Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

Josie Dew is one of my favorite authors. If you don't know of her, you may suspect, based on my cycling obsession and my fondness for her books, that she writes about cycling - self supported cycle touring to be specific. Twenty-some years ago, she started taking off on long self-supported tours, first with a boyfriend, and later, once he proved too fragile, solo. She wrote a book about one of those early tours, and then soon after wrote another and another. After a while books just kept appearing after some extended bike tour in some exotic or not so exotic place. Her writing style is quite humorous and very much to my taste.

The kindness of strangers is a recurring theme in her books. Maybe because she was a female touring alone, with an enormous load, including the kitchen sink it seems, she would often have folks stop and give her things, like food, and Hello Kitty paraphernalia (that - mostly when when she was touring in Japan). Now no one has ever stopped us while we were touring to offer us Hello Kitty socks, or cans of soda, or asked us to come home and camp in their back garden. I suspect part of the reason Josie got more attention is that she was a female, traveling alone. And given the load she was already carrying, what's a little more! Oh and we've never toured in Japan, so maybe we would get the same treatment there and need to carry an empty pannier to hold all the gifts!

Sadly,  we missed the opportunity, when she happened to be touring in New Zealand while we were living there, to accost her and offer her accommodation or silly local keepsakes or cans of soda. I had failed to keep current on her blog and missed that she was nursing a knee injury in the central part of the south island during our last months there. I was saddened to read that she had similar impressions of the lack of cycle-friendliness that we had. It was a relief to hear of her similar experiences, but still a bit sad, all the same.

While we weren't able to host Josie Dew, I did manage during our time in Nelson to offer a few other bike tourists a place to stay. John used to accuse me of lurking about the tourist office looking for unsuspecting bike tourists to bring home. I was at times starved for non-NZ bike culture, but also just loved having guests. I do miss being in a place where we regularly encountered touring cyclists.

Dervla Murphy is another author who has written extensively about cycle-touring and travel and the kindness of strangers. Years ago, John gave me a copy of Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, her first book. It was published when I was 4 years old, and was about a time and place from which I am far removed and that I could only experience by reading about it. At the time I read the book, I may have judged her experiences too harshly, in the context of current times, and frankly a very different world. When I read the book though, I came away feeling that some of the folks who had taken her in and given her food, had sacrificed months worth of food in a single seating. There is a certain degree of politeness that says it is insulting not to accept offers of kindness, and my own experience with the Irish culture, says that no matter how politely you try to turn down an offer of tea and biscuits, eventually you will be forced to accept. Mrs. Doyle, from the Father Ted TV program, is alive and well, and her spirit lives in many of John's aunts.

Ah, but what does all this have to do with our tour in the Cevennes? Right, we are, after all, still blogging about that trip. We were experiencing an interesting (well I can almost objectively call it interesting after a few weeks of time has elapsed, and with some slight romanticizing of the conditions), yes, an interesting weather pattern, where every other day, and sometimes multiple times within a day, the weather would change dramatically. From the photos of the previous week, you can see days with brilliant blue skies and sunshine, alternating with days of heavy clouds or dreary grey skies. So after the brilliant sunshine on our ride through the gorges, we were due some clouds. The forecast, yes, I still wasted time checking the forecast, called for clouds and rain, with heavier rain possible later in the afternoon. Sadly, this prediction proved to be spot on. But naturally we were optimistic and didn't really believe it when we started the day.  At several points during the day, sucker holes (that is a bit of blue sky surrounded by clouds which entices you to believe it might clear, so you ride up another col, only to have it close down and then pour cold wet stuff on you at the worst possible moment), yes, sucker holes opened up and enticed us to climb another col, even though we should know better.

We started the day with clouds, dramatic, heavy dark grey clouds that provided amazing backdrops for many photos as we pedaled along the ridge road known as the Corniche des  Cevennes. At the top of the first big climb, we found ourselves deep within one of those clouds, feeling the dampness first hand, and as we were descending, the water from the clouds followed us down. OK, I'll say the word. It rained! But shortly after the rain started, it stopped, and when we reached the proverbial fork in the road, where life choices, or less dramatically in this case, touring choices, must be made; we decided to forego the short ride to the large town that would definitely have food and rooms, and instead headed up a tiny road to the Col D'Asclier, and aimed for a lovely small hotel in St. Martial, that we had taken note of the week before on our return journey from Mont Aiguoal. The climb was along a tiny, almost single lane, road with no traffic. John, as usual, tried his best to fill the memory card on the camera. I reached the top first, and put all my warm clothes on for the descent and wandered around the hiking trails, while taking some photos of my own. A short while later, John arrived and I showed him all I had found, including an amazing life like and life size bronze sculpture of a walker. When I first spied it from a distance I was sure that it was a walker, but after a while realized he was frozen in time and space.

