Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Update from the farm

First, a thumb update:

The other day when I went for the first re-bandaging, I was terrified to the point of literally shaking. It took several minutes and about three people to liberate the gauze stuck to the wound, and I feared that I would be faced with a bloody stump when the nurses finally succeeded. Luckily, the existing flesh seemed to have swollen to fill approximately the same volume that the missing bit had occupied. There wasn't any skin, but I didn't have a huge dent in my thumb either. Nor was there too much blood, though I do think that the upper part of my thumb will be yellow with iodine until all the skin cells die and flake off. Oh, well.

I can't do much farmwork without being able to use my right thumb, or to get my right hand wet or dirty (er, showering is also a challenge). However, Jocelyne, the farm owner, is used to taking in all sorts of stray, slightly ill people and so she hasn't pitched me out into the street yet. I spend a lot of time "helping" the way a five-year-old helps: I stand around in the way and do things more slowly and crudely than they should be done, so that when I'm "finished," Jocelyne gets to do them over again, which takes longer than it would have for her to just do them in the first place. I also dry dishes, hang laundry, make tea, organize papers, and eat a lot of delicious homemade/grown/raised food. It's tough.

Next, a cast of characters:

These are the folks that live on the farm. In the second installment, I'll include those that just come over a lot....

Jocelyne- 49 years old, owner of the farm. Looks like a more attractive version of the singer Baby Dee. Longish, blond, wavy/frizzy hair, sharp blue eyes, heavy but not unshapely. She and her home are a bit disheveled; she has more important concerns than whether she serves tea in matching cups or wears fashionable clothes. Mother and foster parent. Currently single. Speaks English well, but not as articulately as a native speaker. Forthcoming about many things, including the fact that science played a large part in the creation of her son and the fact that he has eight half-siblings from five different mothers. Unofficial liason between the huge British ex-pat community and the French natives. Teaches French classes in her home. Admits she has a tendency to surround herself with weaker creatures. Patient, goodhearted. Can birth a calf and skin a rabbit.

Kevin- 8 years old, Jocelyne's son. Blond hair, blue eyes. Very attached to his mother. Often speaks in a whine, but only to Jocelyne. Wets the bed. Was once seen picking his nose in his sleep. Speaks a bit of English. Enjoys chasing rabbits.

Jean- 69 years old, formerly under Jocelyne's foster care. Has lived with Jocelyne for fifteen years. Originally was admitted to her care as a "disabled" person, though Jocelyne says his only disability was alcohol. After her term as his foster caretaker was over, he wanted to stay. Blue eyes, white hair. Speaks like Daffy Duck, but in French, and goodnaturedly. Apparently lost his false teeth, which he wore for their aesthetic effect and never wore when he ate. Likes to watch game shows on TV, which Jocelyne claims is because he likes to look at the Vanna White types.

Melissa- 17 years old, Jocelyne's foster daughter of five years. Brown hair and eyes, overweight. Friendly, speaks a bit of English. Likes to talk on the phone and admire attractive male singers. Attends a vocational school and spends a weekend per month each with her mother and father.

Loup- 16 years old, family dog. Name means "wolf." Poor hearing and vision. Believes he's more spry than he is.

Assorted cats, cows, rabbits, goats, ducks, chickens, geese, and a horse.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ratatouille a la thumb

I am alive! Haven't had regular internet access lately, because every time I arrived in a new town, it was around six pm and everything was closing. Now, on the farm, the dial-up doesn't work so efficiently, but I'm enjoying the trip back to 1999.

Two days ago I arrived at Jocelyne's farm in Normandy, set my stuff down, and started to help the family make a Ratatouille for dinner. Not two hours later, I was slicing eggplant, slice, slice, slice, when off went the side of the top of my right thumb, into the lovely pile of eggplant below. I bled like a horror film and can now vouch for French socialized medicine being wonderful. The ER asked me for less information up front than the hostel in Paris.

Got rebandaged today and they said I'll live--I just have to go back to the ER every few days for a couple weeks to get gauzed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saddle sores to internet gamers

First a little rant: I am currently sitting in an internet cafe in Chartres, and for the past two hours, save for five minutes when a sixtyish American woman came in, it has been me and about a dozen 12-17 year-old boys here. They are all playing some sort of gloomy-looking internet game with guns and tanks. Adolescents have always kind of freaked me out: they were intriguing and scary when I was a kid, terrifying when I was one, and are unnerving now. Multiply that by 12, add this weird internet game, a lot of awkward laughter and chatter in French, and I think I need to leave and go have a beer.

I made it to Chartres yesterday by bike. From Versailles, I took one of the national roads, which, for about 70 percent of the way, had a bike lane with some broken glass and rocks and things. It was sort of like Ogden Ave or the uglier parts of 55th street in the western 'burbs, but with more trucks and fewer pedestrians. Finally, after three hours or so, I stopped at the "Bel Air" Mall in Rambouillet. It really was called "Bel Air." I bought some water and the best Powerade I've ever had at a Carrefour, and a nice lady at the tobacco store told me how to get to the smaller road I was looking for. Turned out the road was directly behind the mall, and within five minutes I was in the middle of nowhere.

I rode through lots of little towns which were much prettier than the ugly N10 road I'd been on before, and snapped some drive-by photos. In Coltainville, my last little town before Chartres, I ran out of steam. It was time to stop for round two of the baguette and pate snack I'd munched on outside of the mall. I knew if I stopped for too long or sat down, I'd never reach Chartres, so I ate for a few minutes and hopped back on the bike.

I entered Chartres to discover that it was a bunch of steep, narrow cobblestone streets that might otherwise have been beautiful but in this case made me want to collapse in a heap on the ground and cry. I cursed Rick Steves for not giving me a map of the city more than six blocks long, because I had no idea which direction my hotel was in. Eventually, after having been an enormously entertaining spectacle to scads of French folks on the way, I rolled up to the hotel. I continued to entertain the locals for another ten minutes while I unloaded my bike, locked it, and then tried to figure out how to pick up all my bags at once to carry them to the hotel, all while wearing really unflattering bike shorts.

At the hotel, I discovered that I have bona fide saddle sores. I know that they are real because they sting in the shower.

Today, I've been in Chartres; tomorrow I bike for Mortagne-au-Perche and the next day for Domfront. Have more to write but can't stand another second in this internet cafe and feel brain starting to fizzle.

Until next time!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bike shopping, dirt park trails and camping sans tent

Bonjour! Wednesday morning, I checked out a bike store around the corner from where I was staying at Olivia and Nacho's. The guy inside, who spoke English, told me that they did not have anything in my size in stock and that it would take a week to order. As I was supposed to be in a farm in Normandy in a week, I ventured out for a bike store that appeared to exist on the Boulevard de Montparnasse, according to the internet. Fortunately, it did, and the guy there knew his shit and spoke some English. People in bike stores in France seem a bit less snooty than their US counterparts, but I can't tell if that's because they're a little uncomfortable with English (and therefore unable to go on a pretentious ramble about bike parts) or if they're actually nicer. I suspect the latter. The very agreeable man in the bike store did have bikes in my stock, and the one he showed me was perfect: a hybrid (not road, not mountain) that came with fenders, a rear rack, a bell, and lights that work automatically when I pedal! I headed back to pick up all of my belongings from Olivia and Nacho's while he assembled the bike.

On the way back, laden with my usual Chrome bag plus two bike bags on each shoulder, I got a lot of looks, from passing glances to full-on stop-and-gawks. Then, on the Metro, the ticket machine wouldn't take my debit card, the lady wouldn't help me, and I didn't have the change I needed to buy a ticket. So I laboriously marched up the steps with my 50 pounds of unwieldy baggage, and went to the McDonalds to buy a 95 cent milkshake to get change. I felt like a tool, but it was easier than trying to get into the tiny door of a real cafe with all my stuff.

Back at the bike shop, I got a nod from a lady in line ahead of me, who recognized that my bags were for a bike. The shopkeeper confirmed that they were indeed for a bike, and were Ortlieb, "the best that you can buy," he said in French. In this tiny pocket of Paris, I no longer felt like an ambulatory freak!

As it was too late in the day to leave the city by bike, I found a hostel. My roommates were Cuba (pronounced the way you would if you spoke Spanish: coo-bah) from Canada, who was clearly out to meet some ladies, and Katie, from Australia, who chattered at me for ten minutes straight and complained that her dad talked too much. Katie and her dad were on vacation with her mom, who had made the trip to "present a paper," which actually turned out to be a "Nurse's Bible" that she had assembled with nurses' stories and the Old and New Testaments and bound in blue leather with silver corners.

Yesterday morning, I set out from Paris toward Versailles, following some very sketchy directions I found on the internet (http://www.mayq.com/Cycling_out_of_paris/Route_6_west/Route_6_west.htm) that included instructions like,
"In the Park, immediately branch to the right, climbing, and then immediately branch left on a flat dirt way that joins a gravelled path between flower beds. The path becomes a dirt trail which turns right. Push or ride your bike on the path, climbing an occasional few steps and crossing through a gate."

Miraculously, I arrived in Versailles after 3 or 4 hours with nary a wrong turn. Oh, how spoiled we are in Chicago with our flat land and perpendicular streets! By the time I sat down to lunch in Versailles, it was too late and I was too tired to continue for Chartres, as planned.

(A fully loaded bike is not a sexy thing. If I figure out how to say "wide load" in French, I will make myself a sign. Additionally, the bike should have come with a mechanism to make it beep when it backs up. Pictures to follow.)

After lunch, I spent the next few hours milling about Versailles indecisively, looking freakish with my fully loaded bike, trying to find an internet cafe and a cheap hotel. I found a very expensive internet cafe and no hotel, though I did manage to book a room for Chartres for the following night. Eventually, I decided that my best bet, given that I didn't want to fork over 80 euro for a room or bike back to Paris to find a hostel, was to follow some signs I had seen on the main road that pointed to "Camping."

The Huttopia campground (pronounced like "utopia") was rather prissy looking, for a campground, had a gate that locked at night, and would only cost 19 euro. Lacking a tent, I rolled over to the hardware store, to find that the proprietor had sold his last tarp three days ago. Since it wasn't supposed to rain, I figured I'd survive. I laid out my huge, empty duffel and my empty Chrome bag on the ground, and slept on top of them on my sleeping bag.

The woods next to the campground didn't make any particulary frightful sounds in the night; in fact, I mostly heard the trains and motorcycles on nearby tracks and roads, which was comforting. I woke absolutely freezing a couple of hours after going to bed. My two layers of long underwear, socks, and fleece plus my sleeping bag, designed for temps as low as 45 degrees, did not cut it in 40-degree weather! Don't try it! For the rest of the night, I curled into cramped positions and tried to move around a little to generate some body heat, but didn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time. This morning, after about five minutes of trying to convince myself to leave my sleeping bag, I took a shamefully long, hot shower. Now, feeling warm and fully human again, I am ready to take of for Chartres, by way of roads instead of dirt trails. There's a real hotel room waiting for me there, and I'll be able to lay out my dewy sleeping bag to dry!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Raw meat and stinky cheese

We've been having toast with cheese for breakfast, which seems very generically Euro to me, though our lovely French hostess Olivia claims she stole it from the Swedes. A few days ago, the soft wedge of cheese was brie, but today it is way stinkier than normal. I can't tell for sure if the brie has gotten a little bit reeky because we've been leaving it out for at least an hour every day, or if there has been a cheese swap for something that starts with a c, looks a lot like brie, and is really smelly. I suspect the latter but am unable to confirm it.

The French seem to enjoy eating raw hamburger meat with raw egg. Last night, Olivia ordered this--one of her favorites--and let me try it. It tasted good, and was much less suspect than the room temperature beef and "mashed potatoes" that I was served by United on the flight over.

On to the bike store!!

Five days in Paris

Things I've learned since arriving in Paris on Friday:
1. The French keyboard is messed up. To type a period, one must use the shift key, but semicolons, colons, and exclamation points are readily available. Qlso; severql letters qre not auite in the plqce zhere one zould expect to find the,: This ,qkes it frustrqting to type e,qils: qnd blogs:
2. Parisians do actually walk around carrying baguettes. Some even carry their baguettes while rollerblading.
3. The public toilets in the middle of the street don't look like they lock, but I think they actually do. Just don't open the door again after you enter, or you'll leave it unlocked for yourself and then lock out the poor French guy who tries to use it after you. I think. Revision: just use the toilets in the closest Brasserie.
4. The eiffel tower has its own post office.
5. If a ladybug lands on your hand, then climbs up your finger and flies away, you will have good weather on Sunday.

Tomorrow, I take off on my soon-to-be-new-bike toward Normandy. After consulting several maps and the internet, I picked Dreux as a first night's stopping point. However, as if the name Dreux weren't dismal sounding enough, its only outstanding feature, according to wikipedia, is that it has a good cricket team. I was starting to feel depressed and terrified. Fortunately, I discovered that Chartres, an actual place that people may have heard of, wasn't too much farther out of my way. Really, I picked it on the basis of its longer wikipedia page and superior tourism website; if those aren't good signs I don't know what is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One day from blast off

Today's the sort of Chicago day that makes me want to stay here forever: the sun is shining and the lake is full of little sailboats. Two days ago, while packing, I had a huge "what the h am I doing?!" moment. Fortunately, it passed. I've lots of loose ends to tie up today, but will write again when I arrive in Paris!