I met Piotr when I was 17 and still wearing a lot of broomstick skirts and shod primarily in Doc Martens. He was a high school friend, though they met through the puny local Industrial scene, of my then-boyfriend, and wore Birks and wool socks in winter. Since then, he has lived in five different cities in four countries and had many, many, many adventures (in between teaching English to Japanese people and doing graphic design contracts and drawing stuff).
I asked him to write a guest blog post about his latest journey, a bike trip from Antwerp to places more southern and Gallic, because it seemed so fraught, yet exhilarating (and his Facebook updates about it are a delight).
I suggested a title: ‘A funny thing happened on the way to Amiens’, which he quite wisely did not use. Here’s a story, a near-novella really, about his yesterday:
Megan wanted me to write something for her blog, and I was dutifully set to squeeze out some Sedaris worship about the absurdity of bicycle travel in the fall on the northern coast of France, but the main thing about being on the road is that you never know just what is going to happen, and so I’m going to veer away from the absurd for a second, because I just experienced something lovely and human and it melted my cold, callused Eastern European heart.
I’ve been rained on every day since I started riding. And not just rained on, but viciously pummelled with water that appeared to be coming from angles rain does not usually come from, and I’d like to qualify that by mentioning that I lived in Japan and have experienced the horizontal/upwards rain every teacher of English as a Confusing Language in that country will go to great lengths to describe. Wind, hills, mud, all conspired to make my “oh no, this is not a vacation, this is a soul-searching trip” exactly what I claimed it was even though I was secretly hoping for a sunny promenade from château to château, punctuated with rancid cheeses and amazing wine that costs less than air at a gas station.
Needless to say, as my legs burned on the hills coming up to Dieppe, it started to rain, as it did every day. I slapped garbage bags on anything not in the Ortliebs, made sure the baguette/saucisson/wine was strapped on tight and continued, cursing the fact that I was carrying all my camping crap but barely got to use it. A friendly lady at the gas station drew me a little map to the cheap motel, and off I went. As luck would have it, the route took me on a car-only expressway, where irate French people started honking at me to kindly let me know that not only is my presence on this road “interdit” but that they’re about to hit me and cause much harm to my person, in spite of my legs of iron and all. So I pulled off to the shoulder and found a treacherous little bridge, where with a little acrobatics, I’d be able to lob my panniers and bike over the barrier, then hop over myself, taking great care to not plunge 10 metres onto the asphalt below, and find myself on a grassy ledge that would take me down to a road that looked like it would most definitely allow bicycles.
Three minutes later, everything is a mess of wet camping gear, Ortlieb panniers strewn about, and wine, saucisson and baguette lying on the grass while I huff and puff trying to hoist my bike over the railing. A man on the other side of the nearby fence sees me, and asks me if I am setting up camp for the night.
“Non, ne vous inquiétez pas, monsieur!” I reply. I explain what happened and what I’m trying to do.
He looks me up and down and asks me if I want to come in for a coffee.
“Very kind of you,” I reply.
He beams and says that if he was cold and wet and accidentally stuck on a highway, he’d hope someone would offer him a hot drink too.
I’m cold and tired. A hot coffee sounds like just about the best thing in the world. He takes me around back to his house, which is a gigantic, beautiful old farmhouse. I come in, sit down, and a pretty, bookish girl with librarian glasses introduces herself as his daughter and I get a hot mug of tasty coffee thrust in my hand. We start chatting, as he seems to be utterly pleased with himself for having brought in a stray from Poland who just happens to be cycling across France in the fall.
His wife comes in and he tells her the whole story, and she immediately asks me if I want to eat anything, do I need more coffee, etc. We all end up sitting around and chatting for a while and he says to me that since it’s gross out it would be best if he just drove me to my motel, since he has a truck and there’s a killer hill at the end. I tell him I’d really appreciate that as long as it doesn’t put him out too much, to which his wife chimes in that she can’t really let me go without some food, and since my baguette got a bit wet, and all she can see is baguette and saucisson, then they need to give me some fruit and cookies and some local caramel and only then am I allowed to be driven to my destination.
“On fait la bise!” announces the lady of the house. Mwah, mwah, bon courage, have a lovely journey and off I go. We load my bike up, I get driven to the hotel, they help me unload, more mwah mwah and we part ways before I have the presence of mind to get their contact info to at least send them some kind of “thank you for being so awesome!” note.
I suppose every traveller has a story like this. But after so many days of miserable riding and budget motels, it was a lovely, random interaction with locals that was unscripted, honest and filled with the kind of selfless kindness to fellow humans that makes you think this planet is not such a bad place after all. It’s the reason I travel and the reason I travel weirdly and independently. A million resorts couldn’t replace random interactions with strangers – from French people who take you into their home and feed you, to Vietnamese folks who seem so overcome with sadness that you don’t have any children that they introduce you to one of their daughters, to the old lady in a supermarket somewhere between Lille and Frévent who first asked me if I was the “monsieur au vélo” and then inquired as to whether I was looking for a wife because she had a very nice granddaughter. I may add that the old gnome looked ancient enough to have said things like “Oh! It’s gonna be quite the Thermidor this year!”
So instead of trying to sweat out comical descriptions of hard rides and inconvenient atmospheric conditions, I’d like to doff my hat (or beat-up cycling helmet, as it were) to the lovely folks I meet every day on the road who think nothing of helping out a stranger and brightening their day. The every-day people who inhabit the places you go to, whom you will meet as soon as you get off the beaten path, or when you get into trouble. Maybe it’s karma — I know I’ve helped out my share of confused tourists in Poland — but I think it’s all just part of getting out there and trying to experience the world with an open heart. Yeah, sorry, I’m sounding all corny here, but when you’re on the receiving end of such kindness from complete strangers, it’s hard not to get a little blubbery and hamfisted in one’s writing about it all. These nice folks sure as hell didn’t need to invite some bearded Slavic stranger into their home that looked like a drowned weasel or, at the very least, a serial killer. But they did.
I realize that there is nothing profound or new here. I’m just feeling warm and fuzzy while I dry off in a tiny, soulless room in the Formule 1 motel chain somewhere on the outskirts of Dieppe. I keep hearing these mythical stories about rude French people, but I have yet to meet them on six trips to France. People everywhere can be dicks, but people everywhere are also lovely and I seem to be meeting nothing but the lovely ones here in the hexagon. So there. Fuck you, stereotypes. France rules. I’m gonna dry my fancy bike shoes now, because they smell like raclette and ass. I think this confirms my unwavering belief that most people are actually pretty decent and that travel is not only safer than you think, but more rewarding than most activities you’re likely to engage in. So safe travels and happy trails!