Pushbike Diaries

Riding in France: Two days of problem-solving in Reims

We arrive on the 112th morning of my mid-life gap-year as I awake at Hotel de la Cathedrale in Reims, France.

Sunday 13 September 2015, Reims

The past few days have been tough. They have been emotionally draining – between the time spent thinking about all those dead Australian diggers and my own homesickness. And physically challenging – riding in the rain, days proving to be longer than I expected. And now I’m having my period. I should know I don’t need to justify my decision to spend a second night in Reims – but, yet, I feel like saying I’m spending a second night just because is somehow insufficient. Which is silly.

I’ve decided to stay a second night in Reims.

My hotel is just down the road from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims – not surprisingly given it is Hotel de la Cathédrale.  It’s Sunday. I’m going to mass.

The cathedral is, of course, great and beautiful with lots of stained glass. Mass is held in in the smaller chapel down the back. There’s a reasonable crowd, a five-man chorus, and a priest of African heritage who reminds me a little bit of the actor, Andre Braugher.  When the chorus sings, accompanied by an organ, one of the men steps out from the group to lead the voices of the congregation.

My fellow church-goers this morning are overwhelmingly white, mostly mature-aged with a sprinkling of younger people. In front of me is a couple with twins who are probably about 3 ½. They are well behaved, within reason, for their age.

It’s nice to experience one of these grand European cathedrals in their religious guise – not merely as a tourist destination or a symbol of power. The music is lovely – hearing the men’s voices fill the cavernous space – the organ, coming from, I really don’t know where. All of that said, it is a bit hard to remain fully present as my understanding of spoken French is as terrible as it’s ever been. So, the readings and sermon are just human noise.

The bit, at the end, where I shake hands with the people around me is the first not-incidental human contact I’ve had since I was last hosted, on 4 September, so nine days ago.

Modern stained-glass at Reims Cathedral

Leaving the church, I find armed military guards have taken up positions outside; I’m quite sure they weren’t there when I entered.

I pop into the tourist office and have a weird and not especially warm exchange. I want to buy a postcard for €0.80 but the woman at the counter didn’t have change from €1 – what?? Then I ask about a supermarket – oh, non, nothing is open TODAY (being Sunday). Well, there’s one Carrefour open until noon. And definitely nowhere to buy camping gas in the city. At Decathlon (the big sporting goods store) on the outskirts of town, yes, but certainly not today. And, no, they don’t have any information especially useful for cyclists.

I dash to the Carrefour which is, not surprisingly, chockers with people in a rush to get their shopping done before closing time. I also find a bakery where I got a pain au chocolat and the BEST BAGUETTE EVER.

I stop into a bar for a coffee and worry, a little, about the camping gas situation. I know it’s a bit of a silly worry – it will solve itself or I’ll eat foods that don’t need to be cooked. The bar is smoky and all the other customers are men. They are drinking alcoholic drinks and betting on stuff. It’s 11:30 am.

Back at the hotel, I sit down to start working and while I’m making the usual notes in my diary about the number of days I’ve been in the Schengen Zone I realise I’ve miscalculated. I’m set to be an overstayer by a week. FUCK! Oh … FUCK!

I think about contacting the German government about it – as an Australian, I can get extra time in Germany, but then I also look at some travel options and find a cheap flight from Berlin to Shannon – so, it looks like: hello again, Ireland.

I call Cornelia. “So, remember when you said, ‘Come back anytime!’?” And she said Yes, yes I can come stay again. Such are the things that happen 27 years after a meeting at an Italian railway station.

Now I’ve booked a train from Zurich to Mainz then on to Berlin. I’ll have a couple of days there then I will fly to Shannon and make my way back to Cornelia, Glenn and the kids for another stay of a bit over a week (they are the best people ever, no one can say otherwise). Then I fly back to Berlin, overnight there, before flying to Chicago. Ugh – wow, that’s crazy.

I’ve also had a positive reply from the Wermuths in Berlin – I can store my bicycle in their basement and they’ve offered me a room in their corporate apartment. Things are looking up.

With that crisis behind me I start updating my bookkeeping and when I check my credit card charges … wait a second, I haven’t been buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of stuff from e-cigarette companies.  Fuckity, fuck, fuck. Sigh. I’ll have to stay awake until midnight to ring my credit card company in Australia.

Stressful. Really stressful.

