I believe strongly that there are only two types of people in the world, as defined by how you spent your junior high summers: sports camp people and band camp people. Sports camp people are wholesome, athletic, coordinated and a little mainstream. Band camp people are smart, creative, original and a little kinky. I like sports camp people, but I’m clearly a band camp person. Sports camp and band camp can get along fine when school starts up, but during the summer you can’t be in two places at once. You have to choose.
Or do you? I had known of some people who were rare breeds, able to play in both worlds: Bi-camp-uals. They could catch a ball but also cut a rug. They could jog in the morning and practice clarinet in the afternoon. They could wear Abercrombie & Fitch in Gramercy by day, yet do drag with the best of them in Greenwich Village at night. I had met a few of these rare individuals, most of them French Canadians.
I wanted to be that kind of person. A solo biking trip in France sounded like just the thing to get me there, but getting ready for the trip made me ornery and made me miss my clarinet. It was a rotten idea on so many levels. I was sporting a bunch of old war injuries and new psychological tics. Left wrist hurts. Left knee clicks. Need two showers a day to feel clean. Can’t sleep with the door open. Don’t really like French people. The equipment is expensive and I hadn’t finished my second draft yet. I was not in shape and had no intention of training beforehand. Plus I would be lonely. I like my alone time but 30 days is a bit much. Bottom line, I was scared shitless. There’s a reason why band camp people don’t sign up for the track team. It’s called fear of humiliation, physical pain and ultimate failure.
Excuses, excuses! I was here in France, so time to carpe diem (plus I’d already bought a bike and told everyone I was going)! I did one week of obsessive prep, yet it was all strangely incomplete. I had a device to help me pee standing up if I had to, but no idea how I would ship my bike home. I had a swim cap, but no waterproofing for my bike bags. I had sent my suitcase ahead to Paris, but hadn’t figured out how to get to the start of the ride yet. I had the bike trip planned out to the day on a spreadsheet, but hadn’t tried the bike out yet with everything packed on it. Half of me was going on this trip, and half of me wasn’t. I just hoped the half of me that decided to show up included my quads and glutes.
Day 1: Easy Peasy
The stubborn side won out. I packed an improbable amount of shit on my bike, and took the train from Montpellier to Sete to start the ride.
First day started slow, biked 23km along the beach from Sete to Marsellian Plage into a strong headwind but on a nice paved road. My knees were fine once I geared down. Set up my iPhone speakers in my handlebar bag and it was awesome to bike along the beach listening to the Glee soundtrack, except that while rocking out I lost my bike gloves. I tasted the Mediterranean (guess what? it’s salty) and I will do the same on the other side now when I reach the Atlantic.
Camping was awesome. Hot showers and WiFi. Everything felt good. Exercise high. What was I worried about? This was going to be a piece of cake!
Day 2: It’s Getting Kinda Hectic
Starting to understand what the words in my French guidebook really meant now. “Dirt road” really translates into “mountain bike trail”. But it was nice to finally reach the Canal du Midi. I will be following this canal trail from the Mediterranean where it starts, across Southwest France to the Atlantic where it lets out.
It starts in a town called Agde. I got lost there and ended up back at the beach, but that was cool because I got to see right where the canal actually starts. Also met charming drunks and other bike tourers there.
Then I biked 30k along a narrow dirt trail to my final destination for the night. My ass thanked me when I got off the bike for the last time that day. Stayed in a cute town that night, old world charming and with another great campsite.
The French language held up aight. At dinner I thought I had ordered seafood at the seafood restaurant, but got steak instead. But I learned the words for well done and rare. I had wondered why the waitress had asked me if I wanted rare fish. Oh well. Whole day still went into the win column.
Day 3: The Empire Strikes Back
Woke up with my left hand killing me, so decided to go 5k off trail up to the bigger city of Beziers to get new bike gloves at the bike shop. Guidebook was an absolute mess and full of lies about this part (or I just can’t read French well). Had to cycle by highway and uphill out to the suburbs, then it took me 30 minutes to figure out how to turn around in the heavily trafficked circle. Then, I could not find the entrance way to back to the canal bike path, and had to carry my bike up two flights of steps. I fell and was stared at, but luckily the kids who stared at me then helped me carry my bike the rest of the way up. However I think they stole my water bottle, and they definitely yelled out “nice ass” as I peddled away. All told, got to Beziers at 8:30AM and got out finally at 1:30PM, much worse for wear.
Only got 26k down the road out of the planned 48k, mostly due to psychological distress. Also I was now starving. For lunch I ate a whole box of cereal bars, a croissant, two apricots, a banana, a large ham sandwich, and was still pretty hungry.
But the canal was beautiful! It feels like there is no civilization around, just beautiful farmlands and french hicks partying their drunk asses off on their little boats.
Day Four: F*cking Perfect
Wrist fine today but now lightheaded and knee pain has switched from left to right side. Doubled up on the iron pills and biked another 30k. Feeling it now in my lungs so gave myself a treat and stayed indoors, in a very cute ancient tower made into a guest house, from the 16th century.
Also, a dog tried to be my friend and sat by me at lunch today. She stared me down and intimidated me into dropping half my saucisson which she ate with a very happy tail wag. It was a 12 year old girl black Labrador, and you know how intimidating those kind of dogs can be.
