The Pain of Solitude
When I went to a nearby supermarket by bus I met this Swiss guy living in Bordeaux. He had a pair of neat glasses, about 35 years old. There was nothing quite peculiar about him. He saw me with my backpack on the bus to the airport and came up to talk to me.
He: You, going to the airport?
Me: Yes, you also?
He: Yes. You from China?
He: Oh, I know Fei Wang. I like her music!
Then he started talking about all the Chinese singers he knew of. I simply nodded.
We arrived in the airport and we found a place to sit. He kept talking like a bird which was suddenly set free into the forest and my eyes grew sleepy. At a certain moment I thought I was bordering on dozing off. I had to kindly ask him to excuse me and retire to sleep as if the airport was my home. Do not get me wrong please. He was a nice guy and I was not tired of him, even if his conversation essentially contained nothing interesting or refreshing.
Lying down on my yoga mattress, after reflection I was rather appalled by his apparent solitude. His English was not that great but he insisted on speaking it. I do not know if you have encountered people like this, but it was not my first time. He came to the airport from time to time simply to talk with people. He was essentially lonely. I would have thought this loneliness more the patent of retirees or people from countries with a pathological solitude like Sweden or Finland. Nope, here in Southern France, where there was perfect sunshine and in a vibrant city as Bordeaux, the 9th largest city in France, where people were rather known for being sociable or even overly sociable, there was this rather young Swiss guy who spoke perfect French and was suffering from solitude. Was he too poor? Nope, his father left him an inheritance here in Bordeaux and I did not expect someone from Switzerland be called poor by French standard.
I was very active in a Facebook group called Nomads and was actually one of the most active members there. It was a group of unconventional travelers, hitchhikers, couchsurfers, wild campers etc. Many members there had been traveling non-stop for years and hitchhiking around the world was not shocking there at all. I felt strongly connected to this community. To me it was the greatest thing on Facebook. I got connected with many travel minded people through it. One of them, Cyril, was living in La Rochelle and had been following my world journey on Facebook for quite a while. Nope, I did not and still do not have a public page on Facebook. Those who followed me simply added me as a friend on Facebook. I checked and La Rochelle was just about 200 km up north on the coast. I had heard of its beautiful port. I wrote Cyril a message although we never really talked. Then I went to sleep.
Blackriding A Train in France
In the airport in the rather empty hall where I slept, there were several offices nearby. There were several girls working there, sometimes even late at night. They were beautifully dressed and with shinning uniforms. Some of them had obvious mixed French and Middle Eastern ancestry. They wore very heavy makeup yet they were very beautiful. The French essentially had a totally different sense of fashion. Previously when I was living in Europe, I did not realize the fine taste of fashion in this part of the world, but now I started to notice it.
The next morning Cyril replied and I would be welcome in his place. I packed my stuff, had a luxurious lunch with croissant and French salami and went on my hitchhiking quest to La Rochelle.
I once met an elderly traveler via the Nomads group. In his younger years (the 80s I presumed) he hitchhiked from the UK all the way to India. That was a popular route at that time. At that time the easiest countries to hitchhike in Europe were Italy and Spain! which were now the most difficult countries for hitchhiking…… and at his time France was difficult to hitchhike. It took him weeks just to cross France. However, nowadays France and Germany had become among the easiest countries to hitchhike. One of the Dutch hitchhikers I knew of successfully hitchhiked from Rome to Amsterdam in one day…… Yes! She crossed France in less than A DAY!
Thinking of this record, I felt totally high spirited and was ready to start my awesome journey. Yeah!
It took me about 2 hours just to cross the massively spread city and guess what? Once I was out of the city, I found that there were no good spots…… The so-called good spots did not have much space for cars to pull over. The sun was brutal and my backpack was too heavy. After 3 days of sedentary life in the airport, I also gained much weight, about 15 kilograms.
Just kidding. 😀 I tried but the hitch did not work. I do not know about you, dear friends, but for me seeking new adventures were not enough, I loved to seek new LEVELS of adventures. When I first started backpacking and staying in hostels, I was very excited and this new way of wildness thrilled me. However, once I got used to this way of traveling, soon it became drab. Then I started couchsurfing. It was exciting initially but soon it also became drab. Then I started hitchhiking. It was exciting indeed. However, after a while I started yearn for a more exciting way of experiencing the world, such as robbing cars and driving them until the end of the world. Just kidding. 😀 I am not an adrenaline junkie and I had my principles.
I decided to get on the train and just sit there until the conductor came. Then I would explain to him/her my situation and see what would happen. The essential excitement lay in the unpredictability, which was the cream of traveling.
