12 Sep 4: The French connection (France)
Forges les Eaux to Chablis (July 31 – Aug 6, 240 miles)
If there’s one lesson I hope to take away with me after this trip, it’s this: there is never a good reason for taking a ukulele on a bicycle. Remember it, write it down; it’s important. If I save just one person from suffering in the way I have suffered, this whole endeavour will have been worthwhile. I just wish P had never talked me into bringing it.
The problem is that bicycles were never designed to carry ukuleles. They are designed to carry bags, panniers, parcels; sturdy, docile things that stay where you put them and lack an independent spirit. Ukuleles aren’t like that. They are fickle and flighty, and have pretensions of freedom far beyond their station. ‘I could have been a star!’ you hear it cry behind you as you puff and splutter along a country lane. ‘Jammed with George Harrison! Plucked by Pearl Jam!’ But instead here I am, bound and gagged three inches from your rump, forced into a life of humiliating depravity.’
At which point it issues a rousing war cry, throws off its manacles and pitches itself boldly onto the road – where it lies, stunned and subdued, until it is whisked back up and lashed with punitive impropriety against my arse again.
Two or three times a day we go through this ritual. If I ever actually had the time or inclination to play the thing, it might still feel worthwhile. But as half my day is spent cycling and much of the rest curled pitifully in the recovery position, Mr Wu and the Chinese Laundry Blues is sadly yet to have the airing it deserves. So instead we simply endure one another’s company, each wallowing in our own personal sense of outrage and long-suffering martyrdom.
In the meantime I haul myself, inch by inch, across France. Over the course of six days, I progress leadenly through Gisors, Paris, Brie-Comte-Robert, Sens and Chablis, interspersed with endless sun-soaked fields of wheat, corn, barley and oats. Tiny villages appear and recede, each a charming, rustic nutshell of cobbled streets, stone homesteads and ivy-clad barns. Flowers sprout everywhere, on walls and windows, balconies and balustrades, and I am saturated by smells: honeysuckle, cinnamon and rose; lavender, sun-cream and manure.
Of course, I can’t enjoy any of this. I am focused purely on survival. Nothing hurts excessively, but everything is sore. Particularly troublesome are certain anatomical parts that I won’t ask you to dwell on too closely. My Brooks saddle, I have been reliably informed, will ‘soften up’ eventually, although at this stage I hardly see how that can be possible short of performing La fille mal gardée’s clog dance on it every morning. According to my buttocks, which have become fairly expert on the matter, it is constructed from a form of steel-reinforced granite, almost certainly embraced by medieval disciplinarians for the punishment of unruly degenerates. The day it transforms into a sugary puff of clouds and fairy dust will certainly be a day of celebration, and no doubt go down as one of history’s great scientific miracles.
I am keen to share my ordeal with people – suffering is so much more satisfying when imposed on others – but sadly France turns out to be almost entirely empty. Cafes and restaurants are closed, patisseries and bougeries abandoned. Even when I meet someone, communication isn’t easy. Almost nobody speaks English and I am forced to dredge up dusty relics of GCSE French, punctuated by increasingly desperate gesticulations. It’s not ideal, but people generally seem receptive to my vivid descriptions of their pets and aunts – few of whom I have met – and my unsolicited directions to la discothèque.
I am surprised by the lack of English. Not in a judgemental way – the parlous state of my French disqualifies me from any opinion on the matter – but simply because it is now so widely spoken around the world, and surely has its uses for the world’s sixth largest economy. R, a Frenchman I meet in a bar, tells me shunning English was a deliberate state policy until about 20 years ago; a means of asserting national identity and pride. ‘People over 30 can speak it a little,’ he says. ‘But they are embarrassed to try. They were never taught.’
France’s reluctance to embrace change seems almost a point of principle: we’ve nailed it, the country declares; surely others should adapt to us? And it has a point. When it comes to the important things in life, the French are hard to beat. Here you eat well – cheese, charcuterie, bread, boeuf – or you don’t eat at all. Shops close at lunchtime and restaurants shortly afterwards. Work is a means to an end and Sundays a day of rest.
American ideals of fast food, convenience and consumerism have no place here. Customers are endured rather than embraced, and services provided with a grudging sigh. Any why not? Nobody knows they want convenience until it’s given to them, and then they just want more.
It can be frustrating, however. I soon discover that almost nowhere has wifi, even in the bigger towns. Instead, I am directed time and time again to McDonald’s, which more often than not is tucked a couple of miles out of town like a tolerated but embarrassing family member. Soon I started associating the golden arches with my portal to the outside world, my heart leaping as a small portion of my soul dies.
