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.
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.
As we drive Cornelia is telling me tales from her life and work when this oh-so-Irish comment jumps out at me: “All they talk about at tea breaks is hurling.”
Hurling is a religion in these parts. The Kilkenny team is the Yankees of the sport having won 36 championships (of 129 played – they’ve also been runners up 26 times). Next closest is Cork with 30 championships and 19 as runners up. We’re in season and the team’s colours fly everywhere in Kilkenny. I don’t understand the game but am charmed by the continuing health of a very-definitely provincial sport with no aspirations of, you know, going global. Hurling is Irish.
It’s nice tagging along with Cornelia – it gives us time to just hang-out and chat in the car as she drives between the various puzzle pieces of her life.
In 1988 she was travelling with her friend Nicola and I was travelling with my friend Jerry Lee (whom I visited in Florence a few weeks ago). We were all heading to Greece when we met at the train station in Bari, Italy. We fell in together and spent a few weeks in company.
We’ve kept in touch off and on over the years but I last saw her in 1995 when I was in Ireland with President Clinton.
I’m missing being on the bike but know I need some rest and I am not missing the ‘travel’ per se – the packing and unpacking, the finding a place to sleep, etc.
Also, my lack of interest in Kilkenny is a real sign of needing a break.
Some ideas/questions bubbling away:
Volunteering at the festival, yes (as part of the ‘say yes ‘project);
Make a flying visit to London from here (Derry, Belfast, Dublin, London);
Ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg and visit the French in Caen; then to Tom B’s and the Vuelta. A train someplace;
How important is getting to the Vuelta?
Can I get to the Rugby World Cup? More Pool A & B tickets go on sale on Thursday
Anyway … I’m still not sure – but I’d like to settle some plans for the next couple of weeks – set some accommodation, book transport. Dunno, dunno.
I just need to get through the stuff that needs doing, spend a few quiet days moving in an orderly way through stuff would be good.
And look for the energy and spirit of it to come back into it.
When I rise at 6:45 to go to the loo Cornelia says “Good Morning!” – so I’m up.
We drive to Kilkenny and I have a look around while she attends to some business.
The camping store in town stocks the tent I’m thinking of buying. It’s been well-reviewed by Tom’s Bike Trip and I can get it on-line for € 140 – which I’d call a decent mid-level price. In the shop it looks fine, but is rather more expensive, I’ll order it later today.
I’ve been to Ireland twice before. Once, I came from the Continent and, once, from the States. On both of those visits I was immediately struck by the IRISHness of the place. But now it feels a lot like Wales. Similar architecture, landscapes, the way the roads are laid out.
Kilkenny is … a bit whatever. Just a town with a castle – at least on a Monday. There is a 13-year-old boy busking – playing acoustic guitar and singing Dirty Old Town. He sings it well and charmingly.
I need some rest. That seems clear. My tired is a deep tired and it’s taking some of the excitement out of new places.
I spent the afternoon and evening bookkeeping.
Wow – the UK was expensive. Three crappy coffees – for me, Antoine and Isabella – were AUD $20. It has me thinking of skipping over the UK on my return – Rosslare to France? And, maybe later, visiting London – look for a cheap flight. Or getting a cheap flight from here and just going for a few days to see people and whatever.
Cornelia works for the Kilkenny Arts Festival and is encouraging me to volunteer. I think I will. One of my rules for this trip is to say “Yes” when I’m asked to do something or am invited somewhere (if I can do whatever it is and it’s not actually dangerous). But I’ve got to look at my plan – well, make a plan first.
It’s warmer in Sydney than here right now – by the way.
Cardiff makes me think of my ex-husband. It’s a Rugby place and a Doctor Who place. So it prods the scar tissue – tests the healing. I feel milliseconds of missing his friendship followed by doubts of the genuineness of that initial feeling. It reminds me of the swirling mess of thoughts and feelings I had in the weeks and months after we split. They are best left to lie.
I begin my exploration of the Welsh capital with an amazing exhibition at the National Museum.
Chalkie Davies is a Welsh photographer who was on the staff of both NME and The Face. In the 1980s he put some of his work in a box, closed it, and waited to see how it would age. When the museum called to ask about staging an exhibition he opened that box.
These are glorious photographs of artists who are now symbols of their times but were then in their youth, in their prime.
