I’m listening to the radio on Saturday morning. On a programme called Talk Radio on RTE Radio One, Ray Darcy is seeking people with stories to tell, of chance meeting in strange places. I am camped at the ferryport in Ringnaskiddy in Cork on the morning of my departure from Ireland. I recall meeting a girl I knew from Ballinrobe one morning in 1992 sitting outside a camping site in Salzburg in Austria which I was leaving and she was waiting to get into. What struck me as the strangest part about it was I had dreamed about her and her family about two nights previously in Slovenia.
Figuring this was the sort of thing that might be of interest to the programme producer I go to the telephone callbox in the Ferry terminal building and proceed to redial until I got through to the researcher to whom I relate the story.
Ten minutes later they call me back and, after a sound check, I’m on air, talking to Ireland.
I preface the story I’ve actually called up to relate by mentioning that I’m about to embark on a trip to Istanbul by bicycle. Ray Darcy is actually quite captivated by this and wants to know the details. I give a brief rundown of my loose itinerary and he wonders whether I shall cycle over the Pyrenees. I express the hope that I shall. He sounds like he would like to discuss it further but we are both conscious of time ticking away on this brief vox pop and so he moves on to my chance meeting story. It somehow seems less, overshadowed by our opening conversation.
The story told, he wishes me luck on my travels and then is gone – on to another interview.
When I call home from the terminal building to say a final goodbye, my brother confirms having heard me, whilst my mother has just received a phone call from an old friend of mine in Donegal who hadn't been sure of my whereabouts until she heard the interview. No point in looking for me in Ireland now though. I’m about to leave.
On my way onto the ship at the check in area, the receptionist asks whether I am the person cycling to Turkey, who'd been on the radio in the morning. When I confirm that it is I, she shows me a note on the computer from all at Brittany Ferries who want to wish me good luck and bon voyage on my journey.
And that’s it. I’m onto the first ferry of my trip and I’m ready to leave Ireland for I don’t exactly know how long. I had delayed my departure for a week to witness Mayo losing their second all Ireland football final in 2 years and, on Wednesday 1st October 1997, loaded up the bike and set off from Breaffy to Cork to catch the ferry on the following Saturday.
Aboard a ship peopled almost entirely with returning French holidaymakers, it being the last sailing out of Ireland for the year, from the beginning I begin to feel like I am on foreign ground. And even as we sail out between Haulbowline and Cobh past Spike Island and Roches Point lighthouse the mental acclimatisation into French mode is underway. I’m trying to recall useful phrases and words for necessities which I figure will probably prove useful (or essential!) upon my arrival on French soil.
In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from London to, what was then, Constantinople, by foot. In the first part of his account of the journey; A Time of Gifts, he talks about his equally low key departure from Irongate Wharf on the Thames in London aboard a Dutch steamer, the Stadhounder Willem;
"The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon – feeling, suddenly forlorn; but only for a moment – to be setting off from the heart of London! No beetling cliffs, no Arnoldian crash of pebbles. I might have been leaving for Richmond, or for a supper of shrimps and whitebait at Gravesend, instead of Byzantium"
On the ferry I sit down to write the first hesitant pages of my journal: "I realise I must begin somewhere…" Reflecting on the variance between airports and ferry ports brought about by a visit to Cobh and my experience of Ringaniskiddy ferry port I write: "To me airports are places of great excitement and adventure which exude a sense of happiness even in departures, whereas marine ports carry an air of sadness and melancholy. This sadness, anxiety even, that infringes upon my impending departure from an Ireland I love deeply is probably compounded or heightened all the more by my visit to the Cobh heritage centre which houses an audio visual exhibition documenting the story of Cobh as a marine port. The exhibition is so powerful and emotional that a number of times I was almost driven to tears as the shivers ran down my spine and the lump welled in my throat amidst mock-ups of coffinship interiors and lists of emigration statistics from the port between 1800 and 1950."
With not much happening on board I situate myself in the aft facing Pullman lounge and, as the last traces of Cork disappear over the horizon, begin to reflect on the couple of days which have seen me cycle the 85 miles from Castlebar to Doolin for a reunion with my brother home on holidays from Israel.
