I was woken by a courtesy wake-up call at just before 6.30. I picked up the phone to hear a pre-recorded message in French bellowing over some jaunty, jingly wakey-uppey type of music. Then I stretched my legs.
Yes, definitely a tad on the stiff side: my knees and the sides of my thighs ached, but actually not quite as bad as I'd feared. I tried doing some of the in-bed stretching exercises Karen had recommended to me. Several of the moves looked like some kind of solo sexual position, so I opted for the one that was basically 'lolling one leg out of bed while suffering a screaming bastard of a hangover and trying to find a cool bit of pillow'. Karen had said that it was a good way to stretch out thigh muscles. It seemed to do the trick a bit. I reached over to the bedside cabinet and grabbed a couple of ibuprofen to help matters along. Ross woke up and looked over from his bed.
'You alright? You got a hangover or something?'
Breakfast was ok - a choice of croisants, pain au chocolat, and various bits of charcuterie and those slices of rubbery cheese you only see on breakfast buffet platters in hotels on the continent, or bacon, eggs, and a type of muesli that had the consistency (and quite possibly the taste) of cat litter. We all had our fill quite quickly, then got our bags and bikes, and set off at 8.00. Once again, I rode along with Sabrina, keeping a steady pace. About two kilometres in, we went past a field full of cows, plus a fat beaming guy with a moustache and, indisputably, a beret at a jaunty angle on his head! This kind of bucolic French stereotype, so early on in the day, prompted us to compile a French Stereotype Bingo scorecard.
Sabrina and Paul's French Stereotype bingo card
score a point for each one spotted. If you get all of them, shrug in a cooly non-committed way and don't give the impression of being too pleased with yourself, while exuding cool smugness.
Guy in Beret
Car or moped beeping horn enthusiastically while driving past the peloton at about 300 kph
A discarded pack of Gauloises
Some bloke carrying a baguette under his arm as he exits a boulangerie
Someone riding bike while playing an accordion
Actually, any kind of accordion player
Surly and/or indifferent table service
Two blokes playing boules on a path
Sneering, world-weary existentialist philosopher in roll-neck black sweater listening to jazz
Avuncular, slightly mad man in a town square
A 2CV rolling down a road with tall poplar trees at the side
Some guy with a fishing pole and a fag dangling from the side of his mouth
Well, we'd already scored one, and we cycled along in the cool morning along roads that were thankfully flat, for the first twelve miles, anyway. Marco had informed us that the day would be 'undulating'. Now, when someone says 'undulating', you imagine a serpentine gradual rise and fall of the landscape, nothing too challenging really. Marco's definition, as it began to turn out, had more in common with some of my Academic English students' descriptions of 'fluctuations' in a graph description - not so much minor changes, as BLOODY ENORMOUS hills. And so it proved. You can tell you're heading towards high land when you suddenly see loads of wind turbines, churning merrily away. The other thing that you can tell when you see loads of wind turbines is this:
It's going to be windy.
Fortunately, because we started off relatively early the wind hadn't really kicked in. We ploughed on, with Kevin now joining us, his legs frantically pumping up and down whenever we hit a hill. Sabrina's bike was still stuck in the middle front ring, so I was the only one finding it relatively easy getting up the hills. After 27 miles, there was a big downhill, followed by a big uphill through a forest and then the first water break.
|Sabrina feeling an eensy bit chilly|
|mmm bananas and oaty snack bars|
'See?' said Glen, as we pedalled along 'that's what happens to all our EU subsidies - wind turbines and roads smoother than a fresh Hollywood waxing!'
'Yeah, and fuck the Greeks...'
By this time as well, the landscape of Northern France had really opened up - great wide fields and views stretching for miles. I suppose I could have included this as part of the French Stereotype Bingo, but it's a bit hard to regard land as a cliche: it's just there, and it is down to the observer to endow it with beauty.
Of course, one steretype I should have included was Lycra-Clad Cyclist Having A Piss In a Field of Freshly Harvested Stuff.
|Glen watching a lycra-clad cyclist having a wizz...|
|Camp pose racheted up to the max! Peeing lycra-clad cyclist just to the left|
|the field in which our micturating velocipedist was|
By the time lunch arrived, the sun had finally come out properly, and the heat suddenly leapt. Because it was so humid however, Thunderheads began to grow, and it was obvious that there would be a few sharp downpours at some stage. the lunch stop was in a field full of deep, lush clover, next to a shuttered up house. In fact, we'd already passed quite a few villages where house after house was closed up - of course, mid-August, and all the locals had disappeared to the south for their hols. This would also explain the relative paucity of traffic. Lunch was good - hot meatballs and pasta, tuna salad, several things from the previous day, a really good pate, fresh bread and the 80's mix tape.
|a good lunch, a good stretch and about 300 ibuprofen - sorted!|
Pat began racing ahead. I found myself in a really comfortable rhythm going along with him, so I stuck by him for a while.
