The World Photo Tour moved to France. It’s been a long time since my last blog update. Since then, a lot happened – mainly a lot of walking and a lot of taking pictures. Easy, right? Well, sometimes…
On this walk, everything tends to become more of a logistic problem that needs solving throughout any given day. Eating at the right time in the right amounts. I started to read the labels on food. Looking at reaching 4.000 kcal/day, if possible, that’s the target. Hence, it’s a problem. Drinking loads of water – a problem, as I cannot afford to carry too much of it. Sleeping, as well – either finding a good place to pitch a tent or trying to sleep somewhere inside. Trying to have the phone, camera and lap-top batteries charged at all times – a problem. Photos, photos, photos. Keeping in contact with people. And most important, walking, trying to move my 25 kilos backpack for at least 25 km a day. Should I add the emotional roller-coaster into this mix? I prefer not to. At least not at this point. Most of the times, the solution to these trials doesn’t necessarily come easy.
I prolonged my stay in Canterbury so I would be ready to leave UK with everything I need. I did mention a while ago that I’ve lost my card – half of this journey so far was done without one. :). So a new one should’ve been sent to Dover. Something which eventually happened. Until then, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality of Claudia, Robertto, Carmen, Cristina and Andreea – the Romanian students I spent some days at in Canterbury. And they made the best of it for me. Either by leaving me alone to edit my stuff or showing me around, cooking what I now consider festive dinners and even inviting me to stay some more. I had to say goodbye, though, on a Saturday morning.
Off to Dover then, early in the morning. Got to the bank in time, got the card, everything was OK, got some time to walk around the beach, got a strange feeling as I dipped my feet in the sea (made-it-this-far sort of a feeling), got the ferry ticket, got some time to rest, got everything? It seemed so…
It was on the ferry when I did realise that I actually forgot something. A plug adaptor for the continent. But they did sold the things on board, and not at astronomical prices as I expected, so with that secured, on the journey to the mainland, I had some more time to relax and wander around. And it was a big ferry! 49.000 tons, 213 meters long, with room for about 200 trucks or 1.060 cars and 2.000 passengers, The Spirit of France ferry (P&O), is the largest ferry ever built for the Dover Strait. And it had its maiden voyage on the 9th of February earlier this year. Lucky me!
I wasn’t at all sea-sick or anything near that, if you ask. And the journey was one hour and a half long. Once in Calais…
After about three days in France, Lucia, a friend of mine, asked me to describe France in only one word. At that point, I was still trying not to be angry at anything so far. My answer then was laid-back. To which I now could add friendly, a bit unkept, beautiful and expensive. Yup, everything is more expensive than in the UK. For instance, you cannot find a regular pint of beer for anything less than 5 euros 60.
It all started in Calais, while still on board of the ferry, when all the foot passengers had to wait for about an hour to be taken off board. One of the lifts didn’t work and, on top of that, there was no bus waiting to take us from the ferry to the port. But I couldn’t complain then, as I just crossed the Channel with one of the biggest ferries ever built.
Once in Calais I headed for the first shopping centre to find the cheapest and best deal for mobile internet. Calais is not you most beautiful French town, but it was my first and I was surprised to learn that it’s twinned with many other towns – including the Romanian town of Braila. On that note, there’s something else that got me smiling all the way through France – the amount of Romanian cars on the streets, talking, of course, about the Dacia manufacturer! Quite a lot of them, and in many models – Logan, Sandero, Duster, Lodgy…
At the shopping centre, the guys at Orange didn’t understand anything from what I wanted, as in they told me what I want is not possible (having a SIM card with some minutes and an internet allowance at the same time) but the guys at SFR thought different. Apparently. 25 euros for that. 15 for the SIM card, with 5 euros of credit included and 10 for the internet, free allowance for 7 days, which I started to use immediately.
