Two Old Men and a Mountain (in Luxembourg)

Here’s an old story, from my 1992 bike trip from Paris to Amsterdam, with stops in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium along the way…

An old guy on a bike: “Bonjour.”

He said this as he and his buddy pulled up from behind and then alongside me about halfway up a 4-mile climb to the top of what I think is the tallest mountain in all of Luxembourg.

Me (out of breath): “Bonjour.”

Old guy on a bike: (“A bunch of fast French words I didn’t understand.”)

Me: “Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous Anglais?” (I don’t speak French … Do you speak English?)

Old guy on a bike: “Ah oui. Are you British?”

Me: “No, American.”

I don’t have any photos from my 1992 trip … so let’s pretend this more recent Mont Ventoux photo is a mountain in Luxembourg. Play along….

He seemed pleased to meet an American halfway up the highest mountain in Luxembourg, which is about the size of Rhode Island, but still big enough to have a lot of steep and scenic mountains. They probably don’t get too many Americans up here.

Old guy on a bike: “It is a beautiful day for a ride. And not so hard for someone 20, yes?”

Me (breathing harder): “I’m 33. And it is a hard ride, yes.”

Old guy on a bike (pounding his chest in pride): “33! I am 60!”

Me (mumbling to myself): “Good for you, you old fart.”

The old guy on a bike then began talking to his friend in French. They both started laughing and looked at me with triumphant smiles on their old, wrinkled faces.

Old guy on a bike (pointing to his friend): “He is 62 and says this is an easy ride.”

And with that they stood up on their bikes, started peddling a little faster and began to pull away form me. What with me being 33 and an American, I wasn’t about to let these two old guys kick my ass. Unfortunately I didn’t have a choice – and they kept pulling further and further ahead and the pain in my thighs and lungs kept getting worse and worse. I sat back down in my seat and began to pedal slower, gasping for breath.

The old guy on a bike turned, gave me a wink and a wave and then they were gone.

Hey, I just realized something: I’m now 60, the same as the younger of the two “old” guys who dropped on the Luxembourg mountain. Holy crap, how did that happen? So fast. And, is 60 really that old? I don’t think so. 

I wonder if these guys are still around. They’d be 85 and 87. So it’s possible. And, could they still kick my butt going up a mountain? It’s possible.

And one more thing: I adapted this story in my Numbskull novel. Hey, it’s a really good story.

Biking France: Self-Supported, Or With A Tour Group?

This is a question many people ask: Should we, can we, do a French bike tour on our own? Or do we need to do it with a tour group? Help me Steve!

Before I attempt to answer this all-important question, and help you decide, I must first admit I’m a bit of a bike snob … and for many years looked down upon the people I come across in tour groups. Sorry.

However, there’s a reason, maybe even a good one…

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I was biking in the Loire many years ago, and came across two cyclists, a husband and wife, in front of the chateau at Chambord. I could tell they were members of a bike-touring group, because the name of their bike-touring company was on the frame of their bikes.

“Where are you coming from?” I asked, hoping to strike up a conversation with my fellow cyclists. Cyclists are friendly. We like to share routes and stories.

“Michigan,” the guy said.

“No,” I said. “I mean where are you coming from today?”

He didn’t know. And asked his wife.

“I don’t know, some town that starts with a B,” she said.

“Blois?” I asked. It was the nearest town.

“I don’t know,” she said.

I was tempted to ask where they were headed, but they looked miserable, all red and puffy. And seemed to be in the middle of an argument that revolved around: “Why did you make me go on this %$&% bike trip?”

Off I pedaled, thinking: “What sheep, I’ll never be like that.”

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It’s taken me years to overcome my aversion to bike tours. Now, I’m all for them, and think they’re a great option.

On my last trip, I saw several people in St-Emilion who were part of a bike tour … riding electric bikes. It took me a few minutes to get over my long-ingrained bike snobbery and superiority before thinking: “Hey, that’s OK. If it gets more people on bikes and touring France, people who may not be able to do all the miles and hills without an electric bike, it’s a good thing. Don’t be such a snob about it. Heck, I might even say hello to these people and ask them about their trip.”

I still prefer biking on my own, and even more so with Susan. It’s how I’ve always done it. I love the sense of freedom and adventure, and totally enjoy planning out a route in advance and then adapting it as I go. Plus, as the author of an on-going series of eBooks about biking France, I need lots of time to explore and do day trips, and that’s not the way group tours work.

Here’s a guide to help you decide which option is best for you…

Comfort Zone: Your comfort level in a foreign country, such as France, is a determining factor. Have you been there before? Can you speak a little French? Can you plan out a good route? If the answers to these questions are yes, go the self-supported route. If not … well, you know what to do.

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Time: A tour group is great if you have only a limited amount of time, say 6 to 8 days, and want to take in a lot of sights and not worry about the logistics. If you have a few weeks, or maybe even a month or more (which I highly recommend), and want to really explore a region, or pedal from Paris to Nice, or Bordeaux to Avignon, you’re better off on your own.

