Heart of Jelly, Thighs of Steel

Into the Alps

After a few days in Grenoble to prepare ourselves we set off into the Alps.

The first very steep gradient we faced was on a busy main road. It was the only road, the one we would be on for the two-day climb, so we had to grit and bear it. Cars and trucks rushed past. I felt my slight and feeble body. I felt my cumbersome, awkward, wheeled steed underneath me, heavier than ever.

I could feel my thighs quaking like two jellies under this kind of pressure. They hadn’t worked like this yet. They hadn’t had to push and pump, over and over, carrying the weight of my body, my bike and my bags uphill like this before. This was the defining moment – thighs of jelly were going to be painfully transformed and hardened.

We had never cycled as slowly as we did for the time that it took to climb the 2058 meters to Col du Lautaret. We were forced to take a new approach, adopt a new kind of patience and perseverance. To add to this, at the end of the first day we both had food poisoning, turning us inside out and fogging our minds. So after one days rest, we had to face the second day of climbing to the top feeling more wobbly than ever. The bikes had never felt so close to our heaving chests. We had never wanted to abandon all our worldly goods so much before. Our possessions now directly equalled our pain.

However, the pain soon became justified. The endless climbing was gradually revealing a spectacular landscape that I had never experienced before. Slowly, all around us, after each bend in the road, the mountains were growing around us. Revealing themselves in all their glory.

The mountains made me shrink in size. I was suddenly a tiny, almost invisible, speck of a human. A minuscule creature brimming with a huge delight and deep gratitude to be among these giants. To be in the presence of the mountains was to know ones place in the grand game of life and know ones scale in the enormity and grandeur of its landscape. The mountains made me feel like nothing but a humble worshiper of the earth. This was new.

Ascending and descending the majestic mountains of the French Alps was a metamorphic process for me. I began the ascent unsure of myself and my physical capabilities. Doubtful. I began afraid and in awe of the challenge ahead. I came rocketing down from those mountains, on the terrifying switchbacks, still in awe of the beauty and harshness of the landscape but filled with a new feeling of myself. A new, swelling pride in my body and my determination. My tenacity had been set alight in that landscape.

I have learnt during my time on planet earth so far that I have a heart of jelly. I used to think I was mainly made of jelly actually. I feel things very deeply and intensely and have no moat or castle walls to protect this softness and fragility from the outside world. I still have and will always have a tender heart of jelly. But at least now, I can truly say, I own a pair of steel-like thighs.

 

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Loosing Faith but Finding the Beat

 

Grenoble

So we stupidly decided to cycle to Grenoble, late in the day, after a stunning but very exhausting hike up into the mountains to the West of Le Bourget du Lac with Alexis’ family.

Haydn and I still felt a deep awkwardness about staying in other people space, and not wanting to over-stay our welcome, we said we would set off on the seventy-five kilometre cycle at 4pm. Alexis was hitchhiking back to Grenoble, where he lived and studied, that evening. We didn’t want to be the two hangers-on in his parents home without him there. So even though our muscles were aching and our limbs were wobbling we packed up our bikes and set off towards Grenoble.

It was not surprising really that sixty kilometres and four hours later I was sat on the curb blubbering. It felt like this had happened too many times now. I was bored of sitting on curbs sobbing with exhaustion – it wasn’t what I wanted this experience to be – a painfully repetitive record of feeling physically destroyed and pathetic – literally having nothing left to give. I looked up at Haydn, who had also reached his limit for the day and said – Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. Maybe I’m too sensitive and weak and just not strong enough for this life. Maybe you have to be superwoman to live like this, maybe you need to have endless energy and positivity and physical and mental determination that I just can’t grasp. Maybe I’m just too soft?

We sat there on the side of the road, with the fag butts and bottle caps, questioning the whole project we had begun. We had suddenly lost all faith in ourselves. It was quickly disintegrating along with our willpower and energy. It all just seemed too big and too difficult. The enormity of the whole thing was crashing in on me. I wanted to be a different person. A braver, stronger, fitter person. A person who could do this without crumbling.

We knew we had made a mistake setting off so late but it felt like more than that. It felt like we weren’t learning quickly enough and our desire to be polite and fit in with other people’s plans (which you have to do to some extent) was overriding our instincts of what we were physically capable of. We argued and cried and shouted for a while.

Then we both went very quiet and after a time of quietness we both picked up our bodies, exhausted, hungry and deflated and carried them on to Grenoble.

We arrived at 10pm. Alexis greeted us with his wonderful warmth and asked why we were questioning ourselves so much. We sat on the pavement outside his flat. I lay on the ground and looked up at the bright stars through gaps in the thick grey clouds.

Alexis reflected on his cycle travels with his parents when he was little and explained that of course you have to make mistakes to learn. To learn about your own capabilities and about this kind of life. He told us to not be so hard on ourselves and that if we really wanted this, we would learn and grow into the people we wanted to be. He gave us a beer, a shower, fed us vegetarian lasagne, and let us crash out on a bed in the living room. What a hero.

We had a gorgeous few days in Grenoble. We met Alexis’ housemates and friends who were all hugely intelligent and charming. On the last night we went out for a beer and stumbled upon a big crowd listening to psychedelic live music in a park. I had a familiar, swelling feeling of electricity in my body. I realised in that moment how much I had missed moving my body, not for exercise or cycling, but for music and movement itself. It was bliss just dancing and forgetting everything for a while. The world melted away around me. I realised then the true importance of dance. People of all ages should be able to dance and feel free of all worries and plans for a time. To just listen, completely absorbed, moment to moment, in letting the music change and shape the body into a responsive instrument. Not just flesh and blood but alive in sound.

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A Magical and Mysterious Rightness of Being

After buying some mini mustards we decided this area of France just wasn’t doing it for us. It was burning holes in our pockets and the flat agricultural land wasn’t making up for the fast disappearing, hard-saved cash. We wanted to see a new landscape. We needed to see a landscape that justified this strange new life we were living. We got a train 240km from Dijon to Chambéry.

I sat and stared out of the window for a long time. It was so satisfying to watch the uninspiring scenery flying past on the other side of the glass. This wonderful machine was shooting us through the landscape that we were so bored of. It was disappearing behind us now and now and now. Sat comfortable in a French train seat. Eating a morning croissant. A train had never felt so fast before. Never felt so luxurious.

A few days earlier we had sent a request to stay with a guy, Alexis, in Grenoble. He explained that he wasn’t there at that time but suggested that we come and stay with him at his parents house not far from Grenoble, in Le Bourget-du-Lac. He explained that his Mother and Father were cycle tourists and that they had just come back from their most recent (yes, this was not the only one!) world tour from their home in Eastern France to Japan. We were amazed. What an incredible coincidence. Could these be the cycle touring parents we had dreamed of?

Alexis came to meet us at the train station in Chambéry. From the first warm handshake, I knew we were going to get on. Sometimes the openness and kindness of certain people just emanates from them, like a good-human-glow.

We squeezed all the bags and bikes into the back of the family car and he drove us to his house. We ate a wonderful lunch, sat outside under the shade of a fig tree. We met his older sister, Mylise, who had been a national runner but due to an injury had changed course into studying environmentally friendly engineering. Alexis was studying medicine and was an accomplished uni-cyclist and slackliner in his spare time. His parents, Bridgette and Nicholas, told us that they had done three world bike tours. One when they were in their twenties through Europe and Africa. One when all the children were small but old enough to ride on the back of a parent-led tandem or on their own small bike. And the most recent one, to Japan, they had only returned a few months ago. We were sat at the table, jaws on the floor. Woooow. What an incredible family. And we hadn’t even met his younger brother, he was probably a neuroscientist or an astronaut or a famous musician or something.

