Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The English Channel to La Jonchere, France: PICNIC TABLES ARE BACK!!!

The English Channel to La Jonchere, France: PICNIC TABLES ARE BACK!!! Administrative things: Internet is rare here. Really, really rare. Blog posts will be infrequent and the map might not get updated for a long time (I still haven't posted stories from England, Wales, or Ireland). Without getting a hotel room for two nights, there's nothing I can do. Sorry!

This post will be a combination of musings, themes, and semi-chronological happenings. Given what's occured, it makes more sense to me to draw out themes in what's happened than to recount it in exact chronological order.

Let's begin.


I arrived in France rather weary after not getting much sleep on the ferry. You can pay about $120 for a cabin with a bed, or $11 for an airplane-style seat in a room shared with about 30 other seats which may or may not be occupied. My room had less than 10 other people in it. Many came prepared with blankets and pillows to sleep on the floor; I, unknowingly, left my sleeping gear attached to my bike seven floors down, where passengers are not allowed between embarking and disembarking. So needless to say, I didn't get much sleep.

Although, I did get to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I did pretty good on the food front if I may say so myself, and the sunset was fantastic.

The morning of arrival I spent some time in the lobby of the ferry checking my e-mail and trying not to freak out at the fact that everyone was speaking french and all I could understand was the occasional "Ah, oui." A group traveling together slowly settled around me until I was surrounded by them. They seemed very lighthearted and welcoming and I'm sure I could have practiced my french with them no problem, but in my tired, self-conscious and anxious state (oh my god I'm almost in France and what if nobody ever understands me again) I managed only to mumble a rather simple sentence about needing to eat breakfast and rushed off a little embarassed. Behind me the polite gentleman exclaimed, "Bon appetit!"

Yes, that's something they say here. It's not just the stuff of cartoon characters kissing their fingers.

So anyways, after breakfast, toiletries, etc, I biked off the ferry and replied "Bonjour" to the border guard. He took my passport, said "one moment" in a ferry (erm, very) french accent, stamped it, then handed it back to me with a "Merci," and... I was in France. No interrogation about what was I doing there or who I was staying with, or needing to say anything, really (I think if you come off a ferry from Ireland they assume the Irish did the appropriate interrogation, but then, the Irish assumed that when I came in from Wales...).

I managed to make it the first hour without embarassing myself, I mean talking to anyone, just going along the coast, hunting for a park for some lunch and uke practice. A bit more relaxed, then, I took off south, towards my Warmshowers host for the night.

Just out of town, another cyclist came up behind me very enthusiastically asking me about my tour. And thus will open the theme of...

I might actually be able to speak French to people and have them understand me

This cyclist was named Marcel, and he had been out riding with a group, but decided to take a detour for some reason I couldn't glean. He spoke very fast and he said a lot of words I didn't understand, but he was also very enthusiastic and kind. I managed to tell him where I was from, how long I'd been on tour, and where I was going. Without me saying anything about money (usually people ask how long I have to do it, and my reply is along the lines of, "I quit my job, so until I run out of money"), he asked if I needed a job, and I said of course I'd be interested. He, apparently, is retired, but just for fun works on vineyards on occasion, so I gave him my e-mail and he promised to set me up with one of the vineyards he's worked for in the past.

Um... what?

Yea, looks like if I'm in the right place at the right time this fall, I might get to work on a vineyard for a few weeks.


I've been in France a week now and I can understand about 80% of what people are saying. I had a phone call yesterday entirely in French with one of the vineyard owners, and with some patience on her part I was able to completely understand the terms of employment, that I need to send her a photocopy of my visa, etc. Every now and then she'd ask if I understood something, and my response was usually "pour le pluspart" (for the most part). I can ask people for directions, where there's internet in town (nowhere), what a croque-madame is (a croque-monsieur, as everybody knows, is a ham and cheese sandwich), and where they are from.

I'm usually asked the regular questions about my tour (where did I start, how long have I been gone, where am I going, how long do I have), which I can answer. People also ask where I'm from, which I had trouble with at first – it's a simple question, but it's a phrase where the words mush together quite a bit. Having heard it about a hundred times now, I can usually recognize it. The two most common questions, I think, are whether I'm married and where I'm from.

I'll flatter myself that people might be asking where I'm from because of my accent. I've been told by a native French speaker who I trust that I have a minimal accent (I dabbled in acting in high school, including voice acting, and that was when I was learning French). Most people ask if I'm English, I think because more English than Americans come to France, or maybe by English they mean I have an accent of the English language, not of the people of England.

