Saturday, August 12, 2017

Ruy, France to Lindau, Germany: Lakes, Rain, and Switzerland

In 100 meters: Well-dressed gentlemen crossing the road.
I left Ruy with joy in my heart. The goodbyes don't get easier, but staying with wonderful people does something to one's demeanor. They say we are who we surround ourselves with. Time will tell if this trend continues.

The day was fairly uneventful until I made the Rhone again. If a river shows happiness by being beautiful, the Rhone was happy to see me.

At Marie-Laure's, I'd sent a few Warmshowers requests to hosts in Geneva, about two days away, since it was supposed to rain then. Three "no's" so I'd sent out another three requests before leaving. I usually send only one at a time, but Warmshowers tells you how likely hosts are to respond to your message (a response is either "yes" or "no"), and not many hosts in Geneva had a great track record (nobody at 100%, one 90% who would end up not replying, the rest below 60%). That's fine, but it means one has to send out a few more requests to get even one response, and if multiple people reply "yes" (unlikely though it may be if they only reply 20% of the time), you're in a sticky situation.

In any case, I hoped that out of six attempts I'd get at least one "yes," so my schedule was dictated by trying to get to Geneva Tuesday night – an overshoot, to say the least. I took a lot of breaks, enjoyed the scenery (while it was still sunny), watched a few boats go through the locks of the Rhone... it was a relaxing day. I had a lot to ponder, too... what had made the past week so special? Could I recreate it somehow?

About 7 PM it started to look like rain, so I started looking for a roof. Then it did rain, not so heavily as to be obnoxious, but just enough to remind me how annoying rain could be – jacket on, wallet in a ziploc, etc. It didn't last for long, but I wanted to get my tent and fly up before it came back. I found a spot next to a collapsed house which was under enough tree cover to still be dry. I left my bike there to walk down the trail a bit, hoping to find a better spot. I didn't, but I did find an emergency rain spot underneath the staircase of a soccer center, and I got a good enough view of the sky to see there was no more rain on the horizon. To bed it was.

I awoke at about 10:30 to footsteps and the sound of children's voices getting closer. I could see lights on the bike path through the trees; then, there were three flashlights shining through my tent wall. This wasn't the first time I'd been discovered (though I realize now I neglected to document the first), and it probably won't be the last. I couldn't understand all of what was said between them, but eventually I said, "Bonjour," as nonchalantly as possible, and they said, "Bonjour," and then after some discussion they said, "Bonne nuit, monsieur," and went on their way. I imagine they were looking for a place to hang out, and not to rob or maim random travelers, so I deemed them harmless and went back to bed. Worse case their parents would happen to be the property owners and they'd come kick me out, but I didn't think that was worth packing up for.

I woke up again at 4:30 to flashes of light on the horizon. Lightning is not so harmless. I took a minute to make a judgement call – put on the fly and wait out the impending rain, or pack up and head for the staircase I'd spotted earlier? Staircase, I decided. With the impending rain, I set a record time from lying in my sleeping bag to rolling out on my bike. This usually takes me 30-45 minutes; this time, I did it in 20.

I got to the soccer center just as the rain began. It didn't look like it would let up anytime soon, so I set up my bivvy sac and went back to bed. The rain didn't cease until 9, and I went on my way... after it started and then stopped again. Ten minutes after I left, it started drizzling again. And then it started pouring again, just as I was passing an abandoned-looking shed. I went inside and waited half an hour – it didn't let up. I needed to catch up on sleep (recall the lightning woke me up at 4:30), so I set up my bivvy sac yet again and dozed until about 12, when the rain let up for more than 10 minutes.

Despite all this hassle I would actually make it to Geneva that night. With an 8 AM departure I thought I'd arrive about 12 and have plenty of time to update the blog before finding a place for the night. Instead I left at 1 and arrived at 5.

Switzerland: Bike paths everywhere!

I found a McDonald's (AKA free internet) and checked for Warmshowers responses – nothing. I used the last of the credit on my French SIM card to call them just in case – no answers – then to call my Swiss friends on the other side of the lake to tell them I'd be arriving tomorrow. My service cut just as I was saying goodbye – not perfect timing, but I wasn't going to buy more credit just to call and say goodbye.

