Travels With Valentine
“I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from. We got tons of history lying about the place, big old castles, and they just get in the way. We’re driving — ‘Oh, a @#$% castle! Have to drive around it…’ Disney came over and built Euro Disney, and they built the Disney castle there, and it was, ‘You better make it a bit bigger, they’ve actually got them here… And they’re not made of plastic!’ We got tons of them, because you think we all live in castles, and we do all live in castles! We all got a castle each. We’re up to here with castles! We just long for a bungalow or something.” — Eddie Izzard
|On the shore of Loch Gur|
“Have a nice time, people said to me at my send-off at South Station. It was not precisely what I had hoped for. I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort…” — Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express
Since I have developed a habit of traveling in the last few years, people often have asked me, “So, where’s your next trip going to be?” In the course of my answer I used to say that I would go to Europe when I got old — better to get the dangerous countries out of the way while I was young and agile.
However, when plans fell through for a trip to India a few weeks before it was to occur this August, I decided to bike across parts of Ireland and France. Because even if it isn’t where all of the history comes from, it is where some of my history comes from. I got my Irish citizenship a few years ago, because my grandparents were born there. The process is simple: send in the chain of birth, death, and marriage certificates linking you to the grandparent born in Ireland, wait around for a year and a bit, and then BANG, there you are, document saying “Congratulations, you’re Irish, one of us now.” Uh, really? I mean, I can’t do a jig, don’t know any words of Gaelic, I haven’t got the brogue — hell, I can’t even recognize it: right before this trip I mistook an Irishwoman for an Australian.
When I was twelve my parents took me on a trip to Ireland (after giving me a choice of Ireland or Disneyworld: “Um. Ireland, please.”) and we drove around for a few weeks. We visited castles, kissed the Blarney stone, met a couple of long lost cousins and saw the remaining walls of the house where my grandmother grew up.
My Dad drank Guinness. I remember taking a sip once in a pub, at thirteen years of age, and gagging.
Now, fifteen years later, I like Guinness, and I have this maroon passport with a harp on it. So it seemed appropriate to drop in for a bit.
Allegedly I have a great-great grandmother from Alsace, but my ties to France are mostly the language. Freshman year of high school, the choice was between French or Spanish. Those are the normal choices in America, its sort of like the McDonalds and Burger King of languages, available in every town. Italian? Chinese? That’s more In N’ Out Burger kind of languages, only in specially selected places. France ended up being the BK language because the French are language imperialists. They bribe other countries to speak French. I talked to a group of Cambodian university students once who all spoke near-perfect French. Reason? France funds Cambodian higher education, conditional on it being done in French. I suspect a similar plot got French into my Catholic high school. Wouldn’t you think Italian would be a natural choice for a Catholic school? Good for getting around the Vatican. Maybe it is more important to communicate with the Swiss Guard.
So anyway. High school decision: French or Spanish, Spanish or French. The French program had a regular trip planned to France. The Spanish program didn’t. I went with the French people. I did eventually get to go to France in high school through another program, with the Lion’s Club. But now instead of being able to converse with the 30 million Spanish speaking Hispanics in the US, I can speak with the like fourteen French people who live here. Therefore, I went to France as well, where the French speakers live.
Valentine is my bicycle, an eleven year old blue Mongoose Switchback. My parents bought Val for me the day I started college. The second year of college, when students were permitted to have cars on campus, several of my friends got automobiles and gave them names like Obie and Helga. This was more fun than saying “my car” and was used like: “Hey, let’s all pile into Obie and head down to the beach for the day.”
I didn’t have a car to name (until junior year, not so sad), so I figured I’d name my bicycle. At the time I was reading Ender’s Game, a spectacular science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, and one of the main characters is named Valentine. I named my bike after her. The thing is, a bike being not such a social vehicle as a car, there is not much opportunity to refer to it by name.
Valentine has mutated over the years as parts have broken or worn out. I like fixing things, and that is one of the things that has kept me from getting a new bike is that there would be nothing to fix then. Val is sort of a Mad Max kind of a bike. Mad Max is the move in which gave Mel Gibson got his start in 1979. Set in the post-apocalyptic near future, all of the cars are pieced together from whatever parts people can find, and they look like this:
I took my bike in to the local shop to have them repair something I didn’t have the tools to do the day before I left for Ireland. The work ticket, when I picked it up, had a paragraph of closely-printed text of things the shophand thought were bizarre or mismatched that I “might want to take a look at before taking this bike on a tour.”
The second day in Ireland was cold and rainy. I had bought online a high-visibility yellow jacket in preparation for the trip. The description had stated that it could “shed a light rain.” I subsequently realized that if there is a light rain it is rarely important to have a jacket to shed it because it is over so quickly. It was a “sheds a day-long, slow, dripping, shivering cold rain” jacket that I needed.
Just at the point that my jacket had ceased shedding and started leaking, I pulled over and stopped in an old farmhouse with half a roof. The only inhabitants were two swallows and their chicks. The chicks were situated in a nest attached to the side of a rafter. I felt guilty because I was obviously disturbing to the swallows, but I really needed to rest and stay out of the wind and rain for a bit. They would barnstorm through the open window with food for the kids. Then they would circle in unbelievably tight circles in the far side of the room, caught in orbit between parenting instincts and mortal fear of me.
