Veurne, Belgium

It’s 6 am and Mickey is still sleeping. I’m looking out over a windswept field of green barley, lined in the distance with the impossibly tall and yielding trees that characterise this part of the world for me, but whose name escapes me now. My body clock is still a little messed up with the lack of sleep and all the things going on these last few weeks. It’s why Mickey suggested we splash on a B&B so early on in the trip. He has seen me flag increasingly in the last few days and he’s keen to facilitate my enjoyment of the journey as much as possible. He knows how to appeal to my softer side and helps me to remember to be kind to myself instead of pushing on relentlessly – something that I’m prone to do and that would eventually jeopardise the trip if allowed to go unchecked. So yesterday on the ferry, surrounded by the luxury of Club class and given the kindness and attention of the P&O staff there, it was an easy decision to make. The special treatment was a most welcome but surprising gift from Mark, a friend of Mickey’s. So unsuspecting were we, that when the staff approached us asking if we were bikers and if we were Mr and Mrs Bergin we were convinced that Winky’s side stand – discovered to be sagging a little the previous day – had finally given way under the load and he was now lying on his side in the cargo deck! What a double gift then to find out that not only was that not the reason they were searching us out but that they wanted to enquire after our trip and treat us to a little VIP treatment. The experience of entering the exclusive lounge in dirty biker gear, no make-up and hair in disarray bothered me far less than I would have thought…travel certainly does make you appreciate the positive and shrug off the negative more. So far I have had Mickey in stitches at my excitement over shower mitts and the simple act of finding our waterproofs in our as yet muddled packing system. This latter, in yesterday’s weather conditions (which, incidentally are also today’s!) warranted a little victory dance and a woop at the side of the Belgium road. (Al if you’re reading this it was just next to the war grave we visited on the way to Biker’s Loft that time…more excitement when I realised I was in a place I recognised). Later, on re-entering the cargo deck, we would discover that Winky was indeed lolling around on his side in a pool of his own fuel. But this was not because the stand had snapped but because he hadn’t been strapped down tight to avoid pressure on the stand – the irony was not lost on us, slipping and sliding on the fuel-slick deck as we hoisted him up, before giggling our way through it. No harm was done and we were grateful. Mickey’s helmet had taken the brunt but it had fallen on the visor not the helmet itself and Winky, showing no visible damage – the bags serving as cushioning – grudgingly started on the third attempt. My bike – Disco – looked on with an air of tolerant disdain at the antics.

We arrived yesterday to the lovely Ateljee Delvaux in Veurne in the horizontal rain and gale force winds after a 70 odd km route, plus a few circuits of every town and city we went through, grateful for the warm welcome and a roof over our heads. Our navigation technique relies on us choosing a rough destination based on distance and then me studying the map briefly for road numbers and town names to help me make decisions based on road signs. As I settled in to it yesterday I allowed intuition to take over a little. The realisation that we really didn’t have to be anywhere took root finally and it liberated me to experiment with my ‘feel’ a little more. Good things happen when you follow your gut, as long as you allow yourself to listen to it clearly – I know I’m not the only traveller to be aware of this. I got us through Dunkerque based on nothing more than embracing the fact that I wasn’t certain on any direction I took and taking one anyway, then correcting as I felt necessary or pulling in to check when it felt wrong. Yesterday it served us well. Mickey and I are also naturally evolving a communication system while on the bikes. I ride ahead and if I need him he’ll pull up next to me and we can shout to each other. Our horns are good enough to attract the other’s attention, and a quick tap on the head and an indicator signals my intention to pull in and check our direction. Hand up opened and closed a few times means he’s left his indicator on – or as was the case yesterday that his spotlight has switched to strobe mode and his bike is proving its name!

We stopped in Veurne centre, parked in the square and chose a café/bar for a quick coffee and an enquiry as to where the Tourisme was. Unaware of whether I was in Flemish or French-speaking Belgium I did something I hate doing, I enquired in English whether they spoke English or French. When he replied in English in a somewhat French accent I switched to Franglais (my best approximation of French), which seemed to rescue us a little. Still, I’d like to avoid doing that again if possible, I’ve now been informed that whilst we’re in Flemish Belgium, most Belgians will speak French fluently so I’ll be on safe ground with that. The Tourisme was just across the square and the lady there, slightly unbelieving and concerned that we were riding to New Zealand (not the first time in the last couple of days we’ve encountered that reaction and I’m sure not the last!) booked us into a B&B. Not only was she unfazed by our uncertainty of whether we could afford one or two nights but she solved the problem for us too (I’ll enquire for two and book for one, then you have the option) and she also ensured that there was room for our two bikes.

This is a big difference I’ve noticed here. People want to help you. Not in a “it’s my job, I have to” way but because they take pride in what they do and seem to genuinely want to interact. But it’s more than that too. As we walked the near empty streets last night searching in vain for a supermarket or café to get a bite to eat (we ended up with a Pot Noodle main and a Milka chocolate dessert bought from a corner shop, which I for one was delighted with), we passed several people who actively sought eye contact and smiled on receiving it. A nod of the head here will elicit the same back, from anyone as far as I can tell so far. People have their eyes up off the ground and take interest in their surroundings. Another difference is in the driving. You need to be prepared for cars jumping into the tiniest gap, yes. But you get a sense that other drivers are aware of you, having pulled out they get up to the speed of the traffic flow, they leave reasonable stopping distances, no-one gets angry or frustrated when someone (read: us) is driving slowly, even on the short stretch of motorway we found ourselves on. Everyone acknowledges the existence of everyone else and seems to do so effortlessly without compromising their own right to exist and get on with things. It’s…healthy. We aren’t yet far from the South of England geographically but it’s a world away from the increasingly oppressive life I’ve lived there. It’s a breath of fresh air to be in a place that is comfortable with what it is and that has no unhealthy mistrust or suspicion of strangers. It warms me but at the same time saddens me. Such a simple thing but it makes such a big difference, I wish I had seen more evidence of it at home. Perhaps it was always there but I couldn’t notice it in the life I had, who knows whether the fault lies within me or without. It doesn’t really matter, it’s not about blame, it’s about exploring the life I want to live. For now, today, I’m happy right where I am, no looking to tomorrow, no thinking about yesterday, just here and now – what a gift.

The weather doesn’t look any better today so I guess this really will be a recoup and plan stop-off…then again, there’s a derelict convent in town and some WW1 bunkers on the Flanders coastline just north of here so maybe a little exploring is due 😉