09 Jul Slugs And Smiles
Wobbling off the boat in Boulogne, with instant emersion into new sights and sounds and the slow movement forward, a beaming smile returned to my face. There is something magical about making progress on a bike. The combination of constantly changing backdrops and the pedals’ relentless demand for your attention keeps the mind occupied and before you know what’s happened all of your worries disappear as you crawl towards new horizons. On waking alone in a wet tent, searching through ill packed panniers for the one thing that I need, which is always at the bottom, it has been this momentum that has kept me sane. But for my first evening, it brought me a new high and leaving the boat I laughed at everything I saw, I was in France! A feeling of sensory overload overcame me as my eyes darted between everything from posters to payphones to people and I never wanted it to end.
Waking on my first morning in France in a campsite I had snuck into, I was keen to leave quickly but the tent had other ideas. I had been recommended to pack a compass from the beginning of my planning and last week this had come in useful as I must have been the only person in 2010 to cross London purely by magnetic navigation. Today I realised that the tent should definitely not be in the shade in the morning and made a pact with the compass that we would discuss this every evening. The hot days of England were continuing in France and as the dew rose, everything was soaked at sunrise. Possibly the worst thing that comes with a wet tent in France is the slugs, and these aren’t puny English slugs, these are steroid taking monster-slugs. There is nothing worse than finding a size 9 slug squeezing into your size 8 shoe first thing in the morning.
With a dry tent I said goodbye to the slug and to the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean I will hopefully not see now until America, and so my long journey East began. As my first country to cross and the third largest country in Europe, France brought with it diversity in every form. Instantly I hoped that this feeling could last forever as everyone I passed said ‘Bonjour’ with a friendly wave. Meandering down country roads my route unfolded through rural villages and farmland.
The tan lines that have been turning me into a pedalling neopolitan ice-cream since leaving home have become ridiculous in the intense sun. Thirty degrees in the shade has meant getting water on a regular basis, the perfect excuse to meet locals. Introducing myself as a thirsty round the world cyclist, I have been amazed at the kindness and generosity of strangers and on my second night I was eating an enormous home cooked meal that even I couldn’t finish, sleeping in the garden of a farm house and waking to breakfast with all the farmers. The regular conversation that I have now repeated countless times revolves around my route, the weight of Dolly (my bike) and the dangers of Iran. This is usually done with no comprehension of each other’s language, resulting in extreme gestures, map usage and weighing of the bike combined with quick exhalation and shaking of the head. This warm welcome is extended to me on most nights and I have already been fortunate enough to stay in the company of countless families and couples, wanting to share their lives and learn about my journey. To breakfast in a dairy farm in rural France is something that must be experienced firsthand, as fresh milk is warmed to make large bowls of delicious hot chocolate into which baguettes smothered in jam are dipped and eaten while rowdy French conversation is thrown across the table. I felt honoured to have been able to be part of this real life experience so early into my trip and left that morning feeling refreshed and alive.
Feux de Saint Jean
After two nights with families, my route led me through the region of the Somme. Approaching dusk I still had nowhere to put my tent and for the first time on the trip I felt out of my depth, scared and concerned. From the calm of a quiet corn field, I heard the eclectic DJ-ing of strange French circus music mixing into rock. I cycled past what looked like a children’s party and so carried on around a dark corner in the road. Reconsidering my options I turned back for further investigation. Through my slowly improving elementary French I was invited to join the celebration of Saint Jean where a huge bonfire was about to be lit opposite a bustling area of barbeques and a bar under a tent. A lycra clad Englishman arriving in the darkness caused a stir amongst the 70 or so locals from surrounding villages and as I was bought my first beer and handed a hot dog, the fire was lit and word spread. From that moment, the evening unfolded into a barrage of French conversations over maps and the bike and with every conversation came a fresh glass of Champagne. Hours passed and as night turned to morning I had had far too many conversations… I laughed, struggling to stand up as locals rode Dolly around the dark streets and my possessions were jettisoned from open panniers. Everywhere I turned people spoke to me, whether the thumbs up from old men, school boys wanting to practise their English or the town drunk, who leant his large weight on to my unstable frame and introduced the town porn star. The night progressed into a circus of characters and performances and as the sun began to rise I found myself slouched in a garden chair at an after party with my new friends drinking more Champagne and eating cake and cherries. I woke up the next morning with a cowboy hat, a hunting knife and an incredible hangover, wearing only lycra shorts on a sofa in a room I didn’t recognise. I found and woke my host, Jean Baptiste, and we laughed, recounting last night’s memories through an online translator before breakfast of paella with vodka and coke. We spent the day with Fredrick resting our heads in the shade of trees, fishing at a nearby pond. As we sat listening to Irish Classics through Fredrick’s car radio, we discussed the nature of French culture and the importance of food and drink, spanning not only the fine dining and wine but also the heritage of the vineyards and farms, and the pastimes of hunting and fishing. France was truly in my blood as I left the next day, cycling in sobering solitude through the many cemeteries of The Great War
For the next week I cycled from house to house, through the rolling vineyards of Champagne as the only person not wanting wine, and into the massive plains south of Reims where horizons stretched endlessly to Dijon. As I sat on a bridge in the baking heat before entering Dijon, another cyclist raced to the water’s edge behind me, stripped to his shorts and jumped straight in. Nick was from California and arriving in France two weeks before his learning abroad program began, had bought a cruiser bike for 180 Euro and cycled across from Orleans. To speak English and exchange in microscopic detail our experiences crossing France was liberating after 10 days of struggling to converse. We drank bottles of French wine that afternoon and swam in the river, inventing the ‘real life aquarium’, before cycling through the town to get more beers and kebabs. We drank under the setting sun with strangers and fell asleep under the stars in the university field. From our similar backgrounds and shared interest in the society and world communities, endless conversations spewed from drunk mouths and people we met thought we had known each other for years. Nick’s laid back Californian attitude appealed to me and I questioned the need for my extensive range of equipment and preparation. I wanted to replace my lycra with some board shorts and cruise around the world, however over the next few days I realised that all the baggage I carried bought me the freedom that Nick personified to me.
