UPDATE: I have reached the penultimate country in the Europe leg of my journey – Bulgaria. I’ve taken an unexpected day off in the city of Plovdiv having cycled some fairly rough ‘roads’ over the last couple of days, it sapped my energy more than I thought and I’m sure Stephanie (the bike) would be glad of a day off and some TLC! Yesterday while cutting between two roads across a once-used but now overgrown track, I saw my first bear print in some wet ground – having to push my bike over the pertruding rocks in the washed-out lane, it certainly made me more attentive to my surroundings and it was the first time my bell has been used as a bear precaution! Tomorrow I move on, two days to the border and then another few days to Istanbul!
One of the joys of being on the road is the number of people that you come in to contact with every day – whether it’s shopkeepers, other travellers, or just people out and about in towns and on the roads, every conversation and encounter is different. Before I started the trip, this would have been one of the daunting prospects, partly for my own trepidations about unfamiliar social situations, and partly for fear of the unknown that I think most people share. With each day that passed however, it became more enjoyable and I was far more likely to follow up chance eye-contact with a friendly “hello” to break the initial social barrier.
In almost 2 months I have met nice people, good people, funny people, interesting people, and other than a small number of impatient drivers which I could count on my fingers, I can’t think of one negative experience. The memorable moments have been the times where people showed genuine kindness; unsolicited, unrewarded extentions of generosity, empathy and friendliness to someone they have never met.
One day, while cycling in Germany, I had spent a long day on the road trying to cover the miles to get to the next town. Cycling through small backroads to avoid the traffic on the main road, I was following signs to the town and thought I was making good time until I realised I had gone a few miles without seeing another sign. At the next signpost, the town wasn’t listed and I assumed I must have missed a turning; slightly annoyed at myself, tired, and worrying about the time, I was turning my bike around to retrace my steps when a middle-aged couple cycled up behind me. Asking something in German (presumably whether I was lost), I told them the name of the town that I was aiming for. After they interpreted my poor pronounciation, the husband spoke briefly to his wife, turned his bike around and waved to indicate I should follow. Slightly surprised, I was happy to comply and cycled to catch up – we managed a broken conversation as he guided me turn-by-turn for the next 5 or so miles. At one junction we stopped, he pointed down the road and gave me directions to the town – thankfully in German that I did recognise: “Geradeaus”. Straight Ahead. I expressed my gratitude as we shook hands and I cycled the last 10km high on positivity and my tired legs had renewed energy!
Most days on the bike the physical exertion isn’t too strenuous and I’ve realised that what determines how difficult a day in the saddle is, can often just be mental attitude. It sounds clichéd, and I’ve also learnt how much food and a decent night’s sleep can play a part, but when my spirits are high, cycling becomes a breeze even when the roads and conditions are against you.
It also strikes me that when spirits are low, this is often the time when the kindness of strangers is most prevalent. In Hungary, having left Budapest a couple of days before, a long day of cycling without finding a decent camping spot led me to a town that I had seen had a hostel that you could also camp beside. Before even pitching my tent, I took out the food I had bought earlier in the day to have for dinner – a tomato pasta salad so I thought. When I opened it however it was something quite different – a stodgy mess of processed meat and something to stick it together. I had picked up the wrong thing in the shop without noticing. Needing some sort of sustenance, I persevered but could only get a few mouthfuls in before setting it to rest beside me. Tired and still hungry, I began to put up my tent and just as I was finishing pegging the rain cover, I saw an older woman walking towards me. She began to speak in Hungarian, pointing across the grass. Obvious I wasn’t understanding she turned and began to walk, waving a hand, beckoning me to follow – a universal signal I was discovering. As I followed her, I saw she was walking towards a large table surrounded by a family 10 or 12 strong with gift bags covering the surface – I was joining a family party it seemed. The chair at the head of the table was free and she gestured for me to sit in it. Still in my cycling gear I sat down, smiling with a hand raised in greeting to the new faces looking at me as the woman that had brought me over spoke to them. She disappeared quickly and before long she brought out a large bowl of warm soup with chunks of bread – I couldn’t tell them how much this was exactly what I needed. As I ate, the glass of wine by my side was constantly topped and, after a round of cake for desert, we raised our glasses around the table before I took my leave for a much needed shower and some rest. This, I thought as I lay there in the evening, this was why I came cycling.
As I have moved further east, it has become more common for cars to give a friendly toot and a wave as they pass, for road workers to shout encouragement as I cycle slowly past up a hill. Just yesterday as I was standing my bike up outside a supermarket at lunchtime, a burly man with a bald head shouted to catch my attention and, again, waved a hand that I should follow and bring the bike. Walking in to a shell of a building being decorated he pointed up to a camera, that the bike would be safe there, and told me with individual words that downstairs was ‘fitness’, ‘toilet’ and ‘water’ – a gym as it turns out, he owned it and offered its services, for no reason other than he saw me outside.
I have just started reading a book with the same name as this post – stories from others that have travelled or just spent time with relative strangers. Tales to warm the heart and inspire a blog post. I hope that when finished my trip, I can pass on some of the kindness offered to me when I return home – goodwill to all, it will be Christmas by then after all!