We asked them all the questions we had been burning to find answers to. It was so interesting to meet a family in which the concept of cycling to New Zealand was not strange or scary, just another venture out into the world like so many they had done before. It turned a light on in my head about taking a new approach. A more relaxed, less anxious approach that could change everything.

Later Alexis took us to the edge of Lac du Bourget. A vast and beautiful lake. He set up a very advanced slack line between two pontoons, crossing over the deep water. Haydn stripped off and watched Alexis perch on the top of a white pole over the water. He began walking across, making it look easy, arms waving above his head to counterweight his body. I lay my towel on the ground and took in the scene. Haydn tried over and over again. Walking a little way, falling in to the water, clambering back up the metal poles of the pontoon to try again. I was very happy to observe this spectacle and not participate. I felt the tiredness heavy in my limbs. We stayed there until the sun set and the water shimmered deep indigo.

In this moment a wonderful feeling washed over me. I felt far from home and amazed at what series of events and coincidences had happened to mean that I was here right now but as if there was nowhere else in the world I should be.

A magical and mysterious rightness of being.

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Tour de France – Interlude

The Tour de France was quite a spectacle. A kind of strange, cycling-entertainment interlude in our week off the bikes to wait for Haydn’s arm to feel better.

The bright hot high street of Chatillion-sur-Seine came alive with people who seemed hungry for free amusement.

Young people who seemed to have taken a large dose of cocaine were strapped onto strange vehicles that had been made into huge three-dimensional advertising campaigns. The vans looked like they were straight out of a cartoon.

A leg of ham car, a giant size box of McCain’s chips gliding down the road, a chicken van, a car that was just an enormous tyre, Vittel water bottle cars. They all drove past and threw tiny, customised plastic bits of tat to the eager crowd. The crowd was colourful. It looked like everyone had made an effort for today. It was a day people had waited for. I picked up a little key-ring from the balcony of the hotel where I was watching from. One of the enthusiastic distributors had managed to get one up here with a dramatic arm gesture. It had a small, puffy plastic logo of an estate agents on it. Why did anyone want this stuff? Grown men and women were grabbing, squabbling over the freebies on the streets. Children clawing at each other. Mothers clutching large shopping bags in which they would stash their hoardings. What would people do with it all when they got home? I couldn’t get my head around it. . I could see Haydn down on the street photographing the crowd. Wanting to record this bizarre event in pictures.

A meat advertising van drove past and a woman in fully branded outfit and cap threw miniature wrapped pepperonis to the crowd. They screamed and cheered wildly. Wow. I really didn’t expect it to be like this. Some of the vans drove really fast and the distributors didn’t look enthused at all unloading their tat in handfuls to the crowd, looking board while their bodies swayed with the movement of the vehicle around the curve of the round about. A sea of hands reaching up to the sky, to the distributors, pleading for something to be thrown their way. It was all very surreal.

Then the advertising vans became less and less frequent in their parade down the street. Everyone grew quiet and began to get out sandwiches and snacks. They knew the routine. They had enough time for lunch now before the leading group of cyclists would be in sight. I sipped my drink and watched the crowds. In twenty minutes the first whoops and shouts were heard. People flooded back onto the balcony of the hotel and the crowds in the street below were jumping and buzzing again. I could feel myself getting excited now too. It was infectious. The first three cyclist rounded the curve of the high street and the crowds flanking the road went wild. Children, old men and women, teenagers and parents all shouting encouragement and jumping up and down with excitement. The three cyclists were pumping up and down over their slick bicycles. Stood up on their pedals – meaty thighs glistening – faces serious. Male athletes with coloured lycra bodies. They seemed oblivious to the screaming crowds. Just powering forwards and cycling on. They passed by in seconds, within a steady head movement left to right. The crowd still cheering when they’d passed. We all waited for the peloton to arrive. Waited. Another strange clam descended in between three storms of excitement. A single child screamed, probably overwhelmed by the tension and madness of the strange event. Then it came – the big group was visible sweeping up the road. Lots of bodies tightly packed, moving like a herd of gracefully linked animals. Moving as one. The crowed bellowed louder. They swept past and then fanned out into two sections to loop the roundabout at the top of the road.

And just like that, they were gone. It was over. Everyone packed up their things and left. The high street was empty again, with just a few scattered freebies on the pavement to show for what had been.

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Stuck in Chatillon-sur-Seine

We were stuck in the pretty average town of Chatillon-sur-Seine (just north of Dijon) for a whole week. Which might not sound long to you, reader, but when you’re actually just waiting for seven days with not much else to do, except read, eat, sleep and be mindful, it feels like a pretty long time.

Rewind a few days and we had cycled 100km and then 85km in two days which for us at that stage was a lot. The following day we had tried to make things easier for ourselves by cycling less but slept in as we were so tired which meant we set off in the heat of mid-morning. Big mistake. We decided we would wild camp so we didn’t have the stress of trying to get to a campsite that evening but stumbled across a very wild, basic looking campsite by lunchtime and decided that was enough for us as we were very tired. The campsite owner was a funny little man, whose reception, office and small library was all inside his rusty old white van.

The air of this wild little campsite was alive with mosquitoes as there was a wide, still lake at the bottom. I had an almost completely sleepless night, tossing and turning, very sweaty and my whole body on fire with bites. We knew we should have just dealt with the mozzies and stayed an extra day to rest but the thought was so unappealing and our minds were so frazzled by the heat and lack of sleep that we packed up and left the following morning. I was fantasizing about somewhere cooler and more comfortable for a proper rest, a rest that didn’t involve our tent, a rest that somehow excluded this huge heat. All I could think about was a large, clean, white linen bed. So simple, so endlessly inviting. It was the holy grail in my mind, when I thought of it angels began to sing. I had to get there, I had to get in it. I had to lie in it and be as clean as it.

We cycled very wearily to Chatillion-sur-Seine, which was not very far away, but all uphill.

When we got there, we collapsed into the first café/restaurant we found and gulped down a huge jug of water while still sweating profusely. God it was embarrassing to be around people who had obviously washed that morning and not then had to poo behind a roadside hedge and cycle uphill for an hour and a half carrying 40 kilos and catch half of France’s insect population on your suncreamed arms and shins. I felt so utterly and completely grimey. I had never felt so highly aware and appalled by my own appearance and smell. I was amazed people didn’t stare more. We must have been quite a sight.

We looked online to find a cheap Air B&B in the town or a cheap hotel. Ended up sat in a scrubby little park for ages waiting for the apparently “instant book” apartment to be available. We were waiting on the host to respond and answer our prayers. She didn’t. I rang Air B&B. They said there had been a fault on the website and that the place wasn’t available. But he gave me a voucher for $20 on my next booking. I clenched my teeth and thanked the very upbeat Australian Air B&B guy for his help. The sun had moved across the sky. We quickly checked the hotels we had been considering on my phone. No! Suddenly they were all booked! WHAT! I quickly checked the more expensive ones – nope – all booked. WHAT? HOW? We decided to cycle to a few of them and check if they could squeeze us in. We thought we would be lucky. I stumbled just getting my leg back over the bike again. Fuck – I was so exhausted.

I was having a struggle coordinating my brain and my body. They were not communicating well – they were having a stand-off. My brain was high on adrenaline and espresso – knowing we had to find somewhere to rest as quickly as possible. My body was not responding in the same way – it felt like a dead weight, like a deaf, heavy bag of sand. Not rested, not happy, not wanting to get back on the bicycle. I could feel my body shouting NO, I’ve had ENOUGH! My body was having a tantrum, turning to jelly, the sand was being let out of the bag, my energy draining away, every second, through the soles of my feet. I had to gather myself up. Like a mother would a child. Cradle myself and say – not long now – we’ll find somewhere to rest. Not much further – then you can rest.

