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The plan was to zip back up to Maastricht to see a couple of people, then turn right around and rush across France and the Pyrenees a thousand miles in three weeks for La Criticona, the world-wide critical mass in Madrid. Once back in Limburg, I would only check in with Paul, a Belgian sailor mate I met while sailing across the Atlantic, and meet up with Patrick Buckley, son of the Irishman who welded my bike frame, who I’d promised to visit if I were ever in the Netherlands, then quick head back South.
I had had no word from Paul or Patrick; I wasn’t even sure they would be in town. I had a loose bottom bracket that was sure to get worse, especially crossing mountains, and, I hate rushing. I admit, it was a silly plan.
But I went for it.
For a couple of days I went strong, pushing myself as if I actually had a schedule to meet for once. Traffic navigation hell leaving Paris through the Charles de Gaulle airport, a couple nice campsites, a Belgian bike path by chance, some Roman ruins… some bar patrons enthusiastically taught me the word for “hydrated.” Drunk locals are always so happy to see me….
I also started noticing traffic signs upon entering villages that said, “Ralentissez.” Slow down. But I missed the omen there; I just said, “Yeah, slow down, all you cars.”
Once I got directions from an old gray-haired cyclist who said my French was very good and that I’d enjoy Maastricht. His directions were wrong, though, and I had to ask a group of teachers how to get to Dailly. Now, apparently this name doesn’t exactly follow the pronunciation rules(if such things exist in French) and I am certainly not fluent, but these ladies outside the primary school just laughed at me when I humbly butchered the pronunciation. They were so rude that for a moment I actually felt hurt, finding it hard to laugh at myself normally. I interrupted their cruel mirth to ask again, this time correctly, and they shoved their English teacher at me, who, being accustomed to teaching time and present tense to first graders, obviously did not want the pressure of speaking real English.
“You go…” <hand motion>
“Straight?” I supplied.
“You go str-reight. Zen…leift… à la ville….”
She totally butchered the pronunciation, but I just smiled and said “Merci beaucoup.”
I passed by some of the same towns Lily and I had been through on our way to Paris. Here’s where we saw that kid fall off his bike and get up smiling… Here’s where that suave fella leaned in to give us close-quarters cigarette-smoke directions… Here’s that hill that was such a triumph on her single-speed… No time for serious nostalgia though; I had to press on.
It was a four-day plan and I was on schedule, pushing myself over winding cliff ascents and big-ringin’ it across the farmlands. Stopping to explore for internet access isn’t easy, though, when you’ve got miles left on your agenda before dark, so it was day four before I could check for email responses from Paul and Patrick: still nothing. Too late now, just keep going. See what happens.
Climbing the hill out of Dinant, a jet black cat scurried across my path. I stopped, partly to try and feed her a cat treat and partly to wonder — was this a sign, an omen? Is this bad luck?? Did they change the Matrix?!?
I kept on. In the next village, up ahead I saw another sleek chat noir amble lazily across the road in front of me and sneak through the cemetery fence.
Then I was coming around a corner in another village, and I halted in my tracks: a third, all-black cat turned to assess me, fixing his golden eyes on me for a moment before bounding past into a garden.
Three black cats in one afternoon — yikes. You know what they say about black cats crossing your path…. I felt like shuddering; but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that this was bad luck. I’m like an ancient Egyptian – for me, cats are like totem animals, benevolent spirits; veritable gods in lithe sensual affection. How could they signal harm? Anyway, I figured I would find out soon enough whether fortune was with me or not.
The answer was revealed when I arrived in Lanaye, which according to my unconfirmed information was the Maastricht satellite where Paul lives. Now I was remembering, he had said something about selling his house last year… in fact he flew back from the islands early to close on the sale… hmm.
I passed the sign that said “Lanaye” just after dark, marking potential tent pitches on my way. Outside the very first house of the village, a man was working on a vintage scooter in his yard. I had no address for Paul, only a phone number, but it was a small village so I was counting on everyone knowing each other; Paul’s the type of guy everyone would know, anyway. Loud and friendly.
This fella didn’t know him, but he let me make a call on his mobile… no answer. I left a message as he got the scooter running, tip-toeing through courtesies in French. Jean was his name, and just as he was inviting me in for a coffee, figuring “Maybe he’ll call back” — he called back.
Yes, he remembered me, and yes he got my emails. But I hadn’t made it, I wasn’t coming, why wasn’t I coming?
“No, no, Paul, I am in Lanaye. I did make it! Lanaye, I’m here, I am in LANAYE.”
He sounded drunk, but he told me to keep riding, he’s waiting outside for me… center of town… across from church. Okay! I thanked Jean profusely, and minutes later was greeted gregariously by a grinning Paul, hugged and kissed and shaken and clasped, introduced to his wife Desirée, and offered a seat on the patio outside the cute little bistro he owns. Safe!
As the fine Belgian beer flowed and I began to catch up with Paul, it became clear how lucky this day really was. First, it was Paul’s birthday, or at least he was celebrating someone’s birthday. Second, after about an hour of drinking and feasting and talking, they remembered that it was their ninth wedding anniversary — champagne! And also, a neighborhood cat – this one tabby patched – who had never before been seen on the front patio, decided to hang out with us; he even took his own chair next to mine. I fed him roast beef, and knew then for certain after all, “Black cats arelucky.”
* * *
Patrick Buckley was in town too, as I later discovered, and so I was able to complete a circle, one that began with my broken bike frame in one certain Irish tractor repair barn in rural Tipperary. Thanks again to the Buckley family, the bike is holding strong!
And what of rushing South? What of my plan?
It was a stupid plan; logistically unfeasible, unhealthy for my body and mind, and disrespectful to Europe and its culture. As a matter of fact, I don’t like plans at all — I prefer to adhere to the strict definition of adventure, and keep it alive in my mind.
Adventure. \əd-ˈven-chər\ n. A bold action of uncertain outcome.
How can it be an adventure if I know, or even just think I know, what’s going to happen?
What’s more, I like to take it slow. If you ask me, speed kills. Rushing is exactly the reason our society has so many problems these days. I’ve come to resist not only the oil industry and motorized vehicles, but also, on a wider, more profound level, the speed and convenience with which we live our lives.
Oh, and from a cosmic omen, sign-of-the-Universe standpoint: Paul’s restaurant is named “Les Boulots,” after a type of snail…
I acquiesced, and released that frenetic, stubborn, counter-intuitive idea of attending La Criticona on April 30. Instead of one night, I stayed with Paul for a week, and watched the future open wide before me. I got a discount on a new bottom bracket at a local shop and borrowed some tools to replace it myself; I visited an immense old artists’ squat right on the river Maas and attended vegan dinners and anarchy discussions; and slowly I formed a new plan: to take my time.