What happens?

Riding his bicycle – a model called the ‘Odyssey’ – along Europe’s longest cycle path called, suitably enough, ‘La Vélodyssée’, a middle aged man sets off on a thousand kilometre ride through the dunes and pine forests of France’s Atlantic coast.

With only the ghost of the sixteenth century philosopher Michel de Montaigne and a battered copy of the famous Essais for company, he fights off oversized ants, passes through lands recently devastated by wildfires, skirts a nuclear missile site, and spends time in a naturist resort…all this, even as he faces the rumbling thunder of his own existential crisis.

Where on earth is his sense of humour? And if not Michel, who then can save him from drowning in such cruel seas?

                       

Me and Michel Chapter One

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home

 Matsuo Bashō

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? Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter One”

Me and Michel Chapter Two

‘He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.’

Michel de Montaigne

The appointment was routine enough.

An ancient wisdom tooth had been grumbling and crumbling away at the back of my mouth for some time. At my last check up, I’d been told I’d be better off without it and it was time to follow through… Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Two”

Me and Michel Chapter Three

‘There is no remedy for love but to love more.’

Henry David Thoreau

Ours is a swish campsite, and we have a spacious tent. We have two ‘bedrooms’ separated by a bit of canvas, a hob to cook on and a fridge. We have our own little concrete terrace outside, and we’re only a few minutes walk from the beach… Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Three”

Me and Michel Chapter Four

‘Life is pain Highness, anyone who tells you different is selling something.’

The Dread Pirate Roberts, from the film, Princess Bride

 

Life is hard. It always has been. It was hard for Michel de Montaigne, a respected ‘seigneur’, or lord, with his own vineyards and lands producing revenues and every opportunity for a comfortable life. He lived in a chateau near Bordeaux, close to where we’ll be cycling, and he was twice elected mayor of the city. He had a wife, a daughter, and many friends. He was a magistrate, and a diplomat, held in high esteem by kings and princes… Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Four”

Me and Michel Chapter Five

‘You only grow when you are alone.                                                       

Paul Newman

 

I’ve wheeled the bike down to the gates of the campsite, panniers fully laden and my fancy trailer firmly attached to the rear rack. The girls have walked down with me and stand by as I make final adjustments to the bungees holding everything in place. I fold the map to show the first leg of the journey, and slide it into the plastic window atop the handlebar pannier. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Five”

Me and Michel Chapter Six

‘The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle…if he stops moving…he will fall off.’

William Golding

Day Three and my somewhat saddle sore life –despite the padded shorts – is concerned solely with questions of comfort and survival.

This is a good thing, I guess. This is why I chose to make this journey, to quiet the monkey chatter the better to hear myself think, to become a traveller and so an outsider, able to see myself objectively from the distance of the road. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Six”

Me and Michel Chapter Seven

‘Hope is a waking dream.’

Aristotle

I was well aware that camping was likely to be challenging after so long sleeping in a double bed with many pillows and a generous duvet. I had thought the ten days with my daughters might act as a kind of boot camp, even allowing for the fact that our tent was roomy and well equipped where my new sleeping arrangements are rather more basic. But it’s taking a while to adjust. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Seven”

Me and Michel Chapter Eight

engulfing sorrow

sly tide on a shallow shore

submerge me alone!

Considering the cycle path runs pretty straight, south to north, with few branches in other directions to confuse me, I often stop to check the map just for a break. I take the chance to be consciously present in the moment by noting, quite dispassionately, my unchanging surroundings and feeling some sense of achievement at every staging post, each new to me, though they do look uncannily familiar. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Eight”

Me and Michel Chapter Nine

‘What cannot be cured, must be endured.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

My nightly ablutions always involve a walk in my PJs past my fellow campers, bearing wash kit and towel, to a communal concrete building that is generally uninviting.

The wash blocks are all the same and all different in a way that makes no difference. They are generally smelly and the floors are always wet, no matter what the time of day, it seems. Some have showers that must be paid for with a coin, others use tokens, and others still provide hot water free of charge, though only at peak time in the mornings and the evenings. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Nine”

Me and Michel Chapter Ten

‘In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.’

Yun-men, 9th century Chinese Chan master

 

There is no doubt any longer.

As I ride, the smell of smoke is quite distinct in the air, the result of the recent fires, particularly around Hostens, an area only fifty kilometres east of where I am today, en route for Biscarrosse Plage.

I thought maybe I could see the fires on the solemn faces of those people shopping in Mimizan this morning, but it was probably my imagination. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Ten”

Me and Michel Chapter Eleven

‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am on my way to see one of the natural wonders of Europe, it’s biggest sand dune, and a jewel in the crown of the Gironde region; Grande Dune du Pilat, sixty million cubic metres of sand, five hundred metres wide, two point seven kilometres long, rising up from the flat coastal plain to stand a hundred metres above sea level. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Eleven”

Me and Michel Chapter Twelve

be the dawn and dusk

of a world in constant flux –

embrace becoming!

                        Haiku

I said my goodbyes to Landes almost as soon as I set off this morning, and though only a dotted line on the map, a new département makes it feel like I’m making progress.

I’ve been riding parallel with the D218, though for most of it, the cycle path runs well away from the traffic so the ride is leisurely and peaceful. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Twelve”

Me and Michel Chapter Fourteen

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’


                                                     William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 

I’m standing on the jetty at Arcachon, waiting for the ferry that will take me and the bike and a dozen other passengers across to Cap Ferret. Today, putting all other thoughts behind me, I begin the journey again, with the thrill of crossing the bay by boat and looking back at the land from the sea for the first time on this trip. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Fourteen”

Me and Michel Chapter Fifteen

‘Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.’
Epictetus

The very lovely people at reception give me a map. With 756 chalets on site, I’m sure I would struggle to find my new home without it.

The setting is quite beautiful. After the flatlands of my ride so far, much of La Jenny is set on gently rolling slopes, albeit with more sand dunes that lie beneath. Tarmac lanes wind through pines with brightly painted chalets in reds and blues and yellows, shy amongst the trees, like exotic birds. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Fifteen”

Me and Michel Chapter Sixteen

‘A day without laughter is a day wasted.’

Charlie Chaplin

 

There is a German woman staying in the chalet just across the way from mine.

We waved to each other in a cheery way as I moved in. She is alone it turns out, and we chatted briefly as I unloaded the bike, both of us clothed. She told me she is a regular here, that this place is her sanctuary from a busy life as a teacher in Dresden, and that she likes to meditate in the evenings. I told her about the ants and I think she understood, with a little ant acting on my part. Continue reading “Me and Michel Chapter Sixteen”

Me and Michel Chapter Seventeen

‘The only journey is the one within.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

 

On my last day here among the Lotus Eaters at La Jenny, I’ve taken myself to the beach. I have a makeshift picnic with me, leftovers and some bread, and a bottle of wine. It’s good to breath the sea air and today the weather is exhilarating. There are waves maybe a metre high crashing onto the foreshore.

Nature in all its glory gives human worries and woes some scale. When my concerns are pitched against the elemental, when the weather has some fierce quality, as it does today, I often feel that I am calmer inside. Why that should be, I don’t know.

As I pull my knees up and stare out at the ocean, I’m thinking about home. There’s a few good reasons why. I spoke to my sister yesterday, and though she did her best to hide her fears, she said mum is obviously deteriorating. There was a choking incident, brought on by masked banana and custard, which has never caused a problem before now. And our mother is sleeping more and more, up to sixteen hours a day.

When I probed, it was clear there had been a marked deterioration in the weeks I’ve been away, and my sister, in trying to be brave, was feeling the strain and had to hold back tears. And I’m not there, and that’s not right.

And I’m thinking about my video chat with Lilly as I sit on my sarong in the middle of miles of sand stretching to left and right, and thousands of miles of ocean are just beyond the long, straight horizon.

‘There’s something I want to say to you, I said to her, something I should have made clear a long time ago.’

‘You remember back in the day when we seemed to be forever heading up to London at dawn for yet another appointment with the professor, or a scan, or an X-ray? God knows how often we made that trip, all through lockdowns too, with masks on, hand sanitizer?’

‘I do, though it seems like it happened to someone else now, not me,’ she said, ‘or not the me I am today.’

‘And do you remember how I used to joke with you in the car that it was all mum’s fault? She gave you the dodgy knees and the hips, willed them to you in her genes.’

‘Yeah, well, I may be innocent on joints, but on the demons, the self-doubt, the stuff that keeps you awake at night my love? It seems they’re exclusively my gift to you. Because I get those feeling too. I got the demons from my dad, and you got them from me. I would wish it different, but I can’t change who we are. What I can do is tell you not that I’m just sorry, but that I think I get it. I have a glimmer of understanding about what you’ve been through these last months, and how brave you’ve been, how hard you’ve tried to overcome fear. You’re not alone, that’s what I want you to know. None of this living business is easy, for anyone, and we all need a break. This is mine, and Greece will be yours. We’ll make it happen, I promise love.’

 

And it’s not only my sister, my mother and Lilly. I miss Megs hugely, Lilly’s elder sister. She’ll be head down and working hard, no doubt, but I’m sure she could use a walk and a talk together, just the two of us, as much as I could. When I don’t get to see her,  I feel bereft, like a part of me is missing. And then there’s Phil. He texted soon after I spoke to Lilly and I tried to call him, but there was no reply. It seems he has a date for the operation. His sisters are flying in from the UK and his brother-in-law is standing by to do what he can to support him. But a time will come soon enough when the surgery is over and the family have gone home, and the long process of recovery begins to drag. That’s where I come in, maybe only a month or two from now.

The draw of home, be it real or my vision of the future, is powerful. It’s time to go home. No need to panic, but the vague ambition of cycling the whole thousand kilometres is looking like a beach path too far, at least on this trip. I can always come back, and I make a promise to myself that I will.

I’ve been detached from family and friends, even if we’ve been regularly in touch, and quite frankly, I needed the break. It’s done me good, though whether it’s been enough to recharge and restore, I can’t say. I was suffering and I’m suffering less, that’s true. I can allow myself to feel the draw of going back getting stronger when I talk to those I love or hear from friends, even if a part of me rebels at the prospect. Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say. Home is also where, ‘everything you see employs and concerns you’, as Michel put it. I’m not ready to pick it all up again, and yet I have to wonder if I will ever be ready.

I have been searching for someone I thought I’d lost, and asking questions that cannot be answered by him, he who in a sense no longer exits, nor by me as I am now because this person too will one day give way to another me, or another version of me. Why did I ever imagine there was a self I had forgotten, or lost, when as he says, there is so little that is fixed about who we are, and so much that contradicts and changes in us, it is nigh on impossible to talk intelligently about a ‘me’ or an ‘I’? I clearly have not paid as much attention to Michel’s wise words as I should have done. This is what he says in his essai, On the Inconstancy of Our Actions:

‘I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously.’

In On Repentance, he goes further in suggesting all self-portraits are at best, a snapshot in time:

‘I cannot fix my object; ’tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness; I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seventy years, but from day to day, from minute to minute…’

I think Michel is also making a bigger point. Perhaps he’s saying that not knowing who you are or what you want might very well be the only sane way to live well in a contingent universe, where change is the only constant.

For some reason, I’ve got a peculiar earworm sitting with me today. The earworm is not a tune, but two words, atrophy and entropy. I thought knew what the words meant, but when I look up definitions, I found out how much I didn’t know. Atrophy comes from the Greek atrophía, meaning ‘to waste away’, comprised of ‘a’, meaning ‘not or without,’ and ‘trophe’, which in turn means ‘food or nourishment.’ It’s journey to us as a medical term was via middle French,  right around the time Montaigne was experiencing the wasting effects of kidney disease and facing death. My calf and thigh muscles had certainly begun to atrophy before I took to my bicycle, and if I feel my strength increasing with each passing day, that only serves to demonstrate the principle that ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ I may have just caught myself in time. I hope so, and I make myself a promise to do more exercise on my return.

Atrophy, I got pretty much right, but entropy not so much.

Entropy has a very similar formula, with ‘en’ meaning something like ‘within’ and ‘tropos’ referring to a ‘turn’ or a change, but was only concocted in the 1860s by a German physicist, Rudolph Clausius. Entropy, I’d always thought, is the tendency of all things to states of disorder over time. Not so it turns out, or not precisely so. Instead, my reading suggests entropy is the spreading out of energy – from hot to cold for example, from the  heat in our homes, and eventually, its dissipation in the atmosphere, along with CO2 and a host of other bad things. On a grand scale, entropy dictates that one day the heat of the sun will also dissipate and when the whole universe reaches a state where temperatures are much the same everywhere, nothing will ever happen again.

The thought is arresting. Not the end of everything, but a state where everything is there, just as it was, but doing absolutely nothing. Just sitting there, until the end of time, which itself is a concept in dispute, both its existence and its end, and in a world racked by uncertainties and the anxiety that attends, I suppose I could say I feel a little better there is at least one certainty, big picture-wise.

 

‘I’m scared shitless to be perfectly honest.’

I’ve been pretending the decision to engage or withdraw from the world is a free choice. Phil is telling the truth. I can hear the fear in his voice and I would feel the same way in the same situation, except I’m not at all sure I’d have the strength to give it a name and talk about it. I can hear dogged determination too. Whether it’s enough to face what’s to come and retain some vestige of grace or dignity, remains to be seen, but I’d put my money on him doing a hell of a lot better than I could.

Not for the first time, I wonder at my self-indulgence, examining my own navel for as long as I have, and Phil’s courage. I talk to him about the place and try to make naturism sound amusing. I tell him I’m thinking of going home soon, and I tell him that when this is done, I’ll be there. And I promise the road trip we’ve been meaning to take since we were in our twenties. He wants to go across America by car, visiting New Orleans and Chicago on a musical odyssey inspired by his jazz heroes. I want to sail the Mediterranean and explore the Greek islands to find whatever remains of the ancients.

And we will. One or other, and sooner rather than later. No time like the present, eh?