We cycled from hotel to hotel. All booked. The Tour de France was coming through the town in a few days. Oh amazing! Maybe we could see it! Wait no – fuck, fuck, fuck – that means everywhere will be booked up! I got to the point where I just had to get off the bike, shaking and slump in the shade for a while. Head rested on knees. Haydn could see I was crumbling. He valiantly cycled off to try to find somewhere – anywhere. He returned breathless saying there was a really dodgy looking place for 50 euros a night. I sat for a while with my head in my hands. We couldn’t afford that – but if we just stayed one night … The heat and exhaustion swimming through my mind, fuddeling my tracks of thoughts. Making them swim in circles, round and round, shouting demands for sleep, food, water, more sleep. I clapped my hands together. OK – I don’t think we have another option. Let’s go.

We cycled there and after much cyclical and completely beffudling, language barred, conversations with the owner we collapsed into a room that looked remarkably like a room in a shabby hospital. Not what I had fantasized about at all but remarkably apt for our current state.

Unfortunately it was about to get even more apt.

Somehow in the night, in the bed that was shaped like a spoon, Haydn managed to trap a nerve in his shoulder.

He woke in agonising, searing pain and it took me a while to realise what was going on. We realised a few hours later with no improvement that we were in a bit of a pickle. I couldn’t move all our bags and the bikes on my own, up the huge hill to the nearest campsite. My body was still having a tantrum and I had to respect it. I didn’t really have a choice.

So we had to stay in the hotel for longer. Very expensive for a spoon bed in a hospital room.

After one more day and night of rest the demands of my unhappy body were getting quieter. I moved everything to the campsite at the top of the hill. I felt like Superwoman. I cycled my bike with all its luggage up the 20% gradient, spoke to the receptionist to say I would be leaving my bike in his care for fifteen minutes and then I ran back down the hill and pushed Haydn’s loaded bike up too. Haydn walked beside me with his arm in a homemade sling. The quicker he healed the quicker we could get on the road again, so I had to do everything for a while. We had to stay at the campsite until his arm was fully healed as life on the road is so demanding of physical fitness and ability.

We knew we wanted to speed through these agricultural flatlands of France that we weren’t really enjoying.

It was becoming expensive and it didn’t really feel different enough from the landscape of home. We were hungering after a new landscape, after a view that made this effort worthwhile. A view that made the nomad spirit come alive with wonder for the world and treat the eyes and heart with a taste of the wildness to come.

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Time for an Angel

We were in northern France, still north of Paris. Heading towards Arras. These were the lands of endless wheat and barley.

We had felt for a while that we just weren’t getting it. We kept asking ourselves consequential, intimidating questions like – Are we the right people to do this kind of project? Can we really enjoy this lifestyle or are we just not tough enough? Why do we keep getting to the point where Haydn is screaming off into the woods and I’m sat on the curb weeping with exhaustion? Surely this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be?

We definitely felt like right moron softies most of the time. Making a fantastic mess of this cycle touring malarkey.

We were finding it very difficult and strange to cycle at all with so much weight. We suspected (and had been told by a human-scales at a bike shop) that we were each carrying between 35 and 40 kilos. The heat was like an ever-present, dangerous animal that we had to try to negotiate with everyday. We weren’t sleeping well most nights, no matter how tired we were, as our tent was so humid and sticky. It all just seemed like a lot of very hard work and not enough fun.

This was the awkward, painful time of learning. Learning how to live a new life.

We were trying our best to stay calm and persistent but everyday felt like a gigantic effort. Most poignantly in the mornings and evenings. I think it was a routine neither of us immediately cherished. To wake up at the crack of dawn, eat and drink something bleary-eyed, pack down the tent and put everything you own back on to the bikes. Then usually you realise you have forgotten something you need in the bottom of a bag, take everything out again – find the blasted, forgotten thing and then re-pack everything back in again, perhaps repeat this rigmarole a few more times. Then finally after a hell load of faffing; set off.

The setting off part was often my favourite time of day. Especially, I might add, if it was a downhill or flat road to start the day. The events of the day and night before tend to melt away as the morning breeze fills your lungs and strokes past your face and body. A golden moment. A gorgeous temperature. A perfect instant of apprehension and excitement about what this day might bring. It might be the best day yet for some presently unknown reason. A multitude of different, ripe possibilities all ahead and waiting. Hovering in the ether. The feeling of moving onwards, forwards. A deep feeling of freedom and anticipation.

But this was a very fleeting feeling. An ephemeral, precious joy.

We wanted some kind, all-knowing, all-experienced cycle touring parents to be waiting at the gates of the next campsite, or around the next bend in the road. To take us under their wings and explain how wrong we had gotten it so far and how we could make it so much easier for ourselves if only we knew these few simple rules …

But they didn’t seem to materialise around the next corner so we had to continue to make mistakes and find our own way … the hard way.

We had been having enormous ups and downs. Huge highs where we felt like we were finally getting the hang of it and then massive lows, dribbling on the side of the road when we realised that we definitely weren’t. We would both have a meltdown about every few days and then with a big cry and a chat have an epiphany about our latest plan of action.

These are the things we discovered:

We were not getting enough rest – day or night. Cycling too much with not enough breaks or rest days. We needed to learn to pace ourselves – stop rushing from place to place – and missing all the good bits!

We were not eating the right fuel to feed these cycling machines (our bodies). We had been eating lots of carbohydrates and sugars and not enough vitamins and minerals. We had to make sure we had enough energy to cook a good feast in the evening to support our bodies. We needed veg, veg, fruit, a big sprinkling of salt for all that was being sweated out and then some more veg.

Feeling the pressure to wild camp every night to save money was not doing us any good in this part of the world. We learnt that we didn’t have to wild camp all the time. There are parts of the world that make wild camping very difficult and stressful. Having a campsite for the end of the day can be a really good goal and when it is extremely hot, having a shower at the end of a very long sweaty day can be the difference between loving what you’re doing and absolutely hating it.

Positivity is the key. If you expect the Earth and its people to provide you with what you need, you will be far more receptive to finding it for yourself.

We tried our best to apply these findings to our daily lives on the road but this was far easier said than done.

However we did seem to finally be finding our cycle touring legs (and minds) very gradually. Mistake by mistake, day by day, week by week.

We had cycled a long, hot but productive day on the road and were thinking about where we might be able to set up camp for the night. It was getting towards 5pm and we were on a fairly busy road linking one small agricultural town to another. We decided to explore a densely forested area, straight off the road, just outside the town of Bouvigny-Boyeffles. We left our bikes for a moment and wondered up the steep path. The trees were thin and tightly packed and we soon realised the steep gradient of the hillside would make camping impossible.

When we came back down the path a tall, muscular, bald man was waiting for us. He had pulled over in his car, the door left ajar, and was approaching Haydn – the man said – Are you looking for somewhere to stay? Haydn looked at the man and then at me – what should he reply? What was this mans agenda? Was he the owner of the land? Haydn replied – Yes we are actually. The man replied immediately – You can stay at my house if you like – I have a nice flat bit of garden you can camp on. Come on you can follow me in my car, it’s just back down the hill and into the little town, not far at all. Haydn started to speak but the man was already walking back to his car.

I looked at Haydn, he looked at me, he said – What do you reckon? Good idea or bad idea?

I thought for a second. I looked at the man. The back of his head, his posture, his walk. Trying to analyse him. Our time in Calais had filled me with such a glowing hope for human beings. I said – I think we have to trust people until proven otherwise.

Also our other options were looking pretty dire so I was hoping this was a kind angel sent to save us from a night wild camping in a lay-by. I was just hoping that this kind of trust would have a happy ending so I could relay it as an example story to ease my dear mother and father into the idea of us staying with complete strangers we’d met on the road.

We followed his car back down the hill and into the village. When we pulled into his driveway a smiling woman, two smiling children and an excitedly wriggling dog greeted us. Dominique (we learnt was the name of this Angel man) introduced us to his family. His wife Maria; a wonderfully warm Spanish woman. His son Louis, of about 13. His daughter Celia who was perhaps 10 and the dog, Jina.

