Category Archives: Sightseeing

Beautiful Bayeux: A pink room, loneliness, and a tapestry

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96 of my midlife gap year)

8:20 pm A Restaurant in Bayeux

It’s nice to be in a city again. Bayeux is compact, beautiful, and busy with visitors. The helpful tourist office found me a reasonably priced chambres du hote on the edge of the city centre which I’d never have noticed myself as it’s located over a hair salon. My room is quite pink, and I like it.

A double bed beneath a cheap chandelier in a pink-walled hotel room.
My very pink room in Bayeux.

Sometimes I ride past ‘old’ buildings, but mostly I’m riding in modern France – physically and mentally. This past week I’ve been mired in World War II – history, but of a modern sort. Bayuex is a reminder of the depth of human history here. It was founded in the 1st century BC but there is evidence of older occupation by way of fortified Celtic camps and indications of Druid activities.

Bayeux was the first city liberated following the D-Day landings. The Germans were drawn off to defend more strategically important locations so Bayeux was spared destruction and is – on this late summer’s evening, a gorgeous place to stroll.

Bayeux at sunset.
Bayeux at sunset.

The mass of tourists promises conversation, I hear English on the streets – but I’m feeling stuck in my cone of silence. I know there are chats for the asking, I just can’t find the … energy? Nerve? Conviviality? To bowl up to an English speaker and say “hello”.

So, I’m here –  in this poorly chosen restaurant with a poorly chosen meal.

Jim says I should get out more – he’s right – but getting out more equals getting lonely more. This is the space of loneliness: dining on a Friday night, alone, in a strange city. I am surrounded by couples and families. It’s a lovely city, and I’d like to enjoy it, but lonely plus a disappointing meal makes me grumpy and sad. The irony is that my response to loneliness is a wish to be alone.

Saturday 29 August 6:33 am (Day 97) – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

I’ve been awake for nearly an hour.

At the American cemetery a British father with two sons under 10: the older says, “So he survived?” Dad looks around and says, “Does it look like anyone here won?”

While I appreciate what Dad was doing there – those boys and men, interred there, may have lost their lives – but that we’re not all speaking German, and are living in free, democratic countries – they won. They most definitely won.

I’ve had an email reply from Robert – which is nice, he’s pleased I’m reading Selected Poems. I’ve typed up my ‘poem’ about reading his poems – as it exists so far … it’s … okay. Not sure if I’ll send it to him – that’s a bit nerve wracking, really.

[I]t seems that someone who wants too much to get things is also someone who fears. And living in that fear cannot be free. (From Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (Part Two, III, Epistulae I, xvi)).

My freedom on the road is borne of some of this fearlessness – not a bravery but a lack of worry and want. Others tell me they see it as bravery, but I think bravery is mostly in the eye of the beholder.

11:15 pm – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux

Bayeux has been at the cross-roads of clashing civilisations going back to the Roman arrival in Gaul. Later the Vikings came and then the Franks and the English. So, I guess, there’s something appropriate in the city being associated with one of the oldest artistic renderings of human warfare.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which I saw today, was made around 1070. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The 70-metre-long tapestry (really an embroidery) is a series of panels with some (Latin) text. The museum supplies a little audio device which explains the tale as you move along at a steady pace in what is, basically, an ever-moving queue of tourists.

It’s gorgeous, the colours vibrant, and it’s just generally in very good nick for 945-year-old cloth. While the names of famous men are attached to its history it’s important, to me, to remember the work itself, the stitching, and so the fundamental artistry, is the work of women. Anonymous 11th century English women – and they have done a stellar job.

But it is a depiction of war and I am reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice, have been played out way too many times.

Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images
Detail of Bayeux Tapestry found on www.english-heritage.org.au © DeAgostini/Getty Images

Aside from successful touristing, the day was insanely productive: bike fixed (I’d had a wee gearing problem and the brake cables needed adjusting) – they charged me nothing, so I bought a new cap – Australian green & gold with kangaroos no less; Intersport sold me expensive but fine knicks to replace my old, inexpensive, but fine knicks.

This evening I washed my clothes at a laundrette and had take-away sushi for dinner – pricy but good. I chatted with Jim on Facebook – which was nice, as always.

Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral
Sound and light projection show on a 1797 tree at Bayeux Cathedral

Then I went out to see the Rendez-vous a la Cathedrale – Les Lumieres de la Liberte – a projection and sound show on the 1797 tree in the Cathedral courtyard – 10 stories of liberty from across history. The WWII section was haunting in its way, the Flower Power one fun and lovely.

