In recent years, I’ve made the tradition of a Jew’s Christmas my own. In the United States that’s a movie and Chinese food. But this is Australia so: a swim, a movie, and Chinese food.
Lady Robinson’s Beach is on Botany Bay between the mouths of the Cooks River and the Georges River.
European settlers (invaders) named this Seven Mile Beach but it was renamed during the tenure of the 14th Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. He served from March 1872 to February 1879 and the beach was named for his wife, Lady Robinson, or Nea Arthur Ada Rose D’Amour. The fifth daughter of the ninth Viscount Valentia.
Sir Hercules’ career, Lady Robinson’s as well, reads like a stereotype of British colonial service: Administrator of Montserrat, Lt Governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), Governor of Hong Kong, of British Ceylon, of Fiji, of New Zealand, Acting Governor of British Mauritius, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and Governor of the Cape Colony. Yet, he managed to get home to London to die in October 1897, aged 62.
Their daughter, Nora Robinson, wed Alexander Kirkman Finlay at St James’ Church in Sydney in 1878. The groom owned Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. This wedding was the second vice-regal wedding in New South Wales and, as such, attracted much public attention – a crowd estimated up to 10,000 gathered outside the church.
I do suggest reading Sir Hercules’ Wikipedia page. It’s both fascinating and a strange and unlikely tale to be tied to this stretch of beach – which, on Christmas Day 2016 is hosting families from all around the world – a few of whom, were surely, from other places touched by Sir Hercules’ colonial hand.
The day, while breezy, is otherwise a perfect Sydney Christmas Day: sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid. Just lovely.
Every bit of shade in the reserve has been colonised by a United Nations of families: East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African. Many are clearly Muslims, some probably Buddhist – the Christians come for a dip and go back to their parties and lunches at home.
Christmas is the day when I feel most Jewish, not that I practice, but on this day I usually feel very much an Outsider. But not here, not at Lady Robinson’s Beach, where today is, mostly, a day for non-Christians making the most of a holiday courtesy of the Christian majority.
There is a busy shark-netted swimming enclosure. Jet skis buzz along the shore. International flights circle, approach from the southwest, and land on Sydney Airport’s third runway while other planes queue for their turn to depart. In the distance, the cranes of Sydney’s port fill the horizon.
I love this beach. I love how it’s a bit gritty in a working class, working port, immigrant families way – the antithesis of the glitzy beautiful-people blonde-haired blue-eyed stereotype of Sydney’s beaches.
There are more women and girls on this beach in burqinis than bikinis.
And I love that too. I love that an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, started a company, Ahiida, to provide swimming attire that allows Muslim women, who choose to abide by dictates of modest dress, to fully participate in this most Australian of activities – swimming in the sea and enjoying the beach.
I wade into the Bay – the water is cooling, refreshing but not cold. I move slowly to where I’m waist deep then dive in. Emerging I feel a wave of welled and condensed emotions – a rejoicing for my return home, finally, to Sydney, and the easy contentment that has brought me, also some nostalgia for the 19 months of travel and volunteering gone by and the knowledge I’m unlikely to have that kind of open-ended freedom again, and, too, some sadness, for hopes unfulfilled. All of that in the woosh of rising out of the water, raising my arms to splash the sea around me, and then feeling the heat of the sun on my wet skin.
I sit for a time on the beach and write – as I do, an excited family group arrives, first a dad and kids running past me into the water than the younger women, in colourful burqinis, then older women in flowing black hijabs and matching garb. They were all, seemingly, having a really lovely time – while making for a striking scene – these black clad women, wading in the shallows, the planes and port cranes in the background.
I rode my bicycle home, enjoyed sweet and sour chicken at the Happy Chef then met some new Jewish friends for a screening of La La Land at Bondi Junction.
And so, another Australian Jewish Christmas in the books and a good beach from which to restart this blog.
The portion of the beach which I visited is in Kyeemagh, a suburb in the Bayside Council.
Kyeemagh is a wee little suburb – home to 780 people of whom 37.5 % were born overseas (Greece 10.5%, Lebanon 2.3%, and Cyprus 2.2%). English is the primary language spoken in 44.3% of homes. (All per the 2006 census.)
