Now We Are Three

Well, we’ve been here before.

Four years ago, we saw #1 off to Uni, and it broke our hearts, not in a clingy or mawkish way but because we knew we’d miss him being such a big part of our lives all the time. Then, two years ago, #2 went off 200 miles in the opposite direction, and another little piece of our heart dropped away. #2 had eased our emotional passage by taking a few months off to explore the drug cartels of South America, which he might have felt would soften the blow of living in the more cosmopolitan parts of Bristol. He was right, up to a point; he told me the day before he left for year three that his new flat was next door to a brothel that smelt mysteriously of gravy, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the least, so I guess we’ve all come to terms with managing without each other. And we now have a huge stock (geddit?) of broth-el jokes to while away the winter evenings.

And now it’s time for number three.

I don’t even know where to start telling you about him. One day he’s going to get married, and there will be a queue of people at the wedding trying to grab the microphone and tell the story about the time when Felix said this, tried that, travelled there, made up that song, told that joke, forgot the really important thing and remembered the stupid one, and so on. And we probably ought to leave most of those stories for now, but just as a taster, in case you’re thinking about whether to RSVP to his wedding invite in 2028:

  • This is the boy who, age 3, almost drowned, jumping into a swimming pool to retrieve his toy polar bear. I asked him about this recently and he said he had a very clear memory of jumping in, and realising before he hit the water that he’d no idea how to swim.
  • This is the boy who would wander about so aimlessly (he once went walkabout with a friend when we were walking in the country, and got returned to us by a guy holding a shotgun, whose shoot he’d interrupted) that we started dressing him in a bright red duffle coat so we could spot him in the crowd. He spent most of years 4-8 looking like a still from Schindler’s List.
  • This is the boy who saw a friend walking past the house, and knocked on the window in his bedroom so enthusiastically that he put his arm through the glass, cutting a artery in the process, and spent the rest of the day in A&E, having generously decorated the bathroom red beforehand. All of this was on Mother’s day, which we will celebrate forever more at Emu Towers by watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • This is the boy, who, on a school cycling trip to Holland, managed, within 24 hours, to badly damage his bike within the first mile using only a lunch box and a bungee, get stuck up a tree, and burn his armpits with some dodgy deodorant.
  • This is the boy who can learn every song lyric on a single listen, and who can then sing it back, pitch perfect. Who can gatecrash his father’s gig and belt out the songs far better than his old man. Who can steal the show in front of pretty much any size audience, even if he does choose musical theatre as his preferred medium (I’ve still to come to terms with that).
  • This is the boy whose life was pulled apart when some toerag stole his facebook id, and posted really abusive messages to all of his friends. And because we all assumed that said toerag was one of his ‘friends’, he was the boy who walked to school on his own for the next year, who stopped going out in the evening, who changed schools so that he could distance himself from the scene of the crime, who made a whole new bunch of friends who he knew he could trust, and who did so with far more maturity that we could have ever expected.
  • This is the boy who took £20 into town to buy some stationary for school, got £18 change, and, on the way back gave it all to a homeless man who needed it more than he did.

He’s just a lovely, smart, funny, awkward, charming, beautiful kid. Obviously he’s our kid, so he’s lovelier, smarter, funnier and more awkward, charming and beautiful than any other child that’s ever been born, so it’s always going to be hard work to say goodbye. But we’re old hands at this now, we give him a note that tells him how much we love him, say goodbye and touch his face for the last time before Christmas, then step away before anyone sees any actual tears.

 

Then, like all the other parents dropping their kids off this weekend, we spend the journey home talking about all the things that make them special, and all the differences that there’ll be now that there’s an extra bed in the house, less noise to contend with, and a weekly shop that actually lasts past Tuesday.

 

And in a few days time we’ll see him on a screen on Skype and we’ll talk about little things until the screen freezes and you know it’s not going to come back but you still have the image of his face and you just put your hand out to touch the glass. And, several hundred miles away you know he’s probably doing the same thing.

 

In our case, we trundle home to two lively dogs, and a 15 year old who is extremely nervous about being repurposed as an only child, with all the direct parenting that that entails. We haven’t had a three person family for twenty odd years now, but I’m sure we can remember how to do it. Well, at least until Christmas.

 

 

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The (Hi-viz) Cloak of Invisibility

A long time ago, I found myself working in an office with a go-getter of a manager, the sort of person who had a clear plan of how his life needed to work out in order for him to feel successful. It was so well planned, in fact, that he actually had a piece of paper that personal development coaches would drool over: degree from first class university, management trainee role, directorship role by age 30, partnership/owner of agency by 35, etc etc. It was so ambitious, that I think by the time he was 50 he was planning to be leader of the free world. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t got there yet (I just checked on Linkedin), but then again I don’t think he’s hit 50 yet either, so who knows.

