MAY 2009 (A HOSPITAL)
I cannot remember when my love of bicycling began.
I do remember as a teenager waiting excitedly for a friend of my fathers to arrive on a sunday and throw our bikes (and us) into the back of his van and head off into the dublin mountains for a days cycling.
How I loved those sundays, It was probably springtime and our bikes may not have been the best but youth and enthusiasm made up for them.
I don’t remember punctures or tiredness, just the pure joy and exhilaration of flying down one hill and up the next. The lakes to our right. Forests to our left. The yellow of the gorse and how it smelt like coconut. The song of the birds. the trickle of nearby mountain streams. The road ahead stretching and winding through the blue of the hills and on into the distance.
I continued to cycle through my student nursing days, my marriage, my pregnancies, my childrens upbringing. I must state here that my way of cycling was not that of a racer. It was the happy constant cycling of someones who enjoys travelling at a leisurely pace in the fresh air and noticing life around them as they pedal.
A meditative pedaler might be a better description.
But now here I was, sitting in a hospital bed with a zigzag incision from mid thigh to mid belly and two surgical drains protruding from my groin .
And this was just the start.
I still had a year of treatment to get through. Yes I had lots of time to dream and plan.
I patted my poor battered leg sympathetically.
‘Don’t worry. Everything is going to be ok. When this is over we will go on a journey, just you, the yellow bike and me. And by the time we come home it will be as though this was just a bad dream’.
OCTOBER 2010 (BORDEAUX AIRPORT)
Its not what I had envisioned.
I thought France was supposed to be filled with men wearing black berets, and striped jumpers shirts shouting ooh la la at pretty women wearing Brigitte Bardot headscarves.
AND the weather was supposed to be sunny! except for a day or two in april in Paris when there might be a gentle sprinkle of rain, just enough to give himself an excuse to kiss you under the shelter of an arch at the pont des arts.
Instead I was standing under an overpass just outside the main doors of bordeaux airport in the lashing rain and whipping wind in full view of a line of dour looking taxi drivers.
At my feet forming increasing puddles were three items. A set of flowery panniers. A bicycle basket and a large sodden dishevelled cardboard box.
Flying a bicycle is easy with just a few small measures to be carried out.
- The tyres must be deflated
- The handle bars dropped
- The saddle lowered
- The pedals inverted
- The bicycle installed in either a customized bag or a cardboard box.
Its how you manage on landing that may prove more difficult.
Firstly I chose the cardboard box because I didn’t want the added weight and storage of a bike bag (they are large items) and my plan was to dispose of the box on arrival and pick up a fresh one from a bike shop for my return flight.
Of course I hadn’t thought the disposal of such a large box through.
But from where I was standing I could see three waste bins.
If I was lucky they might be empty.
I began to strip the soggy cardboard off the bike and run backwards and forwards to the bins all the time trying to keep an eye on my possessions through the slanting rain.
I needn’t have worried. No robber in his right mind would be working on such a day.
Pleased that I had managed the disposal I looked at the bike.
Then I looked hopefully at the taximen. Weren’t french men were suppose to be the most chivalrous in the world ? I knew at any moment one or even a few would open their doors and swagger over to offer assistance
But no! They were settling further back in their seats for an afternoons entertainment.
Some were even taking du pain and du vin out of paper wrappers, others were lighting up gitanes.
All were looking in my direction with interest.
Well I would show them!
With a flick of my wrist I turned my bike over and pulling a small spanner from my basket corrected the pedals.
I pumped up the wheels.
I turned the bike bike upright again and adjusted the saddle
The only thing that stymied me was the handle bars. No matter what I did they just kept dropping.
Not wanting to give my audience reason to smirk I just pretended that this was the way we cycled in Ireland. Leaning forward at an uncomfortable angle and clutching obviously unstable handlebars.
Throwing the panniers across the back carrier and buckling on the basket I sailed forth into the rain.
I didn’t get far. Mainly because I didn’t know where I was going and I couldn’t remember where I had stored my map.