One time I was in a touristy place, waiting in line to ask a question. In front of me was an American couple who didn't speak any French, and they were struggling to communicate with the clerk (who spoke a bit of English). I came up and asked, in what I'll flatter myself was a good accent with advanced words like "faucet," where I could fill my water bottle. After answering my question the clerk also wanted to know where I was from – so maybe she was curious where this French-speaking but not-French tourist was from? I don't know.

It's funny trying to understand people – it's almost like I have a second "French" brain that does the language processing. I hear a sentence and think about it for a few seconds, and then the meaning comes back to me. Sometimes after a minute or so I'll be able to parse out what was said into the individual words. Sometimes I can just guess from the context and a word or two: once in a bakery I had ordered a croque-monsieur and was asked a question about it. I picked out only one word that sounded like "chauffer" which I'm guessing has the same root as the word "chaud" – hot – and replied "yes, please;" they heated the croque-monsieur in the microwave before giving it to me. Sometimes I know the word and it's merely pronounciation: in a bit I'll tell a story about the number 13; once, I was offered mayonnaise, pronounced the same but with an accent. When showed the bottle I was like... oh. Duh. Mayonnaise (no thanks!).

Of course, sometimes people use words I just haven't heard before. Sadly, this often means the conversation falls flat. One time someone asked me, "Avez-vous deux mots?" "Mots" is the word for "word," but there's no way he was asking me if I had two words, so it must mean something else, as well. I just couldn't think of what it was, so I told him I'm sorry, I'm learning French and don't know that word, and he said okay, good day, and that was that. Sad face.

I didn't take this to be rudeness – I'm in France, I should be able to speak French! Most of the time when I apologize for my French, the response is that actually, my French is very good. Once I was sending postcards and the price was 13 euros – for the life of me though, I couldn't remember what "trieze" was (the postlady was saying it with an unfamiliar accent). I asked and she said it was ten and three, and then I felt stupid, because of course I can count to 13 in French. She then realized she'd made a mistake, and gave me back about 6 euros, and I tried to say, "Thanks. Do you need anything else from me?" but it didn't come across. I said it a few ways ("Is that all?" -- though this might have come across as, "Only 6 euros? Don't I get more?"), before finally trying in English, and the reply was, "Nope, I don't speak English." So I just said, "Nevermind. Thank you!" and went on my way.

One time I had asked someone where to pitch a tent nearby, and the next hour was a debacle of trying to communicate words like "fence" and "high grass" and "permission" using other words and miming (often when I say, "I don't know the word _____," the reply will be an explanation of course involving ten more words I don't know).

Then there was the time I was in line at the grocery and was pretty sure the cashier was checking me out. I'm not opposed to harmless flirting with cashiers, provided it doesn't make anyone uncomfortable (nothing like trying to help a customer when they are hitting on you), but I realized I couldn't even manage a complex thought like "Long day?" -- I know the word "long," and "day," of course, but I didn't know that it would mean the same thing in French as in English. So I just stood there in awkward silence wanting to flirt but not knowing how (the things they don't teach you in French class...). And once I think I accidentally flirted with someone: I went into a bakery intending to spend all my change. Counting it out was taking longer than expected, so I said to the cashier, "Comment-ca va?" This is the casual way of asking "How are you?" which we said every day in high school French class, so that's what came out of my subconscious. Unfortunately, it's not how you ask a stranger how their day is ("comment-t'allez vous?"). By using the casual phrasing I implied we were friends. She laughed nervously.

Apparently in France, you are supposed to weigh and sticker fruit yourself in the fruit section, then the cashier just scans the sticker (in the US the cashier weighs it). I didn't know this, which resulted in a panic from the cashier and the disdainful chin of the man behind me growing miles long while we waited for someone to come get the apples, take them back to the fruit section, and return with a sticker (I had no idea what was happening, the only thing I caught was, "You don't have...?" and the general impression that I'd done something wrong). I waited patiently and apologized profusely, and that's how I learned the phrase, "C'est pas grave" – a brush-off, like, "It doesn't matter," or a not-passive-aggressive "whatever," or a shrug of the shoulders. Literally translated: "It's not serious."

I think a lot about when people speak in broken English to me, what makes me wince and what I don't care about, and the mistakes I am making, and what is likely to make the French wince and what they don't care about. But at the end of the day, people are very, very kind, and patient, and I feel very welcome here, despite not always being able to have complete conversations.

This leads me to...

