Tag Archives: Sunny Days

No 48: Malabar – A winter solstice beach (25 June 2017)

In 2014 I heard a story on the radio about ceremonies people create for themselves. A caller described a women’s winter solstice ceremony she had been conducting for years. The Winter Solstice, marking the moment when more light begins to fill your days, is the beginning of a new cycle and a nadir. The caller’s ceremony involved letting go of the past year – which I then sorely needed to do.

I had then run my worst turn around the sun to date and was, finally, starting to recover. I’ve missed marking the solstice in 2015 (I was in the northern hemisphere) and 2016 (I was focussed on other things), but this year I’ve returned to the idea and set off on a glorious winter’s day to beach number 48, Malabar.

I like how the demographics on the bus shift as I travel from home to beach. From the city to the University of New South Wales we are a mixed crowd leaning East Asian, from UNSW to Kensington mostly East Asian, from Kensington to Maroubra moving towards working-class whites and Southern Europeans. Beyond Maroubra – mostly working-class whites with maybe a few Aboriginals as well.

Malabar has a strange not-in-Sydney vibe – it feels like it could be a down the South Coast someplace … a village between the ‘Gong and Kiama. A row of old-school 1950s – 1970s family homes face the rich blue inlet and the undeveloped green headland to the north.

This is an ocean beach but set at the back of Long Bay and the big waves just don’t reach the shore. When the water is clean enough to swim in (which it isn’t always) it’s a great spot for a lazy paddle.

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I’ve come with my pocket datebooks of the last year. On most days, I’ve recorded three short bullet-points – an event, my mood, the weather, a movie I saw or book I finished reading, that sort of thing.

The sea is a saturated indigo, the sky pale cerulean. The park behind the beach is filled with families, the barbeques in high demand. I sit on a bench facing the beach and, accompanied by the metronomic squeak of a child being pushed in a swing, review my year. One day’s snapshot after another. It takes nearly an hour.

Looking up from my task I notice two frolicking naked 3-year old children – a boy and a girl – and think “I love Australia”. Shame about our bodies is a learned thing. And until they learn it and stop wanting to run around naked, let kids be free – it’s lovely that these kids haven’t had embarrassment and fear imposed on them. People see people in public and think what they will think – it does no harm (predators who act do harm). That the parents of these kids are, themselves, unashamed of their naked children and not fearful that someone might be masturbating in the bushes or about to swoop in to snatch their kids, makes me happy.

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I retire to the Malabar Beach Café for the writing of the Lists – one of all the worst things that happened this past year: the disappointment of a thing not working out with a man, the long search for work, the unexplained silence of a friend, the outcome of the US election, boredom & uncertainty. And then a list of all the best things: that I maintained old and developed new friendships, became a baseball fan again and attended games, that I met my birth mother and her family, the excitement and pleasure when I thought the thing with the man might work out, getting involved in the Women’s March in Sydney, and finally landing a job.

All those things – the good and the bad – are done. They are equally behind me – I can let them all slip into the past today and begin afresh.

I walk to the northern end of the beach and prepare to burn the paper – first the bad, then the good. All the best rituals involve fire. But the paper won’t light – it just smoulders and chars. Rather than take this as a bad sign I move to an alternative. I tear them into little pieces and fling them into the sea. (Actually, I discreetly sprinkle them in an area from which I hope they will quickly be washed away from the beach.) Frankly, it’s not as satisfying as fire – I’ll have to prepare better next year.

Ceremony finished, I go for a walk on the Malabar Headland.  I am passed by two teenagers on bicycles. When they get to the sign for the National Park which says “No bicycles” the boy urges the girl to ignore it, “who’s going to be checking? Come on” he pleads. She refuses – nope, not going to do it, it’s not about being caught it’s about the rule. I like the strength of the girl’s refusal to do what the boy wants – I think that bodes well for her.

Not much further along a couple in their 50s or 60s, difficult to say as they have clearly lived hard, pass in the opposite direction talking of the wisdom and regrets of age.

I think about the lifetime of experiences between the rule breaking teenage boy and the craggle-faced man with regrets. I think about how distant the man’s age must seem to the boy and how near the boy’s age may seem to the man. Time is a funny thing.

Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Ancient rocks, endless sea
Ancient rocks, endless sea

The last time I did this Solstice ceremony I had feelings of lightness and release, unexpected but real. Today I’m trying to feel those things – and am sort of succeeding: being in the moment, breathing in big lungfuls of clean air, watching the sea. But, it’s not quite as good as the first time. Then I was farewelling a momentously bad year, while this one just past has been … well, just a year really. Better than some, worse than others. Even if the ceremony is about putting things behind and moving fresh into the new year – the reality is life is a continuum and the effects of the last year will continue.

Time, in the end, is like the the sea, it keeps rolling in – today, right now, both are steady and calm.

And that’s okay too – it’s been a gorgeous day and I’ve enjoyed reviewing and letting go.

The wreck of the MV Malabar
The wreck of the MV Malabar

Malabar is not named for the region of India but after a ship, the MV Malabar which shipwrecked on Miranda Point on 2 April 1931. Europeans, since arriving in the area in the 1860s – had called the suburb either Brand or Long Bay, the latter still naming the nearby prison.

Wiki says that the area had been a camping location for the original Indigenous residents. There are said to be carvings on the headland and that a rock overhang on the south side of Long Bay was used as a shelter for Aboriginal people suffering from smallpox in the late 1700s. An English historian wrote in 1882 that Aboriginal people referred to Long Bay as ‘Boora’. Scraps, all we have are tiny scraps from a once thriving culture and the few strong descendants of the survivors of a horrible, horrible injustice trying to hold on to what remains and piece together some of what was lost.