Dominique walked us down to the end of their garden and showed us where we could put our tent. He suggested we could sleep in their campervan if we preferred. We said the tent was fine but thanked him all the same and began to set up our tent with the sweet little dog playfully running around our legs.

Maria came and offered us a shower in the house, she said she was cooking tortilla and asked if we would like to eat with them. OH we had been brought to heaven! I was going to trust scary looking bald men from now on – without hesitation!

We had a gorgeous evening with many broken, interesting conversations (mainly thanks to Dominique’s very good English and google translate) trying to find out about each other, lots of laughter, delicious food and then a long session of basketball with the two kids after dinner.

We went to bed feeling so lucky to have been found by this wonderful family. Maybe this was the way of things to come? Perhaps we needed to consider approaching people and just asking outright to camp in their gardens. Surely the likelihood of people asking us was minute but somehow it had happened! What a kind man and what a gorgeous family. They had reassured us again that people could be so generous and caring to total strangers and that perhaps we should be a little less timid in reaching out ourselves and asking for help when we need it.

The question was – did we have the nerve?

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Hello Heat – ‘Disaster Day Dans Le Soleil’

When we left Calais, we were emotionally and physically exhausted.

Love has a tendency of doing this to you, as I’m sure you know.

When we left Calais a heat wave blistered northern France.

Cycling was intensely hot, incredibly tiring and deeply stressful for a myriad of reasons.

I will just relay the events of one particular day to give you a taster.
I call it:
‘Disaster Day Dans Le Soleil’

We woke up at 5am in a campsite to eat a banana and some biscuits. 24 degrees. We packed down the tent slowly in the fog of sleep and watched as the sun rose over the horizon and the heat began to burn the dew of the morning away.

We set off at around 8.30am, following a rough path next to a canal. By 10am we were drenched with sweat. It was pushing 30 degrees. The sun was on our side of the canal and the luxurious shade was on the other side of the water. When we came to a bridge we decided to swap sides to try to get our hot bodies into that blissful looking darkness.

The path looked a little rougher but we didn’t think too much of that at the time.

The shade was attractive enough not to notice.

An hour later and it was 35 degrees and we appeared to be in a very narrow, dense jungle. We were pushing our bikes and it was taking all our effort just to move them forward through all the thick vegetation. This vegetation mainly consisted of waist-high, two foot wide plants with plump, waxy leaves that stuck out horizontally. These exotic, strange-looking plants grew right in the centre of the rock path. There was also the joys of huge quantities of stinging nettles and head-high sticky grasses. On one side of us was dense forest leading god-knows-where and on the other side was the canal, looking more enticing by the minute. But as we slowly trudged further and further down the jungle path we began realising our surroundings were fantastically infested with all number of biting insects. They seemed to be attracted by our sweat. We had come too far to go back. We didn’t think we could even turn our bikes around with so little room. It was taking all our strength and patience just to push the bikes forwards and frequently slap our bodies wherever we felt a sting. We had to keep going.

The heat seemed enormous and overwhelming, constantly growing in intensity.

We finally passed through the jungle path after much swearing at plants and insects. The path then turned into a new kind of hell without a bridge in sight. The ground, now with no plants to bind it, had turned to a sort of smooth, white clay. It was the slipperiest stuff I had ever encountered on a bike. I fell over – bike and all – three times. Each time grazing a different part of my body with pedals or cassette. One time I had to grip onto the wooden bank to avoid falling straight into the canal.

We finally got off the hell path and found a small village at midday. We picked up the usual bread, cheese, avocado and tomatoes. I was already getting very tired of this diet. We found a park and ate joylessly in the shade for a while, inspecting our bites and rashes. I lay down and looked up at the trees moving against the flat blue sky. Haydn said maybe we should carry on if we were going to get to where we had planned. I tried to stifle the tears back that I could feel bubbling in my chest. I really, desperately did not want to get back on the bike. We tried to leave and set off cycling again but once we were back to the main road I just sat on the curb and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I was just hating it. It was so hot I felt completely delirious. So did Haydn. All I wanted to do was sleep. We went back to the shade of the park where we had eaten lunch and decided to sleep there longer until it got a bit cooler. From here it just got hilarious.

I woke up from sleep desperate for a wee and quickly scanned around for anywhere I could go. There were a big group of young Polish men hanging around a bench near by so I stumbled up still half asleep and grabbed my Sheewee. I tried to hide behind a tree, fumbling around, still feeling like I was in a dream. I got the angle of the Sheewee wrong and completely soaked my cycling shorts with piss. I felt so humiliated and suddenly intensely angry about this whole experience being such a disaster and how much I was hating today and wondering why on earth I was putting myself through this. It felt like a strange nightmare or a punishment. A very hot, extended, self-propelled punishment. A punishment that I had worked my ass off for two years to scrimp and save the money for. What by the great beard of Zeus was I doing here in this mangy park in some obscure, beyond average town in northern France with mild heat stroke, covered in insect bites and wearing soaking wet piss shorts!

I lay on the ground and my chest started heaving with sobs. What are we doing Hayds? I kept asking him through my sobs – Why are we doing this? He rubbed my back and just said one word. One word that made all this mess, all our efforts and mistakes and pain and discomfort seem to have a purpose;

– Calais.

Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity

 

Calais – Episode IV – The Most Important Post To Date

All I can really do is tell you to go. Go to Calais. Go to that warehouse and get stuck in, in whatever way you can. It’s hard work but that is the real richness of it. There is a good reason for working so hard – perhaps the best reason you have ever had.

Don’t think about it for too long. Don’t question whether you can be bothered or have the money to get the ferry, or whether it’ll fit in with your plans. Just go. Meet all the volunteers there, meet the old ones and the young ones, the ones staying for a weekend or a week or the ones that have made their lives there and have no plans to leave. I guarantee you will fall in love with one of them, if not accidentally all of them. Meet the people who run it, day in – day out, quietly, with determination of titanium and with so much love it can’t help being gloriously infectious.

Go meet those people – they will meet your best expectations of human beings and human doings.

Donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity

Calais – Episode III – Work: The Saving Grain

It is very difficult to start this section – it feels almost impossible to describe and sum up my time working in Calais into a neat little blog post. It wasn’t a neat or little experience. It was one of the most intense and engaging experiences of my life to date.

I wish I could write in great detail about all the organisations collaborating at the Calais warehouse. There are many and they are all brilliant at what they do. However, during our time in Calais, Haydn and I, were mainly working for RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen). This is the organisation that feeds all the displaced people in Calais, in different locations, around the clock, every single day without fail. While I was working at the warehouse the number of daily meals being prepared and distributed rose from 1,300 to 2000.

We initially thought we would stay at the warehouse for one week, we ended up staying for one month and a half.

But on my first day at the warehouse I was clueless to this and just walked up to the food preparation tables where the music was thumping and offered my hands up to the work.

An hour into onions and it was the conversations across the tables that took my mind away from systematic cutting and peeling and onto what a mind-alteringly incredible place this was. Every person that I spoke to had an openess and a compassion about them that delighted and enchanted me. Here we were, all these strangers doing a fairly mundane task and everyone wanted to find out about the person next to them with the same curiosity, humbleness and generosity of spirit. It sounds so simple but the quality of the human beings at that warehouse in Calais is really something else. And on my first day at the prep table, I had only seen the tip of the iceberg.

I couldn’t help looking up from my onions to the kitchen area, where a line of vast stainless steel pots sat bubbling away on top of burners. The chefs seemed to be stirring what was in the pots with huge metal paddles, a metre long or more. I saw people soaking and then washing huge quantities of rice in the corner. They looked like they were sieving for precious metals with huge sieves to strain the liquid away. But I would soon learn it was each grain of rice that was precious – this was the key – the daily staple. The special saving grain.

