Tag Archives: France
15 October, 2014

Three French Weeks

As Doug mentioned in his post about Quebec, we start nearly every interaction in France with the same two sentences: We don’t speak French. Do you speak English? We receive far more “no” responses than we expected. Everyone tries to help and fortunately we are usually able to communicate our basic needs like finding a grocery store, water, or a safe place to put our tent, but full conversations are very rare. This was a bit of a surprise, but not the only one that we have encountered during our three week tour of northern France (and counting).

Pedaling away from the magical, fairytale millenium-old Mont Saint Michel abbey.

Pedaling away from the magical millennium-old Mont Saint Michel abbey.

After experiencing the boulangeries (bakeries) in Paris, we can’t help but stop at one nearly every morning. We can fill up on fresh pastries for a few euros, instead of snacking on our usual processed granola bars. There is at least one and usually more boulangeries in every little town. It seems to be part of the local routine to stop for fresh pastries and baguettes every morning. We’ve also seen quite a few outdoor markets, even in October, where people seem to be doing their weekly shopping for fresh meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. It isn’t a local produce market like in the US, but rather a collection of local importers creating a fresh food market for the town. Grocery stores are much smaller than we are accustomed to in the US and only found in bigger towns. Processed food is much less common, artificial sweeteners are nowhere to be found, and fast food is not the bargain that we are used to. For example, McDonalds is at least twice as expensive in France as compared to the US. This emphasis on affordable fresh food within each town is quite a pleasant surprise and may help to explain the smaller waistlines around France despite all of the wonderfully rich and buttery food, which we will truly miss.

CAUTION: This bike brakes for boulangeries!

CAUTION: This bike brakes for boulangeries!

Doug mentioned in his last post that conversations about bicycle touring often degrade to bathroom stories. So in continuing the tradition, bathrooms in France are a bit different with some unexpected surprises that we will not miss. In people’s homes and hotels, the toilet, sink, and shower are often split between two rooms, but not as you might expect. The toilet is in a room by itself and the sink and shower are in a room right next door. Why? I have no idea. It doesn’t seem to make sense, nor does having a shower hose nozzle with no wall mount. Many showers simply have the shower hose nozzle connected to the tub faucet and you have to hold the nozzle to shower. This requires either turning off the water (perhaps part of the reasoning) or positioning the hose carefully pointed down so as to not spray water all over the bathroom while washing. This is especially important when staying with WarmShowers hosts. Campground bathrooms have their quirks too. Some seem to have a B.Y.O.T.P. policy. Fortunately, we always carry a small travel roll, but now we always look before we sit. None of these are a big deal, they just make life more interesting and are a little inconvenient compared to what we are used to. We’re sure it will get even more “interesting” as we head further east.

Pedaling south out of Trevieres in Normandy.

Pedaling south out of Trevieres in Normandy. Photo tip: Good things happen when you shoot in drive mode.

"Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit." - USA Military Cemetery, Normandy, France

“Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.” – USA Military Cemetery, Normandy, France

We are also not accustomed to being in a place with stores closed on Sundays and not opening on weekdays until at least 9:30 a.m., including cafes. We are easily able to work around this with a bit of planning. However, we still find it a bit odd that on the few occasions where we have been in a town, even Paris, before 9:00 a.m. that the streets are still quite deserted. This did work to our advantage when we rode out of Paris on a Friday morning. We rolled away from the hotel around 8:15 a.m., not too early, and the traffic didn’t seem to really pick up until 9:00 a.m. when we were nearly out of the city. Great!

We got to do a bit of wild-camping after leaving Paris. Doug cleared this spot up a logging road outside Caen that reminded him of his local mountain bike trails back home in WA.

We got to do a bit of wild-camping after leaving Paris. Doug found this spot up a logging road outside Caen that reminded him of his local mountain bike trails back home in WA. Hope the guys at Tokul are doing well!