It’s in the Rockdale State Electorate (Steve Kamper, Labor) and the Federal Division of Barton (Linda Burney, Labor). (It has been a LONG time since I’ve been to a beach represented at both levels by the Labor Party.)
Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96 of my midlife gap year)
8:20 pm A Restaurant in Bayeux
It’s nice to be in a city again. Bayeux is compact, beautiful, and busy with visitors. The helpful tourist office found me a reasonably priced chambres du hote on the edge of the city centre which I’d never have noticed myself as it’s located over a hair salon. My room is quite pink, and I like it.
Sometimes I ride past ‘old’ buildings, but mostly I’m riding in modern France – physically and mentally. This past week I’ve been mired in World War II – history, but of a modern sort. Bayuex is a reminder of the depth of human history here. It was founded in the 1st century BC but there is evidence of older occupation by way of fortified Celtic camps and indications of Druid activities.
Bayeux was the first city liberated following the D-Day landings. The Germans were drawn off to defend more strategically important locations so Bayeux was spared destruction and is – on this late summer’s evening, a gorgeous place to stroll.
The mass of tourists promises conversation, I hear English on the streets – but I’m feeling stuck in my cone of silence. I know there are chats for the asking, I just can’t find the … energy? Nerve? Conviviality? To bowl up to an English speaker and say “hello”.
So, I’m here – in this poorly chosen restaurant with a poorly chosen meal.
Jim says I should get out more – he’s right – but getting out more equals getting lonely more. This is the space of loneliness: dining on a Friday night, alone, in a strange city. I am surrounded by couples and families. It’s a lovely city, and I’d like to enjoy it, but lonely plus a disappointing meal makes me grumpy and sad. The irony is that my response to loneliness is a wish to be alone.
Saturday 29 August 6:33 am (Day 97) – Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux
I’ve been awake for nearly an hour.
At the American cemetery a British father with two sons under 10: the older says, “So he survived?” Dad looks around and says, “Does it look like anyone here won?”
While I appreciate what Dad was doing there – those boys and men, interred there, may have lost their lives – but that we’re not all speaking German, and are living in free, democratic countries – they won. They most definitely won.
I’ve had an email reply from Robert – which is nice, he’s pleased I’m reading Selected Poems. I’ve typed up my ‘poem’ about reading his poems – as it exists so far … it’s … okay. Not sure if I’ll send it to him – that’s a bit nerve wracking, really.
[I]t seems that someone who wants too much to get things is also someone who fears. And living in that fear cannot be free. (From Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America (Part Two, III, Epistulae I, xvi)).
My freedom on the road is borne of some of this fearlessness – not a bravery but a lack of worry and want. Others tell me they see it as bravery, but I think bravery is mostly in the eye of the beholder.
11:15 pm –Relais ‘La Roseraie’, Bayeux
Bayeux has been at the cross-roads of clashing civilisations going back to the Roman arrival in Gaul. Later the Vikings came and then the Franks and the English. So, I guess, there’s something appropriate in the city being associated with one of the oldest artistic renderings of human warfare.
The Bayeux Tapestry, which I saw today, was made around 1070. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The 70-metre-long tapestry (really an embroidery) is a series of panels with some (Latin) text. The museum supplies a little audio device which explains the tale as you move along at a steady pace in what is, basically, an ever-moving queue of tourists.
It’s gorgeous, the colours vibrant, and it’s just generally in very good nick for 945-year-old cloth. While the names of famous men are attached to its history it’s important, to me, to remember the work itself, the stitching, and so the fundamental artistry, is the work of women. Anonymous 11th century English women – and they have done a stellar job.
But it is a depiction of war and I am reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice, have been played out way too many times.
Aside from successful touristing, the day was insanely productive: bike fixed (I’d had a wee gearing problem and the brake cables needed adjusting) – they charged me nothing, so I bought a new cap – Australian green & gold with kangaroos no less; Intersport sold me expensive but fine knicks to replace my old, inexpensive, but fine knicks.
This evening I washed my clothes at a laundrette and had take-away sushi for dinner – pricy but good. I chatted with Jim on Facebook – which was nice, as always.