I mention this because in the context of such an organised plan for life, the rest of us might have a bit more of a haphazard approach to where we end up spending our working time. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I ever looked at a job, and applied for it, thinking it would help me along a particular axis of achievement. What’s happened in my life so far has been a process of take on a job, do it for a while, and just as I’m getting bored, or incompetent, or both, someone kindly comes along and offers me something more interesting.

Which is what happened about a year ago. After spending most of my working days in a corporate office environment, it was time for a break, and I left, with no particular plans for the future. Pretty much as the door was closing behind me, I got a call from my (soon to be ex) boss, who was thinking about writing an autobiography, and was after some assistance with fact checking, editing, proofing and all the sorts of things that you need to do in order to get a book published. Which, incidentally, neither of us had a clue about. Seventy shades of fun ensued, getting familiar with all manner of new ways of working, getting a reader ticket to the British Library, spending hours looking through microfiche in dusty basements, speaking to incredibly bright and interesting people who thought little of talking to me between celebrity cookery shoots and the lost archives of PG Wodehouse, and finally holding a finished product in my hot and sweaty hand. Hot and sweaty, largely because I collected it directly off the press, which was a thirty mile cycle ride away.

Then, only a few hours after the hangover of the launch party had cleared, I got a phone call – a friend of a friend was running a construction project, and needed a bit of assistance organising stuff, making sure documentation hung together, and generally to keep him on the straight and narrow. (This, incidentally, is a more detailed job description than anything I’ve received since taking the job on. The benchmark for my continued employment is in line with the only two questions actually asked at my interview – ‘Are you reasonably organised?’ – ‘Yes’ and ‘Are you going to wind everyone up because you’re a complete arsehole?’ – ‘No’). So I said yes, on the condition that at any point (possibly when yes and no above got reversed), we could shake hands, I could walk off the site without having my lunchbox filled with mortar, and go back to wearing a suit and going to meetings for a living.

Anyway, the first couple of weeks went pretty well, so did the first couple of months and before I know it, I’m actually really enjoying myself, learning a ton of new stuff, meeting completely brilliant people, and being part of something that builds something really tangible, that people will enjoy living and working in. And there are bucketloads of lessons to be learnt in both directions between the people who put buildings in the air and people who (say) run projects in corporate environments. There’s stuff about governance, control, project management, people management, partners and suppliers that’s just itching to be written down…but that’s for a future blog. Because this one is about something really specific about working on a building site, that hit me in the face within hours of starting.

When you work on a site, you’re issued with, according to your health and safety rules, personal protective equipment, or PPE. This means you are supposed to wear, at all times, steel toecap boots, a high visibility vest, and a hard hat, plus all sorts of other exciting stuff like ear defenders, gloves, goggles, masks and harnesses, depending on the work you’re supposed to be carrying out, or if you’re headed for the Thursday Fetish night at the Loft (handily positioned just round the corner from our site).

And because you put this stuff on in the morning, if you leave the site, to get some milk or get some plans printed, or top up the unnerving amount of loo roll that seems to be being used up on a daily basis, you keep it on. So as you’re wandering along a street, humming gently to yourself, saying hello to someone you vaguely know, smiling benignly at young parents with difficult toddlers, holding the door open for somebody coming out of a shop, and…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.  You wear boots and a high viz jacket, and the world will summarily ignore you. The security experts of the world call this ‘hiding in clear site’, and apparently it’s all the rage if you want to bypass checks at festivals, nick equipment from offices or get up to any other sort of activity where no-one will look at you. Which is all very well, but a bit odd when you’re not used to it happening.

A couple of weeks after I started on the site, I was buying a coffee from the cafe nearby, actually in the process of handing over the money and getting my change, when a woman pushed right in front of me and ordered a ‘skinny soy latte to go and could you please hurry as I’ve got a terribly important meeting’. I genuinely had to reach around her to get my change; I can’t believe she didn’t see me there, but clearly I didn’t matter in the great skinny soy latte scheme of things. A few days later, I had to go to a meeting, and was wearing a suit – I went to the same cafe, got the same coffee, had a similar pleasant chat, and turned to see an orderly queue formed behind me.

