Segments - 11 - Millau

01 - Meeting Her

02 - The Services

03 - Exeter Hotel

04 - Christmas

05 - New Year

06 - The Old Man

07 - Why He Started

08 - Cambridge

09 - Norwich

10 - The Party

11 - Millau

12 - Heading East

13 - Nice in Nice

14 - Making Progress

15 - Revelations

16 - Doubts

17 - The Connection

18 - Levelling

19 - Space

20 - Finale

Clem finds himself on a plane. Wow. He's got his passport, his tablet and a very strange sensation of surreal novelty. He is not leaving the UK on a motorcycle as originally planned, he is however actually leaving the UK. That's something.

This, well, is this really travelling though? Not as he'd expected. This isn't the freedom of the open road or man against nature in a tent. This is a warm dry aeroplane in the middle of winter and he's booked himself in to stay at a small hotel in Millau. He's got around 40 miles to cover from Rodez airport to his destination.

He's only booked a one way ticket. Firstly because the cost of the flight was most reasonable and he figures he can get a flight back cheaply enough. Secondly, he's no idea how long this is going to take, he's booked 4 nights at the hotel which seems reasonable. Thirdly, he is considering hitching his way back. Or...may be not back. May be this is his opportunity to finally be out there, travelling. May be. He can't decide. He notices, much to his disappointment, that he's scared.

He remembers being scared when he first set off. That was a double whammy for him because not only was he leaving Mandy to her fate and all the guilt and upset that went with that, but he was scared of the unknown, of what it would be really like on the road. That memory and the fact that 2 years later he's still alive, healthy and more often than not happy helps his confidence when facing this prospect of another double whammy. He only needs to blag the report and possibly travel through Europe a bit, easy.

He's barely had time to settle into his thoughts when the plane starts to descend. As he stands next to the carousel he has a major panic because everyone else has collected their smart luggage cases and sports bags, he's still waiting for his overladen dirty rucksack. I bet someone's binned it, thinking it was ancient rubbish. Phew! There it is.

Well, France eh? "Bonjour, Je suis" It's been a long long time since high school French. He's practising in his mind. Yeah, "oui", I have enough to get by on I'm sure. He's wondering where to go, which way is Millau from here. It's the middle of winter, it's cold, raining, windy and definitely not the sun soaked paradise the brochures ensured him it would be. Definitely not.

Sheltering in the airport lobby he checks both the mobile phone and the tablet. Neither have picked up a French mobile network. Ha! The cheap cow, oh yeah Anton and his flash car, her with her posh hotels and expensive frocks, well she's scrimped on the network provider and international roaming hasn't she. Damn, Google maps would have been really useful right now. It's a Sunday too, quite unlike the UK it seems France is empty of all life. There's but a few vehicles on the road and in this downpour it seems there's little chance of a lift.

He walks until he finds what looks like the major road. The wind in the UK usually comes from the south east and he needs to head south west, he walks with the wind to somewhere to his right. Damn, he's heading into Rodez, Millau is on the other side of this town. He trudges. Luckily he's still quite fit after all the walking recently yet it is frustrating to see that it's 8km, 5 miles into Rodez. The hotel is booked for Tuesday night, he's got 2 nights to fill and 2 days to get to Millau. At this rate it'll all be spent walking.

Rodez is French. Stereotypical French houses line broad streets, most of them planted with trees. Other than that it's a town. Massive shops, advertising boards with messages he doesn't understand, houses on repetitive estates and industrial units. There is a slight difference, more space. The roads are bounded by large verges, things are more set back from the road. The French don't do footpaths though, they do gravel at the roadside, often without any kerb.

It is definitely Sunday. Everywhere is shut. That's a bit of a concern as he's no food with him right now. He's peckish already so without anything to eat he'll be starving by late evening. It's not really a problem, he's not likely to starve to death but it can make things uncomfortable. The issue with not knowing a place is that you don't know it. He's sure there will be a fast food shop or a late night cafe or something, but unless you know where those places are you can spend a long time looking for them. It takes even longer on foot.

The town centre is the obvious place to look. It's quiet, eerily quiet. All he can hear is the rain hitting the ground and bubbling gutters. His stomach rumbles. How long should he keep on looking? It's already late in the afternoon, he'll need to find somewhere to sleep, preferably before it's dark. His mood is getting dark too. There's so much to be positive about but right now, in this moment he's cold, wet, hungry and homeless. Chin up boy, you've been here before.