On France: The people

The people here are some of the most engaging of the tour. I get asked more often than anywhere else about my tour, and I think if I could understand 100% of what was being said I'd never get anywhere because I'd spend all day talking to people – which of course would be awesome.

First off – the cross-country bicycle tourists. There are many. I've lost count. In previous countries I could count on one hand how many I met (US: 1, England: 4-ish, Wales: 0, Ireland: 4). I've been in France a week and seen at least 20. I used to make a point of stopping to talk to them because it was moralizing; now, it's just normal. It's an awesome normal, of course.

My Warmshowers host was fantastic. They often asked if I wanted to speak in English, and sometimes I did, but for the most part we were able to communicate in French. Their daughter was there and she was almost fluent in English, so at one point I was telling a story in the best French I could muster and they would occasionally look at her and she would explain what I was trying to say. At one point I was saying I'd never been to France before, I had the opportunity in high school but got cold feet, and they said, "Why would cold feet keep you from going to France?"

They also had two grandchildren there, which was great for me, because I could ask them simple questions and get, for the most part, simple answers, and vice versa (after talking about what the next morning would look like, I was asked what we have for breakfast in the US). The morning of my stay, Elisa (one of the grandchildren) and Marcelle (one of my hosts) were playing a matching game quite like Go Fish, except with families of instrumentalists. It kept me past noon, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity!

The best part, though, wasn't getting to play a French game entirely in French with a lovely French lady in rural France after having just had baguette with marmelade, nutella, and jam for breakfast (though that was quite swell) – okay actually it's a tie – the other part of the tie was hearing all the witty quips between Elisa and Marcelle ("You're too good at this!" "I've already lost!" "I'm dead already..."). They don't teach you those in French class; nor are you often able to see, understand, and feel such a genuine, playful interaction between two close friends – in French or in English.

There are moments when I wonder if I would become friends with someone if I could speak better French, or was just less nervous in general. There was the group of people on the ferry; there was someone who was leaving their apartment just as I was biking by, dead set on the bakery down the street. "You're on tour?" they said.


"A big tour?"

"Oui!" I shouted over my shoulder, as they faded into the distance. I realized only a few minutes later they probably wanted to ask me more questions, and it was my (completely irrational) fear of that conversation that kept me pedaling instead of what I would have done if they had asked in English: stopped and engaged them.

I did have a great day at a Farmer's market once. As I was walking around, a guy at a stall in the distance waved me over and, in English, offered me a place to stay without me saying anything. It was only 11 AM and he was 5 miles in the wrong direction, so I said I wanted to go a bit further that day. He said alright... but take some zucchini. After talking a bit more I discerned he had spent a few months biking around Europe and was, surprise surprise, passing along the good vibes (a good surprise! Just not so surprising, as a theme of the trip is people passing along good vibes).

I sat on the church steps to eat my lunch and a lady walked by with her dog. She said something about that being a great place to eat, and how much were tickets. We laughed. A few minutes later, she came back with her lunch and sat at the other end of the church steps. We talked for a few minutes and I asked if I could sit next to her, and then we talked a few more minutes and she offered me some yogurt. I stared dumbfoundedly at it since it was the second item of free food I'd been offered in the last 30 minutes.

"You don't have to take it."

"No, please! Thank you!"

And there on the steps of the church I shared yogurt with a stranger.

Before we parted I was talking about how I liked bicycle touring because it meant I could have those moments with strangers, and she said of course I had them, when she was walking by she could tell I had an inviting deameanor (I wish I could remember how exactly she said it because it was much more graceful; french almost always is), and when I smiled at this she said, "and you have such a beautiful smile."

And then my heart melted. Thank you, Claudette, for being.

On France: The food

Almost every town in France has a bakery, so the first thing I do in the morning is find a bakery and get fresh bread. If the town is larger, it will have more than one bakery; usually, I don't have to ask, I can just ride down the street and one will magically appear. Barring that, I can follow my nose – they smell fantastic, and usually the smell goes for blocks. I haven't had to ask yet, though of course I know how (tangent: I read in a French magazine for English speakers a story about someone who intended to ask for the "patisserie" (pastry shop) but, in enunciating too clearly, accidently asked for the "petite souris" – the little mouse).

