Something I posted on my other blog explaining why I’m now headed to Zurich (and Ireland again) and why that’s really just perfect.
One of my two other blogs – which are sleeping through this journey – had cause to stir and assert its influence over my cycling route.
Sunday 30 August 9:10 am – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux (Day 98 of my midlife gapyear)
I wonder when I will converse again. Will my voice go rusty, my tongue uncertain? This will be day eight without a proper conversation.
‘Sadness & Happiness’ – the last poem in Selected – one of my favourites – so much so as I think my shoulders slumped and I let out a little sigh of … there should be a word which reflects the regret of finishing a book.
Now I’ll have to finish my ‘poem’ and prepare to share it with Robert. That makes me nervous just thinking about it. But excited too. I want it to be good and I want him to like it.
7:05 pm – Camping les Hautes Coutures, Benouville
I had a little chat with a fellow cyclist this evening – a Frenchman out for a ride and a bicycle tourist – he had a little English – we spoke of my trip and his, earlier in the summer, to Scotland. He told me that in WWII a Scotsman playing the pipes led troops into battle across the bridge I’ll traverse in the morning.
It was a day of two distinct halves. The first was through very, very quiet farming country and little towns. Beautiful – fog hugged the earth pretty much all day. But in never rained. And it was mild. Freshly harvested hay bales are strewn across fields. There were cars outside churches. A few open bars. Quiet.
Then I reached the sea.
I got a crepe in some small beach town and a Frenchman was keen to chat about my trip – but we had about the same number of words in each other’s languages. He was enthusiastic and friendly though.
From there I rode along the coast in and out of beach towns – full of French and English holiday-makers. This is Juno, a landing beach of the British and Canadians. It was interesting to see they had become English in their accoutrements: carousels and soft-serve ice creams and hot chips served from kiosks and people walking and flying kites and building sand castles and roller-blading. While the English may visit for the history they also want a fun beach holiday – the Americans back at Omaha were just there for the history – they’ll go to Florida for a beach holiday.
So I rode through these late-summer holiday-makers – an object of some interest. People looked, and watched – but none tried to speak with me. At the Brittney Ferry Terminal, I left the sea with a right-hand turn along the canal which runs to Caen.
All up I rode about 65 kms to arrive at this 4-star campground – I prefer two or three as they have all I need and nothing that I don’t (pools, playgrounds). But here I am. And I’ve paid for 3 hours of internet too.
Today I thought often about my return to Sydney – riding in from Palm Beach. Coffee in Manly. Pedalling across the Bridge. A drink in the Rocks and ‘home’ to Five Dock.
And Robert’s Selected Poems – I was thinking about them. I think the Germans have a word for the remorse felt when you’ve finished a book.
Monday 31 August – 8:40 am, Camping les Hautes Coutures, Benouville (Day 99)
Another foggy morning with some rain overnight and drizzling off and on now. I am breakfasting in the ablutions block – among the washing basins, not the toilets – on digestives with butter and tea while my computer (and hopefully my mp3 player) charges.
Last night – after some work – I sent my next e-newsletter – which I was happy with and had replies in the night from Bob M., VAL, Sabra and Debra B.
8:15 pm – Camping Municipal des Chevaliers, Houlgate
Short riding day – less than 40 km – I didn’t leave Benouville until midday. I had proceeded along in my getting ready but before I could get the tent packed it started pissing down. I took shelter in the bar – had a coffee and did some work.
When I did finally get away it was under a heavy blanket of cloud and lingering fog – breezy. And that’s what it was like all day, but for 90 seconds of sunshine while I was at the tourist office here.
The early part of the day followed the River Orne back to the Channel – partially through a wetland nature reserve where I saw a deer – second of the trip – the first near Southampton. In that millisecond of seeing its haunch I though “kangaroo!” – same colouring.
Then I was back along the sea.
I was going to ride further than Houlgate but I realised I was knackered. They had a municipal camping ground – €8 plus free Wi-Fi (which I haven’t tried yet).
While I was pitching my tent, and unpacking my bicycle – other bicycle tourists showed up for the neighbouring pitch. They are French, but she lived in Sydney for a year and New Zealand before that. She speaks English quite well. We had a bit of a chat – but nothing of substance sadly. They seem to have gone into town now.
I showered. I made dinner. Yesterday’s wet clothes are hanging up until I go to bed.
I wish I had a chair with a back. That would make life better.
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.
I am so glad not to be in my tent tonight.
Thursday 27 August 2015 (Day 95 of my midlife gap-year)
9:15 am, Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer, France: Rain Rain Go Away
I slept until 9 and it’s raining again.
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.
3:50 pm – German War Cemetery: More Dignity Than Deserved?
As expected, this is a place of mixed feelings.
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?
10:30 pm – Omaha Beach Campground: With Ghosts All Around
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.
1pm – Normandy American Cemetery Visitors Centre: Beauty and Pain
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.
