Once upon a time there was a girl. Well a woman really. Actually she was a grandmother.
And she was a happy optimistic person who loved doing interesting things!
Things like climbing hills in her bare feet, swimming in the sea at night and heading off on her yellow bicycle exploring.
Now she did these things mostly alone because not many people she knew were keen on swimming in the dark or they didn’t fancy stubbing their toes climbing mountains in bare feet.
As for cycling? She liked that she could choose which way and which road to take. She liked the feeling that if she was halfway down a road and decided to turn and go a different road no one would think she was odd.
And in all that time she was never ever afraid.
One day she saw an ad for a group who loved cycling.
‘Hurrah’ she thought ‘I will join this group and join other happy interesting people and read happy positive bicycley things’.
But to her sadness she discovered that even though these people LIKED to cycle most of them were very AFRAID.
They were afraid of falling off their bicycles and hurting their heads so they wore plastic helmets.
They were afraid of being invisible so they wore jackets in loud harsh colours.
They were afraid of cars so they began to dislike the people who drove them.
They were even afraid of other cyclists who went much faster than them.
The girl/woman/grandmother began to think that maybe they are right and she was wrong.
Maybe cycling wasn’t a happy thing but a scary thing and she should take more care.
So she went to the bike shop and bought a plastic helmet for her head and a bright jacket of loud harsh colours.
And the next day she went cycling down the country lanes with her helmet buckled under her chin. But soon she felt dizzy and confused and very wobbly. So wobbly that she fell into the hedge and landed on a bunch of nettles.
She got up and took off her helmet and decided it was too dangerous to wear so she put it in her front basket instead .
As she cycled on she realised something very strange. It was really really quiet. Something was missing.
‘Thats it’ she thought ‘There is no bird song’.
She was getting very hot so she took of her loud coloured high viz jacket and rolled it in a ball and put it in her bike basket.
Within minutes the birds (who had been frightened by such harsh colours) began to sing happily in the hedgerows again.
As she came around the corner she stopped just in time to avoid hitting a car approaching from the other direction on the narrow road.
She popped off her bike and began to pull it into the ditch out of the way and let the car pass.
But the driver called out through the open window ‘Its ok! There is a gate just back there I can reverse into’ and he did.
And as she cycled by he called out again ‘I envy you on your bicycle, normally I would be on mine too but I have to bring my mother for her doctors appointment’. A small frail women waved out from the passengers window at her.
When she got home she put her high viz in the bin. She put her plastic helmet in the holly bush, (Maybe a bird would make a nest in it) and she pulled out her map of france and made a plan.
Because she knew she had been right all along.
Cycling WAS a fun and safe way to travel.
She took her pen and drew a line across the map from the atlantic to the mediterranean.
DAY THREE. THE ‘ALLO ‘ALLO CAFE’
I lay on the smooth earth beside the path and listened to the birds.
A gentle breeze rippled the grasses and near my ear a grasshopper chirped . A bee buzzed in the vines and I could smell the sweetness of the grapes.
Somewhere closeby there was the sound of rushing water.
Now and then voices would approach and a few other cyclists mostly in full regalia would zip by, calling out out a cheery ‘bon voyage’ before disappearing in a cloud of dust then all would be calm again for a while.
The drone of far off tractors, busy with the grape harvest, was soothing.
I would have loved to throw a blanket over myself and sleep here for the night.
Instead I sat up and once again examined the red rash around my swollen ankle.
I should have taken it easier, not tried to cover such a distance in one day.
My effected leg would be prone to lymphoedema and cellulitis for ever . I needed to be gentler with it.
With still another 10 kms to go before I reached a town that would possibly have a bed and breakfast I was getting worried.
Sighing I gathered myself together and decided to walk for a while. Maybe that motion would help.
As I rounded the corner I spied a gap in the hedge and hammered into the ground was a wooden sign LE MOULIN and underneath CHAMBRES D’HOTES.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I pushed the yellow bicycle through the gap and wheeled it across a large lawn, past a vast plot of ripened pumpkins and over to an enormous stone mill building whose stream was gushing and turning the mill wheel.
I leant my bike against the wall and pulled the chain at the door. The jangling echoed through the building barely audible over the sound of rushing water.
The young woman who opened the door was very apologetic ‘We are closed for the season’ she said.
I was nearly at the gap again when she caught up with me
‘Attendez’ she called breathlessly ‘Yes it is true we are closed but I have just phoned my husband who agrees if you are prepared to rise at 6 am you can stay. We are both physiotherapists in the hospital of Bordeaux and have to leave very early for work’.
I nearly kissed her. ‘Of course I will leave early It is no problem’. I explained that I was a nurse and understood and was well used to early starts.
She smiled and we went back to the mill.
My room was large with a beautiful old bed. The linen was slightly damp but I didn’t care and anyway she was wrestling with some ancient heating system.
When the loud clanking of pipes settled into a hum, she turned and before I could object whisked the old linen away and returned with fresh.
Together we made up the bed again.
