Me and Michel Chapter Eighteen

‘The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.’
                                                                                 Marcus Aurelius

The time has come to say goodbye to naturism and hello to clothes and convention. It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and I’m standing at the gate leading from La Jenny to the familiar painted green cycle path of La Velodysée. My faithful steed is loaded up, trailer and all, and champing at the bit, more so than me I fear. I’ve got used to the comforts of home whilst I’ve been with the Lotus Eaters, and whilst I look forward to the ride, I don’t feel the same about sleeping in a tent again. And after so long our of the world, I feel rather overdressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but when in Rome…

Bordeaux with its international airport would be the quickest route home. It is just sixty-five kilometres due east. It would take me around three and half hours to cycle to the airport non-stop and if Michel were to make the journey with me, roughly the same time on horseback. By coincidence, the same distance due east of Bordeaux would have me knocking on the door of Michel’s chateau. Though the main house was rebuilt after a fire in 1885, his library where he wrote the essays remains almost as he left it, bar the fact that the books are gone and the desk that sits theatrically in the middle of the room facing the circular walls, is more likely set dressing by the hand of diligent tourism officers.

Still, the inscriptions that have been restored on the beams overhead are his choices, and the view from the window that I would guess looks out on a landscape the great would recognise instantly, makes the place hugely significant, to me, anyway, and to many other Michel afficianados. I’ve never really gone in for hero worship, but for Michel, I seem to have made an exception.

I know all this because I visited the chateau, oh, I don’t know, maybe ten or twelve years ago, whilst on driving holiday through France with an ex-partner I haven’t seen for a long time. I remember the day like it was yesterday. Michel would something to say about the time slip of memory.

Having decided it’s time to go home, I could have made it to the airport today and packed up the bike for a flight home from Bordeaux. But that felt like an over-reaction, and when I checked, it turned out to be expensive too.

Nor is making a dash for the north coast of France and the ferry back to the UK an option. I had always intended to go slowly, but my current rate of progress would have meant at least another four weeks on the road if I wanted to reach Roscoff on the north coast of Brittany. With campsites closing around me, there will only be fewer options as I head north and the weather grows colder. There’s no fun in that, but the grand gesture of pushing myself to finish for reasons of pride feels like something of an idée fixe too. I have my own way of dealing with being stuck in a groove, something I’m happy to share, though I stole it from a tutor in screenwriting. He said that if you get blocked writing a scene, ask yourself, ‘What’s the opposite of that?’ It frees up your thinking and can result in a sudden lifting of the weight of feeling you ‘should’ or you ‘must’.

Still, I’m ready to go home, and I’ve come up with a sensible compromise between dashing back and carrying on to the bitter end. If I push myself today, I would be only a short hop from Soulac-sur-Mer, and the twenty-five minute ferry ride across the estuary of the Gironde river, and that would put me in the Charente, another entirely new département, and the best staging post to strike out for the UK.

I will take the car ferry across the Gironde and ride on to île d’Oleron, from where I can get a small ferry direct to La Rochelle and from there a train to Paris and the Eurostar to London, a local train to our local station near the bungalow, and cycle the last five miles. Staging the journey feels right and I’ve booked a ticket that is just over a week away, plenty to time to get make the connections and decompress on the island before returning to the life I left behind.

I wheel the bike with the trailer attached onto the path and put on my gloves, now showing signs of wear and with a hole on the palm of the right hand. I pick out a town on the map, Montalivet les Bains, very nearly seventy kilometres away, though I plan to find a campsite long before I get there. Then I say out loud in French, ‘En y va.’ ‘Let’s go.’ Famous last words.


Without ever meaning to, I’ve made it all the way to Montalivet only I’m totally wrung out. I do believe I’ve overdone it. I did not find a campsite on the way, or rather I did, two in fact, both closed for the season. The one I’ve found that is open is large, and municipal and close to the town, situated in an unattractive suburb, but I can go no further.