The thought process going through their head must have been “feed children — crap human near children fly away — no must feed chicks —human in high visibility jacket! run away! run away! — no must feed children…”
Half of the time they would end up feeding the chicks and the other half they zipped back out the window. I experimented with other locations in the room, but they seemed worse. Hopefully after I left in a few hours they got back to normal bird-parenting patterns.
The house was not much different from how I remembered the ruins of my grandmother’s house, except this one had a partial roof created by the attic flooring. What a small space to live in! But I supposed that for farmers, with open land all around them, it was not so confining of a space to cook and sleep in.
It became evident that it was not merely a long rain, it was a day-long rain. At that point all a bike tourist can do is keep going to stay warm until you reach someplace with a warm shower where you can stay the night. There is a short story in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles that hovered half-recalled in my mind throughout the day, like a song that gets stuck in your head even though you can’t remember the words. The protagonist in the story has to walk a long distance across Venus (this was written back when it we weren’t sure if Venus was habitable). I think he was a soldier in a forced march. It rains incessantly on Bradbury’s Venus, and the story is mostly about the main character’s struggle to stay sane in the constant drip-drip-drip of rain. The goal of the march is to reach this dome inside of which it is bright and dry. Bradbury leaves the reader hanging at the end of the story, not sure whether the protagonist went nuts or made it to safety.
This day in Ireland was not that bad. Ireland becomes even greener in the half-light of rainfall, and the beauty of the countryside was a good distraction.
All the same, I was particularly happy on the third day when the weather was beautiful. I got an early start because of jet lag and early-trip eagerness. I planned to cover many miles so I could make some interesting detours as I neared Cork, and still be able to make my boat to France, which only left once a week.
Twenty miles into the day, and five miles out of the nearest town of any size, POW! my chain slipped and the pedals spun freely. This happens sometimes, particularly on an old and imperfect bicycle like Valentine. Usually the chain has just slipped off of the chainring or cogs. I looked down. The chain was still on the front chainring and on the rear cog. This meant a Very Bad Thing had just happened: the chain, freewheel, or derailleur had in some way failed.
It turned out to be the derailleur. It was original Valentine equipment, eleven years old. Three years earlier a mechanic had told me that it would probably fail sometime soon. After it didn’t fail for a while, I think I had sort of started to assign some kind of mystical property to it. It certainly worked well for eleven years, right up to the point that it disintegrated. Post-destruction, it looked like this:
So I was sitting on the side of the road five miles from nowhere and across the street from a quarry. One of the quarry workers, driving a kind of dump truck, stopped near me for a moment. At first I thought perhaps he was checking on whether I was all right and I tried to walk over and talk to him. As it turned out, he was only trying to figure out whether he needed to turn on the small path that was across the road from where I had stopped. He waved as he drove away.
Although it would coast, the bike could not be pedaled as it was. Besides moving the chain to shift gears on a bike, the rear derailleur also takes up slack in the chain, since the chain needs to be different lengths for different gears. Without a derailleur, the chain was too long for any gear. It dragged on the ground and slipped over the cogs when I tried to pedal. If I had a chain tool — I had one at home that I had forgotten to pack — I could have shortened the chain down to a single gear. I did have the tools I needed to install a new derailleur. I did own a new derailleur, a nice one recently purchased on ebay. However, I also left it at home.
I did have some string. For a half hour, I tried tying the derailleur in different places to see if I could get it to take up more slack in the chain. To a certain extent, I succeeded. In the right position, the one remaining cog on the derailleur took up enough slack that a choppy pedal-CRUNCH-pedal-CRUNCH was possible, where at each CRUNCH the chain slipped off and caught sometimes on the same gear, sometimes on another gear. It was slow, it was probably chewing away at the teeth on my drivetrain, but I moved.
I went over the hill I had been climbing, down it. There were some buildings, mostly country cottages that seemed uninhabited. The best thing would have been a new derailleur, but second best would be a chain tool so I would at least be solidly in one gear.
After the next hill, there was a large building. An automobile shop. It was a rural, hard-core mechanic’s car shop, with cars in various states of repair everywhere. The building was like a warehouse. It had two doors, each enclosing a space sufficient to house four vehicles and workspace around them. I walked in to each space and called out. No response, although it looked like it was open and cars were being worked on. I walked around the building. No dice.
I peeked back into one of the garages and there was a short gnarled looking man who had come out of a back area. He had white hair that was staring to bald. His hands and face were blackened with grease. If you replaced his grease-stained wool sweater with a leather jerkin and handed him a heavy hammer he could have stepped right out of Middle Earth or Narnia as a gnome blacksmith.
“I am having quite a problem with my bike,” I said. “Do you have any bike tools? Or do you know anyone who has any bike tools around here?”
