France | Ropes to the Sky

Next stop: Cordes-sur-Ciel.

Seth and I had trouble figuring out what the town’s name meant. ‘Ciel’ is easy – sky. ‘Sur’ usually means ‘on’, like ‘sur la table’. But this messes up the translation – nothing in English can be ‘on’ the sky. Things can only be ‘in’ the sky.

‘Cordes’ means ‘ropes’. I remember this because when it rains a lot in the UK we say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ while the French say ‘it’s raining ropes’ – ‘il pleut des cordes’.*

*Note: they also say ‘it’s raining like a pissing cow’. Il pleut comme vache qui pisse.

So… ropes on the sky? We couldn’t settle on a satisfying translation.

Whatever, I Googled it just now and apparently the town’s name means ‘rocky heights to the sky’. That sounds equally rubbish however, so I’m calling it: ropes to the sky. Much better.

As we drove to Cordes-sur-Ciel in the big rumbly van, Seth and I were talking about travelling. Specifically, about going ‘whoa’ when travelling. Bear with me. It started like this:

“So what do you think about Albi then? How do you think it compares to Avignon?”

Truth be told, I find Avignon slightly prettier, but that’s only because I prefer sandy-coloured masonry over red brick. They’re both gorgeous, however. 

“It’s beautiful,” I told him. “I’m really happy for you guys.”

“I’m glad you like it man. The cathedral’s incredible, isn’t it?”

“God yeah, stunning.”

“What would you rate it out of ten?” asked Seth, glancing over at me, grinning.

“What, the cathedral?”


I thought about this a moment. My impulse was to fib and say nine or ten or something. But I have this new promise to myself that I’ve been living by for the last year, which is never to lie – ever. Even about small things.



“Yeah, it’s very pretty.”

Seth adjusted his hands on the steering wheel.

“Alright then. What’s a ten?”

I looked out of the window and tried to picture moments when I’d been totally stunned out of my nut.

“The Grand Canyon.”

“That’s a ten is it?”

“Yeah. Have you been?”

“No mate, never.”

Then we talked about the Grand Canyon for a while. I told him it’s a mile deep and many miles across; it fills your view from the tip of your toes, all the way to the horizon. It’s bigger than your mind will allow you to understand all in one go. I almost fell into it once.

I told him about a couple of other ‘ten out of ten’ sights. The volcano in Guatemala. Bioluminescent seas off the coast of Mexico. Mayan ruins. The Taj Mahal. Varanasi.

“I was a bit disappointed by the Taj Mahal,” said Seth. “It was so busy it took all the magic away.”

I told him that I went at 5am to queue up outside, so that when I entered with two friends at 6am, we were the only ones in there. It’s very peaceful for the first thirty minutes after opening.

“The Grand Canyon though – that one was insane. You can’t help but make a noise when you see it. The guide I was with made us close our eyes in the car park and led us through some bushes, and then he stood us on the rim and told us to open our eyes. And without even trying I just went ‘whoaaa’.”

And then we talked about going ‘whoaaa’ while travelling.

Seth and I have had this conversation before, way back in Australia. I remember the conversation because it made me realise he was somebody who would always get it – somebody I could be completely myself with.

Here’s what he said:

“When I first started travelling when I was 19, every time I saw a new place I used to go ‘whoaaa’. Every temple, mountain, village. We’d arrive somewhere and look around and I’d go ‘whoaaa, amazing’.

But after a while I started to realise I was forcing it. You get used to travelling, just like anything, but you still feel like you need to appreciate things, and show the people around you that you’re appreciating them. You don’t want to feel ungrateful. So you see a new building and you go ‘whoaaa’ again. But it starts to feel a bit fake.

So I decided to stop going ‘whoaaa’ if I didn’t really mean it. Instead I just say something like ‘oh, nice’, or whatever feels appropriate.”

