Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Second email

Hello all,

At last I have managed to finish my second communal email – with which I send my apologies for the delay. It felt that every time I sat down to write, my creativity stood up and left. Although I am keeping a diary, it is not so detailed and most of the inspiration and ideas I put in the email come to me whilst I am cycling. I am forever stopping to scribble down a phrase or a few words on scrap pieces of paper which I then try to work into a wee story.

The last email found me in Fecamp, where I was able to rest myself and repair my bike. For many miles the bike had developed a constant creaking sound which increased as you cranked up the speed. After tightening everything that could be tightened and other things that probably shouldn’t have been I decided to seek out a second opinion. I wandered into the local Intersport bike shop and pointed to my pedal whilst making lots of creaking noises. The guy looked at me with a wee smile on his face and said “what’s the problem mate?” Gary from London very kindly replaced my pedals, repaired the pannier rack then tossed me a few tubes and a cycling top saying it was his contribution to the trip.

Before leaving Fecamp I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to be able to face my fear of heights by trying tree walking. Although I am glad that I did, this was not an enjoyable experience. My brother Steve and his friend Francois were very patient and respectful, choosing to hide their hilarity at my expletive strewn performance as my leaden legs refused to move at the same pace as my mouth.

Although the previous weekend had consisted of good company, cuisine and cognac, sleep had been at a premium and the first few days back on the bike I was a little leg weary and tired and had quite a few protein pit stops to refuel with porridge and prunes. I was simply flat. However, the road was anything but with the constant crisscrossing of toll roads eventually taking its toll. The view was beautiful which is just as well because the speed was sedentary. I passed a sign for St Vigour thinking, yes please, but it was no use so I stopped for a wee seat and siesta against a tree. My pedals then plodded onto Brecy where I found a nice quiet campsite, read my book, watched the sunset and had a wee dram from my half empty half bottle of whiskey!

The next day I slept so late that I decided to have brunch at Brecy. Without realizing it, I had ordered the standard lunch menu and a plate appeared with more meat on it than at an abattoir. After a wee tète-à-tète with the waitress it was replaced with a sumptuous salad, a big basket of bread and two men who had decided to take up the spare seats at my table. They also decided to take up the spare bread in my basket – well, obviously it must be for sharing? When the same thing happened with my wine, I thought, some things are not for sharing! I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was but when their large plate of cheese and bread arrived I helped myself to that – it seemed like a free for all and I had no idea how they worked out the bill but for once I didn’t care, this was great fun! Looking for the loo I found the toilet cowering in a wee cupboard at the top of some narrow stairs. As I entered I bashed my head with the result that I almost passed out whilst passing water. Searching for the sink to wash my hands I bumped into a bowl so small you had to wash each finger individually. Dizzy with wine and my wound I wobbled back down the stairs, paid the bill and pedaled off. I still have no idea how much it was!

Next it was on to Le Mont St Michel, an ancient abbey perched on top of a rock which also houses a monastic community which provides a permanent spiritual presence. However, the entrance which consists of houses, shops and restaurants (which offer a different kind of spirit) was jam packed with Japanese, crammed with Koreans and bursting at the seams with British schools kids. As beautiful as it was I made a sharp exit to a few km’s along the road where I spotted a crepery. I gobbled a goat’s cheese galette with rocket salad and washed it down with a bottle of Breton cider served in a clay pot.

St Malo was the next port of call where I moored for a rest day spending it walking along the wall which surrounded the town. Again though, it was brimming with Brits ferried across from Jersey who after having bought cheap booze on the boat plied themselves with expensive pints in the pub.

A few days later and almost two hundred miles further south I found a deserted fully functional municipal campsite in St Urbain, which lived up to its name by being so courteous that no one wanted to take my payment.

As I was leaving another campsite in Les Sables D’Olonne I borrowed the proprietor’s foot pump and promptly broke it. The pressure I needed in my tyres was just too much for his primitive pump. He said he left a high powered job to run a campsite because he couldn’t stand the pressure – his pump nodded knowingly.

