Updated by Nina. Covers up to Paris, France.
A smile and patience is all it needs to get understood when talking a foreign language- and fortunately the girl listening to me in the take- away had both of these. I babbled out my food order in forgotten French using terrible German pronunciation with a heavy English accent. I would have normally resorted to pointing by this stage, as my mouth uttered things that my ears were not expecting, but she willed me through each agonising word with a charm and a smile that kept me going. I must surely speak better French than she English I kept telling myself, but I knew that today I was simply a foreign curiosity- and I heard them all repeat, discuss and translate my order for almost a minute after I had spoken.
Finally my dream had come true and I had a drink with ice cubes, something I had been wishing for for two weeks. I had got excited at the Gaertners, when I saw their fridge-freezer, and raved on to them in dodgy German, about freezing our water bottles before we left the next day, but unfortunately they did not get my gist. We were often drinking water hotter than body temperature, which seemed to disable my swallowing reflex and made it an effort not to choke oneself! Returning back into cooler northern France from Germany was tinged with some sadness though as I realised the end of this amazing journey was in sight. No longer troubled by the worry that us and our machines would not make it home in one piece, and my body and mind now relaxed into the cycling routine, I realised I would really miss the outdoor air, the good companionship, and this daily dialogue I was having with my late father.
The route west of Sarrebrueken was lovely; rolling hills easy to cycle on, and at times we were chased by clouds and we were caught in a light shower of rain as the sun shone down on us late one evening. We got to the sandstone city of Metz at a respectable seven p.m., but as the ex-Communist Youth Organisation hostel was full, we took to the shopping streets of the city and found Hotel La Fayette. It was dingy but cheap, and I took note that when we left the reception area the door was bolted shut. I bet beautiful Metz was the weekend holiday retreat for Parisians- I would love to go back there. We went down to the cathedral, and then to the riverside, where we quenched our thirst. Who knows what we looked like, as we sprawled out on the floor, bottle upon bottle thrown aside, innocently totting up our monetary outgoings, but we were happy.
We stayed up late that night, and in the end did not leave Metz until midday. We were well aware that Roy and Gordon had cycled on that day their longest distance of their whole trip, but we were tired and preferred to take it at our own pace, even if we were to regret it later. We cycled up out of the city and then on to a ridge, where the fields had had a grade one in the harvesting haircuts. The fields were chequered, and had enough browns and yellows to make any hippie happy. The roadside was scattered with memorials for lives lost in the world wars, and I even saw a group of three graves in the middle of a ploughed field. The rows and rows of white graves in Verdun were a sobering sight.
Daddy had mentioned the flatness and the good roads, and the roads may well have been the same- pebbly concrete laid in sections, but they did not feel flat at all. Sweat on our faces from our uphill journey would dry and crack on the road back down. We stopped twice in cafes for drinks, but mostly we were on auto-pilot- I was stopped at a level crossing as a train went past but I don't think Simon even noticed. When I bought a mountain of food in the supermarket, the checkout girl offered me a bag- but then looked kind of shocked when I said I was going to eat it all now. I drank six and a half litres of fluids that day (12 pints).
We ploughed on, singing old melodies and at one point my voice took on a Kylie Minogue quality which scared all the calves away. We stopped in a forest of dense and slender trees and bedded down in a comfy leaf layer. We hoped the poison ivy was just a theatrical name, and would at worst only give us a slight rash. We slept for eleven hours, and I dreamt of a happy ending to an unrequited love while Simon dreamt about a loft conversion.
I had received a text from my eldest sister Linda saying she was on her way to meet us in Paris- so boy did that help me cycle faster! I noticed dead flies stuck to my stomach, and tired end of season bees being attracted to city of Chalons- the yellow dot on my handlebar map. Simon and the change in his pockets jingle-jangled along in front of me; his bike was suffering bad wear and tear and would only operate in three gears (taking the fifty years anniversary seriously there). This slow pace would be annoying him more than me I thought, so I just watched the white stripes in the middle of the road go by. He was doing well not to complain.