Then I went out to see the Rendez-vous a la Cathedrale – Les Lumieres de la Liberte – a projection and sound show on the 1797 tree in the Cathedral courtyard – 10 stories of liberty from across history. The WWII section was haunting in its way, the Flower Power one fun and lovely.
(Not my video – it’s the whole show, so a bit long – but you may enjoy bits and pieces of it.)
A few drops began falling just at the end of the show, which became steady rain, then torrents by the time I got within about 200 metres of home.
It’s pelting – torrential, tropical nearly, with thunder and lightning too. The last rain this heavy might have been on the Australian leg of my journey.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
I’ve ridden 30 minutes in the wind and the rain. I’ve stopped to just get out of it for a bit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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?
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.
But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.
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.
I worry I’m not paying enough attention to the details lately and will have less to say, in the blog, in the book, when I get here. I fear that I’m not engaging as much as I was at the beginning of my journey.
Today I went for a bicycle ride with Jerry (whom I recently met at the shop with the door to the pub ) – he’s Scottish and married to Helena, an architect and friend/colleague of Cornelia. The day was dry but chilly and the ride was lovely. The roads are unmarked and it would have been super confusing without a local – a discovery which made me happy not have not yet set off to ride Ireland.
We rode for an hour talking of cycling and family and travel. They have three girls – one a bit older than Matthew, one a bit younger than Isabel – or about the same, and a younger one.
In the afternoon the sun shone gloriously. Glenn (Cornelia’s husband) and I went off of a bit of a photo safari. We also stopped for a coffee. It was nice getting a bit of time to have a good chat with him – such a lovely guy. He’s something of a rock star of the wood turning world and a superb hobby photographer to boot.
In the evening, we had dinner at Jerry and Helena’s – which was nice.
While we were there Matthew finally solved the Rubik’s Cube. He’d been working away at it for quite a while and was so pleased to have gotten it.*
I keep saying ‘yes’ to things which means I’m not getting as much work done as I’d like. This coming day and a half, until I go to Dublin, need to be productive. I need to do some research about my onward journey, make some plans, book things.
The weather this evening is shocking: heavy rain and wind. Everyone keeps telling me how magnificent last summer was.
*He would go on, over the course of the summer, to really master it, at speed. The distinctive clackity sound of the cube being worked became a soundtrack to day time in the house.
It rained overnight and now it’s an ugly day – windy, cool, rain blowing about.
I’m enjoying the laziness – I’m having a (not bad) flat white with a pain au chocolat. I wrote post cards. I’m watching pedestrians in the rain.
My hostel host recommended the pasties from Ffwrn but they’ve sold out. (I’ve no idea how to pronounce that, by the way.) I’m having a delicious savory pie instead – cooked on site in their wood-fired oven. This is someplace, if I had a bit more time, I could have settled in for a rainy day of reading, punctuated with baked goods.
But instead I buy some anti-motion sickness pills, repack my bicycle, and roll down to the port. In the rain.
They are showing Mama Mia on the ferry. As many times as I see this film it still makes me happy and a little teary. I have an enormous, inexplicable, soft-spot for it. That’s not quite true, but explaining it would probably be more tragic than leaving it lie.
The ferry arrives late into Rosslare and my train has come and gone. So I get a bus to Wexford where I’ll meet Cornelia.
The radio was playing Van Halen’s Jump when I boarded, which makes me a little sad. It’s a reminder of my ex-husband as I arrive another place I thought we would visit together. Ah well. Let’s think about Pierce Brosnan’s tragic singing instead.
Saturday 25 July 12:20 pm – Hendy-gwyn/ Whitland Train Station
It storms – wet and windy – overnight. As I lay in the dry comfort of my hotel bed I think of my French cycling companions and hope they’ve found a good camping spot for the night and are comfortable despite the weather.
I wake around six to sunshine and clear skies.
A warm golden light falls on pastel coloured buildings and shimmers off the sea. An arch of golden sand awaits visitors.
Wales has been a hard place but I like it. I’m thinking of circling back this way. I could visit Dublin, Derry and Belfast (by means other than cycling) then take the train to Cork to ride the south coast back to Rosslare and then ferry back to Wales?
Arriving in Fishguard, I ride up the inevitable hill into town to find my hostel. I lunch at the Gourmet Pig and linger over the newspaper. I don’t remember when last I did this – just sit, quietly, no need or desire to get anywhere. Nowhere to be, nothing to do, no closing time to beat or X number of kilometres to ride.
