Towards the end of my cycling trip last summer, I came to the conclusion that both Claude (the bicycle) and I needed a little attention. So I hosed Claude down with water, gave him some oil for his squeaky bits, and found a lovely lady in a beauty salon for myself. I did however go in the hope that any cleansing and moisturising treatments for me, would be marginally more gentle.
She took one look at me and started tutting with a slow shake of her beautifully coiffed head. This was perhaps not the best of starts, but always one for believing that the truth can hurt, I ignored this and persevered.
An hour and a half later and I reappeared a new woman. She had been given a fairly tough job, but managed in a short period of time to perform nothing short of a miracle.
During this time however, we spoke in a mixture of my bad French and her decidedly better English about beauty. I asked her how it was that French woman always seemed to be so well put together and just naturally beautiful.
Her response was as follows:
She said the English were like sparkling man-made Christmas trees; adorned with flashing coloured lights, baubles, tinsel and weighed down and covered from top to bottom in some form of the latest trend in decoration.
The French on the other hand, were simply healthy trees with just a few plain candles to enhance their natural and pure beauty and nothing more.
This was of course her own opinion, but one thing did resonate. That being, there is beauty in simplicity. Life doesn’t have to be covered in sparkling lights to make it perfect. perhaps there is truth in the proverb, “All that glitters is not gold”.
Who do you think is the most beautiful woman in the world?
After a few days of being a little poorly (hence the lack of WordPress interaction of late – my apologies) I finally had to go out with my youngest son yesterday in order to buy him his first suit due to an impending interview.
A rather lovely shop in Jermyn Street not far from Piccadilly saw not just one, but two men and a woman all with tape measures hanging around their necks, tweak, adjust and transform my gangly boy into a rather dashing young man in the space of an hour. Job done, and left to pay the bill and also with a little time on my hands took a minor detour and went into the 300 year old beautiful store of Fortnum & Mason.
From the moment you are welcomed by the man on the door, you enter a world of delectable beauty. Everything and everyone is beautiful in Fortnums. From the handmade chocolates dipped in coloured sugars, dusty cocoa and wrapped in the finest tissue paper, to the exquisitely decorated biscuits sold in hand-painted and shaped tins that are so pretty as to be kept eternally, to the soft music swirling around the high ceilings with the familiar pale turquoise-teal colour that represents Fortnums in every corner of every floor. The wines, the cheeses and the hampers filled with gorgeous delights that one might possibly want or need for a picnic … everything is available and everything is beautiful in Fortnums. I run my fingers over the magnificent displays, loving the feel of the embossed, silky packaging and relish the feeling of being somewhere so very, very special where the detail in every single item is exquisite. I wander and touch, wander and touch … smiling at the sheer gorgeousness of it all.
But of course, it all comes at a price. Mostly a rather extortionate price. And there’s all sorts of people here too. I watch a woman rudely instruct a gentleman scuttling behind her to carry three baskets as she points with her phone and gives a flick of her hand to the items that she wants. Another small group of women, scoop numerous packets of gold and silver sweets shaped like small pebbles in delicate boxes from the shelves, dropping them roughly into their numerous baskets, without any care of the contents or packaging. Perhaps when money is no object and beautiful things are easily replaced, care is not such a priority.
And as for me, well, on our way back from France we had brought back some cheeses, so having explained this, was offered to taste some damson jelly. A change from the usual quince, I was in heaven as I chose and bought some. It was about all I could afford after buying the suit, but it did mean that I could relish not only the deep aubergine coloured, richly flavoured jelly wrapped in the waxy paper, but also one of their lovely pale turquoise bags which I shall keep ad infinitum. I’m not a big ‘shopper’ at all, but if you’re going to do it, it’s rather fun to do it occasionally in style, even if it’s just for a three inch square of damson jelly and a rather pretty plastic bag.
Shopping …. do you love it or loathe it? What’s your favourite shop and why?
Well, I’m nearing the end of what can only be described as an extraordinary 26 days.
I have 7 left and short of Claude (my bicycle) and I completely running out of steam or getting squashed by a truck, we’re almost there. Being the eternal pessimist however, yet always full of hope (and no I don’t know how that works), I’m never one to count my chickens and it certainly ain’t over till the fat lady sings as they say.
Most of what has happened will be in ‘the book’, but suffice to say I have enough material to write a trilogy.
I have laughed until I tears have streamed from my eyes, I have cried, wailed, howled in pain and in fear, and screamed at myself to dig deep, not just once, but almost daily.
