Who would spend 86 hours and about £300 travelling from Athens to the UK when a four hour flight costs a third of the price?
The answer is, of course, me – but I was rebuking myself with this question yesterday afternoon when I found out that my ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Poole had been summarily cancelled because of what can only be described as British weather.
As I scrabbled to find an alternative route that wasn’t disgustingly expensive (Eurostar topped £200, the train from Dover was nearly £90), unhappily time-tabled, or, indeed, already fully booked, I was annoyed at myself for choosing the slow road home, horrified at the mounting expense of two extra train fares, and disgraced by the choices we’ve made as a species that put such a high premium on terrestrial transport.
Then I remembered the people I left behind in Izmir, Samos and Athens: the Afghan students I’d taught the days of the week, the Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi chefs who’d cooked for me, the friends of many nations with whom I’d hiked to the beach – the thousands of people who would give anything (their life savings, their youth, their life) for the chance to travel across the continent so charmlessly.
At the port, as police swept the underside of lorries for desperate stowaways, all I had to do was dangle my passport and cycle aboard. For me, there’s only the merest whiff of a border, and a delay of an hour or two is no delay at all.
As it happens, I feel very lucky to be on board – and not only because I’m winning the passport lottery.
Yesterday, after frantic re-routing analysis, I finally settled on the Caen to Portsmouth ferry as the least painful option. I booked the same, swiftly followed (naturally enough, I thought) by the booking of a train from Paris to Caen.
I agonised over the timings: should I book the languorous early train which would leave me a yawning two and a half hours of footling around in Caen, or should I book the dynamic later train, with time for a leisurely lunch in Paris and a snappy arrival 45 minutes before departure?
Eventually, my cautious nature won out and I booked the early train.
Good thing too – because the Caen and ‘Caen’ of my tickets are two completely different places. In fact, one of them isn’t called ‘Caen’ at all.
Caen, the actual Caen where my train arrived, is a landlocked town some 16 kilometres from the English Channel.
The spurious ‘Caen’ of my ferry booking is actually a place called Ouistrehem, which might look less catchy on the brochure, but has the singular advantage of being geographically accurate.
Good thing I had that spare hour for a rapid bike ride through the misting Calvados rain.
What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?
I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.
There is magic in play and even more in secrets.
My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…
I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.
She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.
I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.
Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.
I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.
Then I had a thought.
Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.
For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.
But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.
So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?
I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.
‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?
I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.
So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.
Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…
I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.
There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…
It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.
I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.
I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.
I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.
It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.
‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’
I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.
I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.
But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.
I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.
I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.
As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.
I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.
In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.
I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?
The other day, I did something described as ‘so silly’.
I was passing through Paris, arriving in the afternoon, and leaving the next morning on an early Eurostar.
The train was due to leave Paris around about the time boulangeries open, and get into London around the time people have breakfast at their office desk.
So I messaged a friend I knew would be working in central London: ‘Fancy croissants for breakfast tomorrow?’
‘You’re so silly for doing this.’
The world can be a very prosaic place. It is full of offices and commutes and the tiresome effort of staying alive: breathing, eating, sleeping.
There is very little magic, it seems, in day-to-day life. We don’t expect it, so it never comes.
What do I mean by ‘magic’? I mean those moments when the world seems bigger and more connected than it ordinarily does.
Magic imbues the world with meaning where before there was none. And who doesn’t want to live in a world suffused with magic and meaning?
When you notice the size of the moon, when you write someone a letter, when you hand-deliver croissants from Paris.
This is magic.
It’s different for everyone, but you know magic when you feel it. There are other words we could use: ‘romantic’ is another good one, but that gets confused in our heads with sexual objectives.
Young children rarely see much that is unmagical, but for us adults, the world is often stripped bare like the lighting in our most ghastly supermarkets.
The world has been unmagicked. And by whom? All by ourselves.
It’s a shame because magic costs so little. As any child will tell you, the only obstacle to magic and the only limitation on your spell-casting is in the vigour of your imagination.
We get out of the habit of casting spells, so our imagination dullens, and we miss the opportunities for magic that are all around us.
What did it cost me to cast the spell of croissants for breakfast? Almost nothing; only the exercise of a little imagination.
