Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home
I am flying to Biarritz in the south of France with my two grown up daughters, where we’ll holiday together for two weeks on a campsite. Then, when they’ve gone, the plan is I will cycle the thousand kilometres home again – alone. I’ll be gone for maybe six weeks.
My daughters are waiting outside the airport terminal. Now beautiful young women of twenty-seven and thirty-one, and seeing them together, chatting and giggling as we park up, I realise I am the luckiest man in the world to have this time with them.
As the plane takes off, I know I need this break for other reasons. I have flown in planes all my life, and all at once, I fear flying. What’s happening to me?
La Velodysée is the longest cycle route in France, twelve hundred kilometres running from Hendaye on the Spanish border to Roscoff in Brittany – depending on your direction of travel – most of it on special cycle paths well away from cars and roads.
I’ll be making the trip from south to north, but only after ten precious days camping with my grown-up daughters in Biarritz. My children are women now. Megs is thirty-two. Lilly is twenty-seven. They were eleven and six when their mother and I divorced and I became a halftime single dad, and we’ve been close ever since, really close. But we haven’t had the chance to be together like this, just the three of us, for a long time.
They’ll be on their way to the airport right now. I can picture them on the train even as my sister asks me – with a certain edge in her voice – if it might be time to pack the car with the remaining stuff still laid out on the garage floor. Most of our adult lives, we’ve lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and yet we’ve ended up sharing a home in our sixties and together caring for our mother, who is eighty-nine years old and has Parkinson’s dementia. I’m leaving my sister with a huge responsibility, and yet she’s only encouraged the whole venture, which is astonishingly generous.
I will be riding a bike I bought second hand for forty pounds so many years ago it’s like an old friend. It’s a Claud Butler – a make that sounds French, but is actually British – and a model that happens to be called the ‘Odyssey’. Given the route, and the bike, the temptation to think of myself as a latter day hero on a mythic quest to reach home is tempting, though I have no illusions I share qualities in common with the wily Greek. The madness of Don Quixote is another matter entirely.
As reading material, I have a selected edition of the sixteenth century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. I’m no scholar, but he’s good company, and his thoughts on everything from smells to facing your own mortality are short, easy to read by torchlight in a tent and always thought provoking. Crucially for me, he’s funny, especially about his own weaknesses. I haven’t done enough laughing recently. I like the idea of my favourite Frenchman as my travelling companion, albeit he’s coming along for the ride in an English translation, because he and I have been having imaginary conversations for years. And it’s only right that he’s with me because we’re peddling through his part of the country. Montaigne was a Gascon first, a Frenchman second, and we are on our way to Gascony, a region that once had its own language and customs and its own king in Henri de Navarre, later Henry IV of France.
My route hugs tight to the Atlantic coast virtually all the way, often only metres from the dunes and the sea, until it cuts across Brittany, tracing canal paths and railway lines to the magical Pink Granite Coast. Most of it is as flat as a pancake, perfect for a man who has done little in the way of real exercise for years. I’ll get fit enough on the ride, and I’ll amble. When I’ve had enough, I’ll hop a train or a plane.
I have a large-scale map of the whole Atlantic coast so I can track my progress, sans sat nav. Why? Because if Shakespeare is to be believed I shall soon be, ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. I want to enjoy those faculties to the full for as long as I possibly can. That means working out the weather by looking up and feeling the wind on your face, not studying fluffy graphics and cartoon suns on a screen. I am determined this trip should be ‘unplugged’, as far as is humanly possible. And there will definitely be no Lycra. Figure hugging does not suit my age and stage.
What I do have is a very fancy trailer with sporty wheels and a waterproof sack perfect for taking bulky stuff like the tent, the sleeping bag and mattress. It’s a Californian design, outdoorsy and showy – a little too much so for my taste – though immensely practical. It was bought for my sixtieth birthday, a joint present from my ex-wife and my two daughters. And though a couple more birthdays have come and gone in waiting and planning, the big day has finally arrived.