Oh thank god, "Quick" appears to be a French version of McDonalds. It's open too. Inside it is just like a McDonalds. In his best French he points to something burger like on the menu, utters "S'il vous plait" then fumbles with the weird Euro notes till he finds one greater than the number on the menu board. He doesn't understand the young man's response, he just waits.

They have internet access here. Sitting on a plastic chair he carefully removes the tablet from his rucksack, trying not to get it wet. The food is just like McDonalds too, it's better than nothing but he reckon's he'll be hungry again in the middle of the night. Still, at least he's warm and there's something to eat. It's not all bad, his mood lightens a little until he notices it's already going dark.

He considers using the credit card to book into a hotel somewhere nearby. Can he charge that against the expenses he'll put in? Maybe he could catch a bus to Millau on expenses? Hell the way Tabs, or "she" and Anton laughed at him maybe he should hire a car and drive there, they seemed to think he was too cheap. Outside as the rain falls hard against the window the idea of the hotel is definitely appealing. He'll not find anywhere to camp at this time anyhow. Sod it.

He wishes he had a printer. He can find several hotels near the "Quick" but when he switches off the tablet will he be able to remember where they are? He tries to fix the directions to the nearest one into his head. Outside the rain is even heavier. The hotel is the right decision.

Except it's closed. Gutted. He wanders off in what he hopes is the right direction from what he can remember from the map. More by luck than skill it's not long before he spots a light in a window declaring "les postes vacants", sounds like vacancies to him. The door is firmly locked so he presses the bell. An elderly lady comes shuffling down a corridor and lets him in. He's no idea what she says, Clem rests his head against his hand and says "moi...ici?"

The old lady, surprisingly sprightly in her manner, speaks good English. "You want a room?"
"Oh my goodness, yes, please"
"You are lucky, we have space." She winks at him, cheeky.
"I, I hope I can pay by card"
"Card? oh, yes, carte." She turns, Clem thinks she must have been a fine looking woman a few years ago. "Marie! Marie!, Carte, l'homme veut payer par carte". Oh dear, maybe they don't take cards. Soon Marie, a woman of similar age to Clem and the look of a tired worker on her face arrives with a hand held card machine. She looks at him with disdain. "Don't worry about Marie sir, she's like that to everyone." Luckily it seems Marie does not understand.

The hotel is spartan, aged, creaky and far from warm. His room is much the same. A double bed, wooden floor boards once varnished, a faded rug, no tea or coffee making facilities, no toilet or sink and no home comforts. Although he'll never be able to dry his gear out in this place at least it's not raining inside and he doesn't need to put the tent up. He thinks he'll use his sleeping bag tonight, those sheets don't look like they're up to the job really. It's better than the tent, but not by much.

By the morning he's ravenous. The sleeping bag was definitely the right choice, the bed was much better when he put his ground roll on it as well. As he wakes he notices light around the edge of the curtains, sunlight, hopefully it will be a better day. As he shuffles around repacking and dressing there's a knock at the door. "Monsieur!, Sir! sir."
"Oui, un moment."
"Downstairs when you are ready."

Considering the state of the hotel the breakfast looks excellent. There's Marie, serving with a face that could split slate, the old lady smiling to over compensate and one other guest, possibly, or maybe the old lady's husband. He never moves, doesn't say a word, just hunches over a book and occasionally takes a bite from a baguette. It's all very surreal. Clem fills a bowl with cereal and milk, eats, pours himself tea, eats some croissants, pours himself tea, nibbles on the biscuits, pours himself tea then finally flops into the chair to recuperate.

The old lady points him to the bus station. She seems upset that he's leaving so soon. She gives him a faded business card and instructs him to stop again on his return leg. He likes her but he hopes the hotel in Millau is much better. Anyhow, it's time to go, the old lady double kisses his cheeks as he'd seen the French do in movies. Marie scowls, the old man never moves.

Millau, on the other hand, is great. Of course the cold winter sun makes everything look nicer than the harsh rain but even so it is a much nicer place. He thought the massive bridge, no, viaduct would dominate the town. It towers above in the distance but it's not what makes the town. It's just a pretty, quirky, friendly place. It's big enough to have a selection of shops and a supermarket out of town, but it's also much more like he imagined France to be. Boulangeries selling tough baguettes and pastries. A small motorcycle shop. Lots of small character shops. Tabacs with chairs outside and French characters smoking in the cold sun.

