Monday, March 19, 2012

France & Belgium - Obsession and Calamity

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45 miles, Tuesday, August 9

We bucked a strong headwind for most of the day, rolling up and down the ubiquitous farmland we’d come to love. Andy and I comfortably draft one another; we are attuned to each other’s riding styles and moods, and weather the hot blasts from oncoming trucks. Wistfully, we move on captivated by the farm machinery in the golden fields. Haying is underway. Old style balers tie string around the bundles and shoot the cubes into a towed trailer. It was a mesmerizing process and the miles passed by with ease. I’d nearly forgotten about the problem with my bicycle and, in fact, the noise had miraculously lessened.

Boulangerie assortrment. Photo credit: Travelpod

Of special note: Andy had a boulangerie attack during the morning and abruptly stopped, maneuvering his bike onto the sidewalk. I nearly ran into him, but halted just in time. “I gotta have something,” he said. We each gobbled a thick square of bread pudding and in addition Andy devoured an apple turnover. Sometimes these cravings catch us unaware, until the sight of a bakery unabashedly pulls us to their doorstep.

We called an old friend, Hugo, in the Netherlands and made arrangements to meet by the weekend at his home in The Hague. A bed and nice companionship were thoughts that buoyed our spirits. After 6 weeks on the road we needed a break. I longed to make food in a kitchen, maybe homemade pizza. But we needed kinder weather to propel us onward.

We’re fifteen miles short of the Belgium border. I’ve grown accustomed to camembert and baguettes at lunch; I wonder how much will change. And just when I’ve learned enough French to get by we’re moving on. I presume this will be a common thread as we perpetually rove eastward.

80 miles, Wednesday, August 10

A whopper of a tailwind propelled us for most of the day. We purchase two baguettes before entering the borderlands of Belgium. With the European Community in transition, the crossing went unrecognized; we observed license plates and signage colors changing, though we still pedal through the French speaking Belgian farmland.

Annie on her bike. Note the red marked lanes for cycling in Belgium cities.
In Mons we switched currency to Belgian francs – only enough for one day as we expect to be in the Netherlands soon. There is something satisfying about this task–it means another country, and I’ll search for a Belgian cloth patch to add to the growing collection on my panniers.

A mishap with directions waylaid us by an hour, as we struggled with crossing two canals in Mons, before frantically pushing our loads up an embankment onto a busy road. A driver honked and yelled that bikes weren’t allowed. Baffled, we carried the bikes over a pedestrian walkway – the effort breaking my body into a sweat. All the while the putrid canals smell like dirty socks soaking in water.

Belgian farm country is more populated than northern France. We find little privacy and relieve ourselves in cornfields, near a train trestle, or on the curve of a road. The miles flew by and we pledged to make it to a further campground, even with another calamity costing an additional five miles. The clouds moved in, obscuring use of the sun for position. It further endorsed the value of a compass. But still encouraged by the tailwind we are obsessed with forward motion and eat our evening meal on the road.

The little country of Belgium. Photo credit: Belgium Embassy
The traffic intensified as we skirted west of Brussels. Flemish signs are as foreign as the Welsh language in Great Britain. The popularity of bicycles is uplifting. We fit in, riding the red tinged assortment of cobbled, paved, and sidewalks specifically designated for bikes. We were thankful for their assistance through the dinner hour congestion. It was on such a path that I picked up a black Casio watch. Later, in the tent, I discovered it still worked while my current timepiece had recently lost battery power. It was serendipitous.

Rain starts to fall ten kilometers from the campground. By 8 p.m. inner resolve silences the evening, spinning wheels our only companions. The unmistakable hissing sound of a flat tire interrupts our thoughts. And it’s on my bike. It’s times like this that despite groaning and a long day in the saddle, there is nothing to do but deal with patching the tube while rain drips off the brim of my yellow slicker. The patch didn’t hold and I soon replaced the tube. We had to keep moving. Fortunately, the rain stops as a wrinkled elderly gentlemen came out of his house. His blue eyes vibrant, he spoke to us in Flemish until he understood we couldn’t communicate. He lifted his hand and disappeared, but returned a few minutes later with a younger man who spoke French. It turns out to be his son. We swapped a few words about America then learned that the apple orchard nearby belonged to them. This sweet encounter propels us onward.

At 9:30 p.m. we pulled into the campground. We’ve learned to ask directions as we near the town that displays a camping symbol on the map. There is no indication within the village either. But after such a long day we are thankful to have made the comfort and security of our home for the night. Huddled in the tent, the flashlight glow is like candlelight as we consume bread and cheese; dinner on the road had long since worn off.


1 comment:

  1. Oh!!!! You are way more philosophical about flats than me. I take them very personally, especially under those circumstances. The tailwind sounds like a bit of encouragement from the cycling gods though :-)

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