FIRST DAY IN FRANCE
The first thing we did in France, just across the border, was Kiss. Bien sur!
The second thing I did was lay down a hundred pump strokes on a slow leak, trying to make it to camp before I did the repair. Damn slow leaks – they ride the line between “better fix it now” and “just pedal harder.”
That first day we stopped for a big grocery shop and had a huge lunch in the parking lot. Food is a big deal in France; chocolate for breakfast and local boulengeries for fresh bread daily, a bazaare of a thousand cheeses and delicate doughs. Everyone that saw us snacking in town squares or picnicking on the side of the road said, “Bon appetit!” In France it’s as common as saying “Bless you” after a sneeze.
Later we stopped to check out a noise coming from Lily’s bike (named Soleil Knoopje – “Sunny Buttons” in French and Dutch) which turned into a full-on bike repair session right there on the shoulder of the road. Lily removed her rattly chainguard like a pro; I don’t know a mechanic who still rides with one. We drank red wine from waterbottles and got our hands dirty with black bike grease, and drew honks from passing cars as we kissed and flirted in the blossoming French spring.
GROCERY SHOPPING, I LEARN FROM LILY
Every word for non-vegan ingredients that could appear on a French food ingredients list.
THE CAR CRASH
Once we were riding two abreast on the highway; we were going with the debatable logic that being too wide to pass in the lane is actually safer than letting the motorists think they might just have enough room to sneak past you at 100 kph… it was all fine, making people slow down and wait until there was an opening in oncoming traffic, just like they would have to do behind a tractor. No problem. That is, until the van behind us(which was crawling along patiently) was rear-ended by some moron in too much of a hurry. Probably oblivious on his cellphone. Suddenly there was a huge crash behind us, barely enough time to yell a curse before it was all over… thankfully the screeching metal didn’t reach us, and the worst of it ended up being the van’s crushed rear end and some frazzled nerves. We took off before anyone could blame us – were we to blame, after all? – and on a side road we calmed our racing pulse with a Belgian chocolate break. It was the closest call with a car I’d ever had out here bike touring; and this being a good reality-check, I really wanted to inquire, “So… you still want to ride your bike to Greece?” But discouragement was the last thing I wanted to extend, so instead I said, “Good thing we were wearing our helmets. Here, try this one, it’s hazelnut.”
A GIRL OFFERS TO TRADE HER VOLVO FOR MY BIKE
No fucking way, honey.
PIPO’S FEAR OASIS
One late afternoon we stopped to supply on water at a place called Pipo’s Musical Cafe. It was just a small hotel/bar with a nice karaoke stereo, but Pipo was really cute and welcoming, gave us water and even some free Belgian beer. Even with the sun going down, we couldn’t turn that offer down… it’s free beer. He even offered to let us stay there – but we weren’t sure whether he would charge us. While Lily chatted with some Dutch tourists about their travels in Australia, I was working up to asking whether it would be free or not. Slow, intermediate French and social subtlety don’t mix too well though, and soon it was “It’slate,shallwego?” No problem – we did have a tent after all.
Except these cramped European villages were so close together there was nowhere to camp… We carried on, peeling our eyes wider and wider, reducing our standards lower and lower. But it just seemed like one big swath of village. As the sun actually dipped below the horizon, we entered a town whose “welcome” sign bore the spray-painted grafitti “LOCK YOUR DOORS.” Great sign. The people with the huge, wild back yard did not come the door when we knocked. Then, while the neighbor told us, hands shaking nervously, that she doesn’t know who lives there, no, it’s private, it’s impossible to camp there, we saw a lady come out of the house, close her shutters and lock them, and run back inside with a terrified glance our direction. Unbelievable! A simple “no” would’ve been fine…. Down the street we saw an under-construction hotel with a humongous empty yard, but the proprieter, behind his huge guard dog, told us there was no room. Fear. It was everywhere. Finally we saw a white cat prowling the edge of a schoolyard, took it as a sufficient omen, and pitched the tent right there in the soccer field, hoping the patrol fliques wouldn’t see us before we left at dawn, and seriously wishing we had stayed at Pipo’s Musical Cafe!
LILY GASPS AS I EAT STINGING NETTLES
The young top-shoots don’t bite back.
