Stephen

France – the Words

Here is the story of France, pictures to come soon.  My laptop battery is almost dead, so the photos will be up as soon as I can charge the battery and find more WiFi!

It feels as though I made my way through France quickly.  The only places where I stopped for more than a day to go sight seeing were Arles and Marseille.  I passed through Perpignan, Montpelier, Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo without laying over.  I passed up opportunities to go to Toulouse, Paris, Nimes, Lyon, Orleans, etc.  I did not travel in France, but rather I just made my way through it to get to the next phase, whatever that turns out to be.  It can be tricky here, to strike a balance between pushing inspiration and telling things the way they are.  Hopefully some of you will find the following story inspirational in the sense that, even though there can be some low points during a long journey, that low points do not change the fact that you still want to continue the journey.

The past several days have been interesting.  Certainly the most lonely of the tour.  I have found myself for days on end feeling a bit depleted in terms of energy, and a bit low on morale.  I think that it is just because I am so alone out here.  After having a random encounter with a man who seemed to be having trouble with his bicycle, and who, later turned out to be just fine – at least in terms of bicycle issues – I realized that the encounter had been my first long conversation with a person in several days.  I also realized that I felt quite a bit better for it.  He was stopped with grocery bags hanging from his handle bars, his bicycle leaning against a bus stop shelter about 30 miles west of St Tropez. Whenever I see someone standing next to a bike, I habitually ask them if all is well as I ride by.  This time, my query turned into a long, long conversation because this guy was drunk.  At first I thought, “Just let me get on the road.”  But then I thought, “You know what?  A little conversation can be a good thing…even if it is with a drunk guy with dirty clothes.  I am a sober guy with dirty clothes, and my French gets better with every minute this goes on, as does my outlook…”  It started drizzling, and the road pulled me east, but I stayed a bit longer, a bit longer still.  After twenty minutes or so, I said goodbye after what was a happy encounter.  Now I will remember him for the rest of my life.  I think that his name was Jonah, although through my poor French, through his accent and slurred speech, it was tough to be sure.

It has been a bit interesting too, because loneliness is not a challenge that I expected to face on this journey.  Of course I expected to deal with it, but not for it to be challenging per se.  I have traveled a lot, it feels like, doing this kind of stuff, but now it feels different.  I had the sense that the traveling on this ride would be easy.  That the challenges would come only from seeking publicity, working out logistics, getting visas, fund raising, etc.  Now I realize that the travel itself is a bit challenging too.  Which is, I guess what I am looking for.  People will often ask, “Don’t you wish you were traveling with someone?”  Well of course, but not so badly that I would give up the tour.  That is, to me, one of the most spectacular parts of bicycle touring – or any kind of travel, really – if you allow it to be so.  The freedom to load your panniers, put them on your bicycle, and to start riding.  In any direction, at any time.  There comes a point when you realize that you do not need to find someone to go with you, but that you can just go.  It is wonderful. It does have its drawbacks, of course.  For me, I only began to experience them after four months though.  And I believe that it was a conspiracy of various circumstances that led to feeling down: I got a cold, I felt like a cheap bastard in France, and for whatever reason, I went for several days without talking to anyone.  This, conceivably, could have happened during the first four days as well.  For me it just happened after four months.  And it is easy enough to avoid, even when you are traveling alone.  Now, enough on loneliness, here is a little bit of the story of France.

I found myself looking at beautiful – spectacular – cliffs, blue lagoons, and incredible highway which ran all along the coast.  Everywhere you might want to stop there was a café, or a bar, or a vineyard if you went a little further inland.  Only I couldn’t stop, because of the nature of the tour.  Looking out at the sea, I saw boats of various kinds: in the morning, between 7:30 and 9:30, tiny fishing boats with 2 man crews, roaming around through the orange mist, pulling fish out of small coves.  At mid day, I saw power boats motoring up and down the beaches, in the afternoon, and small sailboats racing against each other as I passed through the towns and cities.  I saw sailboats of various sizes at all times of day.  They stood out particularly at night when I saw lights flashing at bow and stern, making them clearly visible in the harbors.  These were small sailboats – 30 and 40 foot boats – at anchor in the middle of their cruises.  The bicycle tourists of the ocean.  Only with a lot more money.  The harbor between St Tropez and St Maxime seemed to be the nexus of sailing activity along the Mediterranean coast of France from my point of view on the bike.