This sentiment endeared Seth to me tremendously when I first met him, for reasons I couldn’t really articulate at the time. I thought it was just because he’d clearly travelled a lot too, which meant I could talk about my own travel experiences without seeming like a wanker. This is the strange switcheroo of travelling a lot: you see the most beautiful and incredible things in the world, but when you come home, nobody particularly wants to hear about your adventures beyond a cursory, polite five minutes – after this, everybody (including me when I listen to other peoples’ travel stories) begins to feel a bit envious and think ‘alright, we get it, shut up now’. It’s like a mate telling you about all their recent fantastic sexual escapades: vaguely entertaining at first, then annoying. It just sounds like bragging.

It sounds like bragging, that is, unless you’re talking to someone who’s also done all those things. And then it’s a discussion, and nobody gets annoyed or tired of it. So you finally get a chance to talk about all the little details you’ve held inside your heart, fearful of annoying anyone, for so long that you’ve almost forgotten them. (I’m talking about travelling again, just to be clear. Not shagging).

But as the years have passed, Seth’s ‘whoaaa’ story hits me on a different level. I don’t just enjoy it because he’s travelled a lot. I realised in the van, as we drove towards Cordes-sur-Ciel, that it’s the sincerity in his refusal to go ‘whoaaa’ that I love. He’s not trying to please other people, to be fake in any way. If something impresses him, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s also fine – he sees no point in lying to himself or anyone else.

It reminds me of a time I had dinner with some German friends in Berlin. A friend of mine, named Jojo, cooked us all pasta (a staunch dinner ahead of a rave). She spent ages cooking it, and handed me and four other friends the plates, then left the room. We ate the pasta: it tasted like tomato water, no salt. We each grimaced a little as we ate it.

When Jojo came back into the room, I said:

“Thank you. That was delicious.”

Then, when she’d left again, the Germans frowned at me.

“Why did you lie to her?” they said. “It was horrible.”

“I didn’t lie, I was being polite.”

“If you want to be polite, just say thank you for the meal. If you tell her it was delicious, she’ll always make it the same way.”

At the time, I thought this was just an amusing quirk of German culture – their directness, which to an English person appears as simply rude. But it was also sincere.

Recently, I’ve been trying to be more honest, both with myself and others. I realised I’ve always been a people-pleaser, afraid to say no or voice my opinion for fear of offending people. This has gotten me into a ton of situations I’d much rather have avoided. So I’ve been practising saying no – and actually, it turns out it’s really empowering. It’s even fun at times. I’ve found that if you just say what you really think – and, crucially, if you say it with a cheeky smile – people respect you for it. They may even, as impossible as it may seem, like you more.

“Dan, we’re all going to the beach in an hour. Do you want to come?”

Two Dutch guys, Luuk and Bas, asked me this in a hostel in Holbox. It was thirty degrees and there was no shade and I hate the beach at the best of times because sand can fuck off.

“With all my heart, no,” I grinned. “I can’t think of anything worse.”

And – lo and behold – they just laughed and said ‘okay man’ and clapped me on the shoulder as they left. I was amazed. Was it really that easy?! It was as if I’d discovered some magic power. How many hundreds of times had I been dragged to places I didn’t want to go before that? How many times had I lain angrily on beaches with sand whipping at my eyes and white sun stabbing at my forehead, or stood forlorn on the dancefloors of blackened techno clubs being pounded to hell by music I hated? 

Turns out Seth figured out how cosy sincerity can be a long time before I did. He’s a smart guy.

We were just finishing this conversation when we approached the town. Seth hadn’t told me what Cordes-sur-Ciel looked like; he hadn’t told me it’s a rickety pirate town wrapped around a big fat hill in the middle of a plain – he hadn’t told me that it looks like a fantasy landscape, unreal, like an epic doodle in the back of a chemistry book by a nerdy kid unmoved by numbers and interested only in stories with swords in them (ahem).

When I first saw it – when we turned a corner and the buildings in the foreground cleared to give way for the full, sweeping view of this distant, towering Edoras – I made a noise. And then I heard Seth laugh, and I felt a rush of embarrassment.

I realised what I’d done: ‘whoaaa’.

“Hey,” I told him, “that one was real.”

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