Me and my bicycle, Princess, got on a boat and headed towards the Northern coast of France. I was feeling tired after spending the night in a dodgy Brighton B&B, though I was excited for this new adventure. I had packed light, deciding only to take my one pannier sack and a small carrier containing patches and a spare inner tube. I had two changes of clothes and a tube of aloe vera gel. As the southern coast of Britain became obscured on the horizon, I bought myself a cheeseboard and a bottle of wine as I was headed towards Normandy so it seemed appropriate. Though in no time I felt as uncultured as a swine, eating parts of the cheese that one really ought not to.
Excitedly, I exited the boat, though by the time I reached passport control, I was beginning to realise just how inebriated I was, and I now had to navigate into Dieppe whilst remembering to stay on the right side of the road, the town became a blur of vibrant alley ways and decaying stone. It didn’t take long for me to give up and push princess to the beach to recuperate. Laying upon a bed of pebbles, dry mouthed and alone, I looked out to sea and thought about the journey ahead of me before retiring to a smoky room.
On awaking the following morning I began to realise how ill prepared I was. I had no map, no service on my phone, no knowledge of French highway code, and to top things off I don’t speak French. And so the plan was to head in the general direction of Paris and hope for the best. Cycling out of Dieppe was not unpleasant, my only struggle was getting used to everything being the other way around, the roundabouts proved difficult. Though, by the time I reached the town of Arques-La-Bataille I was beginning to become comfortable, here I found an entry point to the Avenue Verte path that supposedly runs all the way into Paris.
After having no breakfast I was ravenous. On unwrapping my sandwich, to my dismay I found it was not vegetarian and so I threw it to the birds. My hunger slowed me, every few miles I’d see a church spire peeking from above the trees, civilisation must mean food I thought, ‘Petit dejeuner, sil vous plait’ I’d say, to which they would reply a resounding ‘non’. ‘Merci’ I’d smile politely upon leaving, though more like mercy on my soul should I falter from this deprivation. Yes, my internal discourse is a drama queen who needs to pipe down. The saddest part is that in my attempt at practicing stoicism I was ready to breakdown and cry at just 15 miles in. Eventually, I happened upon a small cafe, my luck was in as the proprietor was a fellow veggie. She made me a delicious avocado baguette, and kindly gave me her number should I encounter any trouble on the road. This gesture meant more to me than she may know, though unfortunately my phone was absolutely of no use here. With renewed energy I pushed forwards, although I realised I’d not seen one other cyclist yet, contrary to what I had expected from this path.
At 40 miles into the ride I was in immense pain, I’d not cycled a long distance in months and was having issues with my back and my right leg. After leaving the town of Forges-Les-Eaux, lost, I deviated from the pathway and used the roads, they weren’t too busy thankfully, though the ride was starting to become very hilly and this only exacerbated my discomfort. French drivers seem more courteous towards cyclists in general, some beeping and cheering for me as I lay on the roadside, sweating and exhausted, praying for sweet relief. It seems apt to say be careful what you wish for, because at this point, the heavens would open, forcing me to pedal onwards with haste. On arriving to the town of Gournay-En-Bray, The rain had soaked right through to my aching body, Shivering I climbed to my B&B room and collapsed onto my bed.
I would not make the same mistake as yesterday, since I’d realised how difficult it is to find vegetarian food in rural France. After breakfast, I packed a bunch of bananas into my sack along with some biscuits for the road. I’d managed to connect to WiFi the night before and revise the route I’d be taking, I was worried my right leg may fail me and so I made a conscious effort to pedal with my left, this helped ease my back pain too. The hilly terrain continued, an ominous blanket of mist shrouded the mountains yonder, leaving me only to ponder nervously at what lay ahead.
The route was pleasant regardless of a cruel head wind which slowed me, though the weather had brightened up somewhat. I started to gain speed eventually as the day became stiller, and I even found a shop that sold deodorant on the way. (Hallelujah!) For some reason I’d thought aloe vera gel alone would suffice as a body wash, chafing cream, toothpaste, moisturizer, after sun and deodorant, it did not. In Gisors I happened upon a brilliant chateau which towered over the small town, also a castle which made me feel right at home. (Castles are abundant in Wales.) As I sat upon the warm cobblestones, I could hear the sounds of a distant choir, a sweet noise that seemed to call me, I found a seat in the church, and though I had no idea what they were talking about, a calmness pervaded, a calmness I could fully appreciate even as a non-believer. Though I did not need a sanctuary to know God was with me, I felt that divine presence with every rotation of my pedals. I started to study some vedic scripture on the road and so the journey served as a great period of reflection. Later on that day, A waiter kindly gave me use of his WiFi so we could have a conversation through google translate, which went surprisingly well, considering.
I found it difficult trying to find my way out of Gisors, I had no clue where I was going and the route was entirely on roads that weaved through the countryside like electric wires. My lack of a map at hand frustrated me, but planning ahead is boring and that’s not how I roll, literally. Every sign towards Cergy-Pointoise seemed to take me onto a motorway. Eventually I decided to just wait on the side of the road, read my book and ask God to send me a sign instead. Some time later, a Man on a bike found me, though he did not speak English he was kind enough to escort me in the right direction, he left me at the most exhilarating decline I’d experienced on the route yet. It was an amazing feeling, to glide so freely through the midday heat.