I am glad that I took a few days to see Arles.  It was a peaceful, beautiful place.  I saw the Amphitheater there, as well as the Cryptoporticos: vast underground structures which the Romans built to hold up the Forum, a tiny part of which is still visible above ground.  I also saw the Van Gogh Bridge, a draw bridge which Van Gogh painted in the late 1800s, coincidentally located a couple hundred yards from my campsite.  The highlight of my time there was Cinema.  I saw three movies, all great experiences.  I constantly feel starved for movies, and since my arrival in Europe have only seen six or seven.  For me, this is not very many.

When I entered the famous cities of the French Riviera – Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo (not actually in France) – they would have been spectacular if I had not come from a bicycle tour which had already involved thousands of kilometers along the Mediterranean.  Seeing super yachts in front of ice rinks in front of hotels there just made me want to push, hard, for Italy, in order to see something different.  Just as I was packing up my Casino brand lunch meats and bread that I had been eating, I spotted another bicycle tourist riding through the Plaza.  I waved him over excitedly.  Perhaps Monte Carlo wasn’t all bad.
It turns out that the tourist had been riding from China, on his way west to Portugal.  Very similar to the reverse of my route, although he had gone through the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrghistan, and Uzbekhistan.  My tour does not have those countries on the itinerary.  At least not presently.  His name was Hikaru, and he was from Japan.  He had a Blue Trek 7.3FX bicycle with Deuter and Mont Bell panniers as well as stickers of the flags from all of the countries he had visited stuck to his frame, all done very artistically.  In the map case on his handlebar bag he had what looked like crossword puzzles, small comic pictures, and perhaps number puzzles.  He also had a map, of Italy, inside the handlebar bag, out of sight.  I gave him my map of France before we parted ways, as Monte Carlo is right at the border of Italy, but not before recording some video footage, and not before we shared a few stories of our adventures.  It was a great encounter, and it always makes me happy to know that there are other bicycle tourists out there.

I am now writing from a campground just across the border en route to San Remo.  Truth be told, I would love to break free from the coast for an inland route.  There is only so much spectacular coastline that I can take!  I fear that an inland route might freeze me solid once again as was the case in Spain.  So I stick to the coast for the time being until the time comes when I must choose, which will come very soon.  All of my gear seems to be holding up fairly well, and I am constantly wonder about which pieces of gear will make it all the way around, which pieces will get replaced, etc.  The panniers seem to be in a constant state of repair, although I am optimistic that soon they will finally start to just hold up.  The drive train is beginning to wear out, although I think that I will just let it go until the whole thing needs to be replaced.  The bike now has a pair of $10 plastic pedals on it because one of the Egg Beaters fell apart.  The cost was 10 Euros for the $10 pedals, and it also cost the left crank arm – a brand new Ultegra arm at the start of the tour – half of its threads as I watched an Italian mechanic with a USAF jacket force a pedal halfway in when it was cross threaded.  Fortunately I stopped him there and saved the remaining threads.  It will probably need a helicoil at some point soon.  I watched him do some other horrible things to the bike too.  It was a painful experience.  I rolled the dice on a shop full of Huffies and paid the price.  I cannot write any more about it.  And I cannot answer questions, so please do not ask, just imagine.

So, for those of you who are feeling a bit down after this somewhat negative update, I say: suck it up.  Positive updates will be back again soon.  I am in Italy now, and am excited, once again, to see what a new country has to offer.  What’s more, I speak no Italian.  This should be exciting.  If it weren’t, what would I be doing out here?

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