Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Cover image © Icon Books.
It was well timed, but I finished reading a book about moving to Denmark in pursuit of happiness shortly after the Brexit vote came in. I’d actually put the book to one side for a while, but inspired by the maelstrom of stupidity following June 23rd’s vote, I decided I needed to carry one. 

It had been noted by number of people, but over the last few years I've grown increasingly interested in moving somewhere like Denmark. Indeed, after a couple of occasions visiting my friends Matt and Signe in Copenhagen, I feel like this isn't simply a pipe dream.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell was actually bought for me as a Christmas gift by a colleague with a Norwegian partner. We had had a couple of conversations about my growing love of Scandinavia and so, clearly having remembered some of our chats at break time, she definitely won the award for 'Best Thought-Out Gift' last year.

The book tells the tale of the author, a former editor for Marie Claire magazine, moving to Denmark when her husband, humorously named Lego Man, gets a job working for Lego (obviously). 

The book is structured as a diary focusing on how, month by month, Russell and her husband adapt to Danish life. Each month has a different focus whereby another aspect of living like a true Dane in the world’s happiest country is the subject – kanelsnegles, feminism, language, culture, immigration, work-life balance and, most importantly, something that has now become important in my life, hygge.

Gratuitious Copenhagen photo: Slotsholmen, København. (instagram.com/ayohcee/)
A book about moving to a new country in order to achieve a happier way of life, albeit one in Europe, could very easily become something of a pseudo-spiritual load of nonsense or an overly-emotional bucket of sentiment devoid of any imagination. What is safe to say is that Russell’s book is completely the opposite of this. 

In fact, it is her excellent research of the subject matter, honest humour and willingness to mock herself and Lego man that carry the story forward. It’s almost a perfect lesson in the Fail Forward philosophy – in other words, don’t be ashamed to say you’ve made a hash of things and move on from it.

There are a variety of incidents, both touching and humorous, that keep the momentum of the book going, with the learning process being helped along by a cast of similarly amusingly-titled characters: American Man, the Viking, Helena C and friendly neighbour.

What Helen Russell does is make the step of moving to Denmark sound eminently achievable. Whether  or not I follow in her footsteps over the next few years we’ll have to wait and see, but, after reading this book and the result of the Brexit vote, it’s definitely one step closer.

You can find out more about Helen Russell here, her freelance work for The Guardian here, or follow her on Twitter as: @MsHelenRussell.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Le Petit Enfer de Calais

Usually my best friend, my Garmin didn't like the rain it would seem: Calais, France.
Warm-up rides completed, overnight accommodation in Folkestone booked and a smooth journey to southeast Kent completed, things were looking good for our second attempt at the French Revolution bike ride.

Two years before we had participated in the same event on a near-identical route and had completed it in around 4 hours and 45 minutes (including stoppages at feed stations, Jonesy’s detour into a maize field and a twenty-mile fight with a headwind), only for me to break my wrist whilst riding back to the car park. This year we were hoping for less trouble – obviously this wasn’t ever going to be the case.

Upon arrival at the Port of Dover, all however many hundred riders were required to join one queue in order to show their passport to a solitary French immigration officer. Whilst cars, spread across a number of lanes whizzed through, it took us the best part of two hours from the car park to the boat’s departure. Obviously the event was happening post-Paris attacks and during the European Football Championships, but it wasn’t ideal that 800 people should all be using one booth.

When the ride officially started, the frustrations of many riders could be seen. The fast men were blasting away with double- and triple-overtake manoeuvres happening on the road between the port and the town. Jonesy, cautious after his illness over Christmas, requested we take it easy.

After clearing Calais town and the mildly perilous tramway tracks, he told me to set the speed at 18mph and took my back wheel. We invariably started overtaking large numbers of riders and, as I was feeling back on form, we ratcheted the pace up a bit.

A number of riders of similar ability saw our pace and joined on the back. Before long we had a chain of around twenty riders hanging on to our wheels – a very satisfying feeling, even if it was quite tough work for me.

