I am slowly transcribing the long-hand diary entries from my midlife gap-year and turning them into blog posts. I’ve reached the afternoon of the 105th day and I’m enjoying a coffee in a cafe in the town of Neufchâtel-en-Bray, Normandy, France.
Saturday 5 September 2015, 5:10 pm – Neufchâtel-en-Bray – a café
It was a short but beautiful ride today. The first five kilometres from Grandes de Verts down to the greenway (a rail-trail) were maybe the most beautiful 5 km of the whole trip. Green rounded hills, covered in farmland – cows and corn, the fields recently tilled. The road was winding (but not too much so) and down hill (but not too much so). I felt joyful and energised, coasting through the bucolic scenery. If the ride into the campground last night was a demonstration of the truism that if you just keep making one pedal push after the other, you’ll arrive at your destination – the ride this morning encapsulated all that is heart-filllingly wonderful about bicycle touring – an expansive feeling of freedom and ease, of physical capacity, and total mental liberation – utter presence in beautiful surroundings. The greenway was fantastic too. Some of the old train stations are still in place, there is good signage and even a free camping place with a toilet and picnic tables for use between the evening and morning. Pity I hadn’t found it at a more useful time of day.
Just me and the cows on a beautiful morning. Rain came as I arrived at Neufchâtel-en-Bray and the tourist office sent me to a €50 hotel. The skeleton of a street market lined the cobbled main thoroughfare of town. The rain had driven away the customers wiht many of the stall holders leaving, and only the occasional really loud announcement and bad music. And a carousel. The music and announcements were loud even in my room, which overlooked the street.
I set out to look around town and found this bar. I have splurged on an international edition of The New York Times and I’ve settled in to read it here with my espresso and side of second-hand smoke which drifts my way from the knot of local men colonising the bar.
1 am – Hôtel du Grand Cerf
Yes, on the one hand a coffee at 4:30 pm was a mistake. But, on the other, it’s been a very productive evening: I’ve done some good writing done, researched a place to camp tomorrow, and booked in to the Amiens Hostel for Monday. I replied to a heap of emails including one to Robert Pinsky sending him my poem about reading his poetry. So it’s off now … yikes. I’m feeling quite bold for even having sent it and also nervous about how it will be received. I mean, I just sent a poem to the former US Poet Laureate, about reading his poetry. Oy vey.
In earlier posts I’ve included snippets of the poem as I was working on it, but here it is, in its final form. This is the first poem I’ve written since … well, there was a haiku about hippos drunkenly co-written while in Japan, but other than that, I guess a high school English class. Bold words are the titles of, or snippets from, poems in Selected Poems, the collection I read. I have added links to the poems referenced where I’ve been able to find links to share:
Where I Read Your Poems (for Robert Pinsky)
The sun sets on my last day in Ireland and
I am keeping one eye on the changing colours of Mount Leinster
Under a heavy sky separated from an agate sea by a smudge of kohl
Sailing aboard ‘The Oscar Wilde’ from Rosslare to Cherbourg
And I wonder what you have tattooed on your right shoulder
In Parc Emmanuel Liais where
A drug-fucked black-eyed (but happy) young man asks what I am writing
I say “stuff” – meaning death and bravery and survival
Then take up my book instead
At picnic beside the River Saire
Gloriously, joyously happy to be back in the saddle again
Untempered by the menacing clouds
I dog-ear Poem with Refrains as a favourite.
Huddled, hunched and hoping
That my new tent will stand the test of Normandy winds
Rain tap, tap, tap dancing in the night
With my Irish tea and pain au chocolat
When interrupted by three German-speaking children
Making me wonder: Where were your great grandfathers?
Cosy in my tent which smells of its Chinese factory and yesterday’s ride
Mild breezes bicker with the trees and I wait for the rain to stop
I will not be like An Old Man
On my third night camping and fourth day of monolingual muteness
I return to Samurai Song
“When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend”
On the western headland of Omaha Beach
Where a Nazi bunker houses sheep and holidaying French children fly kites
The soil beneath me feels blood-soaked
And, here, in the end
At the breakfast table of this fog-hugged chambres d’hote
The promise of more Normandy rain
For my troubles and joy, for my Sadness & Happiness
Sunday 6 September, 8:15 pm – Camping Municipal (Poix-de-Picardie)
After my late night last night, the pre-dawn arrival of stall holders for the flea market was a disappointment. The double glazing helped and I did fall back to sleep. But I dreamt of taking a man home, to a place which wasn’t mine – like, I was staying at someone else’s home – I went to the toilet and when I came back the guy and all the furniture was gone. And, in real life, there was a crying baby on the other side of my thin hotel wall. So I got up and made breakfast in my room before spending time backing up photos on line.
When I finally departed around 11:20 am there were lots of people in town looking at the bric-a-brac. The day was overcast and cool, edging toward cold. Much of day was really outright cold – not very cold, but cold. My ears, nose, fingers and toes were cold. The gloves I found on a bench along the cycleway yesterday proved useful. The chill brings both a sadness that the summer’s riding is nearly done, but also some excitement (and a little anxiety) about Zurich and my travels in North America yet to come.
The Greenway continued to be excellent and I passed quite a few other cycle tourists. But I was only on it for a few kilometres before switching to backroads. There was a lot of climbing today – through most of it I felt strong. My legs feel back to the strength they held before my month off the bicycle in Ireland. They complain a bit, the quads, but not a lot.
I passed more farms, tall corn, fat cows, tilled fields; and healthy-looking villages (which is to say populated by people living in well maintained homes). Every town has a big cross at the crossroads and most have WWI memorials. They all seem to have an active church with a working clock. I passed some wind turbines, which are beautiful up close – stately, majestic, a bit otherworldly.
I found the campground I’d discovered on-line last night and here I am now. All is well with the world.
I’m trying to sort my plans going forward. If I can get to the EuroVelo 15 cycle route, which follows the Rhine River, that would be good.
I’ve looked at it and I think I have just enought time to ride all the way to Zurich. Or I can take an expensive convoluted train ride (as I’m limited to those routes which accept bicycles). So, most likely, I have another couple of weeks in France riding to Strasbourg then crossing to the German side of the river, which I’ll follow to the Swiss border.
The low tonight is going to be 9*C and I think I’m the only camper in a tent here. There aren’t many of us left out on the road this late in the season.