Over a few pints in McGanns in Doolin, his girlfriend and himself decided to accompany me down to Killarney to revisit and say a final goodbye to the many friends I'd made there. We put the bike in the boot of the car and headed for Killarney. Over another few pints in Yer Mans pub in Killarney they fell upon the idea of visiting Blarney castle the next day, and since it was more of less in the direction of Ringnaskiddy, I again figured I might as well travel with them, with the bike loaded into the boot of the car.
After climbing to the top of the castle in Blarney to "snog the famous stone" we set off in the direction of Cork City. Then, at a roundabout on the main Mallow Cork road, about six miles outside the city, they turned north towards Limerick and I unloaded my bike from the car to head south towards the city while they commented on what an unlikely and inconsequential insignificant place it was to say goodbye. Departing, I promise to meet him in Tel Aviv for his birthday on the 28th November.
As I lay back on a Pullman seat, listening to a book review of the third Lifelines Poetry anthology, I promise to get myself a Christmas present of a copy, provided I'm back in Ireland by then. But, for now, Christmas seems so far off.
Through the windows, onto the outside deck, I notice some giggling French schoolgirls observing me and nudging their friends, who also turn to look at the strange looking, bandanna wearing, Irishman who's holding aloft the lead of his headphones in the hope of getting a better radio reception. I smile, and nod to some of them, whereupon they quickly look away. So I return to staring at the horizon to where Ireland used to be, but has now disappeared from view. I'm all alone and feeling it intensely already.
Wheeling my bike out onto French soil, to commence proper my five-year dream, the occasion seems somewhat low-key and very anti-climatical. The ferry arrives in Roscoff at about six in the morning and so for the first ten miles out of Roscoff I cycle in decreasing darkness, as the sky gradually turns from inky to light blue and the sun eventually rises through the haze.
It would be nice to be able to report a momentous and excitement filled first day but all my focus goes into battling with Brittany's long energy sapping hills which seem to go up and up and then down for miles before repeating the process again and again, ever onward. Even at this early stage my doubts and reservations are coming to the fore and, as the day drags on and I pass through town after town yielding no apparent life, my longing for communication becomes ever stronger. Having resigned myself to the lack of open shops or boulangeries which seems to be the unwavering preserve of French Sunday's, the need for water on a day growing increasingly warmer becomes blatantly apparent. With a mere mouthful remaining in my bottle I cycle on, not daring to finish the sup until I find somewhere to refill the bottle. Finally, at a river running through a golf course, I refill my bottle and avail of the opportunity to cool my feet.
At the top of a hill I meet a middle aged Frenchman standing beside his stereotypical Renault 7. I bid him the ubdiquious "Bon Jour" as I pass by. Something in his reply makes me stop to attempt conversation. In a relatively brief exchange conducted in pidgin French on my behalf I tell him that I have come from Roscoff, that I am going to Turkey and that I'm Irish. He enquires whither I intend camping the whole way and I reply hopefully. Then he enquires whither I'm married and when I reply "Non" he makes a gesture with a loose fist moving in and out from his waist. I laugh, as he appears to be doing and enquire whither he himself is married. He replies in the negative as he continues to elaborate by his ongoing gesturing what he uses for way of sexual relief in the absence of a female partner. I am about to tell him "…but I have a girlfriend" when I check myself and wonder whither my craving for conversation even at this early stage has driven me to reveal most personal details to a complete stranger, and a Frenchman with a preoccupation for masturbation at that. Saddened by what has been my first contact of any length with the French, I explain that I must be on my way again and with an "Au revoir" head off.
