We arrive on the 114th morning of my mid-life gap-year as I awake at Hotel de la Cathedrale in Reims, France.
Tuesday 15 September 2015
I wake to an overcast day which quickly becomes a steady rain.
I breakfast in my room, setting up the camping stove and a Mini Moko in the shower stall – I must have my coffee, but I don’t want to risk burning the place to the ground. I’ve been doing for a while when staying in hotels – shhh, don’t tell them.
I spend the morning working through plans and details, sending emails, and just fifing about on Facebook while listening to the rainfall.
I do like Reims – which isn’t pronounced at all how it looks but I can never keep the right pronunciation in my head.
By 11, as I set off, the sun is shining gloriously and the sky is a robin’s-egg blue, no deeper than that.
The first third of the ride is easy-peasy. I’m cruising along a canal – pumping along at 17 kph while listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends.
I’ve always loved the wistfulness of America. It never fails to make me a little teary.
I had an email overnight from a friend, not a close friend, in reply to my last e-newsletter saying how much he’s enjoyed keeping up with the trip and that he’s looking forward to the book. So, as I am belting along the canal I’m thinking about the book – or maybe books – I’ll write, about this journey.
I saw a meme the other day – a quote from some author, “When I set out to write a book I write 2 pages a day – if it’s a 350-page book, that’s 125 days.”
So, I am thinking about the process. I imagine printing out the blog and emails and putting them in a binder. I imagine reading them to get a sense of the arcs, the stories within the story. I think about finding a mentor or someone with experience in this game to help me get on the right path. I think about how getting a US book deal would be best, of course. Haha, of course, it would be.
I leave the canal and ride, again, through the villages of France. These are healthy looking-looking communities but devoid of commerce or retail of any sort. Over the whole day, I see one restaurant – that’s while going through 5 or 6 villages.
I am wandering indirectly through very flat, very windy territory toward Châlons-en-Champagne.
Once I leave the canal and get out into the open the wind is very strong and not in my favour. I am pedalling downhill into a headwind, and keeping from swerving in a sidewind – it is a real work-out of my finer motor skills.
This is wide open country, with a big sky decorated with white cottony clouds. I am weaving around the major roads – which I begin to think of like rivers – good for certain forms of transport but not for me.
Coming out of La Veuve I miss my turn and end up on N44 – which is like the Pacific Highway in Australia but without a shoulder. I know I’ve made a mistake but I’m not sure how to fix it. I push on, up a hill with fast traffic whizzing past. I come to a pull out and assess my options. The map shows no solution going forward – like an immediate exit. I must turn around and push my bicycle through the long grass next to the highway. I’m plodding through a rough, overgrown verge between the highway and a ditch.
I imagine my friends – specific ones – like Jim and Vickianne, the Lauras, verbally and emotionally encouraging me on. “Nearly there.” “You can do this.” That sort of thing. In the abstract it sounds sort of soft and ridiculous but in the moment, it really helped. I guess because I knew the support itself was not imaginary. That if, in that moment, I had rung any of those people and told them the situation they absolutely would have said those things.
There are prickly things and Coke cans hidden in the scrub. There are unseen divots. There is a barrier and some trees. In a few places, it’s a tight squeeze to get through. Once, I push my bicycle on one side of a tree while I inch through a gap between the tree and the barrier on the other. The bike is making funny noises. There is stuff in my shoes. I am walking at a weird angle and worry one of my shoes (which are nearing the end of their useful life) might succumb. It is a very long 700 or so metres.
I feel ridiculous but prudent. Some cyclists would have pressed on and hoped for the best – which would have been easier but scarier and definitely more dangerous. I have come this far on my bike in Europe I am not getting hit by a car now. Pushing back was physically harder than riding on but the right and prudent thing to do.
Funnily – earlier in the day when I was cruising I thought I’d be in Châlons-en-Champagne heaps early – HA.
Not too long after the freeway incident, I find the canal again and it takes me into Châlons-en-Champagne. It is multi-cultural, a bit gritty, and has a big-arse cathedral and a similarly grand Hotel de Ville.
Google Maps said the ride would be 47 kilometres, but it turns out to be 67 on my odometer.
I arrive before the scheduled time of my arrival – my Warm Showers hosts are still at work – so I kill some time eating the random food I’m carrying while leaning on the wall of a discount supermarket opposite their house. Working class families – immigrant and not – come and go as I wait.
Ludo and Minie, my hosts, are lovely. Ludo spent a year in Australia after he finished school in 2007. He works as a physical therapist at a nursing home, if I understand correctly. And Minie is an elementary school teacher for half of the year (an option here) – so they can travel. They’ve ridden through South America and from Europe to Asia.
