Friday, December 21, 2012

The Last Hurrah

With the Swiss Alps dwindling in our rear-view mirrors - well, in Ed's anyway; I could only see my shoulders in mine due to both the excessive amount of clothing I was wearing and the poor positioning of the mirrors themselves - we headed north to Nancy. This would have us spending the night close to Verdun, which we could visit the next day on our way to Arras, and from their it would be a short run to Calais on the Saturday morning.

Lake Genva is under the low cloud. Honestly.

JB escorted us to the petrol station, ostensibly to put us on the right road, but possibly he was just keen to make sure we got clear of his area of responsibility without a speeding incident or slip on the frosty road. We parted company with promises of meeting up for a road trip in the summer, and with JB's cautions about the road conditions ringing in our ears, we got under way. Once again, we opted for the smaller, scenic roads, and Ed was soon several cars ahead of me, overtaking confidently on his hi-tech beast, using the sat-nav to alert him to safe passing areas approaching round the corners, clearly champing at the bit to cover some distance. Not having the same advance warning of the road layout and having very inferior brakes, I was happy to just mosey along. We stopped for a photo at small town, and once again Ed suggested
I should try and overtake when he did, otherwise we would be limited to normal traffic speed rather than the faster bike speeds which was, after all, largely the point of using motorbikes. I explained again about my restrictions and, as we were in a quiet part of the country and had a big car park handy to practice in before hitting the road, I suggested that maybe this was the time to switch bikes for a bit so he would have a better understanding of what I was up against.

After a 10 minute tutorial on what all the buttons on his bike did (heated this-and-that switches with multiple settings, sat-nav, several indicator switches, lights, and whatnot), I jumped on Ed's bike, barely able to reach the ground with both feet, and nervous about leaning the bike too far and dropping it. I wobbled off round the car park for a couple of laps, realising quickly how rider-friendly the bike was. It was very well balanced and, once I got the hang of where the buttons were, not too confusing after all.

Ed was all geared up for a similarly complex tutorial on my bike, and seemed both disappointed and surprised when I quickly showed him the the on/off buttons for engine, lights and grip heaters, and the indicator switch. "What about everything else?" he asked. "That's it," I replied. He took a turn round the car park as well, and then we ventured out in to the traffic. Ed now had nothing more to do than follow me for a change (and concentrate on keeping the bike running - it had developed a tendency to stall on stopping - and slowing down safely), while I now had to watch both the road and  sat-nav, and remember where all the buttons were. It was actually a very easy bike to ride, and I appreciated the comfortable seat and riding position, not to mention the vast windscreen sheltering me from the cold wind. I wondered how Ed was faring.

After half an hour or so I figured Ed would probably have had enough, so I pulled over and we switched back. He seemed far more impressed at my coming to meet him now, as in only a short time he noticed the uncomfortable riding position, the extra exposure to wind and, yes, the dodgy brakes. With new found appreciation for what his big brother was going through just to join him at the end of his trip, we pushed on towards Nancy via the autoroute.

About 20 miles outside the city, we stopped to refuel both the bikes and ourselves at a motorway services. Just as we were finishing our hot chocolates, a guy pulled in on a big fancy touring BMW. He parked along side us and seemed keen to talk but, as we were tired, we tried to dress fast and get going. My good manners got the better of me though, and I struggled to reply to his questions in my school boy French while trying to discourage further conversation by giving the impression that we were ready to go. As we mounted the bikes and fired up the engines, he flicked away his cigarette and rushed to join us. Not really what we wanted, but the choice wasn't ours. As we pushed on up the motorway to Nancy in the deepening gloom, he pulled along side Ed and seemed to be trying to communicate with him. Ed wasn't too impressed and, as the bloke cut across the lanes to take the slip road to a parking area, we just kept going, thinking we'd shaken him. Not so fast though, and he was soon back along side Ed, making the 'pull over' gestures again. This time, we followed him off the motorway, and when we'd all stopped, he asked where we were heading and whether we'd like to come and stay at his house in Toul, a city nearby, instead.

Its a funny thing, but we were both suspicious of his motives. We were both tired and not sure if we could be bothered with a night of being sociable, but also it seemed a slightly odd offer. In other parts of the world, in countries far poorer than France, we had both previously accepted offers of hospitality from total strangers and had excellent experiences because of this. But here, in France, we thought there must be some ulterior motive at play. After a brief chat among ourselves, and despite not being entirely up for it, we figured that there were 2 of us and only 1 of him, and it would be the last chance on his trip for Ed to have a little side adventure. We took the guy (we still hadn't introduced ourselves to each other) up on his offer and followed him to his home in Toul.

He pulled up outside a very unprepossessing, slightly tatty mid-terrace house, opened a garage door and we all drove in. As he pulled down the door behind us, we climbed off the bikes, removed our helmets and made formal introductions. Fabrice, for t'was he, ducked in to the house to return moments later with indoor flip-flops for us both. He didn't speak English, so it was going to be a night of dodgy French, and as we followed him into the house, I muttered to Ed that I hoped we weren't about to embark on a Pulp Fiction-esque cellar kidnapping experience.

On the inside, the house was remarkably large, and very smart. Out the back door was an enclosed patio, with the far wall being a barn/workshop where Fabrice made furniture as a hobby, and through this was a long narrow garden. Very flash. He assured us his wife would be back soon, and in the meantime he left us to get cleaned up. We met him again downstairs where he furnished us with beers and set about explaining that he was ex-military, ex-French police, and currently worked for the family business which seemed to involve using his bike as company vehicle to act as a sales rep for internal and external furnishings. Being a keen biker, his offer of hospitality was merely part of the biker's code that seems to exist out there, and in much the same way that either Ed or myself might have made a similar offer to a wandering traveler, on this occasion it was Fabrice who was in the position to improve his karma.

Far from being a hassle, the evening turned into a very enjoyable time, as we should have known it would. Fabrice's wife, Severine, came home and joined the fun, seemingly unfazed that her husband had picked up a couple of strangers, and I got a tour of Fabrice's other hobbies: large guns and knives. Being ex-miltary and -police, he had a number of both hand guns and working, replica WW2 rifles, an ammunition making table, and a large number of hunting knives. This display made me a little nervous, and it may have been either boyish enthusiasm or a veiled warning to leave his pretty wife alone that prompted him to share it. It wasn't dwelt on though, and we were soon back downstairs enjoying some wine and local moonshine - a bottle of which he gifted us!  

On hearing our plans to visit cemeteries the next day, he kindly offered to guide us via small roads to Verdun and to some of  the memorials there. It made for very fast riding the next day, and no doubt saved us some time looking for places to visit. I think that day deserves an entry of its own so I'll stop here for now, and get you up to date soon. In the meantime, all that is left to be said about Fabrice and Severine's hospitality is that I was glad to be shown that this kind of generosity exists all over place (yes, even France!), you just have to be open enough to notice it when it is in front of you, and take the opportunities as they arise. We may never meet those two again, although we have a standing invite to stay next time either of us are passing through France, and have extended the same to them, should they come to the UK. It was a great reminder to us both that you don't necessarily have to travel to the farthest corners of the world to find good-hearted people.

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