Category Archives: Riding Day

Pedaling with Ghosts in the Normandy Rain: Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux

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.

Rainy view from a tent door.
Blech – I don’t wanna go to school today, ma.

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 CemeteryMore 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.

Nazi war graves in Normandy
More dignity than Nazis deserve?

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.

Pont du Hoc cliffs - scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cliffs – scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cows grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops
Pont du Hoc sheep grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops

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.

Selfie of middle-aged, short-haired woman on a pebbly beach with ocean and jetty
At Omaha Beach at sundown.

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.

Where:

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.

Yesterday I had Midnight Oil’s Blossom & Blood on the mind and Love & Rockets Ball of Confusion – riding through history can do that to you.

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.

So much loss. So much gained.
So much loss. So much gained.

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.

The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.
The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.

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 am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.
I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.

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.

What a glorious afternoon for living.
What a glorious afternoon for living.
Map showing cycling route described in this post
My route (click to enlarge)
My route in context - see Paris in the lower right.
My route in context – see Paris in the lower right. (Click to enlarge)

To Ride is to Live: Jonville to Isigny-sur-Mer (Normandy, France)

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.

Where:

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

French stone village houses on a small wet street under a grey sky.
A village in Normandy – St Vaast-la-Houge

I’ve ridden 30 minutes in the wind and the rain. I’ve stopped to just get out of it for a bit.

Riding thoughts:

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.

Memorial road sign for Sgt J. Z. Pritchett, killed in action 25 June 1944
They 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.

Fully-loaded touring bicycle leant against a Nazi pillbox in Normandy.
Nazi pillbox … I didn’t want to touch it.

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.

Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach)
Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach) – Wikipedia Link

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

Where:

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.

Where:

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.

Where:

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.

Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.
Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.

6:45 pm – Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer: I Make Quiet My Friend

Where:

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.

How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
The route.
The route.
Context
Context

Back On My Bicycle in France – Riding from Cherbourg to Jonville

Bonjour (again) France
Sunday 23 August (Day 91 of my midlife gap-year)
11:35 am , Cherbourg YHA: 

I woke to the ferry-wide announcement that we were soon arriving in Cherbourg. It was raining;  perhaps I wouldn’t start riding straight away after all.

A view of a rainy morning at sea taken from a cabin window.
Hmmm … rain again

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

Middle aged, short-haired, glasses-wearing woman against a blue sky and the French flag.
Vive la France

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!

Stone French three-story house with flower boxes and a sign for Rue Grande Rue
Old Cherbourg, Rue Grande Rue
Modern apartment blocks with multi-coloured window dressings.
New Cherbourg – I liked how colourful the window dressings are.

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.

Heavy grey clouds blot the sky, but a small river courses through a sunlit green landscape.
The view from my picnic spot beside the River Saire

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?

A white-stone French chateau reflected in a pond.
It could only be France, non?

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.

Rain heavy sky over a deep green to dark blue sea.
The Atlantic Ocean from Camping Municipal de Jonville

Beautiful.

But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.

12:40 am

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.

A fully-loaded touring bicycle leans against an age-wearied memorial cross in a small French village cross-roads, a signe reads: Village de la Croix Perrinot
A photo of near perfect happiness.

Wales: You Are Beautiful but Hard: 21 – 24 July 2015

21 July 2015 10:35 am, Cardiff

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.

P7211360 (2)

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.

P7211364

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.

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Are you sensing my slight ambivalence? It was good, but expensive, and so geeky. And fun.

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A Tardis Console!

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Dr Who Costumes!
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The Face of Bol! And others!

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.

9:15 pm – Tanylan Farm Holidays Campground outside Kidwelly (Gydweli)

After my whinging start, it was a lovely day’s riding.

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And I hit another milestone: 2000 kilometres!

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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.

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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.

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11:30 pm

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.

Rooted.

Knackered.

Shattered.

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.

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The view from inside my tent.

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.

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Laugharne – Dylan Thomas had a boatshed here, people come to see it.

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.

I want to lie in bed and watch TV.

