Triplogue - England

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Tattooed Spike, Tish, Teabag and their feathered friend Sam

5 June 1997, Portsmouth to Lewes, 57k

Whether it’s by plane, boat or train, my arrival in England is always met with the same impression: what a dreary and shabby place this is. Even under blue skies –as was the case as we pedaled into Portsmouth—there is an overwhelming sense of grayness. Square brick buildings covered in soot, the 1930’s aesthetic of the storefronts, and the ashen complexions and expressions of the people --all contribute to the feeling of being in a world with all the color sucked out of it. It almost looks as if they’re still digging out of aftermath of the Blitz. Could this bleak and depressing place really have been the center of a vast empire?

The nine-hour boat ride had passed without incident. The channel was smooth as glass, so I didn’t get to see Fred change colors and barf. We spent most of the time napping in our cabin and wandering around the deserted decks, staring off into the fog. Once in Portsmouth, our mission was to find a place to spend the night. The sun was hanging low in the sky, and we didn’t want to get caught in the dark. Of course, it would remain light for another four hours at this Northern latitude, but the sense of urgency was heightened by continuing problems with my front tire.

Now that we were in an English-speaking country, it was Fred’s job to take care of the negotiations involved in securing lodging. It wasn’t easy for him though, since all the hotels we stopped at were either full or bicycle-intolerant. I felt frustrated being on such an unattractive, unfriendly island full of linguistically and orthographically challenged people, who spell color with a "u" and pronounce "whining" "win-jing." After three or four unsuccessful attempts at securing lodgings, I began whinging "where’s the motel?" Even though the day had been anything but athletically challenging, I was tired of stopping every ten minutes for a bout of sisyphian pumping, and wanted nothing so much as to roll my bike into a ground floor room at the nearest Ramada Inn, soak in a hot bath and lose my brain to 125 channels of cable t.v. The receptionist at one fully-booked hotel called around and found us a room in a bed-‘n’-breakfast sorta place in the suburbs. To get there we rode along a seaside promenade which had clearly enjoyed its heyday during the reign of Victoria Regina (say that six times fast). Of course we had to unload our bikes completely and lug everything up a narrow staircase under the disapproving eyes of the hotel’s owner to our little room full of beds and tea-making apparatus.

Once settled in, we struck off in search of a meal. Our perpetually unreliable Spartacus Guide led us to a non-existent homo café at the intersection of Albert Road and Victoria Road. Nearby, however, we found a pubfull of people eating and we ventured in only to learn they were no longer serving; would we like a beer? I was beginning to suspect that Portsmouth had been engineered to alienate American cycletourists. These suspicions were confirmed when we found that the only place serving food after nine p.m. in Portsmouth was… a carry-out fish and chips shack. Back in our room, Fred somehow managed to polish off his cod, but I couldn’t face my haddock, and threw it in the trash can, feeling perversely satisfied that we’d leave our overpriced and unfriendly accommodations smelling of fish and old grease.

As the reader might have surmised by now, neither Fred nor I are rabid anglophiles. But the morning nearly converted us, when we made our way downstairs to indulge in the second feature offered by our bed ‘n’ breakfast. The huge helpings of eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, cereals, fruit and pastries came as a welcome change from the sparse continental breakfasts we’d been enduring. For the first time in nearly a month, we felt properly fortified for a day of riding.

Before we could set off, however, I had my flat tire to tend to. The Portsmouth Cycle Exchange is located at the now-familiar intersection of Victoria and Albert Roads, and is well worth the detour if you ever get the chance. A skinny, geeky-looking guy called Derek gave me heaps of sage advice on wheel repair. Of course, I only understood about a quarter of what he said. His waxy gnome-like co-worker spoke more clearly, though, and told me how much he loved Americans, finding them gracious and optimistic. I told him I liked Americans, too, yet withheld comment when he began to complain about people studying "useless" things like art and literature in school.

Next on our list of tasks was to find a map. This was accomplished in the "precinct" (Britannic for pedestrian mall), where Fred was accosted by an unfriendly old Brit in a linen suit while I was inside a bookshop. The man apparently came up to him complaining that Fred was taking his usual place on a park bench. As we pedaled off a couple of minutes later, he shouted after us, "No cycling allowed!", to which we responded by waving and smiling.