But we dallied too long and a rain drop fell, and then another. We realized we needed to head down quickly. Then we discovered that the folks who drive the gravel trucks must be following our route planning on ridewithgps.com. This descent had also been freshly chip-sealed - although fortunately not as heavily or consistently as the previous day's chipped descent. A very short ways into the descent, the rain began to fall heavily. I really can't complain. It was our first proper rain of the trip. Compared to this rain, all our previous rain was just mist. This was real rain, and it was from high in the atmosphere, or at least from some rather cold place!

The next part, you've probably already guessed. We finally reached St. Martial, and found the hotel was ... closed. We took shelter in a covered area by the public toilet. There was so much water streaming down my face from the rain, that John can't be blamed for not realizing some of the water came from tears. I was also starting to shiver violently. I had on all my warm cycling gear and my rain jacket. He valiantly offered his winter softshell, as I'd left mine back at base. It helped, but we still weren't sure what to do. We pulled out the map to try and determine where the closest larger town with hotels might be, without having to climb back over the mountain we'd just descended.

Out of the mist, a small van pulled up. The other folks sheltering under the cover, ran out and bought bread from this mobile boulangerie, yes, a traveling baker. John ran out, and in his best French, asked about nearby hotels. If anyone would know, it would be a traveling baker. He was from the next town, and thought there might be something there, but wasn't sure. He then said that he had a big house and we were welcome to come stay with his family! He still had to finish his rounds, but would meet us at the bar in town in an hour, and take us to his house.

We graciously accepted. The descent continued, so we were still pretty chilly when we reached the town about 8km away. The bar was ... closed. Really, what else did we expect? It had at least stopped raining by that point. We rolled down another block and found a shop and another bar. A minute or so later, the baker's van pulled up. He offered to put our bikes in the back, since he lived a couple of km up a hill. We decided a climb would help us warm back up. The climb did indeed help warm us. When we arrived, I learned our good Samaritan was named Vincent, and his wife was Joelle. They showed us a nice room that belonged to one of their children who was no longer living at home. They let us take showers and get changed, and then invited us in for dinner.

Vincent offered us home-brewed beer, and it was the best beer ever. He then showed us his boulangerie and another room where a brother or sister would stay when they came to visit. This room was above the bread oven, so partially heated on the days he baked. Over the next few hours we had beer, bread - of course, butter, ham from a wild boar they had killed digging up their garden, walnut wine, stew made from the same wild boar, along with the vegetables from that garden, and potatoes from that garden, more wine, then cheese, and then some really strong after dinner drinks. I must say that the wild boar stew was truly amazing. Don't tell the folks in Florac, but it beat the wild boar baked in its own stomach by a mile. And it wasn't just hunger makes good sauce kind of delicious. It was really good. At some point, it became clear that I was still cold, and they built the first fire of the season. I did a fair amount of fire worship after that. Joelle lent me a couple of sweaters to help with my chill. All the while the conversation flowed from where we were all from and what we did, to the silk spinning operation that used to provide the local livelihood, to the making of the walnut wine, the hunting of wild boars, the language differences in the various regions of France, the beauty of the surrounding area, and the vacation spots where they have traveled, the chorus they sing with, and many other topics that faded in my mind due to alcohol consumption and the weeks since the dream or reality of this evening occurred.

The conversation was 95% French. John's schoolboy French classes served him well. My high school French has long ago deserted me. I can usually understand what John says when we tour in France or hang out with our Quebecois friends, since he speaks slowly and with a somewhat limited vocabulary, usually asking for rooms or ordering food. But this evening, he said so much more, and I was surprised how well I could keep up with what he said. Maybe it was that he used a bit of Franglais, sometimes saying the English word as he tried to remember the French word or to conjugate a verb correctly. Vincent and Joelle jumped in to help him with words here and there. I nodded and smiled. Vincent spoke a bit of English, actually quite a lot, and it was surprising to learn that he had not taken classes, but rather had learned his English from Pink Floyd. I dared not admit that I had learned my French from Lady Marmalade.  Of course, as that song was on the pop charts at the time, my high school French teacher had warned us not to use that phrase to try and get a hotel room in Paris! And it wasn't a phrase I was likely ever to use in its proper context either. On the other hand I was quite surprised just how much English Vincent had picked up on the Dark Side of the Moon. I was embarrassed by my poor language skills and vowed to do some real studying before we return. Fortunately John bravely kept up with the conversation, even as the wine flowed freely, making Vincent even more talkative while John's command of French was starting to ferment a bit!

As we enjoyed this feast though I thought back to Dervla Murphy and couldn't help but think that we might be eating their Christmas dinner, but that it would be impolite to turn it down.

With all the wine in our systems, we slept well. After coffee and bread, naturally, we departed to sunny skies. It was an experience I won't soon forget.  The Kindness of Strangers, indeed.

Another day to get back to base. Stay tuned...

1 comment:

  1. Lovely and thanks for the links! Jim Duncan