And, did I mention, I’m having a heavy period?

And the Australian dollar has dropped against both the Euro and the US dollar again.

Shit is expensive. I ate at McDonald’s last night (I was exhausted, it was convenient, predictable and easy) – but a basic meal was like A$11.

But on to the positives …

The Zurich Film Festival favourited one of my Tweets and I have a Warm Showers’ host for tomorrow night.

I go out for a bit of a walk, it’s evening and others are also out strolling. I still like the vibe of the place.

I pass a synagogue – barricades, several heavily armed military/police. I feel like I shouldn’t photograph the scene, and like I’m being watched. Congregants are arriving for Rosh Hashanah. I pass a couple heading in and offer them a bon nuit – which they return – that was nice.

I walk to the cathedral to watch the lighting program – a projection of lights and scenes onto the façade of the cathedral.

Light show at Reims Cathedral

Between the hard stuff of yesterday and the stresses of today – it’s been a tough couple of days. But I feel – well both phwa (that sort of sound which is a bit more than a sigh) but also strong for having ploughed through the problems.

Monday 14 September, Reims (still)

Well … it really has been a couple of tough fucking days.

I was on Skype with my credit card company for almost an hour last night. They must block the card and issue me a new one which made me worried about paying for the room. The details are probably irrelevant. But I felt in a hard spot – financially vulnerable, worn out by the riding, and by the recent bouts of loneliness and homesickness, and the Schengen emergency I’d dealt with earlier.

I wept and felt very sorry for myself – or just, well, sad and frustrated and DESPERATELY wanting a hug, and wanting to just hang out with a friend. In person.

Thankfully I have Zurich to look forward to. And Cornelia and her family in Ireland soon.

I took that warming idea to bed with me around 1:00 am.

I think if I hadn’t had that goal in front of me – of Zurich, the past two days would have been even harder. If I was just heading for Berlin and a flight to the United States. Instead, I have this kind of ridiculous penultimate adventure, a rendezvous of sorts (even if I don’t meet Christoph Waltz) in Zurich.

Some of the emotion stems from knowing that my riding days in Europe, for this leg, probably for this trip – end in Zurich on Thursday 24 September. Over the nearly four months I’ve been here I haven’t ridden a route I would have predicted – but – again as with my first time in Europe, when I was 19, I’ve spent more time in France than expected and had Ireland serve as a safe-haven.

I’m looking forward to getting some other clothes. I’ve been wearing the same handful of items for four months. I want to buy some jeans.

Phwa – anyway. It’s been a tough couple of days. And I’m feeling a little apprehensive of the days to come as a result. Is this run of big and unexpected challenges behind me? Or are there more to come?

I did get my ticket for the Inglorious Basterds screening today – so that’s good. Row 5, Seat 6. I’ll see him well, presuming he speaks near the screen.

It makes me laugh – it really does.

I am going to see Inglorious Basterds presented by Christoph Waltz – will be in the room with him. “That’s a bingo” – as James A. said in response to a post about these things on Facebook – and well-played to him.

Meanwhile … as I write this the Liberal Party of Australia are having a spill and voting on leadership. By the time I get back to the hotel, and internet access, there’s a good chance we’ll have Prime Minister Turnbull. Another tick on my list of Australian experiences: have the government change unexpectedly while travelling abroad.

My heart is heavy, my wallet light. My mind a muddle of problem-solving. I’d like to nail down the details of my run into Zurich – or at least as far as Kehl, on the German border opposite Strasbourg – today. In medium strokes here to Chicago is settled and sorted.

I feel … strong, capable, unbowed, unbroken. Resilient. Happy that I understand, and can mostly apply, the philosophy of not worrying too much about things I can’t do anything about.

And I’m working to not have regrets about decisions – if I can’t change the outcome of those decisions with new decisions … let them go. My decisions are the best ones I can make in the moment.

I’ve ventured to eat in an actual French restaurant. The music is shit. But here I am, dining alone, at night, in an actual French restaurant. I am so hungry – I’ve been undereating lately for sure. And not getting enough variety at all.

I’ve made a mistake in my beer order – this seems to be some kind of shandy – with a weird not-beer taste.

Reims will have been expensive but decisive.

The few remaining grains of sand in the time I’ve left on my European bicycle ride are ready to fall. It’s all taken a different shape than I might have imagined before I came away but I refuse to have regrets.

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