When I arrived in Saint Jean train station of Bordeaux, it was crammed, with people sitting on the floor everywhere. I located my platform and sat in a corner. I was reading the last few pages of A Young Girl’s Diary and before I could finish it sleepiness overcame me……
When I woke up, it was night already and I found myself alone in the train in an alien planet, a giant animal like a dinosaur stared at me in the eye and I could smell his saliva!
Just dreaming…… 😀
When I woke up, it was late afternoon and the train was in the middle of green fields with tall shrubs, sometimes spires of red roofed houses could be glimpsed through the thick vegetation. I smelt the summer of southern France, fresh, raw and mellow.
I was anxiously waiting for the conductor to come and busy preparing what to say to him/her. It was a wonderful way to refresh my French. ‘Stay calm! Stay calm! I can do this! I can pull this! Yes! Oui! Je peux!’
Twenty minutes later the train arrived in La Rochelle at sunset and still no conductor came.
The Time Traveling Alley
When I found Cyril’s house it was already dark. He lived among the trees and a zoo, where the chirping of peacocks could be heard. Compared to households in North America, in Europe people essentially had less things. His apartment was amazingly simple. He worked at a port of La Rochelle.
Cyril: You know, since I am settling down now and will not do much traveling for a while, I have stopped being active in the nomads group, but since I added you on Facebook long ago, I am still following your world journey. You know, it’s hard to fasten oneself down to one place if one sees other people traveling all the time.
Me: Oh man. I totally understand you. When I was in Montreal, my host told me a theory that our mind is largely influenced by the five people we have the most contact with. If you keep contacting nomads like me, you will quit your job the next week and start traveling around the world immediately. 😀
One day when Cyril was touring me around the old town of La Rochelle, we came to a small alley, so narrow that there was hardly any light even during the day and only one person could pass. That was part of the property of the Knights Templar, perhaps the most known monastic military order established during the crusades. However, at a certain point the French king reckoned the order was too rich and powerful. He charged them with sodomy and other sacrileges. Eventually after a painful trial the order was dissolved. In those days La Rochelle was one of the most important Atlantic harbors in Europe and the Templar kept a fleet here. Just before the trial and the confiscation of their properties, a fleet sailed away from La Rochelle, supposedly with all the treasure the order had accumulated through centuries of international banking service. This constituted one of the biggest mysteries of European history.
The engraving above this narrow alley was so tarnished that one would think this was just a piece of dirty wall. Only when you had a close look at it, you would see this was a piece of medieval mystery. I stared at the engraving for one minute and 34 seconds, then I looked at the dark alley. It looked so old that one could smell the damp even by looking at it. On the other end, a fully armed knight with a Templar cape and sword appeared. I could almost see his beard and his shinning helmet.
I thought I was dreaming, but that was not the case. Obviously the God of Traveling answered my prayer and sent a Templar back in time. ‘To what purpose?’ I thought, then ‘Ah!’ I realized that since I was recently (and for a long time also) quite short on cash, the thoughtful God of Traveling was sending this Templar to tell me the location of their treasure.
After such a fantasy I looked at the alley again and still the fully armed knight was in sight. He was even walking around…… So that was not a statue. I asked Cyril to pinch me. He did it fiercely. Ouch! The knight still could be seen in the end of the alley. Now we both saw him.
We gingerly walked through the dark alley like traveling through a mysterious channel. When we emerged at the other end, a large courtyard with saturated sunlight appeared. In the center of the courtyard stood the knight, with his thick sword in hands.
There were no other explanation but that the medieval alley was a time traveling channel. We approached the Templar……
He knighted us, gave us the Holy Grail and we both became rich and went on quests in the whole world until the end of the seven seas…… and we used our Templar swords to beat Donald Trump…… and King Jong Un…… and Yakuza……
Just kidding. 😀 He did not knight us. As the knight explained to us, he was preparing for a children’s tour, with reenactment of different scenes of medieval life in La Rochelle organized in different locations of the old town. We asked him where the next reenactment was. A couple of streets away we found this elderly lady dressed as a medieval grain dealer on the street with different kinds of produces. Then the mason boy whom Cyril happened to know. La Rochelle was essentially a tourism city. The old town was filled with tourists from everywhere. However, this kind of reenactment only happened a few times per year on specific request.
The port was bustling with hundreds of yachts on the water side, and loads of pubs on the land side. The sun was gradually setting on the Gothic church tower, I could smell summer in the breeze, sweet and salty. On the small street to Cyril’s house there was a small vegetable shop, with its roof covered with lush vines and violet flowers, the smell of tomatoes, celery, paprika and the flowers spread into the sea air like an explosion. Every time I passed the shopkeeper would tip his hat, smile and wave to me. I felt I could live there for ten years without getting tired of the old port, the white stone houses with light blue windows or the music from the cobbled streets.
I loved La Rochelle.
To be continued