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About a month ago now I was sat alone on a crowded beach in Bulgaria. With an aching arm from a tetanus shot, stitches all up my leg and bottle of wine in hand, I vacantly looked out at the black sea trying to comprehend the fact that I’d just managed to make it here alive. Alone. And on a bike.
Before I take you with me along the dramatic twists and turns of this journey, I think it would be a good idea to give you a bit of context. I was born as raised in Suburban London. This is a place where, as most of you probably know, the residents are more concerned with the shade of their chaise longue matching the Laura Ashley wallpaper; or whether the outfit they so meticulously picked out to take Darcy (the dog) for a gentle stroll in Marble Hill complements the colour of her eyes, than anything of potential substance. I can tell you that most of my teenage years were spent in a frenzy, wondering why I was scruffier than the gorgeous people around me, looking in the mirror and trying to brush out hair that looked like someone had just dragged me backwards through a bush.
Luckily I escaped at 18 and was shipped off to South Africa where I spent 4 years studying International Relations in Cape Town. When that came to an end, I applied for a Canadian work visa and spent 5 months at the beginning of this year working as a cleaner for the elderly.
When May hit I scraped together whatever money I’d earned scrubbing dear old Audrey’s toilet, flew back to London and bought myself a bike. After packing my cheap panier bags with a few arbitrary things and strapping my tent to the back, I wobbled out the door and headed for Dover where I’d catch the ferry to Dunkirk. Without a plan, and completely underprepared, I suppressed the feeling that I might be really screwing myself over here.
However, as you can see I’m still alive and back in the safety of the sheltered suburbs. Here are some of the lessons I learned over the past couple of months.
Lesson #1: Anyone could do this.
Admittedly, the first few days were extremely difficult. When I left Canada, I’d started to resemble all the pudding I couldn’t stop eating. Literally a pudding on a bike. I was lucky enough, thank God, to meet two stoners from Seattle on the ferry over and we cycled parallel for the first couple of days into Belgium. Although they probably saved my life, they also almost killed me. I was too proud to admit I wasn’t fit enough to keep up with their effortlessly Olympic pace.
After we said our goodbyes the riding seemed heavenly. One thing about bike touring is that as the days roll on, your fitness builds without you realising. By the third day I surprised myself by bashing out 88kms from Ghent to Antwerp, and then by the next week I was casually smashing 100 and a bit.
The truth is, I am still surprised by what I was capable of. This was done by a pudding. A pudding made it to the Black Sea. Now I know that any one of us could have done this. I don’t even think the trick is putting your mind to it like all the clichés tell us, it’s just being a bit reckless and not thinking about it too much.
Lesson #2: Wild camping isn’t as fun as it sounds.
Ok, maybe wild camping doesn’t sound fun to the majority of people reading this, but I found the prospect of sleeping rogue slightly exciting. I was wrong. Wild camping is synonymous with sleeping badly, feeling vulnerable and having the police wake you up at six the morning.
My first experience wild camping was in Hungary. I’d been following the Danube River through the country and found a quiet spot near a place called Baja to pitch my tent. Unfortunately, unknown to me, there were wild pigs here. I slept all of two hours, listening to the snuffles of mysterious beasts pressing against the thin walls of my flimsy shelter. I woke up early the next morning, a little bit disgruntled, only to find a colony of ants had made their way lovingly into my tent. They’d invaded the breakfast I’d prepared for myself the night before. I had to cycle to the closest Tesco (yes there is Tesco in Hungary) to get Wi-Fi and eat some random bits to set me up for the 100km ride into Croatia that day. Great.
