Thursday, 30 May 2013

Trois filles à vélo.



Now that I have apologised to Anji for not dropping in for a coffee I can write another post.

Until I met Julie I lived on two wheels and though nothing of packing a couple of panniers and a tent for a month long camping trip in the wilder parts of Scotland or once when I was a student with no money or job for the summer making a 400 mile ride over three days sleeping in the cut summer verges at the side of the road using the grass for insulation all powered by Mars bars and bananas! Julie has always hated bicycles with a s strong a passion as I love them and my two wheel life was sacrificed for us to be together. I still have bicycles in my life and they are being converted to support my new anatomy, there are four of them, five if you count the one which stays in place no matter how hard you pedal… 





Late last year a friend started muttering about her partner needing to spend some “quality time” with their sister who was building a new house in France between Poitiers and Limoges, deepest France where time has slowed to a snail’s pace. What she really meant was that our visit to the island where she had such great holidays in the past made her a bit jealous. How could she relive those holidays now that we both had partners who could not or would not ride a bicycle on an island where a car is a hinderance. Eventually I received an email saying that she had booked accommodation for a week in May, the partner’s sister had agreed to put up her sibling for a week and one other was already signed up for the island, was I interested in joining? Three girls in bikes for a week, that would take some thinking about, what an I saying? I replied with a yes and left the details to work themselves out…






France is a heck of a lot larger than you might think and a lot more mountainous between where I left Julie with her sister and where I was to first meet up with Imke who had driven down from Scotland to drop off her partner. I have driven a lot on French roads over the years but usually with a navigator who understands a fair bit if French, there was a little anxiety about how I might manage especially with the left hand toll booths.Early on the Friday morning I set off to enjoy the trip wending my way north on the older national routes now quiet with the building of faster toll motorways though some are actually free in this region since there is no real useable alternative… What a joyful trip it was through the southern vineyards with views south to the snow capped Pyrenees then after a picnic lunch setting the satnav to slow shortest route cross country through the hills drove through places nobody would ever go, eventually joining the shadow route to the new motorway which occasionally came into view crowded with traffic whilst I sailed on with hardly a car in sight for hour after hour. The last hour or so from before Limoges was not so much fun but overall a great drive, the kind few seem to enjoy these days and I arrived in time to park our vans like twins and redistribute the contents before our evening meal. Neither of us were going to take a bike but had intended to rent one on the island, how could I chose between my little collection? Well, we both packed our folding bikes! Thankfully packing the maximum into a minimum space is one of my specialties. I even left a small space to fit in the third member of our little group who would be arriving by train and bus directly from Germany but returning  with us then leaving from Limoges on tuesday after the trip..

Waking at an unnatural hour the next day we set off on country roads through sleepy villages before joining up with a major road to the island for the last half hour and missed any holiday weekend traffic to arrive at our accommodation, what the French call a “mobiloome” pronounced with a singsong accent. We were over four hours earlier than the first check in time but hoped that with luck and a womanly innocent smile we would be lucky and get in early, not only were we lucky but it was instantly obvious that nobody had ever slept in this one before!  
Everything was soon distributed round our new home from home, the fridge turned on and the bikes unfolded and ready for a test. A quiet ride through the salt marsh and along  the sea wall to the closest village seemed like a good first ride, it was a surprise to find that it was difficult to even get out on to the road at the front gates to the campsite because of the crowds of bikers, nobody would ever call them cyclists! After a few junctions things thinned out and we were on our way only to arrive at the village just as the rain started so we headed for the first of many cafes on this trip, parked the bikes in the lee of the church, I hate a damp saddle, and got seated on the covered terrace just as the rain started to fall like a waterfall from the canopy. Not packing rain gear for today's short trip was starting to look silly… A grand cafe creme soon warms up chilled hands… Those playing petanque under the trees in the village square before us did not give up until someone had won. Now that we knew things were working we could, as soon as the rain stopped, do the serious work of riding out to another village with more shops to stock up for the weekend. The van was parked and it would have to be a life threatening event before it would be switched on again before the end of the week…