I walk to the pedestrianised centre of town. At the markets I sample Welsh Cakes – sort of sweet flat scones with dried fruit. Yet another yummy variation on flour, sugar and fat. I get lunch and notice many at neighbouring tables are just having hot chips as their meal – big baskets of them, topped with things, and eaten with little forks.
I pop into the city’s Cardiff Story exhibition – a telling of the history of the city through photos and mementos of citizens. Included was a “baseball bat” which looked a lot like a cricket bat to me. I’ve since looked up Welsh Baseball and it is a curious thing. Descended from rounders but codified as baseball in 1892.
It’s a lot like cricket: teams of 11, games played in two innings, runs are scored when a batter reaches a base and another as s/he reaches each subsequent base, an over-the-boundry hit is good for four runs, the field radiates from the hitting position (no foul territory). But like baseball it’s played on a diamond – albeit a smaller one. Unlike either baseball or cricket the “bases” are marked by poles. Strange … the things you learn while travelling.
I walk a long way to Cardiff Bay to gaze at the Millenium Centre and pretend to look for a rift in time then I do the most touristy thing of the whole journey so far – pay a crazy £18 for the Doctor Who Experience.
It begins with a ridiculous children’s “adventure with the Doctor” led by a woman acting out her part to luke-warm audience participation. When I was a kid I watched some Doctor Who with my nerdy-in-a-good-way older brother – I wasn’t devoted to it but I did like it, this was in the days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison. My now-ex-husband was a much bigger fan and when the re-boot was launched in 2005 we tuned in from the beginning.
I loved Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor – he brought a darkness to the role I really liked. The Doctor as a lonely survivor, powerful, sometimes vengeful, softened by human companionship and his special relationship with Earth. I loved David Tennant’s Doctor, too – he added a cheekiness and a difficult emotional connection with his human companions but still had a bit of the darkness, or, with him, maybe sadness. Or the stories did. Is there anything creepier than Blink (the Weeping Angels episode) or The Empty Child (“Are you my mummy?”)
Once Russell T. Davies ceased to write and produce the show, and David Tennant left, I think the show descended into family-friendly safety. It bores and depresses me. But the shift has made the thing a massive universal success and thus The Doctor Who Experience.
I, frankly, would have paid extra to skip the “adventure” and just get to the exhibition which is very cool to visit (though I think they could make it even better with the addition of more audio/video – interviews with cast and crew would be great). But: Tardises! K9! Several Tardis consoles! Costumes! The Face of Bol!
Nerding out and a bit embarrassed about it.
A Tardis Console!
Wednesday 22 July 2015 7:30 am
I don’t want to. It’s raining. Right now I wish I could skip ahead to arriving at Cornelia’s place in Ireland.
I know it’ll be fine. But the weather invites lying in. Reading. Sitting still.
The French family has offered me a lift to near Swansea and I think I’ll accept. If it’s still raining when I get there I might just roll into town and find a room. Sigh.
After my whinging start, it was a lovely day’s riding.
And I hit another milestone: 2000 kilometres!
The French family (Antoine, Isabelle, Gabriel and ____ – something I just can’t catch) and I cycled out together from Gowerton and are still together. It was a flat, quiet – almost entirely off-road – ride. We mostly followed an estuary of the Carmathen Bay, we rode through wetlands, and skirted Llanelli – where we lunched in the lee of an information centre/café/toilets next to a beach.
We rode through the Pembray Forest and stopped to climb a dune with a sweeping 180* bay view. White horses in close formations galloping in – low tide – the sea was some 200 + metres away. A cyclist on the beach in the distance. A kite-flyer. Leaving the forest, we emerged into open pastureland with cows, it was lovely.
Then Kidwelly – home to a castle, many take-aways (kebabs, Indian, Chinese, fish & chips), a couple of pubs, and a small Spar grocery store with sad vegetables. But friendly helpful people with lovely Welsh accents directed us toward the campground.
It was nice riding with people. They assure me they are happy to have me ride along with them as we’re going the same way at a similar pace.
Just near us … a family arrived after us to their campervan. This park has a lot of simple onsite vans with extender type set ups, obviously owned by individuals as their holiday homes.
It feels very working class. The family group next to us includes a pile of children: Tommy in footy boots, Luca who seems a bit albino, another boy in glasses – all of them sort of 4-6. And a toddling girl.
When I just got up to go to the toilet I thought I might have stumbled over their bodies – fallen where they were – having finally exhausted themselves of running around and screaming. But the adults seem to have collected them up. I think there may be nearly 10 people between caravan and extender there. But some of the kids may come from elsewhere in the park.