NAVIGATION AND ENDURANCE
The rolling hills of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie are not easy to cross on a loaded single-speed, but Lily did it, and with only minimal help from me during hill-bottom pep-talks. The best advice I could come up with was a hazy cross-country memory of mind-over-matter endurance and coach Shuckman saying “A to B.” Your body will never fail you – it’s your mind that will. The time when your muscles really gain is when they’re tired. Lily preferred a “don’t look up” technique for conquering hills, and before long she was cursing ol’ Shucky and his enthusiastic counsels.
Still trying, with limited success, to use the more flat canal routes to Paris, we guessed our way along with my compass and Lily’s beat-up old Benelux map. I’d stand there pointing North while she figured out where to go; it was a nice change from making all the decisions myself.
LOOKING FOR ESPRESSO, CAFE CHOSEN BASED ON BIKE LEANING UP OUTSIDE
The bike’s white-haired owner refused to let us pay for our coffee.
For a language that is so easy to rhyme(so many silent letters at the end of words!) French sure seems limited in vocabulary. Maybe it’s just that I am not a French scholar, I’m sure I’m missing something(I am NOT an expert!). But still… some things are just odd.
Language and culture are two parts of the same thing. Here are some informative examples:
–There is no word in French for “cheap.” “Cheapest” is le moins cher = “the least expensive.” The closest I’ve been able to discover is bon marché = “good deal,” used as an adjective. High class!
—Aimer. This is the famous word for “like” e.g. J’aime manger = “I like to eat.” But it is also the word for “love” e.g. J’aime Lily.= “I love Lily.” Strange? Romantic? Or just under-specific?
–Husband is marié... but wife? They use femme = “woman.” No difference between wife and woman?!?
–The suffix “-ette.” While being a diminutive, it also lends a sense of feminitity. Uh oh… look out feminists!
–Big, large, great, grand. These are all one word in French, grand.
But so what? Who’s to say that the subtleties of “feeling the context” aren’t better than crisp, satisfying, image-provoking description? Language is just a code for transmitting thoughts, and one that is forever doomed to imperfection, besides. No language comes close to true telepathy, no matter how many words are in its dictionary, no matter how proficient its master scholars. I for one am happy there’s so much variety in the world. I won’t say it makes travelling very easy, but neither am I about to exclaim any pity for French poets or anything.
I also learned that it is way easier to speak French(or any foreign language, I suppose) with non-native speakers. The guy from Yugoslavia, for whom French was a fourth language, gave much clearer directions than any French person ever did… Makes sense, pidgin to pidgin.
AN AUSTRALIAN’S INTRODUCTION TO KOOLAID
Sugar – 100% natural energy. Mmmm.
Late one afternoon nearing Paris, trying to find a certain canal into the city, we realized we were already in the town that the canal runs through. We rejoiced to find a nice quiet bike path running all the way into the metropolis. The suburbs fell behind as the sun set on our winding riverside.
It was nice until I stopped to take some dusk photos of a bridge. I was happily adjusting my shutter speed, jammin’ to some music coming from a scooter across the canal, when the scooter’s owner tried to throw a beer bottle at me and we realized it was a bit sketchy down on the river path….
The “path” turned into bumpy, muddy grass, and the streetlights stopped. We bouced our slow way along, careful not to fall into the water or lose any gear, until we saw some people hanging out under a bridge and asked “Does this path lead to the city center?” As we were receiving a dubious but jubilant array of answers, from “Well sort of” to “Yeah it does” to simply “Go! Go!” another cyclist caught up and stopped, fully neon and blinky lights, and said, pointing up a different path, “This way is better…” He was about to leave, because the bridge dwellers started arguing with him, but I stopped him, saying, “Wait — I trust the man on the bike.” It was an accomplishment to say in French, with a rusty tongue and only moments to spare before he escaped, but he slowed down and led us up to a nice modern piste ciclable. Turns out he was an off-duty cop, on his way to work, and he rode with us right into Paris. There was a detour he was able to shortcut because he had the key to the gate; even gave us a map — a police escort, nice! And perhaps we left him a bit more inspired; surely he went to work that night armed with a great story for his cop buddies: “Guess who I met today while riding my bike to work?”
We found our way to the 6ème Arondissement, well after dark, with the help of several other passersby. By night and on loaded bikes, everyone we spoke with just melted before the sheer romance of our story-clip: an American and an Australian, fell in love on the road, Amsterdam to Paris. By bike.