A month or so later, I was walking into town, and saw a friend I’d not seen for about a year. We were walking towards each other, I threw my arms out, and this is what happened:

  • she saw a bloke in a high viz jacket heading towards her with his arms outstretched
  • she noticeably flinched, and swerved slightly to her left to avoid contact
  • noticing that this hadn’t deterred the bloke, she forced herself to look up at his face
  • thankfully she recognised bloke and swerved back into position

And I think that’s pretty much what happens all the time. People see the high viz jacket (it is, after all, doing a fairly good job in drawing the eye). As soon as they do, there’s a negative reaction that, at best, might be ‘this person doesn’t matter to me’. So they look straight past, possibly scanning the horizon for stuff that does actually matter.

All of which is a bit of a shame. Hiding in clear sight may be quite the thing for today’s modern criminal, but it’s very disappointing when it interferes with the morning coffee run.

Next time – why everything you’ve ever learnt about project management is wrong. Or something like that.

I’m just popping out to get coffee.

If you see me, don’t forget to wave.

Like that’s going to happen.

 

 

 

 

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Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part 5

We had a couple of refreshing cold drinks in the big square in Châlons-en-Champagne, grabbed something to eat, wandered back to the hotel, without the need for the detailed map, and slept the sleep of Kings. After each eating our body-weight in breakfast the next morning, we started pedaling off in the general direction of Crépy-en-Valois, which would allow us to drop down into Paris the next day.

On paper, this was a pretty straightforward East to West jaunt of about 90 miles, and luckily, Mrs Google Maps agreed. We had a dream of a start, beautiful weather, light tailwind and a great route next to a canal, weaving in and out of Sunday cyclists. Naturally enough, Mrs Google Maps only really allowed us to enjoy this for a couple of miles, before insisting that we cut across the map without actually using a road. Perhaps knowing that she was on her last chance, Mrs GM played an absolute blinder, luring us along a perfectly reasonable track until it was too late to turn back, then shoving us up a one in four hill made entirely of flints the size of your fist.

‘What better place for our first puncture’, I thought to myself, just after CB#2 announced that he’d punctured, and just before Bean told us that we had another 3km of this before we were likely to see any tarmac again.

CB#2 has many of the physical features of the Incredible Hulk, and pretty much the same sense of social grace. One of the reasons he’s such good value on these trips is because he can fix most things without the need for any tools. His fist operates as a reasonable lump hammer, and he can tighten most nuts without a spanner, not to mention whip off a tyre and tube without anything as fiddly as a lever. So at least his tyre was fixed fairly quickly. I was expecting a bit more rage when his rear rack snapped off after some more stupid off road riding, but he was quite relaxed, almost philosophical. Strapping up the remaining rack (to take home for repairs or parts, apparently), he decanted some of his luggage into our panniers, leaving him with a fairly heavy bag and no form of support. CB#1 told me that his money was on CB#2 strapping it to his back, and I half expected to see him  gripping it between his teeth, but he took the option of strapping it on top of his handlebar bag, making his bike completely unstable. It didn’t seem to stop him descending at a ridiculous pace, and his bodged luggage arrangement lasted all the way to Paris, so we survived. Which is more than could be said for his luggage rack, which he removed a little while along the route because it was ‘beginning to annoy’ him. To be fair, if I thought I was beginning to annoy CB#2, then I’d probably hide in a ditch in France until he’d gone away as well.

The jettisoning of CB#2’s rack took place just after we’d got to the bottom of the unmade road. Speaking politely, the way up had been what the mountain bikers would call a ‘technical ascent’ which means that you’re lucky if you don’t fall off, and it was followed by a technical descent, which meant that you’re both lucky and surprised if you don’t fall off. When we finally hit some tarmac a bit further down the route, it was like cycling into a mirage, and we vowed, not for the first or last time on this trip, to never be dragged away from the road again.

A few uneventful, if murderously hot miles later, we rolled into Crepy-en-Valois, a town almost famous for its extensive array of industrial zones, which unfortunately was where I’d booked our hotel for the night. There being very little either moving or shaking on an industrial estate of a Sunday evening, we ventured into town, ending up at le bar de l’Europe, where I was despatched, as head of communications, to order four beers. This I duly did, opting for the ‘standard’ option. Three beers later, we had not only established that Troll ‘standard’ lager is a thirst quenching 7%, but we’d also established a generous entente cordiale with our fellow drinkers, most notably an Algerian man called Muss, who told us that the new French president was a moron, and that Trump was a puppet to money and oil. Or at least, that’s what I think he was saying, we were both beginning to slur a bit. We both made valiant efforts to involve the non-English and non French speaking parts of the bar together, and managed to find a game which I’d recommend to anyone in a similar predicament. Basically, all you have to do, is remember the French (or English) that you were taught when you were at school, and try to have a conversation in both languages. It doesn’t need to make sense, and works better when you’ve had a couple of refreshing Trolls and work really hard on your accent. The sort of snippet you might have heard as you were walking past the bar de l’Europe might have been:

Drunk French Person: “The sky is blue”

Drunk English Person ‘Ici le Professeur”

DFP: “I have forgotten my umbrella”

DEP “Jean-Paul lance le ballon”

Then Muss bought us all another beer, and things went a little downhill. I have vague memories of steering my bike at a reasonable pace down a one way street, eating pizza and then following a mystery route back to the industrial estate, but it’s all a bit cloudy.

The next morning, we had the sort of breakfast that you’d expect from a dodgy hotel in the middle of an industrial estate on a Monday morning, and got away as soon as we could. At a relatively sober part of the evening before, Muss had insisted that we find the Canal d’Orque and go along that into Paris, and we’d agreed to do just that. And, given that a promise made is a promise kept, we tried our best to find the canal, and to our surprise, Mrs GM actually helped us to do so without dragging us across seven shades of off-road hell.

All of which was pretty good, although by the time we got to Paris Gare de Nord we’d had the sort of city riding experience that we all hate, so it was a relief to get to the station without being knocked about by cars, vans, trucks or pedestrians. Got the bikes on the train, got back to London, and back home in time for all the family to coo over my injuries in a curious style. My youngest son took a number of detailed photographs, and I asked him why – he said that he just needed to show some people. Mrs E made a trip to the 24 hour chemist, and stocked up on dressings for the week, thereby showing a care for her husband that he didn’t really deserve, given that he’d selfishly buzzed off without her for for five days.

I’m writing this last part about 3 weeks after we actually got back, and we’re a week into the Tour de France, where they have faster crashes than ours on a daily basis, and often just get up, change their bike and get treated by the team car while they’re riding back to the peleton…..

t.co/utVt8L03Dd

Which is a bit frustrating, as one of the injuries that I got, on my hip, is still steadfastly refusing to heal. Unfortunately, given its position, the only way I can let it get any air to dry out is by walking around the house in an outfit not a million miles from a Borat mankini. So if you’re planning to pop round any time in the next few days, please make sure you phone first.

troll

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part four

Châlons-en-Champagne is a beautiful medieval city, it’s the capital of the Marne region, despite being tiny compared to Reims, which is in the same department. It has all the hallmarks of being very French and very medieval, a beautiful central square, lots of timber framed buildings, and peculiar stone bridges over a winding river. But if you start from the centre of the city, and head out towards your hotel for the night, as we did, the medieval-ness very swiftly gives way to more modern buildings, so that by the time you’re a couple of kilometres away you could be in pretty much any modern European town.

Stay at the Hotel Bristol, though, and you’ll find yourself transported to a spotless time capsule of around 1972, and you’ll be greeted with an enthusiasm and attention to detail that’s hard for me to do justice to here. The landlady, who spoke fluent French, German and English, soon ascertained that we were English, so proceeded to give us a guided tour in French, with a few words of German for Bean, who had let slip that he’d learnt a bit of German at school. The level of detail presented was astonishing, and it took about 40 minutes to check in, which must have been a bit frustrating for CB#1 and CB#2, who were minding the bikes outside. I made the mistake of asking the best way to get into town, and was presented with two bus timetables, withe the best routes highlighted. and clear instruction on how to walk to the bus stop just outside the hotel. Then a card for a taxi company and clear directions to whatever restaurant that we were to be to call (under no circumstances should we attempt this call ourselves), and details of the hotel (and security access key) neatly stapled to the back. This in itself took about 10 minutes to explain, plus another 5 for the translation into German for Bean’s ‘benefit’. After checking in, we were shepherded into our rooms where we were given the low down on how to use the shower, the blinds, and (I’m not making this up). the sheets and covers. Bean and I were sharing, so received instructions in French/German, CB#1 and CN#2 had the same experience in their native tongue, which left them equally perplexed.

There were, however, two simply fabulous results for us. Mme Bristol followed up her explanations by delivering all manner of baked goods into our rooms, apparently oblivious to the fact that Bean and I were just wearing bib shorts in order to check each other’s injuries (probably not our best look, I really hope she remembered we were cyclists). After getting showered, I braved a reunion, to ask if there was a pharmacy anywhere nearby. Delightfully, I was told that there was one about 400m away. Although it was actually on the same road as the hotel, a map was drawn, showing local landmarks and several places of interest en route.