Those in the kitchen seemed to be the people who knew what they were doing. The longterm volunteers who knew the true grit of this fight to feed those in need. It was they who were the integral cogs in the wonderous RCK machine. I could see the strain and dedication and enormous love it took, to keep this process running everyday, revolving and turning out the enormous daily quantities of delicious, nutritious food.

It wasn’t too long before me and Haydn were the inexperienced cogs in the kitchen. But we learnt as quickly as we could and after a week or two of shadowing the long-termers we were making rice. From working out vast quantities, to soaking, to washing, to choosing and tempering huge amounts of wonderful spices in giant pans, getting timings and temperatures right, fluffing the rice with huge plastic paddles and dishing the steaming hot rice with plastic plates into industrial gastros for distribution. This was and is done by one or two longer term volunteers – twice a day – every day. And that’s just the rice! There is also a vast amount of delicious curry and salad to be prepared and distributed every day.

Just to give you an idea, while we were there, 200kg of rice was being cooked and distributed everyday. That’s 1400kg every week. And 6,000kg every month. That means that just while Haydn and I were at the warehouse, give or take a few grains, 9,000kg of rice was cooked and distributed.

RCK is a constant production line, all day, everyday. In the morning you cook for that days lunch and prepare for the evening meal and in the afternoon you’re preparing food for the following day. Round and round the cycle goes. So many loving hands needed to keep the constant process going.

The love seems to burn even stronger and brighter when resistance is offered and the most severe resistance to RCK’s enormous efforts comes from the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite), or for anyone who hasn’t encountered them (lucky you); privately hired intimidation services. The CRS in Calais are funded by the UK. Go figure.

While we were in Calais, at a normal lunchtime distribution on a scorching hot day, the CRS, armed with guns, tear gas and pepper spray, physically stopped us (hippies in aprons) from giving out either food or water to homeless people who had experienced some of the worst that the world can throw at anyone. Even writing this sentence now baffles me. Read it again.

There came a point after about one month working for RCK where I felt I wanted to explore other areas of the warehouse and try to offer some of my other skills to the place. I did a big mural on some wooden clothes hoppers that a friend and I had built. I helped the incredible every-job handyman with some basic carpentry and his eternal attempts to keep rodents out of the stored food. I sorted clothes and blankets and met the wonderful donations warehouse fairies. Every new job brought with it a new set of connections, smiles and stories with fantastic, committed, selfless people.

All of these different experiences had huge highs and lows and gradually became intensely tiring, day after day. But it’s the people at the warehouse that keep you coming back again and again. I came to the warehouse completely naive, thinking I was setting off on a big cycle to raise money for a grass-roots charity that had a warehouse in Calais. When leaving, I had to tear myself away from that warehouse and the people there, streaming with uncontrollable tears. I had fallen so in love with a new family of people who had filled a crevasse in my experience of the world.  A crevasse I hadn’t known was there. I had met a family of people who loved the world and all that was in it just as much as I did. People who had enough massive love and dedication in themselves to offer something completely selfless and enormous, day in – day out. I had always thought that perhaps I didn’t have one, but here, I had found my tribe.

Please donate to RCK and help them to keep doing the incredible work they do everyday –  refugeecommunitykitchen.com/donate-money/

 

Calais – Episode II – The Warehouse

We arrived at the warehouse on 5th May 2017.

We walked through the back streets of the Calais industrial zone with the four other volunteers from Sylvie’s and arrived at two tall, evergreen hedges with a high metal gate tucked into the middle. Fabio pushed open the gate and we all walked into the vast concrete courtyard space. Beyond the courtyard was the enormous, solid, oblong shape of the warehouse with a small square mouth opening in the centre. I looked around at the ramshackle buildings that formed the office spaces in the courtyard. One that stood out was made of wood panels of assorted size and shape, all painted bright yellow, seemingly for a sense of joyful overall cohesion. There were welcome signs written in colourful chalk on various blackboards. Mismatched tables and chairs collected in large groups – as if in conversation – were dotted around outside the offices. Plastic stools, canvas deck chairs, swiveling office chairs, long wooden benches, regal old upholstered armchairs, the lot. All out in all weathers. This place reminded me of some of my kitchens from university days in London. I felt at home already.

I was welcomed into one of the offices by Sarah – a gorgeous French ball of laughter – and was asked to read a form. It was to clarify I was in control of my person and anything that happened to me during the time working here was completely my responsibility. I asked Sarah with an eyebrow – what could possibly happen to me? She just smiled and told me to sign.

She walked with me into the warehouse and I tried to digest this overwhelming first impression while listening to what she was saying. This space was HUGE.

To the right was the inbuilt toilet block, the tea and coffee area with a long wooden table, offering breakfast pastries. Behind this was the infamous warehouse Charity Shop, full of ridiculous donations and mad-wonderous delights. I glimpsed full-length blue ball gowns, wet suits and multicoloured silk shirts. Straight in front of me was another square mouth opening into an adjoining warehouse behind. Sarah told me this was where all the donations were processed and housed until distributed. To the left of me was a large white inbuilt box that formed a changing room. Further right, flanking the walls and jutting into the space, were high stacked metal shelves holding huge quantities of rice, pulses, packaged foods and spices. At the very furthest left end of warehouse was the hub of the Refugee Community Kitchen. People were already gathering together around the metal prep tables, dressed in chefs blacks and gently bobbing to the loud bassy music that was thumping through the kitchen speakers.

Lots of people were walking around, getting tea and coffee, hugging, talking, joking, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

I felt like I was at a festival. A kind of festival I had never been to before.

Calais – Episode I – Sylvie’s

WOW. How to even begin …

I’ll just have to start at the beginning and see how this comes out …

Me and Haydn arrived at 11 o’clock at night at the front door of Sylvie’s house in Calais. After emailing the Help Refugees volunteers and asking for where to stay they suggested Sylvie’s place. We had cycled through the empty Calais streets at night – high residential tower block after tower block on either side of the road. I felt embarrassed it was so late and realised in this moment, stood on this doorstep, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Not of Sylvie, not of her house, or the warehouse where people worked, or of any people here and what they were doing day-to-day. We knocked on the door. It opened and stood there was a very petite, middle-aged woman with short grey hair and a wonderfully kind smile. She shook both our hands and then asked us quietly in perfect English to walk around to the back of the house with our bikes as the front door ‘didn’t work’. She then closed the door that seemed to work perfectly. We found out about that mystery later.

We pushed our bikes in through the back door and into her utility room come garage that was filled with recycling and bikes and household clutter. Sylvie gave us both a big hug. You know that feeling you get when you can just tell someone is a good egg? You don’t have to have any evidence – you just know. Sylvie was a good egg – a really good one – I could feel it. She looked at us seriously and said – Well done for coming here. Her earnestness was heart-warming but also made me anxious. What was this place going to be like?

She welcomed us into her small, chic kitchen and introduced us to the other volunteers staying with her. They were four young people, about our age, sat around the kitchen table. Rose, David, Fabio and Jack. An English-Parisian, a New Yorker, an Italian and an Alaskan. They were a wonderful bunch and we got talking to them straight away. I felt like we’d just walked into the best hostel I’d ever been to. We went to put our bags upstairs and when walking past the living room we saw two young children, a little girl and her older brother, sat on the sofa. Sylvie said for them to come and meet us and they shot up off the sofa and came to shake our hands. These were her children. This woman was brilliant.