Unsure of what time the sun might set, seven o'clock seems like a reasonable basis to work on, and so I select a town on the map which the remaining daylight should enable me to reach comfortably, whilst also allowing for time to set up my tent before the fall of darkness. I arrive in Guemere sur Scorff before the sun has sank below the horizon and follow the signs to the camping municipal, But it's closed and pad locked so I continue down the road some fifty metres to a grassy bank among some trees beside a stream and opt to set up camp here. Afterwards I venture into the town centre to see what can be found in the way of sustenance. Not unexpectedly there are no shops open. So from limited options I choose a French Peruvian restaurant where I polish off a bowl of small mussels in a white wine sauce, followed by veal and completed by a sponge dessert soaked in liqueur, all washed admirably down with half a carafe of wine and a cup of coffee.
I adjourn to my tent where my lack of any real conversation is by now driving me to despair and almost to tears. Sensing an overwhelming loneliness and homesickness, I coast the dial on the radio and rejoice when an audible signal of RTE Radio One comes through on MW. For a while I listen to a man on the phone-in programme Godline criticising the late Princess Diana. Eventually the signal fades into the ether to be replaced by a stronger Spanish signal. Under the cover of darkness I strip naked and, after filling the kettle for tea in the morning, wash the sweat off myself in the adjacent stream. Glowing warm after the cold bath, sleep comes slowly as an owl cry pierces the stillness and my imagination creates unearthly creatures out of every sound outside.
Surprisingly, I wake in good form and do thirty sit-ups to warm myself in the chilly dawn. Emerging from the tent in the twilight, I repeat last night's dip in the river, only this time immersing myself totally to shock the body completely awake. Shivering I towel myself dry and begin to glow as I dress. Much to my delight the RTE signal is back again. I listen to John Creedon review the papers on Morning Call and, as I drink a cup of tea, I am compelled to ask myself whither it is the intense loneliness which drives me to cling to this, the last perceptible vestige of contact with Ireland.
Day two passes uneventfully, broken only by a stop to fix my second puncture (My first came when my balding rear tyre, which I'd procrastinated about changing, finally wore through 4 miles out of Roscoff compelling me to use the flimsy spare reserved only for such emergencies). Having traversed the forty or so miles to Vannes and purchased a new more substantial touring tyre for 82 Francs, I seek out a camping site which I have stayed at four years ago and which I understand to be open all year round. Instead I am confronted by a locked gate and a sign informing me that the season lasts from 1st April to 30th September.
In the midst of a torrential downpour I shelter beneath a tree while contemplating my next move.
My plan up to now was to sort myself out here. Have a good shower, wash some clothes, cook some hot food and hopefully meet some people in the campsite, with whom I could converse in more detail that a mere "Bon Jour". The combination of closed campsite and lashing rain pushes me from anxiety towards near panic. On one side of the campsite, overlooking one of the marinas on the Gulf of Moribhan, is a grassy area alongside a path for walkers and joggers. I opt to set up my tent here, resigning myself to another night En sauvage. In an attempt to console myself I cook up a substantial omelette with ham and mushrooms. But it doesn't do a great deal of good and the despair and loneliness now has me teetering on the edge of very real panic. I dread the darkness and the prospect of another twelve hours spent alone. To stave off the anxiety and shorten the night, I head for the local swimming pool, optimistic at the prospect of a relaxing swim and an overdue hot shower. I arrive at seven-forty-nine to discover that it has closed to the public at seven forty five. Dejected and dripping sweat, I make for the port area where there are a number of bars, and as I recall from a previous visit, there might be the possibility of encountering some Irish students over here on EURASMUS placement, who used to frequent them when I was here before. As I lock my bike I also recall reading a guidebook six years ago which described an Irish club somewhere up around the cathedral but which I never quite located at the time. However, optimistic that such a place once existed, I take a wander around the maze of cobbled streets within the town walls, hoping that the Irish Pub craze might have also caught on here again. However the search proves fruitless and my bedraggled unshaven reflection glimpsed in shop window in passing only serves to lower my esteem further. Weary and soaked in sweat from my walkabout in the balmy damp evening I return to the quay area and target a bar bearing the name "Le Pub au Bureau" which seems to offer in appearance, a vague semblance of an Irish counterpart. I wander in, seat myself at the bar and in the space of an hour, drink three beers, smoke three cigarettes and, in the absence of conversation with anyone peruse my planned route on my European mapbook. For the first time, with some desolation I notice the discouraging amount of potential mountain climbs along my intended route through Spain and Italy. Slightly cheered (or numbed) from the alcohol I return to the tent and spend another uneventful night save for torrential down pours, accompanied by Atlantic gale force winds, in the early dawn.
