Tag Archives: signs

Followed by Signs

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 5 of 7)

Over breakfast this morning, I look at the map. I look at the distance we’ve covered (85km) and the distance left along the 381km river to its source in Chéronnac.

By Mbursar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39123234

The advantage of being an itinerant cyclist is that you can stop before you reach your day’s objective, camp, and then carry on the next day.

The disadvantage is that every kilometre is hard work. You may choose not to explore something that catches your attention because it’s up a hill.

If we’re ever going to get to the source of our river, we need to move faster.

Today is our third day and, as we know from our hiking holidays in the Pyrenees mountains, the third day is the worst. After today, we’ll be less saddlesore. Meanwhile, we must survive the day’s cycling. We stretch our stiff muscles and look at the bike trailer sitting snug under its tree.

It would be cruel to move it too soon.

We decide to have a rest day: to leave everything at the campsite and explore further upstream on cargo-free bikes. Without the weight of the trailer, we’ll easily cover 100km. Or perhaps 80.

I’d like to visit Verteuil-sur-Charente, which is south of Ruffec and supposedly beautiful. My partner is happy to cycle anywhere, as long as it’s without the trailer. On the campsite are a couple of campers with an electric bike and trailer. He dawdles past them, and I think I know what’s going through his head.

Verteuil doesn’t look far on our 1:150 000-scale map. We lower ourselves painfully onto our saddles and cycle to Saint-Amant-de-Boixe.

The huge abbey here is totally out of proportion with the small village, thus hinting at an important past. We leave the D15 and take the nice little white roads on our map. We’ll catch up with the River Charente further north.

We soon discover that the little white roads aren’t quite as nice as they look. Unlike the flat tracks beside the river, they take us up the steep hills onto the Charente heights. On the positivee side, it’s exhilarating to see broad horizons after river valleys.

My partner wants to take a random track that seems to head the right way and perhaps cuts off a corner. It’s not on the map.

“Don’t worry. We just need to look at the sun and cycle northwards,” he says.

While he considers the position of the sun, I check my compass and then follow him onto the stony track.

He’s spritely without the trailer. How come he’s fitter than me, despite him only doing a single, weekly basketball training compared to my four or five sports slots a week?

We’re not sure exactly where we are, but we keep seeing the same green cyclist signs as yesterday. At last, I see a place name on one of them: Ruffec.

Ruffec is north of us, so if we follow the signs, we’ll be going more or less the right way. In any case, ever since Balzac, yesterday, it seems that the signs are following us.

Another regular sign is the one in this photo: it means ‘Let’s share the road’. My partner and I have a long discussion about it.

Do you notice anything? Go on, have a good look.

Yes, it’s a sign aimed at motorists, encouraging them to give cyclists more space on the road. But look! It’s the cyclist that’s leaning over and making room for the car. And there’s not much space between them. All it would take is a little wobble, and the sign would look very different.

(You notice this kind of thing when you’re in the saddle: or, rather, doing anything to avoid putting your sore backside on the saddle).

As usual, the car is king of civilization, and everything else has to fit around it. We decide to launch a politico-environmental movement to reduce the car to last place, behind bicycles, pedestrians, roller-bladers, scooter-riders and dogs. (You make lots of decisions like this when you’re on a bike all day).

The morning whizzes past in a collection of sights, sounds, smells and experiences: from the wash-house in La Fichère to the dolmen and tumulus in the beautiful Boixe forest.

I’m amazed to read on an information sign that Boixe is part of a forest that used to cover 200km, from La Rochelle to the Périgord.of

This ancient forest (la Sylve d’Argenson) included those of Chizé, Aulnay, Boixe, Braconne, Horte and La Rochebeaucourt in a continuous stretch.

In 1974 the local villages and forestry organisiations teamed up to save this 130-hectare part of the forest from being bought by farmers and converted into more agricultural land. Thank goodness for team efforts to save woodland.

At Saint-Groux we read riverside signs and discover how one 12-km-long branch of the River Charente (called l’Etouyer) was used to irrigate the riverside pastures. Information signs are a great diversion from setting bum to saddle – and now we’ve stopped, we decide to picnic here.

Our shady picnic spot is ideal for hammocks, so we siesta beside the water and wave at the occasional canoe that passes by.

It’s more difficult to get going in the afternoon. The temperature has risen to above 30°C, and the headwind is strong on the open plains of sad sunflowers and shorn cornfields.

After an excellent coffee at Le Penalty bar in Mansle (which serves fish & chips on Friday evenings), we return to the riverside, following a track (and the sun) that appears to follow the water.

Unfortunately, the track ends at a tributary river. Dare we ford it on our bikes? Look, it’s quite wide, and despite throwing a few stones, we don’t know how deep it is. We hesitate. Last time I forded a river on a bike, I fell in (remember, Rity?).