Day Five: The Wall
Psychologically I was feeling great but physically I was hitting a wall. This was supposed to be a rest day and a short 5k bike ride out to the next campground, however I got lost again on the way there. Luckily, a nice guy and fellow bike tourer helped me out. Between my iPhone and old school useless paper map, his Garmond GPS and his Blackberry, we figured out where the town was. I don’t know how people managed to do this sort of thing before technology!
When I got to the campground it was RVs with built-up porches looking like they had been there a long time; less camp site and more trailer park. The vibe was weird and Deliverance-y: no one said hi, no one was home at check in, no nearby stores were open. I had no food or water left but still was creeped out enough to try biking to the next town. It had been a lot of aimless wondering today and no mileage progress or rest. I was walking up short little hills, totally wiped out.
The day was redeemed when I hit Le Somail. Le Somail is a quaint little canal port town, and it was the jump off. So this is where everyone was today. This town was a little too swank to sport a campsite, so I stayed at the cheapest hotel I could find. It lacked the previous nights’ charms but had great hosts who kind of adopted me, a retired couple from Belgium who would talk to me back and forth in English and French.
I slept through the afternoon and through dinner. When I got up, the hosts of my guest house surprised me with pizza and wine and so I sat with them and we talked in French for an hour or two, and ate great freaking $5 pizza. They told me about their area and I told them about my home town NYC which they had not yet visited. We argued about where the best pizza would be found, here or there. It was was all very gentile.
There was also an older gentleman there who seemed really interested in New York and was just learning English. Unlike my hosts who where Belgian, he was local to the area and had lived here and worked the same vineyard as his father and grandfather and great grandfather. Salt of the earth at one point, but now gentleman farmer. We drank his wine as he explained that all the grapes are picked by machine now, but they still have the September harvest party. Then they all joked openly about wife swapping, and teased me about the DSK disaster (which they said was the French equivalent of 9/11, and I think they were serious. That’s how much people dislike Sarkozy here). I was glad I could get the jokes in French.
Then the host wife took me into town to get cash. We talked about her son, who is 22 and getting his masters in French and Spanish and will become a teacher. She asked me if I was traveling alone and I said yes. She asked me if I was married and I said no. I was starting to get nervous on where this was going. She asked if I wanted to get married and I said yes, eventually. Then she wanted to know if I would be interested in her son and I laughed and told her how old I was. We spoke in English and that was a nice break.
Day 6: Settling Down
The next day I woke up to go downstairs and eat breakfast, and the host husband graciously served me breakfast (which in France is just bread and water, btw). We exchanged small talk. He and his wife (who despite her age had a great rack and wasn’t afraid to show it off in low cut blouses) were off to a nudist colony for the day and did I want to join? I politely declined.
Then he sat down across from me and said he wanted to explain something to me in English, and asked in advance that I not get offended. Uhoh. He said his friend from last night was a good man, he had known him for ten years and he was 52 and never married. I was starting to get nervous about where this was going. My host explained further that his friend was looking for a wife because he still wanted to have a child, and he was a rich man and when he died he didn’t want all his money going to Sarkozy. Also he was not just looking for sex. So was I interested?
At this point I started to blush a lot and tried to giggle it off and say no he was a nice man but I wasn’t interested. But if I could have just averaged the two men on offer (a 37 year old with a Masters, half a vineyard and an E.U. passport, who was only interested in sex half the time), it would have been a go!
So that’s Gaul. It’s the opposite of the subcontinent, where all the marriage proposals went to Cody, my male travel buddy.
Right then I decided that this day would be a real rest day. I would stay in town and do absolutely no biking, and avoid additional proposals for the day. I needed to get some writing done, so I was sneaking back into band camp for a spell.
Insert Pithy Life Lesson Learned Here
As Freud sorta said, sometimes a trip is just a trip (and boy did he trip, alot). I guess the big lesson of week one is that some of my fears came true and some didn’t, but we already knew that about all fun & risky things in life. So far I’ve gotten minor injuries, was lightheaded as per usual, got a little robbed maybe, got a little flirted with and some softcore marriage proposals, ate a lot of seafood but not as much as I thought I had ordered, fell twice, was helped alot, was tired and sore, got lost every day, had to stop traffic to rescue my fallen laptop Eddie-Murphy-Coming-To-America style, spent more money than I wanted to and took about a hundred photos.
But despite or because of all that, being all Sporty Spice is pretty fun. The actual feeling of rolling along on a bike is meditative, a little strenuous, and makes you concentrate too (to avoid the tree trunks and rocks). A true flow experience. People have been really nice to me too, giving me the right of way on narrow passages, holding open doors so I can bring my bike inside, and I met some fellow bikers who helped me decrease the suspension on my fork so my pedaling is more efficient (at least that is what they said they did—I don’t understand what those words mean). I’m enjoying some jock privileges!
So maybe I’m possibly inching closer to becoming an honorary Bi-camp-ual? My daily mileage is pretty weak and I’m still traveling with 2 pounds of skin care products, but I definitely feel a little bit tougher. I think. Maybe not so much “tough” as “sore”. Well, at least it’s nice to admire the enormous calf muscles of all the true sports campers out here leaving me in the dust, knowing just how challenging it is on their side of Lake Titticaca.