When we pedalled into the park – a chatty red-faced blonde girl, maybe 7, asked where we’d come from then she stared gape-mouthed as I answered. The accent – my accent – I think was too alien for her.
It’s really, again, so very English – fitting all sorts of stereotypes of English working class holidays … a caravan park by a Welsh beach. While we were putting the tents up the Mr Whippy van came through playing … of course “Greensleeves”.
Some of the vans are strung with Christmas lights. It reminds me of home – this culture of caravanning summer holidays at the beach has been transported wholesale to Australia.
When I just went to the loo: there was the Big Dipper. It would be ridiculous to say I haven’t seen it earlier in the trip – for surely, surely I have – but I don’t recall seeing it – like that – just big, clear, dipper shaped and upright.
Thursday 23 July – 8:10 am
Either the country was invaded at dawn or there was a military exercise this morning. At 5:15 or so there was gun fire in the distance and voices. I got up to pee and there were weird trails in the sky too.
8:35 pm – Antshill Caravan Park
Well that was a fucking hard day. Beautiful in its way – quiet back roads through farms – but rolling – very rolling. A lot of climbing just to roll down the other side, around a corner, then up again. Really hard, really really hard.
I’ve realised that when I’m riding alone I stop more frequently than the French family does. We didn’t really stop at all. Only to eat our lunch in Carmathen, where we just stood around eating.
While lunching I watched a young man – maybe 20, sharing lunch with what seemed to be work colleagues (a man and a woman) in a busy shopping mall. The whole time he had his hand down the front of his trackies, and inside his undies (I could see the waistband). He seemed sober and otherwise normal – I really should have asked WTF??
Heading into St Clears late in the day I was going to leave the French and find a B&B – I was ready to pay whatever it cost. But the route didn’t go straight through town and we saw the for this campground. So here we are. The campground has a clubhouse with a pub/restaurant – dead empty but for me. I’m having a beer and Pringles – well earned – tent’s up, showered, made dinner.
I nearly wept today pushing and climbing up a hill.
It’s two months since I left Sydney.
I am thinking of Vickianne and Jim seeing me off at the airport. I miss everyone.
Friday 24 July 8:10 am – Anthill Caravan Park near St Clears
It’s been raining pretty much all night – certainly since before 4 am.
Last night I’d been discussing with Antoine my need of a new tent. The rain has put paid to that idea. It could be a lot worse (and the day with the puddle (link) was). The tent seams are gone so water is getting through the fly and then some drips into the tent proper. I woke – 4-ish – to find dampness on my sleeping bag so set about rearranging and putting stuff into my waterproof panniers.
Packing and riding in this is totally uninviting.
It’s not pouring but it’s solid and steady and giving no hints of letting up.
The French are awake. I wonder what they’ll do.
I’m tempted to throw away the tent here.
I’m tempted to ask Cornelia if she can collect me from Rosslare on Sunday night.
I’m tempted to find out about the train from Rosslare to Wexford.
Basically I’m tired. Tired of riding. On the bike it’s good – mostly – not the climbing. Not the packing and unpacking.
7:27 pm The Lighthouse Tavern – Tenby
The daughter – Felicity – or some French name near that, had to learn the word ‘unabashed’ for school English. She knew the definition but wanted to understand it in context.
It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a good one – everything I thought of was like from a 19th century novel.
I suggested that it probably relates to bashful – “A teenaged boy might be bashful around a girl he likes, but some would be unabashed in showing their interest.”
I’ve said goodbye to them – having checked into a hotel in Tenby – which is a super-cute town with pastel houses about the beach and harbour. It’s a walled city – not sure who walled it or when – with a ruined castle on the headland.
I abandoned the tent at Anthill. It served me well – but now is dead.
From the campground we rolled into Laugharne, home to Dylan Thomas’ boatshed. An adorable village full of B&Bs. Sigh.
Leaving there it was a super hard climb on cold legs after a wet night – and it was still raining off and on.
And that set the tone. More climbing through beautiful wet green Welsh countryside. I was generally well behind the group but would catch up now and then.
We stopped in Saundersfoot for lunch. I had fish and chips, we went to a café for tea. Everyone was pretty ready to not ride much more today.
Out of Saundersfoot guess what? A big climb?
The sea is beautiful, however – it really is.
I bought a postcard of sunny beaches for a laugh.
