Oranges and Bananas

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. The second half of 2018 was dreadful for a couple of reasons, and I guess I’ve not wanted to be bending your eyes with either triviality or darker thoughts. Now that the year is out of the way, there’s a bit more perspective on things, so I’m hoping to post some vaguely measured stuff fairly soon.

In the meantime, here are some words about Seville, which Mrs E and I came back from a couple of days ago. But before we get to Seville, a bit of background on Mrs E’s relationship with Christmas.

Christmas is one of those areas where we don’t entirely see eye to eye. Given my way, December would kick off with an elaborate advent calendar, door bells playing sleigh bell music, heavy pudding construction, impractical candlelit card-writing sessions, and generally work its way into a frenzy of cheese, port, frozen cold dog walks, and close harmony carols at the end of the month. Then a quick wind down to a debauched New Year, a series of light regrets and promises, then pack all the decorations away for another year. 

Mrs E’s take on the festival is rather different. It’s not that she actually hates Christmas, it’s more that she wants to spend as little time on it as possible, and then get it out of the way really sharpish. To be fair, some of this humbuggery (very much like normal buggery, but when you don’t know the words) dates back to the time when there were four small children with stockings to prepare. This meant there’d be around 80 presents all needing to be wrapped late on Christmas Eve, which was often the time I’d arrive home a little bit too full of festive cheer, enthusiastically slurring my season’s greetings. As a result, we’ve always played a game of ‘decoration chicken’, which involves choosing the right moment to put up any decorations to finally admit that Christmas has arrived. Mrs E’s starting point in the game is that she’d accept decorations going up on 23rd December, and down on 26th. Given that I’d probably prefer a full month, any minor extension of her window tends to be a bit of a hollow victory, but it’s celebrated nonetheless: ‘Mum’s let us put the tree up with a week to go’ broadcasts the family WhatsApp message.

Well, this year, the decs were all packed away on the 28th, we had a very mildly debauched New Years Eve, which was largely spent wondering where our children were, and then took ourselves off to Seville on the 4th for a few days. 

And found ourselves in the run up to Christmas, which, given the above, was a bit of a disappointment to Mrs E. 

Our preparation for the break was woeful, extending only to flicking through the guidebook (welcome to Seville, home of bullfighting) and learning a couple of phrases (‘Yo no halo espanol’; ‘peudo tomar una cerveza’), and didn’t take into account checking local customs and festivals, which in Spain, means we missed the whole point of Christmas in January. 

As far as I understand it (now), the Christmas festival in Spain goes something like this: 

  • start getting excited and a bit of light carol singing in mid-December
  • Big celebration and lots of food on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass
  • Wander the streets playing guitars and shining torches after midnight
  • Lots more rich food on Christmas Day
  • Wait until 28th, when the ‘Dia de los Santos innocentes’ (a bit like April Fool’s Day) gives you permission to play hilarious tricks on innocent victims (I’m really glad Mrs E missed that)
  • Go mad on New Year’s Eve, including eating 12 grapes within the 12 strokes of midnight for a year of good luck (ditto)
  • Then start ramping up for the really big bit of celebrating Epiphany, which is the big event, lots of nativity scenes, loads of models of wise men in shop windows, children getting excited about the 6th January, when they get all their presents, and parades like you wouldn’t believe…

I’ve not seen a decent parade for a few years, and it seemed like most of Seville had turned out to see what was going on, on both Friday and Saturday night. The general theme seemed to be to get anyone who could play a brass instrument or ride a horse, find some uniforms or costumes, and send them through the streets of the city throwing out sweets to the spectators. Writing it down like that underplays it a bit, because the crowd was so enthusiastic, cheering, shouting and being pretty athletic whenever a shower of sweets came their way, that it had a carnival atmosphere that you don’t get at too many religious events. 

