Day 8. Mon., June 8, 2015 … Caudebac … 50 miles/410 total miles … “Michel is 71 and says this is not such a hard hill to climb”

8 Day jumieges

It’s been two days without Lexapro and haven’t noticed much of a difference. Yet. Feel pretty much the same as when I was taking it. Think that’s a good thing. Maybe I should make a dramatic gesture and flush the rest of ‘em down the toilet. Nah, may need one down the road. Knowing they’re here, just in case, is reassuring. Sort of like Aisle Seat Guy and his spare copy of Lonesome Dove.

***

Today was my day for bike issues.

Left Lyons-la-Foret a little after 9:00AM and started climbing a big hill. Got to the top, looked back to Lyons-la-Foret, and could see the fog down below covering most of the town. It was pretty cool.

About a mile later … pop!

My first flat tire of the trip. The back tire, of course, since it’s the more difficult of the two to fix. Because of the chain and gears. No problem getting the tire off, the old tube out of the tire and the new tube inside the tire. The problem was getting the tire back on the rim of my wheel. The last few inches are always the hardest, as the tire gets tighter and tighter as it stretches out as you push the bead of the tire around and into the rim of the wheel. Can usually muscle those last few inches in with my thumbs. Not so much today. This is the first flat I’ve had to fix since the incident, and guess my thumbs aren’t as strong as they used to be. Had to cheat and use one of the plastic levers that you use to get the tire off the wheel. You’re not supposed to do this, because the lever can pop the tube if you’re not extremely careful. Was extra-extra-extremely careful and finally got the tire all the way back on.

Down to my last spare tube.

Five miles later, just as I was entering the outskirts of Rouen … pop!

 

Another flat tire. The back tire. Of course. And, once again, lots of problems getting the last few inches of the tire back on the wheel. Used the tire lever again. Extra-extra carefully.

And was out of spare tubes.

Fortunately, came across a bike shop in Rouen and bought three tubes. At the rate I’m going, they should last a day or two.

BTW: My knee and hip were a little sore from yesterday’s fall when I woke up this morning. Was a little worried, but they loosened up once I got going. Now that I’ve stopped riding, they’re sore again.

***

Rouen is a big city, it’s where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Damn that must have hurt. Seriously, think about it. Actually, don’t. Too gruesome. Rode around the center of the city, had a snack, took a look at the cathedral, thought about staying overnight. Nah, too big and noisy of a city. And I don’t like big & noisy cities so much anymore because, well, they’re so big & noisy. And hurt my brain.

According to my Michelin map, there are hotels in Duclair, which was another 15 miles, and in Caudebac, another 10 miles past Duclair. A red line under the name of a city on the Michelin map indicates there’s at least one hotel in the town.

There was about a 5-mile hill out of Rouen once you cross over the Seine (yep, the same river that goes through Paris). At least it seemed like it was five miles. Was probably only two or three. There was only one > on the Michelin map, but there should have been at least three. This is one tough climb.

“Bonjour,” shouted an old guy as he and his friend passed me about half a mile into the hill/mountain.

Me (out of breath): “Bonjour.”

Old guy on a bike: “A bunch of French words I didn’t understand.”

Me (even more out of breath): “Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous Anglais?”

Old guy: “Yes, a little. Are you British?”

Me: “No, American.”

He and his buddy seemed a little surprised, and pleased, to meet an American on a hill/mountain outside of Rouen.

Old guy: “It is beautiful day for a ride, no? And not so hard for someone 25 years.”

Me: “I’m 34.”

Old guy (pounding his chest with pride): “Thirty four, that is quite young. I am 67.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, good for you old timer,” I mumbled to myself. The 67-year- old old guy started talking French to his buddy, they both looked at me and started laughing.

Old guy: “Michel is 71 and says this is not such a hard hill to climb.”

And with that they stood up on their bikes, started peddling a little faster and began to pull away from me, dropping me like a pair of dirty underwear. Showoffs. What with me being only 34 and an American, I wasn’t about to let two old French guys kick my ass up this hill/mountain. Got up and out of my seat and began spinning my pedals faster. Closed the gap and was gaining on them. And then, after 500 meters (OK, not even 300), stuff started seizing up all over my body. My lungs ran out of air and were ready to explode. My back started screaming. Had to slow down a little (OK, a lot).

The two old guys, turned, waved and sped away.

Damn, have to admit it, those two old guys sure could ride. They kicked my young American ass. Pretty sure they’re retired professional cyclists who once rode in the Tour de France. Michel may even have won the damn thing a time or two.

***

Duclair is a cool little town right on the banks of Seine. Thought about staying there, but it was only 2:00PM when I arrived and decided to keep going. Glad I did. About four kilometers (2.4 miles) later, there was a sign pointing to the left that said Jumieges was 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) to the left (south). Had no idea what Jumieges was or if there was anything worth seeing in Jumieges, but my Michelin map had a symbol – three little dots – that indicated some type of ruins were there. Love a good ruin, and decided to make a side trip to Jumieges. What the heck, it was a nice day. Plus, there was another little symbol – the letter B, in blue, surrounded by a box – that indicated there was a barge that would take me across the river (still the Seine) and a white road I could ride all the way to Caudebac. Cool, a barge. I like boats.

Jumieges turned out to be amazing.

According to the Normandy tourism website (which means I must now be in Normandy): “The first sight of the remains of the immense abbey church, in its verdant setting in a meander of the Seine, is unforgettable.”

They’re right.

Jumieges is one of the oldest monasteries in France, which means it’s one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Was founded by Saint Philibert in 654, destroyed by the Vikings in 841 and then again during the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453).

All that’s left of the once-immense cathedral is the skeleton: the outer walls and some of the towers, with grass growing in the middle. The walls seem to defy gravity and are just so majestic and beautiful and amazing. And unforgettable. And relaxing.

Must have hung out at Jumieges for an hour, including a 20-minute nap, lying on the grass, next to my bike. Had some water and biscuits and a banana.

The barge station was where it was supposed to be, but the next one wasn’t for another hour, so rode back the way I came and on to Caudebac, which is where I am right now. Like Duclair, it’s a really nice little town, right on the banks of the Seine. There are paths all along the water lined with parks and flowers.

In Chapter 9, Marc learns all about the ancient rituals of cafe culture…

Day 9. Tuesday June 9, 2015 …Honfleur … 40 miles/450 miles … Please let there be a bike shop in Pont-Audemer

9 Day awful bridge

Today was my day for bike issues.

Oh wait, I wrote this yesterday, didn’t I? Guess you can’t go on an epic French bike trip without at least one déjà vu experience.

Actually, it was only one bike issue today, but a much bigger problem than yesterday’s two flats. Shouldn’t whine about it. If you’re on a bike trip, you gotta expect bike issues. Right? It’s part of the adventure.

***

So, to get to where I was going from Caudebac, you have to cross back over the Seine … on a huge suspension bridge. I’m talking a Golden Gate- sized bridge. Huge. It was at least a mile long and had the same profile as some of the larger hills I’ve been climbing. It was like a mountain over a river.

Oh crap, how am I going to get across this bridge … on a bike? There’s no way you can ride across on a bike with all that traffic.

No worries, this is France, and there’s always a bike lane. Must be a law.

Was a couple kilometers past the bridge … and suddenly heard a clinking, metallic sound coming from behind me that I know all too well.

“Damn it Marc, you broke a spoke,” mumbled to myself, looking down at the back tire of my bike. The wheel was wobbling back and forth, and the rim was rubbing against the brake pad (which makes it harder to pedal, especially up hills). These are sure signs of a broken spoke. Stopped and started testing the spokes, one-by-one, and sure enough, one of them was busted.

 

I’m not much of a bike mechanic, as my bike mechanic will tell you, but do know that when you break one spoke, more bad things can happen. Your wheel is immediately out of true (or balance), wobbles around and rubs against the brake pad. And once one spoke breaks, more tend to break since everything is out of whack and balance. Soon your wheel is rubbish.

And there’s nothing worse than a rubbish wheel on a bike trip.

Had no choice but to keep riding, gingerly, slowing down when I got to rough patches on the road, and taking is easy climbing the hills. The town of Pont-Audemer was about 15 miles away.

Please, please, please let there be a bike shop in Pont-Audemer.

There wasn’t.

Pont-Audemer is right on the Risle River, and lined with canals surrounded by ancient, timbered houses. They call it the Venice of France. Rode round and round looking for a bike shop, but no luck. Bet they have bike shops in the Venice of Italy.