The next day in St Vincent I cycled for what seemed like ages to find the beach. At 33° in the shade it was hot as hell and I just wanted to find a quiet spot and make my sandwiches. I eventually sheltered behind a shed which was the only piece of shade on the beach. I met a lovely group of Germans who invited me back to their place for a barbeque. I stayed the night and after boiling all day I thought it fitting that I ended up barracked in their boiler room!

Heading for Ile de Re I passed through a wee village which was a maze of narrow one way streets which went round and round – I could not find my way out! I eventually asked a group of kids for directions. A fifteen year old lad shouted, ”Follow” and shot off on his bike with his testosterone powered toes. I struggled to keep up as my panniers began to panic as they were bounced, bashed and bumped all over the place as we clattered through the cobbled chicane like lanes. We came to an incline and he whizzed up it like a whippet. I followed doggedly trying in vain to keep on his tail but it was hopeless. After he had become a speck in the distance he eventually stopped and looked around to find me peching and panting as I pulled my panniers up the hill. To prevent him from powering off again I presented him with a chunk of chocolate then chatted for ten minutes. I love these simple interactions. On this trip I am not so interested in seeing things but quite content just passing the time of day with people.

I cycled over the bridge to Ile de Re, a beautiful island which has been taken over by bikes, trikes and tandems with trailers and turned into a massive cycle path with more lanes than the M25. I checked out some campsites but did not check in as they were too expensive. I stumbled upon a municipal one which was half the price, twice as quiet and with three times as much space. It was basic but more than adequate. I tied my bike to a tree, pitched my tent and got directions from a German couple as to where I could find food. After a late shower at midnight the same couple invited me to their caravan for a can of beer. They had been coming to the same campsite for fourteen years. Before I realized it I blurted out “fourteen!” in a surprised tone. The German lady said, “Yes, isn’t it boring!” For once, I didn’t say a thing. Strangely enough though I wasn’t offered another beer!

With five days to fill in until I was due to meet my brother, Steve at Bordeaux airport my pedaling was pedestrian as I basked under the sun in the broad beaches south of Le Verdon. I cycled through over one hundred miles of fine forests which skirted the coast, occasionally stopping to saturate myself in the silence. I slowed down as I passed numerous naturist campsites, standing on my pedals as I did so, curiosity getting the better of me but the fencing was full proof! I was tempted to book in for a night just for the experience thinking it would also have been an ideal opportunity to catch up with my washing but eventually I decided to continue with the conventional camping. After seventy slow sweaty miles I arrived in Maubuisson. It was late and dark so when I spotted a man at the post box I enquired if there was a campsite. I followed Regis to the one he was staying on with his family. He asked me to join them for a coke after I had put up my tent but before I had the time to tie up my bike he had returned requesting that I stay in his caravan, whilst at the same time apologizing that the bed was very narrow. His wife Mandy scrambled up some egg and mushroom and we sat till after 2.30 am discussing religion and yoga. They were both devout Christians and as my knowledge of the Bible is basic there was a lot of listening on my part but I didn’t mind as the delivery was not dogmatic and it certainly supplemented the Sunday school classes I attended as a kid – from which I still have my leather bound Bible for perfect attendance!

Before reaching Bordeaux I had the privilege of staying in my most expensive campsite to date – twenty four euro’s (£20) and that was with a 10% discount after pleading poverty! This site at Claouey had more stars than the galaxy but unfortunately it didn’t include the female whose voice was booming from the nearby bar - to be fair to her though, she was competing with the din from the disco next door. The site was so large that I couldn’t even find my spot so I just pitched my tent on one with a good view, which wasn’t that easy as the place had everything – open air cinema, shops, pool, lake, tennis, bowls, bikes for rent, barbeque area and more security guards than the Bank of England. Considering the prices they charged they were probably wealthier – they even wanted two euro’s for a wee space in a large communal fridge!