But also because it was becoming increasingly dangerous to try and cycle with my low hanging swinging handle bars.
I persevered. I am a survivor after all and I could not allow such a small inconvenience to detain me.
After a while I was beginning to see the same sign posts again and again, mostly for hertz and europcar.
I soon realized my suspicions were correct . I was cycling in circles around the car hire compound.
On top of this it was getting dark.
My Daughters voice popped into my head ‘Mom! your flight gets in late afternoon. By the time you collect your bike and assemble it it’ll be getting dark. I’m going to book you into an airport hotel for the night. You can relax and start out refreshed in the morning. You’re only finished your treatment. Take it easy’. She wrote the name of the hotel on the first page of my new diary along with Love you Mom, have a great adventure. You are right as always dear Hanna.
The girl in the eurocar hut was not at all perturbed to see a hooded wet bedraggled person staring in the window at her.
She opened the door and enthusiastically admired my bicycle. ‘Quel joli velo’ She chirped putting her two hands to her heart.
‘Entrez’ She invited me in pointing to the coffee dispenser.
I shook my head. I knew if I went into that warm yellow lit hut I would never leave it again. Instead I told her the name of the hotel I was looking for and she gave me simple directions.
As I turned to go she asked ‘Puis-je? and whipped her phone out of her bag.
Before I had a chance to reply she snapped a few shots of the bike and popping her fone smartly back in her bag explained ‘Pour mes amis’!
‘Au revoir et merci’ I called over my shoulder . The small figure silhouetted against the yellow light waved once and closed the door and I was once again alone in the cold wet darkness.
The rain started to lighten a bit and I found the hotel easily.
Getting up the courage to walk across the shiny marble floor in dripping rain gear was not so easy.
I stood debating whether the best ploy was to wiggle the wet trousers here under cover and try and gather my hair into some sort of acceptable appearance.
I shouldn’t have let my daughter book after all. This hotel must be at least five star, all glass and marble with gold trim.
Before I had a chance to make a decision the massive doors slid open and a girl behind the reception desk called out first in french and then in english ‘Don’t worry come in as you are’. I looked behind me expecting to see a fur coated jewelry swathed model, but I was the only one there.
‘Entrez s’il vous plait’ She beckoned me anxiously as though I was going to change my mind and scamper off into the dark. I trotted apologetically over to the desk, leaving a trail of wet muddy prints.
‘But bring your bicycle also’ She continued ‘You can’t leave it out there! Look we will put it in the baggage room where it will be safe’.
I followed her pointing finger.
A large glass room to the right was dotted with Gucci and Armani matching suitcases
I went back out still dripping rainwater and returned adding a muddy tyre trail.
The receptionist didnt blink an eye but instead as she came out from behind the counter with a large key exclaimed ‘What a pretty bike’ then she put her head critically to one side ‘But the handle bars they are incorrect non’? She tapped them with a well manicured finger and they swung back and forth.
I explained how I had tried to fix them.
‘Pas de problem’ she smiled. ‘There is a big sports shop! you know Decathlon’ ?
I shook my now frizzly drying hair.
‘Its just down the street. Leave your things here in the room in the morning and bring your bicycle down first. They will fix it for you tres vite. Ask for Gaston! you cannot miss him! he is very tall and handsome.’ She laughed and added ‘Of course I say that because he is my boyfriend’.
So next morning I did as bid and as promised Gaston not only repaired the handlebars but checked the tyres too. and the cost ? nothing!
‘Quel joli velo’ he smiled as he wheeled it outside for me.
I’m not sure but I thought I heard the yellow bike purr.
And that is when I began to realize just how much the french adore bicycles.
You can go into the highest starred michelin restaurant covered in mud but if you have arrived by bicycle the Maitre D’hotel will welcome you with open arms and give you the best table. You can pull into a five star hotel dripping rain and mud and without blinking an eye they will put your bike in the luggage room beside all the designer cases as tenderly as though it was made of gold.
Qui le francais adorent velos!!