Did get some strawberries – half a kilo for 2 Euros – that were amazing. They were so sweet it was like eating strawberry candy. They melted in my mouth. Went back and got another half kilo. A kilo is like 2 pounds, which meant I ate two pounds of strawberries. Hope I don’t get sick. Have toilet paper, just in case.

Honfleur was still another 30 kilometers (18 miles) away and my back wheel was getting wobblier and wobblier. Then again, it may have been my imagination. This whole TBI has made me a lot more anxious and nervous about stuff like this. Instead of seeing this as a challenge to be overcome, and part of the fun and adventure of a bike trip, now see stuff like this as the start of a chain of events that will keep getting worse and worse and ultimately end in disaster. For example: My back wheel just completely falls apart, leaving me stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

This is, or course, a total overreaction. Wasn’t in the middle of nowhere and could always hitch a ride to Honfleur if my wheel disintegrated. Or hail down a passing taxi. Or a bus. When you have some money, which I do, things are never really a disaster. Especially when you’re in a popular tourist area.

Try telling that to my brain. Anxiety beats logic every time.

Despite the wobbly wheel, and the fact that I haven’t taken a Lexapro in a few days, was able to keep my anxiety level below the red line. Maybe this was a test I needed to pass. Maybe this was a step forward. Or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a broken spoke.

Limped into Honfleur (Can you limp on a bike? I think you can), which is a port city/fishing village – and tourist magnet – located on the spot where the Seine and the English Channel all come together. According to the Normandy Tourism website: “The changing light on the Seine estuary inspired Courbet, Monet, Boudin and many others. Today dozens of galleries and artists’ studios continue to display a wide choice of classical and modern paintings.”

Courbet, Monet and Boudin are all famous painters. I’ve only heard of Monet, and am wondering why this Courbet guy got top billing over the super-famous Monet. Should I know of this Courbet? No way he’s better than Monet.

Anyway, and sure enough, about a dozen artists have their easels set up around the port, and are painting away, hoping to sell their paintings to all the tourists wandering around with that dazed-tourist look on their faces.

Headed over to the tourist office to see if there was a bike shop in Honfleur. There is, but it closed at 5:00PM and it was 5:06PM.

“It will open morning tomorrow at 10,” the woman at the tourist office told me and showed me where it was on the plan de ville (map).

***

Sitting at a café now, along the docks, sipping a beer as slowly as I can manage. It’s about 9:00PM and it’s just starting to get dark and most of the day-tripping tourists have left and it’s quiet and relaxing. The sky is slowly turning a darker and darker shade of blue, and as the sky darkens, the facades of all the stone buildings around the port seem to change color and get darker as well.

If only I had an easel and some paint – and knew what to do with them. Maddie was a really talented artist, and would have really loved this town and the light and all the artists trying to capture the light.

Oh well, time to get a little misty.

Think I’m starting to get the hang of the café culture, which isn’t surprising since I’ve spent time in one just about every night. It’s my new version of sitting in my green reclining chair and watching TV. Here’s what I’ve learned about cafés …

In France there is an art to everything and even something as seemingly simple as a visit to a café is a subtle and delicate form of self-expression filled with customs and procedures that date back millions of years to the caveman cafés.

 

Lesson number one is to pick the proper café. It’s exactly like real estate: location, location, location. A café is, first and foremost, a place to sit, relax and watch the world go by. And to be seen.

In Honfluer, this means a café along the water.

Once you’ve found the perfect seat at the appropriate café, you must then do what the French all seem to do: empty the contents of your pockets onto your table. I’m not kidding, that’s what people do over here before they sit down. Out come the keys, wallets, loose change, combs, cigarettes, lighters (everyone in France smokes) and phones. Not sure why they do this, maybe they make the pants pockets a lot smaller over here and sitting down with all that stuff in your pockets is uncomfortable. Then again, it might have something to do with World War II. Everything in France has something to do with World War II. Especially here in Normandy.

Next comes the whole greeting-of-friends ritual, although this can and often precedes the emptying-of-the-pockets ritual. A simple nod, “hello” or handshake or hug just won’t do. Not even close. Everyone must stand and kiss any and every new arrival on both cheeks and then, in turn, be kissed on both cheeks by the new arrival. This can take a really long time when someone arrives and joins a table filled with six or seven of their friends. That’s a lot of cheeks to kiss. Do the math.

Most people seem to go with the double-cheek kiss greeting: right-left or a left-right. However, have seen a few people go with a right-left-right or a left-right-left. Not sure what this means. Are these triple-cheek kissers closer friends than the double-cheek kissers? Think I may have seen a quadruple-cheek kiss greeting, but it happened so fast can’t really say for sure. And, does it mean something if you start with a left-cheek kiss? Or a right-cheek kiss?

Even the men kiss each other, which at first seemed kind of weird. It now seems perfectly normal.

OK, so you’ve found the right café, the right seat in the right café, emptied your pockets and kissed a bunch of cheeks. Or, none of the above if you’re all alone. Like I am. It’s now time for the all-important drink order. They’re expensive and the goal is to make your drink last a really, really long time.

The waiter – never, ever, never call him “garcon” or he’ll know you’re an ignorant American and will shoot you one of those haughty, snooty looks that French café waiters have perfected over the centuries – approaches and the pressure mounts. This is the point when most American tourists panic and blurt something out in English, assuming the waiter speaks English. They do all speak English, but you should never assume this and blurt out your order in English because, well, it’s just rude. You’re in France. Speak a little French. I’m still a little insecure and shy about my French, and have been ordering something simple, usually “une bier, se il vous plait.” Have been experimenting with ordering vin rouge.

Tonight, the waiter brought a little plate of almonds with my bier. That’s another café thing: you often get little snacks with your drink: olives, peanuts, chips. I like it.

***

The whole sipping slowly thing has been tough for me, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. Writing in my journal on my laptop seems to make the slow sipping easier, since it’s hard to pick up your glass and drink while you’re typing – although it is possible. And, a couple of drinks make the writing easier. The words just seem to flow out of me, often in a torrent of inane, misspelled ramblings that require a lot of editing later. Guess that’s why Hemingway and Fitzgerald did so much of their writing in cafes. Then again, at least one of them, and probably both, were self-destructive alcoholics. But damn, they sure could write. Wonder if either of them ever wrote at one of the cafés here in Honfluer. Maybe they were at this every table in this very café.

Have been anxious to try this pastis drink I read about in one of those Peter Mayle books about living in France (that Maddie had me read). But, not quite sure how to pronounce it. What the hell, my beer is empty, so might as well try.

Hold on a minute…

***

Took a shot and said pronounced it “past – ease” and it worked! The waiter not only nodded, but shot me a glance that seemed to say: “For an American, you are sophisticated in the ways of France – and are a very handsome man.”

A few minutes later, he arrived with a thin, tall glass that contained an inch of yellowish liquid and two ice cubes. He also brought a small pitcher of water.

Where’s the rest of my drink?

According to what I remembered from the Peter Mayle book, you’re supposed to pour some of the water into the glass to dilute the super-strong pastis. Did it, and the yellowish liquid immediately began to undergo some sort of chemical reaction – and got all cloudy.

It was like some sort of high school science experiment. Do I need safety goggles?

OK Marc, stop being such a baby and drink it. Hold on a minute…

Hey, this pastis stuff is nice. It has a distinct licorice taste to it that I’m liking the more I drink.

Think I’ve found my new café drink! Need to get another, just to make sure. Uh-oh, think this is how Hemingway and Fitzgerald got started.

Damn you, pastis!

In Chapter 10, Marc hangs out at a youth hostel and tells his first lie…he starts off slow and the lies get bigger and better as Numbskull progresses

Day 10. Wed., June 10, 2015 … Bayeux … 60 miles/510 miles … I’d like to mnagel the crap out of him

10 beach chairs

Got to the bike shop about 9:50AM, sat and waited until the lights went on and the front door opened … at 10:10. Ten minutes isn’t late in France. It’s kind of early.

“Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked the bike-shop guy.

“A little,” the guy said.

Could tell this was about the extent of his English. Had no idea how to say “broken spoke” in French, so I showed it to him.

“Ooh la la,” Bike Shop Guy said. He gave me a smile and a confident look, and my brain calmed down a bit. There’s nothing like a good bike mechanic to calm down a buzzing brain.

But first, before Bike Shop Guy could fix my wheel, he had some work to do. He took several bikes and lined them up outside the shop. Then he swept the inside of the shop. This is the difference between a French bike shop and an American bike shop. At the American bike shop, all this would have been done before 10AM.

