Thursday, July 27, 2017

Perpignan, France: Musings from the Road

”Musings from the Road” is any post where the content is not constrained by chronology. This gives me more freedom to write about whatever comes to my mind, though the content will almost always be influenced by the tour in some way.

Hospitality: French Edition

This must be the... third time I've revisited hospitality? Yep. It's a theme. Surprise!

I received some feedback from a host in England that I did a few rude things – asking for more food at dinner, asking to buy a roll of toilet paper from them, putting my feet up (literally), and not spending enough time with them. I thanked them for their feedback, and I've been sitting on it since. At the same time as I received that feedback via e-mail, I was also told by a (French) Warmshowers host in person that it was rude not to ask for more! This was perplexing.

On the toilet paper – it seemed to me an innocent enough request. It's not technically a necessity (one can do things the Indian way, which I did while in India and found it to be just fine), but it's a very nice-to-have, and it's impossible to buy just one roll, so unless you can get a roll from someone you usually end up carrying around a 6-pack for your entire tour. This is not a justification of my question, just an explanation for those who haven't had to use the "loo on the road" before.

I digress.

The above is simply me stating the facts of the feedback I got, because, well, it's interesting. I'm not saying I did something right or wrong, though I certainly don't want to offend anyone whenever possible. I've resolved not to ask if there's more food if there isn't more food actually on the table, which I think covers the scenarios in which asking for more has been received negatively (the host in England, and once, five years ago, with a host in Guatemala when I was volunteering as a bike mechanic). I won't put my feet up unless I ask or see my host do it; while I'm still sensitive about how much time I spend with my host and by myself at my host's house, it remains important to me to catch up with friends on the rare occasions I have internet. So, the balancing act continues. At the end of the day, I strive to be an excellent guest; also, I make mistakes.

And now, in France, things are even harder, because sometimes I just don't understand what's going on. As I'm currently staying with a non-English-speaking family, there's a lot of clarification, and still sometimes the occasional misunderstanding. For the day today I knew my host would leave at 6 to go see a friend, and she asked if I wanted to go for a walk at that time. I thought she was indicating I needed to go for a walk – to leave the house when she was out, which would of course be fine, and is a reasonable ask, since leaving someone you've known less than 24 hours in your house alone might make some uncomfortable (though notably, I've only had one host in all my tours that has felt that way, and honestly, how would I steal your TV? On my bike?).

But then 4:00 came around (not 6), and she asked if I wanted to go for my walk, and I said OK, and then she said I didn't have to leave just yet... and I could stay there?

Oh god, if I mistranslated that, did I mistranslate whether I could stay for lunch tomorrow?

Which leads me to...

Learning French

Traveling with Francois was awesome in many ways, and I'll visit the non-lingual ones in a minute. Language-wise, though, it was a treat – he could communicate fluently with everyone we met, including store owners, the guy whose barn we slept in, etc. I can communicate well with people, but my conversations are very limited. To give you an idea, in English we might say, "How are you?" But we also might say, "What's up?" or "How's it hanging?" or "How's it going?" or... or... -- there are probably hundreds of ways to say the same thing. In French I know the equivalent of "How are you?" So when someone uses one of the other ways of saying something I know how to say, often the conversation drops dead. This goes for "How are you?" as well as logistical questions and conversational questions and getting-to-know you questions. But with Francois the conversation never drops dead. No opportunities are missed – that I know of.

Anytime I want something translated, I can ask. What's that sign mean? Francois will tell me. What was that conversation about? Francois will tell me. I don't ask for every word, of course – that would be obnoxious. I just try and pick out the key words I don't understand.

My comprehension has gotten to the point where I can pick out almost every word in a conversation: Instead of jevaisallerchezmonami I hear "Je vais aller chez mon ami." Of course, even if I can translate each of those words individually, that doesn't mean I understand the sentence (if I said, in English, "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," you might know the words quick, brown, fox, etc... but you might not be able to picture a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. What does it mean?). This is, it seems, the next step in learning French. I can pick out the words – now I have to put them together.

The result is that sometimes Francois will ask me a question and I'll stare back blankly. I prefer this, though. I don't want to be babied. 50% of the time I can reply comprehensively! The other 50% I can usually asked a clarification question before responding.

But, I am far from fluent.

I will never again judge someone who doesn't speak English for not knowing what's going on. Other languages are hard. HARD. And I probably want my kids to grow up in a biligual household. The earlier they become fluent in a second language, the better. Not knowing what's going on sucks, and no matter how well intentioned I am or how hard I try, sometimes I just don't get it.

Sometimes I lean back and listen and that's okay – I can take a break for a bit and Francois does the talking. And I get to try wine as a result.

Sometimes people don't give me time to think – I might understand "Do you want a snack?" and know how to reply in either direction, but I just don't know if I want a snack. If anything, the implied time constraint and my limited vocabluary force me to be more decisive, which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing (quick decision making skills, I think, might be a cultural norm of southern France. Francois said he noticed this too, at the market).

