Now that I had Paris as a new target, I began cycling west of Brussels. I haven’t written too much about the actual cycling but up to this point in my trip, it really had gone about as well as I could have expected. Of course, it helped that I began my journey cycling through The Netherlands and Belgium – both are very bike-friendly and more importantly, basically flat so they didn’t pose too much of a physical challenge.
But the cycling was still work as I was logging between 50-80 miles per day going from city to city. I loved cycling through rural areas – I have memories of mile after mile after mile of sunflower fields etched into my mind. And as the trip progressed, I learned how to better read and use my maps to avoid major highways and all the hassles that come with them.
When I was riding to my next destination, I came across another cyclist on the road heading the same direction. It was a young woman traveling alone on her bike. I learned that she was only 15 and from the tiny country of Lichtenstein. I was amazed that a girl so young would be on such a trip alone – and with the blessing of her parents (I wonder if this would still be the case in Europe as well as in the US). But she was very nice and told me about a town ahead that had a nice hostel. She asked if I had reservations and of course I did not (I was doing this all by the seat of my pants, remember?). And besides, I had yet to have any problem with any previous hostel. She said this was a small and popular hostel, and hoped I would be able to stay. Well, you can imagine what happened. We arrived at the hostel and it was completely booked. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when the girl told the manager that she and I were actually boyfriend/girlfriend, so would it be OK if we stayed in the “couples” room (the hostel had three rooms – one each for men and women and then another where couples could stay together). They said that would be fine and I was in…and before you get any ideas, we agreed to sleep in very separate beds across the room from each other. But I was very appreciative of her ingenuity and generosity to help me out.
The next day we wished each other well and went our separate ways (she was heading back to Lichtenstein while I was continuing to Paris).
While on the road to Paris, I again found another cyclist heading the same direction. This time it was a young man and I found out he was from Canada and also going to Paris. We rode together and talked – and together found an outdoor campground where we could spend the night. He said that it was within a day’s ride to Paris. The campground was roughly equivalent to a KOA in the US – it was in a suburb with paved spots for RVs and trailers and small plots of grass for tents. While there, we met some French kids who invited us to play soccer with them. I politely declined and provided play-by-play on my audio journal while the Canadian jumped in and played along with them.
The next morning we were off for what was supposed to be short ride into Paris. Naturally, the ride took longer than expected, and I kept pressing my biking buddy about sleeping accommodations (he swore there was another campground within city limits). As we got closer to the city, we met a young German couple who was also cycling into the city – and they also claimed there was a campground. The only problem was, nobody knew where this campground really was, and it wasn’t in any of my guidebooks. We periodically stopped to ask people if they had any idea, and of course they didn’t.
By now it was now dusk and we were tired and famished after riding nearly all day. We came upon what appeared to a BBQ in the parking lot of an office park and we stopped and asked if they had any idea where this infamous campground was. They laughed and said there was no such campground in Paris, but they invited us to join them for dinner. I couldn’t believe it – total strangers inviting other strangers to join them just like that! And being this is Paris, the food was of course amazing – it was easily one of the best (and biggest) meals of the trip to that point. They told us they all worked for a company that owned the business in the office park and we were welcome to set up our tents in the grassy area and spend the night. The next morning, a few of them came out to greet us as with coffee and pastries – and provided us with directions to a youth hostel downtown Paris.
And people say the French are rude?? This experience forever changed my perception and subsequent encounters only reinforced my belief that if you’re willing to try to be a decent guest (I used very basic and poor French as much as possible to say please, thank you, etc.) you will be amazed at how nice and helpful people will be for you. When I hear Americans complain about “rude French” I ask if they tried to speak any French or did they just speak English. Invariably, the answer is “English.” Well, I know I wouldn’t be very accommodating if every tourist to Seattle only tried to speak to me in French! But I digress…
Paris was an amazing city and experience – I couldn’t believe I even considered not visiting it before my trip! I fell in love with the city’s beauty and appreciation for art (which of course is present in most major European cities). I was both tourist and traveler – taking in the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, while also walking through and exploring local neighborhoods. My visit to Paris coincided with the final stage of the Tour de France so I was able to watch it live along the Champs de Elysees. It was interesting to see the passionate national fan bases within the crowds. The Dutch were decked in orange while the Spanish were louder and happier – since their rider (Miguel Indurain) had all but clinched the tour already and the final stage was little more than an exhibition through the streets.
By now, I was fully immersed in the vision quest and couldn’t wait to figure out my next destination. Just as I imagine it was earlier this summer, Europe was abuzz with the excitement of the Summer Olympics on the continent in 1992. The Games were being held in Barcelona and I suddenly had the itch to go check them out. People told me that it would be nearly impossible to find inexpensive accommodations as well as tickets to events but I decided to take a chance and try my luck. I purchased a ticket for an overnight train ride from Paris to Barcelona and checked my bike and luggage. I was on my way to the Olympics (I hoped).