You know what? What the hell’s the hurry? So what if he opened up a few minutes late and then did his chores. I’m on a bike trip. It’s not like I have a deadline. Or have to be somewhere at a certain time. Marc, be here, be now, enjoy the moment. And relax. That’s one of the things I’ve had to try and do because of my TBI: slow down and try and relax. Which is easier said than done. For example: emptying the dishwasher. Used to be able to whiz through unloading the dishwasher. It was a thing of beauty, precision and efficiency. Maddie was in awe. Not so much anymore. Start whirling away in fast motion, like I used to do, and quickly get all anxious and stressed and the dishes start clanking against one another, and the noise hurts my head, and the faster I try to go, the more they start clanking and the more anxious I get and … Marc, take a freakin’ breath and relax. It’s only the damn dishes. What’s your hurry?

 

It’s the same with paying the bills, or folding the laundry or looking stuff up on the internet. I try to go fast, like I always did, and get all frazzled and anxious and need to stop and consciously slow down and relax. Hey, it’s not easy to suddenly have to change the way you do pretty much everything in your life at the age of 34. Habits have been formed that are hard to break. Being a newspaper reporter is all about doing things fast. Really fast. On deadline. Under stressful conditions. Have to constantly remind myself to slow the hell down. Go ahead, try it. I dare you. Do something you do on a regular basis, like the some of the stuff I just mentioned, and then try and do it at half the speed you’ve always done it. It’s not easy.

BTW: Typing’s is the hardest thing to slow down. Just can’t seem to do it. It’s happening right now! Even when I try and go slow my fingers start going a little faster and faster, and the thoughts spill out a little quicker, the fingers speed up to keep pace and … mistakes are made. Lots of mistakes. Like 10 per sentence, which is double the number I used to make. You wouldn’t believe the way I can mangle words. For example, I just spelled mangle: mnagel. Try not to let it get me frustrated because, well, it’s the way my brain and fingers now operate. Whether I like it or not. And getting frustrated stresses me out and makes me more anxious and irritable and pissed off at myself and the asshole who did this to us. Damn, haven’t thought about and cursed out Maddie’s murderer in several days. I’d like to mnagel the crap out of him.

OK Marc, calm down, take a deep breath.

***

Finally, once all the bikes were set up just so, and the shop was swept spotless, Bike Shop Guy sprang into action. He put my bike on the stand, took out the broken spoke, put in a new spoke and trued up my horribly out of true wheel by tightening and loosening several other spokes until the tension was just right all around and my wheel spun perfectly.

He made a few other adjustments and voila, my bike was complete again!

I paid the bill – only 10 Euros – and was out the door at 11:07 and on my way to Bayeux.

“Bon journey,” Bike Shop Guy said.

“Merci,” I said.

***

The ride from Honfleur was along the coast and through several resort towns: Deaville, Houlgate, Cabourg. In another month or so, this area will be crawling with tourists.

 

Up a big hill to the cliffs that run along the coast and down into the town of Arromanches. This is where the British built Port Winston (named after Churchill) on D-Day. They towed in all these old ships, sunk them in a semi- circle, and then filled in the open spots with 600,000 tons of concrete. And they did it while the Germans shelled the hell out of them. There’s a Musee Debarquement, but I didn’t go in. Instead, got a sandwich and sat by the beach, trying to imagine what it must have been like on June 6, 1944. Carnage. Lots of carnage.

***

Six more miles to Bayeux. Decided to stay at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese that my Let’s Go France recommended: “Homey 1- to 7-person rooms in a labyrinthine layout surrounding a courtyard with a giant chessboard.”

This is my first night in a youth hostel. They’re so much cheaper than hotels, so I’ll keep an eye out for them from now on.

BTW: I have come to rely on my Let’s Go France to help me figure out where to stay and where to eat and which tourist attractions are worth visiting. Having it with me gives me a sense of comfort and reduces my anxiety of the unknown. I know this sounds a little nutty, especially since I’ve had internet access most nights and can – and do – look things up. My Let’s Go France is my bike-traveling Bible (or Torah), and provides me with a sense of faith that everything will be OK on my epic French bike trip. It’s sort of like that episode of Gilligan’s Island, the one where Gilligan makes wings out of feathers and is flying.

He’s actually flying.

Then the damn Skipper has to go and ruin everything by telling Gilligan he can’t fly.

“I can’t?” says Gilligan, who is flying.

“Of course not,” the Skipper says, even though Gilligan is flying.

And with that, Gilligan, who now no longer believes he can fly, thanks to the Skipper and all his negativity, stops flapping his wings, and crashes to the ground. He lands on top of the Skipper, who starts chasing him around, hitting him with his hat.

It’s no Seinfeld, but the message is clear: You gotta have faith in yourself … and your Let’s Go France.

There’s another message: Marc, you watch way too much television.

BTW: Mom and Dad got me my Let’s Go France book, back before our anniversary trip. It the 2011 version, but everything they wrote about back in 2011 still seems to be here, just a little more expensive. I’ll tell them how helpful it is in my next email. Not sure if I’ll tell them about the Gilligan’s Island analogy.

***

Realized earlier this evening that I haven’t really talked to anyone, other than asking if they had a hotel room for the night, or if I could have a bier, pastis or deux chocolate croissants, since I’ve been in France. Other than that annoying woman in the Moet & Chandon cave who kept asking about my wife. And the bike mechanic who didn’t speak English.

Until today that is. And, despite the hermit-like tendencies I’ve developed the past year, it was great to hang out with and talk to people.

The Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese is a step or two above – and a little more expensive – than a typical youth hostel. This means there are more than just backpacking American and European college students staying here. There are actual adults. And actual families.

They put me in a little room on the top floor with this guy Dwayne, a backpacking American college student from Washington State University. Dwayne’s a little strange. He has big, scary eyes and never seems to blink. He’s nervous about something and did a lot of pacing and mumbling to himself. Dwayne didn’t say what’s bothering him, and I wasn’t about to ask. Think he’s harmless, just a little on the intense side. OK, a lot on the intense side. Like super intense. Should I be worried? Maybe I’ll ask if he wants a Lexapro.

He asked me where I went to college, which was kind of flattering. But come on Dwayne (or maybe it’s Duane), I’m 34. Sure, I look young for my age, at least that’s what people used to say before the incident. But college? Seriously?

Told Dwayne I graduated a few years ago and was a freelance writer. “What are you writing?” he asked.

“About biking through Normandy and Brittany.”

“For who?”

Dwayne sure asked a lot of questions.

“Travel and Leisure magazine.”

Total lie. But there was no way I was about to tell Dwayne: Well, my wife was murdered and I almost died, got laid off from my job as a newspaper reporter and decided to bike around France to try and figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life. And you?

It’s not so much that I wanted to lie. It’s just that when you’re in a youth hostel, everyone expects you to tell them your “story” and the whole freelancing, Travel & Leisure thing was a lot easier – and less painful – than the truth. It just sort of spilled out. And who knows, maybe I will write a freelance article for Travel & Leisure about biking through Normandy and Brittany. I’ve never actually read Travel & Leisure, but it’s the only travel magazine I could think of. Does Travel & Leisure even do articles about bike trips? Or is biking not considered leisurely enough for them? Maybe I should have said I was doing the article for Bicycling magazine. Or the New York Times. Then again, does it really matter? It’s all a big, fat lie. And, come to think of it, technically, I am now a freelance writer.

“Where’s your wife?” Dwayne asked.

Damn, this wedding band is making things complicated. Should I take it off? No, I can’t.

“She’s back home, I’m meeting her in Paris.”

***

They serve dinner at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese, and about 15 of us gathered in the dining room around a big table.

There was an older American couple from Dayton, Ohio who are here to see the invasion beaches, museums and cemeteries. My guess is they’re in their 60s. The guy’s father served in World War II. He wasn’t part of the Normandy invasion, but landed in France a week after D-Day. And survived the war. The guy, Freddie, is a civilian employee at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and knows an awful lot about the history of WWII. And was more than happy to go on and on and on about what he knew. He talked really fast and quite loudly. Too much Freddie is bad for my brain.

Mary, who is maybe 30, and a sculptress from Los Angeles. She has long auburn hair and a lot of freckles. She said she was here in Bayeux to see the famous tapestry.

“What famous tapestry?” I asked.

Mary looked at me like I was an idiot … and then explained there’s a museum in Bayeux that has this 900-year-old tapestry. It tells the story of the famous battle in which William the Conqueror and his army came over from England and defeated King Harold and his army to seize control of Normandy. Harold died in the battle when he got shot with an arrow. In his eye.

Ouch!

May have to see this famous tapestry, which, from Mary’s brief description, sounds like it could be the world’s first superhero comic book.