Without Francois, I am getting better at asking how to say something (asking, in French, how to say something, in French). Sometimes it's easy – "The person who drives a car is a driver, what's the person who drives a plane?" Somtimes it's hard – "Okay, so, I see that food, and I think it's good. How do I say that?" (hoping for the translation of "it looks good." This one ended up needing a dictionary). Just today I also discovered TV – watching TV in a target language is a great way to learn words. AND it's a great way to spend time with your hosts. Maybe you'll discover an awesome show about a guy who rides trains to random places and talks to the people he meets? Maybe it'll be called The Train Unlike Any Other? Who knows...

There's also the vous/tu game – formal vs informal "you." Thibault, our host in the Pyrenees, referred to me as "tu" right off the bat, and I received a friendly chastising when I said "s'il vous plais," the formal "please," instead of "s'il te plais," the informal "please." I'm with a host now that's still using "vous:" I'm in their guest bedroom, we've shared meals, and I'm pretty sure I'd call them my friend? Maybe it's a regional thing, maybe it's a "raised right" thing, maybe they are playing it better safe than sorry, maybe they are using "vous" because I'm using vous... agh. Language!

(maybe I'll ask them about it tomorrow morning and hope it's not a rude thing to ask)

Traveling with Two

Not too long ago I lamented not being able to buy the rediculously cheap bottles of wine that are here in France. Well, Francois and I celebrated our first night together by splitting a bottle of cider – albeit 2% cider. And much wine was had over the course of the next week.

I haven't traveled with anyone else since the end of my last tour. I forgot how rediculously moralizing it could be to have someone to laugh with, talk to, plan with, share a meal with. Humans are social creatures, and just having someone in your "tribe" can be an immense morale boost, even if you aren't talking all the time. I think at the top of the col after being sold the wrong tire, I would have cried instead of smiled had I been alone.

There are downsides, of course. You often have to wait for each other. You have to compromise on where to sleep and how far to go. If just one bike breaks, you're both stuck waiting. Francois had a lot of mechanical trouble. Not his fault! I don't blame him and I have no negative feelings towards him. But was I a less patient person I could see that having been a falling out point. He was also the navigator, meaning I was subject to him telling me where we were going – wrong turns? Not his fault, no; again, though, without patience and humility, it would be easy to become frustrated.

I'm really, incredibly glad and grateful I met Francois and I hope we get to see each other again – maybe we'll even ride together again. It was a nice reminder that riding with someone is better than riding without someone. It was nice to have a friend.


My last tour came out to 72 days. As of today I've been vagabonding for 106 days. That's a record for me. I have had temporary homes – a friend in Madison let me stay with her for a really wonderful week. My sister let me stay with her for a week. A few hosts have let me take "break days" at their houses. But for the most part – for at least 85 days – I've slept in a new place every night.

I miss having a home.

A home provides so many benefits that I will never again take for granted. The most important, I think, is the feeling that you belong. I didn't realize this was so important to me. Knowing I have people I can talk to, rely on, lean on, knowing where I'm going to shop for groceries and sleep at night – that has become invaluable. It's not necessary, of course. But it is so, so nice.

A home is also a place to recharge. You can go there and do you and not worry about other people putting restrictions on it. Who cares what other people think, sure, but if you are in someone else's house you might not be able to put your feet up (literally or metaphorically) or decide when to eat or when to shower or where to sit or if those blinds are open or closed. You don't have to ask anyone permission to do anything (except maybe a landlord if you want to blow holes in the wall).

I have received nothing but kindness during my stays (even the guy who asked five times that we not smoke in his barn was kind enough to let us sleep in his barn) for which I am rediculously grateful. I want to return that kindness to my hosts and I know that for most people, the best way to do so is to spend time with them and share myself with them and let them share themselves with me. But I miss having a place I can go and lie on the floor and sleep on the floor if I want and not have to worry about the police asking me to move along or if I've been polite enough to my host (which of course I want to be). I need a space to ponder the mysteries of life and not worry about whether I'm in anyone's way. Sometimes I get lucky with a picnic spot... but often I find myself yearning for my old apartment, except not really because it had some anxiety triggers.

If I am lucky, I'll get to spend the first two weeks of September working at a vineyard in Champaign. I also have a month planned at a farm in Ukraine, which I'm looking forward to almost a rediculous amount. If I could do this tour again I think I'd plan even more of these, maybe even using biking as the inbetween instead of the method of living. Maybe these stays will change my perspective, but for now, my bucket list contains as many settle-down-again things as it does travel-there-too things. I'd get to sew, and have an accordion, and know when and where dancing is.

I discussed this once with a host who let me "put my feet up," metaphorically and literally. She had experienced the same thing in her travels – "Even if you are there a month," she said, "it's not home. It doesn't smell like you. You live there, but you know it's not yours." This was also one of two people who has responded to my overflowing gratitude simply by saying, "I know."

I often try to elaborate on how grateful I am to my hosts. It's easy enough to say "thank you;" anyone can do it. But I am really, truly grateful, and I want to make sure people know, so I usually try and spell it out. Some people just smile and say, "You're welcome." But two people, both of whom had once vagabonded for extended periods of time, just said, "I know." We have shared the homeless struggle. Not the struggle of lacking a physical home, but the struggle of belonging. The struggle of having a place to put your feet up. They know how grateful I am to have that place of belonging because they, too, were once looking for it.