It’s six o’clock in the evening as I find my allocated pitch and unload. My thigh muscles are wobbly and shake as I try to bend down to put the tent pegs in place. I do a horrible job of blowing up the mattress and chuck the sleeping bag carelessly on top, leaving everything else in the panniers. Then I hobble away towards the site’s shops and restaurants, all set around a square that would not embarrass a small town, and mostly closed. There’s a butchers, a fishmonger, a tabac selling English newspapers from the day before, ice cream kiosks, several restaurants and bars, a bike rental store, a supermarket, a boulangerie. inclined to judge this place harshly, especially by comparison with La Jenny. The commercialism is tacky.

I know I should count myself lucky to have found anywhere at all so close to the end of September, but I feel sour with exhaustion, and I suppose the prospect of going home is not helping my mood. Already, I’m beginning to think of what needs to be done back in UK and I’m still wondering if my batteries are up to the job. It doesn’t feel like it this evening.

It’s still before seven and the restuarants in the commercial sentre are still closed. I’m in no mood to be patient and it frustrates me that France can be quite so hidebound by custom as to leave a poor pitiful soul like me with only a supermarket to satisfy my hunger. I want hot food. I need hot food after today, so I opt for the worst of all possible options, and head to a bar that is open.

I say the worst, but one half carafe of acidy white wine and the pain is less only a short time later. Doctors with their analgesics, go hang. I don’t care what the waiter thinks, and I don’t care that I’m fully dressed, bright pink from the sun and caked with dust from the road. Little by little, my spirits revive, and before I know it, it’s seven o’clock and all the restaurants begin opening their doors. A trickle of my fellow campers arrive bang on time, all spruced up and freshly showered. My resentment peaks as I choose a table for myself at the very edge of the restaurant’s outside eating area because of my dishevelled appearance, but when I see I can order good old ‘British’ fish and chips, written like that, in English, my inner bulldog barks and I order more wine to celebrate. A small act of revenge, though in this particular instance, most decidedly a dish best eaten hot, and a worth protest even if the whole affair will cost thirty-five euros. To save a life, it’s worth every cent. After I’ve eaten I sit back with a glow of satisfaction and he good news is I walked past an indoor pool on my way that might just be the place to go for some hydrotherapy tomorrow, if I live that long.


The next day, my right leg is swollen and has the kind of cramp that cannot be dispelled by stretching, the kind I’m concerned might be serious. This same leg has been complaining for a while, but now it feels like there is grit between bones of my knee joint. I wonder if I’ve reached the point of no return. I peak out on the world beyond my tent, and I have to force myself to move.

At first, I can’t even get to the outside world. Everything is cramped and there’s one muscle or ligament, I’m not sure which, that’s as tight as a drawn bow. I dread hearing a snap. If I have to lie here all day massaging my own leg, so be it. I give it half an hour and stare through the narrow opening of the tent, waiting and hoping. Finally, I feel the leg ease and risk unzipping the tent.

Crawling out from the tent onto the damp bare earth, I don’t even try to stand. Instead, I turn and sit on my bum, kneading at the calf and thigh and wondering how to get myself out of this situation without phoning home or being carted away on a gurney. It doesn’t help that the nights are getting colder now we’re in September. But a hot shower might.

The shower does help, a little, but I’m not going anywhere today. I don’t know if I’m glad or sorry that there are no other tents around me and with the leaves beginning to fall from the trees, I suddenly feel rather forlorn for and I stand for some minutes unable to act or formulate a plan. Until I remember the indoor pool I walked by yesterday, and begin to imagine the warm water it might offer. The shower had some effect. Why not the pool? The only other choice I have to make is whether to try for coffee first, or go straight there.

Coffee calls to me and on the way back I go to the pool, still limping as I make my way up the gentle ramp to the door. Inside, I find a reception desk and a young woman sitting behind it reading what appears to be a substantial tome. I notice there are those little pink and yellow page markers dotted along one edge, and from her furrowed concentration on the book, I guess she’s studying and working here for her summer break. She looks up long enough to notice I’m limping and using the doorframe to support myself.


‘Okay, merci, trop de vélo, et trop vieux,’ I say, my French as lumpen as my muscles. She looks puzzled. Perhaps she is wondering what kind of terrible accident could cause me such injury. But when she asks me how far I’ve come in word perfect English, I realise she understood every word. I tell her I’m on my way from Biarritz, so maybe three or four hundred kilometres.

