Monday, August 7, 2017

Montelimar, France to Ruy, France: The Welcome Dog, French Fire, and Cheese that Walks

I left reliable-internet-McDonald's in Montelimar (my last post lied, it was Montelimar, not Valence) at about 3 PM, giving myself just enough time to make it to my host in Valence... or so I hoped. I underestimated the distance by a bit, thinking it was 20 miles when it was more like 30, and I had also yet to stop for lunch. But, there was a tailwind, and the route, being along the river, was mostly flat.

I arrived at Vincent's house around 6:45, only 45 minutes after I intended, and he and his dog Diego (named after the saber tooth tiger from Ice Age, a movie whose jokes we would reference often over the next few days) welcomed me. While there was a sign at the gate that said, “Mind the dog,” Vincent would later tell me that while most people had a guard dog, Diego was a “welcome dog.” I regret not getting a picture, because if you could see this dog, you would know that I felt welcome, indeed. Diego was the kind of dog that just likes to be in the room with you.

Vincent spoke English very well and was very proud of it, and part of the reason he liked to host Warmshowers guests was so he and his family could practice their English. While he spoke it for work, however, and thus it was necessary for him to be able to communicate effectively, the rest of his family seemed to prefer French. So, I spoke English with Vincent, and French with his wife and sons.

I was still in needing-to-kill-time mode, so after the first night went well, I was glad to be offered another night at their house. I called Vincent to confirm (his wife, Crystal, was at home that morning and made the offer), then unloaded my bike and went out for the day, up the Drone river valley, which is an offshoot of the Rhone river valley. It was hot and beautiful and admittedly not much happened, but it was nice to be out and about with nowhere, really, to get to. The Rhone is very bicycle touristy, so I met many other tourists, and spent my lunch at a seemingly-popular break point for these cycle tourists in La Voulte-Sur-Rhone, talking to some tourists in French and some in English (I met a Dutch couple cycling down the Rhone, one of two such couples that I would meet over the next few days).

That night I was (again) offered a home-cooked meal and a seat at their family table. Over the next few nights a theme would become what I'll call “being let into the inner circle;” that is, even though I was mostly a stranger, I was able to connect with my hosts and their families, and often their friends, very quickly. We talked about, but often moved quickly past, the artificial conversations like weather and what-do-you-do-for-a-living and instead spent a lot of time on why-do-you-do-it and what-are-you-passionate-about and relationships and personal struggles and stories and whether god exists. Since most of these conversations can become extremely personal extremely quickly, I won't be sharing many of them here. Maybe if I end up writing a book where that information can be presented more anonymously (yea, it was totally a host in France...); for now, though, if you want to know what happens in the inner circles of cycle touring hosts in France, you'll have to go on your own bicycle tour in France (challenge proposed!).

(if you are one of the wonderful hosts whose details I am choosing to omit, please don't be offended! I just like to play it better safe than sorry. Know that I had a wonderful time and the amount I share about my time with you is not reflective of the amount of enjoyment I got out of it).

I will say that Vincent had a trick for getting rid of mosquitoes which seemed to work: he started a fire in the grill and then periodically sprinkled coffee grounds over the embers. The coffee grounds create smoke that is irritating to mosquitoes, but not humans, and it's free (if you have coffee on a regular basis), and easy. He also taught me how to properly “try” wine before accepting a bottle, and that it's okay to refuse a bottle if it turns out to be no good! So I tried our wine that night, and refused it. Just kidding, it was fine.

After Valence I wasn't sure where I was going to go – I hadn't been able to find any hosts for Friday, but I did have about 130 km to go between Valence and where my friend lived outside Lyon (and I had two days to get there). Two 65 km days was enough to keep me motivated, I thought, I'd just sleep in a little and... and then I checked my e-mail, and a prospective host for that night had changed their response. Previously, it had been, “Friday, it's impossible.” But now: “Ok we wait for you.”

So. Onward to a host in Communay.

I stopped at a few wine tastings along the way hoping to fulfill a request from a donor. His girlfriend had once been to France, done some wine tastings, and returned with a glass from one of the tastings, which was a very special memory. Unfortunately, the glass broke. So this friend offered me a donation in exchange for trying to find a winery that would give me another tasting glass (and it was imperative that I also tasted the wine!), and he'd pay to have it sent back to the States.

The Rhone has a lot of wineries; unfortunately, many were closed as I passed by. Most of the wineries in France are family affairs, so it doesn't make sense to have someone there doing tastings all the time. It's not like in the States where the wine is mass produced and industrialized (I know all wine in the States isn't like this, and there are probably some wineries in France that are like this, but for the most part, this distinction stands) – meaning also that a lot of the wine has to be bought at the vineyard, it can't be bought at a grocery store halfway across the country or the world. So for better or worse, I probably tasted a lot of wine I'll never get to taste again.

