The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hospitalité

After several years of imagining the moment of leaving, it seemed surreal to finally have all friends and family there in Hyde Park to say goodbye. With thirty minutes or so huddled around the tandem, in cycling shorts, with butterflies it's hard to know what to say to people you're not going to see for 18 months or more. Despite stilted conversation and the holding back of tears it was nothing other than an amazing feeling to leave on the back of so much love and support. That final morning in London was symbolic of all the good wishes and generosity we had experienced in the last few weeks. So it was, loaded up with enough letters to make an experienced postman think twice, we headed south through the park and away.

It wasn't long before we had some tears, but perhaps more surprisingly it was just as short an amount of time before they evaporated. The simplicity of pedaling through the day had taken over in a matter of minutes. We just had to get ourselves and our belongings to the south coast that night. Simple questions overtook the drama of the moment: How do we avoid Croydon? What time to stop for lunch? Is it really ok for the tandem to wobble this much? How much chafing cream is too much? Before we knew it we were on a bridge going over the M25. Our first major crossing. We stopped to admire the 8 lane monster and took a moment to contemplate that our adventure had begun as we crossed the perimeter of our friend, family, job and home filled city. By midday we were plunged into the English countryside and grateful that it looked so beautiful as we left it behind, knowing how excited we would be to return to it one day.

The first day is now a memory of green fields, the south downs and Bill. A bit about Bill...
Bill was the third person we met at Telscombe youth hostel – a converted alms house hidden away in a tiny hamlet just above New Haven that provided us with a perfect taste of how bizarre rural England must seem to foreigners. On seeing the tandem, the resident volunteer manager was quick to tell us that there was a guy 'who seemed to have cycled everywhere' staying. Nick's ears pricked up - sounded interesting and someone we could easily chat to later on. Great. However we never did get a chance to introduce ourselves. Before we had strung together a response, a portly (bearded) man in his 60s comes in and overhearing our conversation butts in with: "Going round the world without flying... seems strange to some people. Not me. I walked to Turkey and back on my own when i was 15 in 2 months. Also, what you've got to remember was there was a civil war on in Greece back then and those whizz pops weren't fireworks!'". This seemed a pretty strong intro, but this was nothing in comparison to what followed over the next 2 hours of his uninterruptible monologue.
Highlights included him being in the SAS and saying it was hard for some people to believe a tough guy like him could also write poetry and have an economics degree. My personal favourite was the recounting of when he spent 9 and a half weeks in winter dug into a hole in the ground as part of a training exercise during the cold war. This was so he could be hidden in front of any advancing Russians and then pop out 63 days later and destroy their fuel lines. At one point a soldier was stood 2 feet away but couldn't see him. But, perhaps the most impressive tale was of his conception. His father who was a Regimental Sergeant Major was evacuated in Dunkirk but his mother was pulled out 2 months later and imprisoned in a high security compound somewhere in the countryside for "something top secret" but which was linked to the fact she was "very intelligent". His father didn't like the fact he couldn't see his missus and so got his friend to drive a 3 ton truck past the perimeter fence of the high security prison so he could jump from the roof of it and break into the compound. He would do this almost nightly and just walk out of the front as if nothing happened and suspicion was only raised when his mother got pregnant with Bill. If this wasn't extraordinary enough we were later told how he was also born in India and his mother (4ft 10, bizarrely the same height as Bill's daughter and Ecuadorian girlfriend) had traveled overland from there to England with his 5 other siblings. In between all this she had time to be awarded the legion d'honneure which he found in her sock draw when she died. In time some of his stories didn't seem to stack up, but it proved great entertainment and who would have thought that on our first night we would be lucky enough to meet a man who claims to be 'the first ever European' because of sharing his soup with a German.
Despite the over-zealous excitement of Bill, the friendliness of the people we have met thus far has been extraordinary. The youth hostel manager gave us the name of his son who we were told would look after us if we just asked for him at the Shanghai Racquets Club and told him that "Dad says hi". We met a couple whilst waiting for the ferry who offered to buy us breakfast and showed us a newly paved cycle track on a deserted railway south from Dieppe. There was the octogenarian who loves tandems and invited us to come and visit him in the Dordogne to check out his collection of vintage motorcycles. On arrival in our first campsite a couple called Pete and Dawn came over and gave us some fresh coffee saying we looked like we needed it. The difference from the blinkered independence and enveloping cloak of working London life seemed to have been lifted and cast away within hours of leaving and it feels so invigorating.
Since then we have cycled over 500km south to just east of Chinon. We have weaved our way through stunning back lanes and followed languidly flowing rivers past rambling old farms, beautiful country mansions, fields of fodder and traditional villages where no one speaks a word of English. The wind has been at our backs and the sun has been shining and there isn't much else we could've asked for.
Now we sit writing this after a weekend with the Chauveau family who own a small vineyard and guesthouse called the 'Domaine de Beausejour', near Chinon. A friend of ours, Jess, is working here and invited us to stay. Our two days here have felt quintessentially French as tours of the vines, the cellars and wine tastings are followed by long meals and lengthy discussions about varying European nations' philosophies, the benefits of raising children in Paris vs. the country, and the impact that democracy has had on the respective development of China and India (luckily a couple of them speak pretty good English). Dinner last night was cooked over the hearth, after aperitifs in the evening sun and this morning was filled with browsing the stalls of Chinon's brocante and sharing wine with friends of the Chauveau's we bumped into along the way. Luckily it wasn't entirely clichéd and the surrealiste got a look in too when dinner last night was followed by rounds of 'Happy Birthday' in every European language and a family dance off to Michael Jackson. Nonetheless the hospitality, warmth and relaxation that has encompassed this home has created a perfect weekend to revive us for the trickier terrain that lies ahead.
We suspect it can't last like this and we are already prepping ourselves for a change in the weather, which is meant to turn just in time for the hills of the Dordogne. However it's been an incredible start that has so far only filled us with a confidence and excitement about what is to come...
There is also something else keeping us smiling despite sore bums. But this can wait for a later update.

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