Getting out of Portsmouth was a total nightmare. The only highway out of town was solid with speeding metal death canisters, all driving on the wrong side of the road. A sorry excuse for a bike path ran intermittently alongside it, its surface no longer suitable for riding –a legacy of the endless Thatcherism that has strangled the life out of this little island country? My panniers being brushed by the uninterupted stream of automobiles, I hoped that the new Blair administration would have more cycle-friendly policies.

Making matters worse was the wind, perhaps the strongest we’ve encountered on the trip. It was coming straight out of the East (the direction we were headed, bien sur) and gusted up to forty miles an hour. That’s what the weather report said anyway, and we didn’t doubt it once we were out in the countryside, pedaling with all our might down hills. The countryside looked green and attractive –as the English countryside is meant to—but even on the secondary roads, the traffic continued to be a menace, so all our concentration was focused on staying alive in the leftmost part of the road.

Our goal for lunch was Chichester, which looked close on the map. But with the wind and our frustration with the drivers, we were exhausted by the time we stopped there for a lunch of a salad with "brown sauce" and a stuffed potato. We decided to take the train to Brighton, only a few miles from Susannah’s house in Lewes and the supposed gay capital of Britain. The train was filled with noisy packs of schoolchildren in uniform. Many of them had bicycles, too, and we liked how accommodating the rail system was to cyclists –much more so than the roads, anyway.

Brighton is a big town, we discovered quickly, and an irritatingly hilly one. Of course all the traffic moved along at unbelievable speeds, putting our lives in jeapordy, but I insisted we check out the beach and sample the queer scene there. We stopped at an outdoor café on a traffic-clogged cliff, where we met an avid cyclist called Spike, who used his bike not only as a means of conveyance but also as a sort of mobile petting zoo. He carried two small dogs –Tish and Teabag—in his handlebar bag, while his cockatoo (Sam) used the bars as a perch.

We thought we’d take the scenic route to Lewes, but wimped out yet again, ostensibly due to the increasingly threatening skies. The main road was a horror, but had a mostly usable bike lane running alongside it. It went up and over a series of steep bald hills called "downs" –one of those very specific Britannic geographical features, like heath and weald and moor. Lewes itself was predictably traffic-clogged, but otherwise adorable. It didn’t take us long to find Susannah and Jonathan’s little house, where we caught up on each other’s lives over tea and scones.

Hiatus - London 6-8 June

Owen, Max and Myriem’s son, was having a little tantrum when we arrived in London. Still a little cranky following his afternoon nap. Once he shook off his mood he engaged me in a conversation describing his exploits at school, his possessions and relations with his sister, Octavia, sitting at the dining room table. I was surprised to discover how he’d developed since I’d last seen him. Now but three and one-half years old with what seemed to be an enormous vocabulary, great diction and an astounding command of grammar. It felt great to be in Max and Myriem’s home rather than in a hotel. The children, though a constant distraction, made it all the more rich an experience.

London had undergone a change since my last visit. In the past it had always seemed a sad post imperialist place full of pretentious idiots and woefully overpriced. Now it was not sad. There seemed to be an infectious energy in the air that I associate with highly prosperous cities at the apex of their accomplishment. I had the sense that London was enjoying a highpoint in their history and economy.

Largely our time there together with Max, Myriem and family was spent catching up on the time that had past since we had last seen one another. Parenthood seems to agree with our friends who now glowed while speaking about or playing with their children. And for good reason, Owen and Octavia are enough to make anyone proud. We had the best intention of visiting Dante at the set of the film he is producing, but never made it. We actually got on the subway and found our way to where we though they were filming only to discover that Andrew had made a rare navigation error as to the location of the shoot.