It’s really nice.
I walk to Lower Fishguard – the old fishing port . It’s full of narrow winding streets lined with cottages whose kitchen windows overlook the road.
I visit an ancient little pub. Once this would have been filled with fishermen. It’s a bit quiet this afternoon. A few locals come and go, taking the piss out of one another and the bar keep. I don’t understand much of what is said, given their Welsh accents, but they are definitely taking the piss.
And now I’m waiting for the showing of Mr Holmes to start in this small, volunteer run theatre, Theatr Gwaun. The popcorn is slightly sweet – which is weird, but that’s travel for you. There are pictures of what’s-his-name, the actor on Brothers and Sisters, the Welsh one, on the lobby walls. (That’d be Matthew Rhys – probably better known, now, from The Americans.)
By this time tomorrow I’ll be at Cornelia’s. From Rosslare I’ve booked the train to … someplace … where she’s meeting me with the van.
Cardiff makes me think of my ex-husband. It’s a Rugby place and a Doctor Who place. So it prods the scar tissue – tests the healing. I feel milliseconds of missing his friendship followed by doubts of the genuineness of that initial feeling. It reminds me of the swirling mess of thoughts and feelings I had in the weeks and months after we split. They are best left to lie.
I begin my exploration of the Welsh capital with an amazing exhibition at the National Museum.
Chalkie Davies is a Welsh photographer who was on the staff of both NME and The Face. In the 1980s he put some of his work in a box, closed it, and waited to see how it would age. When the museum called to ask about staging an exhibition he opened that box.
These are glorious photographs of artists who are now symbols of their times but were then in their youth, in their prime.
I walk to the pedestrianised centre of town. At the markets I sample Welsh Cakes – sort of sweet flat scones with dried fruit. Yet another yummy variation on flour, sugar and fat. I get lunch and notice many at neighbouring tables are just having hot chips as their meal – big baskets of them, topped with things, and eaten with little forks.
I pop into the city’s Cardiff Story exhibition – a telling of the history of the city through photos and mementos of citizens. Included was a “baseball bat” which looked a lot like a cricket bat to me. I’ve since looked up Welsh Baseball and it is a curious thing. Descended from rounders but codified as baseball in 1892.
It’s a lot like cricket: teams of 11, games played in two innings, runs are scored when a batter reaches a base and another as s/he reaches each subsequent base, an over-the-boundry hit is good for four runs, the field radiates from the hitting position (no foul territory). But like baseball it’s played on a diamond – albeit a smaller one. Unlike either baseball or cricket the “bases” are marked by poles. Strange … the things you learn while travelling.
I walk a long way to Cardiff Bay to gaze at the Millenium Centre and pretend to look for a rift in time then I do the most touristy thing of the whole journey so far – pay a crazy £18 for the Doctor Who Experience.
It begins with a ridiculous children’s “adventure with the Doctor” led by a woman acting out her part to luke-warm audience participation. When I was a kid I watched some Doctor Who with my nerdy-in-a-good-way older brother – I wasn’t devoted to it but I did like it, this was in the days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison. My now-ex-husband was a much bigger fan and when the re-boot was launched in 2005 we tuned in from the beginning.
I loved Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor – he brought a darkness to the role I really liked. The Doctor as a lonely survivor, powerful, sometimes vengeful, softened by human companionship and his special relationship with Earth. I loved David Tennant’s Doctor, too – he added a cheekiness and a difficult emotional connection with his human companions but still had a bit of the darkness, or, with him, maybe sadness. Or the stories did. Is there anything creepier than Blink (the Weeping Angels episode) or The Empty Child (“Are you my mummy?”)
Once Russell T. Davies ceased to write and produce the show, and David Tennant left, I think the show descended into family-friendly safety. It bores and depresses me. But the shift has made the thing a massive universal success and thus The Doctor Who Experience.
I, frankly, would have paid extra to skip the “adventure” and just get to the exhibition which is very cool to visit (though I think they could make it even better with the addition of more audio/video – interviews with cast and crew would be great). But: Tardises! K9! Several Tardis consoles! Costumes! The Face of Bol!
