Who knew that the French are so kind and hospitable? All I have ever heard about the inhabitants of France is that they are unfriendly and even grumpy. Well, I am happy to say that that has not been my experience. I have just finished a cycle tour from Le Havre to Avignon, going via Fontainebleau, Dijon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Lyon, Vienne, Valence and other small villages in between. With the exception of a few days on a friend’s boat, I stayed with local Warm Showers hosts every night. They knew ahead of time that I was vegan. None of them were vegan. Perhaps I was expecting the derision that often comes from omnivores when they encounter a vegan: The sarcasm, the joking, the teasing or even belittling that seems to be uncontainable by many omnivores. When I wrote to each potential Warm Showers host I always made it clear that I did not expect to be fed because I know this can be complicated for someone eating a traditional diet and I didn’t want to make it difficult for them. And I always carried food with me so that I could feed myself if necessary. It was never used.
So you may be wondering what Warm Showers actually is. It is a network of people around the world who have signed up either to host cycle tourists in their homes or are cycle tourists looking for accommodation in locals’ homes. It is completely free and is based on a sharing of ideas, cultures and language. This is not an easy concept for most non-cycling capitalists to understand. I have encountered friends who have even criticised me for using Warm Showers and have suggested I am just out there looking for free meals and a free bed. These are people who rent out spare rooms in their houses on airbnb and couldn’t imagine hosting a stranger for free. It’s a sad sign of the capitalist mindset that we can only value money as worthwhile, and not peoples’ stories and other gifts.
Some people cannot seem to understand that the person hosting a cyclist in their home is often gifted with an experience that money could not buy. They learn about you and your travels, your culture and home country. They ask lot of questions. You are tired when you arrive, and often just want to have a hot shower and go to bed, but your responsibility as a guest is to share your stories. In the case of France the hosts have been eager to practise their English with me and very interested to learn all about my journey. We have had some of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had with anyone, me speaking bad French and them either speaking English or French. Their generosity goes way beyond anything you might expect and for me has been unbelievable.
But I still am a product of my upbringing and have felt it was important to bring some kind of physical gift. So I travel with bars of (accidentally vegan) chocolate which I can share with my hosts after a meal. I also thought it might be fun to send them all a postcard with a sketch or photo of their houses. I have done this a few times so far. In fact, the giving back may only take place when the cyclist eventually stops traveling and invites other Warm Showers cyclists into their home to receive their hospitality.
So thank you, France, your beautiful country, your incredibly friendly and generous hosts, your wonderful food, and your drivers who didn’t kill me!