In March 2000 when our first child was born, we weren’t too sure about anything, much like any new parents. To ensure we were really stepping into the unknown, we decided heading down to a small village in rural France to house sit for friends having no other transportation except bicycles, was a good idea. So in the second week of April 2000, we arrived with a five week old baby, two bicycles, two bicycle trailers(one for cargo), a baby backpack, a stroller, one of us having an A level (high school level) in French and the other, me, having whatever French I picked up from traveling.
Week one was mostly spent walking around our tiny village in a daze, but I also had some work to do; getting the phone line working, organizing a diesel oil delivery for heating, and becoming a new dad. With my limited French and intricate hand gesturing I somehow managed to get a truck to come by with some heating fuel and the people in the France Telecom office to promise we’d be connected soon. The latter was a work in progress then, and twenty years later still is.
The old, drafty house was situated directly on the south bank of the Loire River. Being surrounded by the beautiful chateaux in that wonderful fruit-growing and wine-making region of France made the low ceilings and exposed ancient wood beams somehow feel quite exotic, while the drafts blowing through the wooden creaky doors were transformed into romantic breezes wafting the smell of spring blossoms throughout the house. We also had lots more time than money, knew no one at all in the surrounding area and were cut off from any communication until the phone line I had (hopefully) sorted out was switched on. For some of you reading this it may sound like a nightmare, but for us it was a dream.
Four years previously Angie and I met when we were both traveling on the Tibetan Plateau, her on a bus, me on my bicycle. I gave her the difficult decision to push further out of her comfort zone, a place I had been living for quite a while by then, when I asked her to join me on my journey into the wilds of Tibet. She decided to take the leap. On our ‘first date’ we found ourselves traversing those desolate highlands, sharing the road with Tibetan rebels and nomadic yak herders and pedaling over mountain passes at altitudes approaching 15,000 feet above sea level. Traveling in such a remote region made anything resembling normality fade into the recesses of our minds. As the 18,000 foot peaks surrounding us loomed large, effectively cutting us off from the rest of our known world, we ate tsampa, drank rancid yak butter tea, stayed in Chinese truck stops and hitched rides on postal trucks when snow covered roads were hindering our cycling progress. Angie was finding it impossible to believe her mates back home were still heading to the pub for a pint and listening to live music.
Like the French countryside somehow transformed ‘old’ into ‘exotic’, and ‘drafts’ into ‘fragrant breezes’, in Tibet being cut off from the creature comforts, eating unusual tasting food and being freezing cold in mid-June also somehow transformed shortness of breath and aching legs into a fascinating quest because we were actually pedaling on the roof of the world, mixing with characters normally associated with movie scenes and sharing food with monks in ornate Tibetan monasteries. We were definitely plugged into the excitement of embracing the unexpected, and feeling fully alive facing the challenges ahead of us with the added zest that comes with adventure.
Back in 2000, four years after that first adventure together, we were once again in a situation far removed from what was considered normal, although the parameters had changed. We now found it hard to believe new parents were getting stressed out, losing sleep, buying cribs, strollers, bottles, sterilizers and who knew what else? While at that same moment in time, we were living in the shadows of Renaissance era castles, walking along the banks in what was known as ‘The Valley of A Thousand Chateaux’ and planting veggies in the fertile, sandy soil of The Loire Valley. Another added bonus of our decision to veer from the well trodden path was spending every waking moment together as a new family. We had no idea how ‘wrong’ we may have been doing it, or how much more stuff we should have purchased to be “proper” parents in the modern world. We had willingly stepped off the treadmill to walk through the unknown jungle of this new phase of our life with machetes in hand hacking our own way through. Many valuable lessons were learned, most importantly not letting fear of the unknown be our reason for making, or possibly not making, important, life-changing decisions. Much like the adventure facing us back in Tibet, we had a certain tingle in our body reminding us of the excitement which lay ahead.
Before leaving England many well-meaning, concerned friends and family asked us if we knew a doctor in the village we were moving to. For us, needing to see a doctor meant someone was unwell – we were all healthy, and if Louis, or any of us, somehow got hurt, fell ill, or needed to see a doctor for any reason, we were pretty sure one could be found where we were headed. Fortunately, with Louis being a healthy baby, our life mainly consisting of lovely bike rides through the countryside, picnics on the grounds of wonderful sixteenth century chateaux, very little stress and occasional visits from friends and family on holiday, we were able to face our new roles as parents confidently never needing to find the doctor’s office for that first idyllic year in France.
The house we were in was sparse as far as furniture was concerned, it was a secondary house for some friends in England which they wanted to sell, and we were there to do some decorating, make it feel lived in and help sell it. I brought a few things down in mid-March with an older friend in a small van who felt the need to let me know he thought our plan was foolhardy and I must admit his constant tut-tutting at the cold house, the small village and being there without a car worked its magic over our few days together. I was starting to second guess the plan – were we crazy? I called Angie to boost my confidence and make sure she was still fully on board with the idea – a role reversal for us, but a welcomed one. She let me know Louis was thriving, she felt empowered as a mother and so the answer was a resounding yes! What a good lesson learned that when you are in a vulnerable situation, such like being a new dad, how quickly just a few clicks of the tongue or two or three random remarks can have such a powerful effect.
It was a blessing that we didn’t have the internet nor a mobile phone – they were around, but not as ever-present as they are today. We found life without that constant connection was simpler. Just like what happened with my friend over a long weekend, no matter how well-intentioned, sometimes it feels as if we are trained to expect the worst, even after so many life lessons proving the exact opposite. So for us back in the year 2000 it was much easier not to be able to ‘google’ everything that could go wrong with little babies. The few books we did turn to for some guidance focused on the natural, joyful ways of raising children. Many other books which had been given to us never made the final pack for France if they didn’t nurture our better, more intuitive sides.
