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western europe: connections and disconnections

I have to confess that Western Europe passed by in a bit of a blur and the experience was a little strange. On one hand it was just like home, I mean I’ve actually lived in a lot of these countries and have friends, family and even possessions, dotted about the place, but on the other hand, here I am itinerant and sleeping in roadside ditches with wild hair and smelly clothes. Most of the other touring cyclists that I came across look at me in askance and kept a wary distance and after a few of these awkward encounters I came to accept that my style of cycle touring isn’t necessarily the norm in these parts.

But it wasn’t all alienation.

I met a German guy living in a campervan when I was scouting about some abandoned railway station on a ViaVerde cycle route in Spain. When he realised that I was looking for somewhere dry to sleep he set up a tent for me and then we talked about meditation and travel and ate a meal together. In the morning he offered me the tent and when I declined on the grounds that it was too big for me to carry on my bike he rummaged around in his van until he found a smaller one. He had three tents, he said, and he’d bought this one for €30 at a super-market. If I didn’t like I could just dump it again. And so I took it.

I caught up with some old friends in Spain – friends I hadn’t seen in the 20 odd years since I was an aspiring young(ish) acrobat training in Barcelona and we were all living in a rather unglamorous squat in a uncompleted apartment block on the opposite side of the road from Parc Güell. The tourists used to stand up above us on the hill-top gazing down at the building’s outdoor terraces unaccountably distracted from the extravagantly adorned landscape they had come to admire by the banal doings of our daily life. Sonia and Alison have got married, and have an adopted child, and they live, without a constant audience now, in a small town to the north of Barcelona in a suburban house on a quarter acre block with a thriving vegetable garden. They have a dog and a cat and hope to add a foster child to their family soon.

Meeting Jan and Jan, a Dutch guy and a Canadian girl, who live in France and work in Switzerland, was a charmed, and charming, encounter courtesy of Warm Showers. I was regaled with good food, fine wine, a new inflatable sleeping mat, help and advice on bicycle maintenance, and exciting bicycling tales and left with renewed optimism and fortitude.

In the corner of France where it meets Germany and Switzerland, I visited a cousin. He and I are somewhat unlikely friends. We are within a week or two of being the same age but he was born and raised in the US and we’ve met less than half a dozen times in the course of our lives. He is a successful businessman, and has a family of girls just setting off to college back in the US, but somehow we share a taste in literature and an interest in discussing challenging ideas.

My friend, and an erstwhile cycle companion, Jeff, who I rode with – along with Jason, his brother, and Cass Gilbert – for several months in the US and Mexico back in 2009 and 2010, is also travelling around Europe on his bike. Jeff is generally accompanied by his family now but since his girlfriend and three year old son were attending family obligations in the UK we decided to ride together for a few days through the Black Forest and catch up on the last six years of life. We raced along the Danube, laughing and squabbling uproariously, in relentless torrential rain as the river steadily rose.

Germany seemed a marginally friendlier place than Spain and France. In a sodden park in Ulm, where Jeff and I were about to go our separate ways, a young man saw our bikes and approached us with a welcome offer of hospitality. We retired to this man’s flat to drink a nostalgic maté and I stayed the night after Jeff had boarded his bus to visit another friend in the north of the country.

Still in floods of rain, I continued north-east to the Czech Republic, which is the last country where I had a fixed address. First, I visited my friends, Nic and Mike, in their South Bohemian farmhouse where I still have half a dozen boxes of books and some stylish kitchen equipment stashed in the attic. Nic tends a vegetable garden and an unruly menagerie of domestic and farmyard animals as she slowly renovates the crumbling house and barns while Mike does something mysterious with computers in a closed room at the back of the house.

I sidestepped Prague and headed further north to see another friend as the end of my Schengen visa-free time hurtled towards me. It was here that all thoughts I had of maybe resurrecting my Czech life and settling down again faded away as if they had never occurred to me. With a day or two left to leave the Schengen area I rushed through Austria by train and bus and descended in Slovenia ready to ride into the unknown.

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