One night we did escape for an ultimate luxury. We actually went to see a movie. Kronenberg’s "Crash" was more than a little disappointing. Afterwards a creepy little Asian guy followed me into the bathroom and tried to flirt with me. My rebuff there seemed to not be enough punishment for him so he followed us down the street until he caught us and invited us collectively to come with him to his house in Brixton. He insisted on finding a piece of paper and giving us his number. Promptly told us might not work due to some personal problems he was having at the moment. Somehow the note found the trash can within a few yards of our encounter. We toyed with the idea of a night out at Heaven (the Disneyland of Queerdom) but couldn’t muster enough energy and retired to our host’s house for a good night’s rest before going to Paris.

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Max and Owen

Octavia in her cage

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Power brunching in Paris chez Damien

Hiatus - Paris, 9-17 June

Stepping off the train at the Gare du Nord felt like coming home, like slipping into an old and comfortable pair of shoes. I loved the sense of knowing where I was going without the aid of a map for a change. Even the smell in the metro downstairs seemed cozy in its familiarity. It didn’t take long to get to Olivier’s apartment, which he had recently redecorated to look like a tent. Unfortunately, Olivier wasn’t in the mood to go out with us, since he was suffering from an abscessed tooth which made it look like he had secreted a grapefruit in his gumline.

Most of my nine days in Paris were spent visiting friends and getting reacquainted with my former home. Highlights included playing petanques in front of the Louvre with Olivier and Francois, dinner in Chinatown with Angela and her two amazing daughters, and brunch at Damien’s house with most of the people who used to come by for brunches at Rue Montmartre and Rue du Temple. Our trip mascot Geoff Benson showed up, in Paris for a couple of days before heading back to the States for the Lori ‘n’ Paul wedding extravaganza, which Fred will describe below…

Hiatus - London, 14-15 June

On this visit I’d spend more time with my longtime friend Dante, staying with him in the thick of things, the center of Soho. Here he is producing his first feature film (I am frightfully proud of him). We had dinner with his boss and friend Tony Edwards at their exclusive downtown club, the Soho House. Every time I see Tony I am struck by how down-to-earth he is. It seems surprising to me how little he has changed despite his meteoric success on TV.

We managed to hit a few pubs and sample London’s gay culture together. Found one especially fun venue called Freedom. A little bar and café that was infected with the same energy that seemed to pervade all of London. It was unlike the sad little pubs we visited where folks seemed more intent on getting drunk and laid than anything else.

Dante and Tony invited me to a hilarious event, the Stella Artois Tennis Finals, a warm-up for Wimbledon. It was the first time I’d gone to such an event. There was a star-studded luncheon beforehand. Never had I felt more out of place. My outfit was cobbled together from odds and ends around Dante’s house and from my bike bags. Everyone else around me was amazingly put together. The host was wearing an especially dapper periwinkle blazer. People were gabbing about their latest film projects and name dropping while I sulked quietly. Everyone was awed by Pierce (Brosman) who swaggered about wearing DG sunglasses that would have been at home on Jackie O.

It was an afternoon of firsts for me. I’d never seen tennis played on grass in person either. Our seats were spectacular. At the baseline one row back. We felt like we could reach down and touch Mark Philipousas (something I have dreamed about since seeing him). I learned to fear him when he served from the other side of the court. He propelled tennis balls at Ivansevich at speeds averaging 120mph. The linesmen and I flinched each time the first service flamed over the net in our direction. At one point Ivansevich realized the absurdity of trying to actually return it and made the ball-girl return Mark’s service for a point. The ball-girl and Philipousas made some sport of it and the longest rally of the game ensued. (thankfully) Dante wanted to leave before the doubles final.

Hiatus - New York and Wilmington, 16-23 June (no photos, boo hoo! Marie -- can you help us out?!)

It had been since the morning of our departure from San Diego that I had seen my mom, Doris. And, then we’d had precious few moments alone together. So it was only right to plan to spend some time together during our hiatus. I’d planned to go to Wilmington to see two dear friends' wedding so it was convenient for us to meet in New York. Mom faced visiting New York City with great trepidation. I made the trek out to the airport to meet her in order to alleviate some her fear. She recounted to me her adventures shopping in NYC thirty years before as we made our way into town.