With these clear instructions to hand, I limped up the hill to the pharmacy, rehearsing the phrases I’d try to learn from Google Translate. These were, essentially, ‘I am concerned about infection on my wounds’, ‘My left arm appears to be twice its normal size’ and ‘Should I see a Doctor?”.

Getting to the front of the queue, I managed all three sentences in rapid succession to a bemused pharmacist, who clearly didn’t understand my flawless pronunciation, and asked a number of quickfire clarification questions which, of course, I had no hope of understanding. There then followed an uncomfortable pause where we both realised that there was negligible common ground. As far as she was concerned, I may as well have been asking for cough medicine, and, for all I know, she may well have been asking me to exit her shop.

I decided to break the impasse by removing the bandage and showing her my elbow. This brought forth a series of ‘merde’s from both pharmacist and interested customers. Fortunately, it also drew the interest of the second pharmacist. Knowing by now that I was beaten on the language front, I asked if he spoke any English, and he said he knew only a few words. Delightfully, three of those words were ‘Walk this way’, as he beckoned me into a side room. I was very tempted to tell him the joke about the man in the Chemist shop who asks for some vaseline, and the Chemist says ‘Walk this way’. ‘If I could walk that way’, says the customer, ‘I wouldn’t need the vaseline’. The prospect of translating this wasn’t too attractive, and I didn’t really know my audience, so I kept the joke to myself.

Anyway, into the side room, where all dressings were removed, and the ‘merde’s were interspersed with some light tutting. The good news was that there was, apparently, no infection, but that the dressings needed to be sorted out properly. I was assured that my new friend could see to this, and he prepared all manner of new dressings and gauzes for action. He made something of a point of showing me an antiseptic spray, which he said might sting a little. I fear this might have been my mis-translation – having experienced the spray going on, he might acually have said something like ‘this will hurt like a hot iron directly spraying hydrochloric acid onto your wound’ It’s just I’m sure it sounded like ‘sting a little’.

There was a slightly awkward point when I had to pull my pants down for him to patch the wound on my hip. This he did by kneeling next to me and gently placing gauze and plaster next to my groin. Naturally this was the point at which pharmacist #1 came into the room, interpreted the scene for herself, muttered a quick ‘pardon’, and immediately exited.

The whole episode had lasted about 30 minutes, and we went back to the counter, where my new friend showed me on a map where the doctor was, wrote down his number, and told me how to tell if the wound became infected. I told him I was incredibly grateful asked him how much I owed him.

‘C’est gratuit’

I protested, I should at least be paying for the dressings, I said.

‘Non, c’est normal’

I shook his hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I could sense that Pharmacist #2 was giving me daggers.

It was the second time on the trip that we’d been subjected to random acts of kindness. It’s an odd feeling, being on the receiving end of someone being so kind, just because they can be; you feel warm and unworthy at the same time.

With my left arm auditioning for a part in The Invisible Man, I headed back, and on to find a restorative cold drink…

 

 

 

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part three

We attempted an early exit from La Louviere; largely as we were keen to avoid any untoward geriatric female attention, although I assured the team that at 7 in morning, anyone we met would at least be fairly sober. As we grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel, however, there was a surprising amount of activity, the pinball machine was rattling away in a fog of cigarette smoke, and everyone in the bar seemed to be nursing the first beer of the day. No sign of Very Mary though, which was a relief to CB#1.

We escaped, and started heading South, following directions from our trusty google maps service. Unfortunately GM had more tricks up her sleeve today (Bean by now had started referring to GM as ‘she’ because of the satnav voice, and was beginning to have something of a tempestuous relationship with her), and we ended up being directed to a grass track, which took us past the awesomeness of the Strépy-Thieu boat-lift and then onto a mud track that was impossible to ride.

ascenceur_strepy

After the customary swear-fest, we dragged the bikes through the mud and forest and found a road, which we managed to stay on as far as Chimay. I only knew Chimay through the beer, which has a fearsome reputation (it varies between 7% and 9% alcohol content), and is brewed by Trappist monks. I think if I was employed for any length of time in producing and tasting this beer, I’d probably lose the power of rational speech, so it probably works quite well all round.

We didn’t see much of Chimay other than to have a fairly civilised lunch, as we just wanted to get this one out of the way. Bean and I were both feeling a bit fragile, and although we were both ok to ride, I had a horrible shooting pain in my left arm every time we hit any sort of a bump. So imagine my delight when we hit a section of cobbles that lasted for 3 miles. ‘You’ll always get cobbles in Belgium’, said CB#2, helpfully.