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Au revoir, my French friends – may the rain fall more lightly for the rest of your holiday.
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Hello hotel bed! Yippee – no wet tent tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight – Amanda’s Back Garden, Monkton Farleigh

While I’m thinking of it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 19 July 8:55 pm Bristol YHA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:30 am Monday 20 July – Bristol

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

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

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

Shaun & Me
Shaun & Me

12:05 pm – Small Street Espresso

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

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

Feeling better for proper caffeine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 14 July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cerne Abbas Giant (and his giant erection)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ha ha ha – Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 15 July 2015

I linger in Sherborne. I like it.

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

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

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

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

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

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Salisbury Cathedral

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

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

Thursday 16 July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stonehenge & Sprinkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 18 July 2015

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

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

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Along the Kennet & Avon Canal

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

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

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

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

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

Not quite my route.

Pop Music, Pop Culture and Clotted Cream – 11-13 July 2015 (Southampton – Bridport – Dorchester)

Saturday 11 July

I’m here for the Let’s Rock Southampton! festival.

No, that’s not quite true. I’m here to see Tom Bailey play Thompson Twins songs at Let’s Rock Southampton!

I am ambivalent about 1980s nostalgia gigs. If everyone is having fun, where’s the harm? Right? But revisiting the scenes of youth, in middle age, with the bands you loved when you were a teenager and they were in their 20s and 30s … there’s something weird and a little unsettling about it. It invites melancholy and a sense of mortality. When last I saw Tom play these songs I was 18 and he was 33, now I’m 46 and he’s 61.

About five years ago Tom and I spent an afternoon walking around Sydney and catching up. He was then certain he’d never do this – never play these songs again. But things change – and he is. So here I am – in a field in Southampton surrounded by sun-burnt middle-aged Englishmen and women.

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Every time I look at this picture it makes me laugh.

Tom’s manager, David I think it is, meets me. He’s a thin, pale man dressed for sailing to South America in a linen suit and panama hat. He asks if I’m Lisa – close enough, he escorts me into the back stage area. And then there’s Tom – with his funny, lovely smile and fabulous hair. Looking every bit as expected.

In the tent Tom introduces me to his band (Angie, Emily and Amanda), the manager’s fiancée, and the lighting guy’s girlfriend, Donna. We talk of my journey and Couchsurfing, of the gigs they’ve been playing, and of how I know Tom. He says I’ve probably seen more Thompson Twins shows than anyone else there – I started to try and count them but couldn’t – it’d be in the 20s.

Most of those I worked. I was an intern on their final US tour. I skipped my high school graduation ceremony so I could be in Arizona in time for the start of the tour. It was a crazy wonderful month or so.

Tom is amazed at my memory of those times but I was 18 and on tour with the Thompson Twins so it was all very memorable for me. “Really?” he asks, “You did the laundry? And bought me socks?” Yes, Tom, yes I did.

It was nice reminiscing with him in this way. Then a particularly weird thing happened.

Before I met the Thompson Twins I was member of their fan club. Back in the day this meant posting away to a PO box in London, sending a money order for a few Pound Sterling – in return I got a membership card, a subscription to a newsletter, exclusive news and things like that. Their fan club was run by a formidable woman named Viv.

She and her daughter came to California for a couple of the gigs there. When she found I was working on the tour she lost her mind. She confronted Tom and Alannah about it. She thought if they were going to have a fan on tour it should be herself or her daughter or there should have been a contest. She’s yelling at them in the dressing room 20 minutes before they go on.

I was worried not so much that her argument would win out but that her craziness would taint my presence on the tour, that it would seem like too much of a pain in the arse. I still remember the anxiety I felt hearing her raging down the corridor.

In the end it was a positive turning point for me. I’d been working diligently at all I was asked to do and tried to be helpful wherever I could. My fellow worker-bees saw me as part of the team, and then more so, really, in comparison with the weird woman.  They were all very supportive and told me not to worry about her.

But my original reaction had stayed with me. So when Tom turned to me and asked if I’d met her, my blood ran cold for just a second … things from one’s teenaged years live on and echo at a particular resonance.

She had arrived and wanted to come say hello to him. He asked me to go help David find her. When we were all standing together some minutes later Tom asked her if she remembered me, she said she didn’t – and maybe that’s so.

Meanwhile a litany of 1980s pop musicians were playing their sets and I was missing all of them in favour of the genial social scene in the tent. When the second last act, Kim Wilde, went on Tom and his band went to get ready. Donna and I joined the crowd in front of the stage.