Nerding out and a bit embarrassed about it.
A Tardis Console!
Wednesday 22 July 2015 7:30 am
I don’t want to. It’s raining. Right now I wish I could skip ahead to arriving at Cornelia’s place in Ireland.
I know it’ll be fine. But the weather invites lying in. Reading. Sitting still.
The French family has offered me a lift to near Swansea and I think I’ll accept. If it’s still raining when I get there I might just roll into town and find a room. Sigh.
After my whinging start, it was a lovely day’s riding.
And I hit another milestone: 2000 kilometres!
The French family (Antoine, Isabelle, Gabriel and ____ – something I just can’t catch) and I cycled out together from Gowerton and are still together. It was a flat, quiet – almost entirely off-road – ride. We mostly followed an estuary of the Carmathen Bay, we rode through wetlands, and skirted Llanelli – where we lunched in the lee of an information centre/café/toilets next to a beach.
We rode through the Pembray Forest and stopped to climb a dune with a sweeping 180* bay view. White horses in close formations galloping in – low tide – the sea was some 200 + metres away. A cyclist on the beach in the distance. A kite-flyer. Leaving the forest, we emerged into open pastureland with cows, it was lovely.
Then Kidwelly – home to a castle, many take-aways (kebabs, Indian, Chinese, fish & chips), a couple of pubs, and a small Spar grocery store with sad vegetables. But friendly helpful people with lovely Welsh accents directed us toward the campground.
It was nice riding with people. They assure me they are happy to have me ride along with them as we’re going the same way at a similar pace.
Just near us … a family arrived after us to their campervan. This park has a lot of simple onsite vans with extender type set ups, obviously owned by individuals as their holiday homes.
It feels very working class. The family group next to us includes a pile of children: Tommy in footy boots, Luca who seems a bit albino, another boy in glasses – all of them sort of 4-6. And a toddling girl.
When I just got up to go to the toilet I thought I might have stumbled over their bodies – fallen where they were – having finally exhausted themselves of running around and screaming. But the adults seem to have collected them up. I think there may be nearly 10 people between caravan and extender there. But some of the kids may come from elsewhere in the park.
When we pedalled into the park – a chatty red-faced blonde girl, maybe 7, asked where we’d come from then she stared gape-mouthed as I answered. The accent – my accent – I think was too alien for her.
It’s really, again, so very English – fitting all sorts of stereotypes of English working class holidays … a caravan park by a Welsh beach. While we were putting the tents up the Mr Whippy van came through playing … of course “Greensleeves”.
Some of the vans are strung with Christmas lights. It reminds me of home – this culture of caravanning summer holidays at the beach has been transported wholesale to Australia.
When I just went to the loo: there was the Big Dipper. It would be ridiculous to say I haven’t seen it earlier in the trip – for surely, surely I have – but I don’t recall seeing it – like that – just big, clear, dipper shaped and upright.
Thursday 23 July – 8:10 am
Either the country was invaded at dawn or there was a military exercise this morning. At 5:15 or so there was gun fire in the distance and voices. I got up to pee and there were weird trails in the sky too.
8:35 pm – Antshill Caravan Park
Well that was a fucking hard day. Beautiful in its way – quiet back roads through farms – but rolling – very rolling. A lot of climbing just to roll down the other side, around a corner, then up again. Really hard, really really hard.
I’ve realised that when I’m riding alone I stop more frequently than the French family does. We didn’t really stop at all. Only to eat our lunch in Carmathen, where we just stood around eating.
While lunching I watched a young man – maybe 20, sharing lunch with what seemed to be work colleagues (a man and a woman) in a busy shopping mall. The whole time he had his hand down the front of his trackies, and inside his undies (I could see the waistband). He seemed sober and otherwise normal – I really should have asked WTF??
Heading into St Clears late in the day I was going to leave the French and find a B&B – I was ready to pay whatever it cost. But the route didn’t go straight through town and we saw the for this campground. So here we are. The campground has a clubhouse with a pub/restaurant – dead empty but for me. I’m having a beer and Pringles – well earned – tent’s up, showered, made dinner.
I nearly wept today pushing and climbing up a hill.
It’s two months since I left Sydney.