Day 3; From Vannes
Today the realisation dawns on me that continuous unrelenting headwinds, invariably blowing in from the sea are far more energy sapping than dulating hills which go up and up but also go down, thereby offering one a chance to recover before the next one. Following the dual carriageway out of Vannes my progress is good for the first 30 or so miles. Then as I turn west towards St Nazaire and the Atlantic my paces slows to the extent that every pedal rotation is a major effort. Into the afternoon this effort begins to toll on weary legs which ache as does also my back and shoulders. About five miles off in the distance to my left, I can see a huge suspension bridge across the Loire. I am compelled to wonder whither bicycles will actually be allowed to cross it. As the road continues on without any signs for either the bridge or St Brieux on the other side of the estuary and as the towers gradually line up and eventually reverse their elevation over my left shoulder I begin to figure that perhaps there is another bridge further west, better suited to bicycle crossings. Then at a roundabout I find myself routed back the way I have come, all be it on the eastbound carriageway. I seek out signs forbidding crossings by bike but none materialise and my approach is further encouraged when a number of those noisy little French mopeds pass me and begin their ascent. Even part of the way up the bridge's carriageway the wind is gusting wildly enough to wobble me frequently one or two feet off course, which on a bicycle lane of two feet width has a very real potential to prove fatal. The climb to the bridge's peak must be all of a mile. At the top, about 200 feet above the Loire estuary such is the consistent force of the gale that I am compelled to steer into it. I stop to make a photographic record of the view and then commence my descent, in the knowledge that, as I read somewhere, having crossed the Loire I can truly consider myself to be in France proper.
It is incredible how much my long awaited hot shower makes to my mood. Apart from washing away the sweat and soothing the aches and pains, I avail of the opportunity to shave off almost a week’s growth of facial hair, retaining just a neat goatee in the cause of conserving razor blades. In the mirror I look upon the image of my sun burnt face for the first time in four days. I step lightly from the bathroom with a new attitude complemented by the surroundings in this small neat seaside town, so different in appearance from its Breton counterpart a mere five miles across the estuary. With everything in order I head for the town centre in search of a boulangerie to purchase what is unbelievably my first baguette and pain au chocolat after three days in France.
Back in the tent I tune into the ever-reliable BBC world service and in the space of an hour and a half, learn amongst other things that the Irish foreign minister Ray Burke has finally relented to his critics and resigned. I also listen to an interview with the South African minister for water Kadar Ashmal. It was because of him nine years ago that I joined the anti-apartheid movement after hearing him speak in Galway in his then capacity as head of the Irish anti-apartheid movement whilst a lecturer in Law at Trinity College Dublin. Finally I discover what happened to the former RTE reporter Orla Guerin, as she files a report from Italy as the BBC’s European correspondent. Italy is in the midst of yet another crisis and impending collapse of the parliament. This time the crises is over agreement on a budget paving the way for participation in European monetary union.
Day 4; St Brevin les Pins to Bretignoles sur Mer:
From St Brevin les Pins to Bretignoles sur Mer is a distance of 58 miles. The predominant part of the journey between them is undertaken cycling into a constant headwind. Standing on alternate pedals in an effort to effect progress, with the sea off a half-mile to my right, I am pelted by great big globules of Atlantic rain which hiss and sting as they blast my face and legs. Today I find myself dwelling on songs, which seem to come from nowhere, but more likely are dragged from memory by tiny unconscious passing observations or thoughts. "Do you know where you're going to?" strikes me as perhaps not so inappropriate. Trying to establish it’s origins, I initially think it might be by Christopher Cross, but then suspect it is probably by Diana Ross from the film soundtrack "Mahogany". After that comes Peter Sarstead's "Where do you go to my lovely?" which strikes me as incredibly bitter jealous song, made all the more biting by its cutting pretence at admiration of Marie Claire. The same Marie Claire, having made something of her life (even if he believes it to be by questionable methods) wants absolutely nothing to do with the whinger who could only prove to be an embarrassment to her or expose her dubious pedigree. I suppose one could hardly blame her for this! I guess when one makes it in the world from lowly means the last thing they want to hear is someone coming along singing "I remember the back streets of Naples, Two children begging in rags…"
The night falls stormy and wet, I had planned to phone home but my mood is rather subdued and I don't want to phone in such a state. This is partly because I don't want to come across as such on the phone, but also because I suspect the loneliness and sadness would only be intensified and felt all the more when I'd get off the phone. Hopefully tomorrow evening from La Rochelle will prove more optimistic.