If you know you’re cycling and your geography, you’ll know that we were fairly close to the Paris-Roubaix route – this is a bike race, charmingly known as the ‘Hell of the North’, which has been run every year since 1896. It’s known as one of cycling’s toughest races, the course is 260km and normally has over 50km of cobbles. I was whining about 5km of cobbles, but the Paris to Roubaix riders are doing ten times that, and they’re racing at 25mph plus, in groups, often with the cobbles wet (the race is in April), making it even more perilous.

So complaining about the cobbles seemed a bit churlish, As did complaining about the whole pain thing. We were in Southern Belgium by now, just above the Ardennes, and quite a few times we’d get to the top of a climb, look to our side, and see hundreds and hundreds of war graves. These weren’t the big American and Allied cemeteries that are more in the North of the country and closer to Ardennes, they were more the local ones for French and Belgian soldiers whose bodies were repatriated – but the numbers were still pretty astonishing, especially for such a rural area. CB#1 reckoned that any one of those soldiers would have loved to be doing what we were doing, which was both a charming and a grounding thought, so with that in mind, we carried on pedaling and I ignored the small hammer banging the nail into my elbow every time we hit a bump.

About 80 miles all told, and we ended up in Charleville-Mézières, birthplace of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and home to a Soviet themed hotel and, as far as we could make out, no pharmacies. On the plus side, a skip and a jump from our gulag was the Place Ducale, which struck us as an excellent place to visit, drink a Rimbaud themed beer, eat mussels and be treated to a free concert from a Belgian heavy rock band. Four things there, very much in descending order of enjoyment.

We kept going South, the next day, rolling into the champagne region, and towards Châlons-en-Champagne. Bean was just on the point of divorcing Mrs Google Maps by now, so we pretty much did the opposite of everything she suggested, and stayed on the roads.   Rolling was the right word for our travel – if you’d taken a knife through the route we took South, and looked at the cross section it would have looked like a corrugated roof. This made for fairly easy, if slightly monotonous cycling, and we decided to fox Mrs GM by taking a main road for the last 20 miles. Cyclng in the gutter of a main road is a challenge anywhere, it’s worse with crosswinds, and much worse with cars and lorries that seem to see you as a target rather than a fellow traveller. On the stretch we took, it was pretty busy, but we were mostly given a reasonable amount of space, and only got buzzed once (predictably by a hot-hatch full of yoofs) – it would have been a far worse experience in the UK.

Anyway, we got to Châlons-en-Champagne without incident, and then went out again, dutifully following directions to our hotel, which was not only in a different part of town, but also in a different part of the space-time continuum…

 

 

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part two

I didn’t see the bump on the path; it was where the tarmac changed to concrete slab, and I would probably have gone over a similar bump a thousand times without any problems.

However, this time, my front wheel had a pretty severe reaction, and popped up violently into the air, probably helped by all the weight on the back wheel. It shot up so sharply that it threw the handlebars out of my hands, and by the time I’d managed to grab them back, the wheel had twisted to one side, and the bike, and me, went over. As the handlebars whizzed up again, I caught sight of my watch, which I remember was reading a very healthy 22 mph. I was fairly pleased with this, but as you can imagine, I had very little chance to congratulate myself before I hit the ground. In fairly rapid succession, I landed on head, hip, elbow, fist and shoulder, and came to rest quite a bit further down the road. I’d seen everything happen in slow-mo, as you do, and as I slid to a halt, I was looking behind me. Rather worryingly, I could see Bean’s front wheel bearing down on me, so I decided I’d be better off with my eyes closed. I waited for the next crash, which, surprisingly, wasn’t with my face.

Bean, with alert reactions that would have been impressive for someone a third of his age, had managed to swerve to avoid me completely. However, he didn’t have a great deal of time to celebrate, as his front wheel then hit a water bottle that had been thrown out of my bike, and he went over as well.

All was quiet, and thankfully, the Chuckle Brothers, who had been cycling a few yards behind, managed to avoid the carnage, and took a victim each.  I don’t remember a massive amount about the next few minutes, other than checking that I could still move everything,  managing to stand up, and noticing quite a bit of blood spilling out of the back of my elbow. With CB#1 taking charge, we used a water bottle to clean up, and some alcohol to clean the wound, which reminded me what pain could really be like. Steristrips were improvised from CB#2’s tape – I’m not sure if these came from a first aid kit or a tool kit, and I didn’t really care. CB#2 had a couple of bandages and dressings which we used to patch up the bits that were bleeding most.