My next wild camping experience wasn’t much better. In Croatia I’d made the mistake of starting off late, only to realise towards the end of the day that I was racing against the setting sun without a place to sleep. Eventually I pulled into a town called Ilok, just off the border into Serbia. You can’t wild camp in towns. What I did next was definitely rogue. I approached a sweet looking family having their dinner outside and asked, using a lot of hand gestures, if I could pitch my tent on their lovely looking patch of grass. They cheerfully nodded, a bit confused, and I went about my business in the twilight. It wasn’t ants I woke up to this morning, or the cockerels, but the police. “You can’t be here”- they hollered, honking their horn at me…how did they know I was British? I guiltily poked my head through the opening of the tent and told them I’d had permission. To that, they laughed and drove off. Then, being in a rural town, all the elderly people started emerging from their cottages, gathering around me and chattering to each other in Croatian. I sheepishly prodded my porridge on the camping stove. Needless to say, I packed up my stuff pretty quickly after that and shoved off without a second glance.
My third wild camping experience was the worst of them all. Still on the Danube, this time in Serbia, I was once again racing against increasing darkness. A little bit pressed for options, I found an opening through the trees onto a clearing by the river. It was really beautiful. Too good to be true.
I jolted awake to the sound of men’s voices and the light of a torch illuminating my tent, exposing my hiding place. As I heard them lumber down the slope into the clearing I gulped back the dread that was now heavy in my stomach. This is going to be a problem, I thought. All of a sudden, I heard the plop of a fishing line hit the water. What? Who in their right mind goes fishing at 4 in the morning? Where is your wife? Go home.
When I realised they were harmless I actually slept better with them there, knowing that nobody else would be coming down that slope to harm me. Even still, I don’t think I’ll be taking up wild camping again in a hurry. At least not on my own anyway.
Lesson #3: Feel the burn.
What I realised as I went deeper and deeper into Europe was that a hill never feels as steep as it looks when you’re approaching it. Burning thighs are uncomfortable for the first two minutes, but after that you start to embrace the sensation. The greater the challenge, the better the day and the greater the sense of achievement at the end of it.
I don’t know if you’d agree with me here, but I think sometimes what the suburbs lack (if anything) is a sense of any challenge. We groan at the slightest inconvenience and expect things to be handed to us on a silver plate. We’ve forgotten the satisfaction of digging deep, achieving something that was way beyond the borders of our borough, or comfort zone. All I do for leisure here is drink with nothing to wake up to but the offensive ache of my hangover.
Lesson #4: We don’t need all this stuff.
It’s a funny thing, having all your possessions packed on the back of a bike. It brings into perspective what is crucial, and then all the extra junk we carry that’s just weighing us down and holding us back. When I got to Prague, I sent a present back to my sister: a package of stinky reeboks, a winter jacket (what was I thinking?) and a few other items of clothing I couldn’t bring myself to throw away.
Don’t get me wrong, things are good and it’s good to own things you love, but after a while I found myself being brutal about chucking the things that were inessential. It was liberating. I’ve returned to London with all of three changes of clothing, two pairs of shoes and a spring in my step. One lesson I’ve learned, and hope to share, is that our possessions don’t make our lives any richer. It’s the experiences we have. I’d rather declutter my life of all this stuff and focus on more important things like the people around me.
Lesson #5: It's all good to be alone.
For someone who professes to love people, I spend a lot of my time aching to be alone.
In Slovakia I met a German guy who was extremely sweet and headed in the direction of the Black Sea. We cycled in tandem down to Budapest, but after a day or two found myself getting more and more frustrated. His feet absolutely stank and his advances were grating. I kindly told him to cycle on ahead and smiled and waved him out the door of the hostel maybe a bit too enthusiastically.
The thing is, it feels good to be alone. When you’re alone, you don’t have to consider what anyone else wants, you can go at your own pace and you can feel as grim as you like, as loudly as you think inappropriate.
Lesson #6: It’s better to be with people.
Yes. It is. The truth is, in the six weeks spent on my bike, some of the most memorable and pivotal moments were those spent with the many different people I met along the way. In these moments I laughed and learned the most.
Of course, being alone has its benefits, but what’s a feeling if you can’t express it to someone else? I realised this when everything started going wrong in Romania.
