January 29, 2006

Second Journal entry

Day 2: Le Havre to Nantes (14//03/05, Monday)

We disembarked in Le Havre, dans la France, avec tout les grenouilles. It was 7:30 in the morning and the sun reveals to us all the majesty of this port city. And all the denizens of this vast metropolis came to greet us in the form of rush hour traffic, impatient commuters and a foggy cold morning with the industrial structures of any ugly port clambering out of the salty mist. We all walk down to a main road to buy some authentic, fresh, French baguettes, which being purchased at a gas station, were not very fresh at all. Cigarettes were also an issue but they could wait. Bas and Giuseppe got their first ride after about 5 minutes of waiting (which began their marathon sprint south), leaving Dave and myself waiting another 55 before being picked up by a student who drove us from Le Havre (thank god) to Caen, where she studies every day.

The drive was in a word, uneventful. My sputtering French, combined with French countryside and a French wine induced ferry crossing hangover left me attempting to win an uphill battle with the sandman. Nevertheless we did cross the impressive pont de Normandie which are 2 bridges that cross the estuary, which on this particular morning stood out from the haze. A couple of Chateaux crossed our path, as did some large forests, but considering the amount of wine that was drunk coupled with the fact that we only slept about an hour left us too tired to attempt socialisation with our dear lady friend-driver.

So this French woman drops us off outside Caen at a peage, where we quickly assembled some signs to take us south towards Bordeaux or le Mans. It took us about 45 minutes before we got a ride. Our attention grabbing skills were incompetent at best, where we received a mix of amused smiles and French glares. Quite amusing to say the least. Our second French driver was a young student visiting his parents from somewhere outside Paris I believe. My memory is not exactly elephantine. The drive went by very quickly, primarily because the sandman routed my forces on the left flank and I failed to see his pincer attack come, whereby I lost awareness. This left a rather awkward situation where our French patron was in the presence of 2 English (and very exhausted) strangers passed out in his car. If he was expecting a conversation he would have been in for a surprise, because at that point my French was rustier than the USS Maine, let alone my catastrophic defeat at the hands of the sandman. I came to the conclusion with those 2 drives that not only are the French extreme fans of Reggae, but that Bob Marley may actually be related to our constant yet unpredictable companion the sandman. I awoke to our French host wanting to drop us off on the motorway, but I kindly asked him to drop us off at the next aire, mainly because I did not really fancy receiving a full body cavity search from the Gendarmes for walking on the motorway. It turned out that the next aire was that of Mt Sant Michel, but there was no mount, let alone an ocean or a beach visible. I was disappointed that I could not see it, but finally managed to buy a pack of smokes, baguettes and had a proper meal. The weather turned for the better, getting warmer and clearer, and on that high we picked up our possessions and headed to the on-ramp heading south. We got picked up by a British trucker with a weekend habit of snorting coke (hopefully not on the job). So we nick-named him Charlie.

Mt. St. Michel
Le Mt. Saint Michel. We never saw it

It turns out Charlie is an ex-army man. He explains to us how he used to blag train rides around Carlisle (his hometown). It was quite tiring to keep up conversations with him. He apparently followed the family tradition of working in the transport industry. He was nice enough for dropping us off on the on-ramp to Nantes on the ring-road around Rennes. Unfortunately he missed the ramp and left us on the worst on-ramp possible. We were stuck there for an hour entertaining the silly French bastards, many who gave us the soon to be well-known French finger waggle accompanied by smile and offered explanations. The waggle consists of the driver using the hand on the steering wheel, where he lifts the index finger, moving it from left to right while driving by. The weirdest thing about this waggle is the fact that they try and explain to you why they cannot offer a lift, attempting to speak to you. But there are a couple of problems with this approach, a) I am standing on the road, stationary, and their car is going at least at 30kmh around a bend which infers that b) there is only about a 2–3 second window of opportunity to explain why they cannot give me a lift (because they are going to the supermarket, or they have to give something to someone, etc, etc, etc), let alone that c) the windows are generally closed. This sequence of events played itself out many a time during this lapse of time outside of Rennes. We effectively played court jesters at the hallowed halls of French commuters: the On-ramp. There were an incredible amount of ambulances which, in an amusing attempt, didn’t give us lifts. So there we were, stuck for over an hour. We sat, we stood. We laughed, we sulked. We waited there until a good sir came to us as an epiphany does; unexpectedly. This epiphany-like man didn’t fill out his pre-ordained role, but did us the majesty of taking us to the correct ramp that Charlie missed, and sped us away from that hell-hole after inhaling carbon monoxide for a good hour.

