Thursday, 28 April 2011

Are You 1) Pale, 2) Ugly, 3) Heavily Tattooed? Then You Might Be British.

Some days things go well, and other days things go so perfectly that even the things that go wrong actually cause better things to happen.

A couple of days ago (25th), I'd arrived at my campsite in Juniville to discover that it had closed down five years earlier. I was told about another site, 20 kilometres away, in Attigny. I'd already done 80 kilometres that day but it seemed like the easiest option. But it all worked out. The campsite was lovely and so I stayed an extra day and studied under a tree, managing to get two weeks' worth of MST209 done in one day. And by starting from Attigny yesterday (27th), I had a lovely rural hour and a half's ride, by the side of a little river, and then through villages too small to have shops. It was gorgeous, absolutely flawless cycling.

For the rest of the day, the sun was shining and it felt like the perfect end when I arrived in Montmedy, up a huge hill on the way to its famous citadel, to find the campsite gates open. Perfect! But looking at its notice board the site didn't open until the 1st of May. The gates were only open because the gardeners were in giving it a once over before the season started. They directed me to the tourist office even farther up the hill, inside the walls of the citadel itself.

At the office it became clear that I wasn't the only person looking for a campsite. Also there was a Dutch cyclist whose partner was halfway back down the hill. They couldn't let us camp but instead they would open a gite especially for us. It was my first time in a gite. It's like an independent youth hostel, where you usually sleep in shared dorms, but this time I had a dorm entirely to myself. It was like staying in a hotel, in the shadow of the citadel, with a fridge, freezer and a fully equiped kitchen, and all for only €10.

The Dutch cyclist, Joris, was reunited with his girlfriend, Joëlle, and they decided to head back into town to see a doctor. Only four or five days into their ride, she had developed a knee problem that was stopping her doing much more than 20 kilometres per day. I went into town too, to find some food, and we eventually bumped into each other and decided that the best option, given that we had a kitchen at our disposal, was to cook something together.

Joris and Joëlle had started from their home town, Nÿmegen, and were hoping over the next four months to reach Timbuktu in Mali. The knee problem was putting a serious cloud over that project but they seemed determined to get there by any means, even if it meant occasionally putting the bikes on a train. Joris had just completed his PhD thesis in human geography and so had time to spare before returning to his university in September as a doctor and as a lecturer. Joëlle had chucked her job and was hoping for the best when she got back. As with everyone on this trip so far they were fantastically lovely, interesting people. They were both fizzing with energy.

I helped to make a salad while Joris created a vegetable couscous. They had an amazing collection of store cupboard ingredients, whereas all I had to offer from my bag was a jar of chilli powder. But it helped. We finished off with a selection of stinky cheeses and some tasty Leffe beer. Topics of conversation varied greatly, but it was amusing to learn what the Dutch stereotypical view of the British is (cover those sensitive ears): pale, ugly, loud, heavily tattooed and always in a football shirt. Well, it was my fault for asking, and there aren't too many surprises there.

As I've said before, the best bits of this trip are the people I meet. It was a rare coincidence that we were both looking for the same closed campsite on the same day, but staying at home I doubt I would ever have met people on their way to Mali. It's not the travelling that makes the trip but the people you find while you are out there.

Good luck Joris and Joëlle! Here's to Timbuktu!

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