The French desert

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There is a saying in France, that this is country is “Paris and the French desert”, underlying the emptiness of the countryside, compared with the capital. It’s vastly insulting for anyone not living in Paris, and overall, quite true.

I went today from an average city, around 100k people, to, arguably, the middle of nowhere, and traveled through the northern parts of the country. The weather was aptly rainy, a constant drizzle. But mostly I went through many small villages, and did not see a soul.

These French villages, and I lived in one until I was 18, are charming,  lots of old houses, the town hall converted from the old school where boys and girls were segregated, and the flower pots all along the way. And ye old church, of course. But when you get through one, you hardly see anyone. People take the car when they need to go anywhere (an American habit, now that I think of it). You are so far from anything useful (by French standards), that you can’t walk there (and people don’t bike in these areas). So, they don’t walk the streets, and you don’t see them. They’re either home, or someplace else, but definitely not walking in their village.

  
Thanks to my trusty google maps gps, although still trying to make me use non existent or unpaved dirt roads, I didn’t really get lost. I even followed a canal for one hour, with a dedicated bike lane, smooth and flat, a cycling delicacy. That came to an end rather abruptly, as expected. And so I went back to small roads circling through ghost villages.

While travelling through the Somme area, I was reminded that this is the place where my grandfather fought in the First World War, one century ago. He had a war journal that I typed into a website some time ago. If you want to read his story, you can find it here :

http://www.muad.com/andre/andre.php
  

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Escaping Paris

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First day of the trip, with the biggest challenge being to leave Paris in a reasonable time. And then go far enough to call it a day.

I left early, right after the movers got my boxes, around 9am. Everything went as planned and could have been perfect, if I had not badly crashed my laptop yesterday evening, right before shutting it down for a month. The apartment is now empty, all clean, nothing left behind. Not a lot of people in the city at this time of year.

When you reach the road sign that you just left Paris, there is still a solid hour before seeing more fields than houses. That’s about the time it took me going north, including with the gps insisting I turn right directly into the corn field “it’s a shortcut promise!” I also went west of the airport, with planes flying over for a large part of the way.

And then I saw this

  

If you look closely, just right of the middle on the horizon, above the 2+1 wheat stacks, there is a kind of small Tetris bar. That’s the Montparnasse tower, the highest office building inside Paris. And then, farther to the right, closer to the water tower, is a small pointy thing : the Eiffel Tower. Completely on the right is the Defense district. These are all the buildings I could see from my place, except I was now 30kms away north. Probably the last view of the city for some time. Well, I’ve lived here for almost 19 years, and wanted to see something different.

Going back on the bike after a year with very few trips was tough. I made the mistake of riding for more than three hours with no stop, and when I did stop, I was exhausted. I knew the first few days were going to be hard with close to no warmup. I really need to make a real, small break every hour. The road is not difficult, in overall good conditions, and I even had a bike lane in some parts – a real treat outside of a large city in France.

The last part of the ride was in the forest of Compiegne, a typical French forest with straight paths and roads for miles.

  
Compiegne is also the start of the Paris – Roubaix bike race, with nice nicknames like “Sunday in hell”, or “the hell of the north”. Very promising, as I’m going exactly in this direction 🙂

Doing things for the last time (again)

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Here I am again, a few hours and a night before leaving. Enjoying the fantastic view of Paris I have from my place. Kinda the same feeling I had two years ago before going to the US. Everything packed in small boxes, the apartment empty, and my riding gear in a small (very small) pile.

There’s one big difference though. This time I’m actually going somewhere, to a new job, which comes with a new place to live. Last time I was going into an adventure with no precise goal, and knowing I would come back. This was a transition with no precise next step. Here I’m moving to a new country, and without a clear view that I would be coming back. A one way ticket somehow.

This makes the journey much less of a challenge, than what will happen after it. Moving to a new country, a different culture, and starting a new job. The culture shock, and the risk of getting lost in translation are quite noticeable.

Still, a one month ride is nothing to sneeze at 🙂 Yestersay I did the first long ride for a long time, and I feel I’m really rusty! It will take a few days one the road to get back in shape.

I’m eager to get started 🙂

Parks to the west of Paris – video

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This is another video test from a few days ago. I was travelling west through the many parks and woods leading from Paris to Versailles.

It’s telling that large parts of these parks simply cannot be accessed because they’re private. On the east of Paris, you can’t access for the lack of useable paths, on the other hand. It’s a shame as all of these parks of forrests are very well tended to, and when you can find a path through them, it’s a great experience.