And then they came on. And it was wonderful. The lights and visuals were fantastic. It was, yeah – so, so nice. And when they finished with ‘Hold Me Now’ and everyone sang along, it really was kind of special and heart-warming.

The set was great – a short-sharp attack on some of their best songs, played well and sung well: In the Name of Love, You Take Me Up, Lies, Sister of Mercy, Lay Your Hands on Me, Love on Your Side, If You Were Here, Doctor! Doctor! and Hold Me Now.

It was as much fun as I had hoped and not nearly as morose as I had feared.

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The set was great.
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Older … better than the alternative. Always nice to see Tom.

Sunday 12 July

Having slept in I took a stupidly expensive train to Weymouth – £24.70 for a ride of less than two hours. There, the start of my ride, was in a windblown spray of rain. Despite that, and the low clouds obscuring what are meant to be fantastic coastal views, it is beautiful and oh, so English. There are rolling hills with paddocks of sheep and there are dog walkers in tweed and wellies.  I stop at a tea room in Abbottsbury – a village of thatch-roofs and stone-houses – to gorge on Dorset apple cake served with clotted cream and a nice pot of tea.

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It was so very good.

If you are familiar with the show Broadchurch then you’ll know West Bay. The nearly-gothic cliffs which loom over the main beach are, in themselves, a star of the show and a star for West Bay. I roll around town laughing at the English-summer and have some disappointing chips.

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Amazing spot.

My Warmshowers hosts for the night are in Bridport, up the hill from West Bay. They must get a fair few visitors because as I’m riding into their subdivision, even further uphill, a woman in a passing car encourages me on with a: “You’re nearly there!”

Malcolm and Jude are truly lovely hosts. They are 60-ish and have a beautiful home and garden – rambling and productive. They are passionate people, chatty and interesting. Jude is a bit of a pagan and Malcolm, I think, indulges her more than he joins. They are kind and welcoming and easy to get on with.

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Malcolm and Jude’s gorgeous garden

After dinner, Malcolm offers to run me around in his car to the Broadchurch murder house and back through West Bay for the night time vibe.

Getting to the house involves driving narrow, hedged, winding lanes illuminated only by his head lights. We arrive in a gravelled car park and there it is, at the top of a little rise. It’s spooky, evocative, and really fun to see.

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Taken in available light at 10:30 pm – appropriately creepy.

Monday 13 July

I worked all morning and then peddled away after lunch. Malcolm made this amazing cheese toastie – toasted and buttered home baked brown sourdough covered with a mix of grated cheddar and hard goats’ cheese, put under the grill and served with Vegemite!

The ride today was good: foggy and windy, but dry and so so green. The height of the hedges bordering the road make passing traffic a bit of an issue but they also block the wind. I saw a pair of fellow cycle tourists and realised I miss the busyness of Italy and even France. I’ve seen almost no other tourers here and not many riders in general.

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England … so very English.

I roll into Dorchester just after the tourist office closes – I can see them still in there but the door is locked and they avoid seeing me. I wander the high street eyeing three or four hotels and then pick one. I could have been more discerning but I’ve been riding all afternoon and I just want a home for the night. It’s a gobsmacking £89 – which is like A$180 – but I’ve not paid for accommodation the past nine nights, so averaged over 10 that’s $18 per night. That’s how I’m going to think of it anyway.

I’ve been on the road for 50 days now and I’m feeling strong and content. Things are good. I’m enjoying the adventure, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. Finding the right balances – around how to spend my time and my money – continue to be a bit of a challenge but I think I’m shifting my expectations toward what can be and away from some ideas of what should be.

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Making my way (and then circling back to get the camera).

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

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

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

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Un petit dejuner

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

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

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

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

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

1:30 pm – Tom’s

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

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

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At the Musee d’Orsay

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

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

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

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

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

11:25 pm – Tom’s Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday 9 July – Le Havre, 7:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me Me Me – Throw the free stuff to Me!

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

The crowd thins after the caravan has moved through.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday 10 July 7:55 am – Portsmouth

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

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

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

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Fortunately loud colours don’t keep me awake.

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

1:35 pm – Nearly to Southampton

Tailwind!

A squirrel!