We will be crossing into Spain in a few days after spending about three weeks cycling across northern and western France. While we have only seen a small portion of this large country, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to count our time in weeks, not days. We were able to experience the non-tourist aspects of a country in the way we hoped bicycling would provide, as well as making time to see a few of the major attractions, including a Champagne cellar (Taittinger), Versailles, Normandy, and Mont Saint-Michel. Au revoir France.

Visiting Claude Monet's famed water garden at his home in Giverny was a highlight of our time in France.

Visiting Claude Monet’s famed water garden at his home in Giverny was a highlight of our time in France and something Doug dreamed of doing since high school art history class.

Special Thanks: We want to extend a special thanks to Loic of La Maison Periot for incredible generosity making our first stay in a gite one we will always remember. We also want to especially thank our WarmShowers hosts, Francoise and Yves for taking a chance on hosting a non-French speaking couple. We had a wonderful evening, including dinner cooked nearly exclusively with vegetables grown in their garden.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Yves and Francoise at their home in the countryside.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Yves and Francoise at their home in the countryside.

1 October, 2014

Forget Portland

Mass-participation, organized bike rides aren’t for everyone, but their popularity can’t be ignored. The most famous — infamous? — typically have the prefix Trans- in their title or are commonly known simply by their alphabet-soup acronym. I’ve ridden a few of these some years ago. Rides like R.A.M.R.O.D., Trans-Rockies, and S.T.P. to name a few, the latter of which is a rather boring 204-mile single-day affair leading from Seattle to Portland. I did S.T.P. back in 2007, in preparation for larger challenges, and hadn’t really thought about it much since. That is, until Monday when Kristin and I were walking along the famed Champs Elysees towards the way-bigger-than-anticipated Arc de Triomph.

Forget Seattle-to-Portland, we just rode from Seattle to Paris. Now that’s a bike ride!

It really is a spectacle that should be seen. Kristin and I disagree on whether or not it's worth going to the top.

It really is a spectacle that should be seen. Kristin and I disagree on whether or not it’s worth going to the top.

There are certain moments in this trip that will live in my memory forever: Descending Shermann Pass in an ice storm; catching that first salty whiff of the Atlantic Ocean after crossing North America; and watching our homeland disappear as we sailed out of New York harbor, not knowing when we’d ever be back come immediately to mind. But I must add our first day in Paris to the list.

We crossed into France in the Champagne region, home to many tiny villages like this one.

We crossed into France in the Champagne region, home to many tiny villages like this one.

Sam heard us speaking English and called us over to his fence. He was in the French Air Force and served with some Americans and picked up some English. He was surprised to see us cycling through otherwise empty countryside and implored us to take as many apples as we wanted from his orchard.

Sam heard us speaking English and called us over to his fence. He was in the French Air Force and served with some Americans and picked up some English. He was surprised to see us cycling through otherwise empty countryside and implored us to take as many apples as we wanted from his orchard. He would have filled our panniers if we let him.

We were out the door by 9am for croissants and espresso, the pressé as they call it, and then a meandering stroll south from our Montmarte hotel past the opera house, around the interior courtyard of the Louvre — look at the queue! — and onto a lovely stroll through the gardens leading up to the Champs Elysees. We walked hand-in-hand, unencumbered by our bulging bicycles and gawked at the ornate palaces, museums, and the aforementioned arch known the world over. The beauty of the city’s architecture can be experienced in photos; the scale of these monuments cannot. They must be seen to be believed, and even then the mind struggles with the dimensions. That building wrapping around in a massive, squared-off semi-circle, the one that appears to house several city blocks under its roof, is all just a single art museum. Really? Yes. And it’s but one of dozens of grand palaces, museums, and hotels.

Gardens along the Champs Elysees have plenty of spots to relax.

Gardens along the Champs Elysees have plenty of spots to relax.