In the 2016 census Malabar was home to 5,420 people of whom 64.8% were male – I’m guessing the prison population is skewing that statistic as the state is only 49.3% male. 359 (6.6%) Malabar residents are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders heritage. 67% were born in Australia with England as the top overseas location with 3.5%. One-third had one or both parents born overseas (England, the top location). 1,925 (35.5%) show their religious affiliation as Not Stated (again, I think that’s the prisoners as state wide it was 9.2% – 1,920 did not state their education level as well – state wide 23%). Catholic came next with 26.5%. The top language, other than English, was Greek for 90 people or 1.7%

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Malabar is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from home.

Malabar is in the local government area of the City of Randwick, the State Electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and the Federal division of Kingsford-Smith (Labor, Matt Thistlethwaite) (prior to Matt this was the seat held by Peter Garrett, presently touring the world with Midnight Oil).

Long Time a Coming – Long Reef (No. 47*: 16 April 2017)

You’d almost think I’d grown weary of this project given how slowly I’ve returned to it after my time away, but that’s not it at all. I continue to love the idea but sometimes it just becomes hard to get there.

No 47: Long Reef ... slowly, slowly
No 47: Long Reef … slowly, slowly

While unemployed, my weekends weren’t a break from my labours – I could just as easily search for jobs at the weekend as any other time. Even if I wasn’t looking for work at the weekends I felt the pressure that, perhaps, I could be, I should be.  While unemployed, I was also more conscientious of spending money and felt that if I stayed close to home I’d spend less than if I went to the beach. That may not be true, but that’s how I felt.

So, I’ve been meaning to get to Long Reef for weeks but now that I am again professionally employed in a 9-5, Monday to Friday kind of way – it’s finally time.

It’s Easter Sunday and a cracker of a day: blue sky, light breeze, hot for April but not scorching. Australians being Australians are flocking to their chosen places of worship: the beach, the footy grounds, and other places of recreation and beer. I’m heading for the Manly Ferry – such a perfect day for it.

I walk through the picnickers and off-leash dogs in Hollis Park on my way to Macdonaldtown Station where I join a trainload of Sydney’s diversity for the ride into the city. At Circular Quay, I make my way through the throngs to Wharf 3 – where I find there are enough passengers queued to fill a ferry and a half. I guess I’ll take the bus.

From Wynyard Station I get a limited-stops bus which drops me at Collaroy Beach in about 40 minutes, from there I catch a local bus back two stops and pop into Outpost Espresso for a pick-me up.

It’s nearly 2 pm, and closing time, the only other customers are a salty, sandy, end-of-summer bronzed family of five getting milk shakes and iced lattes.

I find myself in a state of joyful liberation because I am employed and it is Sunday and there’s nothing I must do. I have employment and pay coming around the corner – so, no worries.

With this feeling of lightness, I set off for the walk past the golf club and Fisherman’s Beach (No 27 – visited in April 2013). Around Long Reef Point the footpath is crowded with families and couples. A paraglider is circling on the breeze, casting the occasional shocking shadow – like a giant raptor looking for prey. The sea is an autumn steel blue and crashing into the rocks below. I turn the corner and eye Long Reef Beach from its tucked-in northern end sweeping south and melding into Dee Why Beach (No 21 – visited February 2012).

Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond
Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond

 

Walking on Long Reef Beach
Walking on Long Reef Beach

I walk up the beach to the flagged area, plant myself near the Surf Lifesavers marquee and survey my fellow beach-goers. They are mostly white, mostly local – I’m guessing. There are a lot of families, a few clusters of teenagers, a smattering of couples. A toddler with caramel skin, curly locks and nothing but her Manly Sea Eagles bottoms on – dashes, laughing, away from her Surf Lifesaver father, who is trying to wrap her in a towel.

The sea is a bit dumpy and the flags are planted narrowly together so it is through a crowd I wade into the surf. The water is cool but I grow used to it, dunking my whole self beneath a folding wave and I’m happy to bob in the power of the ocean for a wee bit while dodging little kids on boogie boards and full-grown men body surfing into shore.

I realise I have not been in the open ocean – not a bay or harbour – since before I left for my Midlife Gap Year. Anywhere. I visited some on my ride home to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland but for one reason or another didn’t swim at any of them. Admittedly I’m a bit intimidated by the surf – as a native of the American Midwest I came to ocean swimming late in life and being dependent on glasses to have clear vision – the power and mystery of rips and waves unsettle me. The last ocean beach I visited as part of this project was No. 31 Freshwater back in January 2014 – wow.

Autumn, Sydney-style.
Autumn, Sydney-style.

Wet and sea-salty I take up a position on the beach in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun – generally more pleasant than Sydney’s often bitingly hot summer sun. It’s already late afternoon and I don’t stay long – but it’s been a lovely day for it and I’m glad I got to Long Reef before the beach season ends.

Long Reef was part of the homeland of the Dharug people, probably, before European invasion of Australia. The commonly used name, by Europeans, for the people who had been living in this area is Guringai, however, it now seems this is not what the people who lived here called themselves. Some rock engravings done by these people remain in the area.

European settlement began in 1815 when William Cossar (a master shipbuilder) was granted some 500+ acres (200+ hectares) including Long Reef. By 1825 it was in the hands of James Jenkins, a former convict who had been transported in 1802 for stealing sheep. His eldest child, Elizabeth, had inherited land in North Narrabeen in 1821 and with the 1825 acquisition, the Jenkins family owned all of the foreshore form Mona Vale to Dee Why. At the extent of their holdings they had 1800 acres (728 hectares).

LongReefMap

 Long Reef is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from home.

For census purposes it’s in Collaroy, which was, in 2011 home to 14,388 people of whom 50, or 0.4%, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Conversely, 110 residents listed the United States as their country of birth. So there are more than twice as many Americans in Collaroy as there are Indigenous Australians.