Tuesday 25 August 2015 (Day 93 of my midlife gap-year)
9:25 am, Camping Municipal de Jonville
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.
Driving is not living.
8:50 pm, Camping Baie des Veys – They are Not Forgotten Here
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.
6:45 pm – Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer: I Make Quiet My Friend
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.
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
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.
13 – 15 August 2015 (Days 81 – 83)
Thursday 13 August 4pm, Connect Hostel, Derry
Small cities, I should only visit small cities. It’s 4pm, I’ve done the lot and feel I’ve given everything it’s due.
It’s been a gorgeous and sunny day. I started things off revisiting the Guildhall – where President Clinton spoke in 1995, a trip I worked and wrote of in my last blog post.
Derry isn’t as much changed as I’d expected. It still has a working class, slightly hard-done-by air but with more tourists and tourism-related businesses. There are new cultural institutions and more shopping – more of the high-street staples anyway – but that would be true anywhere.
What had been the tea rooms where our advance team spent much time 20 years ago are now the Museum of Free Derry (which was both emotionally charged – bullet torn clothes from Bloody Sunday and the like – and felt, the more I took in, quite propagandistic).
The historical placards around the place seem to remain safely in pre-troubles times. But for in the Bogside where it’s all about the Troubles, the people murdered by the police, and those who fell “in service.”
Things are quiet and peaceful in Derry on this warm, sunny summer’s day but it’s clear the conversation about political control, national affiliation, etc is not over.
The Union Jack still waves over unionist areas and the flag of the Republic over nationalist areas. It feels a long way from the sort of blandly 21st century capital-city vibe of Dublin.
Friday 14 August, 11:16 am – Bus to Belfast
It’s another lovely emerald isle summer day – low hanging grey blanket of a sky, cool enough the bus driver had the heat on for a while, raining off and on. Green, green, green out the window. Rolling paddocks, sheep and cows and hay bales.
2:45 pm – Art Café, North Road – Belfast
Walking through town, looking at all the same-same modern office and apartment buildings, I thought: Belfast is a bit boring. A nice thing for locals I’m sure. They’ve had more than their share of excitement but for me, as a visitor … yawn – it’s just a provincial UK city.
Then I walked up Shankhill Road and through the Lower Shankhill neighbourhood feeling a little freaked out by it. Flags everywhere – Union Jacks mostly – and red, white and blue bunting. Murals – commemorating the fallen – still aggressive. “No surrender” graffiti. Row houses – many neat as a pin with houseproud displays in the windows (vases of flowers, statuettes). Kids playing on a construction site which seemed at a standstill. Demolition work on another row which looked fire damaged.
I felt uncomfortable – part of that is perhaps simply a class thing – I am not of these people and they would see that. Part of it the shadow of the bit of the history I know. The sense the conversation is clearly not over.
I saw several ‘Black Taxi’ tours roll in – tourists ensconced in the back – peering out the windows – hearing whatever stories the taxi drivers tell. I was glad not to be them but to be walking around by myself. But still, I was uneasy and took my pictures quickly.
Des Moines. Belfast would be like Des Moines, Iowa but for the undercurrent. Or, wherever – a small city, trying to be something interesting, trading on a bit of history (The Titanic) and celebrity (Game of Thrones). But on the front page today: Kevin McGuigen murdered – suspected of involvement in the murder of a former IRA colleague. And so it bubbles along.
I saw a pair of African women in ankle-length flowing chadors on a corner of Shankhill Road.
It’s such a white place, Northern Ireland, but with this uniquely intense historical division between two groups of white people. It would be – I’d think – a weird place to be an immigrant or an Englishperson of non-European heritage who has moved here from elsewhere in the UK.
Saturday 15 August, 11 am – Great Northern Peanuts Smokehouse (Railway Station Diner)
The radio station just announced flight delays at the International Airport: Flight XYZ from blank due at such-and-such time now arriving at such-and-such:25.
I had a lovely and hospitable evening with Cornelia’s friend Danae. She lives in Holywood – a Mosman-like suburb (that is, comfortably well off but not flashy with its wealth). It sits on the south side of the Belfast Lough and Danae’s tidy row house is a short walk to the beach. We spent time strolling there with her pup and taking in the sunny end of the day.
We cooked dinner together, listening to a political comedy show on the radio – she thought maybe I wouldn’t understand the jokes – and she was, mostly, but not completely, right in that.
When I think of those who travel staying only in paid accommodation – who never make the connections which allow for this sort of human interaction – I think their experiences are thinner for it. To each their own, but I’m grateful for every opportunity I get to enjoy the hospitality and to see inside homes and lives as I go.
On the bus to Dublin:
This will be a ride. The Rugby’s on in Dublin so in addition to the usual passengers there are fans going down and AND, oh joy, a hen’s group: LOUD, LOUD, LOUD and we haven’t yet left Belfast.