'Hey, Pat - you're caning it a bit!'
'It's fucked!' He yelled in his Brogue.'Me bloody gears are fucked! I either get stuck in the top ring or the granny ring, and nothing inbetween! And this bloody lot (by which he meant Discover Adventure) can't bloody fix it!' And he continued to pedal furiously.
A few raindrops fell, then more, then there was a gradual increase of rain - not too bad, but still enough to soak you through eventually. After a downhill, I decided to take a bit of cover next to a statue of the crucifixion that was under some lime trees. Pat thundered on ahead, and after a few minutes, Kev, Sabrina and Glen appeared. I got back in the saddle and joined them.
'Ross' wheel is buggered, and Dave has had his seventh puncture', said Glen. 'They're being looked after by the support vehicle'.
The rain eased, and on we went over the miles, and the riding became easier, despite the aches and pains. By the afternoon water stop, I was feeling exhilarated, partly because it marked the halfway mark of the entire journey, and also because the sun had come out. The ride into Arras itself was absolutely fantastic - it was over land that I would say could be defined as undulating, rather than hilly, and the temperature was just right for pedalling along. Sabrina and I got chatting again, about family and children. She's been married for a few months, and was speculating about kids in the future.
'The trouble is, it's all a bit scary.'
'You're not wrong', I said. 'There aren't any Instruction Manuals for them when they arrive, and you end up freaking out when they have their first temparature or fall over or whatever. They first few weeks are really intense, then it's pretty calm and sweet for a few months.'
We pedalled along in now-warm sunshine.
'And then there's nothing but worry for the next twenty-odd years.'
I talked a bit about my job, then she described hers. 'I'm an event organiser, but my real passion is cake. I do wedding cakes, birthday cakes and so on, but I've been thinking of whether to set up something new..'
I asked her what it was.
'Basically, it's a mobile cake business. I buy an ice cream van, convert it, and sell cakes at markets, events and things.'
Now, I'm not a cake man myself (except for yours, Sabrina, of course!), but I got into her description of what she wanted to do, and the possibilities it entailed.
'As far as I can see, there's only one problem' I said.
'What kind of jingle will your converted ice cream van play to announce the arrive of the Cake Lady?'
Cue silly discussion about what would and would not make a decent jingle, very much in the vein of one I had with Lee several weeks ago.
We arrived in Arras at around five, Glen booming on over a hill and on to the centre.
And we promptly got lost.
We'd already been warned that there wouldn't be the little orange arrows in the town, because the locals tended to pull them down. As we neared the centre, one of the DA team was waiting at a corner to point us in the right direction. Unfortunately, we got it a bit wrong - we raced up a hill, then stopped. Where was the hotel?
'Do y'know where it is? said Pat.
'No - I'm following you'.
Sabrina and Kev both shrugged shoulders.
'Oh jeez...this is fucked. Let's ask'.
Pat went up to someone.
'Hey! You speak English? English? Holiday Inn? Where?'
A gallic shrug. He tried again with several other people, one of whom gave instructions - in French, which lead us directly to the central square - a thoroughly pretty early rococo confection, but no sign of our hotel. We pedalled round it for a bit.
'Oh, for fuck's sake! This is fucked!'
Eventually, we found someone else who gave somewhat better directions, and we finally arrived at the hotel. Pat stomped in, fuming. I was just glad to get there. I got my room pass card, and discovered that I was sharing with Dominic, the faller from the previous day.
I went to my room, showered and changed and went back down to the bar, where Glen was waiting with a pair of gin and tonics. You'd think beer would be a better idea than G&T, but my God, it was an absolutely brilliant idea - it really hit the spot. After three of these, it was time for dinner. The starter, a quiche, was alright, but the main course....
