holland, belgium & france

Here is my route from Giethoorn to where I am now. This is Google’s route. I took a few detours due to construction and Google being less than ideal. A Dutch cyclist told me he doesn’t use Google anymore: “Google thinks that your goal is Point B, but really, the goal is the cycling and Point B is just an excuse.” Exactly. I have skipped “scheduled” train rides and cycled instead but let’s start from where I left off.

Amsterdam was chaotic to cycle through. Great cycling lanes, but the traffic jams. It was like first learning to drive: did you shoulder check? Did you signal? Are you going too slow or too fast? Is the light green? So many people on bikes that if you’re a pedestrian, stepping into the bike lane is analogous to stepping onto the road: you are going to get hit, multiple times, and no one is going to feel sorry for you.

When I arrived in Antwerp I was halted by a parade, a giant puppet and very loud music. I had no idea what I was witnessing but the roads were packed and blocked to traffic. No matter, I go up blocked and “Do Not Enter” roads all the time. Mom’s cringing right now, but I call it VIP access. I rolled along the cobblestones, weaving between people, one foot clipped in, the other pushing the bike like a scooter. I had to go underneath the river –only in Europe do they have bike paths under rivers. By the time I had cycled into the campsite it was getting dark and rainy and a man came up to me and said that if I wanted dinner I was more than welcome. Lessons learned in Iceland: never refuse free food or drinks. So off I went into their camper where they had already set out an extra plate and glass for me and promptly fed me two bowls of pasta with eggplant and Parmesan, a bowl of salad and a glass of wine. They told me all about this parade I had stumbled upon; the puppets are called “giants” and they walk through the city and perform. It’s apparently a big deal and that’s the only reason they were in town (if you’re interested, this is the group that does this “parade/performance”: http://www.royal-de-luxe.com/en/company/).

On my way to Brussels, my front tire went flat. I dutifully changed the tube (so capable!) and started hand pumping… and pumping… and pumping. Forty minutes and a quarter of a jar of Nutella went by before the “milestone” of my “first flat” started to get really, really boring. I started walking and passed one of those tube monsters that flap around because there’s air being blown through it. Beside it was a stage with a band blasting close-to-hard metal and all around were shiny Harley-Davidson motorcycles and people clad in leather. But all I saw was the air monster: they have air. So I started weaving my way through bikers with huge beards and tattoos, “Hi, um… do you have air?” A photographer saw me and after switching languages at least three times he said, “Yes, but maybe not for this small valve you have.” He went from person to person and a few minutes later, came back with a mechanic, two small tubes of plastic and the end of an air hose. I lay my bike on its side right in the middle of the party (25thanniversary party, apparently) and after some fiddling, the valve worked and my tire was full, only for us to hear a distinct hissing sound coming from it. “Come!” the photographer/mechanic said somewhat excitedly, “We will fix it! This way!” and within 5 minutes, I had been led slowly through the crowd, through the shop, between a ton of motorcycles (carefully), unloaded my bike, removed the wheel, the tire, the tube, and everything was lying on the table in front of four mechanics and myself. It was like we were going to perform a surgery.

In went the next tube, with ten hands on the tire to help push it back into the rim (yay, teamwork!). In went the air and we all cheered, good to go! One minute later the tube violently exploded on the table with a loud pop! and what followed was a stream of cursing in Flemish, English, French, Spanish, German and Dutch. “Seriously?” one said, “Four motorcycle mechanics and we can’t do a bike flat? Please, do not tell our boss.” We started again. Both rim and tire were inspected and nothing was found. One mechanic was putting soap on the rim, another was trying to locate all the holes in the first tube and still a third was blowing the second popped tube up like a balloon animal. This was all happening between gulps of beer and drags of cigarettes. The next tube we tried worked and I repacked my bike and they gave me a sticker for their shop.

Brussels has terrible bike paths; do not bike in Brussels. I cycled into the city for dinner, unloaded, and felt like I was flirting with death. It poured the next day and I went straight to Ghent. It rained so hard it filled my shoes with water while I was on the go. I spent an hour under a hair dryer with my rain gear and another hour the next morning drying my tent fly and footprint; any backpacker/traveler knows the hair dryer struggle. The ride to Bruges was pretty – bike paths the entire way, mostly tree lined and along canals.

At Bruges Market I grabbed a waffle for Second Breakfast, made right in front of me. As I stretched to hand the woman a couple of Euros while straddling my bike, she joked, “You must be going to the Dutch Mountains!” to which I replied that I was coming from them. The man beside me asked sincerely, “Are they big?” (er, no… the Dutch “Mountains” are quite small). I explained my route and when I was done, the woman said, “Wow, very impressive to do all on one waffle!” and she handed mine to me, sticky and hot in the napkin. I was about to do a 40-point turn to get out of the market when she exclaimed, “Wait, wait! One for the road! You need all the sugar!” and gave me a second.

