We arrive on the 110th morning of my mid-life gap-year as I awake at Hotel Le Cedre in Noyon, France.
Friday 11 September 2015
The day starts lazily. When I’ve paid good money for a nice hotel room I do like to make the most of it by languishing about in the comfortable bed, relishing the fact that there’s no tent to pack away, that I don’t have to carry my kit to a distant ablutions hut. So, I lie in bed, watching the BBC. Hearing English-speaking voices but not having anyone to talk to makes me lonely. Spending yesterday with all those long-dead very young Australians has taken its toll as well. I feel homesick.
I find both Jim and Jonathan online and chat with them both for a bit. Jim is at the jetty at Kioloa – the one spot near his holiday home with reliable mobile reception. He sends me a picture and it makes me cry a little.
The cathedral bell clangs 10:45 and it’s seriously time to motor. I need to be out of the room in 15 minutes.
I leave my bicycle and gear at the hotel while popping into the cathedral for a quick look. It’s cool, dark, cavernous. My shoes squeak horribly on the tiled floor – the screech echoing off the high stone walls.
I pick up lunch supplies at Monoprix and the bakery. Then it takes me the usual half an hour to find the right way out of town. Yes, it would be easier with GPS but there’s no ‘win’ in that. When I do finally figure it out it feels like a win.
So, the day starts a little so-so but gets better pretty quickly. And it’s sunny, warm and breezy.
I have a short run on the cycleway along the canal then I’m on the back roads.
I stop in a park in Manicamp to have lunch and make coffee.
After Tweeting this morning that if there was a place in rural France that isn’t ‘cow country’ I hadn’t found it – I end up not seeing a lot of cows today. I am still chasing steeples from village to village – but the landscape and architecture are changing – more grey stone, less red brick. It’s hillier and more forested.
Suddenly there are a ton of road cyclists coming and going – I don’t when last I saw so many groups of lycra-clad (mostly) men out ticking through their kilometres.
In Champs, I stop at a French war cemetery where a fifth, or so, of the graves are for Muslims. In the same space, a German cemetery – where each cross has two names. I find six Jews in their ranks – unlike in the American cemeteries of Normandy, these German-Jews didn’t get stars of David, so they are a bit harder to find.
Each of these cemeteries feels like a handful of sand. I have circled all of them on the map between Amiens and Reims and it’s like 25. And still, like sand. 11,000 Australians with no known graves – what must the numbers be for the French and the Germans, the English?
Not long after Coucy, the roads have a lot more traffic. They feel sketchy and stay that way for the rest of the afternoon. It’s Friday peak hour on more substantial roads – just not nice.
I’ve found my campground for the night. I ring a bell and eventually, a man arrives to let me in and directs me ‘anywhere on the right’. There are no other tents but seem to be some guests in the motorhome section.
I begin setting up before realising I’m under an oak tree and there are more acorns on the ground than I can possibly remove. Tents and acorns don’t mix well. I pick up my erected tent and carry it around with me from spot to spot looking for a flat unlittered patch. I keep expecting the man to come around and ask for payment, but he hasn’t.
Everything feels autumnal. The quiet campground. The trees losing their leaves and their seeds. The sun sets earlier and quicker by the day and the evenings call for extra clothes. Sitting in my tent, after dark, and condensation builds quickly on the outer tent – a sign that my breath and body heat have made the inside noticeably warmer than the outside. Someplace, not too far off to my left, I can hear a party – thumping music, distant laughter. The end of my summer of riding in Europe feels like it will be here terribly soon.
Saturday 12 September 2015
Wow – the 12th of September. How did that happen? I’ve been in Europe for over three months and fly to the US a month from tomorrow. Weird.
Last evening, I saw a flock of ducks or geese flying south in a V formation.
It rained again overnight but not heavily. I’m going to miss the sound of rain on the tent.
The morning is overcast and cool but not unpleasant.
The birds are very twittery.
Just as I close my last pannier, and I’m all packed up and ready to go, it starts raining. Then pouring. I’ve moved under cover and am waiting. I have cleaned my bicycle and lubed the chain. I’ve eaten a little food. I’m listening to the thunder, the wind blustering the trees, and the rain pelting the gravel; I’m watching manila-coloured puddles form and gaze at Madame Plocq – who shelters at the other (functioning) sanitaire (this one is off already for the season). I’ve seen posters up around the campground advertising Mme Poocq. She comes every Saturday to sell fruit and vegetables. How September is worth her effort is a mystery. There couldn’t have been more than 10 people in camp last night – maybe as few as 7. Three couples and me.
This is, as ever, a good lesson about worry. What if it rains like this all day? My inner worrier wonders. But it might not – I’ll just wait and see. And if it does – I can re-pitch my tent or ask if there is a hotel nearby. If I ride, I must get to Reims – nowhere between here and there looks big enough for a hotel.
I wonder what Mme Plocq is thinking – leaning on her wall over there.
