When Kindness leads to a Kinda Mess...
(Oli) We love meeting people on the road. Sometimes however, innocent & friendly intentions can be a huge unpredictable curveball that halts us in our tracks and whips our eastwards trajectory well & truly out of shape.
Peter & Francesco, in Germany & Italy respectively, were two helpful-minded Lycra-clad road cyclists who persuaded us through mime to follow them on more scenic routes. Both led us enthusiastically to alternatives from our road of choice. Both times we followed them meekly to these alternative routes. Options of which we were already aware but had dismissed in favour of straighter simpler roads which we hoped would allow tired legs to retire happily before dusk for once. Our entry level skills in German, Italian, & mime, prevented any such explanation though. Both times. And since both Peter & Francesco were full of enthusiasm to contribute to our experiences in their country we had no option but to follow.
Each time I'd look down between the handlebars, panting as we pedalled hard, watching our first choice routes recede into the phone-screen as Google Maps, My Maps, or whatever apps we were using on the day recalculated numerous times as we went further off piste, adding extra kilometres & unwelcome minutes on to our ETA.
These guys were great & we loved meeting them. Wouldn't change a thing. But two chunky touring juggernauts trying their best to keep up with sleek whippety roadies was only ever going to lead to the sensation of burning calves & sweat gathering in our padded, once dry, cycle shorts. You can't always choose the scenic route but sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't avoid it either!
Several hundred kilometres later, the first handful of guys who hollered at us from the shaded front of a roadside bar in Albania were exuberant to say the least. Albania is a beautiful country that sometimes gets a bad rep in online circles. I guess because it's obviously less wealthy than its neighbours & one off-shoot of this is there's a lot of rubbish & litter lying around. There are bits of plastic & packaging dotted all over its incredible landscape like well-established acne on some poor kid's would-be immaculate face. Some of the Albanians with whom we spoke conveyed a frustration with the status quo & were dismissive, embarrassed even, of the state of their country but several reacted with an obvious pride & pleasure when we told them Albania was a place of which we had no preconceptions but which we liked very much & which has continued to appear very beautiful to us in many ways.
And the people are so so friendly. Perhaps the friendliest yet: back to the guys in the bar!
From a cracked concrete veranda, set a few metres back from the main road, we hear a throaty yell 'ehhh!' & big swinging arm gestures beckon us stop. A head thrown back & fist smacked against old lips in a furious drinking gesture, coupled with fingers pointing at the sun & then wagging, make it clear what's on offer. Extra chairs are brought out & the circle around the table expands to usher us in. These guys are huge & hoarse voiced. Possibly permanently, or perhaps a result of several discarded beer bottles & a half full bottle of raki; Albania's powerful locally-concocted spirit. They're probably in their fifties with the exception of the barman who's slightly younger. There's a saucer of sardines in the middle of the table besides a couple of ashtrays. Or it could be an ashtray of sardines & a couple of saucers full of cigarette butts. Either way the three receptacles seem to operate an open borders policy with regard to their contents.
Suddenly it's clear we're guests of interest & soft drinks won't be adequate. Which is a shame as it was thirty odd degrees & we'd naively glugged down our remaining water hours earlier in the assumption that we'd see a cash point or that the mini-marts would accept card. As it was our first full day in the country we didn't have the first clue about Lek. Or the language; to us Albanian sounds amazingly unique & seems to share nothing obvious with other Balkan or European states. 'Po' is yes & 'jo' is no. 'Shqipëri' is Albanian for Albania & 'faliminderit' is thank you. It's been the trickiest language so far to get our head round even a handful of words. On day two we still recognised no Albanian & our guys here spoke no English.