He looked at me quizzically, looked at my helmet (still on my head) and past me at my bike, which was lying on the ground out in the shop yard. He then walked past me and out to my bicycle, beckoning for me to follow. So much for the Irish gift of gab.
“See, look, the derailleur is broken,” I explained. “I really need a chain tool to shorten up the chain.”
The gnome looked at the bike, looked at the derailleur, and pinched out the extraneous chain links. He stood up and nodded and beckoned for me to follow him. I picked up my bike and rolled it in to the shop, following him.
There was another man, also wearing a grease-stained wool sweater, who had now also appeared in the shop. The gnome just walked clear on past the both of us as if we had had no interaction at all, on to the back of the shop. The new man, thirtysomething and at least six feet tall, looked at me quizzically.
Is this a shop of mutes? I thought. I explained and demonstrated the situation again. He nodded.
“You need chain make short,” he said. Slavic accent — Czech? Pole? That explained the gnome’s muteness.
“Wait ten minutes, we fix.”
I waited. Another customer came in, a pudgy Irishman and his son. He seemed upset. He talked to the tall Slav. He called someone on the telephone. He talked to the tall Slav again. There was some problem about the person on the telephone not having done painted a vehicle well or not having painted it on time. Despite the gnome’s appearance of having lived most of his life in contact with machinery, I started to wonder if this was the right place to get work done.
“Are you guys heading to Mallow or Cork, by any chance?” I asked the Irishman.
“No, no we’re not going far. Bit of bike trouble?”
“These fellows will fix you up all right.”
Both reassured and stripped of options, I continued waiting. Eventually the gnome came over and examined the chain, peering closely at the pins holding the links together. The chain had a special link so that it is possible to remove the chain from the bike without a tool. I undid that link and the gnome started, then beamed at the brilliance of the design of the special link. He measured and moved the chain around until he knew how many links needed to be removed.
He then carried it over to his workbench and tap-tap-tap-BAM-BAM-BAM hammered out the appropriate pin.
Please please don’t bend or mutilate my chain, I thought. A normal chain tool is a tiny screw-press that removes the pin in a much less violent manner. If the chain were bent I would no longer even be limping along — I would be walking or bumming a ride. I needed to be in a small town 20 miles south of Cork in 36 hours to catch a boat.
He brought it back and we put the chain back on, not threading it through the derailleur. The special pin made it easy to make the chain whole again. If it were a “normal” chain without one, there would have been no way that he could have put the chain on the bike and hammered a pin in to link the chain back up.
I pedaled it around the yard in front of the shop. It worked. I now had a single speed bicycle, but it stayed in that speed.
I had been wondering how much he was going to charge me — after all, I was kind of over a barrel. I had also violated one of the cardinal rules of travel: ask how much before obtaining services. Fifteen Euros? Twenty? I came back to the shop.
“Good!” I said, giving a thumbs up. He nodded appreciatively and smiled slightly. “How much?” I asked.
He held up five fingers.
I must have looked surprised, and I was because that seemed fair bordering on too cheap. He must have thought I was surprised in the other direction: two of his fingers immediately dropped.
“Tree erros.” He walked to the back of the shop and fiddled with something on a bench.
The smallest Euro bill denomination is five, and then there are one and two Euro coins. I looked through my pockets for three euros, and all I had was about eighty cents. I pulled a fiver out of my wallet and offered it to him.
“No, no. Little, little money.” He pointed to the light copper coins in my hand.
Who was I to argue? I shrugged and handed him the coins.
He walked with me as I went to pick up my bike near the entrance to the shop.
“Polska?” I asked, pointing at him. I think that’s the Polish word for “Polish.”
He shook his head. “Russian.”
“Russian people, very good!”
I racked up my panniers and headed out. The single speed took some getting used to but after a few miles I decided it was just fine. The chain length put it in 3-2 — my highest chainring and next to lowest rear cog. It looked like this; you can still see the string holding the derailleur, which I hadn’t removed:
It was a medium-high gear, ideally suited for a slight uphill grade. It required me to stand up on uphills and just coast going downhill. The entire way from Shannon airport to Cork is pretty flat agricultural country. While this last section was the most hilly, that wasn’t saying much: they were still low rolling hills.
I was about thirty miles from Cork. As I got closer to the city I asked people who I saw on bikes where I could find a shop. Three out of three people told me there was one in Ballincollig, a kind of second city to Cork, like St. Petersburg is to Tampa or St. Paul to Minneapolis.
I got to the Ballincollig city limits at around a quarter to six. I had to ask three more people for directions, each of which gave increasingly specific directions. Each of them did so only after looking skeptically at their watch and saying something to the effect of, “Well, I’m not sure about when they head from there to the pub on a Friday evening, but…”
They closed at six. I got there at five ‘til. It was a small shop that appeared to be run by two guys in their late 20’s. It was moderately disorganized and had as many bikes in a state of half-repair as actual new ones for sale. The guy behind the counter — working on a bike — was sort of flabbergasted but nevertheless impressed at the idea of biking alone across France. He sold me a new derailleur for fifteen dollars, which seemed cheap, and a chain tool.