We left the house at 8.30am the following morning after an evening of long, in-depth conversation around the table. As we were locking up I asked David, the lovely man from New York, why we had to shut all the electronic blinds and use the back door to leave. He explained that the local residents were so disapproving of Sylvie having volunteers to stay, that she had to take every precaution to avoid direct harassment and property damage. One of those was for us (the demon volunteers) to always use the back door so that hopefully only the neighbours directly behind her house would see us coming and going. He explained that people had already attempted to break the windows a few times and someone had made a gash with a crowbar on the electric blinds in front of the living-room. Could the inhabitants of Calais really be that against us volunteering our time to help some people in need?

Oh how naïve I was.

Air B&B Couple From the 1940’s – Episode IV – The Jeep Tour

Jean lead us back to the first room for a simple 1940’s war-time breakfast of French baguette, jam and black coffee in deep china bowls. While we ate he showed us the contents of a folder with plastic sleeves containing black and white photographs and text extracts from war-time newspapers. We tried to understand what he was saying through all our fragments of broken language and an elaborate array of hand gestures. He explained the history of Saint Marie-du-Mont during the war and how the German soldiers had used the house as a base and shot with huge guns, from the fields outside the house, all the way onto the beaches 7.5 kilometres away.

After we had finished eating, he closed the book with a slam and said something quickly to Pascale in French, which I couldn’t quite grasp. Pascale translated – Would you like a tour of the village in the war Jeep? I looked at Haydn, he looked at me. This was getting better and better.

Outside, Jean led us to one of the old farm buildings. Inside, at the back, in the corner was a large shape. Jean briskly threw a green tarpaulin and camouflage netting up in the air. Hidden underneath was a boxy, iconic green, WWII Land Rover. It had no doors, a canvas roof and a gun holder instead of a dash-board. Jean jumped in and started up the very loud, spitting engine. We hopped in too, Haydn in the back, me in the front. Jean explained that he found the truck online and drove it back from Belgium a few years ago in December, when it was -18 degrees. The windscreen kept freezing over and because the windscreen wipers were broken he had to keep scraping it with his hand while driving. I looked across at him – his grin brimming over again. He looked like the kind of guy who might do a thing like that.

We trundled out of the gate and down the narrow country lanes of Holdy that led to Saint Marie-du-Mont. Getting faster and faster until we were hurtling along. Jean drove right in the middle of the road and would swerve out the way just in time when cars came towards us on the other side of the road. It was brilliant seeing the mystified, slightly miffed looks on the passing drivers faces. I think Jean was giving us the real experience of driving in a vehicle of status  on an important mission. All the other cars had to move out of the way for us – they just weren’t in on the role play. I was really starting to like him and his madness – his excitement was infectious.

We drove around the village stopping at various points where Jean would explain details of how attacks and buildings had played a part in the bigger story of the war. When we were heading back towards the house, Jean swerved and drove up a bank into a field and stopped the truck. He opened up the plastic folder again and flicked to a page with an A4 black and white image inside. The image was of the field we were in. To the right of where Jean had stopped the car was a ditch and a high hedge that looked identical to the photograph. Nothing had changed at all. Except in the image, the ditch was filled with limp, heavy bodies that were dressed in the uniforms of the side they had died for. It was a very strange feeling – as if I could have stepped out of the truck and walked straight over to the ditch and seen them all lying there, lifeless, in front of me. I could have knelt and reached out and touched a hand – probably a young hand – a hand my own age – and held it for a moment – across time – across gender and generations and nationality – just one human hand holding another. To say sorry for our huge, undeniable history of violence and sorry for the paradox that the deaths of so many were for the sake of a peaceful future – my peaceful future.

 

Air B&B Couple From the 1940’s – Episode III – The Museum

In the morning we woke up feeling relieved that the night was over. The human brain can do remarkable things in the dark – turning somersaults and coming up with wild and terrifying tales just because the brightness on the world has been turned down.

We got dressed and went downstairs to where Jean was waiting for us. He seemed somehow dressed up, looking like he had made an effort for us, in his black leather jacket and long blue scarf and flat cap.

He greeted us with a beaming smile and said excitedly – Breakfast in the museum! He strode out of the front door. Pascale opened the kitchen door to our right, which seemed synonymous now with the barking dogs, and slipped outside with a pot of coffee. She gestured for us to follow Jean.

We went outside into the morning, overcast light. Several meters away from the front door on the left, Jean opened another door into the house. We followed him through this door and the sound of an urgent voice from a 1940’s war transmission radio broadcast greeted our ears. I was completely amazed at what was before me.

Inside this room there was a long wooden table running down the center, set up with old-fashioned breakfast crockery. The wooden clad walls were covered with World War II posters, war-time gadgets and memorabilia. A large antique radio played the war transmission that then faded into crackling 1940’s music. There were two large inset windows at the back of the room where life-sized mannequins were posed to create two separate scenes. Inside the left window a man dressed like a 1940’s German soldier was listening in to a radio transmission through an intricate machine of switches and wires. Behind the right window two civilians, a man and a woman, stood in conversation with another German soldier who sat at a desk with a map. He even had authentic 1940’s cigarettes and matches by his right hand! Jean explained that this civilian couple were the husband and wife who owned the house when it was occupied by German soldiers during the war. We stood gobsmacked, and asked him – have you made all of this? He nodded, his eyes flashed – There is more!

He led us back outside and walked further down the exterior wall of the house. The last door on the left was a rickety wooden one. He unlocked this and inside was a perfectly restored WWII motorbike and lots of various antique weapons along the walls. He pointed up a narrow, wooden ladder-type staircase and nodded. Upstairs he had meticulously recreated the soldiers mess room which they had made for themselves in the attic space of the house. There were two bunk beds with mannequin soldiers inside. One was reading a war-time paper and the other smoking an old fashioned filter-less cigarette. Another sat in the corner at a small wooden table playing a game with a deck of age yellowed cards. An ancient looking wood burner sat up against the wall and a slit-throat razor and foaming brush sat on top of it. Little hooks on the low lintels held war-time binoculars, knives and gadgets I had never seen before. I was so impressed. I looked down to my right and on a small ledge coming out from the wall was a very authentic looking, slightly dusty hand grenade. I pointed at it and met eyes with Jean – Don’t touch – he said with a dangerous, twinkly look. I slowly recoiled my hand and put it safely back in my pocket.

 

Air B&B Couple From the 1940’s – Episode II – Dinner

Later, Pascale invited us to come and eat dinner with her as we hadn’t managed to buy any food for ourselves and everything was closed due to one of the many French bank holidays in May. We sat around the table and Pascale announced that soon her ‘friend’ who lived with her would be back and would be eating with us. A short while after, we heard a car pull up which set the dogs off barking again. A short, very stocky man with a shaven head and one very bloodshot eye came through the kitchen door and pushed the dogs away. Jean. He was holding three baguettes and a bag full of cheeses. He shook both of our hands very heartily.

After some introductions and a bit more stilted conversation, he got up and turned on the tiny T.V. in the corner of the room. He flicked through the channels until he settled on one related to the upcoming French election. He watched for a bit and then came back over to the table to talk politics. I had a gut feeling this might not go very well. He asked us about Brexit and UK politics and we said our opinions gently and understand what he was saying. He tore off a big chunk of bread with his hands and gesticulated with it as a prop. He tore off a chunk with his teeth and chewed as Pascale tried to translate. There seemed to be a good section of the conversation lost in translation and at one point Jean stood up quite abruptly and left the room. We didn’t see him again that evening.

Pascale tried to lighten the mood by showing us pictures of her children, cats and other animals on her i-pad. Two beautiful blonde haired daughters who had fledged the nest. Pascale explained sadly that this region of France was too quiet and boring for them and their young families so now they lived far away. She showed us a picture of a giant rabbit with huge floppy ears and a mane of light grey fur. She said that she had adored it but one morning found it dead in its hutch. We both agreed that there is always a strain on the hearts of animals that have been bred so large. Then we looked down into our laps.

