I leave Vichy in bittersweet. The few days I spent couchsurfing at Mathildes flat where spent in enjoyable routine. We ate dinner and lunch together and laughed quite a bit. I got used to the routine there. I even took the time to cook dinner for Mathilde. While Mathilde was at work or dance class I did my own thing at her flat. This included writing, reading, cleaning a bit and cooking. I felt like I was at home. I felt that my routine there could be productive and worth getting used to. I had wondered about staying another night but the discussion never came up. My legs felt ok to ride. I had written in her guestbook. The morning was early and inviting. The time to leave had come.

Mathilde and I hugged and laughed some more while we said goodbye. She drove off in her sedan and I began to strap the luggage to the rear of my bicycle. I hit the road this time with some upgrades. A new smartphone case was attached to my bike so I could view google maps on demand. It also made the headphone cables less awkward. My new GPS watch was an unnecessary add-on. I convinced myself to buy it so I would have loads of data such as heart rate and record keeping for distances, elevations, and speed. It can also control my phone. I bought a towel to replace my chawell. I felt more prepared.

I made it to Roanne with relative ease. Having easy access to the maps on my phone made navigation a breeze. My legs felt stronger on this ride. I journeyed through more farmlands and forests as well as country roads and backcountry trucking lanes. Some of the journey was done on a French highway called the N7. I had room on the road but a few large trucks did pass me by quite closely. I felt pretty comfortable. I took a short break on the side of this highway before heading into Roanne.

Roanne was the largest place I saw since my brief visit in Marseille. The shops where bustling in the city center. People hurried from place to place shopping for clothes, handbags, shoes, and groceries. There were cafes, bakeries and bars. It was oddly comforting to me. The streets where narrow and free of cars and full of people. This was inviting to me. I liked it.

I walked my bike through the streets and found a cafe near the address to my next couchsurfing host. When I connected to wifi I told Georgio I was in town. He said he needed to finish up at work and would meet me in a half hour. At the cafe I ordered a coffee and took to some writing while I waited. Georgio met me punctually in thirty minutes like he had said. He is a tall fellow with a wide inviting smile. He has a warm aura. We walked to his flat just minutes away. I carried my bike up the stairs and parked it inside his flat. There were about five other bikes here, all Georgio’s. He is a cyclist and loves the craft. I am glad to be here.

Georgio offers me some food and I end up grilling avocados with eggs. It is a first for both of us. I gobble it up in a starved manner and Georgio decides to eat something else. We get to know each other a bit at his dinner table. He is an advent reader and teaches French and substitutes other subjects as well. We get along philosophically in general. He is a bit surprised by my military background. Later he folds out his couch bed for me. It looks to be around two hundred years old. The bed of his grandparents he says. It’s perfect. I fall asleep within minutes.

The next day I explore Roanne. Georgio had taken me out to show me around the day before. I saw some boats on the canal that had Quebec flags. I did not see the owners. Roanne is a small city. There are many boulangeries, cafes, and markets typical of France. The city is bright and vibrant during the day despite the abundance of dull grey buildings that frame the streets.

Georgio texts me during the day while he is at work and asks me to meet his friend Mureille. I am to meet her and drive to another city with her where we will meet Georgio and some others that are friends of his. I meet Mureille as instructed and together we drive to St. Etienne. St Etienne is about a one hour drive south of Roanne. Mureille and I have plenty of time to get to know each other. She speaks english well enough but I speak very little french. We are able to have good conversation though thanks to her english. I have to draw a diagram to explain one train of thought but other than that we laugh and get to know each other well.

When we arrive in St.Etienne Georgio greets us at a book fair. We depart there and take in the city from a few different vantage points. We talk about modern art a bit and make some jokes. Mureille is an art teacher. Georgio is an art critic. I am a comedian. The three of us laugh and discuss things until we reach the house of Guylaine.

Guylaine greets us in her home and another resident there also joins in. We are offered beers and sit around a coffee table. The home is occupied by a group of students. It is casual and laid back. Guylaine is probably the most laid back looking person I have ever seen. She does not seem to give any actual fuck at all. That isn’t meant to be a critic on her at all. She just looks so calm and less of a fuck giving than most people. She represents who she is and its very crisp and clean. I’m not sure exactly what I mean.

I talk to the other resident of the house a bit in slow english. He describes his desire to move to Quebec. This is a common theme here in France.  A lot of people seem to want to move to Quebec. They call it the Hawaii of France.

When we finish our beers we take a walk through the now dark city of St. Etienne. The group talks mostly in French so I take this time to think about nothing. We arrive at a small school and enter inside. I am told we are going to see a “feminist acapella group”. Georgio tried to explain more but it was lost on me. I was interested so here we are. Inside the school gymnasium people are serving pizza and beers. A little girl probably around age seven serves me a beer. It is probably the best thing that’s happened to me in France.

On the walls of the gymnasium are drawings and stories by students who are Syrian refugees. Only one of them is written in English and this by coincidence turns out to be the one I find first. The story is harrowing details of the childs memories of how Syria once was before the dictatorship, the riots on the streets to its protest, and, the many deaths that followed. It explained from the understanding of this child a description of the Syrian populace’s want of peace and happiness. It explained the fleeing of his family from the murderous rule of a dictatorship that would not let peace happen.

When the feminist accapala group begins to prepare to start their show Georgio translates for me the words of the oranator. Before each song there is a brief description of the songs origin and meaning. Georgio translates this for me. Although I can not understand the words of the songs I am captivated by the emotion of them. I laugh and cry just as maybe I would if I did know what was going on. Some songs are funny, some are sad, some are angry, most seem to be about the need for freedom.

