Disappearance Explained

December 21, 2010

My new mode en France...

I realize it may look to some as if last July I vanished without a word. No need for distress as I’ve since resurfaced in France in a village at the foothills of the Pyrenees where they tumble into the Mediterranean on the border of Spain. So what swallowed me up these past six months? The answer would be a crazy little mid-season guiding job I signed on for last minute. And how did that come about when I was so peacefully living in the woods in a cabin beside a stream with a wood burning stove and deer and bear as neighbors? Believe me, I asked myself that regularly these past few months crashing in dorm-style rooms, sharing bathrooms with male co-guides and running on next to no sleep. Here’s the how and why.

Alain and I had indeed made a comfy spot for ourselves in the wooded hills of the southern Appalachians. But consistent and above-poverty-level-paying work in the area for us both was hard to come by. Sadly, my writing and Alain’s wood-turning were not enough to sustain us. Alain’s mother had been with us for six months as well and we were more than ready to find a more plausible stable situation for her in a french-speaking neighborhood. Heading back to France seemed the only logical step. But I was slow in deciding to make the move, mainly for fear of losing my independence. I’m not good at surrendering control and though a great way to cultivate the practice, I feared moving to Alain’s native France might put a little too much strain on the relationship. I’m just not a happy person when I can’t function independently. Our year in Normandie taught me that.

After some feet dragging (Avery’s), we made a plan to relocate to France in the fall. My only requirement that it be somewhere in the south. While Alain got to work moving his mother, I went to work finding myself a job, my first step toward independence in France. By coincidence I learned that an American cycling tour company was looking for a late-season guide in France. Immediately.

Though not perfect timing, it looked promising. So I applied for the job and things moved quickly after that. Friends may remember frantic emails at this point. The job was a great fit in many ways, but it also called on skills I hadn’t yet acquired. I’d never been on a road bike. I didn’t know much about French wine country (the focus of this company’s tours). I wasn’t in great shape (I’d been down with a hip injury). And oh yeah, I wasn’t really bi-lingual.

But I wanted the job for sanity’s sake, if not for the dwindling bank account’s sake, and so called on everyone I knew who knew anything about biking, wine and France. Thanks to this humble network of friends and family, I landed the job. I left in such a hurry, I didn’t get to properly thank everyone for their help. So here it is: Thank you immensely. Not only did you help me get the job, but without you, I wouldn’t have been able to do the job.

On the biking front, my Ironman brother Loren set me up with his friend Laura’s road bike for training. He also answered a continuous stream of novice questions via phone and email. My cross-country cycling friends Steve and Patty lent much advice and also much-needed biking clothes. Randy at Blairsville Bikes and Boards gave me a bike maintenance lesson and provided gear. The bike shop in Hiawassee got me started with local routes and moral support.

On all things wine, David at The Beechwood Inn in Clayton set up a wine tasting tutorial for me, and loaned me enough wine books to start my own vineyard. Alain brought some very nice French wines back from his reconnaissance trip to France and those fortunate enough to be nearby got to participate on this end of the job training.

Thanks to Madame Sacks from Young Harris College I was able to refresh my French language skills before riding off into French vineyards. And then there were all those who answered my request for recycled cycling gear. Thank you for the time and effort involved in getting me your gear. Staying “second hand only” was difficult with such short notice. An especially big thanks to my friend Charlie who pretty much outfitted me for all seasons. I feel like I should have your name branded on my jersey in lieu of a corporate sponsor. Thanks too, to those who lobbied for me through recommendation letters.

Most of all I need to thank my parents for the use of their mountain home. As we prepared for an ocean-crossing move, Alain and I squatted in their empty realty listed house. It became base camp for me in those last weeks while Alain was in France, such a blessing. In between my long training rides I pretty much locked myself up there with books on French history and wine.

At this point, “oh shit” mode set in. There was just so much to do and gather before starting this job, before freakin’ moving to France. Plane tickets to France in July? Scandalously expensive, don’t do it. Applying for a long term visa in July? Can’t, all the French are on vacation. Need dressy clothes for on the job chateau dinners? Gotta drive to Atlanta my friend. My to-do list got longer as my flight got closer.

As soon as Alain returned after a month in France settling his mother in her new place, I flew back across in his wake. He had loose ends to tie up in the US, so he waved me off at the Atlanta airport in the full heat of a southern summer, heavy and humid as ever.

I hit the French ground fumbling. Despite all my preparation, France was as foreign to me as I’d left it. Everything was exhausting, the jet lag, finding the right train to Normandie, talking in French all weekend at Alain’s sister’s place with no Alain to translate, the cold and gray weather. I began to worry about the lack of warm clothing I’d packed. The uncomfortable surroundings of Normandie made me want to flee, but the unknowns ahead of me were no more comforting.

With nothing short of anxiety I boarded an early morning train to Provence dressed in a spring sweater and a scarf. When I got off the train in the south of France the heat enveloped me instantly. Now I was worried I hadn’t packed enough hot weather clothes. I’d learned never to trust a European when they described hot weather. There being no tropics in Europe, they just don’t understand what hot means. Or so I thought. I should have believed the European tour manager, when she said, “Provence can be quite hot in July and August.”

And mosquito-ridden it turns out. After a week of intense training and a general sense of chaos, I laid down in my dorm bed hoping for a semblance of a good night’s sleep before my first tour started. But mosquitoes buzzed in my ears all night long and I tossed and turned swatting the air into the wee hours of the morning. When I rose to greet the day one eye was swollen shut. Not sure if it was an allergy to the mosquitoes or communal living, either way it certainly complicated an already uncomfortable situation.

