(Oli) We’ve been on the road for 6 weeks now.
As self-reliant as we are it is increasingly evident that the daily ‘success’, for want of a better word, of a trip such as this depends on the people we meet. The whole point of this was to meet people all around the world. And people truly are proving to be the fuel that keeps us going.
Whether it’s a brief roadside moment or a more leisurely, meet-the-family, kind of evening; it is peoples' smiles, waves, ‘bon viaggio’s, shared meals, shared stories, and a spirit of enthusiasm which goes beyond language that continues to propel us forward.
Of course ‘forward’ isn’t necessarily always in the direction you first expected, and as to what defines success - well that’s up for grabs too - but ending the day safely, smiling, and with a few new memories always feels like a win.
We met a man called Johan at a busy city junction in Germany. The sun was setting and we were cold and tired. He wound down his car window and gleefully interrogated us for the length of a red light in Köln, before punching the air with his fist as he drove off. After a long wintery day on the bike this fleeting interaction is the kind of thing that adrenalises and re-enthuses us.
Several hundred kilometres later we stay with Luca and Andrea in Luzzara, Italy. A couple we were able to connect with through the Warm Showers, (cyclists-hosting-cyclists), website. This stay stood out for many reasons. We eat an incredible meal that includes fresh pumpkin ravioli, a deliciously bitter red-lettuce salad, and fruity, lightly-sparkling sangria. After the meal we walk into town to Luca’s shop. Luca runs the local gelataria. An after-hours trip to the ice cream parlour? Yes Please!
Returning home we sip herbal teas from Andrea’s extensive collection; she’s a dancer and, untypical of the Italians we’ve met so far, she doesn’t drink coffee. She does have a tea that relaxes the legs though. The kettles goes back on more than once. It’s a lovely evening; their home is filled with books and paintings by their friends and family. It also includes several 'found-driftwood' sculptures which Luca has layered in varnish - they resemble little Rodins - bronze-brown and muscular - each holding its own unique pose.
We continue to chat late into the evening and begin to look at old photos. Luca enjoys running and cycling and has raced on a tandem with a blind cyclist from the town; Massimiliano. The pair have also run marathons together; gently connected at the elbow and running in tandem, together every step. Talking to Luca it seems like a natural union. Yet another example of people empathising with each others’ situation and coming together to achieve something. No grand gestures; just because..
It reminds me of Micheal and Zara who we met the week before we set off, back home in England, at the Wheels For All session in Bath. Wheels For All does as you’d expect; it’s a largely volunteer-run scheme which functions across the UK. For a couple of hours on a Saturday anybody who wants can come and ride a bike/trike/recumbent bicycle/side-by-side tandem or whatever suits really. This enables people of a range of ages and levels of ability/confidence to come together in a safe environment. My brother, Alex, has attended for several years now.
At the session back in February we met Micheal and Zara; a hearing impaired couple who themselves met through the scheme; (and I guess love blossomed but that’s a whole other story). They were there with Richard, a support worker who also signs, and who translated for us. Micheal told us he appreciated Wheels For All but initially found it hard to communicate with people at the session. He offered to help train some of the staff in the basics of sign language and began to put time aside each week.
Eighteen months later Bath's Wheels For All has a handful of volunteers who are confidant in the basics of sign language and, as a result, more hearing-impaired people attend the sessions. Based on the success they experienced at Wheels For All; Micheal, Zara and Richard offered to tutor in the wider community. Now they work with staff from local high street stores, teachers, security guards - and anybody who has a role working in public spaces who wants to learn - and they provide training in the basics of sign language. It’s a simple enabling act - they give their time and expertise in kind - and in doing so gently change the nature of public spaces so as to enable others to enjoy them too.
Less impactful but nonetheless appreciated; I love the smiles and waves we exchange with people as we pedal. I have an internal archive of waves and smiles from nameless roadside characters, gathered since we left Wiltshire. Whether it’s the curious half raised, hand-cupped wave of an elderly person waiting at a bus stop, who stares at us wide eyed as we pass, or the full salute and cheer of a fellow cyclist as they rush past us, it is a small moment of engagement with somebody and goes way beyond the effort needed to raise a hand or break a smile.
People enable each other on many different levels - whether in the form of drivers who take time and care to give us space at roundabouts, locals who invite us into their homes, or those who dedicate time to their local communities. And the loveliest thing is that when you talk to people, each moment of connection and act of kindness seems more often than not to lead to another somewhere else.