Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Traveling in France by Bicycle

I traveled from Calais to Pont L'Eveque on my own twice.

The second time around I brought my bike. I bought a rack for the back, so I could strap my things to it. I'd brought my sleeping bag to England, and so I strapped it to the back of the bicycle. I know I brought my bag because the wild farm kitten I later acquired developed a dependence on that sleeping bag, and when I lost it nine years later she died within the year.

Anyhow, the bike rack didn't fit. It rubbed at the bike frame, stripping off bits of fancy iridescent paint, exposing metal that would later rust. I used a too thin bolt and nut so I could cobble it together. This made a rattle the whole trip.

I also bought a yellow poncho. It didn't occur to me until it was later pointed out by local youths (on a moped, always with those mopeds), outside a French MacDonald's that, along with my curly red hair and my wine colored Danskos, I bore an unflattering resemblance to someone who is not one of my role models. They circled around the roundabout twice to get a better look, laugh and point.

What was I doing at a MacDonald's, anyway? I must have needed to use the bathroom.

My relationship to French adolescents was not positive. A couple of them had already stolen my bike tools from my rack, as I had made my way into the brush to pee. They, too, hooted and hollered in their gleeful booty seizing.

Back to England. I hadn't started off from my base in Cambridge very early. I think I must have left from Robert and Jan's campus house, and certainly left later than I meant to. By afternoon, I was in a small town south of London, layers of clothes tied around my waist, wearing my rust colored tank top, and sitting soaking up the sun with my loaded down bike finally propped off to the side. I felt happy, and free. Which was clearly the wrong pose to adopt, because two anxious looking, uptight young men in railway uniforms walked up, ready to shoo me away as a vagrant. Luckily for me, I had a ticket, and they left me alone.

Relative to these guys, I felt gloriously wild.

On the train I got, and stopped at every dinky village between there, wherever there was, and the white cliffs of Dover. This train had green velvet interiors, upholstered doors with individual cars, turning handles in a beautifully unmodern style. It looked just like the illustrations from Alice Through The Looking Glass. The train and ferry combination was cheap, now that the Eurostar had taken over the path between Paris and London, and I was grateful for it.

It only occurs to me now to wonder how much Dover and Calais suffered after that transition.

On the ferry, there was a middle aged guy, not sane looking, with his moped. He made an overture to me, in French. I ignored him.

I arrived at Calais at night, even later than I had the first time around. I don't remember if I had more or less money than the tiny amount I'd had the first time around, but it didn't matter. The hostel was long closed.

I biked off toward the dunes, vaguely thinking, after several impromptu camping experiences on the dunes of Provincetown on Cape Cod, that this was a solution to my night's woes.

Unfortunately, the guy on his moped followed me. He watched me stop at the hostel, trying to get in. In the background, when no one came to answer, he made crude sex gestures with his hips, and pointed at me. I shouted to him to go away.

I got back on my bicycle and started toward the beaches, hoping to lose him. No luck. I was over on the bike trail, and he was on the road, and he continued his pelvic thrusts, as if I had simply been too slow to understand the first time around. I was getting scared. “No!” I shouted at him. In an attempt to get away, I slammed on my breaks – good old bicycle was forgiving – and whipped around in a one eighty. I biked hard for the nearest houses, and he, on his slower, heavier to turn moped, followed as soon as he managed. I started banging on a door. Really terrified now, I shouted for help. Finally, the door opened. It was a man, heading toward his thirties, in slippers and a dressing gown. His older mother, likewise, ambled out with a dressing gown. Both of them looked at me with distrust, her much more than him.

I should say at this point that it would be a while before I could claim to speak French.

I got out my little plastic covered Berlitz English French dictionary. I tried to ask for the police. They both looked confused, and she looked at me with hostility. He eventually understood, and pointed in the direction of the police office, one or two kilometers that way, he seemed to say. Closed, he seemed to say. Then he closed the door. I was nearly crying.

Great. World's most skilled at getting lost girl, with creepy moped man pelvic communicating on moped tries to find closed police station in an unknown city at two in the morning...

But the guy was gone. I'd seen him motor off as soon as the door had opened. He clearly had more faith in the local populace than was warranted. I'm not sure what made me trust that he wouldn't just be hiding around the corner, but I went, cautious as a cat, back to the dunes. There was a chain link fence, taller than me. Somehow, I not only climbed it in my clogs, but also managed to get my thankfully lightish bicycle over it. I hid in their depths, loving those dunes, and spread my soft nylon sleeping bag out, and tried to sleep. I caught a few hours before the sun rose, and then I put my bag away and got my bike back over the fence, with much less ease now that the adrenaline had gone.

Did anyone come to tell me, at dawn, that I wasn't supposed to be there? I have fuzziness around this memory. I think I may have been told, as I was packing up. No matter. One crazy man's belief in the kindness of strangers, and my own experience of the kindness of the landscape saved me from a horrible experience that night.