Money: The less you have, the more you should consider a self-supported tour. And stay in youth hostels and cheap hotels. If you have enough money for a more-expensive bike tour, well, do it. It’s nice to be pampered, and they sure do pamper you on bike tours. I admit it: I’m a bit envious. I like being pampered. Will someone please pamper me!

Bikes: You need a bike, otherwise you’re on a hiking trip. Shipping your bike over can be expensive, and also a pain to put back together and then re-pack at the end of the trip. Plus, what do you do with the bike box for two weeks?

Renting is always an option, but can be expensive (about 25 to 30 Euros a day). And you never know what you’re gonna get with a rental bike. I was lucky on my last trip, and the rentals I got in Bordeaux and Bedoin were great. Don’t let this deter you, do your homework and make sure to rent a bike that fits your needs. And body.

Tour groups provide you with a bike, and the quality is generally pretty good. And so is the fit. They always have a mechanic to fix stuff and put air in your tires every few days. In fact…

Bike mechanic skills: Can you fix a flat? If you have some basic bike-mechanic skills, you’re good to go on your own. If not, you can either cross your fingers and hope for the best … or join a bike tour.

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Life’s Baggage: When you’re on your own, you obviously have to carry all your stuff with you. It can be cumbersome, and add a little bit of effort to the day’s ride. Over the years, I’ve become an expert bike-trip packer. Click here to read my previous post with some packing tips.

On a bike tour, they drive all your stuff to the next town and hotel and it’s waiting for you when you arrive. This alone is a good reason to opt for a bike tour. Once, in Chinon, in the Loire, there was a tour group staying at my hotel. In the morning, as I was leaving, I saw all their bags piled up outside the hotel. “Where are you headed?” I asked someone.

“Saumur,” they said.

This was where I was headed. What if I put my bags in with their bags, and then picked them up in Saumur at their hotel? It was wishful thinking, and off I rode with a fully loaded bike. Never did see them in Saumur.

The Hermit Factor: I like people, especially my fellow cyclists, and always seem to find some to chat with on my various French bike tours. Then again, I’m not sure I want to be tethered to the same 12 or 14 people, whom I never met until we started out from Aix or Amboise or Bayeux. But, that’s just me. You may be a more social animal and revel in the company of your fellow cycling enthusiasts. For a week or more.

OK, there you go. I hope this helps you decide.

Here’s the bottom line: Either way, on your own or with a group, biking in France is amazing. What are you waiting for?

 

 

From Medieval Traveler to Hi-Tech Trekker…

An emergency situation has occurred!

imageI couldn’t text any photos to Susan last night … and couldn’t FaceTime with her.

What the %&#$!

This is the first time this has happened since I’ve been in Bordeaux and I was so frustrated, angry and impatient and …

Then I remembered what it was like when I first started traveling in Europe in the early 1980s (not yet by bike, but by train). That seems like centuries worth of technology ago.

Here’s what it was like back then…

In 1984, I spent the summer in Europe, writing aviation articles. I sort of had a schedule of when I’d be in certain cities, and told people (like mom and dad) they could send me a letter in care of the American Express office in Paris, Nice, Rome, etc. I can still remember exactly where the long-gone American Express office in Paris was located, on Rue Scribe, near the opera.

In addition to letters, you could also purchase traveler’s checks at the AE office. Remember them? Do they still exist? And outside the AE office, lining Rue Scribe, were places where you could change your traveler’s checks from dollars to francs. You’d walk up and down the street looking for the best conversion rate and try not to get ripped off.

I wrote – with a pen on sheets of paper – my aviation articles and mailed them (in an envelope with a stamp) to my sister, Deb. She’d type them up and mail them to the appropriate editor. I think this is how Shakespeare did it too, but in sonnets.

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This was the charging station at my hotel room the other night

Music?

Back then, you had a Walkman and had to prudently decide which four, maybe five, cassettes you’d bring with you. At least two Springsteens, of course.

Photos?

Yep, people, including me, actually bought postcards of the places we were visiting and sent them to people. This often involved standing in a long line at the post office in Venice, Amsterdam or Barcelona. And usually, you arrived home a few days before the postcard arrived at their destination.

BTW: That’s what we did in cafes back then: Wrote postcards. Now we text, tweet and Instagram. And look at our photos.

I covered a few days of the Tour de France for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. I’d write out my stories – longhand – and then had to find a special “phone” place or upscale hotel. At these special phone places, you gave them the phone number (I think I could call the Inquirer collect … as back then newspapers had some money). They sent you over to one of their phone booths, and said they’d call your number and that when the phone in your booth started ringing … pick it up, and start talking.

Susan and I did some French biking on our honeymoon in 1993. And Susan, being a photographer, brought two cameras, two lenses and like 50 rolls of film. And yes, I had to lug most of it around in my panniers.

Now … an iPhone.

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In 1999, I went with a tour group of Army Rangers – the guys who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and made history. And wrote about it for the newspaper I was working for the time: The Bucks County Intelligencer. Like I said: Newspapers had some money for travel back then. And one of the Rangers was from Bucks County.