I didn’t give her much time to rest. Just after checking into the hotel I whisked her off to dinner at Judson Grill. After a satisfying meal we both enjoyed "Master Class" featuring the exploits of Maria Callas as a singing instructor. Thus began my triple life in NYC; hanging with mom, working on the computer and seeing my friends.

After dropping her at the hotel I headed back to Mike’s pad to work on backing up our computer. I wrestled with the software and tape drive for two consecutive nights before having some success. This night I tore my hair out until well after one a.m. Afterwards the Barracuda Bar beckoned. I was to meet my friend Davey. He’d just moved to New York and is doing time as a bartender while getting his business off the ground. Thankfully the bar was empty and we capitalized on that opportunity to catch up. David Booz is amazing. He seems ageless and Buddha-like in demeanor. I didn’t manage to retire to bed until after three, wandering back to Mike’s wondering how David can manage to work until four in the morning.

For me the morning came very early. I was at my mom’s hotel around nine breakfasting and planning another day together. We made a booking to see "The Gin Game" revival and set off to the Metropolitan Museum to see the Cartier show. The Cartier expo was sparkling and colorful. I found it especially remarkable that Cartier made some many pieces of jewelry for stock. He would just wake up one day and say to himself "Oh, think I’ll put together a 200 carat diamond tiara to put in a display case. Maybe a prince or someone will happen in and plunk down the national debt for it?!" Doris dug all the sapphires and other colored gems that were simply polished and set rather than cut. I could only imagine Marilyn Monroe saying "I love finding new places to wear diamonds!"

Lunch was disappointing for me. I had booked the Grammercy Tavern anticipating a fine meal. Our appetizers were "spot-on" as was the ’90 white burgundy we shared. Unfortunately my main course arrived with more dirt than mushrooms adorning the fish. It was the first time in ages I’d sent a meal back to the kitchen. The waiter was unapologetic, explaining that they don’t wash this type of mushroom, they merely brush off the dirt. This was supposed to make me more comfortable.

Mom loved "The Gin Game" while I found it hard to believe. Again that night I worked on the computer until late and then met friends for drinks. By the third day of this hectic schedule I was near collapse. Somehow I managed to make it up to breakfast where we planned our day. Shopping, tea at Mike's, dinner with Geoff Benson and "Full Gallop". While mom hit Bergdorf’s and Sak’s I ran around town picking up odds and ends to refill my paniers.

Ironically I’d missed Geoff by minutes in Paris, but here he was in New York. Rough and ready for adventure and Lori and Paul’s wedding. He joined me and my mom for a noodlishious meal before the play and we all laughed at the monologue detailing the post Vogue days of Diana Vreeland. All of us wondered if she actually wore that much rouge in person. We were all very curious to know how many syllables there were in the words "Paaahrissss" and "Jaaahpaaahn" after hearing her speak them.

Mom departed the next day. I was really proud and relieved that she made it to the airport unescorted. It had been a fun whirlwind in New York with her.

Geoff and I barely made our train to Wilmington. The Friday traffic in Manhattan was gridlocked and we stepped aboard just as the doors closed and the coaches began to move. Both of us were exhausted from the evening before and our days on "vacation". Somehow I managed to sleep along the way though the car was packed. We arrived in a town that must have been the testing ground of the neutron bomb. Friday at 6pm: no one was on the streets of downtown.

In Wilmington Geoff and I assumed the roles of social directors. We’d arranged dinner with Te that night, drinks with the wedding party and our friends and a brunch for the folks not in the ceremony on the wedding day. A dirty job, but someone had to do it. The cocktail party in the bar was most amusing. Te’s champagne-inspired alter ego appeared that night, Trixie Bubbles. She was making trouble, goading perfectly innocent young ladies into picking up on preppy boys at the bar, giggling at their antics and predicting the results of social interactions with astounding accuracy. She wasn’t alone in alcohol inspired levity. Marie Huwe managed to power down a few toddies herself and revealed very embarrassing tales of her days in college. We thoughtfully reminded her of them for the next two days. None of us will forget her visceral description of life in her sorority.

