stinking in france

words & images george thomas miaris

I turn the stiff white dial in the hostel’s shower and wait for the warm water to wash over me. The cascade comes, and I’m reminded of my once everyday ritual that has now become more of a luxury.

For the past four weeks, my two friends and I have been journeying through the French countryside, equipped with three standard road bikes, a single GCSE, and a supposedly three-man-tent. We had arrived in Cherbourg with just one plan: to cycle south. South meant the sun, and the sun was our simple desire after a year in drizzly Manchester. So off we had set, navigating the relaxing roads of Normandy with an over-simplified map and my lack of direction. 

Three long days later, we had gotten stranded in a thunderstorm. As Lawrence attempted in vain to fix his unreliable tire, I looked on from under the sorry bus shelter where we'd taken refuge. It was then that it dawned on me how wholly unprepared I was. I had bought a swanky new bike with all the trimmings, but I didn't even know how to work the gears properly—and if I didn't know how to work the gears, then I'd have no chance of fixing the bike should it break. Alongside this practical not-know-how, my physical preparation had been at a bare minimum, at most some dancing in the kitchen and kick-abouts in the garden during the month prior to my departure.

A few days after that realization, we had gotten lost in another grey, stone-saturated town, with the day drawing into evening and my stomach grumbling for a much-needed three course meal. The sky grumbled with me, thundering a punishing torrent, demanding that we stay put. I stood in awe of the storm, swallowed by my own helplessness, but taking solace in the fact that my friends were with me. If things take a turn for the worse, I thought, then it's all right ‘cause my mates are turning the same way. And, later, when things did inevitably take a turn for the worse, there was no better remedy than a good old British moan. Misery, it seemed, was best shared, discussed, and communally mocked.

Not all we shared was misery, though. As a matter of fact, we shared everything: food, drinks, space, and our own insufferable stench. The sharing became stifling in a humid, three-man tent clearly built for two. Our nights were spent sleeping side by side after full days of cycling done in ninety-degree heat. My scalp was moist, my back was sticky, and a slippy layer of sweat covered all of my extremities, so going to sleep at night felt like laying down in a salty puddle, with two other cyclists bathing in their own grease, just inches away. If unity was found in misery, it was cemented by the dirt and by our utter disregard for hygiene. Our appearance bordered on feral at times, and I'd often catch sight of myself in a mirror and shudder at the shock of my own unkempt reflection.

But it didn't matter—the grot in my nails; the knots in my hair; the dried, cracking scabs of dirt that formed gradually on my legs—none of it really bothered me. The smell that lingered all around us and in the nylon home that was our tent seemed irrelevant when our surroundings were taken into account. Our camps ranged from picturesque coastlines to expansive pine forests to idyllic lakes and hidden clearings in majestic woods. Our evenings were spent by campfires, eating bounteous amounts of brie and guzzling the cheapest wine we could find (which was still pretty tasty). One night was even spent playing with an abandoned kitten that we'd found when setting up camp.

Often, by the time the camp was ready, we'd be in a state of post-exercise euphoria. After gorging ourselves silly while watching the sun set, we would slowly make our way to bed when twilight hit. We were too full, too exhausted, and too happy to care about the entourage of aromas that stubbornly followed us around. If anything, we wore the stench like a badge of honor, a souvenir from our pilgrimage to Biarritz, a sensory scar serving as proof of our hard efforts. Besides, it hardly mattered when zipping through vineyards or racing through tiny, sleepy towns. We were too quick to let the smell bother the locals.

When we did linger in certain places like Biarritz, Bordeaux, and Paris or even smaller towns and villages, our visits were mainly transient—we'd stop only to quickly absorb the atmosphere of a place with a coffee or a Coke. In fact, we became more attached to the individual roads than to the towns, finding it harder to say good-bye to good old D9 than to any nameless community.

I was surprised by this sentimentality that I felt towards the roads, and wondered if it was an indicator of the power of two wheels: how cycling can elevate you while being an instrument of travel and also enable freedom. This sense of freedom usually came in the late afternoon, when the temperature had cooled, and I was rolling over the hills as they rolled beneath me.

Sometimes, while wheeling along unhurried and focusing only on the sky, I'd start laughing to myself, amused by just how doable it actually was; how enjoyable even the worst moments were; and how ridiculous it was that I could make it around France on just a bicycle.

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