A culture shock waits for us as we arrive home from the east. Once we had crossed the threshold and set foot in Bertrand’s home at La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland we slowly begin to realise what we have missed most on our trip: our loved ones.
French speaking Switzerland, a miniature paradise
We awake in an Alpine décor on our canvas covers. We hadn’t felt like putting up our tents the night before after a record 260 kilometres ride to reach Neuchatel. Ahead of us the blue of the lake perfectly mirrors the sky reigning over the Alpine peaks with their everlasting snows. “Bonjour!” a girl jogger calls out enthusiastically in her Swiss accent. Surprise! Somebody talking to us in our own language! The last French speaking country we have been in was Senegal in 2010. The simple friendly greeting encourages us to stop for a coffee in a town a little farther on, where we tell one another to mind our language as people will understand what we are saying. All these people talking French brought us back down to Earth: we were truly on our way home.
We climb the 900 metres to Chaux-de-Fonds to meet up with Bertrand who lives there. Finding our old travelling companion is a joy indeed. So much so that we have decided on a ten-day stay. And in this calm and peaceful setting, between the Alps and the Swiss Jura we regale ourselves by bathing in the lake, playing volley ball on its banks followed by aperitifs and evenings telling stories, discussing future plans, good times and bad. In short, all the things that make up friendship, put another way, the affectionate good will of people we care about who, even if they were not with us on our trip, were none the less present in our consciousness. And we take pleasure in hearing the latest snippets of news. It is time to celebrate.
Then we leave, heading towards Bern where Siphay’s family welcomes us as if we were anointed popes.
Siphay gives his reactions: “Switzerland acts as a final transition point before our destination. We pedal away through towns and hamlets where I have lived and worked and which were once home to me. The powerful sense of having been here before and being on the last lap of our trip keeps taking hold of me, but we still have kilometres to go and I force myself out of this way of thinking in order to savour every second of the journey; after all, life is not suddenly going to stop. In Berne I become a bit obsessed and keep drawing every detail to the attention of the others. I am certainly overdoing it but I can’t stop myself! Three years less one week have passed, my aunt and cousins are waiting impatiently to greet us and see us once again in our travelling gear. One thing that has most certainly changed during this adventure is that, being part Asian and less given to communicate my feelings, I am from now on more easily overwhelmed by my emotions. My aunt hugs me so tightly in her arms that I have tears in my eyes and can scarcely speak.”
Home Sweet Home
A storm. We cross the frontier in an onset of rain, wind and thunder. We had been hoping for a more friendly welcome home but we tell ourselves that it is in keeping with the rest of our journey when all too often the wind and the rain have worked against us. Soaked, we go into a supermarket to find something to eat. We had it in mind to find a warm spot, but instead we were frozen to the bone by the refrigerators and freezers lining its shelves. On our way out through the automatic doors we run into a man who is grumbling about conditions in France; it has taken under an hour to rediscover the familiar pessimism of some of our fellow countrymen. But that evening we are expected by friends and when there is a happy ending in sight the minor irritations on the way count for nothing.
So we spend the day in the rain, leaving the magnificent lake of Annecy behind us. Mathilde and Juliette, old friends from way back, greet us at their family home in Saint-Rémy de Maurienne together with Juliette who has come from Paris especially for the occasion. Juliette is the author, composer and singer of “I’ll Get to the Road” which we regular play on our videos. For our first day in France we join in the village fête at La Chapelle, a riotous return to the depths of France, but what fun it is! The 140 kilometres we completed that day in heavy rain seems a mere trifle as we listen to the voice of Patrick Sébastien surrounded with bottles of wine… with as a plus the pleasure of sharing with friends we have not seen for several years.
Inevitably it was a rude awakening the following morning, especially as we had to get up early for the cycle race at L’Opinel in which we had been invited to take part. At 10 o’clock on the dot we were sweating off the alcohol of the night before during the 13 kilometre climb which the race involved. We were amazed not to finish last, with our 20 kilogramme steel bikes up against competition from properly equipped riders with shaved legs and carbon fibre bikes weighing 7 kilogrammes. We would gladly have settled to leave it at that, but no, that would have been all too easy. After the prize-giving we leave this happy scene and continue on the climb to the 2067-metre summit of the Croix de Fer, from where we can admire the views and relive the wonder of the magnificent countryside of France.
The view of Saint-Sorlain d’Arves, on the way to the top of the Croix de Fer.
Brian: “Contemplation is something that can be learned. This long-distance journey will have been an excellent lesson for me. Mountains we have seen by the hundred, but we never tire of them – on the contrary. The human spirit works by “negative entropy” – that is to say that the more you put into something the greater the room for yet more. It is the opposite of a physical space, for example, where its volume determines its total capacity. The same rule applies to beauty: the more one experiences wonderful views the greater one’s aesthetic appreciation becomes for others. Like the hero of The Alchemist returning home at the end of the story after his travels, I am rediscovering our own country and seeing hidden treasures that we did not have the curiosity to seek out before we left. France is an extraordinarily magnificent country. I knew this already, but to live it is quite another matter.”
The Final Spurt
We are only a few days from the finishing line. At the home of Laura and Thomas, friends we met in Patagonia, we can feel the end approaching. And yet our state of mind is no different from what it has been throughout our trip: we still derive as much pleasure from taking an interest in the lives of our hosts and exchanging views on a wide range of topics, especially when we are with interesting and equally interested people. The proof lies in the deed: a few days later Thomas sends us a touching poem inspired by Solidream.
We cannot do justice to an account of this final round of visits without mentioning the welcome we received at Le Caribou inn in the Vercors from Bertrand’s family friends, and the little bistro L’Espérance not far from the gorges of the Ardèche run by a childhood friend of Bertrand, not forgetting a touching family reunion with Morgan’s uncle at Montélimar. To sum up, on our return to our native land we were so cossetted that the kilometres between each of these cocoons of family or friends were just like dotted lines without any particular impact. But if you have read our account so far you will note how often we have said: what count most on a journey like this are not the lines on the map but the dots where we stop. This “final spurt” has little in common with a Tour de France race against the clock. Unless, that is, one counts each turn of the pedal as the build-up to a strong emotion. Right up to the end of our adventure our bikes have been the tools that helped us to live through strong emotions. In other words, to live. What is the point of a life devoid of emotion ?
So, with two days to go, our hearts are full as we prepare ourselves to reach the finishing line at Port-Camargue and home.