Part II: Champagne to Dordorgne (FR)

After five days I am in France.

France welcomes me with Champange

In France the easy cycling through wheat fields makes way for green hills and grapes. The landscape has been robbed of her diversity to make space for homogeneous purity sold under one name: Champagne.

People drive by very fast and look at me confused, "what are you doing here?"

I feel myself living in the text of The Doors:

‘People are strange when you’re a stranger

Faces look ugly when you’re alone

Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted

Streets are uneven when you’re down

When you’re strange’

Cycling is difficult here, I have never encountered hills before as the Netherlands is a flat pancake. The villages seem deserted, people hide behind closed shutters or are on holidays. Faded letters above doors and windows reminisce of a past when there was an epicerie, a pharmacie, a café, a boulangerie. Now the bakeries are closed, the cafes have long moved to busier places. Life is elsewhere and on the bike you only meet the traces it has left behind.

La Seine

Dragonflies dance above her water, they pull towards each other, then dash away as magnets with the same charge. The current brings leaves and branches and insects to Paris where the river will become the subject of many poems. She will wake love in hearts that are now cold, she will become a game for many, take drunk lives and accumulate puke, cigarettes, alcohol. She will beat against the quays as Edith Piaf softens her waves. She will be so much, now just herself.

At six I wake up as the purple light slowly reaches over the hilltops. As I cycle the countryside changes from desolation to a country of vacation. Here the French from nearby cities come to be in nature, to play, and enjoy. In a tabacco shop I buy stamps and send letters, an old man at the bar smokes a cigar and tells me a story.

I cycle under creaking electricity pylons. They zoom on the rhythm of the heat, like a mosquito trying to get into your ear.

When the heat becomes too much I stop at the river Loire. I wash my shirt and my sweat-soaked body as people peddle by in canoes. Signs warn for the dangerous current, you are not allowed to swim here. The houses across the river shine in color, some shutters are open and I feel the contrast of the north. Here I am among people and they live. Even if it's just for vacation.

I climb the hill opposite Sancerre (from the wine) and for the first time I have to walk and push my bike as the slope is too steep. At the top I see the soft horizon behind me, the hills dotted with villages and a repetitive pattern of wheat fields and vineyards.

The sky darkens, the equilibrium between sun and rain has been disrupted these past days and tonight it will be set straight. A storm is coming.

I stop at a house where a man with grey curls and a bent back is watering his plants. He seems unexcited about meeting me as French man can seem, but fills my water bottles.

"Where are you sleeping?" he asks as he hands me the full bottles of water.

"I don't know, I will find a place to camp."

"I think you can sleep in our garden, it's better. You need to ask my partner, the house is hers. If you continue this road, to the right, you will come to a big school building, it's the community center. There is a pizza night, find Jacqueline and ask her."

I cycle the road upwards, a few minutes later I see a food truck with a dozen elderly people around it. They look at me and smile. A woman hurries towards me putting her phone in her bag, "of course you will sleep here!" After a shower and clean clothes I join the village gathering where people are happy to share their stories with me. A lady tells me about the government, how they have closed the schools in small towns, removed ATMs and work to atomize what used to be a lively countryside culture. People buy wine for each other, eat, tell stories, laugh and as the night rolls on the joy of being together sounds inside what used to be the school hall, while outside the storm screams of mortality.

We drank and talked of war and Baudelaire and corporate power, until our yawns and watery eyes reminded us that mornings are for sleeping. The desire to hold onto this moment, we felt her in our stomachs, beating through our veins, every hair on our heads danced to the rhythm of this moment but we knew of her fate. How she would flow to the sea of moments to which we long with melancholic nostalgia.

After two nights I leave the house with heavy bike bags full of vegetables and fruits from the garden, a heavy heart to leave a place that had become home.

The next night I sleep on a playground. I see the stars illuminated and lightning dancing in the distance. The plains in France indicate an endlessness the Netherlands could never even imagine.

The landscape becomes less bare and I stop in the forest of Chateauroux. Fish like bunnies jump out of the water, the church bells sound and the day sits heavy on my eyelids. The coolness of the forest creates air and I enjoy the trees. They carry an air of mystery, a secret of times I know nothing of. I feel that another storm is coming, even if the sky is now blindingly blue.

I stop in a village where a few people drink beer in a garden and ask them for water. They do not speak French. They are Brits and ask if I wouldn't rather have a beer. I join them under the parasol on their lawn populated by white pebbles and buddha statues.

Jade and Patrick have been living here for a year. They wanted to move to the country-side but could not afford the country they had always lived in. So they moved to France, not knowing what exactly would happen. That a third of the village would be Brits was a surprise and instead of peace and quiet they found a much more social life than in the UK. They speak no French but that's alright, Jade says, as long as you have good intentions France is wonderful.

After dinner Patrick and I drink a bottle of wine from the Spar, they call it cab sav . They tell me about their business, they trade furniture of the dead. Patrick is happy to drink with someone and opens another bottle.

With trouble I open the door of the house and shakily make my way to the tent. I spin circles on my sleeping mat which feels more like a piece of driftwood on open sea.