Day 5: La Rochelle
And how prophetic my hopes of last night prove to be!
La Rochelle is a beautiful town, which I immediately like. I once read somewhere that if you offer your love to somebody or something, even a town, it will, more often than not, reciprocate or reward you accordingly.
For the first time on trip I abandon the idea of camping to opt for the comfortable and functional Auberge de Jeunesse across the port basin from the town centre. The old port area is truly charming and vibrant, boasting a good smattering of restaurants where the competition is so intense that they are obliged to have their Maitre D's tout for business alone the quayside. From them I randomly chose one offering a 79Fr menu and enjoy mussels, ray, cheese and a crepe washed down with a 1/4 carafe of white wine and a coffee.
Today's journey was, for the most part, not bad either and I made good progress while I had the wind at my back. However for the last 20 miles or so I was confronted by the seemingly unceasing wind off the Atlantic which one tends to forget when it's in your favour. The first 50 miles of the day passed with such relative ease that I had a considerable inclination to contemplate and think.
I found myself somewhat preoccupied with my own attitude to France and all things French. Time and again during my four days in the country I've been compelled to check myself over being too presumptuous or applying those cliched French stereotypes too literally. In accepting that it is quite logical to make direct comparisons and transliterations with what I know from an Irish or English perspective and I tend to view France in this light right down to the way they carry out roadwork’s or the signposting the use for such purpose.
When I do take stock and try and see things from a French perspective I realise how very unusual and strange some of our peculiarities and practices might seem to them.
Somehow, despite my quite considerable frustration with the French way of doing many things, I can't help but feel equally a good degree of respect for their resistance to globalisation or "THE NORM".
Apart from the obvious and unavoidable infiltration or assault by the McDonald's and Coca Cola culture the French have, up till now at least, steadfastly, almost stubbornly even, maintained their practices and peculiarities in the face of the intense assault of a globilisation (or more often than not substitute "Americanised") culture. On an International scale this has been most prominently evidenced by a considerably publicised government involvement and legislation concerning the indigenous film industry to protect it from the marketing muscle and competition of Hollywood. On a local scale comes a marked scarcity of supermarkets or cornershops in small towns and a notable resistance against late or Sunday opening even in main population centres. The Bar Jeux maintain their popularity even in the undoubted face of attempted introduction or imposition of the concept of Irish or English style pubs or American bars.
And yet it is probably presumptuous of me to talk of a French ideal or stereotype since I cannot really agree that such exists. Instead it seems to me a common thread of identity or style that signifies or marks French. In a country of over 80 million people drawing on a vast sphere of global influences and cultures not to mention the geographical variances that are found in the country itself, it is inevitable that great variety and diversity is in occurrence, indeed much moreso than Ireland, or even I would go so far as saying possibly moreso than the UK. Certainly I would suggest that cultural and foreign traits have integrated and made themselves more mainstream and standardised in France than anything ever experienced in the melting pot that is the UK.
Why should I be taken aback by the sight of a Peruvian or Chinese restaurant which is obviously not "stereotypically" French? I accept that because of the "FRENCH" identity, these "contradictions" may seem somewhat out of place, but why any more so than they would in Ireland and what therefore must the French, or foreigners in general, make of those strange Irish traits such as Country and Western music and Ranch style homes, even the blight of hacienda style bungalows which proliferate the Irish countryside. Must they not wonder where are the stereotypical Irish cottages and ceilidhs at every crossroad.