And the outcome? I have found a strength not just physically but mentally that I never knew existed. I have been alone and sometimes desperately lonely … and sometimes just simply desperate. I have lain in a tiny tent being battered by storms for 48 hours, convinced that at any moment in the darkest of nights it was all over.
And yet, I have found kindness and generosity, laughter and warmth. I have been propositioned by men both younger and about forty years older than me and have also discovered that camping au naturiste doesn’t mean a beautifully natural site in the pine forests, at all … I have been given a standing ovation, snarled at, snapped at and had to deal with handfuls of drunkards. And that’s only scratching the surface.
And for what you might well ask? Why would any sane person put them self through this? A personal challenge? A midlife crisis? Or perhaps simply a woman looking to find where the girl in her had gone. The girl who was once fearless and strong but somewhere through that inevitable process called life, became lost, became frightened of everything but most of all, became frightened of the negative voices in her head, the unutterably foul, burdensome and oppressive voice of a demon called Betty.
Has your past restricted your future? And how do you intend to remedy this?
Ps. If any of you have got this far with my drivel, you mightn’t believe me if I told you that I’m in a bar and La Vie en Rose is playing … I’m in heaven.
I think one of the most enlightening findings to date is that the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome are often those found to be festering in my mind.
Yesterday I deviated from my route of cycling alongside the Nantes – Brest Canal and took to the roads. The advantage being that it was more direct and I had a bit of catching up to do from a rather slack day two. The disadvantage (of course there’s always one) is that I therefore encountered hills. Not just a little ouch on the legs for ten seconds and it’s over, but serious back, leg and bottom breaking stuff that makes muscles holler in pain and the lungs scream. But where there’s an up there’s always a down and the freewheeling to follow is a respite – until the next one.
And then of course there’s always the danger of counting ones chickens before they’ve hatched… As I pushed Claude (my bicycle for new readers) up yet another ‘colline’ and looked around me I thought that frankly I couldn’t get any higher, and relief did rather start to wash over me. It was also the tail end of the day and nobody could surely be that cruel to put yet another challenge in my way.
Err … Mistake. As I rounded the bend, yes, a long freewheel down but then a monster, a beast of a long, not to be messed with, avoided or run away from, MOUNTAIN! (Fair enough, very, very large hill) …
Dear God even if I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, put my fingers in my ears and shouted, “La! La! La!” it would still be there to face me.
Remember the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt? Well, I had no option but to go over this bugger even if I walked the entire way. And neither tears nor a tantrum would make it magically disappear.
And then I remembered the phrase, baby steps.
You can’t eat an elephant burger in one go, so you break it up into bite-sized pieces.
Bearing in mind that my options at this point were fairly limited, I sensed this approach was worth giving a go. Firstly of course there had to be acceptance that there was going to be pain and secondly that it was going to be a lengthy form of pain.
But, little section by little section I tackled my mountain, puffing, heaving, fighting the bastard thing, sweating, panting, howling at times in sheer frustration …
Sometimes however from afar a hill can be perceived as a mountain as are many challenges in life and the prospect of undertaking such a task can be frightening in itself. But as with so many things, if it’s broken down it’s in actual fact not quite so terrifying.
Slowly, slowly, bit by bit I cycled, pushed and heaved my way up. When I had enough breath, I sang songs that I could only remember the first two lines of, so starting making up the rest … Gave up on that and sang happy birthday to me even though it wasn’t, but at least I knew the words. I pretended I was an incredible author and was a guest on a talk show (Graham Norton’s as it happens – yup, a repetitive fantasy) and all the wonderfully witty stories I would tell (hadn’t of course worked out what they were exactly), oh and the best one was doing a book signing at Waterstones in Picadilly – apparently the biggest one in Europe! And the queues were out of the door! “Oh I’m so sorry you’ve been waiting!” I’d smile coyly.
Oh what marvellous daydreams I have!
But on I battled. Keeping my mind preoccupied with thoughts of nonsense simply to keep away the constant reminder of the physical agony. There were no tears, just pain aching long and hard. Baby steps … baby steps …
But wait just a heart-in-your-mouth minute … can this really be so? Is that really, truly, dare I say it, the top? Have I climbed my very own Mount Everest?
Well blow me down with a bicycle pump! Indeed I have! And I grin, widely and congratulate myself with another two mouthfuls of crunchy baguette, and a glug of water and stand and look around me.