The campsites I have stayed in have ranged from the grand to the gross and invariably the finer ones are to be found slightly away from the coast. In France many campsites require that before you shower you have to buy a ‘jeton’ - a token which allows you anything from three to seven minutes under the water. This is alright for a baldy like me but not for the lassies with long hair. The word ‘jeton’, is a bit of a misnomer implying that the shower will blow you off your feet, the reality being it barely reaches your feet and you have to run about to get wet. Additionally, you have to continually push a button for the water to flow – one shower it was every one and a half seconds! I find now that most of my yoga is done in the shower as I twist and contort my body to either connect with the water, push my backside against the button or bend down to pick up my dove soap, which amidst all the confusion has managed to get itself into a lather without yet actually producing any! A real treat is a shower with adjustable height and heat and which is constantly open and on! As the summer slips on the ground in most campsites is as hard as a hammer, which is really what I need to push my pegs in. The grass has become as sharp as a Mensa member and is usually littered with more ants than in an Italian family. One of my best campsites has been in Girona, in northern Spain. It had a great view of the Pyrenees, a pool, a perfect price and piped classical music whilst having a pee!

The 4th July is the American Day of Independence. However, it is also the day that I lost some of mine, as I met my brother at Bordeaux airport to spend nine days cycling across France from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean via the Canal Garonne and Canal Du Midi. I was very much looking forward to our trip but after spending almost two months cycling on my own it did take me a few days to recalibrate for company and to get used to the fact that someone else’s opinion and suggestions could be valid after all! Although I am very gregarious, my previous health problems have meant I have spent a lot of time by myself with the result that I am completely content with my own company - the downside being that I am probably not the easiest person to stay with, as some ex partners would gladly testify to!

Our holiday almost started with a bang. Just as Steve was reassembling his bike, the airport was evacuated due to a bomb scare. We had to hang about to retrieve a part of the bike which had been left behind when we were turfed out of the terminal. So it was a little later than planned that we ate at a wee bistro in the centre of Bordeaux. We then cycled late into the night to find the starting point of the cycle path which fortunately also provided us with a nearby field to flop out in!

The cycle paths along the canals consisted of a mixture of hard pressed gravel, concrete, tarmac and some terrible parts which were really only suitable for mountain bikes. Steve was fine with his suspension sprung speedster but I had to nurse my bike around some bold boulders, rough it with rampant roots and career over dry paths with cracks like canyons. I was not always successful with my navigation and occasionally I came to an abrupt halt but even with my front tyre as naked as a new born bairn the bike and wheels survived - thanks, Andy!

On Steve’s budget it was red from the restaurant, on mine it was pasta from my pans at canal side. The first four night’s accommodation came to a total of 17 euro’s (£14) which included a field, a campsite with no one pressing for payment and two 2 star campsites – I guess for two Scots on holiday this is as good as it gets. The French say that the Scottish keep the thistle in their pocket so that when it comes to paying for something the hand is barely able to reach the money!

By mid week we had reached mid way and completed the Canal Garonne. To celebrate Steve treated me to a long lazy lunch in Toulouse. We sat in a restaurant taking our time and taking in the tourists which for some strange reason included a large number of pregnant women! Mind you, after our fabulous feast we were looking much the same.

The next day we headed for Carcassonne coming off the canal to cycle up into the hills to Labastide Esperbairnenque where we had been offered a bed for the night. Hope, a student at St Andrews University had read about my trip on the net and had kindly offered her parents house as a staging post. Her directions were perfect apart from stating the distance as 13 km's when in fact it was 13 miles. After the flatness of the canals the steady slope seemed mountainous and although we had not even found Hope, as the miles mushroomed, we were slowly losing hope as we continued to climb! Hope and her parents, Rosie and Ken were great company and the evening meal consisted of three courses crowned with convivial conversation. The following morning brought a big breakfast which was followed by a lift to the local lake where we cooled off with a casual swim. Just after midday when we were all packed up and ready to go Rosie had been busy packing too - a lovely lunch for us to eat at canal side! We left nourished and nurtured as we free wheeled all the way back to Carcassonne in a third of the time it took us come up.