The wedding itself was an impressive affair in a garden outside of Wilmington. The only sad part was that I couldn’t hear the Bride and Groom exchange their vows and thoughts. Paul and Lori held an inspiring party afterwards. In a tent on a great lawn they stuffed us with food and libations, entertained us with music and provided us with fantastically diverse guests with which to converse. It was like a five year high school reunion for me. I had the chance to catch up with all of my friends from Borland who have now all landed elsewhere.

The wedding ended early. I’ve become accustomed to French weddings that last until dawn. Geoff, Te, Marie, Paul, Lori and many others were standing around talking while the waiters folded the chairs and tables looking at us crossly.

Afterwards Geoff and I hit the local Wilmington homo hangout conveniently located just outside the hotel. A quick first look revealed nothing of interest and we almost left immediately. Just before making our way back I saw someone lurking in the dark with his friends near the dance floor. At the same time Geoff found a friend who was rumored to have chest implants and was the talk of the bar for that reason.

Brunch the next day was a comedy for everyone but the Maitre d’ Hotel of the restaurant. Someone had made a reservation for 6-8 folks not realizing that nearly the entire California contingent of the wedding was to be there. Eight became ten, ten became twelve…. All the while our host was rearranging tables. Final count was 18 or so, and to their credit the wait staff and host accommodated all of us happily.

Afterwards Geoff and I were off to NYC. At the train station while we watched Amtrak have a schedule meltdown I arranged a dinner party. I also managed to invite my Wilmington friend to join me in NYC. That night Davey, his buddy Javier, Geoff, Lee and I had a dinner of gnocchi, salad and ice cream. I was super unsatisfied with the gnocchi. Somehow it came out with a consistency resembling chewing gum. I can’t imagine how anyone there managed to eat it. But everyone seemed to eat it without complaint (polite or what?)

The next day my stateside voyage had come to an end. Lee departed for the train and I headed for the airport after a last minute shopping spree with Geoff. Somehow I ended up at the wrong airport. Luckily the check-in clerk was able to alter my ticket and got me to Dulles for my connection.

Normally I would have freaked out to find a hysterical two-year-old next to me on the flight to London. I had visions of not sleeping a wink on the way back. Instead I helped Sam’s mother calm him down and entertained him while his mother got settled on the plane. He turned out to be very entertaining and ultimately crashed early enough for me to get some sleep and see the movie. Arriving in London again I was relieved knowing that I’d be back on my cycle within a few days.

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Caspar at the cafe Eiles in Vienna

Doing the tourist thang "en famille"

Drag King Susannah as Cherubino making her net debut

Vienna 18-24 June

It was an amazing week spent with my little son, and a week which zoomed by way too quickly. My first few days there, Caspar was still getting over a nasty bout of croup, so we spent most of the time indoors, reading books, playing and napping. He was feeling better when Olivier and his mom showed up, which allowed us to babysit and sightsee simultaneously. Though I had been to Vienna many times before, this marked my first visit to the amazing Belvedere palace and museum --which houses the most famous works by Shiele and Klimt-- and the Schatzkammer, where the Hapsburg family jewels are on display. We also made an excursion into the countryside with Antonia’s disarmingly charming friend Alexander. Caspar especially enjoyed our ride on the Riesenrad --the ferris-wheel-like symbol of Vienna-- a horse and buggy tour of Vienna’s monument-rich center, picking flowers and playing in the parks, and meeting dogs and old ladies in the many cafés we visited. All in all, it was a perfect week, and I didn’t get on a bicycle seat once.

As always, I was struck by how conservative Vienna is. It’s as if the Austrian capital (some say all of Austria) has been frozen in time, since most of the architecture, attitudes and even fashions evoke the turn of the century. It also strikes me as the oldest European capital in the demographic sense, with countless little old ladies and men doddering around in their feathered hats and woolen outfits. Even the town’s best homo bar, the café Savoy, seems incredibly staid and proper, complete with a septuagenarian cocktail waiter in a vest and bowtie. While Vienna is very pleasant to visit, cozy and opulent at the same time, I could never live there for the oppressively established social mores. I wonder if anything will have changed by the time that Caspar –who at fifteen months has spent more time there than I have—grows up and learns to appreciate such things.