(Not my video – it’s the whole show, so a bit long – but you may enjoy bits and pieces of it.)

A few drops began falling just at the end of the show, which became steady rain, then torrents by the time I got within about 200 metres of home.

It’s pelting – torrential, tropical nearly, with thunder and lightning too. The last rain this heavy might have been on the Australian leg of my journey.

I am so glad not to be in my tent tonight.

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)

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.

In Northern Ireland the Troubles Still Bubble Beneath the Peace

13 – 15 August 2015 (Days 81 – 83)

Thursday 13 August 4pm, Connect Hostel, Derry

Small cities, I should only visit small cities. It’s 4pm, I’ve done the lot and feel I’ve given everything it’s due.

It’s been a gorgeous and sunny day. I started things off revisiting the Guildhall – where President Clinton spoke in 1995, a trip I worked and wrote of in my last blog post.

The Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry
The Guildhall in Derry/Londonderry

Derry isn’t as much changed as I’d expected. It still has a working class, slightly hard-done-by air but with more tourists and tourism-related businesses. There are new cultural institutions and more shopping – more of the high-street staples anyway – but that would be true anywhere.

What had been the tea rooms where our advance team spent much time 20 years ago are now the Museum of Free Derry (which was both emotionally charged – bullet torn clothes from Bloody Sunday and the like – and felt, the more I took in, quite propagandistic).

I lingered over an exhibition (Out There, Thataway) at the Centre for Contemporary Art – feeling like it was saying something to me about travel but I’m not sure what.

From the
From the “Out There, Thataway”Exhibition at the CCA.

The historical placards around the place seem to remain safely in pre-troubles times. But for in the Bogside where it’s all about the Troubles, the people murdered by the police, and those who fell “in service.”

Things are quiet and peaceful in Derry on this warm, sunny summer’s day but it’s clear the conversation about political control, national affiliation, etc is not over.

The Union Jack still waves over unionist areas and the flag of the Republic over nationalist areas. It feels a long way from the sort of blandly 21st century capital-city vibe of Dublin.

That's a childcare centre behind that wall.
That’s a childcare centre behind that wall.
In the Bogside
In the Bogside
Bogside mural
Bogside mural
Memories of Bloody Sunday on the walls of peoples homes.
Memories of Bloody Sunday on the walls of peoples homes.

Friday 14 August, 11:16 am – Bus to Belfast

It’s another lovely emerald isle summer day – low hanging grey blanket of a sky, cool enough the bus driver had the heat on for a while, raining off and on. Green, green, green out the window. Rolling paddocks, sheep and cows and hay bales.

2:45 pm – Art Café, North Road – Belfast

Walking through town, looking at all the same-same modern office and apartment buildings, I thought: Belfast is a bit boring. A nice thing for locals I’m sure. They’ve had more than their share of excitement but for me, as a visitor … yawn – it’s just a provincial UK city.

Then I walked up Shankhill Road and through the Lower Shankhill neighbourhood feeling a little freaked out by it. Flags everywhere – Union Jacks mostly – and red, white and blue bunting. Murals – commemorating the fallen – still aggressive. “No surrender” graffiti. Row houses – many neat as a pin with houseproud displays in the windows (vases of flowers, statuettes). Kids playing on a construction site which seemed at a standstill. Demolition work on another row which looked fire damaged.

I felt uncomfortable – part of that is perhaps simply a class thing – I am not of these people and they would see that. Part of it the shadow of the bit of the history I know. The sense the conversation is clearly not over.

Different walls, different memories, different homes,
Different walls, different memories, different homes,

I saw several ‘Black Taxi’ tours roll in – tourists ensconced in the back – peering out the windows – hearing whatever stories the taxi drivers tell. I was glad not to be them but to be walking around by myself. But still, I was uneasy and took my pictures quickly.

And on it goes ...
And on it goes …

Des Moines. Belfast would be like Des Moines, Iowa but for the undercurrent. Or, wherever – a small city, trying to be something interesting, trading on a bit of history (The Titanic) and celebrity (Game of Thrones). But on the front page today: Kevin McGuigen murdered – suspected of involvement in the murder of a former IRA colleague. And so it bubbles along.

I saw a pair of African women in ankle-length flowing chadors on a corner of Shankhill Road.

It’s such a white place, Northern Ireland, but with this uniquely intense historical division between two groups of white people. It would be – I’d think – a weird place to be an immigrant or an Englishperson of non-European heritage who has moved here from elsewhere in the UK.