‘Now for food’ she said.
I could see her brain ticking away and sorting out the list of problems methodically.
‘You will need to eat! Quelle domage but I do not do evening meals’
‘Pas de problem’ I said ‘I have some bread and cheese and fruit’
She looked at me aghast and I remembered the importance of meals to the french.
She picked up the phone, waited a minute then spoke some rapid french into the receiver.
Ok’ She looked pleased with herself ‘I have made a reservation for you for dinner in our village cafe. It is just 1 km further along the path. You can’t miss it. It is the only cafe there’.
She was right! I couldn’t miss the cafe in the sleepy single road village.
It was where the action was. A group of noisy youths were hanging out outside.
Some leaning nonchalantly against their motor bikes. Others strewn long legged and leather jacketed at the various tables of a small terrace .
The smell of gauloises filled the air and a pall of smoke hung over their handsome faces. And I had forgotten my bicyle lock!
I looked at them anxiously ‘Quelle jolie velo’ One cried as he sauntered over to check out the yellow bike.
‘Are you engliiish’? He asked, hunkering down to examine the painting on the skirt guard.
‘No I am Irish’ I said uncertain of their friendliness.
‘Aw Luke kelly’ shouted another.
A woman appeared at the door of the cafe.
Dyed blond curly hair swept up into a towering bouffant. A gash of scarlet lipstick slashed across her mouth from which dangled a cigarette. Her eyes were lined with kohl and her cheeks heavily rouged. But it was her dress that drew my eye! Leopard skin print and as tight and as short as possible and on top of this she was managing to balance on the highest of high heel shoes.
She inhaled deeply on the cigarette then throwing the but onto the road smiled at me.
‘Entrez’ She ordered
I looked from my bicycle back to her in panic.
The youths seeing my face, burst out laughing. One put his hands to his heart in a mock dramatic fashion ‘Your velo, it is safe with us’.
Inside the cafe it was dark and gloomy.
A row of large bottomed men in blue overalls sat at the bar.
They turned in unison to look at me as I entered.
‘Bonsoir’ I mumbled and they nodded dourly and turned back to their wine.
Two were smoking .
I smiled to myself and thought ‘only in france’.
(The smoking ban was well installed all over europe at this stage).
A large dog lay at their feet, asleep.
There was a single round plastic table and a chair over at the window with one place set.
Madame Leopard pulled out the chair and indicated I should sit.
I was afraid to do otherwise. She disappeared and I began to relax.
Within seconds she was back and plonked a large carafe of red wine in front of me, a piece of rough bread and a bowl of soup.
‘Bon appetit’ She smiled and disappeared through a door behind the bar.
I poured a glass of wine and sniffed it. Even I could tell it was a good bordeaux.
As I raised the glass to my lips, the men again swung round in unison and raised theirs ‘Sante’ they called out.
‘Sante’ I replied and sipped my glass.
Then I dipped my spoon into the bowl none too enthusiastically.
Brown is not the most appetizing looking colour for a soup but the taste was out of this world and I realised what it was.
Authentic french onion soup!
So delicious it was that I ate every scrap and used a bit of bread to wipe my bowl clean.
Madame leopard must have been watching because the minute I swallowed the last morsel of bread, she appeared at my elbow and whisked the empty bowl away.
The dog opened an eye and watched disappointedly as she went by.
Within seconds she was back again.
This time it was a large plate piled high with rice, vegetables and pieces of fish and shrimp.
‘Manger’ she instructed as she plonked the plate in front of me and after refilling my glass she disappeared behind the bar with the carafe where I could see her refilling it.
Half way through the rice dish I was defeated and lent back on my chair relaxing with my third or was it my fourth glass of bordeaux.
Again she was at my elbow to whisk away my half empty dish and again the dog opened an eye and lifted his head.
This time she leant down and scraped the remains of my plate into a bowl.
The dog lumbered to his feet and within seconds was licking the bowl clean then his jowls before lying down again with a satisfying sigh.
I couldn’t believe it when she reappeared at my elbow once more.
Steak frites! Oh dear!
But the wine was making me brave and I lifted my knife and fork with steely determination.
I didn’t fare too badly but again the dog was in luck.
Coffee and tarte aux pommes were nearly the undoing of me.
I couldn’t move but eventually heaving myself off the chair with difficulty, I rolled to the bar to settle the bill.
‘Si delicieux’ I patted my tummy in case she didn’t understand my poor french.
She beamed from ear to ear.
‘Combien’? I asked politely.
The men looked up from their glasses with interest.
She thought for a few moments before shrugging in that very french way, her scarlet lips pursed around a lighted cigarette,
As the smoke coiled up to the ceiling, we waited with bated breath for her verdict.
‘Huit euro’ she replied at last. Eight euro! The men nodded as though agreeing that this was a fair price.
I took out a ten euro note and a five and put it on the counter.
‘Merci bien et au revoir’ I waved, teetering down the steps.
Outside it was dark, the youths were gone but of course my yellow bicycle was still there.