I say on my home page that I want to bike around the world as a medium to connect with others. I am doing that, and often, I love it. But I am also struggling to care for my own mental needs. At the end of the day, I am the only person that can do that. For now it seems the end result of this trip will be a good story; ultimately, though, the other goals listed ("through vulnerability and compassion, connect with each other and find purpose and meaning in what we do") might get achieved in another way.

So currently, the plan is to bike until the middle of next year, then come home and go to graduate school next fall, for which I have a deferral. The middle of next year I'll be in... the Middle East? India? Time will tell.

Maybe things will change and I'll decide to take the time to go all the way around... maybe I'll do it later? I don't know. I still stand by my last musing that the ideal situation would be a community of people traveling around the world together – anywhere from 30-300 cyclists, perhaps – but being that's very unlikely, I think it's reasonable to come home for a while and see what's changed. After all, the world isn't going anywhere.

Truthfully, I think in the end the happiest people find meaning where they are. I wouldn't say that I've gone out looking for a purpose or a meaning, but if, while traveling, I'm always musing about what it would be like to feel I belong somewhere, isn't the logical conclusion that I should stay in one place for a while? I find value in connecting with people. Maybe it's easier to connect with people when you sleep in a new place every night, but I think there will always be more people to meet, more to see, more of the world to explore. If you are always looking for what's around the bend, are you ever happy with what you have?

La Jonchere, France to Perpignan, France: Beaches, Mountains, and Francois

When we last left off, more than two weeks ago, I was staying in a cabin graciously lent to me by a stranger I met in England. That was wonderful, and part of me didn't want to leave; as is always the case, however, I had the rest of the world to see!

A few reminders/notes/whatever before we begin:
- As I've said before, it can be some time between updates. We're at more than two weeks now! Blogging takes time, especially quality blogging. I will always choose adventure over finding wifi, and when I pass through areas that don't have much wifi or if I don't have a lot of free time, it will be a while between updates. I will try and post a photo or two to Instagram (which then auto-posts to Facebook) so people know I'm alive, but I make no promises.
- I do, however, enjoy writing. It's as much for me as for my audience, so I will at some point catch up, if only so I can recount the past for my own benefit (and perhaps the benefit of a book, one day?).
- Since I do have more than two weeks to catch up on, this post will be quite long. I will try and insert breaks so you don't have to read it all at once.

1. - - -

I left La Jonchere to continue down the coast of western France, hoping to run into Hans again (see previous post if you don't recall who Hans is) so we could have good laughs together. The next few days would be a blur of beaches and croissants and heat waves; my schedule became something like:
- Get up around 7.
- Leave camp by 7:45.
- Head into town and find a boulangerie, have breakfast.
- Bike until about 2, or whenever it gets so hot I feel I can't continue.
- Find a beach.
- Take lunch.
- Pray nobody steals my bike, locked up in the most covert corner or the parking lot (not very covert) with my wallet and phone hidden inside, while I...
- Go swimming.
- Take a nap in the sun.
- Return to my bike, find water, bike until 9-ish, find a place to camp.
- Sleep almost naked on top of my sleeping pad until about 2 AM when it's finally something not resembling "hot," get into my sleeping bag.
- Repeat.

Some beaches were touristy; others were not. Some towns were touristy; others were not. I didn't meet many people these few days – I did see many other tourists, but few were going my way. There was a youth group headed my same way, but the kids seemed to be focused on being kids and the adults seemed to be focused on watching the kids. Once while having breakfast at a boulangerie, I met three English tourists headed my same way, and we had breakfast together, which was nice. They left before me, and I passed them again in the next town, but I haven't seen them since. No Hans.

Chasson aux pommes (apple stuffed croissants), my favorite French pastry.

I did meet two very kind Germans on vacation at one of the beaches – they had lost the keys to their camper so were stuck there for a few days while a friend mailed a spare key to them. I was sitting along at a picnic point and they asked if they could sit with me; thus commenced our friendship. One of them played the uke, and I was actually wise enough to get a recording this time! So that will go up on the map when I have time. They almost convinced me to stay at the surfing school for a week and learn to surf, as it was that magic 2-o'clock lunch time and the last thing I wanted to do was cycle. Yes, I seriously considered staying at a hostel on a beach in France for a week learning to surf... but eventually the road (and my budget) called me onwards. After my ritual beach swim-nap-oh god is my bike still there? I tried to catch them for dinner, but they weren't at their camper van. I left a thank-you for the food, wine, and friendship they had shared, and went on my way.

France has some beautiful beaches. The bikes help.

Most of the southwestern edge of France, it turns out, is pine forest – you're either in a town (the "beach" part of the town, full of tourists, or the not-beach part of town, usually about 15 km away, where the locals live) or in a pine forest (a friend I made while staying at La Jonchere said to me, "I will never again think twice about how much toilet paper I use!" I'm not sure one forest could make up for everyone being callous with their paper use, but I get it... there were a lot of trees. Trees for days. Literally).