Distance is a remarkable thing … the colours of the land stretch out and become softly muted. Figures and any features or forms of human activity are now invisible to the eye and the complete silence gives way to solitude. A feeling of total peace from being utterly alone, drifts and washes softly over me. Perhaps I truly am in heaven.
What challenges have you got in your life at the moment that you’re afraid of? And how do you manage your fears? (Not by singing happy birthday I’m sure!)
If I had thought it was hot in London, well here in Huelgoat it’s positively steaming. After the typical schoolboy error of bicycling too far on the first day, leaving me utterly exhausted, today I have just gone a few kilometres to this beautiful (although frankly they’re all beautiful) little town. I am camping beside the lake and all is peace and quiet.
Disasters to date? Breaking Claude’s saddle on the ferry. Yes, another minor mistake! When travelling with this much weight, lift by the frame not the saddle. Durr me!Honestly with all these schoolboy errors I should be in shorts, pulled up socks and sensible shoes. Nevertheless, found a repair shop and all sorted for twenty euros with much broken French/English and a lot of arm movements.
Successes to date? The Colonel’s army sleeping bag. Heaven in a rather sickly green colour. Never again will I poo poo his suggestions.
All in all, I am making slow progress in a haphazard sort of way and learning very quickly about the importance of food and fluids and taking advantage of the boulangeries and English style lavatories at every opportunity.
Has anyone any advice for travelling in France par bicyclette?
I am finally ready. Tomorrow I leave for the beginning of The Journey.
For those of you who (thankfully for you and your sanity) haven’t endured my endless witterings, I must clarify that this is not an antarctic exploration, nor am I walking unaided through the Gobi Desert, climbing K2 or sailing solo around the world. No. I am, with the aid of maps and hopefully rather a lot of signposts, bicycling my way along the Atlantic Cycle Route from the port of Roscoff to a campsite known as Moliets-et-Maa which is roughly between Bordeaux and the border with Spain.
I suppose the only difference is that I am doing this trip with my old friend Betty. Betty is my little demon, my demon of anxiety and depression who hasn’t been around for a while, but I sense she’s waiting for me, smirking slightly and lying in wait, ready to pounce at any slight moments of stress.
But, in essence I have the real company of Claude (my bicycle), a rather natty little tent which Claude is not invited into, and my husband’s army sleeping bag. I’ve also managed to squeeze in most of the Clinique sun protection range just to ensure that I don’t arrive at my destination looking like a small shrivelled walnut. Claude has his own repair and maintenance kit but the packaging on mine is prettier. I have a tiny cooker thing that looks a bit like a Bunsen Burner and singes the hair on my arms every time I light it, a few other cooking and eating implements, and a stack of maps. First aid kits etc of course and … well, it’s all packed now and I simply can’t remember but am hoping to goodness that I’ve got my passport in there somewhere.
The anxiety levels are pretty much through the roof this morning. The usual symptoms which I’m sure some of you can resonate with … stomach doing a gymnastics performance, palms disgustingly damp, shaking hands and mind and thoughts darting from one corner of my brain, ricocheting off it’s boundary and firing off into another direction. You can understand therefore why I’m rather looking forward to just going in order to end this purgatory. Perhaps purgatory is too strong a word, but it’s been a while since I’ve had it, and had forgotten how awful it is.
But, let’s be very clear here as I’m certainly not looking for any sympathy, I am the one who decided to do this and it certainly hasn’t been forced upon me! In fact most people are appalled. I think they worry about my safety being a woman on her own and all that. But frankly, if it’s as regards the likelihood of being hit by a truck, well, frankly that could happen to a man too, and if it’s about some dodgy bloke trying it on … well woe betide him! They clearly don’t know the volatility and sheer force of a middle-aged, highly strung, hormonal woman when she feels threatened. (See my post Road Rage for further clarification on how I sense I am marginally unhinged).
So no, whilst I am anxiously waiting for the hours to pass, and feeling excited but terrified in roughly equal measures, I’ll say au revoir for now and will post again when I’m on the other side of The Channel. Hopefully, by then I shall have half a dozen croissants in my basket, a large grin on my face and my sense of direction intact (surely, as long as I cycle on the right and keep the sea on my right then I’m doing it right and going roughly south …). As for roundabouts, I haven’t yet mastered them in England, so ….. I guess I’ll just have to keep you posted. Adieu.
