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The International Writers Magazine
: Travel

An Unexpected Gift
William Spencer

Last summer, as a 50th birthday gift to myself, I decided to retrace the first part of a bicycle journey I made 28 years ago. That original journey had taken me overland from England through Europe and the Middle East to India. I’ve often contemplated the life-changing experiences from that time, and how the journey redefined me in my own eyes. With a wife, two children, work commitments and six extra inches on my waistline, I wasn’t at all sure what awaited me on this reprise.

Recognizing how important this was for me, my family gave me their blessings. So, in September I found myself in the glorious Loire valley in France. Having only a record of the cities I had passed through, I could not be sure that I would find the same roads I had traveled before, but wanted to try. In the old city of Blois I rented a bicycle, with an arrangement to return it in two weeks to a bike shop in Toulouse, south of France.

France was even more beautiful than I remembered. In the last decade, a passion had seized the nation for planting flowers most everywhere. My way was punctuated with bursts of fuschia, pink and crimson in gardens, village squares and in baskets hanging from lampposts. I cycled along narrow country roads with few cars. The skies became bluer the further south I traveled. As I approached Cognac, I wondered if I should visit the Vignaults. I had stayed with them for two nights those many years ago, on their small farm where they kept a few goats and grew Folle Blanche grapes for cognac. I remember their unquestioning hospitality, boisterous evening meals around a huge table filled with people and a parting gift of illicit triple-distilled cognac. Still, I didn't know whether they would remember me. Perhaps they were no longer alive. Perhaps they had moved. A lot happens over such a span of time. Although I felt uncertain about arriving unannounced, I decided to visit.

Come with me now. The village of La Brousse has no more than 15 homes, yet as I cycle back and forth along the two streets, I can't for the life of me remember their house. The village appears deserted, but I find an old woman in her garden. In my halting French, I ask for Monsieur Vignault. As I approach the house, shutters of peeling ochre-colored paint are the only detail that causes a vague tug of familiarity in my memory. I cycle into the small courtyard formed by house and barns. A large-framed old man sits shelling peas on a stone step outside the front door with a bowl between his knees. I ask for Monsieur Vignault. "Je suis Monsieur Vignault," he responds in a quiet, neutral manner with that wisdom to conserve energy only the elderly seem to have.

He does not recognize me. I explain that I stayed with him almost 30 years ago. He is silent a moment, looking intently into my eyes. Then, with a gentle smile he reminds me of something I had forgotten: Brian, my traveling companion had left behind his tent and M. Vignault mailed it back to England. I laugh out loud at the humor of the moment, me expecting him to have forgotten, yet he remembering more than I. We talk a while, then his son arrives with wife and two beautiful young daughters. I remember Marcel as a gangly 14 year-old zipping about on one of those flimsy French mopeds. He is portly now, and seems to struggle as much as me to remember the past. His mother has arrived with them. She is a small sparrow of a woman, yet at 89 her mind is as sharp as a tack. She adds to her husband's memories further detail of my stay. They invite me to stay for the evening meal.

The kitchen in which we sit is that of an old couple; outdated furniture and utensils, and griminess not seen with failing eyesight. We talk about the years, condensing major life events into simple sentences to accommodate my French. They tell me they kept just enough vineyard to produce wine for themselves. They sold most of their land as building plots for holiday homes for the British and Dutch retirees who are moving to France en masse. M. Vignault explains that his 30-acre vineyard, which took three days to harvest by hand, can now be harvested in three hours. The new machines pick the grapes by an ingenious combination of high-pressure air and mechanized clippers. "Much has changed," he observes with a shrug of resignation.

After agreeing I won’t wait another 28 years to return, I say farewell to the family. M. Vignault drives me in his small car to the nearby town where I'm staying. Before going to sleep, I describe the events and feelings of the day in my diary. Suddenly, as I write, I am overcome by a wave of utter, desolate sadness. Sadness at the passage of time. Sadness at how old my good-hearted hosts have become. Sadness at the passage of so many years of my own life. Sadness to find myself 50. I weep and weep, unable to continue writing. Where did all that time go? How is it possible for me to be cycling down the same roads, perhaps a third of my life gone by, yet my inner sense of self not one jot older? Why am I no longer the 23-year-old on his bicycle, headed for India? How does this happen?
The next day something inside has shifted. The wish to retrace my steps no longer holds the same interest as it did yesterday. I remember so little, anyway. And I am now a different person. I have changed and matured. Yesterday afternoon, before visiting the Vignaults, I stopped at the local tourism office. I was amazed to see a map showing that one route of The Way of Santiago de Compostella runs quite close to here. For some years this important pilgrimage route of medieval Christianity has fascinated me. And so, half way into my carefully planned journey, it literally takes a new direction. I visit the monasteries and churches along The Way of Santiago de Compostella. Sitting to meditate in places made sacred by centuries of prayer, I contemplate the passage of time and ask for self-acceptance.

Cycling and introspection go well together; there are many hours to turn things over in my mind. I feel the sorrow of the passing of certain things: the freedom to continue cycling as long as I care to, the ability to take stairs three at a time, the absence of worldly responsibility. The treasures that replace these losses are not as easy to define. Yet, like the road passing beneath me, they support my progress forward. A rich plot of earth—my family—in which the flower of love blooms. A certain steadiness of mind, a sensitivity to others I once lacked.

I would like to be able to tell you that the sadness has completely resolved itself. But you already know that life doesn't fall into place that neatly. The self-acceptance I prayed for comes in fits and starts. But it comes. Years from now perhaps I will sit on a doorstep shelling peas, and someone who long ago was a guest of ours will arrive unexpectedly. I hope I will smile gently and say, "I am Mr. Spencer."
© William Spencer May 2005
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