Cycling Europe Day 17: Culture Shock

I had it all planned out in my head. Today’s blog post would be titled, “Vive la France!” with an exclamation point at the end, of course. When I saw the sign indicating I was crossing into France, I might give a little cry with tears then right about it in the post, then I’d take a picture of the sign and post it too, with me feeling all glorious and triumphant.

But Spain was having none of it and neither was France.

I always check the weather reports the night before and the morning of a cycle. Always. I want to know what to expect; partly to know what to wear and partly because if I know to expect bad weather I’m mentally prepared for it.

I checked the weather reports as always for Girona, Spain, my starting point, and Perpignan, France, my destination for the day. Both cities were to have partially cloudy mornings and it would drizzle in the afternoon in Perpignan. I’d want to try to get there early, I thought. Might as well avoid the drizzle if I can. I also checked the wind. I could have sworn I checked both cities and that they both had very minimal wind today. I was relieved. I now suspect that I checked the wind in Girona only.

I got out of Girona easily enough by following the signs; I’m not as dependent anymore on my GPS after getting terribly lost with it a few times. Shortly after, I saw the Pyrenees looming in the distance. They looked beautiful with their various shades of green and black and one snow-capped summit.

I kept looking ahead, trying to see where the road was heading. I wanted to know how bad the climb was going to be. I saw what I believed was the lowest and thus easiest point to cross and thought, “That had better be where the road goes through!”

But soon I was distracted from the road as the winds began pushing me backwards into Spain. I had a whole conversation in my head:

Spain: “Don’t leave me, Nadia! PLEASE!” she pleaded as she pushed and pushed and pushed me.

Nadia: “You must leave me be on my way, Spain! It is time for me to move on!” I yelled against the howling sound of Spain’s heaving.

I push and push and push against the wall of wind Spain has set up against me. She won’t let me go. But I must.

My knees and back were aching from the effort. It was then that I discovered that not only was I struggling against Spain’s gusty winds, but that the road was gradually inclining upwards as well.

I huffed and puffed continuously for hours. The uphill ascent through the Pyrenees was 30 km long. If not for the wind, I would have been pleasantly surprised. The ascent was so gradual that it really would not have phased me normally. But with Spain trying to push me back into her womb, I was really struggling.

The last town on the Spanish border seemed like some sort of place the French came to

Looking back at the border crossing from inside Spain.

Looking back at the border crossing from inside Spain.

buy cheap clothes. There were more clothes shops on the one street here than in all the towns I had been to all together. Clothes were not the only things on offer to the French. Women were standing and sitting in chairs on the side of the major throughway that ties Spain to France in this part. Yesterday was the first time I noticed this. I was cycling outside of Girona and saw a scantily clad older woman sitting by the side of the road. I looked everywhere for her produce, thinking she might be selling fruit, until I realized she WAS the produce. Just before the border with France today, several more scantily clad, heavily make-upped women were standing in similar fashion on the side of this major road. The last one gave me a wave as I passed by. Whether this was a “women’s solidarity” wave or a “hey cutie let me show you a good time” wave, I could not be sure. Nevertheless I smiled back to her thinking what a difficult life she must lead.

After much pushing and shoving, I arrived at the Spanish/French border crossing. There actually was one. No sign for me to photograph, though. I passed through, huffing and puffing, and gave the three Spanish policemen a brief nod. They wished me good luck on my journey.

I was still fighting an uphill battle. Just as Spain did not want to let me go, France did not want to let me in.

Immediately after crossing the border, it was as if everything had changed. And I didn’t like it already. I had just started understanding a few Spanish words, getting used to their business hours and food, and figuring out their roads and now I was in cruddy France! There was a French town just at the border that was over-crowded with people, cars, and shops. Things must be sold cheap here too, I figured. The road signs looked different, the cars looked different, the car drivers were more aggressive, I felt, and the landscape, although it started out quite pretty soon became very bland.

Spaaaaaain! Forgive meeee! Take me baaaack!

It was culture shock, which is silly because Spain is not my culture and I’ve been to

The pretty part of Perpignan.

The pretty part of Perpignan.

France many times. I knew what to expect. My mind was playing games with me and I was playing along with it, also angry that France wasn’t welcoming me with wind-free open arms.

I was completely spent by the time I reached Perpignan. I felt similar to the day I ended up cycling 186km. That’s how much energy it took from me to cycle through the Pyrenees against strong winds. As I cycled into town, I wasn’t impressed. Most of the Spanish towns and villages I cycled through seemed consistent to my eyes: they were generally very clean and well kept and people gave off the impression of being equally middle class. The outskirts of Perpignan were not as clean and I immediately saw several people looking through garbage bins. I also saw people whose faces let off that they were meth addicts. And lots of teenagers were standing on corners, smoking and feeling up one another. I hadn’t seen similar scenes in Spain.

I found myself a budget hotel to stay in for the night, showered, and went on the hunt

If I'm going to cycle 100km through the Pyrenees against howling winds, THIS is what I'm going to eat afterwards.

If I’m going to cycle 100km through the Pyrenees against howling winds, THIS is what I’m going to eat afterwards.

for food. I was not to be disappointed. I had a salad and a spaghetti bolognese in very generous portions. I topped it off with a huge banana split. Maybe I’ll be eating better now that I’m in France, I thought.

I took a short walk through the old town, which is much prettier than everything outside it. I didn’t stay long though. Today’s ride had me too exhausted. I needed to rest properly for tomorrow’s ride.

As a side note, my skin problems seem to be easing. I stopped wearing underwear under the padded cycling pants, as several people had advised. My underwear was rubbing against my skin as my legs pedaled and my skin was getting very irritated. Not anymore.

I bought an alternative treatment than the one I had been using for athlete’s foot and that now seems to be healing.

My ear lobes have been inflamed, itchy and a little bit bumpy for several days now. For awhile I thought that maybe the helmet straps were rubbing against them and irritating them. I finally figured out two days ago it was sun burn. I put sunscreen on any exposed part of my body but had not thought about my ears. I covered my ears in my secret zinc oxide cream for one night to soothe the skin, and started using sunscreen on them. They are now much better.


  1. Observations:
    For the most part French drivers respect cyclists, it’s part of their culture.
    The outskirts and hinterland of most French cities, towns and villages are a disgrace; a cross between a tip and a wasteland in my opinion. I got scragged on a forum last year for saying this but ‘facts is facts’.
    I love French food.

    Good Luck.

  2. I once had walk up that road from La Jonquera to cross the border, no luck with hitchhiking, that climb gone longer and longer and the road won’t end. But I remember well when I ended in Perthus on the french side, I also thought “What kind of ugly town is this?!”
    But old Perpignan is very nice, and if you stay longer there you would realize that there is less culture change than thought, cause they are Catalans like th ones on the other side of the Pyrennes.
    My mother actually lives near Girona, so I’m often in this region, and I love Girona, one of the nicest old cities in Catalunya.

  3. As your friend Schnellinger says, Perpignan is a Catalan city. when the treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between France and Spain (mid 17th century) a part of Catalonia became French and is now known (by Catalans) as Northern Catalonia. In fact, the northern limit of Catalan language is at Salses (Salses-le-Château, in French), some 15 km north of Perpignan.

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