It’s in the Northern Beaches Council local government area, the state electorate of Wakehurst (Liberal – Brad Hazzard), and federal division of Mackellar (Liberal – Jason Falinski).

*The next beach in the alphabetical list is actually Little Patonga – another Pittwater beach needing a boat. Four of those have now been set aside to be visited in one weekend out on the water, eventually: Gunyah (Brooklyn) No 35, Hallets No 37, Hungry No 39, and Little Patonga No 46.

The Last Beach Before My Travel Began, No 43: Lady Martin’s – 17 May 2015

Is this a bit of a cheat?

I visited Lady Martin’s on 17 May 2015 – one week before I departed for my midlife gap year – but never posted about it.

I don’t want to visit it again so I’m going back to my diary from the day to write it up now.

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Lady Martin’s is a wee crescent of beach at the bottom of Point Piper. I suspect in any other country it would be privately held and divvied up among the millionaires whose mansions hover nearby. These include the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Of course, when I visited back in 2015 he was fuming on the back benches as Tony Abbott went about his business of losing popularity.

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Sneaky access: the pathway next to the Prince Edward Yacht Club.

Here’s what I wrote then:

There’s real and lovely warmth in the sun – which burns bright when not obscured by clouds. The light shimmers blindingly on the weak harbour waves as they flush ashore with a rhythmic, sleep-encouraging hush.

A flotilla or racing yachts rush past out on the harbour.

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There is a party – a birthday party  perhaps – at the Prince Edward Yacht Club. A one-man-band plays groovy guitar jazz.

Among the party guests are many multicultural, multilingual families – a wee girl speaks French, English, and Russian. But mostly people seem to be speaking French. Which seems appropriate as I realised earlier today that I really will need to learn some of that language.

Had I come at high tide I expect there’d have been little beach to visit as the sand is wet right up to the retaining wall. As it is, there’s maybe five meters of beach running 100 meters or fewer and bisected by the yacht club’s pier.

The beach is Sydney-sandstone golden and surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of residential property. It’s a place to really celebrate the decision, early in Australia’s story, to keep beaches, all of them, even little ones like this – public.

It’s lovely. I’m so glad I came.

Next Sunday … will I have time for a beach before my flight?

The following … a river ride and the Giro d’Italia?

Close enough to a swim for May.
Close enough to a swim for May.

Lady Martin’s Beach is in the Municipality of Woollhara, the State Electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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Back On My Bicycle in France – Riding from Cherbourg to Jonville

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.

A view of a rainy morning at sea taken from a cabin window.
Hmmm … rain again

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

Middle aged, short-haired, glasses-wearing woman against a blue sky and the French flag.
Vive la France

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!

Stone French three-story house with flower boxes and a sign for Rue Grande Rue
Old Cherbourg, Rue Grande Rue
Modern apartment blocks with multi-coloured window dressings.
New Cherbourg – I liked how colourful the window dressings are.

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.

Heavy grey clouds blot the sky, but a small river courses through a sunlit green landscape.
The view from my picnic spot beside the River Saire

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?

A white-stone French chateau reflected in a pond.
It could only be France, non?

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.

Rain heavy sky over a deep green to dark blue sea.
The Atlantic Ocean from Camping Municipal de Jonville

Beautiful.

But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.

12:40 am

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.

A fully-loaded touring bicycle leans against an age-wearied memorial cross in a small French village cross-roads, a signe reads: Village de la Croix Perrinot
A photo of near perfect happiness.

Poetry, Light, Ice Cream and Friendship on a Beaut Irish Summer Day: Monday 10 August 2015 (Day 78)

11:20 am – The Gourmet Store Café, Kilkenny

We are finally getting a run of sunny and warm days. Cornelia says this sort of day is exactly what one hopes for when thinking of an Irish summer’s day.

7:30 pm – Zuni Café

I’m feeling like a local. I know where everything is and I run into people I know on the street.

At the café this morning Hazel, Cornelia’s right-hand gal, passed by with Robert Pinsky. He’s just arrived from Boston and they were looking for an Irish SIM card for him but said they’d come back for coffee.

I read the blurb about him in the festival catalogue and had just started in on his Wikipedia page when they returned.

I learned he was US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He’s a poet, obviously, and an academic at Boston University. Jewish, from New Jersey. That’s about all I knew as we started chatting.

Cornelia had to go and Hazel, while she stayed on, was hard at work at other tasks – so Robert and I had a nice chat about American politics, guns, violence, Australia, John Howard & guns, etc. He hasn’t yet visited Australia, but would like to – this seems a worthy project to help with.

The rest of the morning I ran around for Cornelia. I delivered lunch to an organist at the Cathedral. And I picnicked outside St John’s Priory – pressing my ear to the stained glass to hear the Bach Cello Concerto being played within.

At 4pm I went to the Rothe House Garden for Robert’s “Secret Garden” performance, which was quite good.

Afterwards Cornelia and I took him to the Architects of the Air installation.

The Luminarium is a pneumatic sculpture (one filled with air) constructed of specially designed plastics where the colours of the material and the design of thinner bits illuminate the inside just by the natural light.

Here’s how the artists describe it:

Each luminarium is a dazzling maze of winding paths and soaring dorms where Islamic architecture, Archimedian solids and Gothic cathedrals meld into an inspiring monument to the beauty of light and colour.

The domes are the large chambers rising up to 10 metres high that provide the focal points. The tunnels connect the domes and determine the journey the visitor will take. The luminaria also feature ‘pods’ – alcoves where people can sit and relax out of the way of the other visitors.

Each luminarium is made up of around 20 elements that are zipped together on site to typically occupy an area of 1000 square metres. Easy to erect, laying out the structure and anchoring can take as little as 4 hours then, in just 20 minutes, the luminarium is inflated to its monumental size.