The women of the feminist accapala group represent a few ages and cultures. There are seven of them. Some are French but there is also a Turkish woman, an italian, and a spaniard. They are simply dressed and wearing white aprons with the between of their legs outlined. Some house a red dot in this area. One woman has nothing on her apron but a red dot. There is something about this single red dot and the strong stance the woman takes that captivates me. There are children in the audience. I think the use of not censoring art. The importance of not censoring education and especially expression. I think about how censorship is not something even possible to that little boy and the traumas he witnessed during his life and escape from the Syrian atrocities. I think about the countless others still witnessing the insane abuse of power and lack of humanities across the world and especially right now in Syria. I think about my own family. My cousins, nephews and nieces, and, how I want them to know just how special their lives are. I think that we can all do something indirectly or directly to make better this world. Just by being honest to one another. Not nice but honest.

After the show we return to Guylaines. At this point most of the discussion is in French and my brain is very tired from attempting to translate. There is however a new member of the group who teaches English. I have a very nice discussion with her about emotional intelligence and finding the center within our own consciousness. We eat a big bowl of baked cheese with ham and potatoes. More residents show up seemingly more intoxicated than us. They join in with the cheese and ham and potatoes. They greet me warmly and say what they can in English. Later people begin to go to bed. I play guitar for those of us who are awake. Murielle, and Marine. I sing Johnny Cash and a couple of old blues standards. I forget to play the French song I wrote.

Upstairs the beds are full. Four of us sleep in one room. I have to share a bed next to Georgio who proceedingly tells me. “Allen I have good news for you. There are two males and three females at this party.” He leaves a long pause and finishes with a cold “and you must sleep with me.”. After an hour of the four of his laughing and singing while laying in bed we decide it’s time for sleep. It reminds me of precious childhood sleepovers. I make some jokes about my new watch and wait for morning.

When morning arrives I am eager to leave. I am a bit uncomfortable and mostly inclined to be anti-social. That is something I want to change but it has proven difficult. Decades of habits are hard to change. No surprise there. Georgio, Murielle and I take a walk to the local baker. We buy croissants, cakes and donuts except the later two are named differently than I can remember. We return to the home of Guylaine to eat breakfast.

Breakfast is a fun affair. I get coffee and eat some of the croissants and cakes with locally made jams. This house is joyful to be in. It is dwelt by artists and open minded youngsters. The affairs are casual and open. Everyone seems to pitch in with the chores. I am sure though that there are conflicts from time to time. What seems typical of young people today is apparent in this house. It is kept clean but there are things everywhere. Myriads of forgotten and sometimes picked up again hobby items. There are makeshift fixes for uncommon problems such as mattresses used to cut light from windows, kitty boxes to gather dirt, and, general clutter everywhere. It seems though that most items are  used often and have purposes.

I depart the house of Guylaine with Murielle and Georgio. We take Murielle’s car north back towards Roanne. On the way we stop at a castle and I take some photos.

Back in Roanne I say goodbye to Murielle. I wonder if I will see her again but I doubt it. I could have exchanged information but I decided to forego the formality. My journey is filled with meetings that never mature enough to properly negotiate friendship. They are left in the acquaintance of hopeful abundance and left with the feeling of something promising. A blessing and curse. Murielle waves goodbye a final time while Georgio and I carry his bicycle and punctured tire back to the apartment.

The next day Georgio and I depart on our bikes together. He has enthusiastically offered to accompany me halfway to Lyon. The 40 km I ride with Georgio are the best of my trip. Riding with a partner is nearly double as fun as riding alone. During this ride I make the longest and hardest climb of my trip. I do not have to dismount and walk though because having Georgio with me is motivation. At one point we play “Water bottle relay”. Georgio offers me his water bottle and when I grab it he pulls me along the way through this connection.

After what seems like a near enturnity of an estimated fifteen kilometer climb we finally reach the summit of the pass between Roanna and Lyon. The descent is unlike anything I have experienced before. I am able to ride at maximum speed for nearly twenty minutes as we make our way down the winding decline of the mountain we had previously climbed. Everything seems worth it when moments like these occur. Bicycling is its own method of freedom and best explored at coming down from high altitudes that were arduous to climb.

As the wind whips past me and I negotiate the turns along the descent my smile is from ear to ear. This is what I am awarded for going on a whim. For listening to my heart as it directed me to do something I did not fully understand. Complete freedom. Although I wish I had a bit of a faster bike and less weight. Well, I do not wish that actually. I just know that one day I will improve these experiences with faster bikes and less weight.

At the bottom of the mountain Georgio must depart back to Roane. He offers me an almond paste bar. We exchange hugs high fives and laughs and I watch him depart back up the mountain. I get lost in the neighboring town while looking for wifi. I find a restaurant that is open on a Monday and order a massive kebab that is stuffed with french fries. After about an hour of being lost I find a wifi signal at Mcdonalds and continue my journey for the next thirty seven kilometers to Lyon.

Georgio found a place for me to stay at in Lyon. A friend of his who is also a teacher. She greets me into her home and offers me complete generosity. She gives me her room and she sleeps on an air mattress. The generosity of people is quite a thing to recognize. It is a highlight of my trip to get to know people in this intimate way. I rely on them and they are more than happy to share themselves with me. It is a beautiful thing.

This is the first 264 km of my trip. I am 2.64 percent closer to my goal of 10000 km to arrive in Thailand. Already the gifts seem abundant. I think back to the tale that helped me make the decision to take on this crazy trip “The Alchemist” and remember some advice the King of Salem gave the boy. “At first the journey will be easy. It is called beginners luck. The universe will do all it can to encourage you to follow your personal legend. After these initial successes things will become exceedingly difficult until they seem almost impossible.”. I wonder with this advice what lies ahead of me on this long road.

264 km down