Map of wineries in one of the regions of the Rhone.

By the way, when Francois and I were descending from the Pyrenees, we tried a lot of Muscats (pronounced without the “t”, thanks France), and they were amazing. The grapes that make wine are as varied as the different kinds of apples, and the wine they produce even more so, given the differences in soil, weather during the growing season, etc. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I will say that I have a much greater appreciation for wine culture than I did before I left the states.


Sadly, since a lot of the wineries were closed, and those I did visit were small affairs, I was unable to obtain a tasting glass. I'll keep looking, and maybe if I can't find one in France, I can find something as meaningful elsewhere. Time will tell. For the record, I did offer to return the donation if I'm unable to fulfill the request.

Eventually, I made it to my host in Communay, 90 km from where I'd started in Valence, and 40 km from my friend in Ruy, east of Lyon. My hosts that night were Dominique and Thomas (pronounced, roughly, “To-ma”) and their adopted son Vongy, who was deaf, but likes music and soccer, so we got along just fine (I even learned some French sign language!). Vongy and I communicated mostly with gestures, but he can also read lips (at least when I enunciate like a native francophone, which isn't often), and Dominique and Thomas helped, too. Dominique and Thomas were prepared to speak English, but as soon as I opened my mouth they were like, “Oh, you speak French?” So the stay would be mostly in French, with some English. They taught me some things in French, and I was happy to be able to teach them some things in English.

The reason they thought they couldn't host me was because they had been invited to dinner at a friends' house that night; the reason the invitation changed was because they asked their friend if I could come along too and the answer was “yes.” So, after a shower and some conversation, we left for dinner.


This kind of bike is called a Pino (pronounced like the wine). The person in back steers, pedals, and shifts, and the person in front pedals... if they want to. You could also read, or wave at passer-bys, or sleep. GUYS IT WAS AWESOME.

Upon arriving to their friends' house I was greeted by Alan and Cecile, who were preparing dinner for us that night. As always in France, it would be multiple courses: the appetizer (in this case galettes – colloquially, a blanket word for cookie-shaped things. These were similar to mini crepes, and we had them with a homemade cucumber dip, as well as tapas on toothpicks), the salad (prepared by Dominique using exclusively vegetables from their garden), the entree (sausage; beef kebabs; a “crumb-brulee --” vegetables with a flour-butter crumble on top, baked), the cheese course (need I say more?), and dessert (homemade ice cream). We also went through about 4 bottles of wine and filled the ashtray.

Mini pans for mini crepes (kind of)!

Why learn French when you can learn Swahili?

The food was excellent, but the company made the night. As I said earlier, I won't disclose too much of what we talked about, but I will say I am extremely grateful for everyone there. We were joined by two more friends, so there were 7 of us in total (including me). A lot of our opinions varied, but we still spoke with respect and listened carefully (I did most of the listening, but I was able to participate now and then!). I felt like I was part of a really awesome family. Thomas concluded, at the end of the night: “This was perfect.” And of course, we all nagged him for saying so, but... it was, at the least, a really good night.

This is small potatoes compared to the depth of conversation that was had, but it is sometimes said that if you can joke in a language, you're good at it. So I was proud of myself for cracking a few jokes. I couldn't always participate in the deeper conversations, but I had my wit about me, and every now and again managed to get everyone in stitches with the few words that I knew. Alan kept moving the grill around as the wind changed, blowing the smoke in our faces, so I mused that I was learning a lot of French that night: both the language, and how to have a cookout... don't actually cook anything, just keep moving the fire around.

The night ended with me on the front of the Pino, looking up at the stars, listening to Thomas' comments on the landscape and the night come from the back seat in his sexy french accent (I'm straight but I'm just being honest here, the guy has a great timbre). We raced Dominique up a hill, and at the end with the Pino in the garage next to Louisa (my touring bike), full of good food and good wine and the satisfaction one only feels after a good night with friends, I collapsed into bed at about 1 AM.

I awoke at 9 and decided, “Eh... what's another hour?”

I woke up again at 12.

In France they call this “faire la grasse matinee” (do a fat morning), and it was humbly suggested the night before that I might be participating. So my hosts were neither surprised nor offended when I stumbled out of bed well after the sun came up.

I was offered the customary French breakfast of coffee, bread, and jam, and again enjoyed the dynamic conversation style between Dominique, Thomas, and Vongy. I was invited to stay for lunch, and since my friend lived only 40 km away (about a two hour ride), I accepted. Dominique's father joined us for lunch, which consisted solely of vegetables from the garden and prunes from her dad's prune trees.