Inside the Luminiarium
Inside the Luminiarium (Photo by Glenn Lucas)

W got ice cream and sat in the Butler House Gardens. He was, I think, just trying to keep going to keep jet-lag at bay. A plight I well understand. Cornelia had to go and left me to see Robert back to is hotel but first we lingered.

We chatted away about politics and swapped Clinton stories. He told me about his Favorite Poem Project, which he began as Poet Laureate and continues. They hold events where everyday people share their favourite poems and there’s a web site with videos of people sharing their favourite poems.

It’s been quite a while since I’d had such a long chat about stuff I know and care about with someone who knows as much or more about the same stuff – if that makes sense. The conversation was very enjoyable and unlike any I’d had recently. He gave me his card … if I get to Boston I’ll drop him a line.

Now I’m sitting at Zuni having had a glass of white wine and a serve of chips. I’m waiting on Cornelia to return. My face is sunburnt and I’m very sleepy.

Cornelia arrived and we ordered some more wine and, then, Jim!

Me and Jim (last seen at Sydney Airport 72 days ago)
Me and Jim (last seen at Sydney Airport 72 days ago)

Oh, my goodness how nice it is to see him. I’ve seen a few old friends along the way and made many new ones but I hadn’t seen anyone from my immediate, loving, fabulous circle of Sydney friends for 78 days (when Jim and Vickianne saw me off at the airport) and now, here, was one of my besties and someone I’ve known for 27 years. I think I got a little teary.

Such a pleasant and full day: Saturday 1 August 2015 (Day 69)

Saturday 1 August

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.

Playing with the filters on my camera on our photo safari.
Playing with the filters on my camera on our photo safari.
Ran into Muhammed Ali on our photo safari.
Ran into Muhammed Ali on our photo safari.

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.*

Finally did it!
Finally did 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.

Dublin beckons.

*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.

A Final Welsh Day: Saturday 25 July 2015 (Day 62)

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.

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Tenby, Wales in the morning sunshine.

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?

I cannot fathom what full potential awaits me if I learn Welsh.
I cannot fathom what full potential awaits me if I learn Welsh.

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.

In Fishguard, Wales
In Fishguard, Wales

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.

Sigh.

Good sigh.

Finding the Charm, Seeing the Race, Returning to my Native Tongue: 8-10 July 2015 – Paris – Le Havre/Ferry – Southampton

Wednesday 8 July 8:55 am – Tom’s Place, Paris

I head out thinking I’ll just get breakfast someplace. I look in at two cafes – the breakfast is €9.50 at one and €12 at another. For coffee, croissant, and juice. Fuck you very much. I find a supermarket instead, collect fresh bread and apricots for € 1.60.  I bring these items back to Tom’s flat, make myself a coffee, find my cheese, and voila: un petit dejuner.

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Un petit dejuner

I’ve moved from one friend’s place to another. I stayed at Carson’s for dinner last night then rode here around 10:00 pm. Tom is the son of life-long friends of my parents. He’s lived in Paris since the 1980s – mostly, I think, in this very flat. He’s an interpreter – these days he roams the globe working at various international conferences and meetings. He is, in fact, off working right now but will be home this evening. So here I am in the book-crowded quiet of his home enjoying my wee breakfast and watching the firemen in the station across the road getting ready for Bastille Day celebrations.

Riding across town last night was lovely, the temperature has dropped and Montmanse was lively and inviting. The temperatures have stayed low this morning, it seems the worst of that heat wave has broken. People are wearing jumpers.

The lack of easy internet access and not knowing when or where I will have it again is a problem. Preparing for that is what took up so much time on Monday – trying to collect maps, downloading documents, etc.

And I’ve realised that this coming run – crossing the UK, and on to Ireland feels more complex. I’ve had to think about how long I’ll be in the UK and book a ferry ticket on to Ireland (so I have two weeks to get from Southampton to Fishguard now). I’ve had to guess how much cash I’ll need and move British Pound Sterling on to my cash card. Then, too, I’ve been thinking about how long to stay in Ireland, what to do there, from which port to cross back to the UK and from the UK back to the Continent. It’s sort of doing my head in just a bit.

Breakfast is done, head is swirling, I think it’s time to get out and see the Musée d’Orsay.

1:30 pm – Tom’s

I have found Paris hard. The distances between things is always greater than they appear on the map. And I don’t know that its offerings compensate for the challenges. The landmarks are so famous as to be, sort of, underwhelming in person. It’s a nice city with pleasant neighbourhoods. But the “wow” moment, for me, remains the women drummers at the triathlon.

The D’Orsay was good. The art was well-displayed, the walls full but things weren’t too close together. The galleries were busy, crowded, but not intolerable. A lot of visitors seemed more intent on photographing the art than looking at it. What’s the point of that anyway? I can understand taking pictures of technique, of small parts of paintings, or even selfies with specific works. But many here seem to wander through the galleries snapping away but never really just looking with their eyes.

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At the Musee d’Orsay

I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here. Not in a negative way but … I’m here to just BE, and to EXPERIENCE, and to SEE, maybe. Is that it? Is that the point?

I mean – should I be more aware of what there is to see and get to see it? Spend the money, route my way to these places? Or just keep feeling my way along to the next anchor point while seeing what comes as I do?

The theme of this journey so far has definitely been BALANCE (appropriate for a riding trip):

  • Between Riding and Writing
  • Between seeing/doing what’s meant to be seen/done and just rolling through, experiencing
  • Between spending and scrimping

Paris, I think, brings all of this into focus because it’s a place full of “supposed to”s and also a place meant to reward wandering. I’ve done a little of the former and felt a little of the latter.