The first of these days was also broken up by Bastille day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a turning point in the French Revolution. I passed through a larger town call La Rochelle, where, downtown, people were everywhere, partying, eating, buying stuff, walking... you know, celebrating life by being outside and with friends. For me, it was either go through the city center or take a 10 mile detour around the city, because of the way the bridges worked. I opted to go through the city center, though with my bike I wasn't able to enjoy the party too much as I was worried about theives. But it was nice to see so many people outside celebrating. I found a spot just outside town and watched the fireworks from the beach. Those in La Rochelle were nearest, but from my vantage point on the coast (with islands and therefore cities in every direction) I saw at least 5 other sets of fireworks from a distance. It was beautiful, and a nice trade for having missed Independence Day in the US, but I was a bit lonely.

2. - - -

After four nights of what I'll call "the hot beach routine," I finally found myself a Warmshowers host in Bayonne, a city in the southwest corner of France. My plan was... make a plan! If I didn't mention it in my last post, I was, basically at a crossroads: do the Camino de Santiago and end up in the northwestern corner of Spain, needing to backtrack everything I'd just done to get to Italy, or...? I could do whatever I wanted, of course, but I absolutely loathe both backtracking and flying with my bike, nor did I have enough time to do the perimeter of Spain, so doing the Camino seemed a sure way to frustrate myself. It's on my bucket list, but it wasn't high on my list when I arrived at Bayonne.

Turns out, there was another tourist staying with my host that night: Francois.

Francois is from Quebec, Canada, and he's on his second tour, which he calls the Tour de France. The thing is – it's actually a tour de France. When he was little, he used to watch the Tour on TV and think, "Man, that's cool! They see all of France! The coast, the mountains, the rivers..." One day, though, the truth was revealed: The Tour doesn't actually include all of France. They hope from place to place, doing only a fraction of the perimeter, or even of a vertical or lateral crossing. So Francois's idea was born... do an actual Tour de France. He flew into Strassbourg, Germany about 6 weeks ago and came across the top of France, down the western coast, and was now heading in the Pyrenees to do the Route des Cols, an extremely difficult route along the French-Spanish border comprising of about 15-34 cols (depending on the exact route). "Col" doesn't have an exact English translation, but we might say "summit" or "top" – the part of the road that crests, the local maxima.

The altitude map looks like this:

Needless to say, I was intrigued. Someone to travel with; a beautiful, challenging route through a part of the world I'd never been to before; and a way to move east without feeling like I'd done Spain too much injustice? Yes please.

That night, Francois and our host, Lucienne, shared touring stories, hosting stories, music, wine, and food, and I went to bed feeling like I'd been handed the next week of the tour on a silver platter. Dinner was "omelette," which made Francois and I laugh because it wasn't an omelette, it was more like eggs, potatoes, and vegetables put in a pan and stirred, but it was "supposed to be an omelette," said Lucienne, it just got away from him. Regardless of what it was or what it was supposed to be, it was delicious. That night was special for Lucienne, too, as usually he just hosted people doing a tour of a few days, or, via Couchsurfing, people in town for a few days. We were his first cross-country tourists, and there were two of us.

We spoke mostly in English, which I appreciated. Having had to speak French exclusively since leaving La Jonchere, my head hurt a bit. Francois grew up in a French speaking family, so he and Lucienne would occasionally converse in French. I tried to follow, and could occasionally join in. I wanted to speak French since I was in France, but it was nice to have conversations I knew I could completely understand, too.

The next morning, Francois and I left to begin Le Route des Cols. The next week would be one of the most physically challenging of the tour, but Francois and I would become fast friends, and the end result would be an incredibly rewarding experience and a memorable week (spoiler alert?).

3. - - -

We stopped at a beach to get our bearings – the Route didn't translate easily to Google Maps, so we would spend a lot of time mapping the Cols on the Route to a map we could use to navigate. We made out way to the next town, St. Jean-de-Luz, where both the Route and the Camino officially started. Here we had lunch and confirmed we were a good fit – we both biked about the same speed, had the same ideas about when and where to stop (for breaks, finding food, etc)., and we shared the same sense of humor. After lunch and some difficulty leaving town (we tried to stay on the signed Eurovelo 1 route, but it sometimes chooses scenery over speed, and we would get plenty of scenery in the Pyrenees... eventually we left it and made our own way out of town), we started climbing.

The first col wasn't an official col, it was just a high spot, but already it was one of the longest hills I'd done – the only one longer perhaps being the Mendips just south of Bristol; the only one taller perhaps being any hill in Pittsburgh (okay, I'm not counting the Continental Divide in the US because it was only a 2% grade, though a 2% grade for about 200 miles). We entered Spain, descended, and then began the actual first col, Otxondo, to an altitude of 602 meters (about 2000 feet, or 2/5ths of a vertical mile).

Remember, earlier that day we had done some route planning on a beach at sea level.

A quarter of the way up, we passed some tourists admiring the view. I told them we were looking for ice cream – was there some at the top, maybe? Shortly after I spouted a few swear words, and Francois's response was, "You know this is one of the easier ones, right?"