After leaving Danae’s I thought of questions I might have asked about life in Northern Ireland. But we had been talking of other, normal life stuff, it just didn’t come up. But walking through Holywood this morning I wondered how the lingering dialogue about the sectarian stuff plays out in the middle-class suburbs – and are there Republican suburbs like Holywood? Leafy middle-class places. Or is there a rising Republican middle class moving into places like Holywood?
Questions to ask someone sometime.
** Written two years later: I never got to ask those questions of Danae as she lost her battle with cancer some six months after my visit.
Cornelia, who had introduced us, had told me that Danae was ill but it hadn’t fully registered how ill and, in person, for the time I was with her – if you didn’t know she was ill, you wouldn’t know she was ill.
The topic was alluded to in conversation as she explained how she had come to live in Holywood (she’d lived across the Lough before and had long wished to live in Holywood – when she got sick she made the move). But I didn’t know she was terminal and I think, as such, we both quite enjoyed our evening together because my ignorance meant her illness was neither a topic of conversation nor an elephant in the room. Instead we spoke, as people do, about common interests, my travels, her life, politics and our mutual friend.
I am grateful for our meeting and regretful that at this point in the trip taking photos with hosts hadn’t become habitual. Danae and her friend Norah co-wrote a gardening column and, together, in the end, the book A Tale of Two Gardens – which I haven’t read yet, but really must. If it’s your sort of thing you really should too.
3:50 pm – Train to Derry
Jim asked about my quest – if I had one, which I mostly don’t. That is what leaves me often asking: “What am I doing here?” “Why am I doing this? Is is just the seeing? The doing? The meeting of people?” Maybe. Maybe that’s all there is to it – to all this endless movement.
He spoke of his quest around trad music and Irish culture.
I said that while, likewise, I have an interest in thinking more about the Jewish stuff that, by and large, there’s no where I can go and find the descendants of my antecedents’ neighbours … still going to the same old synagogue, still walking the same streets, etc. They are all, or nearly all, gone. He asked about Israel. I said Israel is more Israeli than Jewish – it’s a different thing, a different place. I suggested it’s like if he had to go to Boston to experience some echo of Irish culture because the Irish no longer lived in any real numbers in Ireland.
I do want to go to Israel, yes, I should do that.
But right now I just want to get to Germany. I’ll have 51 days to get from Cherbourg to my flight from Berlin to Chicago.
I just messaged with Laura a bit – when it works, I do love the WiFi on trains and buses. She’s in Tokyo – has been there 40 minutes and already loves it, as I had presumed she would.
She reminded me it’s about the experiences I’m having. And she’s right of course. It is. And I know that but it was also clarifying – just to have her say that.
10:20 pm – Hostel Connect, Derry
I was last in Derry in 1995 as part of the advance team, the event team, setting up President Bill Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland. It was my one foreign trip for the White House and it was a momentous one.
There’s a good short video overview of the trip here – one in which I’m pretty sure I catch the occasional fleeting glimpse of my 26-year old self well in the background.
Part of why I’m in Derry now is to revisit the city and see how much it’s changed, or stayed the same.
Our major event – a gigantic outdoor rally – was in Guildhall Square, we had a smaller event in the Guildhall. So, today, coming from the train station, walking past the Guildhall, through Guildhall Square, was kind of surreal. It felt the same but different. I was then the same and also so very different.
My roommate – there’s only one – is Jennifer from Indiana. She’s here to do the Masters in Peace Studies at Ulster University at Magee. The program with the Tip O’Neill Chair which we endowed 20 years ago in the Guildhall.
One of the strangest experiences I had as an advance person came in relation to Magee College. Our team was recruiting volunteers from the student body and I needed to get to campus for the meeting. None of our embassy supplied cars were available to run me over there from the Guildhall. Nor did our Secret Service colleagues have a free car. But their paired agency, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, did – if I didn’t mind going in a Land Rover. I didn’t realise at the time that meant a militarised SUV with uniformed and armed driver plus one. I needed to get to the meeting and was grateful for the ride so I jumped in and we drove, rather quickly, through the Bogside to the University campus.
It was a peaceful time in Derry but I was well aware of the history I had just sidled into. On a narrow residential street we came to a halt behind a double-parked car. Our driver honked and when nothing happened the other constable jumped out and pushed the car out of the way. Really, that happened.
When I arrived on campus – there were a lot of students milling about, many of whom turned to look at the Land Rover as it arrived and watched me exit with curious and sceptical eyes. I thanked the constables for their time and went to find my meeting.
Back to the present … I invited Jennifer, my hostel roommate, to find a beer. Here’s what I learned: She was in the navy for four years, attended Indiana University, and worked for 11 years for a federal judge, before she quit to come get a master’s degree in Northern Ireland. She’s arrived with a giant suitcase full of domestic tools and personal hygiene products, like soap. She’s both a little embarrassed that she’s brought all this stuff and also like, well, I didn’t know what they’d have and I’m picky.