Vespa for Beginners: Part III (Inferno)

I really need to read Dante. Meanwhile, those better-read friends of mine can correct me if needed – but I’m tempted to say that if Dante really knew what he was talking about, Hell would be cold, not hot. The phrase ‘when Hell freezes over’ became a reality for me on my ride to Paris.

I want to note at this point that I’m not complaining. I don’t think I ever pitied myself during this trip, because even at the most challenging points, I reminded myself that it was entirely my choice to be there. And it was. I had a proper adventure, I survived, and now I’m telling the tale.

Friday morning. The ferry arrived in Dieppe and kicked everyone off at 3:30am. I had time for half an apricot  cereal bar, which consisted of approximately 188 calories (the half). I became quite interested in the caloric content of what I ate throughout the day, because I’m sure I consumed far less than I burned. I kept thinking of Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his Arctic journeys.

Did I mention it was cold?

I’m not sure if I’d call it a mistake, exactly, to think it would be warm and sunny as soon as I crossed the Channel. I’d been worrying that it would rain during this trip. The irony is that I was mostly worried it would rain during my UK leg, on Thursday, and the UK leg was the most glorious weather of the ride to Paris. When I later told Verity about the cold, she said ‘Oh, of course! The North of France has terrible weather!’

This weather was, I have decided, the worst weather I could have encountered. If it had been pouring down with rain, I would have had to immediately re-evaluate my situation. I probably wouldn’t have set off from Dieppe. However, riding off the ferry at 3:30 am, effectively the dead of night, I thought the mist and cold and dark would burn off and warm up with the sunrise.

Little did I know that the sun would not rise that day.

I spent about 40 minutes, maybe more, riding around Dieppe to find the right road which would set me on my way to Paris. I was determined to spend the time I needed getting on the correct road so I didn’t go off track. Dieppe was completely shut down, darkened, closed, asleep. I saw one person and had no intention of asking for directions. The dead of night in a port town? No, thank you. My new phone began to immediately prove its worth with the GPS satellite navigation which tells you where you are. It also ended up costing an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. That little light in the darkness kept me hopeful.

So, I finally set off down the D915. As soon as I left Dieppe, all the streetlights ended, and a thick, wet mist hung in the air. It was cold, but I was pretty pleased at that point to be heading off so early. If all went well, I would even make it to Paris early!

Right.

For the record, Google Maps reports that to drive from Dieppe via the D915, through Pontoise, to Paris Gare du Bercy, in a car, would take about 3, 3.5 hours. So I doubled it because that’s about how long my other journeys took: twice that of a car. Remember, Vespa can go 30, 35 mph average, happily, and she was loaded with a small suitcase, a backpack, and my ukulele as well as me. So 6 hours plus breaks was my estimate. I needed to drop off Vespa by 7pm, but I needed to be on the TGV (high-speed train) at Gare du Lyon for 5:45pm.

3:30am to 5:30pm should be more than enough time, right? SCADS of time. I could fly to the States and back in that amount of time.

Right.

It was cold. And wet. I had to keep my helmet visor up, because the mist was so thick it immediately covered the visor in damp, and the air was so cold that the visor and the air fogged with my breath. The few oncoming cars that passed me dazzled my mist-soaked glasses. Otherwise, it was pitch black. I could smell it when I passed what must have been large livestock in the fields immediately off the road (later, in the daybreak, I realised I’d been passing cows,) but I couldn’t see a thing. It was the kind of wraith-mist that put me in mind of the creepy creatures in Tolkien and Harry Potter. It was the kind of dark and mist that makes you begin to see things that aren’t there. It was the kind of cold mist that makes you start to go a little crazy. It makes you wish you were anywhere but there, somewhere dry, and safe, and warm. And not, not alone.

I rode like this for hours.

My posture became more and more hunched, trying to block out the cold. The few cars that passed got messages of mental envy – YOU HAVE HEAT! YOU HAVE A RADIO! You are protected from the elements!  The wind whistled through my pushed-back visor and my arms and shoulders locked onto keeping to the road. The white lines painted on the edge of the road and in the middle of the road were the only things I could see, and I have never been so grateful for white stripes of paint.

I stopped in one of the blessed, rare pools of light cast by streetlights . They rose up, rarely, an oasis in the dark, to mark the turning-points to little towns or villages. I put my contact lenses in and put my glasses away, and I wrapped my mouth and nose balaclava-style in my too-thin scarf and stuffed my helmet back over it to try to protect my face from the cold.

In the pools of light, there would be a few houses, shuttered, closed, and dark. Finally, I saw a sign which made my heart leap for joy – one of those universal ‘rest stop’ signs with symbols for food & petrol – I’ve never been so glad to see a symbol of a fork in my life. I followed the signs to Forges-les-Eaux.

My hopes sank as I drove into a small, darkened village. I turned down a side road where a light shone. It was a tabac – a corner shop selling magazines and cigarettes. It was open!

It was 5:25am.

I parked Vespa and staggered inside, shivering uncontrollably. In extremely bad French, I asked if there was any cafe or anything open. There were two guys inside stocking magazines and newspapers. One did the French side-glance-shake-of-the head thing. The other took pity on me and engaged in a semi-conversation. I asked if I could stand inside and warm up because I was FREEZING, which I think was pretty obvious in any language. After about 20 minutes, where they continued to stock papers in silence, and I choked down a fruit & oat bar (221 calories) and then asked if I could use the toilet. The first guy said no before I had finished the question. The second, kind guy led me downstairs through a few store-rooms and to the loos.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, after I’d stopped shivering (mostly,) I thanked the nice guy, wrapped back up, and left. There was no point wasting time standing in a shop dripping mist on their floor if I couldn’t have a proper rest. What I wanted was somewhere really really warm, hot even, and a cup of tea, and real food.

It was back to Vespa and the D915. Back to the darkness, back to the cold, back to waiting for sunrise.

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