Mary had this strange – and sort of endearing – way of speaking. She elongates the last word of every sentence, as in: “Marc, you’re not very smart, are youuuuuuuuuuu.” She didn’t actually say this, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking ittttttttt.

Freddie also knew the story of the tapestry and William the Conqueror – they’d seen it earlier today – and he went on and on about it.

 

Mat, from Quebec, who is about 25 to 27, and had one of those hipster beards going. It was big and bushy and looked very itchy. He’s also traveling by bike, but is headed east while I’m heading west. He’s a grad student in something or other. He told me but I forget. Geography? Geometry? I’m pretty sure it’s something that starts with a G. Greek? Grammer? We filled each other in on the routes to ride and where to stay. He highly recommended St. Malo and said the youth hostel in Dinan is really nice.

BTW: All Canadians put a Canadian flag patch on their knapsacks. Partly because they’re proud to be Canadian, but also because they want to make sure people from other countries don’t mistake them for an American.

A Taiwanese family of four who live in Denver, but are spending the summer in Paris. The father is some sort of visiting professor of Asian studies. The kids – about 10 and 12 – seemed bored and spent the evening playing their video games.

Three business major guys, from Michigan State, who had spent the day at Pointe du Hoc and the American cemetery and kept saying how “awesome” everything was, like it was some kind of amusement park with roller coasters. They did a Bus Verts tour from the bus station in Bayeux that hit all the D-Day highlights.

“Dude, we should have rented bikes like these dudes,” one of the Michigan State dudes said, pointing toward Mat and me.

Two girls from Penn State who had started out in Paris and were headed to London.

The Michigan State guys and Dwayne, Mary and Mat and the Penn State girls all went off to a café after dinner. They asked me to come with them, but had to pass. Was tempting, but dinner was enough. All the conversation, coming at me from so many directions, was exhausting and my head was starting to hurt. Needed some quiet time.

The Michigan State guys were totally interested in the Penn State girls, although it was hard to tell if the Penn State girls were into the Michigan State guys. Think one of the Penn State girls was into Mat, but Mat seemed more interested in Mary. Trust me on this; I’m an astute observer of my fellow humans. It comes from all my years as a reporter.

“Where’s your wife?” Mary asked, before they headed off to the café. She too noticed my wedding band.

I told her – and everyone else at the table – the same lie I told Dwayne (since he was sitting at the table): She’s meeting me in Paris in a few days. Also told everyone I used to work for a newspaper near Philadelphia, the Examiner (just in case they Googled me) and that I’m now a freelance writer. Travel & Leisure. Biking in Normandy and Brittany article. Maybe an eBook. They seemed to buy it. Why not? Sounds plausible. Some of it’s true.

Chapter 11 is next, and Marc meets some Dutch women… BTW: Do you like the photos? Susan took most of them.

Day 11. Thursday June 11, 2015 … Bayeux … 40 miles/550 miles … “We are Dutch, we ride bicycles all the time”

11 Cemetery

Decided to stay in Bayeux and do a day trip to the American Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc?

It’s the 100-foot cliffs that the Army Rangers scaled on D-Day while they were pelted with hand grenades and shot at by the Germans who were dug in on top of the cliff. The Germans were entrenched in these massive concrete bunkers that housed several big, deadly guns that the Rangers had to put out of commission. It was an impossible mission. And yet, they did it.

It was a rainy, overcast and drizzly day and it started coming down harder as I got to the little town of Colleville, just a mile or so from the American Cemetery. All the churches over here seem to be open during the day, so I sat inside the Colleville church, had a snack, and waited out the rain. Is it OK to eat inside a church? Hope so. Did it in a respectful and somewhat religious manner. The rain finally slowed to a drizzle and off I went to the cemetery.

This is the final resting place of 9,386 soldiers who died on or right after D-Day. The cemetery is a vast sea of 172 acres of perfectly manicured and startlingly green grass (the greenest grass I’ve ever seen) and 9,386 bone- white marble crosses and Jewish stars that seem to stretch on forever. They end at a stone wall that runs along the cliffs. From here, you can look down on the beaches where a lot of these guys died. It looks so peaceful now, but on June 6, 1944 it was total chaos, death and destruction all along these beaches.

It started raining again as soon I got to the cemetery, so went into the visitor’s center/museum to wait it out. An American couple were at the information desk and told the guy working there that the woman’s grandfather was buried here. This was their first visit to the cemetery and they needed some help finding the woman’s grandfather’s grave site.

 

The man behind the desk was kind and gracious and treated them as if they were D-Day veterans/heroes. He pointed to the computers around the corner, and told them they type in her grandfather’s name and it would them tell them the location of his gravesite.

“It will give you the section and the row, and you can find it using this map,” he said, handing them a map of the cemetery.

They walked over to the computers.

“Do a lot of people come to look for their relatives?” I asked the guy. “Oh yes, quite a few,” he said, adding I had just missed the ceremony on June 6, the 71st anniversary of D-Day.

“We used to get a lot of D-Day veterans who came to visit the graves of their buddies, but not too many anymore,” he said. “There aren’t very many World War II veterans still alive.”

Thanked him and wandered around the cemetery, walking slowly, trying to grasp the enormity of D-Day. Saw the American couple, off in the distance, in the middle of a sea of marble crosses. They stood there, holding hands, their heads bowed.

***

Off to Pointe du Hoc. And after a mile or so, came upon two women on bikes. One of them had a flat tire.

It was the back tire, of course.

“Do you need any help?”

“Yes, we do, please,” one of the women said.

They were Dutch, their names are Emma and Sophie, which don’t sound very Dutch to me. Then again, they’re the first two Dutch girls I’ve ever met. My guess is they’re in the 25-to-30 range. Their age isn’t important, but it’s the newspaper reporter in me: We always had to ask people their age, where they lived and include it in the story. Plus, I like trying to guess people’s ages. I’m pretty good at it and am rarely off by more than two or three years.

Emma and Sophie had rented bikes in Bayeux and were doing a day trip to Pointe du Hoc.

They had the wheel off Emma’s bike, but didn’t have the little plastic levers you need to get the tire off the wheel. Took mine out and was about to get started taking the tire off the rim when Emma grabbed the levers from me and had that tire off in like 12 seconds.

It was quite impressive.

“That’s quite impressive,” I said.

“We are Dutch, we ride bicycles all the time,” Sophie said. “And we can fix flat tires.”

They didn’t have a spare tube.

“I have one,” I said and fished one out of my front bike bag.

“We will pay you for it,” Emma said.

“Oh no, it’s my pleasure to help fellow cyclists.”

They thanked me profusely and Emma had the tube in the tire and the tire on the wheel in like three minutes. This was seriously impressive.

We rode together to Pointe du Hoc, where we saw the American couple from Dayton I met at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese last night. It was like a mini reunion. Introduced Emma and Sophie to Freddie and his wife (still can’t remember her name) and then we all wandered around Pointe du Hoc together. Was easy to imagine the Germans hunkered down here, the Allied planes dropping bombs on them (there are giant bomb craters everywhere) and how amazingly difficult and deadly it must have been for the Rangers to fight their way up these cliffs. About half of them didn’t make it.

***

My journalism instincts kicked in when we walked by the American couple I’d seen earlier at the American Cemetery. Needed to know the story of the woman’s grandfather.

“Excuse me. I saw you at the American Cemetery earlier today and heard you ask the guy at the desk to help you find your grandfather’s grave. I’m a reporter and I’m writing an article about biking in Normandy and was wondering if it’s OK to ask you a few questions.”

They said it was OK, and then told me the story of Steve Golas. That’s another thing I learned as a newspaper reporter: Most people are more than happy and willing to tell you their story. All you have to do is ask. Nicely.

BTW: Now feel obligated to write a story about biking through Normandy for some publication. Any publication. Even if it’s the Examiner. It’s one thing to lie to some college kid you meet in a youth hostel, but it’s another to lie to a couple whose grandfather was a D-Day hero. Really need to tell this story and get it published somewhere. Maybe it will be the start of my freelance writing career.

Steve Golas was an Army Ranger. He was in the first wave of landing crafts on D-Day, arriving a few miles to the east of Pointe du Hoc at a place called Pointe et Raz de la Percee. The Germans were on top of the cliffs at Pointe et Raz de la Percee, a few hundred yards from the edge of the water. They had a clear line of sight to the Rangers, and Steve Golas was hit as soon as he jumped out of the landing craft.

“We have met several of the Rangers who survived and knew my wife’s grandfather,” the husband told me.

One of them told them that Steve Golas had been promoted from platoon sergeant of C Company to first sergeant of the entire 2nd Battalion a day or two before D-Day.