We cycled until the sun went down- but we had only done 140 kilometres that day I said- Simon looked at me like he would have been happy to break my legs. Central Paris was just 87 kilometres away, and yet it was very rural here- we found no where to refuel. We had only some dried bread to eat, which I had with a tin of foie gras pate spread thickly on it. Our bedroom that night was a sloping grassy field and I spent too much time watching the orange moon, shooting stars, satellites and planes light up the sky, I did not get a smile from Simon neither until 11.30 the next morning.
The N3 was a good road and fortunately it was a Sunday, which meant navigating the roads of Paris easier even with the bum shaking cobbles on one roundabout. My homing instinct was on form as I glanced back to the cries of a baby boy- my new nephew Finn and family were sat on a street side cafe. I can't describe how nice it was to see them all.
Soon we were navigating the Paris underground using the Metro tickets we had found in an abandoned but probably now twice stolen wallet by the roadside (I did later post it back). The metro was modernised, and doors automatically opened and shut, except for the babybuggie access door, which we just walked through. You could even see down through the length of the whole train.
We went to a chateaux east of the city and sat in the park there. My niece played a very unorthodox version of little red riding hood which had me thrown in the ornamental river. I pretended -as you do- to resist, but it was a great way to cool off, if a bit annoying that I lost both my flip-flops in the mud. Arriving at a posh restaurant one pair of shoes down was probably also quite unorthodox, but hey. We had a nice meal one by one as we took it in turns to walk off and quieten tired Finn.
The next day we packed in the sights as Roy and Gordon did. Linda and I both knew the city, and so were quiet specific when we planned our route to the places that was mentioned in the diary. We saw the Place de la Concorde, Arc de Triomphe with the ever burning flame of the unknown warrior, the Trocedero (under the scaffolding constantly following us this summer it seems), the Eiffel Tower, and the Palace des Invalides. The cost to climb the Eiffel Tower was 3€ (£0.66) the same cost as an ice cream. Linda, Finn and I sat in an ornate air-conditioned patisserie; Luuk, Simon and Zoe did the Eiffel deed and got hot.
We rendezvous ed at the Notre Dame; both apologising for being late. We went inside the cathedral and sat down. Finn pulled the hair of an enchanted Italian teenager and we took in the ambience, although Linda complained that it was too HOT! We then walked along the Seine and had a picnic in the park. Before long it was time to say good bye, which was sad. They left us a special bottle of beer to congratulate us but only a little was drunk as Simon had no desire for a hangover, and I planned never to have any more again anyway. Ever.
We went to La Defense in the setting sun- which is a brilliant high tech cluster of modern buildings. We saw domes, glass sided triangular skyscrapers, and the twentieth century mirror of the Arc de Triomphe; the fantastic Grande Arche. Under this we walked around the freestanding panes of glass to see the other side of the world. I laid on the concrete, still hot from a day of sunshine, and mused- is this the city of the future?
We made our way 'home' on the underground as we spied the group of uniformed train staff. "Tickets" an aggressive inspector asked Simon, and so Simon drew his ticket cockily out of his top shirt pocket to show him. The inspector then stated that he had seen Simon put his feet up on the seat, and so would be forced to pay a fine. Honestly! Just as we though we were getting to know the French and their ways, they go and fine him 40€ (£30) not for graffitiying the walls or starting a fight, but for putting his feet on a seat. We were both wondering about playing the dumb tourist, but he then asked which station Simon would be getting off at. So he paid up. Simon was gutted, but we made jolly as we went to look at the Opera House, and talked about revenge. Roy and Gordon had a cucumber and a camping stove stolen on their trip- we had just had forty euros stolen. Hmmmm...
The next day we cycled out of the city a little shirty, and boldly navigated without a map the busy streets with no errors, to the northern suburbs of Paris (quite by chance although Simon did not know that at the time). We had begun our trip feeling quite apologetic if a car beeped at us, now I was beginning to shout Duck Poo or the equivalent back. Whether or not a beep is meant as encouragement, it breaks much needed concentration. So I showed the finger to a car, as I crossed the slipway lane, spotting the learner driver signs seconds later...