We backtrack and skirt the river on the safety of a road. After all, there might be a field of angry bulls on the other side (my argument), or we might damage the bike wheels on the stones (his argument).

By the time we arrive at Saint-Denis, it’s already late. With all our meandering and our stops to read signs (and our siesta) we’re still miles from Verteuil. If we’d come with our trailer, we could have camped and continued. But our trailer is resting under its oak tree, probably drinking aperitifs with the campers.

Aperitifs?

We decide to head back southwards on the left bank of the river, through Mouton (meaning Sheep), which is a lovely name for a village. Then we cut through Puyceliers and Puyréaux and enter the shade of Boixe forest. Between Maine-de-Boixe and Vervant, a deer ambles across the road in front of us – we haven’t seen much wildlife so far.

We stop and buy a couple of cool beers (and dinner) in the Saint-Amant-de-Boixe mini-supermarket – it’s beer that counts, this week, not bees – and eventually return to Montignac.

We have added 60km to our trip counter, but we’re not much closer to the source. Is it time for a re-think?

***

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)

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Hybrids on the Merry-go-Round

Crowds of sweating shoppers, feverish festive planning and a Christmas Eve drink at the pub: isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Or is it about cups of vin chaud at Christmas markets, the rich food you’re going to be force-fed at the 6-hour meal on Christmas Eve, and remembering to put the kids’ shoes under the tree for le Père Noël?

s decorate xmas treeI remember when Christmas meant singing carols in frosty streets with the other children from the village so we could peek inside people’s houses. It was crunching into newly made sausage rolls and sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream (obviously not the same year as the carol singing). Dad would cut down a Norway Spruce under cover of Christmas Eve darkness; my sisters and I iced the Christmas cake more or less together; Mum emptied turkey innards into bowls as Christmas treats – for the dogs and cats, I hasten to add.

c and s xmas tree

Ah, the good old days… when I was truly English. Yes, Christmas is the time I think about my identity and where I really belong.

This may sound familiar to those of you who live abroad. Time stopped at the point you left your country. You took a photo as you stepped off the merry-go-round, and that photo fixes ‘home’ in your mind. But the merry-go-round keeps turning. When you go back home, it’s no longer the same. It doesn’t feel like home at all.

You know what? You’re a hybrid: no longer English, not quite French. You’re unable to vote in England because you’ve been away too long, but you’re unqualified to vote in France.

I first noticed the hybrid effect when I’d been living in France for a couple of months. I studied French at Pau University and, surrounded by non-English speakers, I forgot how to speak English. It sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what happened (to my family’s delight when, for example, I told them how I’d wet myself in the rain instead of saying I’d got wet). The problem was that my French wasn’t good enough for me to communicate on an emotional level. I was lonely. I booked a ticket to go home for Christmas and wondered if I’d ever come back to France.

But the simple fact of booking the ticket made me feel better. My French improved, and I progressed from being a no-brid to a hybrid: from belonging nowhere to belonging to two places. Once my French was fluent and I’d met some English-speakers, I became heterotic (check out this lovely, sexy word).

Natives often accuse expats of staying together, of not integrating properly. What draws us together isn’t our country of origin. It’s not even the language, although this does play a part. It’s because we’re hybrids. We’ve faced similar situations by leaving our mother countries. We understand each other. That’s why different nationality expats become friends too.

Occasionally I get back on the merry-go-round. After 20 years, going ‘home’ is an adventure. I see England through sightseers’ eyes. It’s a foreign country with traces of déjà vu.

deck chair sign

What struck me last time was the way the state shepherds its citizens: there are recorded messages and signs everywhere telling you what to do – and what not to do. Are they encouraging you to be sheep, to stop thinking for yourselves? Or am I just too focused on the theme for my next novel?

I noticed another strange effect during my visit last summer. I had absolutely no enthusiasm to write. I spent hours in English bookshops, feeling like a child in a sweetshop. But the glut of brilliant English books made writing seem pointless. There were so many books, so many writers. What could I possibly add?

parking sign

Back in France, the need to write returned in force.

I understood. It’s nothing to do with competing in the publishing world. I write because I’m a hybrid. Writing is my way of connecting with my English origins. It’s how I remind myself that I’m more than not-quite-French.

Being not-quite-French has lots of advantages, though. It means you can serve foie gras as a starter and Christmas pudding as a dessert (if you dare). You can drink vin chaud at Christmas markets and a sherry at the Franco-Britannique Christmas church service. As for the kids – well, they can have both stockings and shoes.

Happy Christmas!

For some great links to blogs about France, check out Lou Messugo’s blog link up: All About France #12