Saturday 15 August, 11 am – Great Northern Peanuts Smokehouse (Railway Station Diner)

The radio station just announced flight delays at the International Airport: Flight XYZ from blank due at such-and-such time now arriving at such-and-such:25.

I had a lovely and hospitable evening with Cornelia’s friend Danae. She lives in Holywood – a Mosman-like suburb (that is, comfortably well off but not flashy with its wealth). It sits on the south side of the Belfast Lough and Danae’s tidy row house is a short walk to the beach. We spent time strolling there with her pup and taking in the sunny end of the day.

Sunset over the Belfast Lough
Sunset over the Belfast Lough

We cooked dinner together, listening to a political comedy show on the radio – she thought maybe I wouldn’t understand the jokes – and she was, mostly, but not completely, right in that.

When I think of those who travel staying only in paid accommodation – who never make the connections which allow for this sort of human interaction – I think their experiences are thinner for it. To each their own, but I’m grateful for every opportunity I get to enjoy the hospitality and to see inside homes and lives as I go.

On the bus to Dublin:

This will be a ride. The Rugby’s on in Dublin so in addition to the usual passengers there are fans going down and AND, oh joy, a hen’s group: LOUD, LOUD, LOUD and we haven’t yet left Belfast.

After leaving Danae’s I thought of questions I might have asked about life in Northern Ireland. But we had been talking of other, normal life stuff, it just didn’t come up. But walking through Holywood this morning I wondered how the lingering dialogue about the sectarian stuff plays out in the middle-class suburbs – and are there Republican suburbs like Holywood? Leafy middle-class places. Or is there a rising Republican middle class moving into places like Holywood?

Questions to ask someone sometime.

** Written two years later: I never got to ask those questions of Danae as she lost her battle with cancer some six months after my visit.

Cornelia, who had introduced us, had told me that Danae was ill but it hadn’t fully registered how ill and, in person, for the time I was with her – if you didn’t know she was ill, you wouldn’t know she was ill.

The topic was alluded to in conversation as she explained how she had come to live in Holywood (she’d lived across the Lough before and had long wished to live in Holywood – when she got sick she made the move). But I didn’t know she was terminal and I think, as such, we both quite enjoyed our evening together because my ignorance meant her illness was neither a topic of conversation nor an elephant in the room. Instead we spoke, as people do, about common interests, my travels, her life, politics and our mutual friend.

I am grateful for our meeting and regretful that at this point in the trip taking photos with hosts hadn’t become habitual. Danae and her friend Norah co-wrote a gardening column and, together, in the end, the book A Tale of Two Gardens – which I haven’t read yet, but really must. If it’s your sort of thing you really should too.

Not the Dublin I First Visited – Mostly for the Best, But Not All: Thursday 6 August 2015 (Day 74)

Thursday 6 August 12:40 pm – Umi Falafel

I fear I’ve been pretending to be a normal tourist – more flush, short-term. I’ve been getting coffees, eating out, paying entrance fees for museums. I’m a little scared to add it up and convert it into Australian dollars.

This morning I was meant to join a free walking tour of the city but the crowd was large and the guide too bubbly for my mood so I wandered off before we even got going.

Instead I visited the Chester Beatty Library. Admission was free and they have a pretty interesting collection of manuscripts and religious artifacts collected by … Charles Beatty.

Now I’m having lunch at this smashing falafel and hummus restaurant – this is not the same Dublin I first visited all those years ago, that’s for sure. Seriously, if you are ever in Dublin: Umi Falafel.

I’ve decided I can get through all I want to see and do in Dublin today so I’ve arranged a lift back to Kilkenny from the airport for this afternoon.

I’m thinking ahead to my return to France – I booked my ferry to Cherbourg. Right now I’m planning on turning  left out of the port, follow the coast of Normandy for a bit – not worry about visiting Tom in the South of France or seeing the Vuelta Espana. I feel due for a nice long run of just being on the bicycle day after day after day.

2:35 pm – Busy Bee Cafe

When I first visited Dublin in 1988 I went looking for U2’s studio in Windmill Lane. I found it on the back streets of a drab working-class residential neighbourhood a few blocks back from the dying quayside with its little used or derelict cranes.

Fans had scrawled graffiti on the front of the building with messages for the band and notes about where they had come from to make this visit.

Windmill Lane Studios, 1988
Windmill Lane Studios, 1988

Seven years later, in 1995, on my next visit to Dublin, things were much the same. The graffiti had spread and the neighbourhood seemed a bit changing but all was recognizable.