There they are, standing close together on the concourse outside the terminal building. Even amidst the bustle of the other passengers with their bulging bags and overloaded trolleys, I pick them out long before they see us approaching. A father’s instinct.
Lilly is holding court, telling a story that appears to be making her elder sister laugh out loud. Then I lose sight of them in the crowds and the stream of cars waiting to find a spot in the drop-off zone. Like a street photographer hunting a candid moment that is all too fleeting, when I see them again my focus is intense.
Megs has her back to us. She is wearing black leggings with a short black jacket to match. She looks cool and urban, though she’s actually more inclined to getting beach tar on her feet. Lilly’s dress style is eclectic, anything from today’s leopard skin trousers and loose flowing top, to sportswear. For Lilly, clothes are costumes as much as fashion statements. Megs is a wavy and unruly strawberry blond and Lilly has a shock of tightly curled hair reminiscent of Cleo Laine from my era, Beyoncé from hers. Her hair is sculpted in ways that never fail to catch me by surprise, tighter than her sister, but the same length. Standing together, they are unmistakably sisters.
Megs studied French and Spanish at university, and then decided to switch tracks and become a scientist. Now, she’s part way through a PhD on plastics pollution and the effects on human health. She hoped that doing science might mitigate towards a better world, though I know she’s beginning to doubt she can make much difference from the ivory tower of academia.
Lilly was a drama student. She sings like an angel – pitch perfect – and she’s a great raconteur when she’s on form, always funny and often at her own expense. She has experienced a sea of health issues over the last few years that forced her deep inside herself; so deep I was worried she would never come back. Things have been better recently, and it looks like she might just found a job as a Pilates instructor working on a Greek island in the Ionian. Lefkada is only a stone’s throw from Ithaca. It all depends on visas.
Where Megs is often hard to read, like her mum, Lilly makes her feelings known like her father. We’re performers, she and I. If that means we enjoy the sound of our own voices, I should say we love other people’s stories every bit as much as our own, not least because we’re both prone to chewing away at our own psyches.
We are each of us on odysseys of our own, but with a chance to be together and share stories, if only for a little while.
Long queues for security snake through flimsy barriers. Since the pandemic, like many others, I’ve lost the desire to be indoors with strangers, and this experience of being cheek by jowl waiting to step through the body scanner or worse still, be frisked by the security staff, is never a pleasant one. I have to steel myself, queuing with hoards of other passengers to put our bags through X-ray machines, though this is the third time I’ve flown this year.
That’s about this wretched pandemic that has kept so many of us separated from each other for such long periods of time. It’s only now, as things open up, that the consequence is making itself felt, at least in me, with a powerful sense that things are not as they were, and not quite as they seem; less solid, more fractured and contingent, as if the lubricant between us, one with another, has dried up or seeped away. We have been atomised by Covid.
I don’t want my daughters to know the extent to which I’ve lost my bearings in this brave new world. Fortunately, we’re speedily out the other side, though what with the time it took to find and deposit the bike at the special luggage carousel – situated at the furthest end of the terminal – we’ll have to run.
We’re seated in one row over the wings of the plane. I’ve got the aisle seat and looking beyond my daughters, I see the judder of the flimsy wings as we accelerate down the runway, the roar of engines straining to lift us, quite improbably, from the ground.
We’re climbing to thirty-one thousand feet where we’ll stay for one hour and twenty minutes or so until we begin our descent to Biarritz, a coastal resort with a reputation for casinos and designer stores, a hangover from its heyday in the belle époque at the turn of the nineteenth century. More recently, the seaside city has reincarnated itself as the surf capital of France’s Atlantic coast.
I’ve flown all my life, ever since I was a child. My parents – our whole family – worked in the airline business, and cheap tickets took us around the world, often to places we couldn’t afford to stay. And yet all at once, I fear flying. I have to get a grip, or rather loosen my grip, certainly on the armrests. I should not feel this degree of fear, or I should be braver in the face of my fear. It’s a question of attitude, not altitude, I think to myself, and though I’m pleased by the word chime, I’m relieved when I find I’m not saying these things out loud.