After getting lost for some hours, I finally found my way to Cergy. It was evening time now but the sun was still high in the sky. I came across a breathtaking view of Paris in the very distance, and suddenly it dawned on me the immensity of the journey I had taken. What I could see I now know to be the district of La Defense. Cergy itself seemed a bit of a labyrinth, and I found myself pretty lost here, at one point I ended up having a dispute with some drunken Men under a bridge, one of whom put his hands on me. Thankfully a kind stranger stepped in and told them off, not only did he speak English and French, but also Afrikaans fluently. We walked together for some time, exchanging stories of our travels. He went off to work and left me feeling so blessed for our fleeting friendship.
I hadn’t rested well, all of this exertion was taking its toll on my body, and in the hotel I’d stayed at, the fire alarms had been set off at 3am, which made me feel very anxious through the night. Regardless, I was almost there and this excited me beyond belief. The road had gotten a little bit lonely though, I hadn’t imagined that in a neighbour country I could feel so lost in translation, I had been arrogant to assume more people would speak English. I had no idea how to get back onto the bike paths, so I mostly took roads, the distant sky scrapers acting as a waymark. This took me through some places that gave me an interesting glimpse of urban Parisian life.
I followed the signposts towards Argenteuil. This meant navigating through quiet forests, industrial areas, and along train tracks. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this, there were some very secluded parts of the route, though I had been blessed with another blue skied day, comforted by a gentle breeze, and in observing the nectar-feasting butterflies that danced about in the flowering of Spring. It was hard to believe that I was about to enter into one of the biggest cities in the world. I arrived into La Defense a lot quicker than expected, since I’d been able to see it so distantly from Cergy the night before, I had expected it to take longer. This was probably due to the busy route I’d opted for, but unfortunately this meant that I’d likely missed out on some pretty seine side towns. Nonetheless, I was ecstatic at this point. The Eiffel tower on the horizon, still distant, acted as my final waymark now.
Rushing through the cobbled streets, each bump rattled the spine. I dodged through the erratic drivers who showed little regard for my safety and their own, there was no time for road rage in my elation however. These streets I’d walked before, many years ago, nothing had changed though I’d flown here back then, never did I expect to arrive by bicycle. And then finally there she was, stark and triumphant, possibly the most famous landmark in the world. Beneath my sunglasses I teared up, overwhelmed with emotion, this journey meant so much to me, much more than I can convey through a blog. I curled up under a tree near the foot of the tower, smiling to myself, sore bodied, feeling accomplished. Then suddenly, splat!
My welcome to Paris came in the form of a huge dropping of bird excrement, never had I seen so much poop, my clothes were sodden. My elation quickly turned to embarrassment as a group of onlookers watched me attempt to remove the waste with a crisp packet. I found a spot beneath the tower away from those that had seen me getting pooped on, and told my story to a group of American tourists, who of course thought it was hilarious.
I decided I’d spend another day in Paris, just to enjoy the city. Though I had a blissful lay in that morning. I did a little bit of shopping, not too much as of course I’d have to be able to carry it all back home, I settled for a new outfit and some eyeliner. I then decided to aimlessly cycle about the place, passing by tourist sites, such as the Notre dam cathedral and the Lourve. These places were great for me as a non French speaker, as there were plenty of British/American/English speaking tourists I could strike up a conversation with, which made me feel less lonely. I enjoyed the company of French hipster cyclists, with their rolled cigarettes and their ankle exposing chinos, this was becoming my favourite part of Parisian culture, something I wanted to explore more though unfortunately, I was hit by a van later that day, I was okay but struggled to cycle after that, so it was bye bye hipsters and hello angry commuters. I struggled to get Princess onto a Paris Metro train. It was very busy, we were squished into the carriage like sardines, people becoming increasingly annoyed at me for taking up so much room.
I spent some time in my hotel to rest my leg and to check Princess had not sustained any damage, thankfully she had not. I dressed myself in my new outfit and hopped back on the subway without Princess to Montmatre. I fell in love with the place years ago, it had inspired me creatively, people selling art in the streets, worthless trinkets, etc. However upon arriving, I was shocked to see a group of street vendors fleeing from the police, who were heavily armed, they walked the streets in a show of dominance, assault rifles in hand, what appeared to me as a symbol of great oppression, though many would disagree. Montmatre no longer felt like a vibrant and whimsical oasis above the city, but instead it was choking on tyranny. And this saddened me, deeply.
In an attempt to anaesthetise myself as I was still impaired from the pain of being hit to the pavement earlier, I bought some wine and drank with a group of American tourists. Afterwards, I headed to the sun soaked steps of the Sacré-Cœur to look out at the city sinking into evening twilight. People performed, passed about instruments, I played some guitar. It was a truly special evening spent surrounded by beautiful people. I didn’t want to say au revoir to Paris, though a girl has got to work, so I planned to get the boat back to the UK the following day.
Not to be down though, after all, it’s about the journey not the destination. And this journey had been for me such a time of profound reflection. Beyond external observation, I found my most inner perceptions challenged. The people I’d met along the way, the physical act of propelling myself to unknown places using my energy, learning to balance that energy, a trust in my own intuition, a trust in God. Cycling can contribute to a transcendence of the spirit in my opinion. This really leaves room for only one question. When is the next adventure!?
All the best, Kerri