11:25 pm – Tom’s Place

On my final afternoon and evening the tide has turned and I get it.

I see the appeal, if not the magic, of Paris.

I had all but given up but after doing a bit of work I decided to go out and walk to Shakespeare & Co.  I walk through vibrant little streets with bustling cafes full of post-work drinkers and diners. I guess these are the back streets of St Germain, then those of the Latin Quarter. The Latin Quarter is very touristy but relaxed, no one is rushing or queuing. I get a banana and sugar crepe for a reasonable €3.

An oh-too-fashionable young man, long blonde hair just so, wearing a yellow blazer, stovepipe trousers, and blue leather shoes is standing on a corner, waiting, or posing. The good looking men are out too. Unfortunately, quite a few are smoking. (France: smoking like it’s 1990.)

I pass an art supply shop – I suspect of considerable heritage. There are beautiful, expensive, water-colour kits in the window – €60+. The colours are so bold and pure. I stop in my tracks to look. I notice the shop keeper and give him a smile, which he returns. It’s a nice moment and, for me, one that lessens my struggle with Paris.

Ah, Paris – okay, finally, I’m getting you!

Is it the change in the weather? Having been here a while? Having gotten out in the evening? (Last night coming from Carson’s had a good vibe too.) Whatever it is – I’ve turned the corner and am, at least, on good terms with Paris. Neutral, perhaps, terms – but we’re good.

After my wander, Tom got home and began talking. We went to one of his favourite neighbourhood places where he’s been a regular for 30 years. The owners came to say bon soir. The food was classically French. It was lovely: fennel salad with goats’ cheese, a steak with potatoes, and brie.

When was the last time I ate dinner in a restaurant with someone else? We finished up around 11pm. Tom paid, my shout when he gets to Australia. Not many can say this but Paris has been good for my average per-day expenses.

Tomorrow at this time I’ll be on a ferry to the UK

 

Thursday 9 July – Le Havre, 7:10 pm

I smell the sea for the first time in a month when I emerge from Gare Le Havre. It is a welcoming scent.

Although I’m on the overnight ferry to Southampton I’ve arranged with Warm Showers’ hosts Cecile and Guillaume to leave my bicycle with them for the afternoon while I go watch the race.  But at first it looks like I’ll be unable to make use of their hospitality. The peloton is still a couple of hours away but as I try to cross the route a policeman says firmly “Non! Impossible”. He insists it’s out of the question to think I’ll be able to cross the route until the race has finished.

I find a McDonalds to use their WiFi so I can message Cecile that I might not make it. Then I go looking for someplace else to cross. Soon enough I find a spot. For a while there I was worried I’d spend the next few hours leaning on my cross-bar waiting for the race.

Cecile lives in a cute house, on a cute street, up the hill from the beach. (Seagulls, lots of seagulls.) She is really friendly and welcoming. She shows me where the route is on a En Velo en Le Havre map. (Turns out she does bike stuff for the city.)

On the way to the beach I pop into a patisserie for an apricot slice thing and get a jovial lesson from the matron behind the counter on how to say “abricot.” I find a good spot on a corner where the riders will leave the beach and turn inland.

There’s a good crowd on both sides of the route with more in the nearby bars and cafes – some waiting on balconies, others watching on television.

Soon comes the caravan of sponsors vans – booming music, promo boys and girls strapped in but dancing and tossing rubbishy knickknacks with their employers’ names on them – like hats and bags. Madness from the crowd – adults and children alike dashing excitedly after the tatt. A bloke next to me waves for everything and dashes for all in reach. He gives most of what he gets to nearby kids but still it is the thrill of free stuff he is here for.

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Me Me Me – Throw the free stuff to Me!

Working on one of these caravan vehicles seems like a ring of hell to me. To spend all day, every day, for three weeks strapped to a mobile sound system pumping mind-numbing doof-doofy stuff while people clamour after useless shit you are throwing at them – I’d lose my mind. And you’d never get to see anything of the tour.

The crowd thins after the caravan has moved through.

Now and then some team cars, official cars, or VIP cars come through.  Around 5:40 pm the first helicopter appears over the sea, then over the road. Just as at the Giro – seeing and hearing the helicopters is amazingly exciting, it makes me a little teary, really. I’m not a Tour fan of long standing but for the past five or six years I’ve spent many an Australian winter night tucked up under a blanket, cup of tea in hand, watching these boys ride under the summer skies of France. And now here I am. So exciting.

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On the right, above the people on the roof – see it? One of the helicopters!

A ripple of applause chases the Cofidis rider with a 20 second, or so, lead, up the road. The peloton chases through followed by the stragglers but they are all pretty close together. I spot a few Green Edge riders but not Tony Martin in yellow. And then it’s done.  We disperse. Some gathering in a café to watch the finish – I join them, it’s someone other than the Cofidis rider. In the next bar I see that Tony Martin has crashed within the last kilometre, so time isn’t an issue if he’s okay.

The Grand Tours are the three biggest cycling races of the European season: the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. They each last three weeks, for the one race – they are the longest sporting events in the world, probably, but for a spectator they last mere seconds. Strange.

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They race for three weeks; we see them for three seconds.

 

Friday 10 July 7:55 am – Portsmouth

Tony Martin is broken and out of the Tour de France.

Cecile and Guillaume were very welcoming – after the race I went back to theirs – hung-out, showered, admired their garden. We had dinner together. She made a salad which included tomatoes they grew themselves. Several years ago they rode from Quebec to Peru, back then their English was pretty good, now it’s gone a bit rusty but is still vastly superior to my French.