Europride and Eurostar, 25-26 June

It is never easy saying goodbye to the little critter, and if it weren’t for his mom I’d bungee him on to my bike and bring him along. I could think of little else as we flew over the Alps and back to Paris.

We didn’t get in until late and the weather was totally disgusting, but I felt obligated to go out since it was my last night in Paris and my only chance to get a flavor of "Europride." Europride is a recently established annual homo extravaganza that takes place in a different European capital every June. In Paris it was expected to attract no fewer than 300,000 people, and I was determined to see the impact this would have on the all too familiar homo trail through Les Halles and Le Marais.

As expected, I felt stupid for having committed myself to being in England the next day. What lousy scheduling. For Europride promised to be an extraodinary event. The bars and cafes were packed with Europeans from all over, especially the more strident, militant types from Northern countries --just what uptight Paris needs to shake it up a little. Never before have I been addressed in Danish by a stranger in a French queer bar. I wished I had been able to stay on for a few days.

Nevertheless, I boarded the Eurostar early the next morning, toting my outfit for that evening’s opera. It was my fourth trip on the famed train, and I have always found it the perfect emblem of European so-called unity. In France, the train zooms at an average speed of 300 kilometers (that’s 186 miles) per hour, while in England it drops down to 80 (that’s 50 miles per hour, a speed I have attained on my bicycle).

When the train ground to an unscheduled stop, I looked out the window and was amused to find myself in a place called Dulwich. It seemed a fitting name in the relentless gray rain, and looked appropriately bleak. In Waterloo station (another irony of the French train on English soil is the name of the station at which it terminates), I was struck by a sign indicating "H.M. Immigration Inspector", the first bit presumably referring to the queen. What would she be doing with an immigration inspector, I wondered. Since it was raining and I was carrying a suit, I treated myself to a cab, one of the black ones which surely mark the summit of Britannic civilization. The driver was so friendly and helpful that I wondered if he had undergone some sort of affability training. Later that day, I learned that he had. All London cabbies go through a vigorous two-year’s training called "The Knowledge," in which they are required to learn the location of every single street in greater London, or so Max says anyway. The drive to Max’s house was basically the route followed by tourist busses, past the houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and throngs of Sony-wielding Japanese under umbrellas in front of Buckingham Palace. Near Tony Blair’s new digs my eyes fell upon a sign posted on a fence saying: "BICYCLES WILL BE REMOVED BY POLICE," making me wonder once again what the Brits have against bicycles. It made me anxious to get to Holland…

No one was home at Max’s so I sat dripping on his building’s doorstep until a workman let me in with more than a hint of suspicion in his eyes. I waited for a while on the staircase before Valentine, the au pair, arrived with Owen. Only a moment later I heard another familiar voice in the stairway that made my heart beat a little faster. It was Fred, whom I hadn’t seen in two weeks. I had half forgotten that I was going to see him that day and it sent a happy shiver up my spine knowing that we’d be together on the road again in only a day. Our hiatus was officially coming to an end.

Of course we were late getting to the opera at Glyndebourne. While we left London with time to spare, the traffic leaving the city was nightmarish under the pouring rain; it took two hours just to reach the freeway, by which time the curtain for the first act was on the verge of being raised. The ushers snuck us in (along with, let it be stated for the record, scores of other late arrivals) between the first and second acts. I noted with irony that the last time I had been to see "The Marriage of Figaro" I had to leave at the precise same moment in the opera, afflicted with a meningitis attack. Susannah was wonderful, of course, as was the rest of the cast and the production in general. And the intermission was nearly as entertaining as the music, since Glyndebourne is a serious social scene, with a famous ninety-minute "interval" in which upper-class British-type people picnic and pose in their finery. Susannah had told me that the dress-up aspect of Glyndebourne was "like going to the senior prom" and Antonia had described it as "camp." I found both descriptions accurate. We saw famous people in tuxes and gowns, foreign dignitaries in their national drag, retired colonels with all their medals pinned to their chests, and the world’s most ancient ushers all milling about among the fields of grass and sheep, looking for dry patches under the eaves in which to squat and nibble.