 

“He didn’t have to go in on the first wave, but he begged and begged his commanding officer to let him go in with his buddies,” the husband said.

“He was a hero,” the wife said of her grandfather.

“He sure was,” I said.

***

Rode back to Bayeux with Emma and Sophie, who are trauma nurses at a hospital in Amsterdam. Was tempted to tell them all about all my trauma, but decided not to. Don’t like to talk about it. They were staying at a hotel not too far from the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese. They – and by they, I mean Emma – asked if I wanted to meet later at the café near their hotel. Was tempting, as they seemed nice enough and it would have been fun to talk to them and hear more about Amsterdam, and their bike-mechanic skills. Can’t be certain, but I think Emma might have liked me a little bit. She paid a lot of attention to me all day, asking me lots of questions and laughing at all my jokes. Sophie seemed to hang back and let Emma pay attention to me and laugh at all my jokes.

Had my bike gloves on the entire day, which means they – and by they, I mean Emma – couldn’t see my wedding band, which means there was no way she could have known I was married. OK, I know I’m not married, but you know what I mean. Then again, could be nuts and may have totally misread the entire situation. Emma could be a friendly traveler and just wanted to be friends. I’ve never really understood American women, let alone the Dutch version.

“It is the least we can do to say thank you for helping with our bicycles,” Emma said.

“Thanks, but I’m really tired and I’m gonna go to bed right after dinner,” I said. It was the truth. It had been a long day, and needed to rest my brain. Plus, I was a little scared that Emma, you know, kind of liked me. Not ready for that.

“If you change your decision, we will be at the café,” Emma said.

***

Dwayne was still at the youth hostel, and seemed even more nervous and intense than last night.

“Are you OK?” I asked after we had finished dinner.

That’s all it took, and Dwayne spilled his guts. It seems he had come to Paris a few days ago to meet up with his girlfriend, who had spent the spring semester studying there. Dwayne loves her very, very much. In fact, he brought an engagement ring with him, and planned to ask her to marry him when they were at the top of the Eiffel Tower. So, Dwayne gets to Paris, he’s so damn excited to see his girlfriend, what with him loving her so very, very much, and being all set to propose … and she goes and dumps him and breaks his heart. He’s not even there two hours and she tells poor Dwayne she doesn’t love him any more, she’s met someone else, some French guy, whom she may or may not love. Either way, she’s sure she doesn’t love Dwayne any more. It’s all over.

The poor bastard.

“Come on, I met some Dutch girls and they’re at a café a few blocks from here, let’s go have a couple drinks. My treat. Ever try pastis? It will take your mind off what’s her name.”

We found Emma and Sophie, and Dwayne spent the next two hours telling us all about his girlfriend, about how he was going back to Paris tomorrow to win her back. And maybe beat the crap out of her new French boyfriend. The poor kid. He doesn’t stand a chance.

Still think Emma was interested in me, but did my best not to encourage her. Hey wait, did she see my wedding band, since I wasn’t wearing bike gloves? She didn’t say anything, or ask me about my wife. Maybe she didn’t notice the ring. Or maybe she did – and didn’t care because she wasn’t interested in me in that way. Probably the second one.

BTW: Everything down there works. Have done a couple self tests, if you know what I mean. And, at some point, in the future, may want to have sex again. Hell, I’m only 34 and could live a long, long time. Or maybe I won’t live a long, long time, which, when you think about it, is even more of a reason to hook up with Emma. She’s attractive … and she’s Dutch.

BTWA: Never had a chance to see the famous Bayeux tapestry. Oh well, maybe next time I’m here.

Chapter 12: It was a dark and stormy night… in France

Day 12. Friday June 12, 2015 … Coutances … 55 miles/605 … What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude Van Damme?

12 Day

Today’s goal was to ride to Granville, an old and fortified city on the coast.

Only made it as far as Coutances

Seemed like a nice day when I left Bayeux at about 9:30AM. Sun was shining, was warm.

Rode to Perriers and then Coutances. The whole way seemed uphill and into a really stiff headwind, a wind from the west and the sea. Was really tough and slow going, like climbing a never-ending hill. Damn sea winds! My legs felt heavy, numb and tired. Got to Coutances at about 2:00PM, stopped for a quick snack and to take a look inside the town’s old church. It was completed in 1274 and is really ornate. Was inside about 10 or 15 minutes, walked out and …

Total, absolute darkness.

The sky was filled with black, angry clouds and seconds later a giant and really loud bolt of lightning lit up the sky – and it started pouring. Buckets. Waited under cover, hoping the sky would clear up as magically as it had turned black. No such luck. The sky was even darker. It was night during day.

At about 4:00PM, gave up and got a room at a room at the Hotel Normandie, where there’s also a café/restaurant. Showered and read a big chunk of Lonesome Dove. Damn, this is a really good book. Dare I say great? OK, I will. It’s great.

It’s almost midnight now, and it’s still raining. Really, really hope it clears up tomorrow.

BTW: Deets (he’s one of Gus and Woodrow’s Indian fighters and cowhands) had an interesting take on suicide. He says he’s known several men who went and blew their brains out and he’d pondered it from time to time: “It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.”

 

Wow, Deets is deep. And, yeah, I’m trying to take some happiness from the simple things on this bike trip: the views down to the sea from the top of a cliff, making it to the top of a big hill/mountain and then flying down the other side, sitting by the edge of a river, eating a sandwich and drinking an Orangina. The only thing is, all these little things would be so much better with Maddie. And that’s a big thing.

***

Oh wait, one more thing. There’s a TV in my room and couldn’t resist the temptation to watch a little French TV. Was the first time I’ve turned one on since I’ve been here, and learned the answer to the all-important question: What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude Van Damme?

Not only learned the answer to this vital question, but also discovered the equally exciting news that Homer and Marge are huge over here. And, even in French, The Simpsons are funny. The actors voicing Homer and Marge are incredible; they sound exactly like Homer and Marge, but in French, which makes it seem as though Homer and Marge are a lot smarter and classier than they are in English.

“Doh!” by the way, is still “Doh!” in French.

And, an episode of Castle was on, which answered the question: Do they call it Castle or Chateau over here. The answer: Castle. It was the episode where his father, the super-secret spy, gets all shot up and is bleeding, but nevertheless saves Castle. And then disappears.

There was also some sort of Big Bang mini-marathon, or maybe it’s always on over here, just like it’s always on over there (in the U.S.). Sheldon was equally annoying in French, and the voice of the actress playing Bernadette was so high-pitched that the glasses in my bathroom broke. OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by much … and her voice really hurt my brain.

Unfortunately, couldn’t find Seinfeld. Need to hear Kramer in French. Wonder if it’s on over here? Gotta be, right?

OK, I know you’re dying to know: What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude, the Muscles from Brussels? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. Was just trying to build up the suspense.

Jean Claude is OK – and making commercials. In the one I saw like three times in an hour, he’s is at home, wearing what he typically wears when he’s lounging around at home: flowing white-linen pants – and no shirt.

Jean Claude is talking on his cell phone, surrounded by three lovely ladies who just happen to have pineapples on top of their heads. Pineapples? Perhaps it’s some sort of European thing – or maybe Jean Claude loves tropical fruit.

 

So, Jean Claude is talking away on the phone when suddenly – BAM! – he pirouettes gracefully and gives one of the pineapples on top of a lovely lady’s head a smack with his foot. It splits in half and falls to the ground without harming a hair on the beautiful woman’s head. He keeps talking and – KABOOM! – another karate kick, another halved pineapple falls to the floor. He continues talking and – POW! – a power kick aimed at the third pineapple. Nothing happens for an instant … and then the pineapple splits into a complicated and artistic pattern, and falls to the ground.

Couldn’t decipher who Jean Claude was talking to on the phone, but think it was his agent. Perhaps he was begging him for a part, any part, in any movie, that didn’t involve beating up tropical fruit.

OK, enough TV, time for bed. Hope the damn rain stops.

Chapter 13: Marc ponders life’s big questions …

 

Day 13. Sat., June 13, 2015 … Coutances … 0 miles/605 … The plan was to spend a long, long time together

13 lyons

It didn’t.

Clear up and stop raining.

It was raining when I woke up at 7. Back to sleep. Was raining when I woke up at 8. Tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t. At 9, went down to breakfast, hoping it would stop raining.

Nope.

Was raining even harder at 9:30. Pouring. Sky was totally black. There were a couple of older guys sitting at the hotel’s bar/restaurant. For breakfast, they had red wine (lots of red wine) and croissants, and dipped their croissants into their red wine. Dipped my croissant into my coffee.

