Another beginning

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Lille campsite

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

So, je suis à Lille, un assez grand ville tout pres de le frontiér Belgique. J'ai fais 200km en velo dans 3 jours, et j'ai appris la langue tres vites. Until today, almost all my conversations have consisted of "ou est le..?", because it turns out that my french, however flawed, is still better than my map reading. Today, however, has revealed to my satisfaction (and who else's really matters?) that my claims to be able to 'get by' in French were totally and utterly true. Today, without a word of English, I have got myself the second dose of Rabies vaccine, and arranged to have Cholera and Japenese B Encephalitus tommorow. If there was an 'acid test', surely that would be it.

I have bit of catching up to do, so make yourself comfortable. First, to clear up a potential source of confusion: I wrote that on Day 1 I followed the 'Garden of England' cycle route from Dartford to Chatham. Hang on, you may be forgiven for thinking, that sounds like a route involving places such as Gravesend, Rochester, Gillingham. All I can offer, by way of explanation, is that if Kent is the Garden of England, these places are the patio. Where the wheelie bins live. The bit of the 'cycle route' through Gravesend in particular, is not merely overgrown, not just poorly signposted, but liberally strewn with broken glass. In places there is only broken glass, no path at all. I pushed the bike, hoping that the reduced weight and kevlar tires would prevent a puncture on day 1, which they did. Since I was walking, I phoned a friend I hadn't managed to meet for tearful farewells and described the scene. His reaction, "is it beautiful?" surprised me, so I had another look. The sun was on it's way up, and it's rays reflected from the shards of broken glass gave the path the appearance of being studded with polished diamonds and emeralds. Some cliché about eye's and beholders springs to mind, but doesn't negate the risk to my tyres.

Day 4 was Monday. I left Faversham significantly recovered and covered the 25miles to Dover in about 4hours. It was surprisingly easy, and cheap (14 quid) to secure passage to Calais on the next ferry. If you're on a bike, they treat you as if you're in a car. This involves fighting your way through fairly randomly moving traffic, as other (stupid) people find, lose, switch lanes without warning. I arrive in Calais around 5.30pm local time, follow signs for 'Centre Ville' and, at the 'Café PopArt' which was exactly as garish and nauseating as the name suggests, had my first conversation with a Frog:
"Ou est le camping, pres d'ici?"
"Continuer tout doit, a la plage"
Day one of learning French has proved it's utility. Until today, no further days have seemed to be required.

Tuesday I cycled through green fields and very small villages to Clairmarais, near St. Omer, covering around 60km and stopping at around 2 o'clock to pitch my tent and find food. The former being accomplished with minimal hassle, since I had shrewdly stopped at a campsite, the latter proved nearly impossible. The outskirts of St. Omer, and particularly Clairmarais, are beautiful villages of canals, irrigation ditches, farmland. Not, however, of shops or restaurants. Eventually, I stop at one of the roadside stalls selling homegrown produce, these stand outside almost every house (presumably they buy from each other), looking for anything which can be eaten without preparation of any kind. I ask for 4 figs and 2 plums, explaining when she begins to weigh 2kg of plums that it's for my dinner and 2 will suffice.
"For your dinner?"
"How about some jam then"
"I haven't any bread"
Dark clouds pass overhead, thunder rolls somewhere. She gives me a look of concern like I've just told her I don't have a face. She disappears, and returns with a loaf of sliced white. The sun comes out and birds sing again. I'm not ashamed to admit that I tore into these paltry rations like a pig at a trough, or an American. Cycling is hungry work, it turns out. The fruit was sweet and juicy, even if the inside of figs does look like a botched operation, and bread dipped in jam is an underrated pleasure.

Yesterday I cycled 70km from St. Omer to Lille, where I found that the trick of arriving at my chosen destination and demanding "Ou est le camping?" of the nearest kindly looking stranger does not work in towns large enough to have a metro. L'office de tourisme informed me that the nearest campsite was a 30min metro + 20min bus ride away.
"Can I take my bicycle on the metro?"
"I don't know, I'll look on the internet"
**She looks**
"Yes, yes you can."
I go to the metro, hefting my fully laden bike down the escalator, and am promptly accosted by a train guard.
"Hey Jonny, where do you think you're going?" (that at least was the gist of what he said)
"to the metro"
"it is forbidden"
"no it isn't, I asked at l'office de tourisme"
"hmm, I'll check with the chief" (le chef- a far better title than manager, in my opinion)
**he checks**
"it is forbidden"
"but...l'office...l' suis fatigué...St. Omers...Lille...70km... en velo..."
I may have looked as though I was going to cry. This was of course an act.
"hmmmm, well, I'm going away now. If a guard catches you, that's your lookout"
Never let a bad word be said of French bureaucracy, it has just the right amount of slack. (see also the getting of vaccinations)

I find le camping, pitch tent and lie down, tired, hungry, and consequently morose. This morning I woke up in a great mood, as it was raining seriously hard outside and my tent was bone dry- this being the first time my new tent has been put to the test, I was pleased it passed muster. I found a banana I'd forgotten about for breakfast and decided that today was officially a Good Day.

I cycled 10km to a station 4km from the campsite (I'll get the hang of map reading eventually) Where I had 2hours to wait for the next train. I installed myself in the village coffee shop/bar/tobacconist/bookie opposite the station and read my book. It is apparantly the custom in establishments such as this to greet everyone else in the place with a handshake on arrival, so I was periodically interupted by old men in flat caps grasping my hand and saying "bonjour!". I found this wonderful, especially compared to the kind of welcome one can expect in a "locals bar" in England. The day has been spent so far sorting the vaccines and writing this. I'm going in search of dinner now.

Rural France does not seem to be well populated with internet cafés, or indeed anything else. I'll probably write again tomorrow, but after that it may be a while. It's always good to have a full inbox, especially when travelling alone, please do write to me, even if it's just one line to tell me you're doing fine and getting on with life.
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dynamo on

Re: He's A Bit of a cyclepath
Whoever you are, I'm sure I told you that joke.

Cheers though!

ps. A Fruit Pastel walks into a bar, orders a vodka, lemon and lime. A Blackjack jeers from the other end of the bar- thats not a man's drink, you're soft. You should be drinking guiness, like me, a real man, hard, tough, I'm not scared of anything, I'm a real man. Suddenly a Tune walks in the bar, everyone dives under the tables. Blackjack and Fruit Pastel find themselves under the same table. Says the Fruit Pastel 'I thought you were hard, a real man, not scared of anything'. Replies the Blackjack 'Give us a break, mate, he's menthol!'

The old ones are the best

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