And finally, as a footnote on the subject, with regard to my literal translations from French into English, I have discovered that it is not wise to be presumptuous or assuming here either. In contrast to its appearance a chain of outlets called Feu Vert are not actually in the business of selling environmentally friendly low emission fires as I first suspected but rather are engaged in the retail of motor accessories and mobile phones. Neither does Montlucon bear any relation to Lucon in the same way I guess as Ballycastle bears no relation to Ballyfermot and whatever, in that case does some French person with a perspective like mine make of such abnormalities as Powercity.
Day 6: La Rochelle to Soulac sur Mer - A distance of 68 miles or thereabouts, the uncertainty caused by a temporary glitch in my cycle computer.
Yet again today the wind is an omnipresent imposition on my progress, as it hits me sideways, coming at me diagonally over my right shoulder. At one point, in a combination of rage and desperation, I turn my face directly into the oncoming gale and growl fiercely at it. Almost as I am doing this I am struck by the comic futility of this petty action, and visualise a caricaturistic picture of an alliance with Don Quixote, on his way to tackle the windmills. Even in this parallel my mount Pedro is proving much less robust than Don Quixote’s Rocinante or indeed John Steinback’s camper of the same name, from his 1960 traveller’s tale Travels with Charlie
I pass through coastal towns like Rochefort and Royan along tidal-flats riddles with muddy sea inlets and saltwater lagoons supporting a considerable shell-food industry. In Royan, as I wait for the ferry across La Gironde to Le Vendon, I take a walk alongside the marina in search of some place to eat along the quayside. There are plenty of the usual array of flashy yachts of various sizes up to luxury giants. However the marina does not ooze style or wealth in the "In Your Face" way of Marbella or Monte Carlo. On my way back along an otherwise unimpressive quayside I do however encounter a red Ferrari, compelling me to question whither all the jet set actually head for Monte Carlo or Marbella.
My arrival in the small town of Soulac Sur Mer is heralded by a sign proclaiming it's twinning with Castlerea, Co Roscommon amongst other minor European counterparts. Initially it compels me to laugh at the unlikeliness of the pairing and even have to stop for the obligatory photo opportunity featuring bike in front of twinning sign. An hour later however, having stopped for the night at a campsite a mile outside the town and returned in a futile search for bread, I am very much able to draw parallels between this rural winter backwater, asleep almost to the point of hibernation and the not so thriving rural Irish town of Castlerea. I also can't help but contemplate the inspiration which John Waters, a Castlerea native, might find his twin hinterland, surrounded by nudist beaches and the remains of Second World War German coastal defences!
Day 7; Soulac to Bordeaux - A distance of 84 miles including the journey out to and back from the campsite outside the city.
Today's overwhelming influence is the presence of an incessant misty rain, which occasionally increases its flow rate to torrential downpour and then returns to constant drizzle again. Combined with a landscape composed of endless miles of straight flat road surrounded by standardised pine plantations, this makes for a most boring uninspiring journey. It is a Saturday evening which sees my arrival in Bordeaux, soaking wet, tired and quite miserable and so accordingly, very cranky. I progress towards the centre of town to find my bearings and, having established my location outside the cities grand theatre, I strike out to the west through pedestrianized streets filled with weekend shoppers.
Half an hour later, two miles out, with the help of a map on a bus shelter, I realise that I should have headed south out of the centre rather than west and so in an attempt to rectify my mistake I begin to circumnavigate the city southward along the Avenue President Roosevelt ring road. My intended destination is the suburb of Grandignan, and in my search for it I pass by the signs for the University, beyond which, unknown to me, it lies. Twenty minutes later I end up very frustrated in another south western suburb of the city where I finally figure out my mistake and I have to backtrack to locate the main thoroughfare Cours Charles De Galle along which the campsite actually lies some four miles further out.