Two deer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening – in Southampton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern France Masquerades as Hades: 1 – 3 July 2015: Montbéliard – Baumes Les Dames – Fraisans – Dijon

Wednesday 1 July 2015: Montbéliard to Baumes Les Dames 

My Warm Showers host feeds me a fantastic French breakfast featuring rich, beautiful, unhomogenised milk they buy from a local farmer several times a week. Elisabeth then rides with me to the edge of Montbéliard and sees me off with a cheery au revoir. 

The heat quickly rises to the high 30*Cs and the French are hiding. Those who are out look wrecked, or determined, or a bit of both. I feel fine; I feel Australian.

What company I have comes from the beautiful grey herons which have been with me for a couple of days and the auburn hawks circling, as they have since I was in the Rhine Delta.

The tree-lined cycleway, running parallel to the river, is generally very quiet. I am immersed in blues and greens: fields, trees, the river, the sky. I am grateful for patches of shade and the cooling effect of the breeze generated by the speed of my pedaling.

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Along the Eurovelo 6 in Eastern France

I stop in a hot dusty-ish, hazy-ish and dead-fucking-quiet village for lunch. It’s the sort of town that would be in a Quentin Tarantino film if he made a modern French western. There are a few cafes open and not a lot of patrons for them. I have the plat du jour at the most inviting of them: melon and ham, bread, a bit of salad, ratatouille with two slices of pork and chips; an ice cream cake for dessert and a bottle of water. All that, air conditioning, and the use of a proper toilet for €13 – I count it a good deal.

In the afternoon heat I take refuge in what I’d call a washing shed. Once, there would have been flowing water and women would have washed their clothes, here, on these worn angled stones. It offers cool shade and respite.

It’s still hot as Hades when I arrive at the municipal campground near Baume les Dames. At its worst, the day must have been 40*C plus and with heat radiating off the bitumen. I pay €8.85 for my night’s accommodation and sit in the shade eating icy poles waiting for the heat to diminish a bit before putting up my tent.

Evening, and it’s cooling finally. I ride my unloaded bicycle into town to look for dinner. I’ve done this so rarely and it feels so light – I’m dancing up the hill into town. Baume les Dames is cute enough – more lively than my lunch stop, and I find an inviting looking pizza joint on a cobbled square. Kids are kicking a football and there’s a fountain splashing.

A revoltingly loved-up couple coo at each other to my right. They are hiding behind menus, which they are not looking at, gazing at each other, whispering, laughing. Ugh – coupledom, sometimes I miss it, sometimes I’m immensely grateful to be free of it.

Thursday 2 July 2015: Baumes Les Dames to Frisians 

The alarm goes off at 5:15 and by 5:30 I’m making breakfast and getting ready for the day. I cycle away at 7:30 as the rest of the campers are just beginning to stir. I’m philosophically opposed to setting alarms unless absolutely necessary. Days in the 40*+ range call for desperate measures.

While riding in the heat without too much complaint does make me feel all Australian – I’m also Australian enough to know how dangerous it can be, how heatstroke can sneak up on you and lay you low something awful.

The early start helps but it is, again, stupidly hot – at least as hot as yesterday, maybe hotter and the cumulative effect is starting to take its toll on me.

Today’s ride is much like yesterday’s – along the river/canal with occasional forays into or near towns with, seemingly, no retail businesses at all. Elisabeth had said most have moved to the edges of towns (big boxes on the highways). An hour into my day’s ride I go through a little town and encounter a boulangerie van – a bakers’ van that does a circuit selling fresh bread and other bits and pieces. For less than €2 I get a pain au chocolat and half a baguette. France is seeming pretty cheap.

By 11 am I’ve ridden the 30 km or so to Besançon – home town to Victor Hugo. It’s a cool town built on an ox bow of river and guarded by a fuck-off looking heritage listed fortress. Winding, cobbled old streets open onto squares. I fail to take pictures – I blame the heat. And the ‘public toilets’ are guarded by money-expecting women. If it can be avoided I won’t pay to pee. For a coffee and a pee? Okay. Ice cream and a pee? Yup. Just pee? Not if I can help it.

I fail to find the information office and with it a source of WiFi. I also fail to find a post office. I think businesses are just more obvious in Italy. I do find a little grocer where I get fruit and vegetables, salami, biscuits, more sweetened condensed milk and yogurt. I look at the cheese and imagine it as a puddle of milk fat in my bag.