Two hours later, after wandering around towards leaving Calais, heading east (I wanted to pitch the tent before night-fall), I got a text informing me that all my credit is ousted. What to do now? I was half an hour away from the SFR shop, so I went for that. Didn’t get there in time, as it was closed already (something I noticed in France – the shops seem to be open briefly during a day, and in smaller towns and villages they seem to be closed all the time). But I was lucky enough to see the guy that sold me the card as he was leaving the mall. After talking with him, he admitted there was an error and he promised he would call the technical department on Monday, two days later, as the guys in HQ had finished their schedule as well.
OK, so at least I got a promise. With no internet and no means to contact anyone I made my way out of Calais in pitch-black night. And, what do you know, it wasn’t long until it started to rain as well. Still took some snaps along the way, and one of the things I found interesting was the display of the Communist Party – it came with fashion! :) Once outside the town, I quickly found a place to have my rest beside a lake. Pitching the tent at night, while raining – that was a bit cruel. Half wet, I went to sleep half angry, thinking of all the draw backs of the day.
The morning greeted me with sunshine, hooray. A good day to walk. A fellow spider stopped to say hello after I ate, while I was waiting for the sun to do its magic – just drying some clothes and the tent at the same time. And nothing seemed to bear the possibility of going wrong that day.
At a café in Les Attaques I got a glimpse on the local subjects in a newspaper – the early over-sexualization of girls in the ever-more popular regional miss contests. And, in other news, the case of the mad man that killed three soldiers and three days later three children and a teacher. All as a form of protest against the French military presence in war theatres in the Middle East – a subject powerful enough to shape the speech of the presidential candidates at the elections this year.
It was just the newspaper that I got in that café, though, for unlike in the UK, France is not necessarily the place where you would find Wi-Fi internet access in any given village pub. But I had a general understanding of my route so I kept walking for the entire day. And I was so into it, that I’ve lost track of time and even forgot what day it was. Only at about 4PM, with my stomach growling, I understood that I would have no food until the morning. But hey!, I was in a farm land, in Ruminghem, there had to be some farmer to give me a loaf of bread for one euro, as I had some milk – that mix would’ve been just fine over the night. And not only that there was a good farmer, but I got more than I expected. With my broken French, I did manage to ask a lady for some bread. She told me to wait as she went back in the house. Three minutes later, the lady – Francois Bodin – came back with two cheese sandwiches, a pack of biscuits and two cans of Danone yogurt. Oh, and even a tea-spoon. It was strange then to witness something: before securing some food for the night, I thought I could not go any further, I felt my feet are done for the day, I thought I’m tired enough. But after getting the food, it was the opposite – I felt like I could continue to walk for miles, even without eating, but just by knowing that once I stop I can eat. And it was before getting to Watten when I did finally stop for the day, on a grassy field close to a TGV line.
The morning only announced another beautiful day, as it came with a bit of fog. In Watten I spent some time around the town centre and on top of the hill, at the wind mill and abbey. One thing I learned up there – the whole of the French Flandre was flooded by the North Sea between the fifth and the eighth centuries, apart from some hills (islands then) where the people settled. Which is why even now, the towns here – like Watten, Cassel and Bailleul occupy those very same hill tops.
It was Monday and, by 11 o’clock, I finally got a phone call from the SFR guy regarding my wasted money. He asked me if I got my credit back (No!) and told me he would fix the problem and call me back. That never actually happened.
After a refreshing break in Cassel, I walked a bit more, mainly asking from farm to farm for some two square meters of green where I could pitch the tent. After three non’s, I got lucky at the farm of the 25 years old Antoine Beun and after pitching the tent, I got the privilege of a tour of the farm with his brother.
The two brothers each have their own farms, one close to the other. Both farms are a family business going back 200 years. Now days, part of the milk from the 90 cows here ends up in Danone products. The rest, together with a lot of other farm products is being sold at the farm shop, close to the main road to Lille. After the tour I was invited for dinner. Veg soup followed by pasta and washed down with local beer – 3 Monts.