Biking through Geneva!

By this time the rain had ceased so I wandered around Geneva enjoying, you know, being in Geneva, and wondering how I was going to find a place to sleep. At that point I wasn't so worried about the rain as just finding somewhere: all along the lake was populated and everywhere else was mountains. I decided to leave it to fate for the moment and had dinner on the lakefront. I toasted France, where I'd spent more than a month, learned the language (better, anyways), made some good friends, and actually really didn't want to leave. But I was in Switzerland now.

Optional touristy photo of the Geneva harbor fountain

After about 45 minutes, someone sat at the bench next to me and pulled some churros out of a touring pannier. I pointed at the pannier and asked if he'd done any tours. This was Felix from Zurich, who had been on two tours himself. After getting to know each other a bit, I popped the question, and we were on our way to the grocery store. I'd buy him groceries in exchange for him letting me sleep on his couch. A wonderful surprise: not just a safe place to sleep, but company for the night. Okay, and food and a shower. Also he lived back in France, and going back to France couldn't possibly be a bad thing.

View from Felix's apartment

The next morning he'd give me back the 10 Euros I paid for groceries. "People were so kind to me when I was on tour," he said, "it's the least I can do." I checked, and he was sure.

With sunny skies the next day I continued around the lake. Halfway around the lake I asked a tourist office to use their phone to check directions with Jean-Paul, who insisted on picking me up partway there. I wasn't sure why he was so insistent, but "ok," I said; if he was so insistent it didn't bother me that much. I continued to the French-Swiss border (the southern side of the lake is French) and waited... and waited... and used the border payphone to check in. I'd just missed him. I offered again to bike the rest of the way, but no, he insisted on picking me up. "Ok," I said.

French-Swiss "border..." slow down and acknowledge it?

Jean-Paul is one of those people who you can't help but smile around. He's just a happy guy; as he greeted me, he grinned a huge, genuine, toothy smile. You can tell he's got his priorities in order – he's upbeat, but relaxed and nonchalant. We stopped in town to pick up his partner, Chantel, before heading home. Oh, and the reason he wanted to pick me up is because he lived up a "hill" – a 700m tall hill, higher than my first col in the Pyrenees. I could have pedaled that, yes... but it would have taken two hours. I decided not to worry about it.

"The Swiss Method:" Pop it into neutral and push it in.

Jean-Paul and Chantel are more insistent than mosts hosts of the "let me take care of you" routine. For dinner, they offered to take me to fondue – the best in Switzerland, they said – but of course if I wanted kebabs, or pizza... no no, I said... I was in Switzerland, I was going to eat fondue! Before getting in the shower, I tried to sort my laundry clean from dirty (on a bike, it all goes in the same pannier – I turn the dirty clothes inside-out to keep track), but "just put it all in," they insisted. They gave me a map of Switzerland and helped me plot my route to Munich, they insisted I use their phone to call whoever I wanted (I picked my mom), and they made very certain I knew I could take my time in the shower. They were put-your-feet-up-hosts.

Chantel had recently had surgery and was wary of eating complex foods, so Jean-Paul and I had a man date. I was fascinated by how complex he became so quickly. From 15 to 21, he was a champion fighter; then, he took up cycling; now, it's motorcycles. He's been passionate and enthusiastic about all of them, and became skilled in all of them. He's never had a problem with money (after being a champion fighter he took up work as a mechanical engineer, learning on the job), but it's never been about the money. At some point you have enough – you either have to start doing something meaningful with it, or doing something more meaningful with your time. Working just to make money was never enough for him. When he fought, the part he enjoyed the most was the travel – he traveled all over Europe to fight. He also spoke a lot about respect – for his opponents in the ring, but also for other people. He respected me enough to have patience when I wasn't at the border when he expected. He had opened his home to a number of people, even when he wasn't home, and he said if I ever needed a place to stay he'd leave the keys with the neighbors... even the car keys if I needed a car.