And, get this: I had a laptop and a digital camera. This was cutting-edge technology. I was a tech savvy newsperson. The digital camera was about the size and weight of a cinder block … and the laptop may have been even heavier. There was no wifi back then, so you had to have these adapters that enabled you to link your laptop into the phone line … and hope/pray for the best. Often, back then, you had to go to the hotel’s front desk and ask them if you could hook up with their phone line. And it was really, really slow. And they always grudgingly agreed to let you do it. Like they were doing you a huge favor.

These days, all you really need is your smart phone: it’s a camera, voice recorder, phone, text engine, music and podcast player, social media must and on and on. I did bring my laptop on this trip, but mostly because of this blog. Still hard to blog on an iPhone, but I bet they’re working on it.

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I didn’t pay for the international data package on this trip, as it’s still a little too pricey for me. Why? Every hotel has wifi. So far, it’s been pretty reliable. And, whenever I have wifi access, Susan can track my exact location on her iPhone. It’s not creepy … she’s my wife.

So, all in all, I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that for one evening I couldn’t text photos to Susan or Facetime her. At last I was able to post a photo in Instagram! And these days, isn’t that the whole point of traveling.

PS: I wonder what technology wonders I’ll be writing about in 2028?

 

 

Ouef (Part Deux): The Yolks On You

OK, here’s an update on the whole egg disaster thing: success.

So, if you read my previous post, you know I totally embarrassed myself by cracking open a raw egg all over my plate and tablecloth a couple of breakfasts ago. Hey, who knew it was raw? It looked hard boiled.

This morning, I asked the server: “How does this work?” as I pointed at the boiling-water machine, hoping he’d take the bait.

He did: “You turn this on for two minutes until the water bubbles, then you put the egg in for three minutes. Would you like me to do it for you?”

“Oui … may I have two?”

“Oui.”

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Was it rude to ask for deus? Was that an ugly-American thing he’ll tell people about?

A few minutes later, the two perfectly soft-boiled eggs arrived at my table in their little soft-boiled egg holders. I felt like I was a Crawley (you know, the Downton Abbey people).

And, get this: there’s a special device to open up a small hole at the top of the egg.

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“You do this,” the server said and showed me how you put the little cylinder on top of the egg, pull up the plunger, release it … and it smashes down on the top of the egg, creating a small, circular crack that you can easily remove with your special soft-boiled egg spoon.

It worked.

The eggs were indeed delicious, all runny, yolky and eggy … and also kind of messy. I’m not exactly a soft-boiled egg eating expert (can’t remember the last time I had one) and managed to slop a lot of yolk down the sides of the shell and onto the dish below. Tried to sop them up with baguette, but they immediately hardened and stuck to the plate like glue. Is this normal … or am I just a really sloppy soft-boiled egg eater? If you’re an expert … please let me know.

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Oh well, it was practice for tomorrow … my last breakfast here at the Hotel Claude Darroz in Langon. Who knows what breakfast adventures await me at my next stop?

Oeuf! The Great Egg Disaster

In France, it’s vital to know the difference between an oeuf and an oeuf dur.

Let me explain….

I’m at breakfast at my semi-fancy hotel (Maison Claude Darroze) here in Langon. How fancy? The cleaning person came in and made up my room while I was at breakfast. How did she even know I was downstairs at breakfast … and making a fool of myself?

Breakfast? 13 Euros extra. How’s that for fancy? But what are you gonna do, you need a good breakfast – and lots of coffee – and it’s a pain to go to a cafe and then to the store to get a yogurt and a banana and then to the patisserie and … well, it’s only 13 Euros. Suck it up, Steve.

Breakfast was indeed pretty fancy. All the assorted breads, croissants and jams and yogurt … and you get a fancy plate with lox, some sort of meat, cut-up orange pieces (evidently that’s considered fancy over here) and some creamy stuff that I had no idea what to do with.

Here’s my breakfast…

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Notice the hard-boiled egg in the photo?

Well, there were a dozen on more on this fancy serving thing. A hard-boiled egg? What a treat. I was gonna combine some lox and an egg on a piece of baguette. And then get another hard-boiled egg. Maybe three. Like I said: What a treat.

Seconds after I took the above photo … I gave the egg a crack … and it exploded all over the table. It wasn’t an oeuf dur … it was an oeuf not dur. It was raw.

What a mess. Yolk everywhere. It was starting to drip down the side of the table.

I started mopping it up with my napkin, and then the server (who spoke some English) walked in … and helped. I tried to explain that I thought it was a hard-boiled egg and I was so sorry and this has never happened to me before and I’m really someone who should be staying at a youth hostel or an ibis and …

He was very polite and didn’t even laugh at me … and then explained that the machine next to the eggs was for cooking the eggs. He turned it on, and a few minutes later the water in the tub started bubbling and boiling. Here’s the machine…

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Yeah right … that’s wise. Let the guests at your fancy hotel mess around and dip their eggs into boiling water. No thanks, I’ll stick with the lox and bread and have a third glass of orange juice and another yogurt and some more coffee.