Category Archives: World War II

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

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.