There was a bed and breakfast and a pub back down the road about a quarter mile. I hadn’t yet had a chance to camp out: I had stayed at B&B’s both nights so far because I was jet-lagged and soaked to the bone, respectively. Here I was on the last night in Ireland already, an hour and a half before sunset, with a crippled bike.
I was fairly certain that I could install a new derailleur, but only about 95% sure. It was probably pushing it to camp out, particularly if I couldn’t get my bike fixed up.
I went back to a nearby B&B. After knocking on the door there was a minute delay before the owner, whose name was Liam, answered. I am fairly certain in retrospect that the delay was caused by Liam searching for a shirt. After I checked in, he walked around bare-chested for the remainder of daylight. If the auto mechanic was like a gnome, Liam was a friendly ogre, a non-green Shrek. He was barrel-chested and portly, with a broad, friendly face. Like the owners of the other two Irish B&B’s I stayed at, he was garrulous and immediately made me feel more like a nephew than a customer.
The derailleur was actually very easy to install. The B&B had a nice yard and garden in back and I just flipped by bike onto the seat and handlebars to work. Liam took great interest and stopped by about every ten minutes.
“Do you need any tools, Joseph?”
(I told the Irish my name was “Joseph” because it seemed like the more proper Irish name, more Catholic. It also sounds good with the long “o” that the Irish accent puts into it. I also told people I was Joseph in France as well. The choice there is between being “Zho,” which makes me feel Chinese, or being “Zhosef,” which always makes me think of Stalin.) Or, “Would you like to use my workbench in the shed, Joseph?” — “Are things going well there, Joseph, do you think you’ve got it?”
I got it after an hour. The next day I made it to the ferry, an enormous beast of a boat that swallowed hundreds of Irish cars and only three bicycles, of which mine was one.
The pace of bike touring is different from normal life, of course. The only timekeeping device I had was my camera, which I did not consult for that purpose often. Instead, I learned the pace of the sun setting. Sunset was the most important event of the day, and I always managed to make it to someplace to stay before dark. Near the end of the trip, the last day I camped, that I learned after I checked in to the (very picturesque) campground that the nearest food was three miles away in the next town. I biked there at dusk and back in the dark. It wasn’t too bad, but I would not have wanted to do more than the six mile round trip.
After the position of the sun, the strength of my body was the next thing in my consciousness. Sometimes (mornings, after lunch) my legs felt like little sputtering decrepit Cessna propellers, and others (late afternoon) they felt like fighter jet turbofans. Since I felt best later in the day, I would pass by places to stay in the afternoon and I would find myself racing against the sunset to make it a town large enough to stay in.
Keeping myself supplied, repaired, and fed was a nice preoccupation. The reward for doing a good job was more miles, more cruising through villages and down farm roads. I am a big fan of vintage video games, and the challenge and reward were reminiscent of Oregon Trail. Anybody ever play that on an Apple (or later versions on the PC) in grade school? You are cast as settlers trying to make it across the United States to Oregon in the 1850’s, and you have to keep yourself supplied with food, keep your wagon repaired and rolling, and keep everyone in your wagon party healthy. If everything goes well, you keep moving towards the Deschutes river valley. If you screw up, you end up stuck in the Sierras in winter. Likewise, I always had to keep topped up on water, keep the bike repaired, and keep eating enough calories to keep pedaling all day.
My worst case scenario was not so bad as in the Oregon Trail: if I did not make it to Paris in time, I would be forced to punt and take a bus partway to Paris, probably from Orléans. The reward was greater: rolling across the French countryside is more entertaining than any video game by a long shot.
I stayed in campgrounds and bead and breakfasts (called “Chambres d’ Hôte” in France) and, on a two occasions, in hotels. My pattern was usually two days of camping and one day of B&B/hotel.
A campground is something that every French village, once it reaches a certain size, feels like it ought to have. As towns became larger, the order in which village institutions appeared was usually: church (no church, not a village); bar-tobacconist (“Bar-Tabac”); school; convenience store; patisserie (baker) ; boulangerie (butcher); restaurant; campground; town hall; large commercial grocery store.
Some of the campgrounds were municipal, owned by the town. Others were private. Like restaurants and hotels, they are given star ratings, one to four. Some, which are either new or perhaps don’t bother with the process, are unrated. The ratings seemed to most strongly correlate to hotel-like services such as a swimming pool, washing machine and dryer, and a general store. This was unfortunate, because my primary criteria in judging a campground was whether it had a copse of trees and a shower. The shower part was universal but the copse of trees part wasn’t. I wanted trees because I had brought along a Hennessey Hammock, which is a fabulous lightweight shelter — if you have trees. In its native habitat, it looks like this:
It is seriously comfortable and keeps out rain except, perhaps, in the event of hurricane.
In the absence of trees, however, it boils down to being one tarp that is a groundsheet and another tarp you can put over your head, which is much less cool than being a seriously comfortable hurricane-proof shelter. I found nice copses of trees three times during my trip, only one of which was at a commercial campground. The other two were camping (possibly illegally, although it’s just not clear) in state-owned forests.
