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An expat cyclist’s view of Europe

In 48 hours I will take the ferry to England, and then it will be all over (Le jour de gloire est arrive!). I am excited about the end, but nervous about the new life that awaits, and sad that these momentous years and miles are almost done. But a consolation has been that Europe has saved the best for last. The end of all my exploring has been to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time: Europe may be my favourite continent. It has everything: landscapes, history, cities, food, languages, cultures at least the equal of anywhere on earth, and all squashed nice and tight together so you don’t have to pedal for a month to get to the next interesting place. If any European country was dropped in the middle of any other continent it would instantly become a dream travel destination.

Slovenia felt like Western Europe at last. Shopping centres selling mountains o’things and Sunday cyclists and joggers. Having both money and time is one of our greatest privileges in the rich world. The Old Town centre of Ljubljana was quiet, charming and graceful, something it certainly wasn’t a few weeks ago when it was invaded by hordes of Scottish football fans who entertained the locals with their amiable booziness and exhibitions of what Scotsmen actually wear under their kilts… Close to Ljubljana rise the fabulous Julian Alps. Caesar did pretty well: to have a mountain range as well as a salad named after him. They are as beautiful as Switzerland but without the Austrian caravanners. On my way to Italy I visited Kobarid, the scene of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” description of the World War 1 battles fought in the mountains above the chalk-blue Soca river. ‘In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels’.

The awesome Dolomites have very civilised mountain passes. Signs tell you the altitude, how many kilometres to the summit and how many more hairpin bends stand between you and the top. It is about as easy as mountain passes ever get. Massive walls of rock surrounded me as I yelled at my terminally sick bike: 15 punctures in four days, four broken chains, two buckled wheels, a split tyre, a fragile bottom bracket, no back brake, 6 broken spokes in a cracked rim and split hub and only about 10 gears still working out of 27. My gloves have duck tape for palms, and my rain trousers have a duck tape crotch. My panniers are held with string and my shoes stink. My bike is a total contrast to the Sunday afternoon riders of Italy who purr along on carbon fibre dream machines looking every bit the professional in fancy racing outfits. There is a saying in Italy that it is easier to buy a light bike than to lose weight. Clearly me and my bike were a lower class of being as the thoroughbreds rarely stooped to the level of replying to my greetings. Snobbishness like that is a demand to be overtaken…

I was not expecting much of El Duomo, Milan’s central Cathedral, having become a bit blase about the endless beauty of Europe’s architecture. But I was staggered by the fourth largest church in the world and the visual overload of more than a hundred soaring Gothic spires and walls adorned with 2000 incredible statues. It is one of the most astonishing buildings I have seen. “Poor Samarkand!” I thought.

In Switzerland I paused at the top of the 2000m Simplon Pass, built by Napoleon. The cowbells were ringing, the mountains were pristine, the car park was full of caravans: vintage Switzerland. I knew that this was my last pass in the world. More than ever before I felt sad that the end was nigh. It was all downhill from here. I wondered whether I should just turn around and ride off to Australia. But my bike would never make it that far so I just rolled on down into Geneva.

Geneva. So rich, so clean, so perfect. About as far as it is possible to be from the utter chaos of the Third World. Bright lights in shops lure shoppers with an amazing variety of unnecessary things. I feel the first disorienting waves of reverse culture shock wash at the soft sand foundations of my assurance in the life I have come to know as ‘normal’. Magical bookshops crammed with lifetimes of armchair education, provocation and adventure show me the infinite possibilities for our life. How can I make a choice? The perennial question of “what next?” is no longer just a happy excuse for miles of daydreaming. In only a few too-short days time I will have to wake up and say to myself for real, “I am not riding today. What next?” In Geneva the traffic, to my constant surprise, stops for me at pedestrian crossings. 50 seater buses contain no more than 50 people. People wait their turn in the post office. Banks contain money. Lots of it. Street signs tell you where you are and where you want to go. Manhole covers have not been stolen. Nobody honks their horns or shouts. Traffic flows. Nobody raises their prices when they see you are foreign. I have not seen a single donkey in the city. There are traffic lights in the Cathedral bell tower to help tourists ascend and descend efficiently. You can walk the streets at night without fear. The sun is not blotted by pollution. Lest I seem ungrateful I will whisper this quietly, as quietly as the Geneva rush hour: “it is so boring!”

During hard times I often dreamed of cycling in France as some sort of ideal: to sit in street cafes drinking coffee and reading L’Equipe [the daily sports paper]. Within a hundred metres of entering France I was sitting in a cafe making the dream come true. France really is a green and pleasant land, and the view from my tent each morning of dew-drenched green fields and hedges and steaming cows was so similar to my England. I speak French badly but far better than I speak Chinese so it has been a luxury to be able to not only ask for directions, but also even to understand the replies. The notoriously grumpy, unfriendly French citizens have disappointed me by their hospitable welcome: in an attempt to make me feel at home they have spent the last couple of weeks trashing their cities. Unfortunately for their attempts to make me feel welcome they seem not to realise that our own world-famous hooligans tired of such antics about 15 years ago.

Racing up the N6 through Auxerre and on towards Paris was flat and open country, perfect for a Tour de France timetrial stage. I settled into my own rhythm, rushing along, my nose following the white line (‘yuppy style’) as my legs span and span me closer to the end. Of course, entering Paris, I rode the Tour de France finishing-straight up the Champs Elysees and round the Arc d’Triomphe. If Geneve was a culture shock, the chaotic traffic round the Arc d’Triomphe was a nostalgic reminder of what cycling in the Third World was like. But cycling in Paris is not too bad- the biggest hazard are the clumps of kamikaze oriental tourists risking life and limb in the middle of insanely busy avenues to get that perfect holiday snap. Riding through sunset into dusk towards where I was staying reminded me vividly of entering Cairo- the river dotted with pleasure boats on my right, its banks busy with pedestrians (including lots of Arabs) and smoky cafes, the Eiffel Tower lit up like the Pyramids and a thrilling reminder of location and an aid to navigation.

With the end so close I am divided between great excitement, nerves and sadness that it is nearly done. My mind races with memories and I have to remind myself that the end of the ride does not mean the end of my life. I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing a month from now, but that really is no excuse not to get on the ferry. “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.” I just hope my bike holds up for two more days. If not, I suppose that I can even run home from here. England, here I come!

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