So breakfast is usually a few pain au chocolate, or sometimes tartes aux pommes (apple tarts), or sometimes a croque-monsieur. I also pick up 3-5 butter croissants, which I eat throughout the day, sometimes plain if they are really good, or sometimes with marmalade, cheese, jam, or nutella. I also get a baguette and have half for lunch and half for dinner. I supplement this with bananas and apples, cheese (the cheese is so good here), and the occasional stop at a restuarant or cafe. Wine is cheap (I've seen bottles for 2.50 euro), but as I can't drink a whole bottle by myself and still bike straight, I haven't picked any up yet.

Almost everywhere advertises "moules frites" – mussels with fries. I stopped somewhere to ask for internet, which they didn't have, but I was exhausted and they said I could charge my phone if I ate there so I was like... alright. The special? Moules frites. I don't recall that I've ever had mussels but I was in France, so I got the special. It was literally a bucket of boiled mussels and a plate of fries. The second course was slices of cheese on lettuce; the third, a huge bowl of creme fraiche, add sugar if you like and strawberry syrup; the fourth, "un cafe," which in France is not a cup of coffee but a shot of expresso, in this case served with a cracker.

Also... bread is rarely served with butter. For dinner at my Warmshowers host, I asked about this, and they said in France you'd never have bread with butter when you could have bread with cheese. That's my kind of logic!

On Travel: Spirituality vs. Coincidence

I'm not a religious person but I do believe in some things that can't really be proven (like that people are basically good), so in my mind that makes me spiritual. I don't know if I believe in karma but sometimes I feel like I do, I feel like there's this karmac cosmos that grows when people do good things for each and you can sort of draw from it, or channel it, by listening to your gut and doing "what you're supposed to do," whatever that means. Some people call this God; if I call it god, it's a lower case "g."

(pause: I'm not trying to impose my religion on anyone, this is just a statement of my experience. Yours might be different, you might believe something else, your god might have a capital "G" – awesome! Let's share, and let's also respect each others' experiences and opinions, because I think it's cool to talk about. But I'm absolutely not saying my opinions or experiences are somehow better or more "right" than yours. Cool? Cool.)

I've been thinking a lot about this on tour. I wonder if listening to my gut improves the tour – if there ares ways I'm "supposed" to go and if I'll enjoy the tour more if I go those ways. This is one of the many reasons I think planning out a tour too far in advance can be a bad thing: if you have a flight to catch you can't go off to look at such-and-such or stay with so-and-so (recall that I've already had a major change in plans once: I was going to go through London, east out of England, but then decided before getting to Cornwall to go west out of England through Wales and Ireland). So I was originally planning on going east out of France into Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, but everybody I talked to (including, but not limited to, a few people in England, a few people in Ireland, and at least three people in France) said the "way to do" France was to go north to south or vice versa. I also had three offers of places to stay in southern France.

So first I picked a Warmshowers host that was south of Cherbourg (where my ferry landed), not east. On the way there I met Marcel, who you'll recall offered to set me up with a vineyard. Then my host said I should go south, but if not south through France, at least south to Mont St. Michele -- it would be a shame if I was only 100 miles from it and didn't see it. So I did that, and on my way to Mont St. Michele I had that experience at the farmer's market with the free zucchini and the lady on the church steps, so by the time I got to Mont St. Michele going south felt... right. It's what my gut said to so. Maybe that's bogus or can't be proven or there's no concrete, substantial evidence that I "should" have kept going south, but that's what I decided to do.

Also, Mont-Saint-Michele was gorgeous.

(this means I might not hit Belgium, the Netherlands, or Germany for the foreseeable future. The current plan is to do the Camino de Santiago, then somehow get back to France, and head east out of the Schengen area via Italy, Croatia, possibly Greece, etc)

When I got to Ancenis, a city on the Loire (where I had my moules-frites, and come to think of it I only ate there because someone in the previous city said they might have internet – though they didn't), I had no idea how I was going to get south to Spain. The waitress, upon seeing my bike, handed me a map of the bike route down the Loire river valley ("This might interest you"). I won't say I was "listening to the signs" here or anything, but going down the Loire seemed like a good plan, so that's what I decided to do, right then and there.

Along the Loire I saw many tourists, but passed three times someone who would become a friend – Hans-Gerd. The third time we passed each other was just after it started to rain – there had been a storm precipitating on the horizon for the past hour, and we were both looking for shelter. Hans doesn't speak much English, but we managed to communicate that it might be cheaper to split a campsite, so that's what we did.

At that campsite were loads of other bicycle tourists. It was inspiring. Hans and I waited out the rain in the camp lounge, and talked about everything and nothing as best we could with his broken English and some beers. He's about 40 and is biking from where he lives just outside of Dusseldorf to Portugal, a lifelong dream that he's never been able to do until now because of kids, work, etc. After the rain died down we went out to set up our tents.

