On my first day in France, I’d been riding only a few hours when I came around a bend in the River Rance and found myself in the beautifully preserved medieval city of Dinan. Fortunately I’d made arrangements to stay in the area for a few days, and now google maps was telling me I should turn right at the next street to get to my destination. When I reached la Rue du Jerzual and turned the corner, I found myself looking up a steep cobblestone street which led to the higher levels of the fortified city. On either side stood rows of picturesque half-timbered houses with high-end artisan shops on the ground floor. And aside from the merchandise, nothing was perfect. Walls were slanted and warped, roofs were droopy, steps were each a different size, even windows weren’t level. It was one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen.
The climb to the top was arduous. It was a long way up, a few hundred meters, and as steep as it was, the only way forward was to push my 45kg bicycle up one step at a time. Luckily la Rue du Jerzual is off limits to cars, and the regular hordes of tourists were greatly diminished, the majority of them having already left to prepare for the return to school the next day. It was a beautiful hike, truly, and the shop owners who were standing in their doorways were generous with words of encouragement as I lumbered past them. Needless to say I was happy to reach the top, and soon after, that the house where I’d be staying for the next few days.
Rewind to a week earlier. While waiting to board the ferry in Weymouth, Great Britain, a fellow cyclist who’d spotted my loaded touring bike approached me for a chat. He found me again on board the ferry, and we chatted some more. Just before we arrived at the port of Guernsey Island, where he would be getting off the boat, he handed me a slip of paper, with a French address and a phone number written on it. “I live in the north of England,” he said, “but I also have a vacation house in Dinan, just south of St-Malo. It’s a beautiful spot. You really should see it.” He told me he wouldn’t be around, but that if I wanted to stay there for a few days, I could call him, and he’d make arrangements for me to get the keys. It was an amazingly generous offer that I couldn’t resist. A few days later, I made the call, and a few days after that, I was exploring the streets of this magical city on the river.
On my second day in town, I paid a visit to a couple who had sent me a message on couchsurfing.org. While casually browsing the site, they’d seen that I was in the area, and had invited me to drop by their home in Léhon, a nearby village. Thierry and Cécile, a young middle-aged couple, are resonant with positive energy. They have a light sense of humour centered on playful teasing, and a great appetite for travel and living life to the fullest. I hit it off with them immediately.
The couple just recently celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary, and though they’ve already been through a lot, it seems they’re still only warming up. In the year 2000, they sold their house in France, packed up all of their belongings and moved to Montreal with their two children to start a new life. It was a courageous endeavour that set them apart from most other people in France, and everywhere else, really. Unfortunately, a series of unlucky events made their stay abroad a short one; among other setbacks, Thierry suffered broken bones on two separate occasions, making it difficult for him to work. After a year of effort, and much to the chagrin of Cécile and the children, who had settled well into their new lives, the Douvry family decided it would be best to return to France.
The move back to France did nothing to dampen their adventurous spirit, however. The family travelled extensively in the Mediterranean and in some parts of North Africa, and as the children grew older, Thierry and Cécile’s travels took them ever further away from home. Having always been interested in Asia, it was only a matter of time before they made it to that part of the world.
In 2008, they started backpacking in Southeast Asia. They hadn’t even heard of couch surfing at the time, but they were already living it in their own way. While travelling in Sri Lanka and later in Bali, they were invited to stay with local families, and it soon became clear to the couple that this was truly the best way to benefit from their travel experiences. For the Douvry’s and people like them, getting to know a country from within, by becoming close with those who live there, is the best way to appreciate the nuances of the culture and the true beauty of the country.
During their first visit in Bali, Thierry came face to face with the local culture in a different way. Before he ever came to Asia, he’d had a few Asian-themed tattoos done in France, one of which was the Balinese ‘om’ symbol. He’d had it done on his calf, above the head of the Hindu dragon Baron, lord of the forest. While visiting the island, he was approached by a local, who pointed to Thierry’s tattoo and kindly explained that the placement of the ‘om’ symbol was problematic, as it is forbidden in their culture to display the sacred symbol anywhere below the waist. He was advised to keep it covered, especially when visiting holy sites, so as to not offend the locals – advice that Thierry was all too willing to follow.
A few years later, during their second visit to Bali, the passerby’s advice had long since slipped into the recesses of Thierry’s mind. And this time, it wasn’t a friendly villager who approached him to discuss the controversial tattoo, but rather an aggressive and hot-headed fundamentalist who wasted no time in letting Thierry know exactly what was on his mind. He demanded to know who had done the tattoo so that he could personally ‘reprimand’ the artist who had defamed their religion by accepting to tattoo the sacred symbol on such an inappropriate part of the body. Threats were made, and soon others arrived to support the angry youngster, making the situation even more hostile and tense. Eventually, Thierry was able to make them understand that the tattoo had been done in France, by an artist who was as unaware of the inappropriateness of the placement as he had been. His sincere apologies and genuine expressions of regret, along with his promise to rectify the situation as soon as possible, were enough to disarm them, and Thierry was able to get out of the situation unharmed. He covered the symbol with a large bandage for the remainder of their stay, and on their last day in the country, he had the symbol covered for good, concealed under a new but meaningless tribal tattoo.
When Thierry saw that a travelling tattoo artist would be passing through his town, he thought it would be a good opportunity to put the final touches on his calf. He felt that the various elements he already had were disjointed and lacking an overall connectedness, and he wanted to find a way to pull it all together to make it look more like one big piece. In the end, he chose to tie everything together by adding a tree to the design, and on my second day in Léhon, that’s just what we did.
When the tattoo was done, this in no way marked the end of our time together. I was spending more and more time with Thierry and Cécile, visiting different parts of the region with Cécile by day, and meeting their friends and family over home-cooked meals by night.
On one of our days out, Cécile and I pulled over to speak with a German cyclist who was also doing an extended tour around Europe. Only minutes after meeting Sebastian, my hostess invited he and a fellow cyclist (Alex, who’d gone off on his own for a while) to come visit Dinan, offering them a spot in the garden if they needed a place to sleep. They came the next day, and must have felt the same warmth and feeling of well-being as I did with the Douvry’s, because they, like myself, ended up staying longer than they’d expected to.
For a few days, the house was full of travellers, friends and family as people came over to socialize, to share a meal, and some, to have tattoos done. On one occasion, Cécile played some Beethoven on the piano while a family friend sat in a chair in the living room, having her first tattoo done by yours truly. The Germans were seated nearby, at times watching the tattoo process, and otherwise taking a few moments to write in their travel journals. Others sat around the dining room table, chatting and drinking wine over a slice of cake. It’s moments like this that make my journey so special; there aren’t too many people out there who can say they’ve done a tattoo while Beethoven was being played live only a few feet away…
As the week came to an end, the house slowly began to empty. Alex left first on Friday, followed by Sebastian on Saturday, and on Sunday, after one last tattoo session, it was time for me to say goodbye too. It’s always a bit hard to leave people we’ve really connected with, especially when we know that the chances of seeing them again are slim… But for me the short-lived sadness I feel when I say goodbye is soon completely eclipsed by the long-lasting sense of fulfillment and gratitude I get from having had the chance to share beautiful moments with wonderful people. We may not see each other again soon, or maybe even ever, but that changes nothing when it comes to the positive effect our time together has on me. If nothing else, these experiences reinforce my fundamental belief that the world is full of people who are kind, generous and happy to participate in these kinds of friendly exchanges. Not everyone has the courage to approach a cyclist on the side of the road and invite them into their home. But when these kinds of exchanges do somehow occur, few are those who walk away from them feeling anything less than enriched.
And on this trip, I feel like one of the richest women in the world…