At that moment I wouldn't describe my sentiment as doubt, exactly, but I definitely knew I was in for a challenge. I didn't, at the time, know that I was a quarter of the way up. I didn't really have any idea how far 602m was, or how long it would take, or how I would feel at the end. I ended up taking my shirt off to stay cool, and it ended up taking about 30 minutes of pedaling uphill.

We celebrated the summit with croissants, galettes (butter cookies), fruit, and peanuts (I haven't mentioned this yet but there's no peanut butter in France – it's only imported from the UK, and therefore it's very expensive. They'd rather have cheese or jam on their bread. Which isn't exactly devastating, as I love cheese...). I felt as if I'd run the first part of a marathon. I could definitely do another... but 10? 15? 35? I didn't know. I just resolved to pedal until I couldn't pedal any more.

4. - - -

The second col was easier. It took a bit longer, but it was a consistent, maybe 5% grade, which is strenuous, but not so strenuous I ever needed to stand up. I could just exert a continuous, non-draining effort, and even have a conversation with Francois at the same time, and ride all the way to the top. With my shirt off, of course. I run hot.

We stopped at the top of the second col, on the French-Spanish border, to route plan and refuel a bit. The Tour de France was on TV and the barista spoke French with a Spanish accent, which was interesting. Some pictures at the top and we began our descent.

And then it began to rain.

And then it began to hail.

And then Francois's brakes began to fail.

This was about the time we began to joke about jinxes, which of course aren't real, but when you're riding throught the Pyreness and you get hailed on and your brakes go weak on a 400 meter descent, you don't want to take any risks. We found a roof and Francois adjusted his brakes while we waited out the rain. The rain would come and go over the next few hours, for the most part it would be just a little warm but with a cool mist, and at one point I found myself coasting shirtless on a carless road, a breeze cooling me, underneath the mixed weather, my arms stretched out like I was on top of the world, because indeed, for a brief moment it felt that way. I had done two ascents, I had survived hail, I was in the middle of the freaking Pyrenees with a new friend, and even a few cars that passed by honked encouragingly at my shirtless status (climbing cols is a group activity, obviously).

We made it to a grocery store just at it was closing – "five minutes!" they shouted as we ran in, and we got a feast to celebrate having met and having begun this portion of the trip together before continuing to the third col. The combined adrenaline of having made two cols, riding shirtless through the breeze and the rain, and needing to rush to get our groceries was almost too much. After a snack outside the closed store (and encountering a very drunk vagabond as we searched for a place to relieve ourselves), we made a wrong turn as the rain poured down again, but by the time we made it to the col, the rain had let up.

We went as far as we could while the sun set in the distance (the first 200 meters were much steeper than advertised; I am not ashamed to say I zig-zagged at times), and when we couldn't go any further a cheese factory appeared out of nowhere and we made camp behind it. There, with the smell of fresh cheese flowing out of the vents and the rain holding up just long enough for us to pass a bottle of cider back and fourth between the vestibules of our tents, we celebrated our first day in the Pyrenees. The only downside was that in our rush to get out of the grocery store, we didn't notice the cider was only 4 proof – still delicious, though, with M&Ms, sausage, chassons aux pommes, and cheese and bread.

5. - - -

The next day we awoke not to rain, but to fog. One hazard of climbing mountains in the Pyrenees is that you sometimes find yourself at the same altitude as the clouds. We packed up camp, warmed up our legs, and continued on up the hill. This one was higher and seemed steeper than either the first or second col, and it had what we deemed a "mini col --" a col just below a higher one.

We made the top of the mini col and descended about 200 vertical meters, with cows and cars occasionally coming out of the fog to greet us, before coming upon a cabin in a mini valley where we stopped for water. Or, we thought we were going to stop for water, but then we saw... a fireplace.

Oh my god we wanted to stay there forever. I managed to stumble my way through flirting with one of the baristas, too ("stumble my way through flirting" = "you have a nice smile." Subtle, I know). The cold and wet of being inside a cloud had seeped through our clothing, and for the rest of that day and the next our options for staying warm were be by a fire, pedal up a hill, or change into dry clothes (which would promptly get wet). Here again we became wary of jinxing it... though of course jinxes aren't real.

We made it to the top of the not-mini-col, and at some point I (unbelievably) passed Francois, as he wasn't at the top when I got there. I was a little worried we might lose each other, as he had the route and I did not, and service was spotty so we couldn't exactly call each other. I asked in broken French if anyone ascending had seem him, but nobody had. Turns out he'd just gone off the road to use the loo, as he showed up eventually. But just for the record, I did beat you up one col, Francois... (this is a joke. I'll talk more about this in a bit, but climbing like we did is very personal. You're only competing with yourself, and you're hardly competing. More later...).

This is part of a series called "dwindling enthusiasm," which we may or may not have actually completed.

As we descended, Francois had to stop again to adjust his brakes. Just before we started to freeze from not moving, he managed to get them going well enough he could descend. The rest of that day was fairly non-eventful except that we managed to somehow find wifi in exchange for a 3 Euro basket of fries... wifi in the rural Pyrenees, you can imagine, is not so easy to come by.