I had been warned about the stray dogs, but little did I know how savage they’d turn out to be. The scrat was dozing on the side of the road, barely paying attention to the pudding riding past; but just as I thought it safe to continue the thing erupted into a frenzy and hurtled towards me at a surprising speed, barking with the kind of ferocity you’d only see on nat geo wild. To my horror, another dog materialised out of nowhere right in front of me, causing me to swerve my bike, almost catching my tyre on the edge of the tarmac. Thank the Lord, a car came around the bend to my rescue, slamming on their horn and swerving towards the dogs. I didn’t even have time to thank my saviour as I peddled furiously on, tears running down my face. In that moment, I would have liked someone there.
It gets worse.
The next day I managed to somehow impale my leg on the jagged cog of my bike. I winced, only to look down another five minutes up the road. Crap. It was bad.
I veered into the closest pharmacy and asked for a plaster. They thought that was cute and advised me to stay and see the doctor who then proceeded to give me a note and instructed me to go to the nearest city and get a tetanus jab. Begrudgingly, I cycled the next 40kms to the emergency room and took my seat in a room of sick and dying people.
This story is only getting started.
Suddenly, a man was thrust through the swinging doors on a stretcher. He was followed by a hysterical woman and her husband who clutched her head to his chest. It was really terrible to see and suddenly I just didn’t want to be there at all. The woman had disappeared after the stretcher when her husband approached me. “Julia?” Ey? What are the chances?! He told me he knew the host that I had organised to stay with that night on couchsurfing and that he was waiting for me. To that, I gave up on the waiting room and went to meet my host who then left me to shower while he joined his friends at the hospital.
It turns out that the man rushed to the emergency room had had an accident on his tractor. It had slid in the soft soil on a slope, toppled over and crushed him. He died that day.
After a while my host returned, tearfully filling me in on what had happened. I felt awful. He asked me if I could come with him to the grieving family’s cottage on the lake just outside of the city. They had asked us to go and feed their animals.
I was still trying to make sense of the day as we sipped Romanian wine (which tastes more like vinegar), looking out over the lake, surrounded by goats, chickens and dogs. The next morning we were woken up early by someone who had come to milk the goats, kindly letting us know that they were bringing the body of the deceased to the lake later on that morning.
As the sun continued to rise, mourners started arriving to help prepare the building for the funeral. I felt a bit out of place, but tried making myself useful, helping a Roma lady do the pile of dishes that had collected at tap outside. She kept bursting into fits of grief, joined by the men that were busy organising the room inside. When the body finally arrived, I made my way up to wait at the car. I shouldn’t have really been there. The grieving cried out and comforted each other as they carried the man out from the van.
I left the lake house feeling absolutely drained, but couldn’t help also feel uplifted by the whole experience. The way that the friends of the family had voluntarily turned up to help each other out, the way that they supported each other and cared so deeply for each other. I don’t think I will ever forget the kindness that those people showed to their loved ones, and to me, just a strange foreigner with a dodgy leg.
I did get my tetanus shot in the end, don’t worry.
When I finally made it to the Black Sea a few days later the feeling was very underwhelming. I bought a bottle of two-euro wine and plonked on the sand to “celebrate” the achievement. Just then, a whole bunch of young guys from Poland turned up on their bikes. Cheering, taking pictures and patting each other on the back, they stripped off and ran into the sea. Must be nice I thought taking another swig of my disgusting wine.
Lesson #7: You can feel at home anywhere, but “home, home” is always going to be home.
One thing I really have learned from all the experiences and people I met on the trip is that you can feel at home wherever you are in the world.
I think it’s important to accept that you’re loved, by friends and family, and this makes you secure wherever you find yourself. I honestly did not feel lonely once on the trip, knowing full well that people would be waiting for me when I got back.
And although I still find the suburbs extraordinarily dull, I know that any meaning we can suck out of this life can be found in the relationships we build with the people around us. It’s not in our possessions or appearances that define us, but the way that we go about uplifting and caring for the other humans we share our little lives with. I think that’s the way to live a good life.