After the first 30 minutes we'd answered all of life's questions and fell silent for a few minutes. The fondue was really, really good. It came with just potatoes and bread – vehicles for the cheese, it seemed, nothing to adulterate the flavor. It's not customary to tip in Europe (though Jean Paul is the kind of guy that would anyways) so I offered to pay for my plate instead. He refused.

Dessert was good, too.

The next morning I was left the keys on the counter and told to come to the garage when I was ready. I packed up and went down and Jean-Paul was cleaning my bike! He told me it was tip-top shape now, except for the rear derailleur which might need to be replaced soon (it was used at the start of my first tour so it probably needed to be replaced a long time ago...). He drove me to breakfast, which, even in a restuarant, was the light French fare of bread-and-jam-and-nothing-else. Bridget, a delighful German friend of his who spoke some English, joined us. We joked and laughed and talked about travel and Trump (if I haven't mentioned: yes, everybody asks me what I think of Trump) and at one point Jean-Paul asked Bridget to ask me what kind of sandwich I wanted to take for lunch (Bridget: "You haven't even finished breakfast and he's worrying himself with what you want for lunch. Such a gentleman...").

Guys try not to blow up the world while I'm gone.

I was offered another order of both coffee and bread, which I accepted, and then it was offered again... I'm pretty sure Jean-Paul would have sat there all day until I was full, but with fondue the night before, it only took two servings. I offered again to pay for breakfast or lunch, but Jean-Paul refused. We went on our way.

While I was at Marie-Laure's three days before, I'd had my first acceptance of a Couchsurfing request. I've sent maybe 30 requests on Couchsurfing since the start of this tour. Most have been declined; the rest, ignored. Frankly, sometimes I thought it was hopeless. I'd tried various amounts of notice, numbers of days (Couchsurfing, unlike Warmshowers, tends to take place over multiple nights instead of just one – at least that's what my research seemed to indicate), amounts of personalization, etc. Since I'm new to CS maybe it was that I didn't have any references; I suspect a large part was that many of my requests were during the week when "regular" people are working. Maybe I was picking the wrong hosts; maybe my profile was poorly written... in any case: finally, the stars aligned! And this seemed like someone I'd truly enjoy getting to know.

To make my newly-accepted Couchsurfing stay, I had to be in Munich by Sunday. I left Marie-Laure's on a Monday, and arrived in Blonay (where Jean-Paul and Chantel live) on Wednesday. From Blonay it was about 500 km including about 300 km through very hilly Switzerland to Munich – meaning I'd arrive in Munich on Monday at the earliest, a day late. I don't like taking rides, but as long as there's a good reason, I'm not necessarily opposed. Jean-Paul would drop me off in Lucerne, about 200 km along the way.

To be honest, I feel very little ambiguity about having asked for a ride. There are three reasons: the weather, the Couchsurfing, and my track record.

The weather: it poured during the car ride, and I remembered how much I hated riding in the rain. Switzerland may be beautiful, but when all your attention is on staying dry and warm, it can be hard to appreciate even the most beautiful landscapes.

The Couchsurfing: I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to meet my host, who sounded really awesome, nor to see the Engineering Museum in Munich, which was part of the reason I wanted a multi-day stay. When I said it was hard to plan exact days when touring, my host said he was flexible; all the same, I wanted to play it safe.

Track record: I remember every ride I've accepted: 15 miles in La Crosse, WI after getting lost in an industrial area; 40 or so from Dawlish, England to Dartmoor to make a Warmshowers stay; 115 from Aberystwythe to Holyhead to make the ferry to Ireland; now, about 115 again, for a Couchsurfing stay. I remember them all because one day I might want to ride them again... but I don't think so. The point of touring, for me, isn't to say, "I pedaled the whole way." That's a bonus objective. I'd rather not pedal through the pouring rain, or miss my ferry, or have to rush myself fom time to time. For me, accepting the occasional ride doesn't ruin the tour. Being rushed does (needing rides more than every so often would indicate something needs to change).

To each their own, of course.

Anyways, Jean-Paul dropped me off in Lucerne and let me go only after insisting we see each other again. We shook hands and he left. It was still raining.

Oh, and everything was suddenly in German. I don't speak German.