Indeed, after a few days my trip starts to assume an unexpected corporate edge. As well as visiting McDonald’s, I also take up drinking Coca-Cola for the first time: a highly effective energy booster. Having left the UK as a lowly paid journalist, am I going to ‘find myself’ during the course of my pilgrimage and discover there was a FTSE 100 exec lurking inside the whole time? (Let’s hope so; it would make life so much easier.)
Beyond such diversions, however, cycling through France is a pleasure. Unlike in the UK, cyclists here are not a parasitical species to be scorned and exterminated, but sit at the top of the food chain. In the towns almost every main road has a cycle lane, often competing with that lowest of life-forms: pedestrians. One of the great joys of my trip so far, as any cyclist will understand, has been careering brashly along the pavement, sending children and pensioners flying into hedges and cars with utter impunity.
Most nights I camp in the wild, though it takes me a while to get the hang of it. Dusk is not until 10pm, but I frequently leave my search for a site too late, culminating in a panicked dash into the undergrowth as darkness descends. In Gisors, Brie Comte-Robert and Montereau, I find myself racing sundown like a doomed extra in Dracula, desperate to find a suitable spot before night falls and Christopher Lee appears in my headlights, baring his gnashers and beckoning me into his clammy embrace.
The towns themselves are pretty, but perplexing. They all have their beauty, their rivers and rustic charms, but where is the life? The people, cafes, culture? Look closely and you see their edges are worn, left to droop and curl like parchment. According to R, a retired oil rig worker who takes me under his wing in Sens – and the first person I meet who speaks near-fluent English – France is a ghost-town due to a recent clamp-down on drink driving. ‘Nobody can go out and have a drink anymore. They’ve killed the country,’ he says – adding perhaps unnecessarily, ‘like Mussolini.’ (I look it up afterwards and see that the limit was lowered to 0.5mgs in July, compared to the UK’s 0.8 mgs – though whether that means the entire country is now cowering indoors with stockpiles of Chardonnay, I don’t know.)
R has travelled extensively, across Africa, South America and the Middle East. He loves Iran the most ‘because of the people’, and is keen on Egyptians too. He’s never been to London, however, because he ‘ates the Eenglish’. Why, I ask? ‘No, I’m just joking!’ he responds jovially. ‘Though actually I do ‘ate them. Not really.’
A man nearby is trying to get his attention. He, his young wife and baby are visiting from Riyadh and they met R two years ago, in this exact spot. The couple are warm and open, dressed casually in shorts and t-shirts, and insist that I stay with them if I ever visit Saudi Arabia. I wonder if they have a subversive edge, keen to dish the dirt on their homeland, and ask them what the country is like. Do they ever feel restricted in any way?
‘No, it’s good,’ they say, ordering a couple of whiskies. ‘Non-Muslims can drink, and we can drink in the home too.’
‘And driving? Is it frustrating not being allowed to, as a woman?’
‘No no,’ she says. ‘I have no need. I have a chauffeur. Most people do.’
In Sens, I stay the night at the bungalow of R’s friend, B, a local nature morte painter. R assures me it will be fine. ‘You have my word,’ he says. ‘I’m doing it because we’re fellow travellers and I want to give back some of the kindness shown to me.’
I trust him implicitly – a trust that falters briefly when, after following B for ten minutes on his motorbike, he leads me into a large industrial compound and padlocks the gate behind us. Images of Wolf Creek dash through my mind again. Could this all have been an elaborate ruse by R and co? Is Sens a ghost-town because a drunken group of middle-aged maniacs has polished everybody off?
No, it turns out. B is the perfect host. He lives alone, with his dying, incontinent German Shepherd, Rocky, who sleeps in his studio. The room emits an overpowering stench of dog piss, to which B is clearly now immune. He talks in rapid French and I pick up snippets. He has a teenage daughter, but is separated from the mother. His lifelong passion is painting. He brings out a bottle of 12-year-old Bowmore, exclaiming ‘Écosse!‘ and pouring us both a glass. Un autre? he asks when I finish. I shake my head; I must go to bed. He pours me another.
I sleep like a stone and awake fully refreshed. B cooks me a breakfast of champions – omelette, pancakes, bread, coffee, orange juice – before seeing me on my way. It is just the first of many kindnesses I am to experience during my first few weeks on the road, and I am deeply touched by his selfless generosity.
The road to Chablis is long, hot and hard. At noon, the thermometer hits 37 degrees and I start to struggle badly, melting into the asphalt. By the time I finally arrive, I am parched. I head straight for the first ‘wine cave’ that I see and order an emergency half bottle of 2009 Domaine Vocoret et Fils Les Forets, Chablis Premier Cru. It tastes like pure nectar. After gulping down a restorative slug, I pour the rest into my thermos flask for later. I don’t want to be caught short again.
Yes, France is a bloody nuisance in many ways, I think to myself. But it gets the important things right.