Lyon

32 – Odd Birthdays

It’s my birthday in six weeks and I’ll be back in Blighty. I could go somewhere in France, rent a cottage or camp, but I’d only be on my own, and it’s grim waking up alone on your birthday with only a cheap bottle of Cote du Rhone to keep you company. That’s what happened the last time I lived here, eighteen years ago, on the farm in Provence.

My birthday that year landed on a Saturday and as it was a long weekend, I didn’t see anybody for four days, except a miserable barman. I went cycling towards Mount Ventoux and stopped off at a bar for a demi to celebrate. The barman wasn’t pleased to see me for some reason, so I drank my beer and bid him farewell. I wanted to tell him that it was my birthday but it wouldn’t have made any difference. He would have still stared at me with steely eyes waiting for me to leave.

Back at the farm I decided that there was nothing else to do apart from to tuck into the three bottles of ten franc Cote du Rhone I had bought in anticipation of this lonely anniversaire. They went down well. So well in fact that I found myself driving the farm’s knackered old tractor around the fields at one o’clock in the morning quaffing red wine from the bottle like a demented Lord. Memorable times…

I’ve spent a few odd birthdays. A few years ago I went walking in Spain and met up with a French Canadian chap called Jonathan who was doing the same part of El Camino del Norte I was doing. We met in the strange town of Zarautz 20 km west of San Sebastian and for the next few days walked together along the north Spanish coast to Bilbao, drinking in the misty views of the vineyards and breathing in the energising Atlantic air.

As we approached the town of Mendexa, I mentioned to Jonathan that it was my birthday, but as I was quite happy walking and enjoying the moment, I wasn’t bothered about doing anything special. That attitude changed after we arrived in Mendexa at around lunchtime and after a few beers found ourselves drinking cheap Spanish whisky on a beach accompanied by a gang of Basque teenagers who encouraged us to buy more. I don’t know how many trips we made to the shop that evening but the next thing we knew, we were waking up on the beach in the morning in the blazing heat covered in sandflies with heads like minced beef. It’s a mistake to drink Spanish whisky even in small quantities. It should certainly never be drunk in the industrial quantities we had got through that night.

‘…for the next few days we walked together along the north Spanish coast to Bilbao, drinking in the misty views of the vineyards while breathing in the energising Atlantic air…’

The above is factually wrong. Mendexa was where the walking ended. Because we were in such a state we tiptoed onto the next train to Bilbao and sat with our heads in our hands, or was it our hands in our heads, until the excruciatingly slow train arrived in the Basque capital.

At school I always thought that I would miraculously catch up in age with the older boys. They were ten and I was seven, but one day I would be older than them. Bigger, stronger, better. I’m glad now that my innocent childhood predictions never came true. Those boys who were ten when I was seven are now old. Whereas I still have many glorious years ahead of me.

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