And it was Antoine and his wife, Celine, that hooked me up with my next host – Claire Janseen, at Ferme Moreau, a bit east from Bailleul to Lille. There some more local cuisine followed: andives and the best cordon bleu I ever had. With a fruit yogurt desert, made at the farm. But until this treat, I stopped for a while at the skate-park in Bailleul, where I met with Florian Lemoine, local BMX-er, and his young friends. It didn’t take long until I changed the boots for a pair of roller-skates. Just for a bit of 5 minutes fun. And the boys were eager to do some tricks flying over my backpack.
After a good sleep, I woke up and I was ready to walk at 7. Dense fog. Really thick. From Bailleul to Lille, the road got really close to the border with Belgium. So I couldn’t help but to cross the border at one point, as there was no defined limit whatsoever. Back on track, in Nieppe, I went for some croissants at Pain-chaud-co-la. The lady there was so nice that when she found out about what I’m doing she didn’t let me go without giving me a pastries full paper-bag. So I had to stop then and there and have my second breakfast. With my batteries charged with sugar and with the fog all forgotten, I was now ready to enter Lille, through Armentieres – nice little place with nice little streets and nice little house numbers. :)
Some things I enjoyed in Lille: the street art, tip-top; the history – rich and vivid, all from The Sun King to Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the present day; the town centre; the underground, really simple, with just two lines; the bike rental facilities, a town feature growing more and more popular in Europe; and the company and hosting of Matthieu Dang, a civil engineering student from Nantes. Half Vietnamese, half French, he took the patience of showing me around. After a walk around the city centre for a bit of sight-seeing, between some iconic Lille buildings and a fire with the corresponding crowd, I accompanied him to his karate lessons. Back at his place, he told me what he considers of Northern France, expressing his sadness that not many French people consider the area of Flandre Lillois to be an interesting place to visit, many of them disregarding it on the sole fact that it’s kind of flat and kind of poor, compared to the rich and sunny South. And the same goes for the East part of France as well, he says. But with its rich farmlands and friendly, young and hardworking people, this region of France truly is a place to discover, both as a tourist or investor.
At the end of my stay in Lille, Matthieu offered me a gift: some really smelly, but at the same time really tasty local cheese – Maroilles, supposedly first made in 962, after which it became famous enough to find its way in some kings menus – Philip II, Louis IX, Charles VI to name just a few. Well, thanks, Matthieu!
Off to Bruxelles now! Another 100 km or so until then. Four or five days probably. A while ago I realised I think of time different now. A friend asked me at one point – when are you going to post something new? I replied it will be soon. Three hours later he came back with the question. I had to let him know that soon means a couple of days. :) So have a great week-end, everyone! I’ll get back to you shortly, I suppose.
OK, I’ll just go ahead and take a bit of a rant at some things and let some of the anger and feelings out. Things I am not at ease with so far:
- buttons. Yes, buttons. I hate them. They are completely useless! From now on I’ll live a button-free life;
- days when I don’t open my mouth. And there are days when I don’t speak to anyone. And there’s plenty of them to come. Must get used to it.
- people that say no;
- the voices in my head telling me to stop;
- tent condensation. During a night, a human being exhales 1 l of water. Sometimes I wake up with water dripping on my forehead. Not nice at all. I researched the problem. I need to go custom-tent about this. And that basically means cutting some bigger vent-holes in the tent I have;
- people that say they will keep in contact but they actually don’t. Fundraising and media people included. I’d rather much prefer an honest no.
- the photos, I know, I don’t always get the colour space right. That’s because I sometimes edit the photos in broad sunshine on a glossy screen. Bear with me.
- there are days when I feel road sick and home sick. Days when everything seems to be in vain. The road, the photos, the fundraising and everything in between. Some think I’m having the time of my life. Not entirely accurate. The road gets to me. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bit of desperate way. I keep telling myself there’s nothing special in what I do. Even on this road, I’ve met people capable of doing far more hard things. And I haven’t changed (I don’t think people do) and this road is still life, with the usual ups and downs. And it’s at the desperate times when I need to stop listening to Pink Floyd, Fiona tells me. :) And that’s basically it.