If I were Slartibartfast, the designer of planets and fjords in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I would model campgrounds on the one in Sarzur. Sarzur is a small French town in Bretagne. Its campground received a rating of two stars. The campground was privately run, I think, and called “Camping à la Maison.” “La Maison” was a immense country manor house, probably mid-19th century, that had been converted into basic rooms or suites in which families could stay. The surrounding area was campground. Unlike other French campsites, it was not cut up into specific plots; people just settled where they would.
It had a copse of trees, of course, in which the Hammock is pictured above. Perhaps big enough to be called a vale. It apparently had been originally intended as a nature walk but had since overgrown, and the trees were just the right size and spacing that it was easy to pick a spot to set up my hammock. I slept until eleven that morning, even though I had probably been in bed by nine-thirty the previous evening. The trees made it cool and shady. If it were not for the tolling of the town’s church bell reminding me of the time, I don’t think I would have gotten out until mid-afternoon.
Most other campgrounds had plots of land with one or two trees, usually the wrong size or spacing to set up the hammock. So I was sleeping on the ground a lot. It was not a big imposition as it sounds, since after six or more hours of biking I was tired enough to sleep balanced on a tree branch. It seemed a little strange sometimes to wake up just me in my sleeping bag, where most everyone else was in cars and campers. It’s common in California to not use a tent, where the weather is also perfect, and the practice in fact often referred to as “California camping.” The equivalent “Loire camping” has apparently not caught on in France.
If there is any problem with the campgrounds it is that they were filled primarily with English and Dutch families in car-caravans. For the most part they were quiet and went to sleep about 10 in the evening, which was an hour after sundown. The Dutch seemed quieter. However, that could just be that when an English brat says “Mommy, she spat in my hair!” (direct quote from my journal) it makes me think “bloody little English brat.” In contrast, a Dutch child saying “Mama, die zij in mijn haar heeft gespuugd!” (Babelfish translation of “Mommy she spat in my hair”) does not make me think of anything.
My worst night of camping was in Chinon, a medium sized city midway up the Loire. It was one of those evenings where I raced the sun to get there, and it was getting dark as I found the campground. Everything that could be wrong with a French campground was wrong at Chinon. One: the office was closed, so the campground “host” obliged me to give me her passport for the night. I hate that. I am attached to my passports. It is equivalent to an American hotel asking for your car keys for the night. Two: it was disco night (at a campground?) until midnight, presumably to entertain the older Dutch and English children. I must have been really tired, because that alone should have motivated me to look for and spend money on a hotel. I stayed on the furthest part of the campground from the disco but I still recall dozing off to the sound of the Bee Gees. Three: the hedgehog. A few hours after the disco stopped, I was awakened by a loud scraping or chewing sound near my panniers, which were on the ground. After fumbling for my headlamp, I illuminated a prickly gray-black blob. A hedgehog.
Squirrel-like creatures are usually cute if they are not from your country. I used to own sugar gliders as pets, which are basically the squirrels of Australia and Indonesia. A friend who grew up in Minneapolis told me of his Australian neighbor who was fascinated by North American squirrels and set up feeders in his back yard to attract them (if you detach yourself for a moment, the bushy tails are kind of cute). Another friend had a pet hedgehog in college. So I knew a hedgehog when I saw one.
It was cute, the first time. So I forgave it, although I still scared it away from my bags. Because they curl up and stick out their spines as a primary defense, scaring away a hedgehog is a two step process. First, you must scare the hedgehog, then you must leave it alone for a bit until it feels that it is safe to run away. This I did: I thawacked my pillow next to it. It bristled; there was a pause; it ran away. I went back to sleep.
It came back. This was no longer cute; I was annoyed. I stepped up the scaring-it part by thwacking it and then flipping it with my bike helmet, hoping to give it the impression that there was a one hundred and sixty pound mammal trying to eat it for a midnight snack and it was lucky to get away. It ran away again. And came back again, a third time. I repeated the early-morning-snack treatment. I also put my panniers up on my bike, which is what I should have done the first time; after that, it stayed away.
It was more difficult to meet other bike tourists than I was expecting. Before the Loire Valley, I wasn’t expecting to see too many tourists, and I didn’t. In the Loire Valley itself there are “Loire à Vélo” (Loire on Bike) signs that pointed out best routes for following the Loire. The routes were very good, usually one-lane farm roads with just bike traffic, and which were not always evident on the otherwise-useful 1:200,000 Michelin maps. There were occasional problems in linking the routes together between administrative districts; near Tours there was an administrative boundary and the trail abruptly stopped, and not in a particularly useful or logical place. After going back to the Michelin map, it was necessary to bike back a few kilometers in order to cross a bridge to keep going and not have to bike on the highway.
It seemed like there were a lot more people going the other direction. At first I chalked this up to the fact that there are just naturally going to seem like there are more people going the opposite direction. You’re going to pass people going the other way more often than those going the same way.