We stopped in the next semi-major town to get new brake pads for Francois and somewhat expensive food for the next climb before heading out of town. The rain continued and this is when we began calling things "average..." we didn't hope for weather or dare be happy when the rain let up, as it would just continue again. Francois's panniers were "semi-waterproof," so after basically two days of rain all his clothes were damp except those on the very bottom. His electronics bag was leaking, and the mount for his camera broke, too. With all that was going wrong we decided to skip two cols to spend the time on repairs instead. I didn't admit this to Francois at the time, but I was still trying not to feel doubts about my ability to do ALL the cols, and skipping two of them gave me a slight sense of relief.

Around 8 PM, we were wondering what else could go wrong, when I heard Francois let out a laugh: his tire had flatted. At that point we decided, jinxes or not, we should cut our losses. We'd passed a barn just as his tire went flat; the owner was very, very oddly insistent that we not smoke (he said it three times when we asked and came by later just to remind us that we not smoke), but we were out of the rain for the night and set up a clothesline in the barn to dry everything overnight.

I wouldn't exactly say we were hanging on by a thread, but morale was low, and we were wondering, but not saying we we wondering (okay, occasionally saying we were wondering), if anything else could possibly go wrong.

6. - - -

The next morning, it wasn't raining! That is, until Francois put on new brake pads – then it was raining. His brakes aren't exactly made for his bike, so it took us about two hours to get everything set. As much as we would have loved to stay in that barn, out of the rain, we were determined not to be beat by the weather, mechanical failures, or the god of jinxing – not that there is one (or would that be double jinxing it?).

We made it to the next town and prepared for our biggest climb yet and the second largest of the journey, the Col d'Aubisque. Often used in the Tour de France (the "real" one... or the not real one?), this remains my favorite climb. At the grocery store beforehand I found a bag of mini chassons aux pommes, which, if I haven't said it enough yet, is my favorite pastry. They weren't the best chassons aux pommes I had ever had, but the fact that there were a lot of them and I could have one or two as a "boost" when climbing was spectacular. As we ate in the vestibule of the grocery store, techno music blared over the speakers, and just before we left, a slow, quiet build-up song much like Requiem for a Dream or something by Two Steps From Hell played. It was as if even the grocery store was cheering us on, but I'm sure it was just someone who picked the wrong radio station. Francois and I both picked up some candy as a morale boost, which would become a theme over the next few days (some grocery stores sell packs of 6 Snickers bars for 1.25 Euro...).

I was, in a word, pumped.

The climb was quite challenging, but since we rode through a cloud, it was quite cool. Francois pulled away from me after about 20 minutes, which always happens, so for the most part I was alone. Periodically headlights would appear in front or me or I'd hear an engine straining behind me to indicate a passing car. Periodically a racing bike would go by and we'd exchange bonjours, or I'd hear a freewheel clicking as someone appeared out of the mist ahead and the disappeared just as suddenly below. But for the most part, I was alone, with the fog keeping me cool and nothing but my breath, my thoughts, and the occasional distant cowbell to keep me company. It was one of the most zen things I've ever done.

About 85% of the way there was a village which seemed to serve no purpose other than hosting tourists and spectators of the Tour (I apologize if I got this wrong – it was a nice village, but there was not much there besides hotels and restuarants, and I assume no locals except for shepherds and those running the establishments. Perhaps, though, this is just my narrow-minded impression from my five-minute visit!), but for us it served as a quick break to refill water and view a break in the clouds. We could see the summit, and this energized us enough to continue onwards just as the clouds took over again. Again Francois pulled away from me, and I was alone in the clouds for 25 minutes until I started to emerge from them, and then I could hardly pedal as the view was so spectacular.

I could hardly pedal, so don't ask me how I took this photo while pedaling.

We feasted at the top, enjoying the view and the sun, before the clouds took over once more. A mini col, a beautiful descent, some wifi at a restuarant where we split a huge plate of sausage spaghetti, and a great camping spot ended the day.

7. - - -

Day 4 in the Pyrenees would be my hardest yet – the biggest climb of the route, the Col de Tourmalet. It took me about three hours. Three hours of going uphill. I ran out of water and had to stop at a creek to refill – I hoped it was high enough that there was nothing higher up which had contaminated it. What seemed like hundreds of other cyclists were doing the route, and there were motorcycles and cars as well – zig-zagging was out, even for the last km, which had an average grade of 10%. There were photographers there taking your picture and handing you their card, and as I started the last 500 meters a Kiwi passed me and said with an accent, "What a way to finish." Francois was waiting 30 meters from the top, and he jogged along beside me, cheering me on.

I made it to the top of the Col de Tourmalet.

We celebrated briefly, but the only picnic tables were proprietary, so after changing into warmer clothes for the descent we continued into the town below to take lunch. While changing I dropped my wallet and almost left it at the top, but after about 50 meters I checked my pockets and found it missing – thank goodness I checked then! -- and walked back up to get it. I was briefly, playfully shamed by someone for walking up before I explained I had dropped my wallet, and he backed off.