We had everything in our week. Almost a falling in (the water), a falling off (the bike) and a falling out! On the whole though, having company wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be and after four hundred and fifty miles of brotherly bonding, we cycled into Sete to toast our triumph both well pleased with our performance.

In Sete we were met by Steve's sister in law, Jocelyn, who is in the process of moving house from Montpelier to Puylaurens about 250 km's west. I had intended cycling south to Barcelona but instead spent a wonderful weekend in Jocelyn's new home meeting her husband, Michel and her family. I spent the time chopping down trees and bushes including ones that should have stayed up - the fruits of my labour resulting in less fruit for them! Their new house is called 'Miramont', meaning 'mountain view' - which it certainly has and with its panoramic positioning on top of a hill, whether you are looking left, right or centre it has more views than a political debate! On the Monday I met up again with Steve and his wife Claire, who had rented a nearby cottage and we all attended the Bastille Day firework display in Carcassonne. I was then dropped off at one in the morning to continue my journey back down the coast. I cycled for six miles then crashed out in a campsite without even erecting my tent!

I have been through more tunnels than a train and done as much work on bridges as a Dentist. One tunnel just over the Spanish border had air conditioning, very considerate for the cyclists thought I but probably more likely for fanning the fumes. Further on, ladies of the night who had obviously moved to day shift sat on stools at the roadside. As I cycled past they crossed their legs in a Sharon stone like fashion in Basic Instinct, making sure that I saw the goods for sale. In fifteen years of practising yoga, I had never previously managed to turn my head 180 degrees - returning my face to the tarmac just in time to prevent me from veering into the verge! Due to my riding position my left wrist had been giving me a little pain and only wanted to stay in one position, which is normally an affliction predominant with pubescent youths but this was not the time to stop and have a look!

I then cycled the couple of hundred miles down to Santa Maria de Palautordera which is thirty five miles North West of Barcelona to attend a Vipassana Meditation Course – a twelve day retreat which gives you a great grounding in the Vipassana technique. Whilst not trying to explain the technique here, a wee flavour follows.

Initially, during the meditation there were people burping, belching, farting, fidgeting, snorting, sneezing and adjusting limbs but as the week progressed things settled down to a serenity and silence which was almost tangible. For the duration of the course there was a policy of ‘Noble Silence’, which not only included no talking but also involved no eye contact or gesticulations – this suited me fine, as after over six weeks in France with my lack of language skills, I was completely gesticulated out!

A few days into the course you were encouraged to sit for three separate hours each day and apply ‘Strong Determination’, where you were not meant to move even an eyelid. As the sixty minutes moved in a snail like fashion muscles began to moan, tendons started tweaking whilst ligaments longed for locomotion. With a little mantra (which was not allowed) you could ease the pain with a few well chosen phrases such as marvellous muscles, terrific tendons and lovely ligaments which helped to prevent the pulsating pain from puncturing your defence mechanism - your mind! Simply put, the whole idea of the course is to come out of the constant cycle of aversion and craving to bad and good sensations and to follow the middle road of non attachment – you are trying to train the mind to gain awareness of sensations and not to always act instantaneously to each one, whether internally or externally! You are trying to break the stimulus response action. I was given heaps of opportunities to practice!

The Spaniard sharing my bunk bed kept insects at bay by applying lashings of liquid administered whilst on the top bunk, making me feel as if I was in a bay as my bed rocked violently back and forth. The rocking only subsided once he and his pyjamas had clambered under his sheet, duvet and blanket. Meanwhile, although completely naked under a wafer thin sheet, I sweated like a Geordie in a math’s exam! In the morning the rocking resumed as he perfected his bed making skills to produce a surface as smooth as the baize of a snooker table, all the time trapping me in my bunk – just as well I was not allowed to speak!

