Le Pain de la Bouche

As I parked up my bike in Lens, I came across an elderly gentleman sitting alone on the only table outside a restaurant and quietly enjoying a cigarette in the evening air. He saw my teetering mound of strapped-on luggage and the GoPro fixed to my bike and said something in French that I didn't understand, but we both smiled. He mimed a camera shutter button and wobbling around on my bike. It was funny! A good joke, made without words. Using memorised stock phrases, I explained that I was travelling by bike to Istanbul; again, there were very few words in common, but I picked up 'bon courage', which I now know means 'Good luck', but also 'Good courage', or 'Hang in there, you can do it!'. 

I was starving and utterly exhausted, and it turned out the place he was sat outside - 'Le Pain de la Bouche' - was pretty much everything you could hope for from a French restaurant, and beyond that unpretentious and affordable. So now, if ever, was the time to forget Aldi and try real French food. I asked non-verbally for a table for one, and was led by the owner through warm light and lively chatter to the last little table available that night, right at the back, from which I could look over the whole candlelit scene. 

Sitting down, I picked up the menu to take a look - only to have the paper sheet whipped from my hands and scrunched up in front of me! I was quite surprised, but the owner just grinned and walked away. Bemused, I settled down again and eventually picked up the copy from the place next to me. 

In a flash, he was back! Once more, the menu was ripped from my grasp, crumpled up before my eyes and and thrown to the ground with theatric aplomb. Jokingly, I motioned with mock stealth to take a third, but he was too fast: another copy of the menu bit the dust. 

Laughing, at last I understood, as I was presented proudly with a well-loved English language copy. It was much appreciated: normally, I would be up for taking my chances with my abysmal but marginally non-zero French, but in my diminished state, I wanted to know for sure that what I was ordering was definitely digestible and nourishing. It was a kind service that the owner was so concerned I have a copy that I could read, and a laugh too.

Passing through France without trying one glass of wine is legally prohibited 

I'm not really a wine-drinker, but I had decided to pause in Lens the following day to run errands and work on the website, and as I looked around, I saw a glass reflecting candlelight in the hand of almost everyone. And it's France, for god's sake. So I did the only proper thing. It was good wine, and good food, much needed and eaten gratefully.

There is value in watching and listening to conversation in a language you do not understand. In front of me sat a couple in their 40s, him animatedly relating some story, her listening with a broad smile, wine in hand; to my right, a large family with children and grandparents, chatter flying every which-way. Not speaking French, I knew little or nothing of what they spoke of, but instead saw their togetherness, how much they enjoyed their food and their wine and each others' company. 

The old man from before came past my table and saw my glass. This time, the mime included not just a camera and a wobbly bike, but a glass of wine making it even wobblier! We managed to talk a little and have a laugh; his name was Eric. He was truly interested in my journey but the language barrier became prohibitive, so I used my phone to awkwardly translate a little bit. I asked if I could post our photo. He was a very modest fellow, and surprised I would want to, but more than happy for me to do so. 

My favourite photo from the trip so far.

As he left we shook hands firmly, with much 'Bon courage!', 'Merci beaucoup mon ami!' and 'Au revoir!'.

I really liked Eric. He seemed quite at ease, somehow, in a way that is very different to how I find myself. This evening was wonderful, but on a day in normal life, these hours would see me rushing out somewhere, working on some urgent task, or just crashing, exhausted, in front of the TV or on my phone. Where I found him, Eric was happy and dignified with nothing to do and nothing to entertain him save his cigarette and the evening sky; more than that, he was full of good humour, quite ready to smile and laugh with a young stranger who does not even speak his language. 

Having seen Eric and the little french restaurant in this way makes me want to take more of these evenings for myself. But sadly, it isn't that simple. I could certainly be much happier without the stresses and strains I create - without trying to do so much, or work so hard, or now, without stacking a website, a blog and a sponsorship campaign on top of an already exhausting journey across Europe. I am finding it hard to keep up with everything, and as I travel I constantly worry, even as I pass through such beautiful places.

But this struggling has a purpose. The hard truth is that other people's lives and livelihoods may be seriously helped and even saved if I keep trying to run a successful fundraising campaign, and if I continue to live life with more than is comfortable weighing on my mind. So on the following day I got up and worked on the website, and tonight I am writing in the hostel rather than switching off or going out for food with nice Australian backpackers.

However, there will be times when I can rest and enjoy an evening like I did in the Pain de la Bouche. And if Eric is something like what awaits me as I grow old, then truly, I have nothing to fear from the passing years.


Riding 5,000km across Europe alone and unsupported will be a wonderful experience, but also at times very tough, and very lonely. I really believe in the causes I have chosen; if you'd like to support me by making a donation, it will help to spur me on my way! Visit my website at from-england-to-istanbul.co.uk 


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