But, in all modesty, I may be the only one who’s done it five months a year for five years to produce a television series and, as a result, now lives in the country of my dreams.
Like most life-changing events, my show the Bicycle Gourmet’s Treasures of France, began as the classic dream - to trade predictability for spontaneity.
I was, and am, a film-maker and photographer (plus composer/musician) and I had a good life with a successful business, regular clients, fantastic art and culture, as well as a dash of incredible wines.
Unlike most people, (notably my own brother) I love 'not knowing, and granted I don’t love cold, wet, tired, hungry and poor.
Not having just fallen off the back of a turnip truck, I put myself in the best possible environment to avoid those Blue Meanies and so what I love is to wake up each morning in a beautiful place, with a friendly climate and people, following whatever country road strikes my fancy
And not knowing what the day will bring, or where or how it will end. Since I’ve always been a cyclist no deep thought was required as to how I should realize this dream.
So, one day, heeding Tracy Chapman’s plaintive song 'If not now, then when?', I put my clients in the hands of my colleagues, bought the best bike I could find, and a one way ticket to La Belle France.
We English speakers would say 'following your nose', but the French translation au pif, carries a richer connotation. Meaning, as well, 'by chance' and that is the way I, my 35mm (non-digital) camera, change of clothes, and sleeping bag, travelled from mid April to the end of September.
My adventures that first season, were as rich as my attitude and unique beyond imagination which produced the (for me) obvious thought: "How can I convey this experience visually and avoid yet another mind numbing 'go here, stay there, eat this, drink this' type of travelogue?"
Knowing that it is stories, not scenery, that hold and intensify our interest in a film my challenge was to come up with an interesting way of presenting those stories.
My original idea was to have Monsieur Gourmet, a French (but English speaking) bon vivant with a mellow Yves Montand type baritone, and invite three couples for lunch.
As the meal and the conversation progressed, we’d hear everybody’s story. Moderated and encouraged by Monsieur Gourmet, who, with the exception of his back and hands, would be unseen.
My short list of actors to play Monsieur Gourmet was very short. In fact, just two words. Yves. Montand.
Was he not a bon vivant? Was he not the absolute Gallic essence of cool, sauve and deboner? Did not he and Marilyn, well you know?
Fortunately, for the exotic wannabe director from the far away lands, Yves, at this time was alive, well and living nearby in the trendy hilltop village of St. Paul De Vence.
Where he was a silent partner in the equally trendy Auberge Le Columbe D’Or, the Golden Dove has long been a favourite grazing and drinking stop for artists.
It was here that various deadbeats, renegades and unemployables like Picasso and Chagall installed themselves for as long as possible, eating and drinking as much as possible. Then, leaving the proprietors with dirty dishes, empty bottles, and a painting.
Only by virtue of the immense charm of my Chiropractor pal, Bob Caires, who telephonically schmoozed Yves' agent in Paris, was I and Bob downing pastis with an international movie star and French icon.
After twenty minutes or so of this collaborative creativity, Yves leaned forward and intoned in his sincerest baritone: "You have a very interesting project and I hope we can work together."
Of course, we never saw him again. His agent’s kiss-off letter was the usual blah-blah. Tant pis!
And that my bike would now be additionally transporting a digital camcorder, tripod and tons o’ tape.
Obviously, attempting to condense twenty five plus months of mind boggling, heart stopping abfab adventure into a thousand words is just not on, dear reader, is it?
So, I’ll attempt to sprinkle your senses with a few of the many treasures I’ve discovered.
- Tasting fresh cheese at a mountain-top farm with the young cheese-making couple and their two pre-teen daughters. Each of whom, has her own pet cow
– Sampling the five star delights of restaurants or châteaux, where normally I could not afford a glass of tap water.
– Discovering local and regional wines that taste great, cost next to nothing and are available by the litre
– Crossing the Pont du Canal at Briare in the Loire. This is, as the name implies, a canal that flows over a bridge, under which flows, you guessed it, water. Truly a drug free, mind altering experience
– Thankfully finding a small church to cool off in, at noon, during the heat wave of 2003
– Cycling through the Gorge du Verdon, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon, during high summer in sweltering heat on a narrow mountain road. Two way traffic, impatient drivers and almost impossible to stop. Ergo, filming was difficult to say the least and I needed to pay extra attention to those impatient drivers. Or Whamo!
– Fireworks in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais the night France won the World Cup. Nice did not sleep that night. And for the following week every bar, and passing car bellowed Queen’s We are the Champions
But by far the greatest treasures of France, for me, are the people and their overwhelming hospitality.
Countless times, in all circumstances imaginable, I’ve been instantly invited in, and treated as one of the family, 'comme chez toi' literally, 'like your house'.
It’s that mind set and the accompanying demonstrations of genuine humanity that have made, and continue to make, the journeys of the Bicycle Gourmet an incredible adventure. One that, legs willing, shows no signs of ending any time soon.
US-born video film maker Christopher Strong produced the Bicycle Gourmet's Treasures of France tour, which fulfilled his dream of cycling around the country visiting interesting places and meeting entertaining characters.