There was gloopy, rubberised pasta. There was a slab of meat from something that had lived a sad and awful life, and had clearly expired a long, long time ago. It had more than the whiff of equine to it. There was an indifferent sauce that had been made several months earlier. And it was all served up with the due amount of indifferent service. Glen got through about half of his, then made his excuses and left. I was a bit more enduring and managed to chew my way through it, and listen to the speeches from Gemma and Marco, before deciding to go out and explore the town. Gemma had said that the town centre was well worth seeing at night, and I'd already scoped a couple of promising-looking bars earlier on. As I left, I came across Glen, smoking a miniature stogie and drinking a cognac, looking pensively over the fountain towards the rail station. I sat down with him, and we chewed the fat a bit. Across the road, in another hotel, the silhouette of a woman appeared at a top-floor balcony, dressed in a nightdress and looking down the road. She leaned elegantly against the wrought-iron balcony railings, then turned her head as someone called her, before sidling, feline-like, back inside.
'Now, how French was that moment?', said Glen, who'd been as mesmerised by it as I had. Another Stereotype for the Bingo card, then. He drained his drink, then we went together to the town square.
|Glen took this one.|
|see? pretty, isn't it?|
'Is that what I think it is? Yes - Chartreuse! I love this stuff.'
He ordered a green Chartreuse, and we went outside to sit on the square.
'Ah, this is the life! I've never got why you guys in England always drink the way you do - necking it like that. It's so much nicer to sit outside and chat and enjoy it all. Here, have you tried this?' he asked, proffering me his drink.
I had a try.
Hmm, best described as an, er, acquired taste. He taold me how it was made by Swiss Monks, and how noone knew exactly what was in it, but it was 57% proof. I could imagine exactly how it was made - it came across as one of those cocktails you invent really late at night after far too much booze:
Sometime in the Middle Ages...we chatted away, discussing out respective jobs, and me probably going into somewhat too much detail about language learning and acquisition theories, although Glen seemed fascinated by it. I went to get more drinks, and when I came back found him chatting in French to a couple on the next table. He was talking animatedly and warmly, happy to converse despite making mistakes. With my schoolboy French I could folow the conversation, but found myself unable to really participate, so just sat there, doing the dumb smiling and nodding thing everyone does when they are listening to someone talk in another language. After about twenty minutes, a man staggered up, pushing a bicycle. He was clearly known to the couple, and sat down heavily with a boozy smile on his face. He spoke English, and began to tell me about his travels as a chef in various countries, and of his children, and how well they were doing.
First Monk: Oh God...how much have we drunk?
Second Monk: I dunno...is there anything round here to eat? And is there more booze?
First Monk: There's half a bottle of Martini...
Second Monk: There's always half a bottle of Martini! Oh look, I've still got some pizza stuck to my habit.
First Monk: OK, I've got, let's see....some kind of ethanol - you can drink that, can't you?
Second Monk: Yeah, but it needs some flavour, doesn't it? Look, just pour it in this bucket....right, what can we shove in it?
First Monk: I know, I know! Let's get some of this mint.....and some of this - what's this?
Second Monk: Tarragon? I don't know....Oh look, some cheese cubes on sticks!
First Monk: Right, mint, tarragon, and......Oregano!
Second Monk: OREGANO? Are you sure?
First Monk: Yeah, totally - just think, it'll make it go all green, and it'll give you really fresh breath even if you do heave it up afterwards!
Second Monk: well, if you're sure...(tries some. pukes)....bloody hell! You're right! Genius!
First Monk: Ain't I just? (pukes)....ah! Minty fresh!
Second Monk: Hold on, I just found some lager with strawberries in it...
First Monk: Oh come on - that's just wrong....
'Burt now I erm retarred, zo I tak it eezy, burt I still need monnaie, zo I 'ave this...' He pointed to his bicycle. It was no ordinary bike. It was an electric one, but with a remarkably unobtrusive battery. He explained how he'd bought fifteen of them, and 'I ave an accord with the tourisme office here...we shall make tourist tours round Arras!'
'Let me have a go!' said Glen, and he got on it. Suddenly, he was whizzing round the town square, literally squealing and laughing.
'Oh Paul, you've got to have a go!'
So there I was, biking around the centre of Arras at half past eleven, with loud French Metal music pumping out from the bar, and Glenn was all of a sudden animated, and running round with another glass of Chartreuse in his hand, persuading other people to have a go on the bike. He jumped over to another bar where some other cyclists from our group were sitting and bought them a round of Chartreuse, then got one to have a go. He whizzed off, laughing, and said as he went past me 'These are way better than Boris bikes!'
As you can probably tell, it was a somewhat memorable night. We left around one, Glen slightly the worse for wear from the Chartreuse, and headed back to the hotel.