The ferry crossing was easy and smooth. Bicycles and motorcycles were on first so when I saw some motorcyclists had swagged-out in the children’s play zone – a padded area in a corridor – I swiftly joined them. My fellow campers were all make-shift, using jackets for pillows and the like, not me, oh no. I inflated my air mattress and pillow, pulled out the sleeping bag –  and I, admittedly, felt rather clever. All up I probably got close to five hours sleep – not great but sufficient, I hope, to get me to Southampton.

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Fortunately loud colours don’t keep me awake.

England. Weird. It feels, not surprisingly, familiar. My first stop was in a Victoria Park (how many of those have I visited?). People say “good morning” and I say it back – if they say more, I understand them. After 47 days in non-English speaking countries, it’s a funny, lovely thing.

1:35 pm – Nearly to Southampton

Tailwind!

A squirrel!

Two deer!

I walk into a village bakery and the Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ is playing. This is important because I am on my way to Southampton to see Tom Bailey and his band play Thompson Twins songs. When I was 14 the Thompson Twins were my favourite band. When I was 16 I met them, and was befriended by them. When I was 18 I was an intern on their final US tour. Through the magic of the internet I reconnected with Tom in, maybe 2008 or 2009. Not long after he was in Sydney and we caught up in person. Tomorrow I’ll see him play these fond old songs for the first time in 28 years.

The ride is green, full of suburban sameness, churches, dogs, Greens and Commons and kids playing cricket. As I near Southampton young mums walk with prams and an older couple sun themselves in lawn chairs on the bank of the Solent with industry on the far shore and container ships passing.

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You have to laugh when a country lives up to its stereotypes.

I’ve been following Sustrans National Cycle Route No 2. As ever, having crossed national territories (sometimes even provincial lines) the signage has changed significantly. In France, on the Eurovelo 6, there were fairly large signs (like this), found regularly. The route was mostly obvious and kind of predictable – it was an off-road dedicated cycleway bordering on a river. Now, here, in the UK – they have Sustrans routes. These combine on-road and off-road segments and intentionally connect city-centres to other city-centres and go through towns and villages. The signs are often just stickers on pre-existing road signs. Spotting them is sometimes a challenge – I got lost for 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, when I lost them. Now I know if I haven’t seen one for 300 metres or so it’s probably best to go back to the last one I spotted and try again.

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See the Cycle Route Sticker on the left? Also, this is where I saw two deer – crossing this road

I’ve stopped now to make a coffee and realise I’m very tired.

Evening – in Southampton

Lindsi, my Warm Showers host reminds me strongly of my ex-mother-in-law, just with different interests: a chatty, mature Englishwoman who regularly offers tea and food.

I found my way to Lindsi’s following her directions, asking for help once (novel to be able to do that – in English, with confidence the person I’m asking also speaks English) and using a train station area map.

Maps remain an issue. The off-line ones are too big for my phone. The paper ones expensive and covering small areas.

Lindsi has all I’ll need – I think I’ll simply photograph them and load the pictures them on to my phone. I’ll see if I can pick up some basic tourist maps as I go.

I went into Southampton centre this afternoon and found it is deserving of Lonely Planet’s snub (it’s not listed at all in my guide): bogany, full of shopping, and a little history – albeit very interesting history: Mayflower, Titanic, and the Launch of D-Day.

But tomorrow is all about my own history and revisiting a fun little slice of it – the simple joys of great pop music and old friendships renewed.

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From whence the “Pilgrim Fathers” embarked on the Mayflower, 15 August 1620

Hot Days on the Riverside: From Flaach to Basel to Montbéliard

Sunday 28 June 2015: Flaasch to Basel

My heart is thumping GOOD MORNING as I climb out of Flaach to the clamber and clang of church bells. It’s 9:45 am and sweat rivulets down my face and back.

I pass fields of corn, wheat, beetroot, sunflowers, capsicum, cows and sheep. Kirchen, a sign on the side of the road promises. A man in a bucket hat is up a ladder picking cherries into a woven basket. His wife sits at a red and white checked cloth covered table with punnets of the fruit ready for sale.

Rolling down towards the river I’m halted and turn back at the sight of an Australian flag snapping in the Swiss sky. I find its owner – a local who just loves Australia. He’s been twice but still needs to cover the territory between Darwin and Cape York. Last year a cyclist from Tasmania stopped by.

I pass a café setting up on the riverfront and a trio of musicians carrying their instruments down a gravel road. It is a gorgeous summer day and I try to set the worries about distances and expenses aside and feel the simple joy and freedom of being here, now, riding. I climb, again, to a small Swiss town and then ride my breaks down a curving road to shoot across the river, back into Germany and a small village overlooked by an ancient looking bell-tower.

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I arrive at a bit of road closed to motor traffic but not cyclists. The town of Leinheim is having a festival – I’ve just missed the parade but I get a sausage and use the portaloo. The whole town, and more, are in a giant tent drinking massive beers – whatever the festival is it seems to have something to do with bicycles. There are heaps around and the posters for the festival include a sort of crest with a bicycle.

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Festival in Lienheim

Many may think me quite bold and brave to make this journey – I don’t really feel that way about it and in these types of situations I am simply neither bold nor brave. My ex-husband would just bowl into that tent and, with almost no German, find a table, make friends and, generally, throw himself into it. For me, being alone and not speaking German are two very good reasons to simply mount up and ride on with the excuse of hoping to make it to Basel.

Stopping at a garden restaurant in another village for lunch, I sit at a large table and am soon joined by other diners. Service is slow but the day is nice and the sun will shine until 9 pm at least. Couples with elderly parents sit at several other tables. A bloke in my direct line of sight stares at me and nothing will shake him – it’s the only clue he might be a bit special.

At my table: a trio of two women and a man in their late-60s, a slightly younger German man with some English (and a refurbished 1950s motorcycle) and a Swiss cyclist about my age – also with some English. The motorcyclist is gregarious and a bit handsome; he takes up the task of making a group of the lot of us. He asks how I ended up here for lunch and I say “I was hungry.” Later I am asked when I worked and I say: “Last year and next year.” Jeez they think I am hilarious.