She seemed to find great love and companionship in her animals, this warmed me to her greatly. She took some of the bread left from dinner and went over to the kitchen window. She called outside in a kind of coo – kind of whistle. Molly, the skittish dog, shot off to cower at the back of the kitchen. Soon we could hear the loud honking of the geese approaching. They came right up underneath the window, just their beaks visible, reaching up against the evening rain. They honked louder and louder in between swallowing pieces of bread as she hand fed them tenderly. She turned around and for the first time I saw her break into a smile – You can’t feed that one by hand – she pointed at one of the tallest beaks – He bites!

When the bread was gone she spoke softly to the geese and then shut the window. She asked us if we would like to eat our breakfast in the kitchen or in the museum. Me and Haydn looked at each other in amusement and bewilderment. The Museum? Well – I said – I think that would be too good to miss, wouldn’t it Hayds, breakfast in a museum! We’ve never done that before.

We both climbed the wide staircase to bed feeling quite ill at ease. Worried that we had somehow offended Jean in our political miscommunication. The house felt huge and mysterious, having only seen the kitchen and our bedroom upstairs. What was in the rest of the house? Such an enormous building for just two people. So many closed, locked doors and narrow corridors. We locked our bedroom door that night and lowered the electronic, metal blinds.

Air B&B Couple From the 1940’s – Episode I – Arrival

Franck pulled up in front of an old fashioned, swing farm gate. There was a field to the left that appeared disused and overgrown with some kind of WWII reconstruction in the corner. There were the recognisable shapes of the static anti-tank (Czech Hedgehogs) D-Day beach barricades and a small hut made out of wood and corrugated iron. Hammered into the hut were some large wooden hand painted signs reading  some angry (presumably) German words. In the pouring rain this arrangement appeared very strange and gloomy. Who were we about to meet?

Franck nodded to say this was the place. We all got out and unloaded our bikes and bags from the back of the van. We walked them under the shelter of some of the disused farm buildings set away from the house. Inside there were naked dismembered bodies of mannequins strewn all over the floor, lots of camouflage netting and what looked like sections of old car parts and machines who had definitely seen better days. As we walked further in I heard a loud hissing. I followed the noise and peered over the top of a low gate, mid-way down the small barn. There were three, very large, very angry looking geese staring back at me. They all had big, plump bodies sat on top of their rough straw nests and long, stretched, straight necks holding up their tiny little heads, all with their beaks open, little tongues quivering, aniseed ball eyes. I’ve never been a big fan of territorial geese and these ones were HUGE.

As we waved goodbye to Franck, in the pouring rain, I felt this sudden urge to run up to him and throw my arms around his neck and say – Take us with you Franck! Please! Don’t leave us here! We can sleep in your vegetable beds! Please! Don’t leave us with the geese!

But I didn’t and a pang of anxiety clenched me as we turned towards the massive, ominous house and Franck trundled off in his little white van.

We knocked on the door and when it opened a willowy, meek looking woman stood there. Pascale. She had shy, bright eyes and a kind, weathered smile. She wrestled with her two barking dogs as she tried to welcome us into the rustic farmhouse kitchen. She managed to calm the older one, an enormous, fluffy black German Shepard called Jules, who retired under the table, touching all four legs with her massive body. But the younger one, a collie-cross, wouldn’t settle, nervous by nature, coming close to sniff us and then skittering off around the table. I asked what her name was – Molly – of course. Pascale made us tea and we attempted some fractured conversation in my broken French and her broken English. The American film ‘Princess Diaries’ was playing on a tiny T.V. set in the corner of the room, dubbed in French. My mouth felt dry – still not used to black tea without milk.

Couchsurfing Couple from Heaven

Michele and Franck were our Couchsurfing couple from heaven. After our day of interminable rain we arrived in Saint Marie-du-Mont at 6pm. We knocked on a tall plain looking door. It was just off the provincial town’s main cobbled roundabout encircling a beautiful church. The door opened and behind it was a petite, kind faced, middle aged woman. She smiled sympathetically at our drenched bodies and pointed to another door of the house that faced the street, which imminently opened too. Behind this door was a short, stocky, middle aged man with very sparkly eyes. He opened the two French windows and gestured for us to bring our soaking wet bikes and bodies into their home.

They bundled us shivering into their downstairs shower room with two clean, fluffy towels. Oh what joy.
Strange that after an entire day of battling with inescapable water the glorious remedy for this should be more water but with a temperature gauge that you can control.

After such a hard day my anxiety simmered up again in the the prospect of having to really test my schoolgirl French and attempt to be an engaged and helpful house guest. Couchsurfing brings together people who are relaxed and trusting enough to open their homes to strangers for free and people who are sociable enough to be comfortable in a strangers home. I think this combination only works well, when the Couchsurfer is willing to make some efforts to repay the host for their generosity in whatever small ways seem appropriate. Unwritten rule No.1.

Somehow me and Haydn managed to make fractured conversation for about an hour. Conversation aided by bountiful gesticulation, Michele’s very good English and my less good French. Then there was mention of dinner and we must have been very bad at containing our excitement because both Michele and Franck laughed at our expressions of excitement. We had barely eaten throughout our gruelling day and were both ravenous but you can’t just walk into a host’s home and demand food; unwritten rule No.2.
We helped to prepare the food and then ate a delicious dinner in a number of small courses.

Fresh bread, a beautiful tomato salad with tomatoes from their garden that tasted like distilled red sun and walnuts grown by Franck’s friend. The next course was cauliflower cheese with a wonderful green salad, also from their garden. We spoke about gardening and the joy of growing your own produce. We told them how I had worked in a garden centre and loved to grow plants and vegetables and how Haydn had worked as a gardener in Dorset for over a year. This love of gardening, a golden point to connection between us all. Then we had a course of cheese and biscuits and after that was natural yoghurt and an incredible compote that Franck had made himself. All topped off by the most delicate and intense orange tea. WOW. What a culinary experience. Delicious simplicity encapsulated.

We went to bed feeling very lucky.

We spent the whole next day with Michele and Franck. In the morning we walked to the near by brasserie and bought some beautiful French miniature tarts and pastries for the house. I bought a tiny orange rose and wax flower posy from a woman sat inside a tatty white van, parked on the edge of the central cobbled roundabout. I gave this to Michele as a tiny present and gave the pastries to Franck, a small offering for their generosity. We had another glorious meal with them at lunch as the rain hammered on their conservatory roof. Franck offered to take us to our next place to stay in his van. We had booked an Air B&B just outside of the small town for one night in hope that by the following day the rain might have cleared.

I felt a genuine pang of sadness as we said goodbye to Michele in the pouring rain and bundled our bikes into the back of Franck’s van, tying the door closed with string. Me and Haydn crammed onto the front seat and the three of us trundled off down some winding country lanes away from Saint Marie-du-Mont. I had to pull my left knee up to my chest every time Franck needed to change gear. I couldn’t stop smiling for that ten minute journey – what kind and generous people we had met already! I knew they were out here in the world but the reality of meeting such brilliant human beings was only just dawning on me.

 

 

A New Kind of Rain

We set off from Cherbourg on our bikes on a very rainy French morning.
After some heartfelt and tearful goodbyes with Haydn’s mum and stepdad, we cycled into the drenched Sunday streets. We had been so eager to set off but we paid for our impatience in freezing limbs and soaking clothes within the first 20 minutes. When you live outdoors and that outdoors is cold, rain takes on a new meaning. It’s not just an annoyance, it really starts to feel like a danger. Like a danger only escapable with shelter. By twelve o’clock, both hunched underneath a huge tree, shivering and eating cold quiches bought earlier from a boulangerie, I realised that my raincoat was certainly not as invincible as I had hoped.

Our aim was to get to a house in Saint Marie-du-Mont, 50km away, owned by a Couchsurfing couple – Michele and Franck – that had offered to take us in for a night.