Since then it’s been a brutal slog in the heat.

In mid-afternoon I find a shelter near a lock on the canal. There are tables, a bathroom, tap water and shade. I end up spending a couple of hours there – napping, reading, just waiting for the burning ball in the sky to lessen its intensity a bit.

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Glorious respite.

By 19:30 I arrive at the campground in Frisians. It looks pretty there, across the river – but it feels like a bogan-y, dead-end, shithole of a French town with pretty buildings including a chateau. The main street is not quite Port Kembala-dead. There is a pizza place, a kebab shop (in someone’s shed), a proper restaurant closed tonight but looking like a going concern; a Red Cross op shop, post office and a boulangerie – the most prosperous looking place in town.

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Frisians – Pretty from here, kind of a shit-hole up close

This campground is the quietest I’ve ever visited. It’s me and a German guy with his dog – he looks all ultra-athlete-ish. Something extreme. When they say closed at 20:00 they mean it – gates go up and customers are turned away. It’s a municipal ground – €2, no WiFi.

I  dropped my toiletry bag and cracked my deodorant crystal – may need to be abandoned. Then nearly slipped and fell in the shower. I had a hard moment – a wee brief sob – when I wanted things to be familiar and just a bit easier. I know I have a good run of familiarly coming up – friends to see in Paris, the UK, and Ireland, a shift back to the English speaking world. This is good – it’s all good – a little hard and with the heat I’m just, I think, worn down a bit. Made a little worse by the lack of internet, and the sense of connection it brings.

France has felt flat out harder – I don’t know if that’s the heat, the language, that I’ve been at this for 39 days now, or what. But today has simply been hard. It’s been good too but the constant problem solving, decision-making, figuring out what’s next is wearing on me. Add small, but annoying stuff like with the deodorant or having to clean ants out of my food bag, or worrying that pine-sap is dripping on my tent, sees me pushed toward an emotional edge. Then I get a vicious leg cramp and, in a tent, all I can do is wait it out.

I need some good rest days in Paris.

Look – one thing at a time, one day at a time – don’t let the annoyances detract from the beauty of the river, the pleasantries with other riders, the freedom of being here and doing this. I’m living my dream – it was never going to be all roses and chocolates. And today is just being a bit hard. I should sleep. Tomorrow will be good.

Friday 3 July 2015: Frisians to Dijon

Another hot-as-fuck day. It’s been hard. I’ve found France hard.

The guy running the campground was weird – his dog and cat roamed around the place. I saw cat shit in the playground. I think he’s a municipal employee and gets the house with the gig. He’d just as soon not have guests. This morning the German ultra-athlete left his towel in the WC and, apparently, walked naked from the shower to get it. I didn’t see him, nor the other woman here. It was all of probably 5-10 seconds of public nudity. The campground guy – who’s also some kind of country cop, closed the campground gate, got in his cop car and went to threaten him with arrest. He also had words with the other cyclists who must have arrived after closing. Weird.

My friend Vickianne, back in Sydney, bless her, has booked me a room in Dijon near the train station. The heat got the best of me, the lack of WiFi undermined my ability to plan – I text messaged her before I went to sleep asking her to log into Booking.com as me and find me something in Dijon. And she has – it will cost what it costs, and that’s fine. There will be air conditioning and, probably, WiFi. It’s with a lighter heart I pedal out of Fraisans.

The riding was much the same as recent days: a quiet cycleway along a canal under the blazing sun.  Fortunately, portions of the route are tree-lined. I slow my pace in the shade and speed it up when exposed.

I ride as far as Dole before getting the train into Dijon.

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Arriving in Dole – it was nice, hot but nice.

On the train – two African guys in front of me have travel papers rather than tickets. I’m guessing they are refugees. The conductor is clearly pretty annoyed to have to deal with it. I’m getting a vibe about public workers here. Well, it’s just two guys but noticeable – this guy and the one at the campground.

Dijon after three days of mid-30*s plus is devastating and definitely hotter than Sydney under the same circumstances. The city is all stone, pavement, marble – a lot of it white. It soaks in the heat and reflects the sunlight.

