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The Kindness of Strangers

Trails to the forgotten

It’s been difficult to organise my thoughts from the last few days. There has been so much to take in so much has happened both internally and externally. I’ll begin with the end and work back as the here and now always seems most certain. The weather is glorious today. The 33 degree heat is a bit of a shock to the system after so much rain and cold but I refuse to feel uncomfortable in the heat.

We’re in a town called Epinal near the German border with France. Our experience of France has been as I remember it from childhood days – a slower pace of life, familiar but different, and harking back to days gone by far more than I’m used to. We ride on the small back roads, we see more that way and as the top speed of our bikes is only around 50 mph with the bags on it means we’re not holding anyone up here (although we find the drivers here are much more tolerant of bikes and slower vehicles in general by and large, giving a stress free driving experience).

Our route gives us a good view of rural France; shuttered windows and rendered buildings both showing signs of wear, sun-faded paint peeling from the shutters and render crumbling to give a pleasing patina of age-based beauty. A beauty based entirely in imperfection and experience but one that is all the more potent for that fact. The kind of beauty I love, for it speaks of a story, of use and history and can only evolve slowly, organically over time. It speaks of investment and the patient passage of time.

Each village is sleepy and quiet but not excludingly so – no-one seems to mind the disturbance of peace caused by the throaty growl of our bikes as we pass by. We often get nods or smiles from people and we’re moving at a pace that means we can return them, small, fleeting moments of connection. All of this adds to a feeling of contentment and of time suspended. We are under our own steam now, on our own clock with no-one to answer to. Even the Carnet and visas waiting for us across the German border seem unimportant, there’s no need to rush. It is what we dreamed the trip would be when we first conceived it. But it’s taken a little while to get here.

A few days ago we were contacted by someone who knew the roads and was willing to ride with us through the Belgium green lanes. He rode an hour or so down to our Hostellerie and spent the day guiding us along country roads, winding through emerald glistening forests and rolling, mist-hidden farm land towards France. The weather was no better than the day before but this day it seemed no hardship at all, and perfect for the terrain. Rain-wet trees dripping, glistening and shrouded, with all the smells of the woodland coming alive from the pummelling delivered by the water.

We rode all day, alleviated of worry about location or destination and free to focus on the ride. At one point a herd of around a dozen wild boar crossed our path, the backside of the last one disappearing over the hedge and away into the trees as I pulled up.

Later we stopped at a derelict house that Mickey and I spotted. Seeing the neighbour opposite looking out of his window we enquired whether it would be possible to take pictures. He explained it belonged to the man opposite who was out but that it should be OK. He asked why we wanted pictures and we explained Mickey’s interest. He left us to it, but minutes later appeared with three cans of coke shrugging his hospitality off. Warmed by the gesture we continued on.

It’s not the only kindness we’ve received here by any stretch. I speak little French but am willing to try and this seems to go a long way. Crucially though, it also allows for more interesting interactions, I’m not sure if it somehow opens my mind more or something else but I find I’m far more content struggling through a simple conversation than carrying out a complex one in perfect language. Somehow, the human interaction is more pure, more appreciated because each party has had to make a little effort to understand the other. This mutual and willing exchange of effort imbues even the simplest of exchanges with meaning and a sense of achievement and consequently, a little gratitude. This is what has been lacking in my world until now. Talk is cheap as the saying goes. Now I find that it’s anything but.

And then there are the gestures that come from the conversations. Last night as we entered Epinal we stopped to fill up and asked another customer if he knew of any campsites around. After explaining the directions of a good one to us he offered to take us there. Follow me, he said, when I looked surprised he shrugged, it’s Sunday, I’m not busy. And so he duly drove us through the city, ensuring at each turn that we had successfully made it into the junction until he could point out the campsite entrance from the road. I was grateful to be able to thank him in his native language.

I think our mistake in the beginning was expecting life to be the same, effortless, a known quantity, innately understood. And now we find that the effort is not something to be feared or shunned. It is this effort that imbues value. Another mistake born out of this was setting unforgiving targets. We’ve learned now to set ourselves up for success, not failure. We’re not on a guided tour, we don’t have to make ground or even see the sights. We need only take it all in and soak it all up.

We’re in it for the long haul, for the soul-deep experiences that change you. Not the two week change of location that you forget within a fortnight of returning home. We set small achievable goals; get to the next town, find a Tabac. No daily mileage to be crunched, no fixed stops. Get to the next town and reassess, set another goal. That is all. See what comes up, respond. Stay, move on, make the choice on the spot. It’s liberating. It’s only taken a week to get here. I still don’t know if I was made for this. I still have ups and downs. Home has been my stabiliser for so long. But I find I’m getting a feel for it and I see how the small successes – the achievement of making yourself understood by a stranger, of sharing an unexpected joke, of riding that great road you had no idea was there – could become addictive.

But I can't quite suppress the apprehension growing as we head towards another border. Germany is not unknown to me and I know I have nothing to fear, and yet I still do. Perhaps the key is not to suppress it at all. I understand a little more than I did last week now so maybe I’ll be easier on myself this time next week and the next and so on. I find the mistakes are not really mistakes, just learning experiences, trial and error, we try, we adapt. We do it well, it’s all we can ask in the face of so much that’s new. I’m still tired, still a little scared, of what I don’t know, though it’s an almost constant companion. But I also have fleeting moments of contentment and fulfilment on such a scale that they’re worth pursuing. And that is more than worth facing my fears for.


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