I’m a bit of a dreamer, a daydreamer. I fantasise. I obviously need to clarify. Not in a kinky tie-me-up sort of way, no, so stop smirking.
I fantasise about having a pretty little stone house in France with long summers spent with family and friends, eating endless croissants with a table strewn with bowls of salads drizzled with olive oil, baguettes and cheeses. I see a sparkling swimming pool and numerous dogs playing chase with their tongues and tails waving in the dry, warm air, the sounds of a game of tennis interspersed with laughter and squeals of delight. I want it so much that I can almost feel the heat of the sun, touch the lavender in the flower beds, feel it, smell it. Bliss! Ahhhh I’m there!
It’s not completely out of reach. It’s not a “when I win the lottery ….”, it’s a possibility for in a few years time. There are of course problems associated with a big move like that, but the question is always the same. Do the pros outweigh the cons? And a firm and resounding yes can be heard from yours truly.
It’s not that I am discontented living in England and annoyingly I cannot, during this heatwave, even blame the usual atrocities of the weather here. This desire is perhaps associated with the people, the slightly more predictable climate in summer, it’s the thought of the plants I could grow, the peaches, tomatoes without a greenhouse! The quieter rural roads, it’s the beautiful language (“Kev! Put yur facking shoes on before I belt you one!” sounds so much better and more civilised in French), it’s the long lunches, the siestas, the cafes on the pavements, the black coffee and a Gauloise for breakfast, it’s the thought of tap, tap, tapping on my little computer at a little desk in the shade of a plum tree, listening to the chickens scuffling around in the flowerbeds as I write my book. It’s, yes … it’s just a dream. A very peaceful, happy dream that I’ve had for as long as I can remember.
“Pah!” I hear you snort!
“The fool! She’s seeing it all through rose-tinted spectacles! She’s just found an old copy of A Year in Provence. Doesn’t she know she’ll never integrate, never be quite fluent enough, never even look French.”
And yes, you’re quite probably right, but a girl can dream can’t she?
Do you dream of moving away? Of a different life? A different place? Where? How? What?
Some of you might know that I’m doing a wee bicycling trip through France next month. 1150km of pottering along cycle paths and tracks, through villages, past (and into) boulangeries, and following the coast south all the way to where my husband’s family will, fingers crossed, be waiting for me with aftersun, paracetamol and a vat of ibuprofen gel.
I’ve chosen the scenic route which with any luck will mean avoiding the lorries and buses, but may of course mean that I have to endure the sound of my own voice and thoughts for many, many hours a day at a time. Thankfully I’m no singer so there won’t be any renditions of The Sound of Music, but I do ponder on whether I’ll be ok with just … me. It’s not a safety thing, God forbid should some poor fellow think it’s wise to take on this feisty old bird! No, it’s more about being bored of my own thoughts and if things get bad, will I be able to stop the downward spiral of negativity without my usual routines and a practical and heavenly husband just a few miles away.
Well, time will tell and any suggestions are genuinely welcome.
I’ve been going out most days and gradually getting stronger, fitter and more confident. People on the road never fail to astound me however, cyclists and drivers alike. Yesterday I had only three shrieking moments, once with a lorry cutting me up, once with a woman suddenly deciding to cross the road and the last one, much the worst, with a fellow cyclist in front of me deciding to ‘gob’, yes ‘spit’ his phlegm out which promptly landed on my leg. Arghhhhh! Yes, I damn well did give him hell. To be fair, he didn’t know that I was right behind him, but did his mother teach him nothing?!
I got a little lost as per usual, but found Fleet Street, The Strand, Covent Garden and little secret squares tucked away with the occasional terribly smart restaurant hiding within. Beautiful. I was looking to bicycle along Southside which I’d heard was rather fun, but having been stampeded by a school trip of children simultaneously with a group of Japanese tourists I made a bit of a diversion, not even sure if that was Southside.
I ended up in the borough of Lambeth which is dodgy old place, well the part I was in certainly had little to recommend it. Huge tower blocks, screaming children, an ominous feel about it and a few too many ‘young’ loitering (with or without intent I know not). Certainly the blood was pumping as I passed a small group of lads who thought it amusing to try to intimidate me. Standing up on the pedals and pushing on hard, I got past in one piece despite one of them thinking he might outrun me on his skateboard … pfff … as bloody if.
At the far end of this particularly dubious area however I found myself at The Vauxhall City Farm. Quite extraordinary to find Alpacas and chickens in the middle of London. I stopped and watched and listened as two girls had rather an amusing discussion as to whether or not donkeys were carnivores and their safety was in question.