Off to a great start. And this was after an hour icing, after the eyeball showed itself!

And thus I began my first season as a cycling guide in France. I won’t detail these last few months; I’ll just say it was really challenging and also really rewarding. It was perhaps more challenging than I’d expected and not for the reasons I’d worried about. I ended up being a natural guide, able to converse about the wines, regions and culture of France rather easily. I mastered cycling and bike maintenance skills quickly and the high-pressured service part of the job was easy for an ex-restaurant owner.

Bending over backwards for cycling guests came naturally.

The hard part was working with co-guides– never having a moment’s peace. When on tour you share a hotel room and eat every meal with your co-guide. You’re never alone, ever. Even in the bathroom you get to listen to your co-guide griping about whatever gripe he has at the moment. For some reason female guides in the company are rare. One of the only other women explained it best when she complained about not being able to practice yoga while on tour. “There’s always a dude in your room.”

But the rewards of the job were just as poignant. The trips were six days long and included touring some of the most beautiful parts of France by bike. The meals and wine were spectacular and the people I met on tour were generally very gracious and interesting travelers. I learned a lot about the wines of France, visiting vineyards and tasting directly from the makers. I visited ancient Roman ruins and met welcoming French proprietors of historic inns and restaurants. The setting was quite inspiring.

A summer's eve in Provence

Je suis gourmande, officially.

Stunning views of Van Gogh's Provence blessed our rides regularly.

But perhaps the best part of the job was that it forced me to step out of my comfort zone. It forced me to get out and function in a French world, to parallel park a nine person van and drive it aggressively up skinny, winding mountain roads and through odd-defying tight village streets. It forced me to figure it out, no matter what obstacle was thrown in the way, whether it be a flood that washed out the bike route, a cell phone that stopped working mid-tour, or a reservation for 15 people at a restaurant that was mysteriously closed. Most of all, it forced me to do all this in French. Ever tried to record your voice mail greeting with the voice prompt telling you how to do it in French? It takes the better part of a day.

But now the cycling tour season is over and I find myself re-united with Alain in a village in the Pyrenees not far from the town where we set Alain’s mother up in a condo. We’re temporarily in a small apartment smartly renovated by an English family who lives just above us. Hopefully we’ll find a larger, more permanent place with a telephone and internet access soon. In the mean time I’m enjoying village life in this international haven for ex-patriots of all sorts. Cherry trees thrive here right next to citrus trees. And we have olives and cork oak trees. The skies are big and blue. When I cycle up to one of the villages north of us I have to make a 10 km climb, but am rewarded with a view of the Mediterranean. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be leading my own organic rough tours through the foot hills of the Pyrenees…


Alain: Un petit verre anyone?

Love to you all.

(note: i wrote this back in Oct, as well as the following entry… getting the technical blog up took some procrastination hurdling, evidently)


14 Responses to “Disappearance Explained”

  1. A really good start. I can’t wait for more.

  2. peter thurlow said

    great stuff avery!….sore arse??…nice story!…have cousin with family settling in Augirein (Ariege dept) as l write!….me…was thinking about you just recently and resisted paying it any attention!…coming to france next march for a while!..stay happy and bendy..love ptx

    • You must bring Emma and stop for a visit! Would love to get in touch with your cousin…other anglo’s are always fun. I don’t really get French jokes yet, so native tongue laughter is sorely missed 🙂

  3. Ailyn said

    It’s great to read about your adventures. Seems ages away fom our time down in the Everglades. We are well – got married last year, living in VT, dreaming of hitting the road….
    So good to hear what you have been up to!
    Love to both of you,

    • Yes, the glades seem so far away, physically and chronologically. Yet that time and place resides in me strongly still. A piece of me is always there. Thanks for reading and keep me updated on your end as well. Bisous to Mark. -Avery
      Oh, and CONGRATS on the marriage!

  4. Rick said

    great story, glad to hear that you both are doing well.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

  5. Denise Oswald said

    Great to hear from you Avery and see how well you are doing!

  6. Natalie said

    Oh, the mystery explained! So happy to get your scoop. I was a bit worried there for a moment (just a moment). Wow, the adventures continue. Way to go! Iris is now wearing the little French duds you found for Ezra on your last trip. Thought you would be pleased to know they are being recycled. You are then thought of even more often! I came across a beloved photo of Alain playing the accordion, sitting in front of one of my paintings for that little show we had at JT’s. And the famous Pineapple Rum Pound Cake sits on my counter as we speak. You are alive and well on so many fronts! Lots of love to you and Alain from all of us. xo’s

  7. Kate & John said

    Avery & Alain
    Happy New Year – love hearing about the travels and travails. We are making plans for some travels of our own and will stay in touch. All the best to you in 2011. xo K & J

  8. Rachel said

    So great to see everything you’ve been up to in this post. Thanks for it. What’s next?….and I hope you are super well.

  9. Rhyannon said

    You are so brave! A wonderful story in so many ways! I hope you are proud, not many would have the courage and strength to follow through with such a challenge . . . how rewarding it must be, and a relief to have come through!

  10. […] gene hands down inherited from Dad. This newest mouthful didn’t start off any smoother than last summer’s blowfish swollen eyeball. Alain and I slept right through the 5:30 am alarm clock. Didn’t even stir. So much for […]

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