I’ve been riding long enough now to realise that 50 – 70 kilometres is what I can comfortably do every day. Some days maybe as little as 30 kilometres; some maybe as much as 80 or 90 – but not as a usual thing, no. Thinking about my capacity is part of thinking about the bigger challenge of finding the right balance amongst riding, sight-seeing, socialising, writing and getting everyday stuff done (bookkeeping, processing photos, keeping up correspondence, etc). I’m here to ride but if I ride all day I’m too tired at the end of the day to get other things done.

So come mid afternoon when I’ve ridden some 70 kilometres on a 30 degree Celsius (plus) day I decide it’s time for the train to Basel.

 

28 – 30 June: Basel & Montbéliard

Basel is boring. Well, I find it boring – quiet, boring and expensive.

“How expensive?” you ask – I saw espresso going for 4.60 Swiss Francs at a café in the centre of town – that’s A$6.44, for a short black. Closer to where I’m staying I saw one for 2.50 Swiss Francs or A$4.90. My Mini Moko stove-top espresso maker is paying for itself.

I am finding that the cumulative exhaustion that comes with long days of riding leave me too flat on my rest days to actually get out and see the place I’m resting in. I’m really just happy to sit here at the hostel, making plans for the coming weeks, doing administrative stuff and  mucking about on Facebook but Basel is out there – a city I’ve never visited before and am unlikely to ever visit again. I should see something of it.

So I go out and what do I find on this hot, humid, Monday evening? Not much. Not many people, nothing much happening. Maybe I went to the wrong places. Maybe everyone stays home on Mondays. Or maybe Basel is just boring.

Here are some good things I can say of the place:

  • It has cool trams (and a free pass for them was provided by the hostel)
  • It’s multicultural
  • France and Germany are nearby
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The Basel Minster

I enter France before leaving Switzerland. One end of the train station is marked France – entering, one finds ticket machines for the French trains, and the old customs offices – seemingly abandoned, or, at least, very very rarely used.

I roll my bicycle on to the French train with ease – a good first experience with France. At Mulhouse station, as I’m getting my bearings, a gentleman approaches and offers to be of assistance. He points, then leads, then explains in simple English how to get to the Eurovelo 6 Cycle Route which I will ride from here. This is my second good experience with France.

I spend the rest of the day riding along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin to Montbéliard. It’s flat easy riding and mostly pretty. Along the way I pass this memorial:

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Morts Pour La France

I circle back to have a closer look and, to be honest, it makes me a little teary. 70 years on and here is a small, innocuous but maintained memorial to a handful of men who lost their lives fighting for the freedom of France (and the world). My third good experience with France.

It’s quite a hot day, in the low 30s I’d say, and a weekday, so there aren’t a lot of other people out on the path. Near towns I see a few walkers and near the locks there are occasionally workers but mostly it’s just me the canal and the sunshine.

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Eurovelo 6 along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin

I’m passed by a rider going the opposite direction – he says ‘bon jour’ and I reply in kind. About 10 minutes later he comes back alongside me and begins a conversation in simple English: where are you from? Where are you going? These sorts of things. Quite normal. Then, apropos of nothing he says: “I have a big dick.” I say “I am not interested in your dick.” To which he says, “But it’s big.” And I say “Really, I don’t care.” He says something like “Come on, it won’t take long.” The man really knows a thing or two about wooing the ladies that’s for sure.

I can’t ride away from him – on a fully-loaded bicycle I can’t out pedal him. And while he is desirous he doesn’t seem menacing. I tell him to piss off. I stop my bicycle – look at him pointing in the direction he has come from and say, “Go.” He mumbles some more. And I say again, “Piss off – go.” And he does. I wait til he’s gone some way and then ride on. At the next lock there are some workers so I stop there for a little while to make sure he doesn’t come back.

So, strike one for France.

Here’s the thing I then spend time thinking about through the afternoon:

Had this worked for him before? Had telling a cycling woman he has a big dick led her to follow him to some place in the bushes for a quick fuck (which, as he said, “wouldn’t take long”)?

He wasn’t a bad looking guy. I didn’t have time for a coffee but, you know, under different circumstances – such a fellow strikes up a conversation on the bicycle path, suggests coffee at a nearby café … you never know where such an encounter might lead. But “I have a big dick … it won’t take long.” These are not magic words, this will never work.

But I leave behind the unpleasantness and pedal on beside the river through the hot afternoon continuing to offer a happy “bon jour” to riders, pedestrians and boaters alike.

In Montbéliard I am staying with more WarmShowers’ hosts – Benoit, Elisabeth and their four kids. They live in a rambling townhouse near the city centre and have been hosting riders for about a year. They don’t do a lot of touring themselves but they love hosting for the experiences it provides their children.

Whatever black mark befell France courtesy of Monsieur Big Dick was erased by the warm and homey welcome extended to me here. Some neighbour kids join us for a big family dinner of simple food and simple English conversation. There are spectacular cheeses (no surprise) and then Benoit asks the kids if they want ice cream or fruit for dessert and the overwhelming choice? Fruit! All of them … yes, yes fruit please!

Afterwards the kids go out to play in the warm and still sunlit evening while we adults linger in the kitchen and talk of our lives, the world we live in, and the joys of cycling.

 

The Rhine Delta and Konstanz to Flaach- 26th & 27th June 2015 (Days 33 &34)

Friday 26 June 2015: The Rhine Delta to Konstanz

The day is stunning and summery as I ride along the Rhine Delta toward Lake Constance (or the Bodensee as it’s called locally).