As the houses gave way to open fields and a view of the English Channel and we reached the bottom of the Cap Blanc Nez, I kept the tempo up with Jonesy following for a bit, but the rest of the chain had disappeared.

Coming back together on the other side of the hill, Jonesy seemed to be in good shape as a few spots of rain started to fall. It was nothing to worry about at the time and before long we were at the first feed station in Fiennes.

At this point the heavens opened and the rain, whipped up by the wind coming off the English Channel, started coming in sideways. I put my lightweight (read, useless) rain cape on, and Jonesy soldiered on having decided in favour of a long-sleeved jersey anyway.

Far from relenting, the rain intensified over the next ten miles through Hermelighen, Boursin and Wierre-Effroy. It was tough concentrating on the climbs as riders started to slow to a crawl. I twice found myself having to stop after losing my balance and riding on the muddy verge, much to own amusement as I failed to clip back in or regain momentum.

What was even worse, were the descents down the many undulations of the Nord Pas de Calais. The rain, coming in at the speed it was, felt like needles being jabbed in to my face and eyes making it hard to see and focus. Furthermore, it was impractical to wear my sunglasses for protection as the skies had ominously darkened.

Soaking wet, muddy and feeling a little worse for wear. Near Calais, France.
It was, on one such descent where a left turn was to be made at the bottom, that Jonesy came unstuck. He managed to slow his Bianchi down sufficiently, or so he thought, to take the corner cleanly, but touched one of the painted white lines as he steered.

He lost grip with the front wheel, somehow came unclipped and the bike slid forward from beneath him and he landed on his shoulder and backside heavily. As I took evasive action, two other riders, one of whom had just had an identical accident, helped him out of the road. He was in a lot of pain and had a serious cramp in his right leg.

For around ten minutes, we stood at the side of the road weighing up the options. Jonesy was in a lot of pain, but had seemingly avoided any breakages and if he was bleeding the rain was washing it away quicker than it could well up anywhere. There was some swelling on his left hand and shoulder blade which made it harder to brake and change gears, but, after deliberating, the course was set for a slow ride to the next feed station where we would assess the situation. The biggest damage seemed to be to his legendary descending skills.

The rain didn’t give up and it was beginning to feel cold too.

We arrived at the second feed station in Offrethun feeling somewhat beaten up and chilly. Jonesy’s damage was a bit more visible now as we joined a group of riders huddled under a mechanic’s awning.

There were 40 kilometres left. Jonesy decided to carry on, but at this point my Garmin decided it wasn’t going to and deleted all my data for the ride. For me, this was the final straw and I did well to not lose my temper and throw the thing into a field. It was Jonesy’s turn to encourage and so I just acquiesced to just swearing under my breath for around fifteen minutes.

With me in a furious mood already, to my additional annoyance, whilst launching one of my trademark dashes up one of my favourite little climbs outside the small village of Bazinghen, I punctured. I decided to get as far as I could before stopping to do a windswept, rain soaked repair. At this point, we couldn’t help but burst into laughter at how ridiculous a pair we must have looked and sounded.

As things transpired, around 15 kilometres from the finish, on the penultimate climb of the event, the clouds cleared, our moods lifted further, and we both dug deep for the final climb out of Escalles for the final ascent of Cap Blanc Nez. So much so, in fact, that both of us found the energy and motivation to smash our previous best times – in my case by around 40 seconds.

With some fuel clearly still in the tank, we rapidly descended the other side of Cap Blanc Nez, and powered back into Calais, passing many an early pace-setter on the way. We crossed the line in a time marginally quicker than our first attempt in 2014, but still missed out on a ‘Silver’ award time.


After the event, whilst on the ferry eating a meal of steak and chips, we continued to laugh off all of the annoyances of earlier – border controls, rain, crashes, Garmins and punctures.

Jonesy, in more pain and knackered, slept for the rest of the sailing after popping some ibuprofen. Let’s face it: with all write-ups like this where I moan about everything, it never stops us from doing it all over again.

What is left of the Strava data can be found here: https://www.strava.com/activities/607573403
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