The next day, crossing Dijon for more kebabs after swimming in the lake, we met Patrick at a crossroads. He spoke to us about cycling, welcomed us to stay at his house and invited us to join him and his family for a traditional French dinner in town. That evening we dined on the finest Duck, Steak and Escargot France has to offer, accompanied by the perfect Pinot Noir of Burgundy before returning to his house, looking over maps and deciding that all three of us would cycle together tomorrow. Cycling solo is a rich and rewarding experience as you immerse yourself in everything you find, but to travel as a group felt fantastic. We cycled along canals discussing wine, jumping from bridges into the water, stopping at bars and establishing a new tradition of French/Californian decadent picnicking. Time passed quickly and to say goodbye to Nick after building a solid friendship over the past three days was sad. As he returned to Dijon, Patrick and I cycled on into the Jura mountain range as a storm brewed ahead. After 100km the heavens opened and we were stranded in a torrential thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere. Sheltering under a bus stop, we snacked and decided to make the most of the weather. Stripping naked and washing the day’s sweat and dirt from my body in the cold rain was the best shower I had experienced in France and rounded off a weekend of learning to make the most of natures simple pleasures. We laughed as my pale bum winked at the passing parade of police motorcycles while I struggled to get my feet into my shorts and we rode out the storm drinking beers, feeling fresh and warm in clean clothes. The following morning we were woken by the clanging of cow bells, literally bells on cows, as the poor beasts suffered the torment of ringing every time they moved. Patrick had to return to Dijon for work the following day as I headed into the mountains for a solitary day of reminiscing over an incredibly fulfilling weekend. I finished my wild experiences that night, sneaking onto a ski resort and pushing Dolly all the way to the peak. I erected my tent on the very edge of the mountain and looked down 1600 meters at the lights of Geneva in the fading sun of dusk for the most rewarding pasta and soup in the world!
I now sit in the comfort of a friend’s apartment in the shadows of the French Alps in Annecy 1500km from home, knowing as I condense these mind blowing experiences into words that I will only dilute this wonderful experience. On my last day’s cycling here, I was sitting in a bar with Tim (www.tourdefrancetim.blogspot.com) an English student who’s path has, by chance, crossed with mine three times now. We watched some of the Tour de France on a small television in the corner and upon leaving, we met the legendary Australian Sebastian Terry (www.100things.com.au), on a mission to tick off everything on a list of 100 things to do in his life. Having just spent five months in Geneva learning another language, he was now walking across a country with his friend Matty before flying to America to perform a wedding and deliver a baby! Although it has been hard to find the time even to write over the last few weeks, his antics got me thinking about the possibilities of fitting other challenges into my round the world cycle. Over the next three years I will need something to take my mind off the cycling, so any ideas? On Sebastian’s recommendation I’m especially considering a stupid world record…
As I travel between these experiences on the seat of a bicycle, I am absorbing the detail of the world as if through a macro lens, from the dew covered spider webs in the morning grass to the crickets and birdsong of dusk. I rest at the end of the day with hitch hiking bugs in my hair and on my skin, I have smelled the rich timber yards I passed through in Jura and every morning, like a slug to a wet tent I am tempted towards the smell of the Boulangerie’s where I stock up on cakes and baguettes to get me through the day. I am getting used to my own stinking body, to washing in rivers, lakes or storms and to separating the clothing that smells good enough to be allowed into the tent from what has to wait outside before being worn again the next day. My socks now stand up on their own and I embrace that. I ache at the end of the day because I have worked to get to where I am, and before collapsing with exhaustion, I acknowledge with a big grin that I am one very lucky and very happy young man.
After five days here in Annecy rock climbing and picnicking in the mountains and by the lake, I am beginning to feel stagnant and the call of the road echoes loud with my desire to again feel the wheels spin beneath me. I leave tomorrow to attack the sharp mountain cliffs of the Alps that have been tormenting me for the last week…