For the first few weeks we walked to the neighboring bigger village of Langeais which had more amenities than our tiny village of Chapelle-aux-Naux had, which was none! We loved having Louis in the backpack, but walking back with all of our shopping in bags and Louis strapped to one of us was getting a bit tiresome. We did have a stroller, but as beautiful as Langeais was, the sidewalks looked as if the last time they had been resurfaced or repaired was when Louis XVI was building yet another castle. The stroller was okay for walking around tiny Chapelle-aux-Naux on the quiet roads as there was hardly any traffic, but on the uneven, narrow sidewalks of Langeais, with a bit more traffic, it was more a hindrance. So a decision needed to be made.
The bicycle trailer was just waiting there empty, we discussed it for a few short hours, coming up with different ideas and designs, then decided that, propped up in a used car baby seat snugly fitted into the trailer, Louis at eight weeks old in the bright yellow trailer with a fluorescent orange flag visually announcing his position on the road, was a much better idea than pushing the stroller on the uneven footpaths of Langeais. After that decision, we never second guessed our choice to take on this new adventure without a car. Our world suddenly opened up so much more as longer bike rides became a daily activity.
Louis now had officially started his life-long love affair with bicycles. Being gently pulled along, staring contently out at the verdant countryside passing by at a slow cycling pace in the land of The Tour de France, may have imprinted an indelible stamp on his impressionable brain. Now we were free to shop not caring too much about weight nor bulk, it all packed nicely in around Louis, securing him even more. With our longer exploratory rides turning into half-day-long adventures complete with picnics, Angie’s post-pregnancy fitness came back quickly, and the endorphins released while cycling helped her to cope with the huge change becoming a new mother entails. Together we all began traveling our unique road into the exciting future. Shortly thereafter we started meeting some of the locals, received lots of good counsel from our neighbor on how to grow veggies, and slipped comfortably into life as a family of three in this tiny village in the French countryside. When we arrived at Langeais’ weekly outdoor market, the small trailer helped us to take on this strange persona as the royal family arriving with the small prince in his yellow chariot. Maybe it was being surrounded by all those castles!
The French outdoor markets are so nice to shop in. As a traveler I was transported to the many other such markets I had grown so accustomed to the world over. For us it meant fresh veggies, a good French lesson, and Louis’ royal welcome when we arrived with him in tow. One of our favorite stands was run by a Portuguese man, Tomas, who sold the best olives we had ever tasted. A lot of our tight budget went into that non-essential food source, but for Angie and I they were pretty high on the priority list, especially his olives. He had a wonderful, delicious selection from salty Greek to spicy Moroccan olives, but funnily enough one item that would concrete our reputation as the strange family with a wonderful yellow baby trailer was his large scale.
On our fourth Thursday at the market, picking and tasting our way through the large variety of olives on display, we casually looked at each other at the same time with cheeky grins on our faces as the thought came to us both spontaneously. So we asked Tomas in a hushed tone, not knowing what to expect as an answer. He was flattered, then beckoned us to come behind the counter and place our son on the scale. Now weighing five kilos, confirmed what we already knew deep inside, Louis had put on a healthy amount of weight since his birth. We all smiled at each other, Tomas was very pleased to be of service, and the small crowd waiting to buy their olives seemed even further intrigued by these odd foreigners.
That year in France holds many fond memories; me dragging home the occasional cycle tourist to camp in our big back garden, meeting the quirky president of a French cycle camping association who lived in a neighboring village then hosting a cycle camping weekend at our place, exploring the troglodyte caves of the area, eating yummy fruit freshly fallen off the trees, welcoming friends and family who came to visit from England and America, watching the Tour de France speed through our village on a hot day in July and the list goes on.
I feel the reason I’m writing about this wonderful time is to remind myself, as I sit home in confinement facing an unknown future, that life is still an adventure, the future is always unknown even if we think we have it all figured out, I can still make tough decisions, everyone has an opinion, there is no rule book for life, keeping healthy mentally is as important as keeping physically fit, and the journey should still make me tingle.
Life today is nearly unrecognizable from a short two decades ago, certainly in this current bizarre situation. I need to be careful as the world wide web drags me down rabbit holes of contradictory information while confusing me no end. Smartphones are everywhere, and, like it or not, information overload seems to be the norm. Knowing deep down that every negative item I let seep in affects me negatively, is not rocket science I realize, but so important to constantly keep myself aware of these days. The stories and opinions were all there back in 2000, just like my tut-tutting friend, but it’s up to me to try and keep my perspective healthy. The constant barrage of emails, facebook posts, google news, or a variety of other various pings and dings on my smartphone seem to be here to stay, but they are just diversions and can not replace valuable time with friends and family, being outdoors on a walk or bike ride, still enjoying what this magical world has to offer. I find it’s so much easier to flow through life without being bogged down by too much information, even with all good intentions, it is still just unnecessary mind baggage. One golden rule I learned while traveling the world on my bicycle was try to only take items that will enhance the journey.
That trailer still gets used weekly after having quite a useful twenty years. It’s faded yellow color is a testament to the miles it has seen and the different cargo it has carried over the years. Now every time I hook the trailer up to one of our bikes before heading to our local outdoor market being overlooked by the ruins of a thirteenth century castle, I can’t help remembering getting our newborn son out of it’s once vibrant yellow shell in the shadow of different castles for the first year of his life.