It happened once that I was looked at his tent and he was looking at mine, and he pointed to the vestibule of my tent and said, "It's very... very..." and I looked at him and he looked at me, and he didn't have the word in English but we both started to smile, and then laugh, and then we couldn't stop laughing.

I know it sounds silly, but for some reason I think Hans and I have something that trascends language; even though we don't have the same words we can still communicate – and laugh. We were talking about possibly riding together when one of the tourists at the site next to ours said, "You should do it. You have good laughs together: the most important thing!"


Hans wanted to take a break day the next day to try and find a map. I offered to guide him but he wanted to guide himself, which I respect. I wanted to get going, so I left.

But not before having an impromptu jam session with another tourist who brought her flute. Hans played his toothbrush. Someone took a photo and I'll put it here when I get it.

Throughout that day, though, the feeling grew inside me that I had made the wrong choice, that I should have stayed with Hans, and we could have biked together all the way to Portugal. At about 1 PM my anxiety brain started playing "Listen to your heart" over and over again, and I couldn't keep mentally kicking myself, but I wasn't going to go three hours backwards. There was a fallen branch in the middle of one of the trails, and it was hard not to tell myself it was some sort of sign that I should go back. But I told myself: if we are supposed to ride together, it will work out that way. A nap cleared my brain, and the clouds left from the storm the night before, and I carried on.

That night I found an awesome spot to camp by searching "picnic" on my maps app.


The next day I found Eurovelo 1, a signed cycle route up the west coast of Europe, all the way from Portugal, through Spain, France, Ireland, and Scotland, to Norway. This was the route Hans had wanted a map for – if we were to meet up again by chance, it would probably be along this route.

I headed to a summer home that had been offered to me by one of my hosts in England. That's where I am now. I've sent Hans an e-mail with the address and told him I'll wait a few days. I hope he gets it and we can meet up again and ride together. But if not – that's how life goes sometimes.

Like I said, I'm not religious. But the past few days have felt really good. I'm in France. I eat fresh bread for breakfast every day, I'm staying in a summer home (which started three weeks ago when I went into a pub in England and asked for water, and did they know anyone I could stay with that night?), I've met some really awesome people (tourists, locals, crazy germans), seen some beautiful places, and am headed to Spain to do the Camino de Santiago. I still feel lonely from time to time, but for the most part... life is really good right now. It's hard not to attribute that to the listening to my gut that I've been doing. I can't prove that there is some karmac cosmos that I'm drawing from, I can't provide substantial evidence that there was actually something inside me saying, "Yo, maybe you should go down the Loire river valley?" and that listening to it is why I met Hans, that it's made the tour better, but... sometimes it's hard not to believe that.

When Ian and Ann were driving me from their home near Abersytwyth, Wales, to my ferry to Ireland, Ian said, "My biggest fear is that you'll go to France, love it, and never come back to Wales." Whether it be for spiritual reasons or complete coincidence, I can see where he was coming from. I'd like to go back to Wales, yes. But I'm also in love with France. Last night I was recounting the occurrences of the past few days, and by the time I finished my gut felt much like it did the night before Christmas as a 5-year-old: this is just so darn exciting I don't know what to do with myself.

I'll leave you with some photos that didn't otherwise fit in with the tales above. Au revoir!

This bridge has historical significance... but for the life of me I can't remember it right now. Till I do, it's just a pretty place I put my tent next to.

Every town in France has a church. A big church.

Tintin makes an appearance.

Sometimes there are castles, too. Big castles.

Breakfast outside a random boulangerie (bakery).

How you know you're in France...


  1. It's wonderful to catch up with your travels. I am thrilled that it feels in your gut much like it did the night before Christmas when your were a 5-year-old: this is just so darn exciting I don't know what to do with myself. :) Listening to your heart is always best, but each choice will provide amazing experiences and prove to be the right one in the end. You do have an inviting demeanor and a beautiful smile!!! I have a friend that hiked the Camino within the last year! Ride one! Love you, Mom

  2. Could you read the painting you posted? "You look into my eyes you will find beautiful"!!!

    1. The literal translation is "See yourself in my eyes and you'll find yourself magnificent." A native English speaker might say it more like, "If you saw yourself the way I do, you'd see you're beautiful."

  3. Did you find this???
    Bike touring routes all over Europe!

    1. Yes; in fact, I reference finding and using Eurovelo 1 in this post.