And it’s not just flying. I’m beginning to find motorways violent and unpredictable places. I hug the inside lane, just like the old men I used to pass, shoulders hunched and fearsome concentration on their faces. I remember wondering if they had any idea of the havoc their caution was causing simply by being out of step with the rest of us. Back in the day I was normal, and they were the outliers, now it seems I have become I’m one of the outliers too.
Megs is offering me savoury biscuits from a packet she’s brought with her. We’re almost there and I’ve dozed a good deal of the way, just so I can take it all in and relax. I take a couple, and wonder at the two figures beside me, backlit by the bright sunshine pouring through the cabin window now we’re above the cloud line. Having seen them so little of late, there is a familiarity of each of their faces, adult now, but with distinct traces of child that sets me to remembering and wondering at the fleeting nature of time.
‘What is it?’ says Megs, ‘you’re looking at me strangely.’
‘I’m squinting,’ I say, ‘the sun…but I’m also shocked we’ve got away with this. I can’t believe we’re here and all together.’
I feel the tears I’ve had to get used to in recent times welling up again. Where do they come from? It feels like a kind of emotional incontinence and always catches me by surprise. My daughters notice. Sentiment in older folk is oddly disconcerting for the young. How can they be expected to understand that loss can be felt all the more acutely when everything we love is right in front of us.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“Forest,’ says Lilly, ‘and the sea.”
I lean forward in my seat. I want to look down on the Aquitaine landscape beneath us, an historical region that encompasses the modern day départements of Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Through the window, I can see the miles and miles of uniform green pine forest of the Landes stretching all the way to the horizon in the east, with beaches marking the sea to the west, and to the south the misty outline of the Pyrenees, half hidden in cloud. From here, the flat land looks oddly like a carpet of AstroTurf.
It was only a short time ago that wildfires swept through the Gironde, close to my intended route north from Biarritz towards Arcachon, destroying vast tracts of pine forest, threatening life and limb, and forcing evacuations. Six thousand hectares were burning at one point in July. And just before I set off, I read in Le Monde that another fire, this time around Hostens, burned for two days between August 9th and August 11th, only to reignite again, leaving Arcachon, Cap Ferret and the whole area choking under a thick pall of smoke. Naturally, I wondered if I should come at all. Not because I felt in any danger myself, but because a blackened landscape could only serve to remind me of the fragility of our planet, a fact I was trying hard to forget.
But as we begin our descent, my mood is suddenly lighter than it has been for many months. Despite my existential preoccupations, my fear of flying and motorways, and despite the charred patches of land far below us, journeys are always an adventure, and adventure is always liberating. Even more so in the company of my daughters and with the prospect of the open road to come. I will have a chance to quell my chattering conscious mind with the necessities of riding, riding, every day, because when you’re travelling all the hopes and fears, the daily triumphs and tragedies of real life, are held in suspense.
Perhaps that’s why I’m here, maybe why we’re all here, to interrupt the relentless flow of time, to step outside it, if only for a short while. And whether because I am slowing down as I age, or because time – as I perceive it – is speeding up, I need this chance to step back, to take stock, and breathe.
The seatbelt sign comes on and I buckle up, not wanting to be told to do so by a flight attendant who thinks I’m doddery or forgetful. Soon, the ground is only a few hundred metres below us. Red pantile roofs are everywhere, capping white-walled houses so uniform they look like Lego. The wings wobble as we pass over the perimeter road of the airfield. I brace, pushing my back into the seat against the hefty thwack and thud of so much flesh and metal striking concrete. Whoever thought to call this event ‘touchdown’, had a sense of humour or never flew in a plane.
The engines shriek into reverse. Things are shaking and rattling in the cabin as we trundle and bump down the runway. And I find I’m gripping the armrests, again.