Existentialism on a bike.

It’s been a long day.

A lone blackbird heralds the coming of dawn, with its rich flutey tones at precisely 4. 21 a.m. At 4. 59 the dawn chorus comes to an abrupt end.
Where do all the birds go? What do they do for the rest of the day? I suppose the answer is – try to procreate and survive; the driving instincts of all creatures from birth to death. Including humans?
On the plane, and for the first time, I ponder possible topics for this year’s trip with Daisy. Note that I say with Daisy (my folding bike) not on her; she’s a companion, not a chunk of metal – and, incidentally going like a dream. I must continue to talk to her nicely!

It’s got to be the big questions – life, the universe and everything. I suppose an alternative title for this journal could be “CE42”. Let me explain. When people ask me what I do, I’m very reluctant to respond “I’m retired”.  “Headteacher (retired)” maybe, but this sounds rather pretentious. I’ve developed the answer “Actually I’m engaged in the CE42 project” OK, even more pretentious, I know! You’ve probably cracked the code: Continuing Exploration of Life, the Universe and Everything. I’m thinking of starting a club for the over-sixty-fives! Conditions of membership would include: regular attendance at the theatre, concerts and the opera; involvement in a book club; inquisitive travel, not necessarily to distant lands; and, for those physically fortunate enough, participation in a sport, the more extreme the better!  More of this later.

The pilot announces the bad news – that it’s raining in Lyons. On arrival I retrieve Daisy and panniers in seemingly record time. Half an hour to assemble and we emerge into the elements – and to think that I was hoping to escape the inclement weather at home. I make a complete pig’s ear of getting away from the airport environs: possibly hampered by the rain, the first half-hour is dominated by dual carriageways, traffic and spray. Then, out of the blue an aural juxtaposition of lorries, distant planes and – the singing of a nightingale! Are you ever overcome by a sudden awareness of the threads of connectivity which weave through time and space? Only four days ago I heard my first nightingale of the summer near Warnham. Was it the same one? Of course not. But the air which I’m breathing comprises the same molecules which were inhaled by the Romans …. and before them, prehistoric man ….. and before that,the dinosaurs …. and ……  The water which I drink, and which comprises ninety percent of my body weight, has been continuously recycled throughout history and across the entire world. It’s as though there’s a universal connectivity forming a backdrop against which we pale into insignificance.

Or perhaps, without human consciousness and understanding the patterns of connectivity themselves become insignificant – indeed, could be said not to exist at all. After all, Descartes mused “cognito ergo sum”; outside and beyond human experience, is there any such thing as reality? Back to the journey.

I discover to my surprise that I’m enjoying the rain: it’s only light; it reduces friction with the road; and it enhances the smells of the early summer countryside. The road verges are decked with wild flowers – including my absolute favourite, the poppy – a flower which I have come to associate so closely with these trips.

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I’m aiming for Cremieu, where Alex is spending the year working as an Assistante in the local Lycee. I’m armed with map and compass – using the former only rarely but the latter frequently. People often ask me whether I plan these trips. The answer is, no. I prefer the spontaneous pleasure of deciding which road to choose only when I get there. Many years ago I was described by my first Headteacher as “the best man with a map and compass I know”. Very flattering! However I have come to recognize that maps encourage adherence to predetermined and often inflexible route planning. A compass, by comparison, or indeed in life more generally, a moral framework, become visceral and intuitive – especially when embedded. They encourage a genuine engagement with the journey. And they reliably lead you where you want to go.

Continuing along only the most attractive country lanes I meander through a succession of rural villages

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An hour later, using the compass as my guide, I find myself unexpectedly outside Alex’s Lycee.
Point proven!

We spend the rest of the day eating, chatting and exploring Cremieu, including, for the first time, Alex(!), Les Rampertes.

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On this day, 15th May, in 1957 Britain exploded its first test H-bomb over the Christmas Islands; Harold McMillan said it was important to have “retribution which was sure, sound and total”. Food for thought.

I’m writing this in the Auberge de la Chaite – unfortunately named when pronounced correctly – and, in light of the above, probably appropriate!

It’s been a long day.

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