The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Friday, October 3, 2008

A little bit older and wiser (but still want to get drunk and play laserquest)

One thing we have come to realise in the last week or so is that back in London (and perhaps the majority of the UK) you only tend to socialise with people your own age. If your family live nearby then you might spend time with them and sometimes at work you may chat to people older than yourself, but in the main part you spend it with your own age group.

This has not been the case over here. This is probably due to the following: it is off season and we are frequenting campsites, we are on a tandem which attracts interest primarily from eccentric over 65s, or it might be that our route has taken us over the volcanic regions of Aquitaine which is home to several of France's therapeutic thermal springs. Whatever the reason, we have had the pleasure of nobody's company who is less that 20 years or so our senior. However, it's been surprisingly fun, and with both of us also finding ourselves with lots of time on our hands, it has given us some perspective on what it must be like to retire.

The first senior citizen we spent a bit of time with was Doug Barker who we met at Newhaven port and invited us to go and stay with him in the Dordogne. Ten days later we made it to Villebois-Lavalette, close to where he lives and, after a quick chat on the phone, arranged final directions. We needn't have worried. 2km before we got to Doug's house a bearded and rather rotund man dressed in a faded RAF jumper and leather motorbike helmet came tearing towards us on a vintage, red Moto Guzzi motorbike. At first we didn't make the connection who it might be, but both said simultaneously to each other, 'legend'. However, after spotting the tandem the motorbike did a swift U-turn and beckoned us to follow him. The 'legend' was our host escorting us to his house. Whilst this introduction instantly informed us that our decision to come and stay in a complete strangers house had been the right one, we couldn't help but wonder 'What were we in for?'

What followed was an extraordinary evening and one that this update will never do justice to. We stowed the tandem amongst about 8 or so other rare motorbikes, ranging from 80 years old to present day. We were then introduced to Doug's friend and bicycle/jazz enthusiast Dave (red shirt), another friend of his Sean (dressing gown above), great nephew of Robert Graves, and two more motorbike enthusiasts, ex-fireman Conrad (biker jacket) and his wife Amanda (leather trousers) who popped in on their Russian steed with sidecar containing Susie the dog. Over the course of the ensuing evening Hol went for her first spin in a sidecar with Doug, we chatted bikes, traveling, politics and France all over copious portions of Dave's home-made pasta and several glasses of wine whilst a bit of Art Tatum (jazz legend with, apparently, only 7 fingers and no eye sight) poured out of the house.

The best thing apart from the food and comfy beds, which were much appreciated after chilly tents and trangia food, were the stories that spilled from all corners of the table. We found out that Doug is fluent in 7 languages having trained to be an interpreter and lived with Polish emigrés whilst studying at Cambridge and then Oxford. Conrad had brought along his Grandfather's Prussian passport from 1903 for Doug to interpret and told us about what i was like to only discover his true family history at the age of 60. In Doug's youth he had drunk pints in the same pubs and college bars in which Hol and I had crammed down alcopops and snakebites in our courting days. We discovered he is a citizen of Lithuania for tax purposes, and was also taken to court for refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the war in Iraq. The list of tales was endless and hugely entertaining. Favourites included the chequered history of Bar Las Vegas in the sleepy next door village, which was essentially a knocking shop, and also the one about a friend of Doug's who went to Lithuania to meet up with a stunningly beautiful woman he intended to shack up with after meeting her on the internet, but who found on arrival that she already had 9 children. It made us glad to be doing what we are doing so that come our retirement we can welcome people in and regale them with stories of times gone by.

We were sad to go after 5 star treatment that included coffee in bed and fresh porridge for breakfast, although it wasn't long before we were amongst the seniors once again. During our journey south we have arrived in Aquitaine, in the south west of France, which sits on a huge volcanic plain and subsequently is home to several thermal spa resorts. We have spent time in 2 of these: Barbotan-les-Thermes and Dax. I think the best way to describe the clientele is to picture all the more senior inhabitants of Bognor Regis being invited to come and visit the town, on the one condition that they have rheumatic complaints and small, ratty poodles. The irony that these people flock to these spa towns where they spend 6 hours a day wrinkling into prunes in naturally heated swimming baths to avoid various medical aches and pains, before retiring to a damp and chilly campsite to shiver the night away in their caravans, seems to escape them.

However, as surely as a French supermarket will close just as you roll starving into a small town at 12.31, so the combination of a tandem and a campsite of octogenarians will lead to conversations. So it was we joined Bernard and his wife Evelyn and her elderly parents for an aperitif one night in their caravan. We were treated to a glass of Cava and local canapés, including small cubes of laughing cow cheese, in celebration of Evelyn's birthday. Our rapidly improving French means we are now able to discuss enough for a couple of hours of chat. Despite an opening mix up with me introducing Holly as 'my little boy' instead of my girlfriend, the discussion was typically wide ranging. We somehow wove from the recent performance of the British Olympic archery team to chatting about the American G.I. Claude, befriended during the Normandy landings during world war 2. The most interesting thing is the way the same topics crop up again and again. The economic collapse, the worrying strength of China and repeatedly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To hear someone complain about lessons not learned from previous conflicts when they themselves have lived through an occupation adds an extra weight often hard to grasp when the theatre of war is so distant.

It has been humbling being invited in by people when we have little to give in return. I can only imagine this to get more so as we head to poorer countries in due course, but the response we get is that they are just glad for the company and excited to hear about what we think and what we are doing. Having led a full life, retirement must pose a lot of questions around how you fill your time. It is something Hol and I can understand to some small extent now. The last few days have been miserable and rainy yet we try and fill our time with 'worthwhile' things. Matching this aim with a tight budget makes this hard and led us to a free choral recital by the Dax male voice choir last night. Now I have to confess the side of me keen on experiencing new things was satiated, but the other side of me was not. I was bored rigid after the aptly chosen second song 'I sing to pass the time'. Judging from the villages we have been through so far in France the preferred method of filling time is either sitting in the tiny local bar drinking coffees and smoking ferociously strong cigarettes, or digging a vegetable garden of epic proportions. I am sure we will find time for this, but after a couple of days without covering mileage and getting closer to a destination I am keen for more youthful pursuits.

In 5 days or so we are meeting up with Anna and Joe who are coming out to ride Jean Claude tan Damme back to the UK for us. We will also be accompanied for the week by Ginger who is flying out to do the first leg of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella with us. Can't wait to see everyone although it'll be strange to leaving the bike behind and all it's accompanying sociability.

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