The hotel is better too. It's definitely not the Ritz but it is modern, heated, clean, carpeted, en-suite, welcoming and has a couple of staff that appear quite ordinary. This all has a strange effect on Clem. He feels much brighter and positive as he sits on the plush chair to take it all in. Could he recommend this place? So far yes. He's starting to build his report in his head. He can do this. Yes, definitely, he can do this.

Over the next 4 nights Clem starts to work. He dines each evening at a different restaurant. He doesn't go mad, he just wants to take in the atmosphere and see what's what. Each day he collects brochures from anywhere he sees them. Most holiday entertainment is shut but he finds there's canoeing, paragliding, hill walks and mountain biking available. These lucky engineers might have a great time here. There's no bars filled with available women that he can find though.

After his stay he has a plastic bag filled with leaflets, brochures, notes and business cards. He's also become friendly with the hotel manager. He speaks English too and has been helping Clem with his French. While he's hardly fluent he's getting a few of the phrases down thanks to Maurice's help. On the morning of his departure Maurice asks what Clem's plans are.

"I, I guess I need to find somewhere to work, and to create my report."
"What report?"
"I need to make a report about Millau for a travel agent in the UK." Maurice's eyes light up.
"You are a travel agent?"
"No, hehe, no, I'm helping a travel agent to plan a working break." Maurice looks confused "Er, working holiday?" Maurice gets it "For some engineers who want to look at your big bridge."
"Ah, the viaduct, good for business. You stay here, you can use my computer. You could put a good word in for me?"
"Of course Maurice. I can't promise they'll use your hotel but I'll recommend it."

It takes nearly the whole working day for Clem to collate the information, write it up, form some opinions and get it all together. Maurice, motivated by the notion of more business, proves most helpful with translations and local information. It is also a thousand times faster to type on a real keyboard, except this is a French keyboard so some of the lesser used characters are in the wrong place. Clem, with the help of Maurice, also packages up the best of the brochures and business cards and sends them by post to David in the UK. The report is sent by email.

Maurice and Clem sit down in the lounge. Clem is wiped out by the day's efforts. He still feels like a charlatan and a fraud and he half expects David to be at best disappointed, at worst blazingly angry. But then, he's done the best he can, he can do no better than that. Outside the sun is setting and Clem is wondering what to do next. He...he might stop another night. Maybe he'll pay for that out of his own pocket. Maurice is happy for Clem to stay, and at "50% price for you sir." Cool.

Back in his room Clem flops onto the bed. No restaurants, no bars, just a ham sandwich from Maurice and a cigarette from Maurice's son who is returning to college soon. Oh my, have I pulled it off? Am I going to look stupid? Will I even get paid? Shit, I hope so, I've spent a couple of hundred quid already on flights, hotels, restaurants and drinks. Shit. He's so tired the fear subsides into sleep.

The next morning Maurice smiles at him a little too warmly. Oh dear, now Maurice knows Maurice is trying just a little too hard. The breakfast buffet is that extra bit bigger. Clem was in bed before 9 last night, judging by the state of the room Maurice has been up cleaning all night. He didn't need to, the hotel is fine. Clem panics, oh dear, maybe my standards are not up to standard, maybe I've recommended this hotel and by David or anyone else's standards it's poor. Crap. He kicks himself for not researching more then kicks himself for kicking himself. Lets just get out of here.

Clem settles up with the credit card, Maurice tries to put 50 Euros of cash into Clem's hands as "A thank you." Clem firmly places the cash back on the table.
"No!" Maurice looks regretful "No, thank you. You've been most helpful." And with that Clem strides out the hotel, hitching the rucksack. Bribery? It's something Clem has never come across before. It makes him feel oddly important and also a little, well, dirty really.

Outside the skies are heavy but as yet it's not raining. What to do? Back to the airport and back to the UK, pick up where he left off? Safe in the land of his mother tongue, familiar culture and shops that open on Sunday? Stay in France and have a look around? There's no chance of work, well, none that he's aware of anyhow. If, if, oh please if David pays him that £500 would see him right for a good while. Mind you, how expensive is France?

What about her? Oh yeah, what about her anyhow? The last few days of work have been a most welcome distraction. Focused as he has been on David's report he's forgotten about the progress he'd made finding out about her. Damn yeah. He feels a little queasy each time he thinks about David's report then a little excited when he thinks about her, then curious, then cross, then horny, then sick again as he remembers the report. All the while he's just walking, nowhere in particular.