Four hours (and many hills) later it was still raining heavily and we were struggling to keep up morale. We seemed an eternity away and the exhaustion was really setting in. I could feel my limbs getting heavier and heavier, kilometre after kilometre. This was a new kind of endurance I had never experienced before. There had nearly always been a safe option before, a get out of jail free card. If it was too wet or too cold I could always just get safe and dry somehow, somewhere. But we were in the middle of nowhere with only cows and birds for company.

We stopped in a lay-by beside the country road and both slumped onto the ground. If we didn’t carry on until we got to the house we would have to set up camp in a field somewhere off the road. Remember that it is still pouring with rain. We would have to try to get dry and warm, considering we had most of our warm clothes on already and they were drenched. We would also not have dinner as we hadn’t passed any shops and had no extra food with us due to our Couchsurfing plans. That was the decider for me. There was no way after a day like that I was going to settle for no dinner. I had to grip on hard and reach down harder into the larder I didn’t know I had.

By five o’clock in the evening and the grey sky looking heavier than ever my mental state was violently shifting from Viking worrier woman to gibbering wreck. It was as if I couldn’t decide weather I had to give up and let myself rest or carry on to reap the bigger reward of house comforts. I had begun to not feel the rain anymore which was very strange – it was just part of me and my environment.

I knew I had already crossed my limit a while ago and now I didn’t know what I was running on – something new – some hidden reserves. We got to a corner where Haydn, also past his limit, thought we might have gone wrong a few kilometres back. My chest caved inwards and I realised I was sobbing, the rain and my tears all the same. He held my head up and he said we hadn’t gone wrong it was just the satnav playing up – the house was really close. It took all my effort to step back onto the pedals in that moment. But cycling down that last road that led into the little French village I felt an extraordinary feeling that I had never felt before. A feeling like I was completely unstoppable and no human, or element, or barrier could deter me. It was like the pure energy of determination defying everything else I had ever known to be real.

 

Crossing the Channel in a Sailing Boat

 

We cycled from the New Forest to Chichester and from there we crossed the Channel in  Haydn’s mum (Debs) and stepdad’s (Martin) Moody 47 foot centre cockpit sailing boat, called Tamarind. This was to be my first long journey by boat.

We woke up at 5am and set off just before 6am after a quick cuppa and some final checks for the boat.  It was so beautiful gliding out of the marina with the sun slowly rising over the buildings on the bank.

Out in the open ocean I felt very small and humbled by the vastness and power of the sea. It was so exciting to be out in the middle of a landscape that is so alien to me.
The wind wasn’t strong enough and kept changing direction so we couldn’t unfurl the main sail for long and we had to use the motor. When the sail was out though, I could see what a joy it is to use the wind to your advantage and move over the water with just the natural elements and some clever human engineering. What a way to travel!

It definitely takes some getting used to – the feeling of being in constant motion side to side – up and down. I could handle the up and down quite well but the side to side was quite bizarre – I’m not sure human beings are very well designed for that movement ….

Luckily the sun was shining so we could all sit out in the cockpit – seeing the horizon is the true key to not feeling too queasy. So once I had managed a snooze on-board the mighty Tamarind, I awoke with my sea legs and stomach being better adjusted.  It was mesmerizing watching the water flow by and when the sun would dip behind a cloud the water would suddenly look like mercury – not a liquid but a dark silvery-grey moving solid mass. It was wonderful.

Well into the 12 hour crossing, Martin spotted two porpoises perfect dorsal fins gliding through the water not far from the boat. I nearly jumped overboard with excitement! Haydn grabbed me by the coat and pulled me back into my seat and we watched, thrilled, leaning over the cockpit but soon they were gone.

I  spent the rest of the journey calling out ‘Porpoises? Porpoises? Come back Porpoises!’ and scanning the water – desperate for another sighting – the teasing far off waves imitating their fins.

Waking up in an English Forest

Awakening to the dawn chorus all around our little tent, was like nothing else I have ever experienced. Every bird in the New Forest must have been singing a song. What a sound to open your ears and eyes to. A gentle orchestra that builds to a richness of sound only achieved by meaty, skilled jazz bands.
Unzipping the tent we were greeted by shafts of sunlight streaming through the giant pencil trees. I felt like a borrower. Not only in size but of this time – I felt like I was secretly living my ancestors life for this morning – we had gone back in time and only we knew.

On ground level, delicate shivering ferns littered the floor and the long, bare, silhouetted tree trunks lead the eye skyward to their canopy of glowing yellow foliage. The morning sun just touching the tops of the trees and illuminating them like a dappled golden sky.
How can stillness feel to roaringly alive?

 

The Wild New Forest

Our first and second day of cycling were so beautiful – blessed with sun and wind on our backs. The second day entering the New Forest was like entering a new country. The traditionally thick, high hedgerows and thin country lanes of Dorset slowly dropped away into a vast and expansive new landscape, where a snaking road wove around the rolling, low-lying hills . The dark marshlands were littered with bright gorse hedges and wild horses, deer and donkeys with their young, grazed completely unaffected by human presence. I expected this kind of scenery when we got to New Zealand but not in our own country.
On our second night, after two beautiful days cycling, we decided to wild camp in the New Forest. We saw a campsite on the map and knew we needed more water to cook dinner and keep us hydrated so we explored an area of dense forest nearby. As we entered the thick woodland dusk was just beginning to descend and we could make out by the lack of untrodden paths that this was not a well-known walkway. As we walked deeper into the trees with our bikes and all our gear Haydn was just ahead of me. All of a sudden he froze.

Naturally I did the same – looking ahead wide-eyed, limbs like a stick man – Haydn brought his finger up to his mouth and then pointed to a clearing through the trees further ahead. He looked very excited. He put the stand down on his bike and began creeping forwards. I couldn’t see the clearing from where I was, so I secured my bike and began to move forwards. A few paces forward and I could see the form of something huge and opalescent white between the tall tree trunks. I stood completely still – it was a massive white stag. The stag was also completely still – his proud head raised to sniff the air, his twisting antlers cutting high pale shaped into the dark forest behind.

Then I realised he was surrounded by a harem of soft brown does. They were all completely motionless. That moment felt like magic. We were all paused in our amazement of each other, a moment of held breath and wide eyes while the silent forest sat calmly holding us – just tiny evening flies and dust particles catching the evening light.

the-wild-new-forest

The Journey Out

So we set off.

The journey out starts here, but rewind three months and I am working three jobs and Haydn two.
The trip still seemed like a distant dream that we were constructing together through conversations and accumulating equipment, jabs and route planning.

Rewind one month from now and all of our time was being sucked into the last stretch of an ongoing and dedicated search – for hours, days even – scrolling endlessly on the internet, page after page – turning into frowning, cross eyed slouchers – decision after decision to be made. How should I know which water purification device to choose? I’ve never cycled across the world before! So much time investigating the perfect (as high quality and as compact and as weightless and as cheap as possible) pieces of kit to keep us alive and happy on the road. What an achievement this process in itself was – I would like two high quality, medals that are the size and cost of 20 pence please. Compiling our survival components and fitting them into 8 small bags that we ourselves would carry, like snails or hermit crabs across the land and sea.

Packages delivered to the house in droves. The lovely local postie giving a questioning brow raise more than once, while handing over an armful of neat carboard boxes – with our names printed on them – day after day.

Goodbyes at sunrise and lunchtimes and under starlit skies.
Long hugs that were somehow holding onto that expected distance and earnest words of advice from well travelled adults and tears of love pressing into each others clothes. Who knows who we will come back as, perhaps we won’t return the same as the ‘us’ that left. So many beautiful people to miss but so grateful to know them.

All this hugeness distilled and condensed into two squawks of pure joy and apprehension, cycling down a country lane, away from home and out and onwards and forwards – into the unknown.

May the revolutions begin.

the-journey-out