Immediately after lunch we started another col. Coming after the Col de Tourmalet, it's the first col I had serious doubts about. I was extremely hot, even shirtless and with my helmet off (sorry Mom – not passing out from heat exhaustion takes priority over the slight possibility of a mobile accident), and had to stop multiple times to let my heartbeat calm. But eventually we made it to the top of our second col of the day.

We descended into the city below, stopped a grocery store and decide a proper celebration was in order. That night, we'd use my cookset to have gnocchi, sausuage, and tomato sauce, and I bought some fresh goat cheese as well (Francois doesn't like cheese... more on this later, maybe). We found a perfect spot to camp, almost invisible from the road, by a river, ended early, and spent the night yammering and feasting and riding the high morale that came from the high altitudes we'd achieved that day. And... it didn't rain.

In France, even small grocery stores have ALL THE CHEESE.

8. - - -

Don't worry though, the jinxes would begin again. Or, the bad luck. Or, whatever you want to call it. The next morning I checked a wobble in my tire to find the sidewall had torn and it was at risk of blowing out. If a tire blows out, it can cause you to wipe out. Going down a hill at 30-40 mph, this can be extremely hazardous. It was extremely disappointing because this tire is the gold standard of touring tires and it was bought in England, not 1,500 miles earlier. I had expected it to last at least 5,000 miles if not 10,000.

We stopped at the bike shop in the next town despite a 1.4/5 average rating. "We're just getting a tire, right? How bad can it be?" It wasn't a jinx, because jinxes aren't real, but the first sign of trouble was that I wasn't allowed to bring my bike in the shop. Pro tip: never go to a bike shop where you can't bring your bike in. That's like taking your car to a mechanic where cars aren't allowed in the shop.

We had what I thought was a simple exchange: I asked for a tire and he gave it to me. I went outside and checked and it was bigger than what I'd asked for. When I went back to ask if he had the right size, he took the tire, went out, held it up to my bike, and insisted it would work. I knew for a fact it wouldn't since I had trouble getting the current tires to fit, which were already larger than I wanted on my bike. I was willing to be humbled though – if I tried it and it didn't fit, could I return it?


Okay then, I wanted to return it, since I was almost certain it wouldn't fit.


I explained the situation and he said okay, let me go help this other customer and we'll talk then. Three customers later Francois interrupted him because we'd been waiting 15 minutes for him to fix his mistake. He explained that he couldn't process the return because I'd paid with a credit card. Francois said a lot of things in French I didn't understand, but he wouldn't process the return. I tried as best I could but the end result was the owner going through papers at the checkout and me saying, verbatim, "So you're just going to ignore me?"

He did.

Never have I been so angry at the service I recieved. But there was nothing to do but leave. I tried the tire just for giggles, and even without the fender, it rubbed on my rack. I decided to ride on it anyways, but partway up the next climb, I could feel it holding me back – I was going 3.5 mph when I should have been going 5, meaning I'd be pedaling an extra half hour by the top. I changed to the wobbly tire and barely made it to the top, having lost so much energy fighting the tire that rubbed in just the first few km. At the top, I changed back to the big tire. This would be the trend for the day.

I tried to be positive about it: I was a super fancy cyclist, I joked. I had an ascending tire and a descending tire! Surely there were no other cyclists as fancy as me. At first I'd tried to fuel my ascent with anger at the owner, but in the end compassion came over it – I wondered what had happened to this person that he cared more about making money than how happy his customers were.

Francois and I shared some chocolate and managed to laugh about the situation. He paused a moment to put on Top Gun's Danger Zone before we descended, me on my fancy descending tire. There were a lot of switchbacks, and halfway down Francois turned his had and shouted, "I HATE THESE TURNS!!!" I was laughing so hard I almost crashed into one of the cement barriers. It was very reminiscent of the bus scene in 500 Days of Summer.

I changed to my ascending tire, we got water from a restuarant that smelled amazing and could we please order everything on the menu but holy **** it's expensive nevermind, and we began our second col of the day.

At the top, it was rainy and cold, but there was a little shack selling crepes for 0.50 Euro.

I could have had 100. I settled for 4. A few other cycle tourists stopped by as well (a guy from Germany and two girls from Scotland), but we had to get to the next bike shop before they closed. I changed to my descending tire and we raced to the bottom. My heart raced as we descended for 30 minutes, once hitting 40 mph, and the distance markers to the next city got smaller... and smaller... and smaller.

And then, lo and behold, after five tire changes...

To top off that day, we had an awesome host we'd set up two night before, Thibault. Thibault is like the ultimate hippy. He once vagabonded for three years on his bike, making money as a busking accordionist.

You heard that right. He once vagabonded for three years on his bike, making money as a busking accordionist. This came out when he saw my uke, which he thought was a violin, and I said I used to play accordion, and out came the accordion, which I promptly hugged and played a tune on, and then Thibault blew us away. Turns out when you play accordion for hours a day every day for 3-4 years, you're a virtuoso. I was smitten.

Also he was a tea connoisseur and I liked this photo.