Eight thirty was the expected arrival time of Lucy’s bus from La Rochelle and it arrived spot on time just ten minutes walk from where we were staying near the centre of the island. So started a week of sheer joy. We cycled back and forth over the whole island, it may have been constantly windy when out of shelter so it hardly felt like a flat island, Lucy was usually way out ahead on her rented bike with large wheels but both Imke and myself were happy to have taken our own bikes. Imke had got hers from a friend now too old o ride but had bought it as his last bike in exchange for all the bikes in his garage from his cycling life, it had a seven speed hub gear and with front suspension gave her a comfortable ride as well as making the previous owner overjoyed that his bike was getting a good holiday. My Dahon very small wheeled folder has good geometry if a bit lively, it was an age before I eventually noticed that it had become a six speed but then again when was I ever going to need that smallest cog in this wind? I had originally bought it because I was often finding myself parking far from where I had dropped off Julie only to find myself walking back to collect the car soon after I had finally got back to meet her! A magic disabled badge has solved that so it was not getting as much use as it should. We joked that we had no idea where the batteries were stored on Lucy’s bike, so many had hired electric bikes on the island it was surely why she was finding it so much easier than us with our smaller wheels on the rough surfaces, those who make cycle tracks clearly have never actually ridden on a bike...






Every day we were up at eight and often not back much before sometimes missing a swim in the pool which closed at eight. After evening meals we often walked the southern beach long into the moonlight, a few pages read and then slept like logs. My companions had a reputation for frugal living and have been known to have a holiday together “fasting” but this was the week that they chose to try the opposite way of life, I wondered if the mutual purse actually had a hole in it! I have never laughed so much in my life, often we were all in hysterics though if you ask me now I can’t remember what set them off. We may have visited a record number of shops and got to judge many outfits which Imke tried on, her partner hates shopping even more than Julie does… What did we do when not battling against the wind? We climbed a lighthouse, Lucy rode a donkey which was wearing culottes, visited a farm to see our goat’s cheese being made, bought lots of earrings mine rattled in the wind, bonded much closer with friends I have known for thirty years and we regularly got recognised by market traders who moved round the island day by day. Eventually we filled the van with our souvenirs including a box of very expensive potatoes.




I think it says that cyclists are potatoes...

If I had ever had any doubts that transition would work this trip has been something of an ultimate test which has been passed with flying colours. My friends appeared to have shrunk at least a couple of inches since they were not wearing their usual heels which made me appear even taller than usual but it simply was not an issue so I guess that they get a lot of Dutch girls on the island very summer! We often found ourselves laughing hysterically so well matched was our sense of humour. Occasionally that insides being crushed feeling swept through me when the though drifted into my mind that so much pleasure in life had passed me by...

After such a week of joy it was a poignant moment when we finally got back to meet up with Imke’s partner who is used to weeks apart due to her business but here was the realisation  in their eyes that they were no longer as able as they once were and could no longer do all the fun things “together” which they once did and never will again. Both were having to learn to give way to each other’s needs, Imke gets frustrated and needs to keep herself fit by being physical, Sadly I think a week was more than enough for the two siblings to have spent together!! Not sure that we can use that trick again...

With my bike and bags stowed in the van between showers and a light snack to keep me going it was an emotional parting for all of us as I set off at seven that evening as the skies cleared, credit card at the ready for the tolls and the hope for empty moonlit autoroute ahead, and that is just what I got as I swept over the roller coaster landscape to the South. Lucky I arrived when I did, my text to remind them to keep the door unlocked failed to get through and it was the one day that the “boy”decided not to stay out half the night, I arrived as the key was being turned in the lock at half past twelve!

Someone was glad to see me back, thank goodness. 

Did I mention that I have just had a trip to the Ile de Ré?





On the beach in full moonlight.


City bikes for hire, La Rochelle.

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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Cycling at snails pace...




We have been experiencing cool windy weather whilst staying here with Julie’s sister, trees are waving in the wind as a I tap away. This is the sort of temperature which suits Julie and the condition she lives with, energy vanishes in the heat. Everyone has been quietly reading for several days and I have just finished the only paper book which I brought with me, e readers are so much more convenient to pack and use on a trip.