Slightly disturbing was the several hundred people following the procession in blackface – something that we weren’t prepared for at all. There’s quite a bit of reaction to this on the web at the moment, so have a look some time and see for yourself. I can’t imagine the sort of reception that this would get at home, and there seemed to be a complete ambivalence to it as a ‘tradition’. A couple of days later, I managed to blag a ticket to Sevilla FC, who were at home to Atletico Madrid, at a stadium that was beyond awesome.

I had my bag searched on entry, and had to go through three levels of security before I was allowed to take in a banana, which I thought was a little odd. I tried to explain that it was my lunch, rather than a weapon, which got no response at all. I understood a bit more about twenty minutes into the game, when little sections of the crowd started making monkey noises every time Thomas Partey got the ball. I thought that we’d said goodbye to that sort of behaviour at football about twenty years ago, but apparently it was still ok in that neck of the woods.

Anyway, aside from that, and the other odd tradition of ritually killing dumb animals in front of thousands of baying spectators, Seville seemed nicely civilised and full of reasonably jolly people. Lots of medieval streets, big old catholic statements, lots of water and bridges, and seriously fruit-filled orange trees everywhere you looked. 

We stayed on for a couple of says after all the Epiphany fuss had died down, and the city felt like it was starting to settle down to a sunny normality. Even the sugar had been washed off the roads and paths, meaning that you could walk along without your feet sticking to the ground – we’d seen people be separated from their shoes after the parades as their heels stuck to the sugary mess of several thousand trampled sweets.

We stepped onto our flight home out of an unwashed blue sky, and a couple of hours later, stepped into the grey drizzle of Stansted, and drove home talking about how we could wish away the rest of the winter, and when we’d next see a decent sunny day. 

The next day, metrosexual man that I seem to have become, I tracked down some Seville oranges and made some marmalade. Well, every little helps.

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Town in a Box

Greetings from Majorca, where Mrs E and I have spent a relaxing time not worrying about marathon running.

The initial plan was to come over and run the marathon, which took place a couple of days ago in blazing hot sunshine, and with a ‘what could possibly go wrong’ approach, we booked travel and hotel about six months ago, just as I started yet another athletic comeback. 

Naturally enough, I got injured with about 8 weeks to go, and so concluded that it would be a bit daft to try and run the race at all, and after seeing the poor souls who hadn’t got injured plodding the roads around Palma on Sunday, I was secretly happy to have pulled out.

Waking up on Monday morning without any of those normal post-marathon, not-able-to-walk-down the-stairs-and-feeling-horribly-sick feelings, I decided to go for a run, looked out of the hotel window, and saw, about two miles away, the biggest boat I’d ever seen. Actually, calling it a boat feels a bit reductive. It  was more like a small town had suddenly plonked itself on the side of the island. Naturally I ran towards it, to see if my eyes had been playing up again. It was a windy morning, and the breeze was coming off the sea, and as I got about a quarter of a mile away, the wind just stopped, which was a bit odd, until I realised that the MS Symphony of the Seas (for it was she) was acting as a bloody enormous windbreak.

Anyhow, the MS Symphony Of The Seas is, according to my sources (that’ll be the internet then) the largest and most ambitious cruise ship ever built. I’ve already mentioned that it casts quite a shadow, but here’s some other stuff of note:

  • it’s 362m long
  • it has 18 decks
  • it can carry 9,000 people
  • it has a crew of 2,200
  • It has 40 restaurants and bars
  • it has 23 pools
  • it has two west-end sized theatres
  • it has a full size basketball court
  • it has two 43 foot climbing walls
  • it has a ‘central park’ with 20,000 tropical plants
  • it has an ice skating rink

and it cost $1.35 billion to build. 

Let’s just dwell on a couple of those for a moment. A 43 ft climbing wall? Sorry, my mistake, two 43 ft climbing walls? Is one more challenging than the other, or do they worry about double bookings?  I’ve not done that much climbing in my life, but when I have, the one constant that you could be fairly sure of was the rock face. That, an appreciation of gravity and a rough rule that you need to keep three limbs on the rock as much possible, is pretty much all you need to know in order to go climbing. Then along comes the MS Symphony of the Seas, and chucks in another variable, ie a rock face that moves every time you hit a big wave. 