Another thing I realized again is that we French love perspective. Very long, straight paths leading up to the horizon, from the Champs-Elysées to the gardens of Versailles, are the common marks of french architecture. We love geometry, and we love Nazca-type plans. That might also have been an effect of the state of french towns, which do not, in general, have long straight streets as in the US. People in power maybe wanted to experiment, just like they did when they redesigned Paris.

 

This time I’ve put the camera on top of my helmet. A bit more difficult to focus at the start, but it keeps my ears from being torn apart by the headset. Disadvantage though, the camera is moving a bit and that creates a lot of noise. I need to glue it somehow to the helmet.

Also, no more acceleration, rather some impressionist bits and pieces to recreate the atmosphere of the place. It’s pretty hard to select which part though and reduce it down to a few minutes only. Also, filming while moving remains a challenge : I crossed the path of a small dear at some point, but it doesn’t even show up on screen. I searched for it picture by picture but it was just a bit too far.

All in all, I think I’m getting somewhere. It still needs a lot of editing for every shot, but the result is better.

Walking

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Yesterday has been the first day in two weeks where I didn’t really ride around on a bike – since my birthday. That felt like landing on a different planet !

I actually did a small ride, about 20 kms, to and from the agency where I’m doing my skills check. But it was really short compared to the previous days, where I went far way from Paris, with 70 to 80 kms in the day. This is the level I want to reach on average during the US journey, so I’m pretty happy I already reached that, and was able to maintain it.

But yesterday I had some errands and people to meet so I was back to walking and using the subway. It was suddenly very strange ! I was not on the road anymore, and thus not seeing things with the same perspective. I was also going sooo slowly 🙂 I sometimes felt like that when I had been using a car for a few days, but after two full weeks that was a really strong difference. I’m wondering how it will feel after six months of biking 🙂

By the way, all public transportation in Paris were free yesterday, to push people away from using cars, due to the level of pollution. Le Monde has a great picture on the subject : http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2014/03/14/deux-photos-pour-se-rendre-compte-du-niveau-de-la-pollution_4383325_3244.html The weather has been clear for a week, with no wind (apart from the usual headwind when biking :p), and so the pollution clouds stayed on the spot instead of going to the countryside where they enjoy them.

Another video test

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I did another video test on saturday when biking through Paris. The weather is great here these last few days so it was the perfect timing.

This time I was filming only when I was at an interesting location. Still, in the end I had more than 40 minutes of video, including a long chase with two policemen on bikes :p So I had to make some choices to edit that down to less than 20 minutes, which is already too long. I also tested without any acceleration, so that I can film while moving on the bike. It’s not always very good while I’m not looking directly at the point I want to film, which is… most of the time in a city, as I need to check for traffic.

I’m not completely happy with the result, as I lose the main idea of sharing a ride in a video. I still have to look for the perfect solution…

Going around in circles

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Today I went north of Paris in search for a large sports mall, Intersport, one that doesn’t have any outlet in Paris (yet, apparently). I passed the northern suburbs, ever so populous and industrial, and, quite frankly, not worth a visit, really. But my destination was laying in this area.

I actually discovered a great park on the way, the Courneuve park (or Valbon park), really big and picturesque. It’s stuck between the Bourget airport, industries, shopping mall, large social buildings, highways, and more industries. There was hardly anybody in the park (well okay it was a week day).

After searching around for half and hour I finally found the “mall” I was looking for, saw everything it had to offer in about 5 minutes and was back on my way. It was so small there was no wonder it wasn’t registering on the map 😉

Now, as I was making my way back on another route, filled with even more highways, some of them under construction as if we were going out of stock, I was yearning for the real trip.

 

For a week now, I’m making longer journeys, 30, 40, 50 kms today. But I always end up at the same place. Sure, it’s comforting, but it’s also boring. I *know* that my destination is actually where I started from. I’m looking forward to go from somewhere to somewhere ELSE. There is no real excitement in knowing perfectly well where you’ll end up. There is also a pretty limited ways of ending up there : a few roads, all merging into the same street, then the same entrance.

If that isn’t a metaphor for life, the routine of work / eat / sleep, and death, then I don’t know what is.

Now, when you go away, the possibilities multiply with each turn, and the farther you go, the bigger the adventure. On the trip that I envision, each starting point, each ending point are undefined, and thus the journey is only defined when it is done, not before. I’ll choose where I end up depending on my feeling, my stamina, the weather, the environment…

And overall, I have no idea where I’ll end up on the trip as a whole. Paris, probably, but with a new work to find, a new place to live, a new horizon to define. It’s exciting as it is frightening.

I’m watching Dead Poets Society as I write that, and the quote fits perfectly : “To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”