The guy at the hotel desk told me there would be storms all day, so told him I was staying another night.

None of this is surprising. I mean, come on, what a cliché: It’s June 13 and this is the 13th day of my epic bike trip. Maybe I’ll be lucky and some guy wearing an ice hockey mask and wielding a chain saw will jump out and kill me. And, to make this scenario even worse, there’s a black cat living in this hotel. He (or she) is quite friendly. Spent a lot of time today in the lobby, drinking tea, reading Lonesome Dove and writing in my journal. The cat kept me company.

He (or she) sure made me miss Penny.

BTW: Most French hotels have a cat or two. They’re friendly … and strut around like they own the place.

BTW: Chat is the French word for cat.

***

It’s 10:47PM and it’s been a long, boring day, saved only by Lonesome Dove and my new friend the cat. Already about halfway through the Dove, and it just keeps getting better and better. Evidently there’s a TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall as Gus and Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow. Who knew? Will have to watch it when I get home … or figure out a way to stream it on my laptop over here.

 

Damn, that’s something Maddie was great at: figuring out the computer stuff. She was in charge of all our IT needs. I just don’t have the patience for this sort of stuff. Maddie does. Or did.

Guess now’s as good a time as any to try and figure out what the hell is going on with my life. A rainy day will do that to you. I know this French bike trip is my way of escaping everything that happened back home. Eventually, I’ll have to go back. But to what? There’s no Maddie. No job. No place to live. There’s nothing.

My life changed forever at 11:47AM on Sunday, April 20, 2014. Know the time because it’s in the police report. The guy was drunk, and high, on all sorts of drugs. At 11:47AM. On a Sunday morning.

Maddie and I were so excited about our bike trip to the Loire and had decided to get to work on getting Maddie pregnant when we got back home. Or maybe we’d get started in the Loire. That would be a cool story, about how our son/daughter was conceived in Blois/Amboise/Saumur.

“We can call him – or her – Chateau,” I suggested. “It works for a boy or a girl.”

“Maybe not,” Maddie said.

Death?

It was this abstract concept, something that happened to people a lot older than us. Certainly not to Maddie, who was 30 on April 20, 2014. She was kind and caring and loving and patient and beautiful and amazing. The kids at her school adored her. Everyone loved Maddie.

“We’re lucky,” Maddie would say from time to time, for no particular reason other than the fact that we were lucky to have found one another.

We were, we really were. I’m not saying we had some sort of storybook romance for the ages, like in The Princess Bride, and that our relationship was better, purer and more important than anyone else’s relationship. We had our share of problems from time to time, and arguments. And yeah, I could be stubborn and tended to pout after an argument, especially when I was wrong, which was usually the case. The thing was: We were totally happy and liked and loved each other and that’s a rare and beautiful thing. The plan was to spend a long, long time together and live happily ever after.

Now what?

It’s a little more than a year later and I still don’t know the answer to this question. What I do know is death is no longer an abstract concept. It’s real. And it can happen in the blink of an eye without warning even if you’re in perfect health. One minute you have life figured out and you’re happy; the next minute your wife is dead and you’re lying next to her unconscious, ripped to shreds and barely alive.

Was busted up from head to toe, and the doctors kept telling me how lucky I was to be alive. This didn’t really sink in until months later. Guess I was too depressed about Maddie and in denial about how badly I’d been hurt. Plus, I was on a lot of really strong drugs and not thinking very clearly.

OK, here’s the list of my injuries, starting at the top:

The scalp lacerations, which I’ve already described.

Underneath the scalp lacerations, the fractured skull and TBI. Two fractures around my left eye: the orbital bones. Was lucky and didn’t need surgery to repair them. They were non-displaced. My chin/jaw didn’t break, but were totally black and blue … and numb. Could barely open my mouth for weeks. Think it was from the chin strap of my bike helmet.

“It looks like nerve damage,” one of my doctors said of the jaw thing. “It could take a year or more for the numbness to go away.”

It’s still numb.

Nerve damage is sort of like a TBI: The doctors all say it will take a year or two to get better, but they can’t say for sure how much better it will get.

Had so much bleeding/swelling in my head that they put some sort of drain in. Don’t remember it, but they told me about it later. Have a nice lump/scar where the drain was attached. And lots of other lumps and scars up there.

Collapsed lung (left one) and seven or eight broken ribs (left side). Because of this, and all the internal bleeding, was on a ventilator the first two days, and had a tube in the left side of my chest to drain out all the blood. Don’t remember the ventilator or chest tube, but have the scar on the left side of my chest as a reminder. Probably a good thing I was so out of it the first few days and don’t remember the ventilator. Would have been terrifying to wake up and be on a ventilator. Don’t like thinking about it.

Wasn’t exactly in a coma, just unconscious at first and then so out of it from the TBI, all the other injuries and all the drugs that I have no memory of the first few days.

My sister took a few pictures of me in the ICU, but haven’t been able to look at them. They’re evidently pretty graphic.

“You’ll need them when if you sue the bastard,” she said.

One of my friends, John, visited on Day 2. He was so shaken up by the way I looked that he had to leave. After like a minute. He told me later that he sat in his car in the parking lot and cried.

Had a broken left shoulder and shattered left elbow. They went in and fixed my shoulder and elbow while I was out of it, putting some sort of rod in my shoulder and a steel plate and a bunch of screws in my elbow. Can feel the plate and screws in my elbow. It’s uncomfortable, especially when I rest my elbow on a table. Feels like there’s something between the table and my elbow. Can pull the skin around my elbow tight and see the outline of the steel plate and the little rounds heads of the screws. Weird. Can get the plate removed if I want, now that the bone is healed, but I’m in no rush for another operation. Can’t feel the rod in my shoulder, but my shoulder makes clicking, grinding and crackling noises whenever I lift it over my head or rotate it in a circle.

It’s like that old joke: Hey Doc, it hurts when I go like this.

Doc: Then don’t go like that.

My neck got a pretty bad case of whiplash – and also makes clicking and grinding noises. Can you have whiplash anywhere other than your neck? Probably not. Used to think whiplash was a made-up thing that unscrupulous people claimed to suffer from in order to sue someone after a car crash. Trust me: whiplash is real. And it’s really, really painful. There are times, like for an hour or so, when my neck feels perfectly fine and normal. And then, it doesn’t. At first, could barely turn my head, which made driving difficult and probably dangerous. After lots of physical therapy and several massages, my neck’s range of motion is now pretty close to normal and it doesn’t hurt so much. Most of the time. Until it does. And, every once in a while, I get spasms in my neck and have to remain very, very still for several minutes to convince them to go away.

Compression fractures of three vertebrae in my lower back. Still don’t really understand what a compression fracture of the vertebrae is, but it’s supposed to be the least serious kind of broken vertebrae you can suffer. A broken back, wow, that’s scary. I had a broken back. Could have been paralyzed, or needed several operations to insert rods and all sorts of other stuff to put my back back together. Was lucky and it healed up on its own. It’s OK for the most part, but, from time to time, it acts up.

My entire left side, from under my armpit to my knee was one big multi- colored bruise, a case of road rash to end all cases of road rashes.

Do they call it rue rash over here in France? Rash de rue?

Had the broken left ankle. My right ankle was also bashed up pretty bad, but didn’t break. Both my ankles are still sore from time to time. Like when it rains! Or when I do a lot of walking.

Think that’s about it. It’s more than enough.

Rumors were flying around, and someone told me she heard I’d broken every bone in my body.

“No way. If I broke every bone, I’d be dead. It was only about 20.” “Only,” she said. “I don’t think only is the right word.”

“It could have been 30.”

***

Spent nine days in the hospital, seven days in a rehab place, then a week at Mom and Dad’s before I was able to go home to our condo and manage on my own. Was really hard to be back there, all alone, without Maddie. Her stuff was there, exactly as it had been on the morning we left for a bike ride. Kept thinking it was all a dream, a horrible, terrible nightmare, and Maddie would walk through the door any minute and everything would be back to normal.

On the bathroom sink was her Burt’s Bees ultimate care body lotion with all-day moisture and a Burt’s Bees Radiance facial cleanser with royal jelly. The first time I saw them, well, I just sort of sank down to the floor of the bathroom and couldn’t move for like half an hour. I’m not sure why these two tubes set me off, but they did. Actually, I know why: They reminded me of Maddie. Duh.

Think I cried at least once every day for the first month I was back home.

On the night table on Maddie’s side of the bed was a bottle of her Young Living Lavender essential oil. It’s supposed to relax you and help you sleep, and every night, Maddie would dole out two drops onto my left palm. I’d inhale the vapors and then rub the lavender on my feet. It had to be the left palm because “it’s closer to your heart.”

