Sat 11th May
Relaxing in Bordeaux.
The next morning I was up, well fed, coffee and all the usual treats from a French breakfast. They had offered to wash my clothes while I was there (always a Godsend on the road) and hang my tent up to dry as it had got wet in the rain from the previous nights camping. While Anne put the tent out to dry, she said she saw a spider run out from the tent, into the garden. Worried that I was contributing nothing but foreign beings to the house I apologised, but she said in a strong French accent “No, no, I bit of extra biodiversity is good.” I couldn’t help but admire her quirky optimism.
A year or two ago Sebastian had decided that he would dedicate more time to cycling, and set himself the rough goal of cycling 300km a week (about 186 miles). In order to do this, he cut down his hours at work. Something I found hugely inspiring and a sign of his charisma. He wasn’t training for a race or a tour, he was just allocating himself a fixed amount of mileage and time per week. From my experience, I imagine it gave him the head space he desired to live life the way he wanted.
So that Saturday morning, as our inner cogs were rotating and coming to life, Sebastian was out on one of his cycles of the Bordeaux region. He was like a living encyclopedia of areas, names, cycle routes etc, as you might expect from someone who spent so much time there.
He was incredibly lean and you could tell from his physique that there was very little fat on him and that his body was an economic cycling system. The previous night, while explaining my trip, they told me about a Frenchman who had acquired a small amount of national semi-fame, from deciding to change his life as it was and live on a bike. Similar to my trip, only his was permanent and just in France, opting to work on farms in the winter when it was to cold to cycle.
His marriage had ended and after working a job he disliked to support things, he decided to leave it opting for a life on a bike, with few plans or goals. Needless to say it got me thinking. In my planning for this trip, I had read about people doing all sorts of world trips for various lengths of time, but that’s all they were, trips. This was a complete change of life and living and was something I had perhaps considered myself on more positive days on the bike.
I know very little about this man, but apparently he did this for about four years, before he was tragically killed, when he collided with a tractor. Sebastian wasn’t in the room when Anne told me this, but she said that Sebastien was very affected by his death, like he had lost a part of him. I took it that this man represented a kind of infinite freedom to Sebastien, and that with his death, so to died the ideology this man represented.
I felt perhaps Sebastien was inspired to do the thing he loved on a regular basis, not to what for retirement, but to integrate –in this case– cycling into his life. The same could be applied as an example to all, finding small ways to sacrifice work for more of the things you love.
When Sebastien returned, we had a small lunch and Anne offered to take me out and show me around Bordeaux. Very generous to offer more of their time as well as their resources. I was quickly learning that this was normal for the French and in being proud of their essence, they were also happy to share it with you.
We set out on our bikes leaving the area the lived in (south-east of the city) called Bégels, which is actually independent from Bordeaux, but everyone tends to overlook this and think of it as the same place. As we rode, she explained that this town used to be communist for a long time and the people didn’t tend to mind so much. But in the present day it follows the standard democratic model of capitalism, common in the west.
The thought of communism in France struck me as odd, as it tends to be associated it with Russia, Cuba, China and a push, Spain, but the influence of communism was much bigger then the populace believes and it feels like in many places it’s been well swept under the carpet, like it never existed.
We continued into the centre. Anne showed me the main square where most of the trading took place in the days of the 18th century and explained that the concrete faces in the arches of the buildings were based on the historic people of that time. One of them which is particularly interesting, was what was arguably the face of a black woman, who was a maid to one of the powerful men of that era. We went to the Girone river and looked out to the other side of the city. We looked down and saw and Beaver and its two cubs scouting around for food, climbing rocks and hiding in holes. Anne told me that it was commonplace for locals to hunt these beavers as they were considered by the council to be vermin that did damage to properties.
She also told me that a certain type of eel was fished for in this river (a few miles out of the city) which were such an expensive deliciously that few were kept for local consumption and most were exported with Japan for sushi.
We headed back via the skatepark as I watched what the local kids were up to in the occupation of my youth. I liked it here and like in so many other places briefly imagined myself living there.
On the way back, we stopped off at a specialist bakery to try one of the local creations I’d been told about by a friend in London, the Canelé. It’s a dense and sweet treat made from egg yolk, sugar, flour, rum and vanilla. Shortly after I discovered these were things that were being traded in the square in the 18th century, hence it’s creation. It got me thinking about the ingredients of other treats, meals and drinks throughout the ages and that perhaps most of them told a story of the times and situations that produced them.
A practice for city seeing.
A long time ago, I’d sworn of guide books as they tend to praise everything in a city or region. When you read about how good 10 cafés are, no matter which one you go to, you’re bound to have some sense of disappointment, so with this in mind, I tend to choose whatever makes itself known to me when I need something (coffee, food and beer), seeking small pleasures in the places you do see as there is no bar for expectations through others opinions.
Guide books also demand much time to make your decisions (a valuable commodity for anyone these days, but especially for me on this trip).
With this approach, seeing cities is usually always good, but it makes it hard (or impossible) to learn facts about the cities you visit that give you a deeper understanding and experience of a place. However, I decided around this point in the trip, what I wanted to take away from these visits wasn’t the usual tours, or cafe and bar diving, but a merely connecting one to one another with the bike, while experiencing some of the cities DNA and produce for myself, giving me a foundation understanding of a place should I ever return, and a brief memorable impression if I didn’t.
I used to want to try to do everything I could that appealed to me in a city and many failed attempts to do so I realised it was much better to do a few things well, then do many not so well.
I should also add, that after having cycled for several days to a city, it’s not really a priority to organise tours and museum visits, more like relax, top up on the things you and the bike need.
The more cities I see, the less I need to see of them.