“In Flanders Fields” if you know it might not seem the obvious choice for a holiday read but it fits in well for plans for later in the year. The book is a well written and regarded review of the western front near Ypres in 1917. Allies with different needs and desires and egos appearing to face a seemingly unbeatable enemy together. Regular lack of communication or outright duplicity meant that often one of the allies made which cost dearly for absolutely no gain even though everyone else looking on could see the hopelessness of the situation, sometimes they would give their opinion but it made no difference, better a disastrous mistake than to show lack of face…

As we know through yet another year of attrition a solution of sorts was found and a hundred years later we are still looking back in wonder at the sacrifices so many made in this war to end all wars.

So many similarities with the campaigns we all go through in our attempts to deal with our condition with or without the help of friends and family who we consider our allies. Often years of stalemate stuck in knee deep mud, sometimes a sudden breakthrough or a hard fought battle with seemingly hard won gains only to fall back to the trenches for another long wait…

My own battles have been fought, not without some pain and loss and I am now able to to enjoy the rewards of the peace whilst knowing that others are still engaged in the fight for their lives…

My own battle of Ypres relates to an exhibition my old self did in the mid 90’s on an artist exchange with Belgium and the new me is being asked to exhibit later this year alongside the work of a well admired painter, how could I refuse. It seems that at some point I have to talk about my work, in the past that would be on the calendar as something like “Black Monday” and I would be in fear of hearing my own voice speaking in public, the new me is quite looking forward to it! Just shows how finally being myself allows my personality to show at last and I am no longer embarrassed by having to put on a false performance for the benefit of others…

We have been out to a fairly new theatre complex to see a contemporary dance performance and I have just finished packing to go off on a cycling break with some friends. Not the best weather forecast but going anyway, I shall be away for a short while and leave Julie to have some quality time with her sister where they can say what they like about me... 

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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Why does pee smell funny?


Well this is different, I am sitting just outside the old chapel gallery where just three years ago many of my friends gathered for the opening of one of my exhibitions and I took advantage of the opportunity to set out for them what I was about to do…

We have been asked to watch over the gallery for the last hour today and it is anything but a hardship. The evening sun is still shining down the small gorge where the village is built into the steep rock walls and it snakes through never more than six houses wide, I see  every colour and shade of pan-tiled roof before me as I look out of the gorge to the lagoon which is between us and the popular spit of land with all the holiday development and my favourite beach. Naturally I rushed out without my camera!

We left home after handing the keys over to someone who will look after the house better than we do and the vegetable garden keys with a neighbour who is now going to share working it with me . As we moved south towards our first stop with one of my sisters near Oxford we passed slowly from winter with bare branches to finally in the last fifty miles fresh leaves and hawthorn blossoms, they said it was the first really spring like day. They had so far this year and though there was a record crop of dandelions everywhere the hoped for fresh asparagus which the area is famous for had jet to show a single spear… We have made up for it since we arrived here with a special asparagus pot for Julie’s sister, naturally our pee stinks!



After a few days catching up with my sister and a few friends with a couple of days digging up hundreds of the before mentioned dandelions we caught an overnight ferry to Caen and headed for the Loire valley to visit Chateau  Chinon overlooking it’s unspoilt town, more than you can say for most of the chateau smashed up in fights between the French and the English. From there it was only a short journey to stay a couple of nights with one of Julie’s distant cousins from a branch of the family who moved to Paris several generations back, they have been in contact since they were children. She now lives in Poitiers in a medieval House just a hundred yards from the cathedral, we parked in the stable… They spoilt us.





When we left for the south the country was celebrating their victory in the second world war, surely only Germany can do that! Every village on the way to Limoges had out the civic flags and there were gatherings round the war memorials for the obligatory speeches by the mayors. We were told that the roads would probably be empty, they were not, so many had taken the chance to add VE day to the religious holiday the day after and with a flexy friday with the weekend, voila a real holiday!


 

Spring is late here too and most of the asparagus is from Spain! The evening display of swifts swallowing mosquitos and swallows swiftly following them has just started. Shame that there are not more of them since they have bitten me a few times in the moments when the stronger than normal wind has briefly halted. They are sweeping past just feet in front of my lofty perch next to a lilac bush. The sun has left the gorge and the shadow is making it’s way up the opposite side from me, perfect timing to finish and go and find a nice restaurant meal then a wifi contact later.

This is hard but someone has to do it...