I’ve been thinking about America – I should write something of my fears and prejudices before going. As a happy American emigrant to Australia, as someone who has found a country more suited to me than the one in which I was born (and cognisant of just how immensly privileged I have been to move from one first-world country to another just because I wanted to) I am … ambivilent about the United States. I don’t visit often and, like everyone else who consumes media, my sense of the place is shaped by exported American news and culture. To be honest, I fear the place as I fear no other I’m likely to go on this trip. I fear the guns, and I fear the inclination to violence that makes all those guns so deadly, and I fear and loathe the selfish, irrational fears and prejudices that drive the violence. I loathe the ignorance of the world and the cocooning – the sheltering – the me and mine. I loathe the inclination toward believing conspiracy theories – it’s a product of ignorance and fear.
I’m sure I’ll see evidence which supports all those things and, yet, have a really good time catching up with old friends and eating all the bad food.
Still, I most fear having to, or feeling I’ll have to, bite my tongue.
(The rain is tapering! Yea!)
I finally pedal away around noon. And it starts drizzling again almost immediately. I find the cycleway easily and it follows a beautiful, tree-lined canal or river. Everything is misty and shiny.
After 45 minutes I climb a hill, turn a corner, and discover a quartet of middle-aged French cyclists picnicking in the rain.
I stop – we chat sort of – one speaks a bit of English, the others understand a bit. He asks where I’m from and I say ‘Australia’. Their reaction is as with many others – ah Australia! With a sort of surprise that I’ve come so far to be in this place and real pleasure that I have. I can tell they are thinking of beaches and kangaroos. It’s nice.
They offer me food and drink – I have an Orangina (I’ve too much riding yet to accept the whisky), some cake, and a banana. It’s properly raining, now. We laugh at our being crazy. The bloke with English takes photos with me and my bicycle. I thank them for their hospitality and ride off in heavy rain.
I stop under an overpass to reorganise a bit, dry off, check the map and plug my mp3 player into my ears. I can tell I’ll need all the help I can get to push me to Reims today.
The cycleway ends at the ruins of an old abbey. I pee under a tree and shelter under the wing of an educational-looking building and eat my lunch feeling damp and far from home and, for that matter, tonight’s home – wherever that will be.
As I’m walking my bicycle back towards the cycleway I pass a gaggle of mature-aged French on an excursion. Nearly all of them look right through me – as if I’m not there at all. But there is one fabulously moustachioed gentleman who smiles at my ride and says bonjour.
For a time, the ride is, well, predominantly wet but neither super hard nor especially easy and on roads which, given the weather, are sometimes a bit sketchy.
I miss the predictable life in Italian villages, I think as I pedal along these French country roads. In Italy, every village seemed to have a bar, and the bars always looked reasonably welcoming. Here, a lot of places have nothing – if they have a bar they often have cluttered, dark windows. They are more booze-drinking bars than coffee-drinking bars and tend to have sports betting facilities. They are just not all that welcoming. At the same time, I’m totally intimidated by French restaurants. They often present a limited view to the passer-by (little, curtained windows), look expensive and like they would just be weird to dine alone in. I should overcome that. Might yet.
France is a nice place to ride through but a hard place to engage with while riding through it.
I’m not sure when the day just becomes really hard. A compilation of Australian pub rock comes on my mp3 player. I am riding on sometimes shitty roads, in the rain, and getting tired. My approach to Reims is fairly convoluted – which adds kilometres and hills, but it’s the only way into town.
I am thinking of home – of the colour of the sea, and the quality of Australian light, and of dumplings dipped in chilli and soy.
Peter Gabriel’s So comes on. It’s raining harder, and the heavy rain clouds have made the day quite dark. I can’t avoid sharing roads with cars. I simply have to hope each driver sees me and goes around me. Their wheels wetly spin past, their windscreen wipers are going at full pelt flicking away the rain which obscures their drivers’ view.
It’s hard to describe exactly the low of loneliness and homesickness that catch up with me on this wet road still too distant from Reims for the end to feel near. It’s been a long time since I’ve wept on the bike – that sort of self-pitying weeping. I don’t want to be here. I want a hug. And I weep. I just weep and pedal. Pulling it together for passing traffic.
But the thing with this trip, this day anyway – there can be no quitting. I mean I am totally prepared to quit and will pay anything for a room right now. But there’s nothing. No hotels, no pensions – just fields and villages full of closed shutters. So, I just keep riding.
But then the rain stops. And a bit more sunlight forces itself weakly through the clouds.
As I climb into Saint-Brice-Courcelles the next album starts. What is it? Oh … it’s The Sun Becomes the Sea. I didn’t recognise the opening sounds of Stronger Than the Strings. First, I smile, then I laugh – out and out laugh. For reasons hard to explain the song breaks the spell. So I keep pedalling. I’ve reached suburbia and now I’m again on a cycleway – and this one should take me into the centre of Reims.
Everything everything is present
It happens in the now
Happens as you breathe
(Listen to the song by clicking here)
I ride around Reims a bit and find a hotel. It’s €62 – no breakfast, but old school and central. I like Reims, so far it seems like it has a better vibe than Amiens.
But now, I’m trashed totally trashed.
So wrecked. Completely wrecked.
But even on days like these – I get here in the end. In the end I arrive someplace and pay ten times what I paid to camp last night. But I am here and dry and warm. And here – did I mention I am here? And no longer weeping while riding up a hill.