9. - - -

The next morning, after changing our tires (mine for the sixth and final time to the "good" one; Francois's was just old so he got a new one, too), Thibault led us out of town the next day to show us the community bike shop he ran. I mentioned I was smitten, right?

The next day we left town and it wasn't raining but... after getting kicked out of a grocery store (in France, almost everything closes from 12:30-2:30 for lunch), Francois's chain dropped into his spokes and a spoke broke.

We spent ten minutes deciding what to do – ride on a really wobbly tire? Call Thibault? Get a cab? Eventually we decided to try a "tool" I had called Fiberfix, which is a flexible spoke. I had decided to carry it instead of the tools necessary to replace a spoke, which all told weighed in at about 250g. The Fiberfix is about 20g. I had never used it before, but I had read some very enthusiastic reviews. We fiddled with it a bit, and thank goodness it wasn't raining – we were already stuck in an alley just off a very busy road with no roofs in sight.

It worked.

We did a col and a mini col as it began to rain again, and halfway up our second "real" col for the day (which we'd hoped to finish before spending two hours figuring how to replace a spoke without the proper tools) we called it a night.

10. - - -

Our last day we swapped a harder col for an easier one since we were hard on time, so by the end of the day we would do three "real" cols. The third was our last "real" col in the Pyrenees. I remember going up it and thinking, I'm really going to do this. And I did. It took a Snickers bar and two hours, and the view from the top wasn't as spectacular as some of the others we'd done, but mentally, it was amazing. I'd actually made it! Eleven cols! I recalled wondering multiple times if I could make it, and if I did make it, that I could tell myself I'd done a portion of the Route des Cols – something I can carry with me for the rest of my life. Not the whole Route, not even the three hardest cols (though, two of the three hardest), but on a touring bike? That's an accomplishment. Also... it didn't rain that day, though the morning was cool and we spent a lot of time hoping the sun would come out. Then it did rain, and we spent a lot of time wishing it would go away so we could climb without sweating gallons.

I have no idea what this is but eating it for breakfast in the sun by a river really hit the spot.

The last col: Actually 3 cols in one (with a 4th in another direction).

Of course, I couldn't have done it without the laughter, friendship, and encouragement of Francois. He's a really, really cool guy. He admits his reason for doing such a challenge is his ego – he's always looking to push himself farther, harder, but I never felt as if he'd judge me for quitting. He never judged me for taking breaks, or finishing after him, which I always did except for the one where he stopped to use the loo. He really made me feel like the decision to keep going was mine, and whatever I chose wouldn't be judged in any way, shape, or form. A feeling too rare.

We descended for an hour or so, and a portion of the road had just been refinished, so despite a few switchbacks we had a nice wide, smooth surface to play with. I'm sure there was a song playing in my head but I can't remember what it was. Something celebratory.

We took a last look behind us and set out to find a place for the night. An "average" place. Everything was "average..." the only way not to jinx it. If jinxes were real. Which they aren't.

The next morning we did what I'll call a mini mini col before descending into a semi-major city, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The coffee was expensive, the boulangerie was expensive, the chasson aux pommes were burnt and made with apple sauce instead of baked apples (and a very thin layer of apple sauce, it was practically just a croissant with a hole in the middle). I did pick up some goat cheese from a farmer who had come to market from the mountains, and it was amazing cheese, but... it would have been better melted on some bread with a bit of meat. All the same, we tried to enjoy what we had, which was, of course, the feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps this was one last jinx – I mean, official send-off of the Pyrenees, reminding us what would happen if we came back.

We went through a windy canyon, three more mini mini cols (each one more mini than the last – but over the past two days we technically did 6 cols...), and down a wine valley where we participated in multiple wine tastings. Eventually we made it to Parpignan, where Francois had arranged to stay with the parents of a friend of his. We found a bike shop for Francois to have my Fiberfix replaced with a real spoke. Francois's friend's parents have been kind enough to let me stay an extra day while Francois continues onwards, for which I am really, incredibly grateful. We had dinner with one of their brothers, which, with the wine tastings, means I tried 15 different wines yesterday. The meal was gespacho as an appetizer, grilled calamari (caught locally two days ago – did I mention we're on the Mediterranian?) for the entree, a cheese course (yes, cheese is a course in France...), and ice cream for dessert. It was all, in a word, delicious.

Now it's just for fun. Or was it always?

Should we do a wine tasting?

We're in a wine valley...

Ok yep let's taste some wine.

Aaaaaaand once more for good luck.

I'll remember Francois for a long time.

Plus I mean we're Facebook friends so that's like forever in dog years.

I've also added "more time in Spain" to the bucket list – I have a friend who might be willing to do the Camino with me one day. It is a sad thing that on tour you often have to choose one adventure over the other; as is a theme of this trip, there is always more world to see than can possibly be seen. I now have a few days to kill as I'm waiting for a friend to arrive in Lyon before me, so maybe I'll go to Spain, maybe I'll splurge on a surfing hostel and learn to surf (did I mention it's freaking hot again? For a week we woke up not wanting to leave our sleeping bags, and now I'm sweating it out at sea level again), I don't know. There is definitely another blog post in the works though – what I really feel I need is a home for a week. More on that in a bit.