Leaving Paris by Bicycle

Chris and I had been dating for one year when we decided to do it — bicycle tour through Europe. We decided four months would be a good enough chunk of time for us to learn the ropes of bicycle touring.

Our first act toward this bicycle feat was to decide which countries to visit. We also wanted to go where we had friends to host us. So, this mapped out a rough plan of starting in Paris, heading north to Amsterdam, east to Berlin and traveling south to Italy (where we happened to know no one). Our plan for Italy was to volunteer on organic farms and (the true motivator) to eat fresh ravioli and gelato.

There appeared to be no choice about quitting our jobs (otherwise our four months of travel would be stretched out over 8 years!) All details of how to get from Point A to Point B would be formed en route, assuming we’d have the proper atlas and occasional email contact with our friends.

In the month before departure, we took a few “training rides” around Manhattan Island. Once we even biked to my mom’s house in upstate New York on a scorching Saturday afternoon. (This particular ride ended with a phone call. “Ma? It’s starting to get dark. Can you put the bike rack on the car and meet us in Middletown?”)

Nonetheless, a few antsy weeks later, we arrived in Paris to take advantage of free accommodation with Chris’ mother Janet. I spent most days exploring Paris on my own while Chris immersed himself in the latest Harry Potter book. We frequently rotated between a loving friendship and hating each other (as intensely as only travel companions can hate).

But since we felt committed to one another and to the trip ahead, the bottom line was always, “I love you anyway.”

Chris and I were grateful for opportunities to hang out with Janet’s Parisian friends. From them, we hustled phone numbers of their cousins, parents and ex-husbands who were living in rural areas along our proposed bike route. This would be a priceless cultural exchange with real French families. Only when Chris and I were alone did we admit, “Alright! A few nights without the tent!”

After two weeks of tourist activities and lounging under the guise of “preparation,” we had no more excuses to remain in Paris. We were as organized as we’d ever be.

But, even with all our preparation, we still made mistakes. A few learned on our first day of biking:

  1. Thinking we should wake up naturally, without an alarm. (We should have known better.)
  2. Attempting, at noon, to re-locate a specific store we had once passed by while wandering in the city. (We wanted to purchase a certain dish-drainer to thank Janet for her hospitality.)
  3. Agreeing to a farewell lunch with Janet at her apartment near Notre Dame. (Lunch in France takes a minimum of 2 hours, even if it is just a bunch of Americans eating Brie and Baguette.)
  4. Packing the compass deep inside a pannier. (“We already know how to bike to the northern city boundary. We did it those times we met Janet at her English-speaking Church. From there, the highway north should be obvious.” Aaah, false confidence.)
  5. Biking in random trajectories. (Streets were unfortunately not neat diagonals that conveniently met back up with the main boulevards. Had we been tracked on a GPS, our pattern would show a zigzag through Paris.)
  6. Biking in circles. (After an hour of riding, we figured we were almost out of the city. Then I heard myself say, “That’s a pretty cathedral. It looks a lot like Notre Dame… Oh No! We’re right near Janet’s house!”)
  7. Agreeing it was still best to leave at the late hour of 4 p.m., rather than wait until the next morning. (“If we go back to mom’s house now, we’ll just end up sleeping late and having another lunch tomorrow. Even if we sleep on a park bench in the city, at least it will mean we’ve started this trip.”)

Well, Chris and I did finally make it out of Paris that evening — by keeping the setting sun on our left. When the odometer read 44.27 kilometers in the town of Chantilly (pronounced Shon-tee-yee), it was getting dark. We rang the doorbell of a small square house on a large plot of land.

When a squat older woman opened the door, we tightly held our 8 x 11 sheet of necessary French phrases. This page was custom made to our needs, translated by Janet’s friends. In French I said, “We are looking for a place to plant our tent. Can you help us?” The woman was kind enough to play Charades and use a few English words to communicate.

What we understood was that since the yard had no fence, it would not be safe from the wild boars.

She motioned for us to follow her down the road and soon we arrived at a fenced-in playground. There were posters to warn citizens about the boars. The drawings bared little resemblance to the mythical boar that I imagined from The Princess Bride. They were, however, descriptive enough for Chris to believe she had indeed said “wild boars” and not “wild boys.”

We ate handfuls of Trail Mix for dinner because we were too lazy to tinker with our new European camp stove. Chris let me eat the last hard-boiled egg (“So he must really love me,” I thought). We huddled in our sleeping bags, giggling about the freezing September temperature. We assumed during the next few months the air would get colder. But this night, perhaps because we were not yet accustomed to sleeping outdoors, was by far the coldest night of the whole four-month trip. It became the barometer for all other cold nights (“At least this town’s not as cold as Chantilly”).

Chris and I continued to bring out the best and worst in each other during this adventure. We had been delusional to think this trip would be luxurious and easy. This delusion was not our fault, really. The guidebook photos were so beautiful and did not show enough detail to make out the sweat, sunburn and muscle spasms of the participants.

Luxury was replaced with our adventures in exotic locales and so much exercise I could eat anything in any quantity; feeling lucky to share it all with my best friend. During the next decades, Chris and I can remind each other of the enchantment and hardship involved in biking Europe, and all we learned along the way.

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