This was one of those stays where I felt I really belonged. Despite the language barrier (let's be real... I'm not that good at French but we still communicated just fine) and whatever cultural barrier one might surmise, I felt like part of the family. I didn't want to go, but as is always the case for better or worse, there is more world to see, more people to meet, more adventures to be had.

As I was no longer in the Rhone valley I was worried it would be hilly (since I was so close to the Alps), but it wasn't bad. I stopped at a supermarket and as I was eating in the entrance, a strange approached me. He, too, liked bikes, as well as hiking in the Alps. After a brief conversation, he left, I finished eating, and went on my way. It rained on and off, but eventually (and after a double rainbow!) I made it to Ruy and was greeted by Marie-Laure and her husband, Andre.

The story behind my friendship with Maire-Laure is rather fortuitous. About three years ago I was on a bus from Minneapolis (where my mom lives) to Madison (where I worked at the time). The bus broke down and we were stranded in Podunk (actually it was more like Menominee, but Americans sometimes use “Podunk” to mean “the middle of nowhere”) for 8 hours. Many of the passengers got to know each other, and when it came out that there was a kind french-speaking lady on board, a few of us took it upon ourselves to practice our French with her. Before getting on the new bus, I half-jokingly suggested I might be biking around the world one day, and could I have her e-mail address and give her a visit?

You already know how that one ends.

At first I was a little nervous because we'd only met one time before (though we had Skyped a few times -- which was helpful, too, for practicing French), but after some time I managed to relax and feel here, too, like I had another home. Marie-Laure and Andre call themselves crazy and... well, that's part of why I think I fit right in! The conversations we've had would take too long to detail here, but we did delve into lingual idiosyncrasies, and my favorites are:
- For the cheese course at dinner I unwrapped the Camembert, which was fine, but as she was wrapping it up again, Marie-Laure noted that if you don't wrap Camembert, it will run away! In France it's apparently common to say that “le fromage marche,” meaning “the cheese walks” (“Just wait,” Andre said to Marie-Laure, “he's going to pack up his tent and leave before we even get to dessert!”). Camembert is a soft cheese which moves about the speed of molasses (it does move!), and indeed, by the next day at dinner, it had spilled out into the wrapper. Erm, walked, excuse me.
- La bave du crapaud n'√°tteint pas la blanche colombe: meaning “the drool of the toad doesn't reach the white dove,” this is something you can say to brush off an insult – the insult being the drool, the perpetrator being the toad, and you being the white dove. Also ridiculous enough to be a good ice breaker if you'd actually rather be friends with the person.
- Peigner la giraffe: meaning “to pet the giraffe,” this can be used to describe someone who is daydreaming or zoning out. We aren't sure where it comes from, but I like to think the giraffe is inside your head...

That night lasted until about 11:30, I put my tent up in the backyard with my headlamp, and then went to bed. Then I was immediately woken up again by the church bells at midnight. Welcome to France!

The next morning was a family barbecue – Marie-Laure's son, daughter, and mother arrived about noon, and a friend of her daughter's, as well. Again, I could detail everything that happened here, but suffice it to say, I had a good time. Perhaps they are all a bit crazy, but I'm crazy too, so I felt like I fit right in.

At some point during dinner we got back to lingual idiosyncrasies (I think it was when Marylene, Marie-Laure's daughter, said “Ooh la la!” – the first time I'd heard anyone say that here. Though does it count if she's crazy?), and I mentioned one of my favorite things about French is that there is sometimes seemingly random enthusiasm, re: Julia Childs. “What do you mean?” they asked. So, I whipped out my best Julia Childs impression, and had them all giggling.

The next morning for breakfast Marie-Laure woke me up Julia Childs' style: “BONJOURRR!” I was too tired to laugh, but I'm probably going to remember that for a long time.

So, it's now Monday morning, and I'm sad to say another departure is in order, but I have to go create more random coincidences! Next up: a couple I met on a ferry in Ireland lives in Montreaux, Switzerland, just east of Lake Geneva, and then I hope to visit the engineering museum in Munich.

In other news, I might actually be happy more than half the time? Or, at the least, engaged.

Next update from Switzerland! Maybe!


  1. So glad you're feeling at home, connecting with your hosts and their families on a deep level, and actually happy more than half the time. Loved the links to "luuuuulia" and "How to be perfectly unhappy."

    Love you, Mom

  2. greetings from one of the Dutch men you met at La Voulte-Sur-Rhone;
    You made a serious journey and hope it answered your expectations and your desire for a next trip.