France is a really big country. Like, massive. Its dramatic depth and diversity are enough to make me want to steer my bike into the nearest canal and leave it there.
But then. Just when I start to feel overwhelmed by the monumental task at hand, my spirits are revived by simple, beautiful human connection. From the very first day we entered this vast country, we’ve experienced a wealth of kindness from all quarters.
Let’s back up and recall our first night in France. Mad and I had grown spoiled in the Netherlands and Belgium, spoiled by flatness. Almost as soon as we crossed the French border, hills reared out of the earth to confront us, and we made terrible time in those first hours. We practically collapsed in Solre-le-Château, a tiny village less than 15km south of the border. Mad boldly approached a kindly couple standing in their front yard and brokenly introduced our plight. We needed a place to pitch our tent, would they tolerate our scruffy presence in their yard for a night? They met the request with a smile, and we soon found ourselves upgraded to their daughter’s old bedroom. Christian shared his Canadian whiskey and Annie prepared savoury crêpes. Despite sharing no common language, we laughed and laughed that evening.
Fast forward a few weeks. Mad and I are repeatedly impressed by the warmth of our Couchsurfing hosts; Andrei Mancas, a Romanian volunteer with an interest in DIY projects, was no exception. Because at the last minute we altered our plans to stay in Dijon for the weekend to attend two different festivals, we changed locations to stay with Kelle Fabrik manager Laurence Lafarge. Despite having a house totally full of bike tourists (and we thought we were so original…), she and her family made us feel immensely welcome and cared for.
Andrei met us at the Alternatiba sustainability faire in Dijon on Sunday and introduced us to the Couchsurfing Dijon community, which we in turn introduced to Kelle Fabrik. Couchsurfing encourages a sustainable way to travel extensively, while fostering global interaction. Pilar Alzola is an Argentinian woman living in Dijon, who says the network “saved her.” When she first moved to Dijon, she knew no one. When she became involved in the local community she made closes friends and completely altered her experience of Lyon. In my own personal experience, Couchsurfing transformed the way I travel, i.e. the way I live. In fact, it’s made travel (i.e. life) possible. I have friends all over the world, some of whom I’ve met, and some I have yet to meet. It’s truly a vibrant and accessible network, completely free to use, and comes with untold perks.
One of our favorite activities when we visit a new place is connecting our Couchsurfing hosts to their local Fab Lab. We’ve left Fab Lab converts in about half a dozen cities around Europe. Both communities are inventive and involved; they mesh really well.
After our long weekend in Dijon, we hit the road again. We practically sprinted to Beaune, 40km south, arriving after only two hours of sweaty cycling. We had been invited to witness the grand opening of a new Fab Lab part of Fab Lab Comtois, an active network of rural French Labs. Fab Lab Savigny les Beaune is possible because of strong local government support; their large historical building was a donation.
In Beaune, Fab Lab members and visitors greeted us enthusiastically and we conducted several interviews in both English and French, with the help of an interpreter. Though we grasped very little of Pascal Minguet-Deschamps’s presentation, we understood this much: Fab Labs are an international community and involve people from all over the globe. He indicated our presence, two Americans biking across Europe to document the movement.
The mayor of Beaune had invited us to camp in his campground for free. “Just use the magic words, Fab Lab,” we were told. However, we opted to stay with Alain Cabrol, a local maker and Fab Lab enthusiast, and his wife Martine. Once again, we found ourselves upgraded from camping in the backyard to our own bedroom. Alain produced a bottle of vin from his cellar (when in Burgundy…) and treated us to slices of self-smoked salmon.
In the morning, as our laundry dried on the porch, we interviewed Alain in both English and French about his maker projects, which include the salmon smoker and a bird feeder, both powered by Arduino. He’s very excited to have a Fab Lab opening up in his community, where he can share his projects with other creative minds.
We cycled on, surviving a brutally tepid summer day. Dripping sweat, we arrived in Mâcon, on the Saône river, in the evening. Tim Carrington, my salty old British sailor adopted-uncle-friend, and his dog Jack Sparrow were waiting for us. We relaxed on the deck of the Lady H with plates of well-earned dinner and animated conversation. (Tim has a lot to say, and most of it isn’t rubbish.)
We’re en route to Lyon via boat, where we’ll meet members of Fabrique d’Objets Libres and the upcoming French MakerTour. After such a wonderful stopover in Dijon, our brief yet lively visit to Beaune, and this refreshing time on the Lady H, we are feeling the love. You have all been so marvellous. Thank you for rewarding our efforts with such positive vibes. This is the fuel that will propel us across our final international border, all the way to Barcelona. We’d hug you, but we’re so grimy you probably wouldn’t appreciate it.
So, let us just express it in words: Merci beaucoup, France. This country is full of fantastic and creative human beings. We’re proud to know you.