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.
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…