Then there’s the ice rink.  I’ll fess up at this point and say that I never understood ice skating as a recreation. I find it quite hard to balance on ice at the best of times, without being strapped into ankle breaking pixie boots with knives attached to the soles, and being asked to stand upright. It’s not as if getting good at it will achieve much either, you either go down the route of sequinned jumpsuits or into the world of mental Canadian sport, where every player seems to be hell bent on beating up members of the opposition at any given opportunity. Anyway, my previous point still stands. All of that would be bad enough if the ice stayed in one place, but crashing around on the ocean wave? Well, that seems like you’re asking for trouble. 

Later that afternoon, and me and Mrs E are walking down to the town, and headed for the cathedral – probably the most jaw-droppingly beautiful bit of architecture you’ll see on these islands, made yet more so by being surrounded on three sides by some pretty brutal hotel towers. On the other side of the road were parked up a fleet of coaches, all marked as pick up points for the MS Symphony of the Seas passengers, so we were able witness first hand a good cross section of those 9,000 people who’d come aboard to sample the wonders of Majorca for a few precious hours. And we did, because we’re nosy like that.

I guess the first thing that I’d comment on would be that the ratio of restaurants and bars to climbing walls seemed a bit generous. Perhaps because the passengers were contrasted against a population who seemed to be cycling, jogging or recovering (remember this was the day after the marathon) along the beachside, they just seemed so, well, unfit. Not just in a corpulent ‘elasticated-waists-have-never-gone-out-of-fashion’ sense, but in genuinely seeming to have a problem with the concept of moving their own bodies without motorised assistance.  There’s a danger of getting a bit fat-cist here, and I don’t really mean to, because the main observation I’d make was much more important – everyone looked so incredibly miserable. Without exception, everyone, puffing away towards those air conditioned bus steps, was grimacing like their cat had just been put down. Which seems perverse, given that they’d been whisked from their floating palace to see the most amazing building on the Balearic Islands, before sauntering down past lush gardens and fountains and up to bright blue water and glittering beaches. What’s more, this, was supposed to be their jolly holidays. 

It costs about £7,500 for a 12 night cruise for 2 from Barcelona to Miami on the MS Symphony of the Seas. This is the equivalent of 3 months salary for the average UK family (which would include anything that said family would put away for their own holidays). Just thought I’d wrap a bit of context there, before I sign off with an inevitable ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ line. It can, however, buy you a go on a 43ft climbing wall. And if you ever find yourself aboard the MS Symphony of the Seas, I reckon that’s free most days.

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

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…

 

 

 

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…

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…

 

 

The mutt’s nuts (part two)

In our last exciting instalment, we left Solomon, a sweet adolescent dog (regarded by Mrs E very much as her fifth son, and treated with more devotion than any of the previous four), nervously anticipating a trip to the vets to remove any opportunities to create little Solomons in the future.

As we could easily have predicted, he wasn’t keen on the exercise at all, and started whimpering softly as the car pulled in to the vets, the scene of previous anti-emetics and painful injections. Mournfully he looked up at Mrs E, as if to say “Why Me?”. Mrs E, however, was probably thinking that if the exercise went well, she might investigate a similar exercise on certain of Solomon’s four predecessors.

We picked him up later that day, and he was more pleased to see us than, say, a dog with two tails. There was also a soldierly air about him that said ‘Oh this old scar, don’t worry, it’s not bothering me at all’. He was a bit like my friend M, who is a carrot farmer, and had a vasectomy scheduled one morning during harvest, so made it very clear that he needed to be right back on the tractor in the afternoon. Which he was.