‘It is a long way. Why do you go so far?’

The question is a good one, and I don’t have an answer other than to tell her I wanted to go on an adventure and to get away from the world for a while.

‘Yes, of course,’ she says, ‘me too.’

There is some business to do with filling out a card that will be my pass to the pool. She asks me how to spell my name and my nationality, though I’m not sure how relevant either is to swimming indoors. While I wait, I ask her about the book. She turns the cover towards me so I can read the title.

‘You know this?’ she says.’

I’m surprised the see the book is written in English. I’m more surprised to see that it’s called, ‘More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory.’

‘Oddly enough, no,’ I say, unable to reconcile myself to the fact that irony is such an unreliable friend when crossing language barriers, ‘but I think I know what it means. And then rather absurdly, I ask her, ‘Are you a student?’

‘No, my friend gave me this book to read. She is a polyamore, but not me, so I must try to understand, you see?’

I’m not sure I do, but a family gaggle arrives behind me, and it’s time to get out of the way. She hands me my pool pass.

‘Flo,’ she says, ‘I am Flo.’

‘Merci, Flo.’

I tell her my name and when she repeats it back to me, it’s like it’s a surprise after so long as an anonymous traveller.


I spend an hour in the warm pool, much of it holding on to a sidewall and gently kicking my legs through the water. The weightlessness does me good, to the point where I wonder whether I made my catastrophic assessment of the injury too early in the morning. Still, I take it easy as I make my way out of the building and down the ramp. I have an idea that I should have lunch of some kind, preferably hot, and even a glass of wine, before a siesta this afternoon. Outside, Flo is unlocking her bicycle, having completed her morning shift, and so we walk together towards the square of restaurants and shops.

She tells me her friend lives in Brussels and that when the season ends, she plans to go there to live with her. She says they have been together for two years, but only since her friend, or partner, moved to Belgium has she made clear her preference for polyamory. Flo is clearly still coming to terms with the implications for their relationship.

‘For me, it is very difficult,’ she says.

‘I see that,’ I say, ‘ I too would find it difficult. What will you do?’

‘What can I do? Go, try to understand, see what happens.’

When we reach the square, she asks if I would like to have a coffee with her. I say yes, but only if I can pay. She shrugs, as if to say it’s no big deal. When we sit together, I tell her about my daughters and I tell her we’ve been holidaying together just a few weeks ago.

‘That’s good,’ she says, ‘my father is, divorce, gone.’

‘You don’t know where?’ I ask.

‘Somewhere in the south. I don’t know.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What can you do? Your daughters are lucky. He is not there to advice me.’

She says advice, like that, the noun serving as a verb.

‘I’m not sure my advice is very much use. But I’m lucky, yes.’

We talk a little more about being young and being old, and I say I would find her world complicated to negotiate, and that I get the sense she has many more choices to make than I ever had to consider when I was her age. She looks bemused, as if I may have simply forgotten how things were. Perhaps she’s right. Then she checks her phone and reads the time.

‘Okay, I go now. See you tomorrow, maybe.’

‘I’ll be moving on tomorrow. I’m going home.’

‘Ah, okay, that’s a good thing, then bon voyage.’

I stand to say goodbye and offer my hand. ‘Bon chance, Flo. I hope you find what you’re looking for.’

‘Me too! And you, yes?’

‘Qui, bien sur.’

‘Merci pour le café.’

Flo is about the same age as Lilly. Perhaps that’s why I feel a pang of loss as she cycles away and out of sight.


I’m packed up and ready to go, legs tested and just about functioning again, and I ride past the pool on my way out. At reception, I see Flo is not there, so I ask the young man behind the desk if I can leave something for her.

I write a brief message on the frontispiece of my selected edition of the Essais, thanking her for her kindness and wishing her bon voyage. I’m leaving Michel’s home territory of Gascony today, and I get the impression he might like to accompany Flo to Belgium before heading south again on his own journey home.

Wherever we each go, we’ll talk en route. We always do.