In a chambres d’hôte in the town of Rochefort-sur-Loire, I got into a conversation with the hostess about what there might be to see coming up. My only guidebook was twenty pages or so I had sliced out of Lonely Planet’s Cycling France, and so I didn’t even really know what the most interesting chateaus or other things might be coming up. The hostess kept describing things to the west that I could go see. Since she was hard of hearing and my French is imperfect, it took a couple of attempts before it sank in that I was going the other direction.
“Eh, tu montes le Loire!” she said with surprise. “Oh, you’re climbing the Loire.” As if I were climbing in the second-story window my room instead of taking the staircase.
That gave me pause, and then I felt foolish. East was the hard way, wasn’t it? Not the way the river was flowing, which necessarily had to go down. Well, chalk it up to hasty trip planning. The extra exercise wouldn’t kill me. At least now I knew why everyone else was going the other way. If I didn’t like the look of other cyclists, I could sneer at them: “Oh, yeah — well, je monte le Loire, you pansies.”
Near the end of my trip I met a couple of Englishmen, named Rory and Lawson. Englishmen are easy to travel with. I spent several weeks traveling with another pair in Cambodia and China. Communication is easy, and since England is like a parallel universe to America, there is the perennial game of “So in the UK, do you have…” to figure out exactly what is same and what is different. Rory had also lived in the US and in France, making him a particularly interesting cultural reference. I learned, for example, that there are no right turns on red anywhere in Europe; and I came to appreciate what a ridiculous amount of open land we have here.
We were staying near each other in a campground on the outskirts of Tours, and I ended up sitting next to them in a nearby restaurant and struck up a conversation. Rory was a triathlete and married to a Frenchwoman, and he and Lawson was a friend from high school. They were about to part ways: Rory was heading south to Burgundy to meet up with wife and family. Lawson was flying out of Tours in two days and was going to make some short side trip.
Lawson really wanted to camp, not in a campground, but just in a forest somewhere. In the US, most National Forests and BLM land are fair game for camping, set your tent up wherever you want. This is something that you can not do in the UK — there are too many people and not enough forest.
“We have this thing called the National Trust that owns a lot of the coastal and other ‘good’ land in the UK,” explained Lawson. “The only problem is that you can’t camp on it, no fires, just about the only thing you can do is walk your dog on it. So they mostly get old people walking their dog on it. Seems like you’d want to have more younger people outside, which would happen if they opened it up to camping.”
Lawson also thought that Spain was the best place in Europe to camp, since allegedly there is a law that one kilometer outside of town, it is legal to camp. It’s not clear if that is public land or private, but either way at least it is clear.
In France, it is unclear what the rules are. It seems like sleeping outdoors is just not a concept. It is like vegetarianism in Laos: I once ordered a soup and asked for no meat. The waiter nodded, and proceeded to bring me the soup — without chunks of meat, but still with bits of gristle floating in it. They had no mental box for “food with no animal products.” It seems that France, similarly, has no mental box for “place to sleep out in the wilderness.”
The LP has this to say on the subject:
|Pitching your tent anywhere else [than a designated campsite] is known as camping sauvage in French, is usually illegal, though it’s often tolerated to varying degrees…. You probably won’t have any problems if you’re not on private land, have only a small tent, are discreet, stay only one or two nights, take the tent down during the day, and are at least 1500m from a camping ground (or, in a national park, at least an hour’s walk from a road).|
I have no idea where they got that information from. For starters, I don’t know that there is a place in a national forest an hour’s walk from a road. The French plan forests like they plan cities: they pave a couple of clearings in the center of the forest as roundabouts and then run roads out radially.
I noticed on my map that, in the Forest of Orléans, there were two “forester’s houses.” I biked past them, hoping they would be like U.S. Forest Service park headquarters, with maps and people who know about the park and could tell me what the rules are. No such luck. It was a house like any other in France, except there was a sign out front that said “Forester’s House.”
Certainly there are a lot of smallish plots of land from four acres to dozens or hundreds, that are labeled chassée gardée (hunting preserve). They were always tempting because they often had perfect hammock-trees, but I had clear mental images of a Frenchman kicking my Hennessey Hammock at dawn to get me off of his land. Or accidentally shooting me, thinking the hammock was a very large duck.
Lawson and I ended up camping in the Forest of Blois. The sign when you enter, on a smallish road, says “Welcome to the Forest of Blois. Fires forbidden.” Now as a lawyer, that says to me that camping would be permitted. By the time you’ve gone through the trouble of forbidding fires, how much harder would it have been to forbid sleeping, if that is what you wanted to do?
Lawson had a stove, and so we cooked pasta with vegetables and cheese and drank a bottle of wine. Everyday French are less into spending money on wine than Americans. I bought the most expensive bottle in the store: $9. It was pretty good.
What with Valentine being Mad Max and all, other things broke. I snapped my rear derailleur cable on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. That dropped me down to three speeds for a few days. I found that I didn’t mind. You don’t really need more than three speeds unless you are grinding up a really serious hill. If you are willing to burn a few more calories and stand up, the lower gears aren’t even necessary for that.
Partly because of that experience, and from reading Sheldon Brown’s pages on fixed gear bikes, I have since bought a fixed-gear bike for getting around Berkeley. Two weeks in, so far, so good. It is a very different experience, much like starting to ride with clipless pedals, but equally rewarding.