The day only got better from there. Sipping espressos on sidewalk-facing chairs, watching the world pass by (most of it staring zombie-like at a smartphone, but sexy as hell), gnawing on baguettes as we marched a zigzag pattern across the city from Sacre Couer to the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower and onward to Cathedral de Notre Dame. We ate, and drank, and ate and drank some more, pausing only for the numerous photos I like to take. We gawked at the fashion in the windows — and on the sidewalks — and gaped at the prices. Thousand-dollar dress shoes and five-figure watches will never make sense to me, but how about something more practical. Croissants better than I ever experienced back home could be had for a single Euro ($1.30 USD) but a grande drip coffee at Starbucks (they are everywhere in Paris), for comparison’s sake, runs $3.60 USD, about double the price back home. And the chalkboards boasting the plat du jour kept us moving right along, nothing to see there. We learned quickly to lunch the way the Parisiennes do, on the go with one of the abundant baguette-based sandwiches sold seemingly every 100 meters–a five dollar foot long better than anything from Subway.

Since it’s a scientific fact that all prolonged discussion about bicycle touring ultimately devolves to bathroom stories, here’s one from the front lines. My stomach was acting up in a major way and with no public toilets to be found on a relatively quiet, residential block, we ran into the lone brasserie we saw, only to find the WC (restroom) under lock and key: Clients Seulement S’il Vous Plaît. 

We watched a group of Parisiennes play this game called Molkke while we ate (restaurant in background) and then they taught us how to play. I won 2 of 3 games.

We watched a group of Parisiennes play this game called Molkke while we ate (restaurant in background) and then they taught us how to play. I won 2 of 3 games.

I did what any quick thinking hop-head would do in this situation. I hurried to the bar, scanned the taps, and ordered two large glasses of the Belgian tripel from La Chouffe. I had been meaning to try La Chouffe while in Belgium, but hadn’t seen it on tap until now. I then got the code for the bathroom and took care of my business without a moment to spare.

Relieved, I rejoined Kristin back at the bar, hoisted my 50cl (roughly pint-sized) goblet, and began to down an absolutely fantastic brew. The bartender, as skilled in English as I am in French pointed to the register. €7.60.  Not bad, I think to myself and toss down a ten-Euro note. He shakes his head, points twice, taps a button on the till, and the numbers double.

Gulp. I try to swallow my shock with some forced laughter and begrudgingly double the withdrawal from my wallet.

Studies have shown that people expressed greater enjoyment from wines they were led to believe were more expensive, even when the glasses were replaced with cheap table wines. I may have had the opposite reaction. The beer I was so enjoying moments earlier was starting to leave a sour taste in my mouth, even if only metaphorically. Buyer’s remorse had set in.

We were between elevators when the hourly strobe lights started going off.

We were between elevators when the hourly strobe lights started going off.

I carried my chagrin heavily onto the sidewalk as we left. I only had recently begun to appreciate the concept of paying fifty cents to use a public toilet, but my sudden stomach distress just cost us twenty bucks! Kristin suggested I was thinking through the situation wrong and that I should be glad that I didn’t have an even bigger embarrassment on my hands. “You’re right! I wouldn’t ever pay twenty bucks to use a toilet, but, if I hadn’t found one, and ended up crapping my pants, you better believe I’d pay twenty dollars to rewind time and undo the damage!”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The Hall of Mirrors at the absurdly opulent Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors at the absurdly opulent Palace of Versailles.

We roll out of Paris tomorrow morning, headed north to the D-Day Beaches along the Normandy coast and then south along the Atlantic to Bordeaux and the Spanish border where, in the Pyrenees, nature’s call will hopefully ring like a bear’s: while I’m in the woods.

Special Thanks: Huge thanks to Duane and Bryce for their contributions to our beer-fund. As you can see from the post above every dollar counts, especially under duress. We also want to extend our thanks to our WarmShowers hosts in Troyes, Laetitia and Arnaud, for welcoming us into their home and providing such a great first-impression of a French household. Also I personally want to thank our friends and family who reached out to wish me (Doug) a happy birthday this week. Our first holiday on the road couldn’t have come at a better time and your gifts all helped us enjoy it that much more.