “I am not interested in your dick.” To which he says, “But it’s big.” And I say “Really, I don’t care.” He says something like “Come on, it won’t take long.” The man really knows a thing or two about wooing the ladies that’s for sure.
I can’t ride away from him – on a fully-loaded bicycle I can’t out pedal him. And while he is desirous he doesn’t seem menacing. I tell him to piss off. I stop my bicycle – look at him pointing in the direction he has come from and say, “Go.” He mumbles some more. And I say again, “Piss off – go.” And he does. I wait til he’s gone some way and then ride on. At the next lock there are some workers so I stop there for a little while to make sure he doesn’t come back.
So, strike one for France.
Here’s the thing I then spend time thinking about through the afternoon:
Had this worked for him before? Had telling a cycling woman he has a big dick led her to follow him to some place in the bushes for a quick fuck (which, as he said, “wouldn’t take long”)?
He wasn’t a bad looking guy. I didn’t have time for a coffee but, you know, under different circumstances – such a fellow strikes up a conversation on the bicycle path, suggests coffee at a nearby café … you never know where such an encounter might lead. But “I have a big dick … it won’t take long.” These are not magic words, this will never work.
But I leave behind the unpleasantness and pedal on beside the river through the hot afternoon continuing to offer a happy “bon jour” to riders, pedestrians and boaters alike.
In Montbéliard I am staying with more WarmShowers’ hosts – Benoit, Elisabeth and their four kids. They live in a rambling townhouse near the city centre and have been hosting riders for about a year. They don’t do a lot of touring themselves but they love hosting for the experiences it provides their children.
Whatever black mark befell France courtesy of Monsieur Big Dick was erased by the warm and homey welcome extended to me here. Some neighbour kids join us for a big family dinner of simple food and simple English conversation. There are spectacular cheeses (no surprise) and then Benoit asks the kids if they want ice cream or fruit for dessert and the overwhelming choice? Fruit! All of them … yes, yes fruit please!
Afterwards the kids go out to play in the warm and still sunlit evening while we adults linger in the kitchen and talk of our lives, the world we live in, and the joys of cycling.