Being an Englishman, I’m liable to join the mad dogs in the midday sun. My people, see, perched on our little rock, never know how long the good stuff might last.
We have to get it while we can.
We are reflex-conditioned to ride our bikes upon sight of even an eyebrow of UV peering out past the clouds.
This highly rational urge, when transplanted to warmer climes, sees us stick out like the sore thumbs of the continent. We pedal through sun-baked sleepy villages, a figurative St George’s flag draped across our shoulders and a pint of warm beer on the go, so blatantly English are we.
Sizzling and pink skinned, drenched in Vitamin D, feeling pro.
These villages always keep a straight face. Deserted. Nonplussed. Shutters shut, a lazy dog on a string, a font trickling out dubious drinking water. Bustling (well…sort of) with lunch an hour ago, this place could now be unpopulated for all we can tell.
I’m thinking of Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes, in the Southern Alps, a place I descended into from the mountains one hot August day, 2014, around 2pm and looking for lunch. Nestled a thousand metres above sea level, population one-hundred-and-forty-one.
Lunch at 2pm?
Pah…English fool…absolument pas!
So quiet, so still, the tumbleweed has packed off for a nap. The world has stopped. That I chose to pedal through the heat, and the designated time for lunch, was my choice. On up the searing Vars valley I went, tackling the hot side of the Col de la Cayolle on an empty stomach.
And now, in April 2020, deep Corona-lockdown here in the UK, I am reminded of this. Of Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes. Of every impossibly beautiful southern village I’ve stumbled across in post-lunch lockdown.
Right now I ride through Lancastrian towns and villages – solo, of course – and find eerie silence. Closed doors on indoor people. No lunchtime (or any other time) bustle for weeks now. The occasional car. Sporadic people in ones and twos snatching their government mandated exercise.
There was, is, a novelty value, but it’s overshadowed by the looming reason for all this. Not an endearingly belligerent southern European mealtime custom but a pandemic. It’s one thing to mistrust a fellow human because of their lunching habits, another to worry about what you might catch.
A bike ride, in the time of Corona, is a frictionless affair. We slip through the landscape without snagging on people; in cafes, on bikes, or in cars. We swerve a wide berth around pedestrians, into the road where the traffic used to be. Avoiding the imagined arc of virus spray takes precedent over the once lurking menace of a motor vehicle to the rear.
In our southern village we knew that give it an hour or two and things slowly perk up. Life re-emerges. In Corona-UK, who knows? Another fortnight? A month? Six!?
Sometimes, in a bid for normality, we wedge a thermos flask of espresso into our bottle cage. Well some of us do. As if that’s in any way normal.
The quality (or otherwise) of my bike rides, or the lack of a mid-ride coffee, currently less than inconsequential. Let’s be clear about that. But there’s life in that mid-ride coffee, and that’s what I miss. The sweaty chat with the next table down; the rubbing shoulders and the people watching; tired legs soaking up fuel.
The hum and the thrum of human bodies sharing something.
Space, time, and custom.
It’s something worth missing.
In 2014, back in Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes, it was there in spades in that eerie silence. The air thick with cultural significance. Disclaimer: I actually convinced, after some debate, a grumpy proprietor to crank up his coffee machine. He probably regrets caving in to this day.
He produced a cup of that dreadful industrial sludge that so much of France considers ‘coffee.’
Robusta to the superior arabica of nearby Italy.
Right now, mid-ride, I’d take either.
(Bottom Image: Saint Martin d’Entraunes via MOSSOT / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))