After eating your food you had to give your dishes a wee rinse and lay them to the side as they were to be put in a dishwasher. Some students scrubbed the dishes as if they had been sitting for a week, with the result that I often felt I had been standing for a week awaiting my turn. My only motivation was to get back to bed in order to lie completely flat as quickly as possible. After sitting for twelve hours each day my need to have my plates gleaming had lost a bit of gloss.

It was a good course, well organized, bloody hard work but so worthwhile. The courses are run by volunteers and you give a donation at the end which then allows another person to attend a course. For those interested then please look at which gives information about the centre in the UK but also of courses worldwide.

Whilst loading up my bike about to leave the course I was still undecided whether to cycle down to Barcelona. A fellow student, Victor, said that he lived in the centre and I was more than welcome to stay with him - so it was decided!

I arrived at the outskirts of Barcelona at 5 pm. After eleven days of inactivity my calf muscles had become as short as my breath but it was the perfect time to pedal in. Being late on the Sunday afternoon the heat had halted a little and the traffic was tamer. I am not a great fan of cities but I felt excited as I plodded along the cycle path, soaking with sweat but sooking up the energy! Looking left, looking right absorbing everything like a sponge, my sightseeing almost came to a shattering end when I marginally missed piling into a plate glass window – it was a bus shelter planted right in the middle of the cycle path! It was almost my first expletive since exiting the meditation course. However, I settled for shaking my head happy that I still had it!

That evening Victor took me on a tour of the city on the back of his Vespa which included a trip to a wee tapas bar. Later on we sat on his balcony drinking a dram watching the late revelers roll by. His flat was on Gran Gracia, which I think loosely translates to, 'many thanks' – it was very appropriate!

During the meditation course the pain in my troublesome tooth had reached titanic proportions and there was only really one sensation I could focus on - I made a decision to get it seen to the minute I left. Victor was kind enough to arrange an appointment and took me there on the back of his bike. After leaving the Dentist I was given a prescription for strong painkillers which I tried to obtain from the nearest pharmacy. However, the young lad behind the counter said that he could only give me the first painkiller because he could not read the second drug. I did not think there was a second drug! I walked fifty yards to the next pharmacy and got my prescription within one minute. I explained to the chap behind the counter what had just happened and he asked if it was the one down the street, whilst shaking his head in disbelief. The supposed second drug was the verb, ‘tomar’, which means, ‘to take’, which I certainly did! They were strong enough to heal a horse and tended to my teeth with the added benefit of allowing me to hare up the hills whilst my legs remained pain free – I thought of asking for a repeat prescription! As I was so drugged up I would probably have got automatic entry into the Tour De France. I was fortunate enough to catch stage twelve of the race in Durban Corbier. The peloton powered past in seconds with the real race happening ninety minutes before as vehicles of all shapes, sizes and colours drove past tooting, hooting and throwing away all sorts of free goodies - even the bags to hold them in! Everyone walked away with happy smiles smothering their faces and bags bulging having completely cleaned up – someone tossed me a sachet of washing powder, perhaps suggesting that I do the same!

After spending a few days in Barcelona I headed north again back up to Girona. With over two and a half thousand miles cycled I had to replace my front tyre as it had more bulges than Santa’s sack. With a new tyre and my wheel trued my bike battered along the bitumen that ran directly parallel to the beach. The temperature was above 35° and I was taking on board more water than a holed ship but managed to cover the sixty miles to Girona relatively trouble free until a puncture ten minutes from the campsite. As it was the back wheel I had to unload the bike but I fixed it in no time at all. I then trundled along to the site happy in the knowledge that a pool awaited me. It was nice to see the owner again. I think the feeling was mutual as after I had paid and chatted for a bit she pressed a cool beer into my palm. Cheers!