I am thinking of Vickianne and Jim seeing me off at the airport. I miss everyone.
Friday 24 July 8:10 am – Anthill Caravan Park near St Clears
It’s been raining pretty much all night – certainly since before 4 am.
Last night I’d been discussing with Antoine my need of a new tent. The rain has put paid to that idea. It could be a lot worse (and the day with the puddle (link) was). The tent seams are gone so water is getting through the fly and then some drips into the tent proper. I woke – 4-ish – to find dampness on my sleeping bag so set about rearranging and putting stuff into my waterproof panniers.
Packing and riding in this is totally uninviting.
It’s not pouring but it’s solid and steady and giving no hints of letting up.
The French are awake. I wonder what they’ll do.
I’m tempted to throw away the tent here.
I’m tempted to ask Cornelia if she can collect me from Rosslare on Sunday night.
I’m tempted to find out about the train from Rosslare to Wexford.
Basically I’m tired. Tired of riding. On the bike it’s good – mostly – not the climbing. Not the packing and unpacking.
7:27 pm The Lighthouse Tavern – Tenby
The daughter – Felicity – or some French name near that, had to learn the word ‘unabashed’ for school English. She knew the definition but wanted to understand it in context.
It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a good one – everything I thought of was like from a 19th century novel.
I suggested that it probably relates to bashful – “A teenaged boy might be bashful around a girl he likes, but some would be unabashed in showing their interest.”
I’ve said goodbye to them – having checked into a hotel in Tenby – which is a super-cute town with pastel houses about the beach and harbour. It’s a walled city – not sure who walled it or when – with a ruined castle on the headland.
I abandoned the tent at Anthill. It served me well – but now is dead.
From the campground we rolled into Laugharne, home to Dylan Thomas’ boatshed. An adorable village full of B&Bs. Sigh.
Leaving there it was a super hard climb on cold legs after a wet night – and it was still raining off and on.
And that set the tone. More climbing through beautiful wet green Welsh countryside. I was generally well behind the group but would catch up now and then.
We stopped in Saundersfoot for lunch. I had fish and chips, we went to a café for tea. Everyone was pretty ready to not ride much more today.
Out of Saundersfoot guess what? A big climb?
The sea is beautiful, however – it really is.
I bought a postcard of sunny beaches for a laugh.
Knowing I’d get a bed of some sort lifted my spirits – which have been pretty low for a couple of days.
I want to go out and see what Tenby says for itself on a Friday night.
There were two young women in my hostel dorm last night who set an alarm for 4:15 am – snoozed it twice and took an hour mucking about. Selfish defined.
I’m spending the morning having a look around Bath before riding to Amanda’s in Monkton Farleigh – a village at the top of quite a hill not far from Bath. Amanda, you may remember, is one of the members of Tom Bailey’s band – among other gigs. Her steadiest of which is with the Psychedelic Furs, having played with them for 13 years.
I’m fortifying for the ride. The good coffee places here, well the one’s I’ve been to so far, are very scientific in their approach – there’s a lot of weighing and measuring. Same with Toby at No 35 Cofffeehouse in Dorchester. It’s good but all a bit fancy and ridiculous. I paid £2.40 (A$5.20) for my macchiato – not worth it. Toby’s was $3.25 – totally reasonable.
There’s a dude writing with a fountain pen and a wee pot of ink. That seems very Bath. It’s a hoity-toity place. Beautiful though.
Midnight – Amanda’s Back Garden, Monkton Farleigh
While I’m thinking of it:
– Riding: I cover less territory but see much more.
– A big journey is just taking the long way home.
This week has felt super long. It was only last Saturday that I was in Southampton … bizarre.
I think it’s to do, in part, with being back in an English-speaking environment. I’ve had more conversations, longer and more complicated conversations, this week than I have had in two months.
Riding here – getting up the hill is the single hardest thing I’ve done on this trip.
I rode out of Bath along the river then climbed up away from the river – up a decent hill. Then there was a bit of flat through a town and across the A4. Then I stared up Bathford Hill, which was tough but rideable – I just stopped a few times.