However, Norfolk dogs need to be treated with a certain more care than Norfolk farmers, it would appear, and so Solomon was restricted to lead walks for a week so as to avoid pulling his stitches out, something which he found slightly irritating. And even more irritating when, after a couple of these, Luna found that she could wind him up by running full pelt at him from behind, bumping into him. then sprinting off into the distance. It reminded me very much of David Gower in a biplane at a test match, or, if early 1990’s cricket references aren’t your kind of thing, Dawn French in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Dawn’ (specifically around 4:50 on this clip, but if you’ve not seen this before, do watch the whole thing, at least three times) :

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2ndp6c

After a week of this, Solomon and Mrs E had had quite enough (although I think Luna could have kept going happily for a couple more months), and he was let off the lead, with no negative issues for either scars or stitches. At which point, on pretty much every walk, Luna spent a lot of time barking at him to calm down.

Some months ago, Mrs E told me that she would definitely need a final celebration of her special birthday year, which I dutifully booked. I opted for a romantic weekend, a mere skip and a jump from the Peak District hotel where we spent our wedding night (an evening, that, for reasons I’ll tell you about another time, was spent with Emlyn Hughes, and which, as a consequence, is marred in my memory by a ridiculously voice calling out “3:1! 3:1 we won that day” at a pitch that Solomon would have heard even more acutely than we did). However, the romance of the birthday break was soon to dissipate, as it became clear that this was primarily a weekend for Solomon to recuperate, and start his genital-free life anew.

Fortunately, the romantic cottage we’d booked was declared ‘dog friendly’ on the web, we quickly ordered a book called something like ‘Suitable Walks for Freshly Neutered Dogs in Derbyshire’, and set off for a gentle adventure.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d spent some time in the company of an estate agent, with a challenging taste in business wear and a generous weekly allowance for hair product, who told me that the estate agent’s best friend was the wide angle lens. I was reminded of this conversation as we walked into the cottage, and soon found the ground floor fully occupied simply by closing the front door. There were quite a few sideways and backwards moves required in order to navigate the process of preparing a meal, not entirely helped by the dogs not having a reverse gear. This picture will give you an idea of the starting position.

puzzle-image

Anyway, we were met by the very friendly, and fortunately, quite thin, cottage owner, who wedged her way into the porch to give us some advice, which included the news that the dogs would not be allowed upstairs, despite the stairs being completely open. With a nimbleness afforded only by many years of yoga and aerobics classes, Mrs E manoeuvred her way from position 3 to 12, with very little injury to either dog, and made it clear to our hostess (now resident at position 14), that there was no way that her little darlings were going to be kept downstairs in a strange house, no matter how cosy. Fortunately, a major diplomatic incident was avoided, as our hostess squeezed across to position 15, inspected the dogs, and declared (seriously) that they had short enough hair for this not to be an issue.

Having scored the first moral victory of the day, we all trooped upstairs, to investigate the ‘compact and bijou’ bedroom with some interest, finding just about enough room for two carefully folded dogs on my side of the bed.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was to spell the end of romance and very much the start of pampered recuperation. Solomon’s recent operation had, for some reason, altered his body clock to be wide awake at odd hours of the night. It had also given him a healthy appetite, and interestingly, an enthusiasm for all sorts of excrement littered across the Derbyshire countryside. He had a particular penchant for Sheep shit, but was also partial to a bit of Cow and Horse. As a result, his breath absolutely stank. He is probably oblivious to a combination of halitosis, farm animal excrement and gingivitis, but it’s hard to ignore when it’s delivered at 2 in the morning directly onto your mouth. Telling him to lay down and turning your back doesn’t really work either, unless your idea of a wake-up call is being rimmed by an enthusiastic puppy five minutes later. I mentioned this to Mrs E, who made it clear that her empathies were all with the dog. Anyway, all things considered, I prefer a snooze button.

Anyway, Solomon certainly seemed to have received the message that this holiday was for him, and him alone, and subsequently lorded it over all and sundry. I suspect he’s over compensating, as, if anything, his chest is puffed up even higher than ever, but at least he’s stopped humping animate and inanimate objects without warning. He seems pretty relaxed, if his sleeping position is anything to go by:


And if he winds me up, I just whisper ‘Jaffa’ in his ear. He doesn’t necessarily understand, as, being Hungarian, the finer points of British slang can be lost on him, but it makes me feel much better.