The next day I left late as it was only thirty six miles to Lescala, where I met up with Ali and Judi, the couple I visited in Northumberland. They had emailed mentioning they would be in the area should I be passing. It fitted in perfectly, so I popped in by. Ali and Judi’s holiday home, which they were sharing with the immediate family, had numerous bedrooms, bathrooms and more balconies than a hotel and although there were plenty of people there the construction was cavernous and you could easily have found a wee nook to nestle in and remain undisturbed for days. It actually had a cupboard were the sole resident was a massive rock covered with a rug? I only stayed two nights but it was lovely to catch up and spend some simple time together.

I had decided not to go back up the coastal route as it had more ups and downs than the aforementioned Spanish roadside prostitutes knickers – well, those that wore them! So I spent two days and over one hundred and fifty miles cycling through the Pyrenees to Perpignan, Fitou and then back to the coast at Sete where I again showered on the beach and had a wee dram in the same bar where Steve and I had celebrated a month ago – it all felt very surreal!

The next morning I motored my way to Montpellier and spent a few hours chatting to a nice Polish girl I met in the post office. She was working for a few months as an au pair and had a couple of hours off. It was nice listening to her experiences and for a change not talking too much about my own! I then called Jocelyn, my brother's sister in law whom I had stayed with a month ago. Although only intending to stay a couple of nights I ended up staying two weeks and helped then to ferry furniture to their new house, whilst in return they drove me back and forth to my numerous dental appointments. Although I had received root treatment it had not got to the root of the problem and it took a wee while for the tooth to settle down. With two adults, four kids, three cats, two dogs, two rats, two houses and numerous goldfish names became problematic. It didn't help that I continually called one dog Muriel, when she was actually called Moira - mind you she was such a guzzler that as long as you had food in your hand she would answer to anything. The whole family switched effortlessly between english and french often interchanging between sentences. However, Moira, not content with being bilingual, knew the word for food in multiple languages! Things were compounded further because in our numerous trips back and forth between the houses Michel, Jocelyn's husband, tried fill in the void that I have in my education and teach me the names of all the birds, trees and plants. Although genuinely interested I was just too preoccupied with pain and this additional information seemed like system overload! Pain apart though, it was a lovely two weeks with the whole family being very generous and open and it wasn't just the furniture that was being uplifted with various jokes and banter lightening the load. The only mishap being Michel semi dropping Jocelyn's piano on the floor. Strangely enough, in the wee hours of the following morning after a long day of lifting, Jocelyn semi drove Michel's car into a ditch! On the Sunday before I left Michel, his son Duncan and myself, spent a whole day walking in the Pyrenees on GR 10 - it was a lovely way to finish my time in their company and left me recharged and ready for the road ahead. Although keen to get back on my bike, I was genuinely sad at leaving such fine folk!

The bike draws a lot of attention and often people just approach and start talking like an old friend - which is fine by me as this is what my trip is about. Mind you, one day a man walked up, picked up the bike, nodded approvingly then walked off without saying a word! Other people are always asking how much it weighs - I haven't a clue. I am half expecting someone to try and lift up me, so as they can have the combined weight! I have even had to open my panniers to show how they work. One man asked how many teeth I had. I thought it was a strange question especially with the bother I have had. He wanted to know the number of teeth on my front cog - again,when I said I hadn't a clue he bent down and counted them! On the whole it is all good fun and I enjoy it but some days depending on how far I have cycled then it can be a little tiring. At one pit stop someone asked where I had cycled from. When I said Scotland, he replied as quick as a flash, “that is great, where are you heading to, Australia?” - it was very funny! Someone else said that I was living everyone’s dream – I promised to email them the next time I came to a steep hill!

I must finish with a massive thank you to everyone who has contributed money to the Justgiving web page. A special thank you has to be extended to the twenty odd folk (not so odd) who camped and trekked through the Highlands to raise over £2000 for the M.E. Association.

So many people help in many different ways which makes it impossible for me to include everyone but I would like to thank anyone who has helped me in their own small way.

As always, with many thanks and much love

Eric x

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