We didn’t have much option but to get pedaling, in the hope that La Louviere would boast some sort of state of the art walk in medical centre with on-site pharmacy and, ideally, a 24 hour on call cycle mechanic. As the next twenty miles dragged by, I’d got it into my head that, at the very least, the hotel would have some sort of first aid kit, and as we rolled gently into town, I’d already rehearsed all of my lines for the conversation with reception.

Unfortunately, those lines never really got used – the hotel that we checked in to had a receptionist who was not really that interested in taking in guests, never mind giving any sort of medical help, although she did look up the nearest pharmacy that would be open. Unfortunately this was 5 miles away, and by the time we got there it would have been shut. I asked if there was somewhere nearer , and got a very impressive gallic shrug.

Fortunately, help was at hand, in the form of Mary. Let’s call her Very Mary for the sake of this narrative. She was very old, and wore a dress that would have suited her better when she was very young. She was very ebullient, and was attached to a very small dog. And she was very, very drunk. Mary had heard the conversation about the chemist, and offered to help. Asking someone to gardez her chien, she set off on foot to find a chemist, which I thought was quite courageous, but then realised she’d just popped round the corner, to see if knocking loudly on the local chemist’s door might persuade them to adjust their opening hours. She returned a few minutes later, and said ‘merde’ a few times while executing today’s second perfect gallic shrug.

We decided to have a beer, partly in the hope that it might deaden the pain a bit. As chief communications officer, I was dispatched to order the beer, so back into the hotel I went, where behind me, my left arm started to cause quite a commotion. Unfortunately, the makeshift bandage had failed to stem the bleeding, and I was merrily chucking blood out all over the barroom floor. This stirred Very Mary into both temper and action, and shouting ‘merde’ again a few more times, she shot out of the bar, around the corner to the chemist, to see if banging more loudly on the door would be more effective. Apparently it wasn’t, and she returned, crestfallen, a few minutes later, inexplicably carrying half a dozen eggs. We had a further conversation, involving more merde/shrugging, and Very Mary concluded that this was simply not how visitors to Belgium should be feeling. She then announced that she was going to go home, and raced (in a fairly uncoordinated style), out of the bar, leaving behind her dog, her eggs, and a faint smell of Pernod.

We decided to wait for Very Mary, although there really wasn’t any clue as to when, or whether, she would return. But one beer and 30 minutes later, she appeared again, with a large paper bag, which turned out to contain a variety of gauzes, pads and bandages. As it turned out, this was exactly what we needed, and I don’t think we could have been more grateful. We bought Mary a beer to say thanks, and unfortunately she seemed to interpret this as a bit of a come-on, also encouraged by us telling her that it was CB#1’s birthday. CB#1 is very much the eye-candy of the four of us (although he doesn’t have much in the way of competition) and it all started to get a bit uncomfortable, as we had a number of lines from anniversary songs, followed by the sort of ‘Grrrr’ animal noises that you might hear in an Austin Powers film, and finally some whispered exchanges between Very Mary and her friend, who, like many of the people we were beginning to meet, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. If you can imagine someone with the face of Freddie Starr, the skin colour of Dale Winton, the body of HM the Queen, and the dress sense of Madonna c1990, you’ll get a general idea of what Very Mary’s friend looked like.

All this was getting a bit intimidating, so I explained in French to Very Mary and her friend that I needed to take a shower. Their bloodshot eyes seem to light up for a moment as they nudged each other, and I had to explain that this was in order to sort out my wounds, and not an open invitation. Then I explained my plans in English to CB#1, who immediately responded that there was no way that he was being left in the bar with those two. Fortunately, I don’t think Very Mary was paying attention, otherwise she might have taken offence.

I hope this doesn’t come across as ungrateful. I’m incredibly thankful that a complete stranger in a strange town took pity on a wounded idiot. And I do wonder, had that been Belgian cyclists wandering into an English hotel, whether they’d have had anything, or anyone, like this as a rescue.

Bean and myself shared out gauzes and bandages between us and got patched up. We even managed to get something to eat. Not a very auspicious start to five days of relaxed cycling, and we were full of trepidation for the miles ahead. As it turned out, we were right to be concerned…

Posted in Cycling, France, People, Travel | 1 Comment

Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part One

Off again for another adventure, this time into France and Belgium. We’ve been going cycling in June for a few years now, and settled into a fairly relaxed approach of cycling stupid distances with limited preparation, sta​ying ​in cheap hotels that rarely fail to disappoint, and generally enjoying what the cycle paths of Europe can offer us.