Having a little bell on a bike is now fairly pointless, as people 80% of the time who are walking, have headphones on so can’t hear you, dogs are unpredictable (nearly took out a Dachshund last week) and other cyclists … well I’ve only overtaken three so far and one of them was stationary. I think perhaps I need a socking great foghorn instead, but being slightly highly strung myself, I may well find it’s not awfully good for the blood pressure. I give myself enough frights … the other day in the bedroom I was opening the sliding door of my husband’s cupboard and screamed blue murder as I discovered someone standing in front of me in the cupboard. Dear God! Thankfully it was in actual fact just my own reflection in the mirrored cupboard door, but I needed a bit of a lie down after that. You get my drift … perhaps a foghorn is not the answer.
I’m getting fitter of that there is no doubt and my stamina is improving (particularly with the incentive of a bloke on a skateboard shouting obscenities and chasing me). And the other day I managed to overtake a girl going up a particularly long hill towards Wandsworth as her boyfriend waited patiently at the top for her. It felt good.
I still have a long way to go and watching a YouTube video in the front garden on how to change a bicycle tyre last Friday certainly was a little too public as I ended up having various very kind and well meaning people offering to help, but that wasn’t really the point! How sweet they were, but as I explained, I do need to work out how to do this for myself! People are kind really, they’re not all axe-murdering psychopaths.
So onwards and upwards. Have a lovely day my friends and remember, if you’re in London, avoid the dodgy end of Lambeth past the farm, and for certain, avoid a blonde bicyclist wobbling her way through town with an array of expletives on the tip of her tongue and a rather pathetic tinkly little bell on a bicycle called Claude.
The strange thing about cycling is that it’s impossible to feel any form of depression whilst your thighs are burning, your lungs are screaming, cars and of course other proper cyclists are zipping past, as you force 20lbs of metal and rubber up a hill. Your mind is rather, occupied, shall we say.
Equally, tootling gently around the sunny London somewhat quieter streets and the pretty parks with the breeze in your face and the warmth on your back, seeing the world close up, a feeling of complete unadulterated happiness, of living in the moment totally encapsulates you.
My first trip out was to the sorting office to pick up a couple of parcels. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. According to google maps, a mere 6 minute cycle ride.
I returned home 38 minutes later, and no, there had not been a queue at the sorting office.
I saw two gorgeous old Renault 4’s (along with the Citroen 2CV my favourite ‘pottering along a French country lane’ cars) a beautiful steel grey and white whippet which I knew would have delighted the Colonel, I met a very grumpy old woman whom I had thought I was helping across the road (clearly not) and I discovered that it’s quite hilly in southwest London. I found that I’m good at indicating left, but not right (a rather wobbly affair ensued) and the problem with having a bicycle is that there are no hazard lights, so when all else fails or you’re going to do something highly illegal, you can’t just push the button and everyone knows to avoid you. Simply stopping in the middle of the road on a bike could have serious consequences for the shiny new bike and the considerably older and not so shiny me. I did it once on a mini roundabout (it was going awfully well, but then I had to do the indicating right thing, wobbled rather a lot, so stopped in the centre of the mound of the roundabout). Probably best not to repeat that one. Of course the one advantage that I have, is that when I go on my big adventure in France in August, the mini roundabouts there you go anti-clockwise so I’ll be indicating left, so no wobbling! Hurray … a doddle! (It is anti-clockwise in France isn’t it? Hang on, which way will I be indicating? …. ) And frankly, drive too close to this cyclist at your peril … and possibly mine.
I love looking at the houses, the gardens, the people, the dogs, seeing, really seeing everything. Noticing the detail. The glorious feeling of freedom.
Do you remember the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid film and the beautifully shot, idyllic scene on the bicycle with Paul Newman as Butch, and Katharine Ross as Etta, with the music of Raindrops are Falling on my Head? Well, when I’m cycling that’s how I feel. I am Etta! (Albeit not there in the looks department and I don’t have Paul Newman sitting behind me but you get idea). It’s a time of complete happiness and of being at peace with the world.
So I shall venture out again today and find my inner Etta, that simple purity of enjoying a moment in time, for loving something for what it is, happiness and peace …. unless of course there’s a roundabout to navigate.
What gives you that feeling? Anything else worth trying? All suggestions very welcome (apart from anything smutty or involving a vat of chocolate, or a combination of the two). X