Windmill Lane Studios, 1995
Windmill Lane Studios, 1995

I’ve just come from there now and I walked around several blocks trying to sort out where the offices had been. Windmill Lane is a construction zone – well – a destruction zone right now – Wikipedia warned me. They said the wall of graffiti has been saved. But was not, presently, on site.

Windmill Lane, 2015
Windmill Lane, 2015

The neighbourhood is now full of new apartment complexes and office buildings housing things like web designers and McCann Erickson.

I know that, on balance, this is a good thing. Good for Dublin. Good for the Irish economy. But it’s another mark of how every city becoming more and more just like every other city with old, close in districts, being remade from homes for low-wage workers in nearby jobs to homes and offices for the “creative class”.

As Paul Kelly has put it … Every Fucking City’s just the same (okay, his story isn’t really about gentrification but still …).

Dublin: I’m done.

The museums were good and some of the wandering but … cities … meh. Looking forward to riding through the countryside again.

4:50 pm – Airport

I feel like I’m just here and time is whizzing past – there’s truth in that but maybe I’m being harsh on myself as well.

Maybe I need to be a little more focused and a little less wandering. Focus on the Jewish stuff, on the learning German. These are shaping ideas. I think maybe it’s time for more shaping ideas.

What would that mean?

D-Day Beaches. Find a German course I can do. Identify Jewish sites/museums I want to visit.

Yes, maybe this needs to be a little less organic.

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

11:50 am Wednesday 5 August – Kaph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:20 pm – Abbey Court Hostel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin

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

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

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

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Un petit dejuner

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

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

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

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

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

1:30 pm – Tom’s

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

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

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At the Musee d’Orsay

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

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

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

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

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

11:25 pm – Tom’s Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday 9 July – Le Havre, 7:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me Me Me – Throw the free stuff to Me!

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

The crowd thins after the caravan has moved through.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday 10 July 7:55 am – Portsmouth

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

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

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

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Fortunately loud colours don’t keep me awake.

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

1:35 pm – Nearly to Southampton

Tailwind!

A squirrel!

Two deer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening – in Southampton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday 5 July 10:35 am – Eiffel Tower

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

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

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Bon jour, Skippy!

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

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

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

9:13 pm – Carson’s

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

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

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

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

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

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It defeated me, but, still – Paris.

I offer these observations:

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

Tuesday 7 July 10:30 am – Le Poutch

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

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Flat White – Paris style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:49 pm – Carson’s

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

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

So, so hard.

Sitghtseeing and Staying Patient About My Bicycle (Milan – 27 May – Day 3)

I feel like this is simply my new Normal. Being here, doing this. It’s calm and easy. I don’t feel the need to rush and see this or that – I’m happy to just plod along. I think because I am here on my own and there is no one to share the Wow-ness with there is less Wow-ness. Not that I’m not amazed but … it just is: I am in Milan, sitting in the Duomo, writing this. It’s really fucking big – I think un-capturably big.

In the Duomo – if I couldn’t capture it’s size and scale I tried to capture it as a space for everyday worship.

This morning I was coming into town with Maria Elena and the Metro was broken in some way so we had to take the bus. We ran into a woman Maria Elena knew from her English class. We three travelled together to the Piazza del Duomo chatting in a mix of Italian and English helping one another with the foreign language – praising and correcting with patience. They were particularly pleased with “We are not born as mothers and wives.”

I haven’t travelled on my own in a long time. Even when I have – on short journeys – I think I’ve always felt a pressure (of my own making) to account for my time – a pressure to see and do in a way that I am not feeling now. I enjoy just wandering around and being.

My bicycle is still en route – the other bag has arrived in Milan but the bicycle is still in London but will hopefully arrive tonight. Although I am moving to Daniella’s tomorrow Maria Elena has said I can take delivery at her place – which is very nice of her.

Having spoken again with the bag people – here’s the frustration: they put these scannable tags on our bags when we check them in, one might think they use those and scan our bags as they move around the system and that information would be stored centrally so that when a passenger become disassociated with their luggage they can tell you where it was last scanned and where it is heading. But no. The call centre is dependent on workers at various airports putting information into the system. So Laura – calling British Airway workers in Hong Kong, and Vickianne – calling Qantas workers in Sydney – could tell me more than the call centre in Rome. It’s coming, it’s coming – patience.

Duomo
Duomo
Milano
Duomo shadow self-portrait