We normally assign roles at the start of the journey, which this year were as follows:

  • Myself – head of communications, largely driven by my pitifully small knowledge of the french language, but compensated by what I consider to be one of the best French accents in Norfolk, and a full set of Gallic hand gestures
  • Mr Bean – head of navigation – as he had not only an iPhone with google maps, but a data plan that worked, headphones to take instruction from the phone, and an array of batteries that could keep us, or a small village, going for a ​matter of days
  • Chuckle Brother #1 – the voice of reason, and deputy in both communications and navigation
  • Chuckle Brother #2 – chief mechanic and head of security. More on CB#2’s particular talents later

Our bicycles for the journey were prepared as ever with some care – they tend to be road bikes, adjusted to within a fraction of a millimetre to deliver the fastest and most aerodynamic riding position, but then loaded down with not only a rider but panniers holding five days worth of clothes, energy bars, spare parts and whatever else it takes to get the four of us from point to point.

As a result, our perfectly balanced machines end up handling pretty much as you’d expect​,​ if you attached the weight of two fairly hefty infants over the back wheel, and one over the handlebars. You have to be a bit careful of this lack of stability, as it means that your super lightweight bike ends up being both super heavy and completely unstable. And if your route takes you away from a road, then you have even more of a challenge…

Anyway, after a ridiculously early start, we arrived in Lille, and, to our surprise were reunited with our bikes, which, due to some odd complications in the way that Eurostar works, had made their own way there. The plan was to get out of Lille and head for Belgium, so Bean fired up google maps and we set off on the exciting prospect of exiting a large ​French city and not getting separated or injured.

The Lille town planners have done a top job in ensuring that all the main roads have cycle lanes, but unfortunately there are two separate systems, which may well be because of funding and the way that local government takes decisions. It’s almost as if one city council decided to have their bike lanes on the inside of the street , with cars and lorries hurtling by outside the cyclist, then either ran out of money, or power, or both, and another council ca​me in and decided it was a much better idea​ to have the bike lanes on the outside ​of the road. Consequently there is a bizarre series of chicanes, where you swap from inside to outside, and vice versa, in the opposite direction to the cars and lorries. You’d think this would be ridiculously dangerous for all parties, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right.

We managed to get out of Lille in one piece, and started pedaling in the general direction of Belgium, and the specific direction of La Louviere, about 70 miles away. Google maps did a reasonably good job at first, taking us on little roads across the countryside and all was reasonably well. After about 10 miles of this, we discovered a bit of a flaw in google maps’ cycle routing software. To explain, here is a diagram showing a bicycle, ideal for touring the roads of Europe:

Image (64)

And here is a diagram showing what google maps thinks is a bicycle:

Image (63)

Really, some of the routes that google maps took us in were ridiculous – I don’t think you’d want to walk along most of them if you had a choice – here’s a picture of one of the more manageable ones (you can tell that from the fact that the bikes are upright):

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Turning from a crumbling shale road onto another unmade track, CB#1 celebrated his birthday by falling off, although his bike had slowed by the time he went over, due to his front wheel disappearing into a gravel trench. As a result, it was one of those comedy falls that take place at negligible speed. However, comedy moment or not, nobody laughed. It was just the first fall, after all, and like punctures, you don’t want to laugh too loudly as it’ll be your turn next.

Eventually, we managed to find a road, and then into Belgium, where we hooked up with the Ravel bike network, which, all things considered, is a thing of wonder – a network of bike routes across Belgium, mainly on converted railway tracks and canal paths, but with a bit of consideration for the cyclist as well. We got onto the Ravel canal path at about 40 miles, and by 50 miles we were flying along, no other bikes on the path, nice flat tarmac and a slight crosswind. In a ‘this is the life I was keen to lead’ style, I decided to get to the front of the group and see how fast I could comfortably go, and, to my surprise, and possibly because we’d been messing about for so long getting to this point, felt pretty good as we got up to 20mph. At 52 miles, I looked at my watch and we were hitting 21mph, and at 53 miles we were easily hitting 22 mph. Nothing too exciting for a road cyclist, but a fair lick for a touring pace. The canal shimmered lightly as we whizzed past coal barges, and the birds were tweeting their merry Flemish songs in the trees to the other side of the path. All was very right with the world.

And then something horrible happened…

 

 

Posted in Cycling, France, Travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments