This was my parting statement to Evelyne and Claude as they left the restaurant de Poste in Docelles that we had entered 30 min before, sopping wet, scared and fully aware of all eyes on us.
Everyone in the restaurant appraised us with looks that ranged from neutral through bemused to apprehensive – not the warmest of welcomes when you’re feeling vulnerable. We were dripping all over the floor and my embarrassment no doubt warped the curiosity into a fictional disdain. I didn’t want to be here. Not again. I was growing tired of the slow pace and the weather, the constant unpacking and repacking to have only gone 80 km. I wanted the compensation of making some ground for the cost of setting up home day in day out. But the world had other ideas. Today had thwarted us again. Not 10 km out of Epinal the skies had blackened and lightening had begun to split the view up ahead (not far enough ahead for my liking either!). Thunder rumbled ominously and Mickey had accelerated up next to me to mime putting on our waterproofs. I pulled in to a parking bay at the side of the highway and we donned our Weise suits that had served us so well this far. It wasn’t yet raining and we were glad to have pre-empted it. Not for long though as a few metres down the road the torrent started. A torrential downpour, the likes of which I’ve only ever experienced in France once before on a family camping trip to the Dordoigne. Drops the size of wasps that sounded like stones hitting my lid and water sitting on the road menacingly. Bad enough, but the worst was yet to come. Comforted by the knowledge that France decreases the national speed limits in bad weather I slowed to a pace I was comfortable with and settled in. A few minutes later the hail began. I checked the road, hailstones the size of marbles. Thoughts of other events flash through my mind and my body freezes. I can’t. I pull in at the side of the road as a lorry goes thundering past. Mickey pulls up, are you OK. I can’t do this I said. OK, it’s fine, I understand. I understand. But just pull of and we’ll find a safer place to stop.
I ride on slowly, the road now clear of other traffic. Mercifully a slip road to Docelles – 1 km away – appeared and I take it. We pull into the town and dump the bikes the first place we can. I don‘t care that we’re leaving them alone and all our gear out in the rain. I just want to get off. It’s hammering and we wander the small town on foot with the intention of finding a bed to check in to for the night there and then. We find an old woman just outside her house with an umbrella, why I don’t know, she tells us there’s no hotel here but a restaurant around the corner. A bit more wandering another set of directions enquired after and we find it. And so here we are. Dripping in the foyer of the French equivalent of a small town local pub with all eyes on us. We sit down and employ the only thing we have – a smile. The lady at the table next to us, grins sympathetically and strikes up a conversation. Where have you come from? Where are you going? Which route have you taken from England? My mind hasn’t yet recovered and I stumblingly answer her questions in broken French, grateful for the distraction.
With each question her curiosity increases and she continues chatting. She’s a confident and easy conversationalist. She speaks little English and I speak little French but we manage to communicate and convey something not captured by words. A mutual respect, perhaps a shared outlook on life. She tells me that one of her eating partners, Claude, loves to travel and speaks English but as yet he is too abashed to try…I think my poor French probably gives him encouragement though and soon he is contributing in English. He tells me he is learning one day a week and his teacher is an English man who lives in Epinal. Between the three of us, we convey what we want to convey. New friends, we swap cards and laugh that we can write to each other to improve on the other’s mother tongue. They wish us luck, courage and morale. Evelyne speaks to the manager and tells him of our journey, the whole restaurant now seems friendly and warm and the lady serving us our food is gracious and kind. I tell them I’m grateful for them, that they made a bad day good using the phrase that titles this blog. I’m aware the phrasing is imperfect but they understand and seem pleased. We eat a good meal and the patron continues our good treatment. I wonder why. The table next to us had also been tourists who spoke poor French. But they hadn’t garnered the same interaction as us. Why? I’m curious. I’m still not sure but I think part of it may be something I communicated to Evelyne and Claude. She asked, you only speak English? Yes I replied, a little French but badly. But in France I expect to speak French. Mickey and I are aware we’re outsiders. We smile, we speak, it’s all we can do. We don’t expect to be shown interest or conversation but we leave the door open for it and invariably it has come without fail. I was once told by a seasoned traveller that we would be fine, because we spoke to people with respect. I think this transcends the boundaries of language – so much of our communication as humans is tacit, communicated by the body and gestures and I think this gives real insight into a person far more than what they say. I think all of this contributes to our experience and helps us out a great deal. Or it could just be that we have a crazy story about a motorbike trip to New Zealand that no-one can quite believe when they hear…and who can blame them; I’m still not sure I can believe it…
I’m told the rain is on its way again today, along with thunder. My heart falls again when I hear it but a little less than it has the days before. I still don’t relish it but there’s now a spark of curiosity as I wonder what new tales it’ll bring with it. That said, as the lady at the campsite tells us the whole region is on high alert for thunder storms and wind we decide that maybe another night here won’t be such a bad thing. After all, we have a whole year to generate the stories and experiences, there’s no need to go hunting for them.