But when I turned into Prospect I just had to laugh when greeted by an incline of 25-30 degrees. It was like that for 150 metres then I turn a corner, and it’s just as steep, for another hundred – but through a forest, it was actually really lovely and quiet as I pushed 5 – 10 metres at a time. Then it shallowed to a rideable angle and I was rolling into Monkton Farleigh– well the edge of it.
I found a 13-year-old kid with a sequined marijuana-leaf hat and pierced eyebrow idling in front of newish houses and he directed me towards the pub. And from there I found Amanda’s.
I recognised, as I had been pushing my bicycle up that hill that, one, I probably couldn’t have done it two months ago, that I wouldn’t have been strong enough, or maybe wouldn’t have believed I had the strength. And, two, as with so many hard things – if I take my time and do it one bit at a time, I get there.
Amanda has a charming little row-house in this crazy cute village.
Apparently the area is popular with musicians – Peter Gabriel is over there, a member of Duran Duran in that village, one of the Tears for Fears guys is a native.
The views of the countryside from around the village are fantastic.
Amanda is … intense and very talkative and interesting. I really like her.
This evening a couple of her friends came around and we all went out to dinner then, too, a big looping walk around the village. As we did we passed the Lord of the Manor (really) out walking his dogs. A big proper dog and a little excitable mutt who said hello to each of us before Amanda led him back in the direction of his master who hadn’t broken stride though one of his dogs was lagging way behind.
And now I’m settled cosily into my tent, my wee travelling home, down the bottom of her garden. So nice.
Sunday 19 July 8:55 pm Bristol YHA
Some days I’m cruising along feeling good about things and then – bam, defeated.
The ride from Monkton Farleigh to Bristol was lovely, and mostly on the paved Bristol to Bath Rail Trail.
Bristol is multicultural – more Muslim and people of African descent than I’ve seen in a while – and a bit reminiscent of Australia’s Newcastle (working class, revitalised/revitalising, a seaport town).
The Harbour Festival was on – masses of people eating crappy food from vans and drinking overpriced beer from tins and plastic cups. The YHA is in the midst of it. I tried to go to the shop – but it was full of festival-goers. I tried to get beyond the chaos but got turned around in Old Town and found myself back in it. I went into a good looking pub with Mac & Cheese on the menu but the kitchen had closed.
There’s an older woman in my room who was sleeping when I arrived at 6 pm. She has been in bed ever since. A while ago she stirred to tell me she’d forgotten her PJ’s at the B&B.
I’d like to go have a look around but I’m defeated by the crowds and my bad maps. There’s stuff I should do – work, emails, etc. But … just like that … defeated. Grumpy too.
It’s still light. There are lots of seagulls circling and cawing. People in a pub are singing.
I’m going to read and sleep and hope for revived spirits come morning.
10:30 am Monday 20 July – Bristol
I feel like I’m hitting a wall. Not sure if that’s hormonal or just because I know a rest is coming. Or the expense of the UK. Or just the thing of being defeated by Bristol yesterday.
Trying to go easy today – I’m out looking at Bristol.
There are quite a few families out walking and looking for Shaun the Sheep statues which are spread about the place. (The Wallace & Grommit guy is from around here.)
This is the first macchiato I’ve had in a long time that I’d describe as, basically, a macchiato. Double shot with a splash of milk and dollop of foam. It’s made with their house roast – which has an edge, but is nice. I’m having a salted caramel brownie too.
Feeling better for proper caffeine.
There’s definitely a funkiness to Bristol it would take much more time than I have to really delve into. But there’s something about it which I like – it has a good energy.
I’ve decided to simply take the train to Cardiff today. It’s just that sort of day.
Tired. Ready to spend some days in one place. Unpack everything. Wash everything. Get and feel caught up. Feel like I know what’s happening financially.
10:55 pm Cardiff – Richard & Iona’s (Cardiff)
I think all the Warm Showers hosts I’ve stayed with are better hosts than we were, my then-husband and I. I’m always fed. We gave options. In the future I’ll always feed people – it’s so nice.
There’s a French family here too. They weren’t scheduled until later but changed their plans and Richard and Iona couldn’t say no.
I’m pleased to be in Cardiff, in Wales. I like places where, against all odds, a people have held onto their culture.
I’ve done laundry. It’s drying in my room and I can smell it – lovely.
Ending the day in a much better head space than I began. Nice.