We walked on to the main highway and on to the correct off-ramp, offering aid to a British couple whose caravan had lost a wheel, flying off at the elliptic, a couple of seconds before we arrived. A few minutes after that incident, we were picked up by Gillaume. As it turns out, Gillaume is quite the legend. He is an ambulance driver (one of the many that drove past us on the on-ramp in Rennes, numbering at least 40–50 the hour and a half we were there) who drove a nice blue Audi A3 and was heading towards Nantes. On the drive south, I really practiced my French which was somehow rushing back, or, in this case, regurgitating out of my mouth with many a “erm, comme ça dit… q’el est le mot qui je cherche… un moment…”. Dave crashed for a while, and that was generally the best ride we had had so far that day. Very relaxed, and Gillaume turned out to be an interesting guy. He entered the city of Nantes while talking about his experiences of Morocco, and was nice enough to drop us off at the banks of the Loire, next to the centre of the city, at his own expense, quite out of his way. We started hiking, and realised that Gillaume had made our journey out of Nantes a tad difficult. To get to the main part of town we would have to walk a good 2km with all our stuff and on an empty stomach. Thus, Gillaume was sadly reduced in our esteem. Drove a nice car though. We walked a kilometre down the main road, on the banks of the Loire, which was picture perfect. Unfortunately for us we had no picture. We came upon a Lidl supermarket and stocked up on crumbly bread (no baguettes, came as a shocker to me), cheeses and ham, and decided to camp down on the grass by the road.

Turned out the picnic was one the most amusing events of the day. Nice food, a post-meal cigarette to enjoy on the river bank, the sun on our backs, and half of Nantes staring at us and our “SUD” sign propped up against the tree. People would slow down to read the sign, then to stare at us, trying to comprehend what the hell we were up to. This happened so much that in fact we caused a small traffic jam of very curious Nantian citizens. People honked, laughed and stared while we enjoyed our meal, a very surreal one at that. With all the hitch-hiking, I reckon that I should get into some show biz. That is all hitch-hiking is in the end, a lazy effort of getting from A to B, prostituting your charm and conversational abilities to your client. It was at this point that we came across the French chav. Not so menacing or perverse as their British counterparts, the French chav is still a group that makes us react with our basic instincts. This journey became an odyssey of watching the different styles of European chavalry in 3 countries. The Brits still win the cake by a long shot though. After packing our stuff and easing the traffic, we crossed the Loire and made it to the island of Nantes on the Loire, where we got picked up by a French woman. She ferried us across the other bit of the Loire and on to the southbound motorway, giving us back our sign-pad after forgetting it in her van (which was quite a cringe moment).

So once again we were on the French motorway, “en direction sud”, nothing spectacular considering we had been at it all day. Nevertheless nature takes its course and days must end in nights, however regretful that may be. We only waited a few minutes before being picked up once again, and the sun was closely shaving the Western horizon. A description of this French joker is needed; speaking in Frenglish, he is a mason who gave me an explanation of the differences in stones and slates in this area of France (something to do with tectonic plate movements and the conditions of the sea). He was also a severe reefer driving an old Peugeot, like half of his fellow countrymen. The other half drive Citroens, a statistic that would have made De Gaulle proud. This fact alone, the dusty old Peugeot, didn’t make me wary. What made we wary was when I noticed at first sight that he was a pot head of the greatest calibre. He had long hair, red eyes and dust caked his car. There was also a horse fly running up and down his coat. Whether he was aware of the fly or not, I do not know. All I know is that this guy was named Pierre.

Nevertheless, a ride is a ride. Dave and I pile in, and since I can speak some semblance of frenglish, I have the honours of being the go to buddy of Pierre’s fly in the front seat. We speed to what I understood would have been La Rochelle. We watch Mother Earth swallow Father Sol and the ensuing spectacle of dusk, and arrive outside La Rochelle. About 200km outside of La Rochelle. Outside a peage 200km north of La Rochelle and about 30km south, outside of Nantes. And 1km west of God-forsaken Montaigu. God, may he give Pierre lung cancer from his beloved pot and a broken skull from his precious slate… His mind moves slower than the continental crust he was attempting to explain to me and their migrations across the planet’s surface. To make it worse, we arrive in the late hours of the day, and all the light available is moving fast into twilight, which became dark within 10 minutes of arriving there. Night had us at our finest hour. We approached all the parked cars and rosary-decorated trucks with praying hands. But it was to no avail. The truckers were asleep and the cars empty. What else could we do? All we could of course. Thumb it out the hell away from that place. Stick out signs as our hitch-hiking brethren would do. The situation does not give much space for hope though. It was about 8pm and the commuters were all tired, French, white-collar labourers driving nice, comfortable cars, going home to wife, kids, dinner and TV. We waited a half hour, with our moods slipping every minute, and the prospect of crashing at the peage dawned as the likeliest scenario with each passing moment. We created another sign in pure desperation saying “PROCHAINE VILLE!”. I left it with Dave as I went to the peage and talked to the ladies working in the office. I asked how far away Montaigu was, if there were any hostels, as well as “how about you let us take kip in your office, we won’t cause a mess” talk. Montaigu has squat and there was no way we’d be able to sleep in the peage.

Lo and behold, I walk back to our possessions and Dave should receive sainthood. He hailed down a couple of students driving back to Nantes, with one of them being named Gillaume, our second in the day. We speed back to Nantes, finding out more about Morocco on the way, as well as a number to call once in Marrakech. That phone number was lost, but instilled in me the impression that the French really have a love affair with the Arab world. We clamber out of the car at the Nantes train station, thanking the students profusely for saving our lives from the Montaigu horrors and quickly find a hostal they recommended, “La Manufacture”. We pay up the €17 each for a night and breakfast and discover the annoyance of 20 minute timed showers at hostels. We have a quick meal of brie and bread (tip of the hat to Lidl there) and let the sandman enter.

End of day 2.


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