In Ieper I cycled through Menin Gate; Menin Gate is a war memorial to soldiers that died in the Ypres Salient in WWI and whose graves are unknown. The entire gate is covered with tiny inscribed names. They played the Last Post at 8:00PM, which they do every evening.

When I packed my bike the next morning, I automatically reached for my tripod and then my stomach dropped when it wasn’t there. This tripod is essentially my glorified selfie stick; I love it, I use it every day and it was gone. I fled Ieper for France in a haze of fury and the bike paths promptly melted into back roads through endless fields. Most of the time they were asphalt, sometimes they were patchy asphalt and sometimes they were dirt or just muddy tractor ruts. They were narrower than a bike path in Holland but usually didn’t have any traffic… besides face-offs with farming equipment, which I always lost. Once, a bus came down and we had to squeeze past each other. It felt like South America, heat included. This is the side of France you will not see on postcards. My back tire went flat, but this time there was no chance of walking to a motorcycle party. I was in the middle of tiny-village-France. I fixed the flat and kept going.

Almost immediately after I crossed the border, the terrain started to get hillier and by the time I reached Dieppe and the coast (lots of towns –sur-mer) there were even some switchbacks. We’ll call this Alps training and more good excuses to eat Ben and Jerry’s by the pint. So far, France is beautiful and I’m usually found between fields of all kinds of colours with church spires in the distance. An added bonus is that I can read things in grocery stores and understand and say very basic things. While we’re on the subject of grocery stores, is there anything more French than an old woman in a dress and heels, cycling helmet-less with four baguettes strapped to the rear rack?

Upon arrival at Mont St. Michel, my camping neighbours handed me strawberries, an apple, tah-MAW-toez and two cold beers since it was over 35°C. We had a wonderful little conversation before I cycled unloaded to the abbey to watch the sunset, (“Here, do you want a light? Yes, yes, take the bike light. No, you keep it! I will put it on for you!”).

When I got to the abbey, I snuck across the sand (am I allowed to be here?) to encounter a swarm of ladybugs. A couple got a little cozy on my handlebars – exactly how lucky does this make me?

I returned to the campsite, my bike blinking red lights like strobes, and found this pinned to my tent:

Note: Coco is the dog. So they made me a huge breakfast with orange juice and coffee and then went on their way, but not before handing me a can of tuna, cooking me pasta, slathering it in olive oil and putting it in a Tupperware for me. Can people get any nicer?

There has been a common theme in conversations and everyone asks the same questions. How far do you go in a day? How long have you been traveling? Where have you been, where are you going? How much does this bike weigh?! Did you cycle here all the way from Canada? I never know how to answer the last one. In Amsterdam, the guy at the bike shop asked me, “You’re alone?” In Antwerp, the woman in the camper simply said, “That is a very long way to go by yourself,” but then followed with, “Avoid real life for as long as possible!”. When I reported my tripod stolen at the local police station in Ieper, the policeman said, “You are alone? Really?” he frowned, “You know, two women, or three, yes, but one…you have… ” and then scrambled for words. There’s stigma that a girl traveling alone is scary, but I haven’t found the basis for it. Everyone has been nice to me. I passed a man leisurely cycling up a steep hill coming out of Dieppe, and as I went past him (I was going) he yelled, “Allez allez allez!” and cheered. In between teeny villages in France, I cycled past three teenaged boys who, when they saw me, started to applaud, shouting, “Bonjour!”. In Bayeux when I went to see the tapestry, four Brits decided to spontaneously adopt me as their daughter and paid for my way in (“Yes, these three here are my brothers, and this is my daughter. No, I know, she doesn’t speak English proper, but we’re working on it”). The guy behind the desk did not buy it. In another teensy village, I was sitting on the side of the road spooning an entire avocado into my mouth and had a long broken conversation (in French!) with an old man who ended it saying something about la boulangerie and Bon voyage, eh?

People always seem surprised when I tell them I started in Iceland and now I’m here, close to 4,000 km later. The funny thing is, it is notquite as hard as they probably think it is. You wake up, you pack, you eat a lot, you pedal, turn left, turn right, spork some Nutella, go straight. If you can bike around Stanley Park, you can bike across Europe and you can probably bike to India. You just have to decide you are going to. It’s really not as complicated as some think it must be. Sure, your legs will get tired, your butt will get a little sore, you’ll get a really sweet glove tan –I am saving this photo until the end of summer– and you’ll probably get a couple of bugs in the face and the mouth, and up your nose and possibly down your shirt, but really, what’s so hard about that?

Cheers from Mont St. Michel, France.

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