Around the World on a Bicycle

In 1884, the 29 year old Thomas Stevens set out from San Fransisco on the 'modern mechanical invention' of the Penny Farthing to circumnavigate the globe on his 'big wheel'. His book - "Around the World on a Bicycle" - was published in 1888 and his writings are presented here in blog form. Read more in the archive.

French Customs

Comfortable quarters are assigned me on board the Channel steamer, and a few minutes after bidding friends and England farewell, at Newhaven, at 11.30 P.M., I am gently rocked into unconsciousness by the motion of the vessel, and remain happily and restfully oblivious to my surroundings until awakened next morning at Dieppe, where I find myself, in a few minutes, on a foreign shore. All the way from San Francisco to Newhaven. there is a consciousness of being practically in one country and among one people-people who, though acknowledging separate governments, are bound so firmly together by the ties of common instincts and interests, and the mystic brotherhood of a common language and a common civilization, that nothing of a serious nature can ever come between them. But now I am verily among strangers, and the first thing talked of is to make me pay duty on the bicycle.

The captain of the vessel, into whose hands Mr. C assigned me at Newhaven, protests on my behalf, and I likewise enter a gentle demurrer; but the custom-house officer declares that a duty will have to be forthcoming, saying that the amount will be returned again when I pass over the German frontier. The captain finally advises the payment of the duty and the acceptance of a receipt for the amount, and takes his leave. Not feeling quite satisfied as yet about paying the duty, I take a short stroll about Dieppe, leaving my wheel at tho custom-house and when I shortly return, prepared to pay the assessment, whatever it may be, the officer who, but thirty minutes since, declared emphatically in favor of a duty, now answers, with all the politeness imaginable: "Monsieur is at liberty to take the velocipede and go whithersoever he will." It is a fairly prompt initiation into the impulsiveness of the French character. They don't accept bicycles as baggage, though, on the Channel steamers, and six shillings freight, over and above passage-money, has to be yielded up.

Although upon a foreign shore, I am not yet, it seems, to be left entirely alone to the tender mercies of my own lamentable inability to speak French. Fortunately there lives at Dieppe a gentleman named Mr. Parkinson, who, besides being an Englishman to the backbone, is quite an enthusiastic wheelman, and, among other things, considers it his solemn duty to take charge of visiting 'cyclers from England and America and see them safely launched along the magnificent roadways of Normandy, headed fairly toward their destination. Faed has thoughtfully notified Mr. Parkinson of my approach, and he is watching for my coming - as tenderly as though I were a returning prodigal and he charged with my welcoming home. Close under the frowning battlements of Dieppe Castle - a once wellnigh impregnable fortress that was some time in possession of the English - romantically nestles Mr. Parldnson's studio, and that genial gentleman promptly proposes accompanying me some distance into the country.

On our way through Dieppe I notice blue-bloused peasants guiding small flocks of goats through the streets, calling them along with a peculiar, tuneful instrument that sounds somewhat similar to a bagpipe. I learn that they are Normandy peasants, who keep their flocks around town all summer, goat's milk being considered beneficial for infants and invalids. They lead the goats from house to house, and milk whatever quantity their customers want at their own door - a custom that we can readily understand will never become widely popular among Anglo Saxon milkmen, since it leaves no possible chance for pump-handle combinations and corresponding profits.

The morning is glorious with sunshine and the carols of feathered songsters as together we speed away down the beautiful Arques Valley, over roads that are simply perfect for wheeling; and, upon arriving at the picturesque ruins of the Chateau d'Arques, we halt and take a casual peep at the crumbling walls of this of the famous fortress, which the trailing ivy of Normandy now partially covers with a dark-green mantle of charity, as though its purpose and its mission were to hide its fallen grandeur from the rude gaze of the passing stranger. All along the roads we meet happy-looking peasants driving into Dieppe market with produce. They are driving Normandy horses - and that means fine, large, spirited animals - which, being unfamiliar with bicycles, almost invariably take exception to ours, prancing about after the usual manner of high-strung steeds. Unlike his English relative, the Norman horse looks not supinely upon the whirling wheel, but arrays himself almost unanimously against us, and umially in the most uncompromising manner, similar to the phantom- eyed roadster of the United States agriculturist. The similarity between the turnouts of these two countries I am forced to admit, however, terminates abruptly with the horse itself, and does not by any means extend to the driver; for, while the Normandy horse capers about and threatens to upset the vehicle into the ditch, the Frenchman's face is wreathed in apologetic smiles; and, while he frantically endeavors to keep the refractory horse under control, he delivers himself of a whole dictionary of apologies to the wheelman for the animal's foolish conduct, touches his cap with an air of profound deference upon noticing that we have considerately slowed up, and invariably utters his Bon jour, monsieur, as we wheel past, in a voice that plainly indicates his acknowledgment of the wheelman's - or anybody else's - right to half the roadway. A few days ago I called the English roads perfect, and England the paradise of 'cyclers; and so it is; but the Normandy roads are even superior, and the scenery of the Arques Valley is truly lovely. There is not a loose stone, a rut, or depression anywhere on these roads, and it is little exaggeration to call them veritable billiard-tables for smoothness of surface. As one bowls smoothly along over them he is constantly wondering how they can possibly keep them in such condition. Were these fine roads in America one would never be out of sight of whirling wheels. A luncheon of Normandy cheese and cider at Cleres, and then onward to Rouen is the word. At every cross-roads is erected an iron guide-post, containing directions to several of the nearest towns, telling the distances in kilometres and yards; and small stone pillars are set up alongside the road, marking every hundred yards. Arriving at Rouen at four o'clock, Mr. Parkinson shows me the famous old Rouen Cathedral, the Palace of Justice, and such examples of old mediaeval Rouen as I care to visit, and, after inviting me to remain and take dinner with him by the murmuring waters of the historic Seine, he bids me bon voyage, turns my head southward, and leaves me at last a stranger among strangers, to "comprendre Francais" unassisted.

Some wiseacre has placed it on record that too much of a good thing is worse than none at all; however that may be, from having concluded that the friendly iron guide-posts would be found on every corner where necessary, pointing out the way with infallible truthfulness, and being doubtless influenced by the superior levelness of the road leading down the valley of the Seine in comparison with the one leading over the bluffs, I wander toward eventide into Elbeuf, instead of Pont de l' Arques, as I had intended; but it matters little, and I am content to make the best of my surroundings. Wheeling along the crooked, paved streets of Elbeuf, I enter a small hotel, and, after the customary exchange of civilities, I arch my eyebrows at an intelligent-looking madame, and inquire, "Comprendre Anglais." "Non," replies the lady, looking puzzled, while I proceed to ventilate my pantomimic powers to try and make my wants understood. After fifteen minutes of despairing effort, mademoiselle, the daughter, is despatched to the other side of the town, and presently returns with a be whiskered Frenchman, who, in very much broken English, accompanying his words with wondrous gesticulations, gives me to understand that he is the only person in all Elbeuf capable of speaking the English language, and begs me to unburden myself to him without reserve. He proves himself useful and obliging, kindly interesting himself in obtaining me comfortable accommodation at reasonable rates.

Posted in stevens blog by Thomas Stevens on Monday 11th May 1885 (00:00 +0200) | Add a comment | Permalink

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