Switzerland is beautiful, but hilly and crowded. Maybe France has spoiled me, but it doesn't seem like there are any quiet roads that go anywhere (to do: research the population density of Switzerland). Outside of cities, the landscape is either field or hilly with trees – there's hardly any flat forest or foliage. After just a few hours of riding, I knew finding places to stealth camp would be a challenge.

Switzerland: more than one pretty lake.

It's beautiful, but WHERE DO YOU STEALTH CAMP?

It rained on and off, but the day ended sunny and cool. I didn't trust it, however: I needed a fly or a roof. Problem is, I couldn't find anything. As exhaustion set in, I decided to try a bus stop. I checked the schedule and there would be no more busses till 7 AM – perfect, I can be out by then. But I tried a 15 minute snooze and couldn't fall asleep, there was too much traffic; anyways, I was nervous about someone stealing my bike. I pulled out my map and looked for anything – a church, a forest, a park – the only thing nearby (though so nearby I could see it!) was a "place of worship" – a very, very small church at the top of a nearby hill. I decided to try it.

Random bike path that doesn't randomly end!

The door was locked, but there was just enough space on the porch to keep a bivvy sac dry. It was about 200m from the road, though with enough hills in between I'd only be seen if someone knew to look for me. Desparate and tired, I took it.

And it was the hobo-yist thing I've ever done!

Also, I lost my earplugs somewhere along the way – I left them at Felix's in France, I think – so it was a long, long night. Noise from the highway and rain dripping from the roof woke me frequently. A nap would be in order the next day.

The next day, Friday, would be a game of hide-and-seek with the rain. All day it would drizzle, then rain, then let up, then repeat. This isn't so bad when it's warm, but it was cold. The sun even came out once, just to taunt me. And Switzerland doesn't have many covered, public spaces – picnic areas, for instance. Around noon I finally found a church with a covered porch. I ate, and ate, and ate, hoping digesting the food would warm me up a bit. Remembering I was due for a nap, I decided to try the door – open! Saved by a church, again. I tried to hide myself, not wanting to make a bad impression on anyone who came in to pay their respects, and managed to get a good two hours in before a crew came to work on the speakers. Feeling I had overstayed my welcome, I decided to head out.

Around 6 I found myself descending into a plain of sorts. It occurred to me I had done a lot of climing that day, even some switchbacks, but it all felt natural after the Route des Cols, I guess. I wondered if the rain game had been an effect of the altitude, and descended hopefully into the only-mostly-cloudy-valley below.

I took dinner at, you guessed it, a church, and as it started to rain again I discovered a covered reception-type area in the graveyard. I pondered my map for places to sleep, and, finding a park about 2 hours out, decided to try it. I used the loo in the graveyard and...

It was a really nice loo. Clean, spacious (enough room for a bicycle and a bivvy)... it even had a little heater! Eveything a cycle tourist needs. So it only took about 3 minutes of riding in the freezing rain before I decided to turn around and spend the night in the loo.

As it was only 7 by the time I finished eating, I wrote this post while waiting to see if anybody would show up to kick me out. I prayed they wouldn't; skillful as I am at finding places to sleep, Switzerland really has me on the ropes. This was also the gold mine of stealth camping: once you get over the stigma of sleeping a bathroom (required: must be a clean bathoom), you can appreciate that it has everything you need... and this one had a heater to boot. I actually hoped someone would drop by so I could ask permission, but I wasn't sure how well it would go if they couldn't speak English. So I just waited, fingers crossed that it would somehow work out.

It did.

The next morning I was out by 7 (worst case scenario of leaving too late: open the door to a funeral procession) and summoned what will I had left to continue in the rain. A few breaks under trees and train stations later – and also I was in Austria for like an hour -- I found myself in a McDonald's in Germany. Say what you want, they do breakfast alright. And they have free internet.

Also if I stay here long enough maybe the rain will stop?

And then on to Munich.

1 comment:

  1. Love the kindness of Jean-Paul (cleaning your bike!) and the photo of where you slept on the church steps. Hopefully, it's stopped raining...

    Love you, Mom