The boulangerie was on my way to the train station. I was second in line after it opened. Not knowing how many people my friend worked with, I bought five croissants and paid an extra ten centimes for a sturdier paper bag to protect them on the journey.
Then I caught the Eurostar and fell asleep. I woke up two hours later in London. I picked up my bags and took the Underground two stops.
As I walked the eight minutes to my friend’s office, the rain fell in a drizzle. It was refreshing after a month of continental baking. I arrived at 8.50, ten minutes before my friend was due. I read the last pages of my book.
Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
― E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
She arrived. I handed over the croissants. She smiled. I walked to catch another train, to catch another few hours’ sleep.
The world desperately needs remagicking, but we forget that we are the magi.
Ingredients for spell-casting:
It takes practice and a little imagination to spot opportunities for magic, but they are all around, all the time.
We need audacity and courage to step outside of the limitations of self-imposed adulthood.
Magic is founded on delighted surprise and the joyful unexpected. Or silliness.
You’ll need empathy and thoughtfulness so your spell makes the kind of magical connection you want.
Being part of the core team for Thighs of Steel this year is a very different experience to riding the full week as a fundraiser. Mainly because I spent two of the six days driving Calypso, the team’s support van.
That’s not to say that van days are easy. There’s an intimidating list of jobs that need to be done:
Pack up the campsite
Plan a meal and buy food for dinner
Drive ~120km (on the wrong side of the road)
Find the perfect wild camping spot for ~15 cyclists, not too far from the pre-planned route, but quiet, secluded, flat enough for tent-pitching, and ideally close to a river or lake for swimming
Cook the perfect camp dinner
A dozen hot and hungry cyclists depend on the van team getting this right. Oh – and you have to do all of this while feeling like absolute crap.
It is an unfortunate side effect of long distance cycling that your body mistakenly believes that van days are rest days. The body shuts down, the mind follows suit.
I felt like an extremely hot zombie. This was not great news, especially as I was driving and my French was in high demand to help secure us a wild camp site.
But on Thighs of Steel miracles happen. Indeed, the ride depends on miracles, almost every single day.
I’d been warned that finding wild camping for a dozen cyclists and a humungous van is the hardest part of the job. The plan is completely reliant on some kindly farmer, landowner or mayor taking pity on our ridiculous endeavour and letting us camp on their land.
After all, what would you do if you saw a circle of chairs, filled by dirty-faced foreigners, set up in your orchard?
But, in more than 20 weeks of touring, only once have Thighs of Steel been asked to move on. It is a daily miracle. Thank you, kind-hearted people of Europe.
With the help of my co-driver, I rang the doorbell of a likely-looking landowner, not far off route. We’d spotted a campervan parked in a closely-mown field behind his house.
With the help of his excitable dog, the owner was roused. He opened the door, and the dog bolted for freedom.
The man apologised, but couldn’t help: the owner of the field was in Belgium. He suggested that we ask the mayor, gave us directions to the town hall, and started calling for his lost dog.
We drove Calypso up to the quaint village Mairie. It felt like we were parking our tank on their lawn.
I began in faltering French: ‘We are 12 cyclists looking for wild camping…’ And, hallelujah, it was as if he’d been expecting us. ‘I have the perfect place,’ he smiled.
What followed felt like the oral part of my GCSE French exam: ‘At the crossroads go straight on and follow the road for 3km. You’ll see a low, white wall, with a gap in the middle. Go down this track, over a disused railway line through a wood, and then over a small bridge into a field.’
I follow the directions with apprehensive nodding. The mayor finishes by kisses his fingers: ‘And the river is perfect for bathing!’
We took his address to send a thank you card from Athens, and then drive out – slightly nervous – to our campsite.
To my astonishment, I’d understood his flawless directions and we found the field atop a tiny island, split by lazy turns of the river. Fishermen dabbled in the shallows and a paddleboard drifted past.
It was perfect (especially when the insects clear off).
We set up chairs in a circle, looking out at the sun dunking itself into the stream away to the west. We set the pot boiling with a vegetable curry.
Half an hour later, the cyclists arrive, stinking of joy, bells a-ringing. It’s only then that we notice the chairs are arranged in a perfect ring around a single, plump dog turd.
Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.
So far, the cyclists and supporters of Thighs of Steel 2019 have raised over £38,000 £50,000 for Help Refugees.