Brought a bottle here to France with me and, every night, rub two drops onto my feet.

***

Started physical therapy on July 8. Two grueling, exhausting and painful sessions a week. It helped. A lot.

Went back to work on August 4. Three days a week for a month, then four days a week for another month, then full-time in October. Was good to get out of the house and to be around people, especially my fellow reporters. But all the things I used to be able to do easily, like whacking out a breaking news story on deadline, or writing two or three articles in a day, were now stress-inducing tests of my stamina and resolve that by the end of the day left me battered and beaten and exhausted.

Spent the evenings and weekends in recovery mode, resting and trying to exercise and get my body and brain right. Rarely left the house and slowly began to sink deeper and deeper into my misery. People wanted to come visit or take me out to lunch or dinner, but I made excuses: I’m tired, I’m busy, have to go to physical therapy. My parents would come over most Sundays, and bring dinner with them. My sister made me come over to dinner at her place every couple of weeks. This was about the extent of my social life.

It’s been more than a year, and I’m still not fully recovered, body or brain.

Went on eight bike rides before I got here to France, a total of 214 miles. And yes, was totally nervous and scared about getting back on my bike (a new bike, of course, as my old one was as broken and battered as me) and riding on the road. What with all the cars. And minivans. And trucks. Any one of the people who flew by me could be drunk. Or texting. Or fiddling with their radio. Or not paying attention. Or could be one of those assholes who doesn’t think people should be allowed to ride bikes on the street, and has decided that it’s OK to ride by us really fast and really close because, well, we somehow deserve to be hit.

 

So, because I was so nervous about riding on the roads, did something that sounds kind of crazy, but might actually be brilliant. Bought one of those baby holders/carts that you attach to the back of your bike and pull your baby or little kid around in. Some people put their dogs in them. Have always noticed how cars/trucks slow down and give these baby carts a wide berth whenever they pass one – and then speed up whenever they pass an adult on a bike. It’s OK to drive too close to, speed by or even hit an adult on a bike. But hit a baby? No way, that’s barbaric and cruel and goes against every and all of the societal norms. And, to make the whole scenario more realistic, bought a life-size and life-like doll baby to put in my baby cart: A Paradise Galleries doll for $89.95. According to the website: “Renowned artist Michelle Fagan has created our little bundle of joy ‘Tall Dreams Ensemble’ with the heart-tugging realistic details of a real baby, from her delicate face, sweet and innocent brown eyes filled with love, down to her tiny toes and feet.”

Her toes really were kind of adorable … and sure enough, drivers slowed down and gave me an extra-wide berth when they passed. Felt sort of, kinda, almost safe. But still anxious and nervous.

Only got busted once. Was stopped at a red light. Someone on a bike pulled up next to me and looked in the back of my baby cart.

“Cute baby,” he said, smiling.

“I know, she never cries. Sometimes I forget she’s here.”

Was tempted to get a baby cart over here in France, and still might.

Could put my panniers in it. Have seen two people doing this. But don’t think I need one over here. All the French drivers treat you as if you were towing a baby cart – with a real baby in it – behind your bike. They’re so damn respectful of cyclists and pass so darn safely. Feel comfortable riding over here. Thank you France.

BTW: Didn’t (couldn’t) ride by the spot where the murderer hit us. Haven’t been able to drive by it in my car either. One day. Maybe. Then again, probably not.

***

 

People (Mom and Dad, my sister, and the two or three other people I told) thought I was nuts to go on this bike trip, and tried to talk me out of it.

“You’re not ready,” they all told me. “Maybe next year.”

Jeff was the only one who understood. “Do it, you have to do it, what the hell do you have here?” he said.

He was right. It’s not like I had a job, a place to live, or Maddie. This was the perfect time to go. Needed to get away. Needed to do something. Needed a change.

And the hell with that murdering bastard who took Maddie from me. Fell in love with cycling back when Uncle Steve took me on our first trip, and I’m not going to let the murdering bastard take this away from me too. Screw him; I’m doing it. I’m going to France and bike, just like Maddie and I planned. Well, not exactly like we planned. But close enough.

And I’m glad I did.

So far.

Starting to feel stronger, a little bit more like my old cycling self. There are times, when I’m on a quiet road with no traffic and the scenery is beautiful, that I forget – for a few minutes or so – that Maddie was murdered and that my head and brain hurt.

And then I remember.

Was always the one thinking ahead to what’s next, where we had to be and how we were going to get there. Think that’s from being a newspaper reporter, or maybe I was already that way and it’s why I became a newspaper reporter. Maddie was the one to say: “Marc, take a breath and relax and enjoy the moment. Be present. Be here, with me, now.”

She was right.

So, for Maddie, I’ve been trying to be here and now on this bike trip. But the “with me” part is gone.

I’m trying Maddie, I’m really, really trying. But it’s hard without you. Really, really hard.

One more to go on the blog, Chapter 14 … and something big happens. Really big!

Day 14. Sunday June 14, 2015 … Dinan … 85 miles/690 total … Someone put two kittens in the trash and left them to die

14 kitty

What a long, strange and amazing day this was, capped off by quite a surprise. Two surprises actually. The first was a feline surprise, the second a human one. Actually, a very human one. Maybe even the most human.

Today’s ride included:

The medieval and fortified town of Granville, a really cool town up on a hill, overlooking the sea. From Granville, you can look across the bay, and see, off in the distance, the amazing Mont St. Michel. Wish I’d been stuck here for two days instead of Coutances. This is a way cooler town.

Saw a statue of George C. Scott, I mean of George S. Patton, in Avranches, which he liberated during WWII.

Once past Avranches, rode west and along the coast, toward Mont St. Michel. So, here’s the deal: Back in 708, the Bishop of Avranches was visited in his dreams by the Archangel Michael. Mike told the bishop to build a giant church/cathedral on this barren and tiny little rocky island just off the coast. And so, he did. As if you have a choice when you’re the Bishop of Avranches and an Archangel takes over your dreams and tells you to build a church/cathedral on a tiny, rocky island. Mont St. Michel kept getting bigger and bigger, and is a now a pilgrimmage – and tourist – destination.

It’s amazing.

There’s a little road from the coast out to the base/entrance of the Mont St. Michel. Rode to the entrance, looked around for a while. And then turned around and kept riding. Just wasn’t in the mood to spend hours at and in a giant, religious cathedral island. Needed to keep moving and riding. Maybe I’ll make a day trip here tomorrow. Or maybe not.

From Mont St. Michel, had two options: St. Malo to the west and north, or to the youth hostel in Dinan that Mat told me about. It’s west and a little south.

Decided on Dinan.

Why?

St. Malo sounds great. What’s not to like about an ancient (at this point, is it even necessary to point out that a town/church is ancient?) and fortified town on the coast, with a beach. But a beach town sounded extra lonely without Maddie. And Mat, who seemed to know what he was talking about, said Dinan and the youth hostel were great. And now that I’ve stayed at a youth hostel and have started talking to people, kind of want to have people to hang out and talk with at night. Have to admit: Have been a little lonely, what with being all by myself all the time over here. Plus, Dinan is more in the direction of the Loire than St. Malo and I need to get to the Loire soon. Our anniversary is in 10 days and I have to be in the Loire – either Villandry or Chenonceaux – on our anniversary.

That’s etched in stone. Ancient stone.

***

Stopped about five miles from Dinan, in a little park to read my map and have a snack. Went to throw out the wrapper from my biscuits and … heard this strange noise coming from inside the trashcan. A whimpering, crying, sad sound.

Pulled up the lid of the trash can and … wrapped up in a dirty, old towel were two kittens. Someone had put two kittens in the trash and left them there to die. Was so stunned, just stood there for a couple of seconds, not believing what I was seeing. And hearing. Snapped out of it, dug a clean T- shirt out of my panniers, pulled the kitties out of the trashcan and wrapped them up in my T-shirt.

One was orange with stripes and a white nose and the other was gray with white feet. They must have been about three weeks old, although my kitten-age-guessing abilities are limited.

How the hell could someone do such a thing?

Held the two kitties up against my chest and talked to them, hoping they understood English. Told them everything would be OK and I wouldn’t leave them in the trash can. They seemed to calm down a little, so maybe they understand English. They also seemed hungry. Cupped up my left hand, poured some water into it, and they both started lapping up the water. Kept filling up my hand with water and they kept lapping it up. They must have sucked down half a water bottle of water. It kind of tickled when their rough little kitten tongues rubbed against my palm.