Dijon has a rough edge – beggars, homeless people, a roaming bunch of shirtless and drinking men in their 30s. I got off the train and was going to shuttle my stuff down the stairs (one load, then the next) but a fellow cyclist was clearly worried by this idea and brought my duffel bag down to me.

I went to the Beau Arts Museum – which Lonely Planet made quite a deal of. They have a lot of lovely old Jesus stuff in an air conditioned area and 19th and 20th century stuff – including a Monet and a Manet – in rooms so warm that an art person might really freak out. It was all a little ramshackle – some of the modern stuff was displayed attached to, like, chipboard. Really weird. Obviously badly underfunded.

I was going to go back out now but this cool WiFi’d cocoon of a hotel room is just perfect for the moment.

Knackered.

 

Hot Days on the Riverside: From Flaach to Basel to Montbéliard

Sunday 28 June 2015: Flaasch to Basel

My heart is thumping GOOD MORNING as I climb out of Flaach to the clamber and clang of church bells. It’s 9:45 am and sweat rivulets down my face and back.

I pass fields of corn, wheat, beetroot, sunflowers, capsicum, cows and sheep. Kirchen, a sign on the side of the road promises. A man in a bucket hat is up a ladder picking cherries into a woven basket. His wife sits at a red and white checked cloth covered table with punnets of the fruit ready for sale.

Rolling down towards the river I’m halted and turn back at the sight of an Australian flag snapping in the Swiss sky. I find its owner – a local who just loves Australia. He’s been twice but still needs to cover the territory between Darwin and Cape York. Last year a cyclist from Tasmania stopped by.

I pass a café setting up on the riverfront and a trio of musicians carrying their instruments down a gravel road. It is a gorgeous summer day and I try to set the worries about distances and expenses aside and feel the simple joy and freedom of being here, now, riding. I climb, again, to a small Swiss town and then ride my breaks down a curving road to shoot across the river, back into Germany and a small village overlooked by an ancient looking bell-tower.

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I arrive at a bit of road closed to motor traffic but not cyclists. The town of Leinheim is having a festival – I’ve just missed the parade but I get a sausage and use the portaloo. The whole town, and more, are in a giant tent drinking massive beers – whatever the festival is it seems to have something to do with bicycles. There are heaps around and the posters for the festival include a sort of crest with a bicycle.

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Festival in Lienheim

Many may think me quite bold and brave to make this journey – I don’t really feel that way about it and in these types of situations I am simply neither bold nor brave. My ex-husband would just bowl into that tent and, with almost no German, find a table, make friends and, generally, throw himself into it. For me, being alone and not speaking German are two very good reasons to simply mount up and ride on with the excuse of hoping to make it to Basel.

Stopping at a garden restaurant in another village for lunch, I sit at a large table and am soon joined by other diners. Service is slow but the day is nice and the sun will shine until 9 pm at least. Couples with elderly parents sit at several other tables. A bloke in my direct line of sight stares at me and nothing will shake him – it’s the only clue he might be a bit special.

At my table: a trio of two women and a man in their late-60s, a slightly younger German man with some English (and a refurbished 1950s motorcycle) and a Swiss cyclist about my age – also with some English. The motorcyclist is gregarious and a bit handsome; he takes up the task of making a group of the lot of us. He asks how I ended up here for lunch and I say “I was hungry.” Later I am asked when I worked and I say: “Last year and next year.” Jeez they think I am hilarious.

I’ve been riding long enough now to realise that 50 – 70 kilometres is what I can comfortably do every day. Some days maybe as little as 30 kilometres; some maybe as much as 80 or 90 – but not as a usual thing, no. Thinking about my capacity is part of thinking about the bigger challenge of finding the right balance amongst riding, sight-seeing, socialising, writing and getting everyday stuff done (bookkeeping, processing photos, keeping up correspondence, etc). I’m here to ride but if I ride all day I’m too tired at the end of the day to get other things done.

So come mid afternoon when I’ve ridden some 70 kilometres on a 30 degree Celsius (plus) day I decide it’s time for the train to Basel.

 

28 – 30 June: Basel & Montbéliard

Basel is boring. Well, I find it boring – quiet, boring and expensive.

“How expensive?” you ask – I saw espresso going for 4.60 Swiss Francs at a café in the centre of town – that’s A$6.44, for a short black. Closer to where I’m staying I saw one for 2.50 Swiss Francs or A$4.90. My Mini Moko stove-top espresso maker is paying for itself.