Ludo says of Châlons-en-Champagne – if you aren’t from here you can’t live here. People who come for work don’t stay. It’s flat – no mountains, no ocean, wet, grey and cold in winter. Every country has such cities – places the natives feel a deep attachment to which outsiders simply can’t share. They are not places you learn to love – you are born to love them, or you are just passing through.
I think I’ll take the train from here to Strasbourg tomorrow. It’s time to get to Germany. Time to scrub the corrosion off my limited Deutsche – OMG, I am totally not ready to switch to German, even while being super keen to get there.
Wednesday 16 September 2015
I am on the train from Châlons-en-Champagne to Nancy, where I’ll change for Strasbourg.
I haven’t moved faster than my bicycle can roll downhill for 25 days, since 22 August. In the first minutes, as we pull away from the station, I feel quite disorientated and a little nauseated. It’s nice, in a way. I imagine early railway passengers felt the same way as they travelled at a non-organic speed for the first time.
Arriving in Strasbourg I feel a real excitement.
What exactly is the excitement? A little of it is for Strasbourg itself – which after 30 minutes of wandering around I’m calling my favourite French city (of the ones I’ve been to). It’s the most bicycle-friendly city I’ve been to – maybe in the whole trip. The modern isn’t ugly and the old is beautiful.
I particularly like places on borders, on cultural borders, here German and French but also actually, Alsatian. It’s its own dialect – apparently widely spoken – per Lonely Planet. I like the feel of the shops – they have cool and interesting things that I want to stop and look at. And restaurants feel more open and welcoming than I had found previously in France.
The excitement also comes from my finally entering Germany – and while it’ll only be for a week or so, it’s a run of days in Germany.
It is, of course, also that tomorrow marks the beginning of the last riding leg of my summer ride in Europe and that it will finish – in all places: Zurich. And in a room with Christoph Waltz – a brilliantly perfect and, yet, wholly unexpected finish.
I’ve walked through the modern centre and to the old town area looking at all the touristy Alsace speciality restaurants when I see a Vietnamese place and make a beeline for it. Vietnamese food is as Australian as Vegemite. It, along with Thai, is to Australians what Mexican is to Americans and Indian is to the English. My homesick heart orders the pho and hopes it tastes a bit like home.
Its fine but not great. It arrived with all bits – the basil, lime, bean sprouts – already in the bowl. I ask for chili – and its arrival improves the overall taste. Unfortunately, I think I have, again, ordered a weird beer.
I want to go back to the hotel and work but that’s silly. I’ll go have a further look at this place – haven’t even seen the cathedral yet.
To be honest, I’m a bit ready to trade the cathedrals and cobblestones of Europe for the bacon-everything and fried cheese of America.
Thursday 17 September
I spend the morning packing, looking at my route, having things printed and getting my next e-newsletter out – all while watching the rain pour down.
The email was a challenge because of Christoph Waltz – I’m trying to explain why he matters to me, what he means to me. In the end, I think I get it pretty right: I write of him as a phoenix, a symbol, a distraction, and an inspiration. I also write about the Australians and WWI.
At 12:30 pm I decided to try my luck. Maybe the rain is not as bad as it looks from here. I pull on my rain pants, my rain jacket, my Gore-Tex gloves and pedal off.
I go about two kilometres in the pouring rain before thinking, “This is stupid.” I turn around and check back into the same hotel I just left.
The afternoon disappears down the Interweb. I have a nice long chat with Laura and before I know it the sun is shining again and it’s 5 pm.
I go for a walk and I’m still digging Strasbourg. I wander past the synagogue – a big new place with security, yes, but in a van – not military guys with assault rifles. And I see quite a few visibly obvious Jews around, a first really, for me, in France – other than those who were arriving for services in Reims. Here, it’s just people on the street – school boys in yarmulkes, that sort of thing.
I’ve found my way back to the old town and spot Suspenders Coffee Shop – very promising from the outside. I absolutely shouldn’t be having coffee at this hour, but I have to give this guy a chance to shine – and, sure enough, it’s the best espresso I’ve had in France. I pair it with a home-made Twix – which in Australia I’d have called a caramel slice.
I have a nice chat with Ny Aina – the owner of Suspenders about the challenges of introducing better coffee to the French. He finds it ridiculous, offensive even, that so much energy and effort is put into presenting amazing food then the final touch of the meal, the coffee, is generally sub-par. “I’d like to visit Australia and New Zealand,” he says, “because they are setting the standard.” Aussie Pride!
The day has been kind of weird. I’m tired. And tomorrow, finally – really, this time: Germany.
This is not really my route – I went from Chalons-en-Champagne to Nancy to Strasbourg.