Knowing I’d get a bed of some sort lifted my spirits – which have been pretty low for a couple of days.
I want to go out and see what Tenby says for itself on a Friday night.
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.
When my train arrived yesterday evening Tobi was, unexpectedly, on the platform to meet me.
I’ve found the guest/host relationship on CouchSurfing and Warm Showers – both web-based hospitality communities but the latter expressly for bicycle tourists – can quickly form and, even untended, be lasting.
Tobi and Sarah had stayed with me and my then-husband in 2012. They were medical students. Their Austrian university allowed/encouraged their students to do learning-rotations at hospitals overseas. They were in the midst of a year-long series of such placements interspersed with travel when they visited us in Sydney.
At the time, the idea of visiting them was a slim, but desirable, hope. But two and a half years on, down one husband but immersed in my own adventure, here I am in Bludenz and here is Tobi – warm and welcoming.
They are now proper doctors and working in the hospital in this small, beautifully situated city in the far west of Austria – which smells of chocolate (courtesy of the Milka factory). They have a great flat with a great view. Their company and conversation brought a day which had begun with my wishing to be elsewhere to an uplifting end.
They assured me that the woman I’d met on the train was right – a mostly-flat, mostly-off road cycleway runs from Bludenz to Lake Constance and beyond. So a new course was set.
I awake to this spectacular view and spend the morning plotting the details of the coming week. I map the route and send requests to Warm Showers and Couchsurfing hosts further up the track and get positive replies from hosts in Hard, Konstanz and Montbeliard.
In the afternoon I go for a wander around Bludenz running some errands as I go: getting a new smaller water bottle, finding a map and putting a couple of cards in the post. The sun shone, the sky was blue, and it all smelled of chocolate.
In the evening Tobi, Sarah, two of their friends and I pile into their brand new collective Kia electric car (they are starting their own car-sharing group). We drive across the valley where the city lies and up, up, up the hill on the far side – the one which can be seen from their place. Here, we go for an evening’s amble, visit a dairy to eat cheese and drink buttermilk as the cows are led back out to pasture after their milking. It was all so very Austrian and lovely.
I woke to a big, blue, clear sky. The sun shone strongly and hot; the breeze, especially in the shade, chilly with the plateau’s autumn. They’ve planted many exotic deciduous trees in New England and their red and golden dying leaves frame each roadway.
At 9:45 am the great majority, it seemed, of Uralla residents lined the main street waiting for the balance of their neighbours and most of the district’s school children to parade past to mark Anzac Day: returned servicemen and women came first followed by children marching for parents, then those in local services – the Red Cross, Fireies, Police and Ambos, next groups from all the local schools in their uniforms, some trying to march, some wearing family medals and lastly a couple of army horsemen and an officer leading a riderless horse with backward turned boots in the stirrups. The whole thing passed in 10 minutes – greatest Anzac Day Parade I’ve ever attended as it did all it was supposed to do without taking the whole morning.
The crowd moved to the memorial gates at the park to await the parade participants and for the official service to begin. The program took rather longer than the parade and followed the usual script: various dignitaries spoke saying things about the horror of war and place of mateship, a local pastor spoke of Jesus and the RSL president of the Queen, several school kids read prepared remarks nearly inaudiably, hymns were weakly sung and wreathes laid. We turned to the West for the playing of the Last Post; and turned to the East for Reveille.
We finished by singing Advance Australia Fair with gusto accompanied by a twee electronic keyboard. I may not speak with an Australian accent but I do sing the national anthem with one.
The whole thing was genuinely lovely.
Later I went to the footy – a local second-division derby of the Country Football League with the Uralla boys hosting the Walcha lads from up the road. For a while it was a close run thing but the hosts came good in the end and retired to the Bottom Pub for two-up through the afternoon and evening. (Uralla has two pubs – each with some proper name – but one is slightly uphill from the other thus known to all as the Top Pub and the Bottom Pub.)
In the evening Paul, Judy, their neighbour Annie, and I made our own way to the Top Pub – where one drink and dinner became several drinks and weird and wonderful conversations with various bar flies. Bernie – who lives 20 km out of town and was on the ABC’s Outback House some years ago – regaled us with a tale of riding his horse bareback up the main drag (because he sometimes rides into town) – getting the horse to weave through the white lines like obstacle cones. He has a vision of a new horse-based sport that would somehow involve the horses swimming. It was something we brainstormed for a while.
We weaved home in crisp damp air beneath a black sky salted with stars.