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?


  1. I know :P I thought a lot about how much easier it would have been to continue my trip had I had people to share it with and I still took a lot of breaks to see friends and family. Finding those people who will take the time to join you in a trip like that is tough though.

    1. Yea, not everybody wants to, or can, quit their job to bike around the world, it turns out.

      Did you keep a blog? Care to share?

  2. You can come home to my house anytime. Love you.