Somehow Ruth managed to get away with a coffee rather than alcohol but I was presented with a huge bottle of cool beer. Which looked beautiful. Recently emerged from the freezer it still had those little crystals of ice around its neck & cool clear beads of condensation running down its body. It looked like the perfect bottle of beer that any brand would be proud to photograph for their poster. I held it nervously & enjoyed the ice melting between my fingers. If they all looked away at once perhaps I could lick the sides of the bottle?! I looked at Ruth. Recently she'd bought a long sleeved collared cotton shirt that she could chuck on easily over cycling clothing when off the bike. She now had this pulled quite securely around her. Content enough but definitely not totally at ease as the only female in the group. The old guy seated adjacent to her had his arm firmly on the back of her chair & one foot resting up on the framework that joined the legs nearest to him. The barman came & stood behind me. We were well and truly in their circle & out of our comfort zone. I figured there was nothing for it but to drink up. Ruth's espresso cup was already empty & I hadn't even popped open my giant beer.
I felt like a child. I'd had a 'picola bira' on a couple of occasions in Italy in preparation for moments like this but generally speaking I'd been tee-total for the last three years. It was a hot day. It was two o'clock. We'd cycled a fair distance & we hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. I had a premonition of being drunk under the table, quite literally, whilst Ruth tried to mime-explain to our hurly burly table gang that I wasn't a frequent drinker & hadn't in fact simply been being polite. As we cheers-ed drinks with cackles of 'Hasta la Vista' & all monologued earnestly & brokenly in our own languages I felt the beer going to my head. It was fine though, perhaps even quite nice. I remember this sensation: Sladesbrook Park in Bradford on Avon, aged 14, the blurry climbing frame & street lamps in my peripheral vision began to slide as I clutched an opaque blue plastic bottle apparently containing something called 'White Lightning' for dear life.
I can't really remember what we talked about round the table. Every so often the guy opposite me would scoop up a long spoonful of sardines & guide it to one side of the cigarette that hung permanently from his mouth; clamped firmly in a gap between two nicotine-stained teeth. The barman, Nero, was on the phone having concluded we spoke English & when I'd almost drained my beer a bright blue BMW with tinted windows ground to a halt on the gravel besides us. From what we could make out there was a terrifyingly huge man at the wheel. Bare-armed, big-bellied, and wearing a shirt tied round his head with a pair of reflective aviators concealing his eyes. He had to duck his head to pull himself out of the car. He had scars on his face & throat & looked somewhere between mafia foot soldier & nativity play shepherd. He came over and introduced himself as Jervio; removing the shades & grinning widely as he did so. He sounded like Batman in the recent Dark Knight films. He looked like he'd give Batman a run for his money in a fight.
More beers were brought out. 'Please no!'
Pop; the tops burst off.
'Hasta la vista'
Chink; a host of glass bottles bash against my new full beer. Six earnest faces stared at me expectantly for a moment until I raised the bottle. Smiles & grins broke out as I set to task on the next 750 ml.
Jervio proved to be a gentle giant of course. He's spent some time living in Elephant & Castle & spoke a bit of English. Over the course of my second beer he translated bits & bobs of our adventure for the group, our enjoyment of Albania so far, & our gratitude at being invited over. Then, as another tray of beers appeared, he laughed as we stood up to make our excuses & explained that we must be on our way.
'We'll take years if we always stop for beers'.
I thanked the group enthusiastically & they watched me wobble as I stood & mimed not wanting to be drunk on a bike in the heat.
'No more for me, thanks: faliminderit! Or it'll be two beers & a tumble.'
They laughed. Big hands grasped ours & wished us well.
They were Nero, Jervio, Basquim, Asif & Gzim. And though the experience was both intimidating & inebriating it had been a real pleasure.
As we cycled away, Ruth in a straight line & me slightly less so, we agreed they were lovely if a little terrifying. We wondered apprehensively if it was a sign of things to come. What did Albania have in store for us; long drawn out liquid lunches & afternoon hangovers?! And if so would we actually make it through. Or would we end up disappearing, never to be seen again, down one of the gaping cover-less drain holes that appeared every so often. The potholes of Italy now seemed like child's play. Albania was laying down hard concrete pits in our path. And some really do look big enough to swallow a bike.