I am finding that the cumulative exhaustion that comes with long days of riding leave me too flat on my rest days to actually get out and see the place I’m resting in. I’m really just happy to sit here at the hostel, making plans for the coming weeks, doing administrative stuff and  mucking about on Facebook but Basel is out there – a city I’ve never visited before and am unlikely to ever visit again. I should see something of it.

So I go out and what do I find on this hot, humid, Monday evening? Not much. Not many people, nothing much happening. Maybe I went to the wrong places. Maybe everyone stays home on Mondays. Or maybe Basel is just boring.

Here are some good things I can say of the place:

  • It has cool trams (and a free pass for them was provided by the hostel)
  • It’s multicultural
  • France and Germany are nearby
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The Basel Minster

I enter France before leaving Switzerland. One end of the train station is marked France – entering, one finds ticket machines for the French trains, and the old customs offices – seemingly abandoned, or, at least, very very rarely used.

I roll my bicycle on to the French train with ease – a good first experience with France. At Mulhouse station, as I’m getting my bearings, a gentleman approaches and offers to be of assistance. He points, then leads, then explains in simple English how to get to the Eurovelo 6 Cycle Route which I will ride from here. This is my second good experience with France.

I spend the rest of the day riding along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin to Montbéliard. It’s flat easy riding and mostly pretty. Along the way I pass this memorial:

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Morts Pour La France

I circle back to have a closer look and, to be honest, it makes me a little teary. 70 years on and here is a small, innocuous but maintained memorial to a handful of men who lost their lives fighting for the freedom of France (and the world). My third good experience with France.

It’s quite a hot day, in the low 30s I’d say, and a weekday, so there aren’t a lot of other people out on the path. Near towns I see a few walkers and near the locks there are occasionally workers but mostly it’s just me the canal and the sunshine.

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Eurovelo 6 along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin

I’m passed by a rider going the opposite direction – he says ‘bon jour’ and I reply in kind. About 10 minutes later he comes back alongside me and begins a conversation in simple English: where are you from? Where are you going? These sorts of things. Quite normal. Then, apropos of nothing he says: “I have a big dick.” I say “I am not interested in your dick.” To which he says, “But it’s big.” And I say “Really, I don’t care.” He says something like “Come on, it won’t take long.” The man really knows a thing or two about wooing the ladies that’s for sure.

I can’t ride away from him – on a fully-loaded bicycle I can’t out pedal him. And while he is desirous he doesn’t seem menacing. I tell him to piss off. I stop my bicycle – look at him pointing in the direction he has come from and say, “Go.” He mumbles some more. And I say again, “Piss off – go.” And he does. I wait til he’s gone some way and then ride on. At the next lock there are some workers so I stop there for a little while to make sure he doesn’t come back.

So, strike one for France.

Here’s the thing I then spend time thinking about through the afternoon:

Had this worked for him before? Had telling a cycling woman he has a big dick led her to follow him to some place in the bushes for a quick fuck (which, as he said, “wouldn’t take long”)?

He wasn’t a bad looking guy. I didn’t have time for a coffee but, you know, under different circumstances – such a fellow strikes up a conversation on the bicycle path, suggests coffee at a nearby café … you never know where such an encounter might lead. But “I have a big dick … it won’t take long.” These are not magic words, this will never work.

But I leave behind the unpleasantness and pedal on beside the river through the hot afternoon continuing to offer a happy “bon jour” to riders, pedestrians and boaters alike.

In Montbéliard I am staying with more WarmShowers’ hosts – Benoit, Elisabeth and their four kids. They live in a rambling townhouse near the city centre and have been hosting riders for about a year. They don’t do a lot of touring themselves but they love hosting for the experiences it provides their children.

Whatever black mark befell France courtesy of Monsieur Big Dick was erased by the warm and homey welcome extended to me here. Some neighbour kids join us for a big family dinner of simple food and simple English conversation. There are spectacular cheeses (no surprise) and then Benoit asks the kids if they want ice cream or fruit for dessert and the overwhelming choice? Fruit! All of them … yes, yes fruit please!

Afterwards the kids go out to play in the warm and still sunlit evening while we adults linger in the kitchen and talk of our lives, the world we live in, and the joys of cycling.