I turn onto a small road marked by a sign promising Erdbeere and soon find myself resting on a bench, a diminishing punnet of perfect June strawberries resting on my knee. They are all I could want: firm, full, juicy, sweet but with a fresh bit of tang as well. As I sit,eating one after another, the farmer drives past – his tractor loaded with trays of berries just picked. And in the distance the farm workers are coming in from the field for their lunch break.

Here in the delta, with the mountains fading behind me, hawks circle, circle, circle on warm currents above the fields. I shield my eyes to watch as one dives for a bit of prey then climbs again into a pale summer-blue sky scored with jet-trails. Far far up, at cruising altitude, are tiny aeroplanes. I think of my flight from London to Milan, of my looking out the window at the Alps – one of those wee planes may well be today’s BA 576.

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Jet trails over the Rhine Delta.

The Swiss border is signaled by a supermarket, cafe and post office in a spot which is, otherwise, the middle of nowhere. The Swiss cross to Austria for lower prices. My crossing is made at a bridge over a wee creek where the style of the bicycle signage changes and I spy a Swiss flag dancing languidly.

I meet the pale blue, almost aquamarine Lake and follow it the rest of the day. I pass through towns, industrial areas and holiday communities. At my lunch stop in Romanshorn I meet a mature-aged group of men on a weekend cycle. I exchange a few words with the English speakers and they smile approvingly of my coffee making.

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The Bodensee

My destination is Konstanz – a lovely German university town thumping with summer visitors. So close is Konstanz to Switzerland, and otherwise surrounded by water, that the city left its lights on during World War II. Allied bombers, not wanting to risk attacking the neutral Swiss, spared the city. At the border I am greeted by a faded Bundesrepublik Deutschland sign and a pair of seemingly-abandoned guardhouses. And, just like that, I am in Germany.

I am staying with Sara – a WarmShowers host, artist and art therapy teacher who lives on the top-floor of a narrow old apartment building near the city centre. We sit on her deck having elderflower cordial and apricots while overlooking a spreading oval of similar buildings with similar decks and, down below, a shared patch of green.

In the evening we meet up with some friends of her’s for dinner at the African Festival on the main square in the old town and later walk to the lake to listen to an Afro-Cuban jazz band playing in a park as the setting sun leaves the mountains ethereal in the distance.

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Was this what I expected from Germany? I wasn’t surprised but, no, probably not.

Outside Sara’s place I saw my first Stolperstein (literally “stumbling stone”) –a cobblestone-sized brass plate set in the footpath informing me that a Jehovah’s Witness who had resided here before World War II, had been detained by the state and then murdered. That was more of what I expected, really.

Saturday 27 June: Konstanz to Flaach

I make a leisurely start of it today, lingering over coffee and chatting with Sara. I stop to collect supplies from the Saturday-busy local supermarket and then pedal from town and back into Switzerland.

The day’s riding is a mix of on-road and off, pavement and gravel, through towns, villages and farms, along the river and away from it, in the forest. The route weaves back and forth over borders and I often have no idea which country I am in.

Stein am Rhine is a surprising delight because I had no foreknowledge. I knew the route went though the town but I had no idea what to expect so when I roll into the medieval town square I giggle with delight. I’m not entirely sure which country I’m in until I choose a postcard to buy and everything in the shop is Swiss.

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Stein am Rhine

Not far beyond Stein am Rhine I am rolling past meadows full of wild flowers and then climbing a gravel road into the Black Forest. At a bend I find an ambulance, a group of cyclists standing aside and the paramedics tending to an older rider who has come off his bicycle. It doesn’t look good but nor does it look terrible. It is a reminder to be cautious.Stein am Rhine

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Swiss Wild Flowers (or are they German?)

The forest is dark, beautiful and full of birdsong. That I am in the Black Forest also makes me chuckle – it’s a name I would use as a generic place I might be when talking of this trip before coming away. Like, “I’ll look forward to using my e-reader while camped in the Black Forest.” So it was funny to actually be here. And it is beautiful. And the birds are amazing.

Just as I stop for a late lunch in a swimming park next to the river the sky darkens and rain hammers down accompanied by thunder and lightning. Parents scoop wee children and run them to cover. Teenagers linger in the rain until lifeguards, dressed in familiar yellow and red uniforms, hustle them out of the water. An eave of the ablution block offers me all the shelter I need – I lunch, make a coffee and watch the rain fall. It doesn’t last long and soon I am packing up and the swimmers are back in the river.

Fearing the rumours I’d long heard of the expense of Switzerland I am hoping to avoid spending money there as much as possible, and when I do, to limit the damage. Somewhere in the afternoon I miss my chance to cross back into Germany. The route on the Swiss side is longer and come 6 pm I am nearing 80 kilometres on the day when I spot a campground on my map. Whatever the cost it will have to do. I passed some places I might have wild camped but I lack the confidence to do that – at least on my own and in a place where I don’t speak the language.

The cost of my patch of grass, access to the ablution block, use of a small campers’ kitchen and a swimming pool: 24f or about A$35* – the most expensive camping pitch I’ve ever used. I think about getting food in their restaurant but cheapest main was 18f and a bowl of chips was 9f (A$17.30 and A$8.66). So I cook up some pasta with reluctant acceptance that it is what it is – I’ve ended up in Switzerland on a night I’d hoped not to and paid the price.

I have 90km to cover tomorrow to get to Basel where I’ve a booking at a hostel. Ninety kilometres is a big day for me under any circumstances – that I am anticipating 90km means there’s a good chance it will be closer to 100 km. All I can do is try.

I do something very unusual for me on this trip – I set an alarm for 6 am in hopes of getting away early enough to give me every chance of getting to Basel.

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In the Black Forest – How’s the serenity?

*24 Swiss Francs or about 35 Australian dollars.