The only food I had was an apple and some nuts and raisins, which didn’t seem like something kittens should eat.

“Now what do I do?”

No way was I going to leave them. The only problem was: How the hell do you ride a bike with two kittens? Couldn’t hold them in my hands/arms and putting them into my panniers didn’t seem like a good option.

Would they fit and be OK in the back pockets of my bike shirt?

Nah, that won’t work. They had tiny, but sharp little claws, and would have made mincemeat out of my back after a few kilometers.
My bike bag! The front one. Maybe they could fit inside.

Emptied out as much as I could from the handlebar bag and stuffed all that stuff into my knapsack and panniers. Gently put the kitties into the handlebar bag, zipped it up just enough so they couldn’t jump out, but could still get some air. They cuddled up against one another and seemed content.

Off we went.

The kitties purred for a while and fell asleep. Peeked into the bag every few minutes. They seemed OK.

“Please, please, please don’t pee or poop in my handlebar bag.”

***

Dinan is way up on a hill, has a giant castle and is totally surrounded by ramparts. The views down to the river are fantastic.

Turns out the Dinan youth hostel isn’t actually in Dinan. Darn. Why didn’t Mat tell me? It’s down below, by the river. So, the kittens and I headed back down the hill and finally found the youth hostel – a big, rambling farmhouse surrounded by flowers and a field.

And guess who was there, hanging out in the front yard?

Emma and Sophie. My Dutch friends.

My first thought was that Emma was stalking me, but there’s no way she could have known I would be in Dinan tonight because I didn’t know I’d be in Dinan tonight until a couple of hours ago. The girls had spent the past couple of nights in St. Malo and were headed back to Amsterdam tomorrow.

Emma seemed excited to see me and gave me a big hug.

“Look what I found,” I said, and opened up my bike bag.

They gasped … and immediately fell in love with the kittens.

Told the girls all about how I’d found them in the trash and they thought

I was quite the hero.

“They’re really hungry,” I said.

Emma and Sophie’s maternal – and nursing – instincts took over and they sprang into action. They had a car and insisted on going to the supermarket to get milk and other kitten supplies. Wasn’t about to argue with them. While they were gone, went inside to get a room in the hostel. Showed the lady at the desk the kittens, told her all about how I’d found them in the trash … and she instantly fell in love with them. And thought I was quite the hero. She got some milk for the kitties. Guess it’s pretty much impossible not to immediately fall in love with two little kittens, especially ones with a backstory like these little guys.

And yes, they’re both guys. I think. And I’ve decided to name them Gus and Woodrow, after the heroes of Lonesome Dove.

Gus (the orange kitty) and Woodrow (the gray one) really went to town on the milk and slurped up every last drop in like 40 seconds. The woman said she would get more, but told her Emma and Sophie had gone to the grocery store to get milk and kitten supplies and would be right back.

The woman said I could keep the kittens in my room and that she and her husband, who ran the youth hostel, would help me figure out what to do with them.

“I think perhaps a bicyclette trip is not so good for them,” she said with a smile.

Reluctantly agreed with her.

“Maybe the two Dutch girls will love them,” she said. “I think they might already.”

***

Emma and Sophie returned with milk, kitten food and cat litter, and the woman at the desk gave us a cardboard box for the litter. There were a few other people staying at the youth hostel, and they gathered around to hear the story of the kittens and to fall in love with them.

Gus and Woodrow must have slurped up their body weight in milk in like five minutes. And then they ate their body weight in kitten food.

And then they took care of business in the cardboard box.

“Isn’t that adorable,” Sophie said, as Gus pooped out a series of poops equal to his body weight. Woodrow did the same a minute or two later. They were both diligent about covering over their poop with the kitty litter. Good kitties.

Then they did all sorts of adorable kitten stuff: chasing a little ball we found outside the youth hostel, rolling around and wrestling each other, stalking Emma’s leg and jumping onto it as if to attack her.

They pretty much exhausted themselves, and were soon asleep. Gus nestled in Emma’s lap, Woodrow on my lap. They were even more adorable asleep than awake.

“We must take them home with us, please,” Emma said. “Surely you can not take them with you on your trip on a bicycle.”

“Yes please, we will give them a good home,” Sophie said.

The possibility of taking them with me on my bike trip had crossed my mind. I mean, come on, everywhere I’d go, I’d be the kitten hero. I’d be famous throughout all the youth hostels in France. Maybe in all of Europe. I’d do a blog and post youtube videos that would go viral. Plus, I really liked the little guys. Then again, what if one of them jumped out of my bike bag and got lost in the woods? Or got run over. I’d be crushed.

“I guess it would be the best thing for them, if you’re sure you want them.”

They were sure.

“I’ve already named them, Gus and Woodrow,” I said and explained all about the Lonesome Dove guy on the airplane and how great the book was, and they agreed to call them Gus and Woodrow.

The girls had also bought several bottles of wine and bread and cheese and fruit & some cake at the supermarket.

“We thought it would be better to stay here for dinner with the kittens rather than go into town for dinner,” Sophie said.

After a while, Emma noticed my wedding band.

“Are you married?” she said, looking a little surprised and a little sad. She tried to hide her surprised – and sad – expression. But you can’t fool a newspaper reporter.

Thought about lying, about saying my wife was in Paris, studying art at the Sorbonne, and that I was going to meet here there in a few days. But, what the hell? It was a nice night, we were on our second bottle of wine and we had two kittens.

Decided to tell the girls the truth.

And it wasn’t as horrible or as hard as I thought it would be. Was kind of nice to talk about Maddie. Sad, but nice, and the story just spilled out of me. This was the first time I’ve talked with anyone about Maddie since I’ve been in France.

The girls got quiet and sad, but sometimes it’s OK to be quiet and sad. And this was one of those times. So, told them some more about Maddie, how we met, fell in love and got married. Showed them a photo or two on my phone.

By the time it hit 11PM, was totally exhausted. Told the girls I had to go to sleep and asked if I could keep Gus and Woodrow with me.

They agreed.

“We will have breakfast with you and the kittens on the morning,” Emma said. “And then we must leave for Amsterdam.”

My room had a couple of cubbies. Put a few of my clothes on the bottom and the kitties on top, and they was asleep in like 12 seconds. Gus sure is a loud purrer.

***

A little while later there was a knock on my door. A quiet, but persistent tapping. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t dreaming.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s me,” said Emma, who opened the door and came and sat on the edge of my bed.

“I can’t sleep, your story was very sad and I kept thinking about it. And how lonely you are. Are you OK?”

“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ll be OK.”

“Can I sit here with you for a while?”

“OK.”

What happened next is still all hazy and dream like, but I’m pretty sure it happened.

Emma moved closer and then closer, and pretty soon she was cuddled up against me, spooning me from behind. She eventually started kissing the back of my neck and her hands began to wander around, lower and lower, until they reached their final destination. Like I said, everything down there works, and seemed to enjoy what Emma was doing.

Nature just sort of took over. I rolled over and faced Emma, and we started kissing and rubbing and fondling each other. It felt nice to be with someone again. Really nice. I missed this, the feeling of someone warm prssed against my body. Holding someone so tight I could feel the in-and-out of her breathing. The anticipation of what was next. I was with Maddie. We were back together. The nightmare was over. The bastard never hit us. Took a deep breath, breathing in some more of Maddie. Opened my eyes and realized it wasn’t Maddie. It was Emma. Someone I barely knew.

Pulled away.

“Are you OK?” Emma asked.

“Yes, it’s just that … (wasn’t sure what to say, if I should tell Emma that I had been imagining Maddie was alive and was here with me, lying next to me, holding me) … “I don’t have anything, any protection.”

“I do,” Emma said, and reached into her pocket and pulled out a condom. “And I am on the pill, we are safe.

BTW: I wrote this last part much later (on June 15), as it would have been quite rude to have pulled out my laptop after we were done doing what we just did to write about what we just did. Plus, pretty much passed out after we did what we did, and had my best night of sleep since I’ve been here. Hmmm … sex as a sleeping pill? And yes, it’s really difficult and quite embarrassing to write about sex. It’s definitely not something I did as a newspaper reporter.

Hey, wait a minute. Was this pity sex? Is that why Emma did what she did? Am I such a sad and pathetic shell of a man that women take pity on me and want to cheer me up with sex? Oh well, that the hell. I’ll take it.

Holy crap, what a day. Kittens. And sex.

That’s it, the final chapter/day on this blog. Click here to order the printed Numbskull. Lots more interesting and funny stuff happens, and Marc tells more and more lies and does indeed try and climb the damn Ventoux three times in one day. It’s almost as good as Lonesome Dove.