After the opera, we went straight back to Susannah’s place, only five minutes away. Hubby Jonathan greeted us at the door and prepared tea for us all, but soon headed upstairs for bed since he was beat from a tough week of rehearsing a play in which he plays a gay guy. He was sporting a goatee and a homo haircut and had been spending evenings conducting "research" in homo bars. It required enormous effort to restrain myself from teasing.

27 June 1997, Lewes to Dingleden, 64K

After but a few days off our bikes in London I had already longed to hit the road again. Still unsure of what I am addicted to. Is it the movement, the excitement of meeting people or the chemicals my body produces? Whatever it is, my want had faded this day. What cut my desire to move? Could it be that the sky was gray and cold? That huge amounts of precipitation were falling from it? Or was it Susannah’s comfortable little cottage in Lewes? Susannah didn’t make it any easier to leave. As we were making final preparation for departure she uttered softly, "naaaappp" as though invoking a post hypnotic suggestion. Several times we almost fell to her hospitality, but at just before three we set off. Not before I managed to demonstrate, yet again, my propensity to have accidents.

Our bicycles had been stored high up in Susannah and Jonathon’s yard under tarps. I uncovered mine and untangled it from the vines that had wrapped themselves around the wheels. I made it down the first flight of cement stairs safely resting for a few moments at the second level of the garden. The second flight was more narrow, constructed of brick and had slender steps. One side of the stair was bordered by a structure in the neighbor’s yard and the other by a retaining wall and then the kitchen of the house. Three steps down my right foot lost traction and then the left. I let go of the bike and surfed the wild staircase on my left hip the bike left propped between the retaining wall and the little structure.

A huge strawberry began to form on my upper leg as we rode off towards Dingleden to see Susy’s mom. Again we felt menaced by britannotraffic leaving Lewes. So much so that as rain began to fall more heavily we pushed on instead of turning back, not wanting to re-experience Lewes’ uninviting roads. The pathways became quieter as we pressed on towards Kent. It seemed that as the roads became quieter they became correspondingly hillier. Our chests heaved pumping up the steep inclines past green pastures, under wooded canopies and through charming little villages. One feature of British country roads is their startlingly poor drainage. Water and mud flooded the roads leaving us covered with dirt and water.

Both Andy and I had read Bill Bryson’s "Lost Continent" during our break. It was surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of the brits. Just like his book we found that asking directions yielded long responses that were virtually unintelligible and relayed more unrelated information than assistance. If there are two or more British people present when instructions were given each person dutifully gave their version and told about how their cousin or brother always gets lost just past the "little pub along the great hedgerow near Big Fluffing while on their way to see the cinema in Cheesebury." The last yards were the most challenging. A huge lake had formed on a low point of Ann’s unpaved driveway. I envisioned Andy falling in and becoming covered with mud. (This would titillate one of our readers who wrote us during our break. He wanted to know if we had rescued a man from mud or quicksand along the way and if we had pictures. I wrote back asking if he had a fetish, and if so, to send a picture. His answer was "yes". He included a photo of himself knee deep in mud wearing a speedo.) Unfortunately for our reader, Andy safely made the crossing.

Knocking on the front door we were confronted with oh-so-calm Ann uncharacteristically worried. She anticipated that we would arrive earlier. So did we, but we had stopped frequently to warm up. After soiling Ann with our hugs hello Andy went directly to the bath while Ann and I caught up over a glass of red wine. We’d stayed an afternoon there the year before following Susannah’s wedding to Jonathan. That day the sun had beamed and I had napped in the sun. This day I bundled myself in my fleece riding gear and listened to the sheep bleat "goodnight." After washing up we enjoyed the feast that Ann unfurled for us. Her hospitality was phenomenal.