I arrive at the camping site in the watery dusk and, after a hot shower, sit in my tent listening to intermittent rain outside whilst contemplating whither or not to undertake the seven mile journey back into town to the Blarney Stone Irish pub on Avenue Victor Hugo, a visit I've been relishing the prospect of for some three days. Eventually, driven by an overwhelming desire to meet and converse with people in a familiar environment, I bundle up in readiness for the next rain shower and head town-ward on the bike. The forty-minute bike trip through a now balmy evening produces not a single drop of rain in defiance of my preparedness and I arrive, as much soaked from sweating under my raingear as any minor rain shower might have caused.
"The Blarney Stone" in Bordeaux is a pretty authentic effort for an Irish pub. It seems strange at first to find the double doors open French cafe style on an October night. Once inside, I take a stool at the bar in typical Irish fashion, and equally Irish like, enquire what the Guinness is like.
"As good as any Guinness you get in any Irish pub not in Ireland" confirms the fella on the stool next to me in a Dublin accent. Matthew is a golf caddie and comes from Bray. He's over here working at a tournament. I have a well-established mindset for Guinness cultivated over the last three days anyway. So I order one.
As I wait for the settle, I contemplate the surroundings and it feels good and normal and familiar. After the first sup on the pint takes me a third down the glass, the conversation turns to focus on me. In the course of another two pints Matthew, his friend Brian another caddie, and the barman Barry discuss and evaluate the merits and very obvious disadvantages that they envisage on my planned trip as I have outlined it to them. They are all eager contribute advice and perspectives on what they obviously regard as a crazy undertaking. I try to absorb it all through a combination of intoxication and tiredness. But even through the haze comes a realisation of the truthworthiness and probable right accuracy of the information that my new-found friends are imparting to me. Displaying my first oblivious disregard for my economy budget, in an effort to preserve the ambience and the mood, I order my fourth Guinness at 33 Francs a pint.
Matthew and Brian are joined by two English golf pros, whose names I don't quite catch, but whom Matthew later tells me are members of the Ryder Cup team. As the four golfers talk shop, I sit alone with my thoughts trying to assimilate the advice I've been given. Up to now I've been used of being confronted by disbelief in my plans and the usual chorus of questioning my sanity. My standard response when confronted by the doubts and uncertainties of others was, up to last week, to exude bravado and a cool exterior, such was the passion and inner drive that I felt about my dream. However, now into my first week of the trip with weather and loneliness and homesickness taking their toll, my dream has being receiving something of a considerable battering and though stopping short, on more than one occasion, of turning back, I have been conducting an ongoing re-evaluation of my plans.
Initial plans to head down through Bayonne to Santiago de Compestella and back through Madrid to Barcelona have changed. I now plan to go through Lourdes and over the Pyrenees to Barcelona. My parting conversation with Matthew is on this subject, whereby he expresses his very strong reservations about such plans, particularly the aspect of attempting to cross the "Apennines" as he persistently calls the Pyrenees.
"Anyone who would attempt such thing this time of year is crazy and I'd hate to read about you on the front page of the Sunday World" he says and even provides a prospective headline to push home his point,
"I can see it now; ‘Daredevil lone Irish cyclist found frozen to death in Pyrenees." I outwardly laugh in rejection of the advice offered. However his other perspective, whereby he expresses very serious doubts about whither I can actually get a boat from Barcelona to Italy, does strike home in a very real sense.
I'm tired and quite intoxicated and I have seven miles to cycle back to my tent. So I say goodbye to my new friends and they wish me luck. On the way back, I reflect disappointingly on a very anti-climactical night. In my anticipation I had hoped possibly to be confronted by a vibrant interesting combination of expatriates and continentals instilled with a love of all things Irish. Instead I'd found myself slotting into a predictable negative conversation scenario with three Irishmen who each in turn cast grave doubts over my aspirations. It all smacked of exactly the sort of thing that I thought (or hoped) I'd left behind in the pubs of Ireland. Instead here I was in continental Europe, eight hundred miles from home, confronted by the manifest negativity which prevails in so so many Irish pubs. And not surprisingly it was being conveyed by Irish people, in a bar full of French people, but yet oh so Irish.
© Peter Jordan, 2001