One of Valentine’s spokes snapped, which wasn’t too much of a big deal. You can snap a few spokes and keep rolling. I trued up the wheel as best I could (glad I brought that tool) and headed for the nearest bike shop. The French mechanic did a great job at re-spoking and truing the wheel. However, he also slimed my chain with thick black grease that resembled motor oil. Previously, my chain had been coated in White Lightning, a dry wax-like chain lubricant that sheds dirt. I think my chain appeared to him to be so clean that he thought it must be unlubricated. The motor oil lubricant collected dirt and became progressively more slimy throughout the trip.
Finally, one of my pedals blew a bearing. This meant that it became more and more difficult to turn the pedal over several days. Eventually, with Rory and Lawson, I found a Decathlon, the French equivalent of SportMart. My pedals of choice, Time ATAC, are made by a French company and so were even cheaper than they are in the United States, which was nice.
Paris was not particularly a highlight of the trip. I have often thought, previously, that it might be nice to live in Paris someday. Speaks French, is EU citizen, lives in Paris. Seems like a natural progression for me, but after this visit I am less interested. I mean, I wouldn’t sneeze at a job offer in Paris, but it’s not as much of a life goal.
Paris is like an overgrown French village. There are nice French things like artisan bakers and old buildings. It has nice cafés. Much of the Gallic flavor, however, has necessarily been diluted as Paris has expanded. Paris has millions of tourists; about 20 million a year visit the city. Paris is also a melting pot, which gives it a feel like New York, or San Francisco. That’s fine, but it doesn’t allow you to experience French-ness in the same way as the countryside.
In China, I traveled for about a week with an Israeli named Amir. Amir wanted to visit the United States, but he really wanted to visit the American Midwest. I thought that was a little strange.
“Amir, I grew up in the Midwest,” I said. “It’s just flat farmland with corn. Why would you want to visit there instead of, say, California or New England?”
“Because it is more American. It is more different from other countries. It is also where everyone votes for George Bush, and I want to see what these people are like. Voting for George Bush doesn’t make sense to anyone anywhere else.”
Politics aside, I get what Amir was driving at. The French countryside is extremely French.
I took a course on World Trade a few semesters back with Professor Andrew Guzman. Professor Guzman lectured on how the French and Germans subsidize their farms like crazy, more even than the United States. Government regulations also keep them owned, more than the U.S. anyway, by smaller farmers. This is purely for aesthetic reasons: they find their countryside to be attractive. The mental images of farmer Jacques out milking the cows in the morning; of fields of wheat and sunflowers on the banks of the Loire; and of ancient stone stables filled with livestock are important them. The French stereotype of good food also derives from this small-scale artisanal production mentality, for cheeses, vegetables, and livestock.
If anyone has a Trader Joe’s near them, buy yourself some Brittany Blend of vegetables (imported from France) and tell me those are not the best carrots you have ever eaten. It is hard to find produce that good in the U.S.; I think it is because everything in Safeway, Jewel and Albertson’s is produced by ConAgra and other massive agricultural giants, where the goal is to make the cheapest, not the best, carrot.
Back to Paris: it is probably a good place to take a date. As cities go, Paris is an above-average city. They have nice monuments and art. The food is good, although expensive (e.g., four bucks for an espresso); I prefer the village restaurants. Paris has clothing stores with clothes that fit skinny people, which I liked. I’m not sure which one is accurate, but a 32 inch waist on a French pair of jeans is about two inches smaller than a 32 inch pair of Levis.
I saw some live music on the trip. I made a detour in Lorient to see the Festival Interceltique. A French doctor named Hervé, whom I had met on a train in Southwestern India, had recommended it to me as the best thing to do in France. It was a large, commercial festival, but because of its magnitude it attracted lots of smaller performers as well. Ironically, the best shows I saw were free, and the best Irish music I saw on the trip was at the Festival in France, not in Ireland. There was a group of five young Irish, three women and two men, playing jigs and reels to a large tent packed with French people. None of them could have been older than twenty-five, and they practically glowed with the excitement of being in front of such a large and appreciative crowd.
I paid to go to one of the official events, allegedly Breton sacred music, in a church in Lorient. It was disappointing. Of all the amazing churches in France, the Church of St. Louis in Lorient is one of the least remarkable. It is large, but made of cast concrete in the last fifty years. The musicians were a small chamber orchestra and two women singing. A moment before the music started, the women started bouncing to the tempo. Up until that point, I had been thinking, traditional Breton sacred music: must be some kind of cross between Enya and a church hymn. It turned out to be more like a cross between bouncy-tempo Christmas carols — what the women were singing — and a bad movie soundtrack, with lots of dramatic but basic major chords from the orchestra. It was a very cast-concrete version of Breton sacred music, if there ever was such a thing.