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The origin of Andrew's religion, or WASP Mecca

28 June 1997, Dingleden to Ramsgate and Dunkerque, France, 97km

Leaving Anne’s cozy country cottage is not an easy thing to do, especially when it’s drizzling outside. So it was past noon when we finally hit the trail. The first miles were as tough as the previous day’s, on narrow, curvy and steep country lanes. We’d hardly begun riding when we got caught in an enormous sheep-jam, where we discovered that bikes are a great way to round up the bleating beasts. Fred asked the shepherd for a half day’s wages when we wheeled by.

Rural England is definitely more appealing than urban England, and I found myself enjoying the day’s riding in spite of myself. The weather cleared up and the Kentish countryside looked incredibly green as we pedaled towards Canterbury. We had lunch in a pub that served gnocchi (that’s what they called it, anyway) before pumping up an endless hill that took us once again to the top of an gargantuan ridge that the Brits refer to as "The Weald." From the top, it was mostly downhill to the nerve center of the Holy Anglican Empire.

I knew that Canterbury would be full of tourists but wasn’t prepared for the masses of camera-toting humanity that clogged the ancient town’s narrow streets. It took us a long time to push our steeds through blocks and blocks of souvenir stands and mobs of American retirees asking their guides embarrassingly uninformed questions about Chaucer. I was shocked to find that admission was being charged to get into the "cathedral precinct." Between the two of us, we had just enough coins to cover one person’s hefty two-pounds-fifty entrance fee. I felt sort of obligated to make the pilgrimage as a baptized Episcopalian, though, and since Fred showed no interest at all in seeing the cathedral, I left him to watch the bikes.

It was pretty impressive. I especially liked the shrine commemorating the Catholic church that had stood there before Henry VIII had it destroyed. It reminded me of the absurd silliness of Anglicanism, how it was founded by a bitter and vainglorious king Henry when Rome wouldn’t grant him a divorce. The cathedral itself is an architectural hodgepodge, curiously asymmetrical and multi-leveled. There were tons of tombs of Very Important People, commemorative plaques everywhere, and a serious shrine to Thomas Beckett (additional admission fee required). Notably lacking were all my favorite Catholic motifs: smoking votive candles, elaborately carved confessionals and garish paintings of the Holy Virgin and bleeding Jesuses. Fascinating as the place was, it felt great to get back out into the sunlight again.

There was another hill on our way out of town, but the remaining 25 kilometers to Ramsgate were possibly the most beautiful we cycled in England. Everything looked fresh and clean from all the rain and the air had a distinct sea-smell to it. We ran into a couple of Dutch cyclists in a tiny village. The guy was tall and thin and had one of those unpronounceable Dutch names that sounds like you have a chicken bone lodged in your throat. His younger wife (I presume) was mercifully named Elizabeth and offered us some bland biscuity things she called cookies. They had just arrived in England from the continent and were thrilled by the glorious weather. We clued them in that this was a very recent phenomenon indeed, and that banking on its continuation might not be a good idea, and reminded them to ride on the left side of the road. I wondered as we talked to them if we were missing the last boat to Oostende in Belgium.

And of course we were. We followed a painless route into Ramsgate and had no trouble finding the ferry port. The next boat to Oostende (and yes, it was the last one for the day) was leaving in ten minutes, but the ticket agent told us we were too late and the boat was full anyway; how about Dunkerque, only 50 kilometers south of Oostende? He was remarkably friendly, saying he’d give us a student discount and let us use his phone to call France for sleeping arrangements. Anxious to get back onto the continent, where the cars drive on the right and proper side of the road, we acquiesced immediately. The boat wasn’t for another couple of hours, so we’d have time for a delicious yet excruciatingly slow Indian meal.

The sun set as we crossed the channel in a frighteningly fast vessel. Scores of hyperactive children screaming in English, French, Flemish and German made the short trip seem long, and I realized how really and truly exhausted I was. Three weeks of torpor had let my cycling legs atrophy, and two hilly days had done me in. Once in Dunkerque, we were delighted to find cycle paths leading to our suburban hotel (could this really be France?), which turned out to be a scary pre-fab affair, more trailer than anything else. The worst part was carrying our ultra-heavy beasts up two flights of stairs and squeezing them into our little cell. I slept like a corpse, even though it was on a penis pillow.

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