I saw another good, free concert in Paris. There is a lot of free music in Paris, particularly classical music. Upon purchasing the weekly event magazine, I realized I had just missed a free concert by Uakti, a Brazilian group that I like. To salve my disappointment, I went to a concert of baroque music at the Armenian Catholic church. The Paris Armenian Catholic Church was old enough to be a monument in the United States, but not in Paris. The concert was performed by two Japanese women, one playing harpsichord and the other the oboe. They played works by Geminiani, Vivaldi, Loeillet, and Haëndel. The French denote keys by their do-re-mi names, which makes for a strange injection of of Mary Poppins into the program: “Sonata in C Minor” becomes “Sonate en mi mineur” in French.
I have always enjoyed baroque music, but I realized now that it really spoke of continental countryside life in the seventeenth century, which was still easy to imagine because the countryside and villages haven’t changed that much. The harpsichord’s precise plucking spoke of a natural order between God, nature, and humankind. The oboe meandered through the structure: sometimes largo, like a hot Sunday in July; sometimes allegro, like a day of harvest. When I was biking through French fields, I often thought about what it must have been like to be a peasant three hundred years ago, getting up daily to work the fields with the church steeple marking the location of town; then walking the two miles into town once a week to go to church. Did these people wonder about the purpose of their existence? Did they really believe their world to be as ordered as Loelliet’s harpsichord makes it sound it was?
I am neither a believer nor a churchgoer, but the churches of France impressed me. The stood as monuments to a seemingly more organized era. They were also impressive in quantity. A village is not a village without a church. The age and size of the church, in typical Gallic fatalism, seemed to have ordained centuries ago what the the magnitude of a particular village, town, or city would be. A new church in France was one built in 1900; most were from the eighteenth century or before. The French, weary of having to write the word “century” repeatedly, simply have adopted the convention that using roman numbers implies “century.” A sign will just say, for example, “Frauntvaud-l’Abbaye XIII” so that you know the abbey is from the 13th century.
Their churches’ spires were visible for several kilometers outside of town, a symbol of civilization and supply, as well as social organization, theology and morality. In the plains of France, nothing else stood out against the blank horizon like a church spire. The castles and chateaus, while dramatic, were less frequent and seemed more detached from the everyday. The chateaus were particularly remote: they were resorts for the wealthy that were specifically not in town. Many were built after the advent of gunpowder had made battlements obsolete. Therefore, they were low, sprawling complexes designed primarily for entertainment, the Club Med of the 18th Century. Looking at one of the later-built chateaus, I couldn’t help but think, “You dolts, no wonder your peasants revolted.” Hindsight, of course.
Because I went around most of the cities instead of through them, I saw mostly lots of smaller churches. The first large one I saw was the Cathédrale Sainte Croix in Orléans, which is much more impressive if seen in series with its smaller brethren, rather than in isolation. The natural reaction to Notre Dame in Paris, or Sainte Croix in Orléans, is to compare it to other buildings you know, as in: The White House, Sears Tower, Sydney Operahouse, Cathedral of Orléans. But it doesn’t really go like that. It goes small village church, small village church, small village church, Cathedral at Orléans. In that order, the cathedral becomes much more impressive.
Flying buttresses amaze me. How did that first conversation go getting someone to fund one of these things before they were commonplace?
Architect: “So I want to build this big balanced arm-like thing, sticking out of the side of the building.”
Duke/Bishop of Orléans: “I’m sorry, out of stone?”
Architect: “Well, yes, and I know it looks perilous and like it will fall over in the first stiff wind, but actually it is going to shore up the building so it will be taller than everyone else’s cathedral. The peasants will be awed, the other dukes will be impressed.”
Duke: “Uh, ok. I’ll chop your head off if it falls down.”
French people do not go to church any more than Americans do. If anything, they go less. The same chambres d’hôte woman who told me I was climbing the Loire was also very Catholic.
“It is terrible that no French youth are going to church anymore,” she said. “The churches have these huge halls built for everyone from the surrounding area, and now there will be thirty people inside. Awful.”
I think the continuing presence of the churches still has a major impact on French consciousness, though. It is a reservoir for fatalism, to have these centuries-old buildings around. It gives a sense of durability to the world, and a sense of smallness in time of one human life. Might just as well sit around and sip espresso as work if life is so short. Americans, by contrast, have always had lots of undeveloped land and nothing to remind them that the world has been around for more than two hundred years. Eddie Izzard again: “I saw something in a program on something in Miami, and they were saying, ‘We’ve redecorated this building to how it looked over 50 years ago!’ And people were going, ‘No, surely not, no. No one was alive then!’”
Bike touring in Europe is good. I want to go back more than I want to go back to anywhere else I’ve been. Maybe that means I’m getting old and lazy that I like good food and wine more than dodging tuk-tuks, but so be it. Next time — which will be next fall, after I take the bar exam — I am thinking Spain or Italy, which surely must also have old farm roads and good cooking. I would like to bring more people next time, and a more reliable bike (or at least more spare parts).
The pace of biking is fast enough to keep life interesting, but slow enough to let you digest everything as it goes by. If train, car and bus are the movie version of a location, bicycle travel seems like the book version that they were based on, with all the nuances and extra bits still included. The book version, as always, was better.
More pictures accompanying this story are on Flickr.