"... de tu querrida presencia, Cumandante Che Guevarra..."
The sounds and words fill up the entire space. And the voice hides strong emotions. It carries the mystery of a story that one can only guess, or imagine. His voice carries way bayond the walls, going all the way up the stairs, where they're all rushing and bumping into each other. His song even gets 1 out of 3 people to stop, which is not a small feast on the Parisian metro. The character makes me stop... The character, as well as his song, and his words. They are the sounds of a flame that has died, of a missed revolution, of dreams yet to be dreamt, or of something else maybe. To us, these sounds are symbolic anyhow. A symbolic way to finish our story. On pretty much the day before we left New Zealand at the start of our trip, we had excitedly gone to watch "motorcycle diairies", and had admired the strength, the energy and the hope of young Che Guevarra. 21220km later, as we step into the metro for the first time since our arrival in Paris, we finish our journey with this small Parisian sun, a short little man singing for the black suits, a bunch of little smiling wrinkles around his eyes.
Yes, we have arrived in Paris! Which shows that if you keep on pedaling...
We arrive in a city where cars are burning, the sign of a crisis that has taken great momentum. We look at France, the same way we have looked at Europe, with our cycling eyes, our nomadic eyes, constantly moving travelers that we are. We are not at home, we have just entered a new country, yet to be discovered. The experience is quite disconcerting. Now that our journey is over, how long for, still, will we be able to look at each country, each region, each moment with those eyes that are not entirely foreign but not entirely local, familiar either?
Our eyes are traveling eyes, always wanting to discover more, always ready to go, to meet and explore what is behind, what is after, on the other side of the hill, around the corner, across the border.
And indeed, we were greeted by red eyes as we arrived in Europe, in Greece to be exact. The lady coming out of the immigration office wears bright red, thick plastic glasses. In fact, that's the only thing you can see, her red glasses. She comes out of the office, half smiling, half rushing:
-"where are you going?"
-"we are going to France!"
-"wow!... Where have you come from?"
her red eyes go around and around, and then all we can hear is great laughter. Until she wishes us good luck and encourages us to keep going. Seeing the first church triggers such emotions! Without really knowing why in fact. Is it simply an instinctive reaction when seeing something so familiar, after so long? We cross the northern part of the country, in postcard-like landscapes: the Egean sea, so beautiful and so blue that Yvoine does not wait long before jumping in (Mike, howver, thinks the water is already too cold...); the bright white buildings, so sharp against deep blue skies; and the little white churches looking over us from the top of steep, rocky hills. As for the Greeks, ah the Greeks, so friendly and so proud...! We order turkish coffee at our first stop. Turkish coffee? It does not exist here (we are barely 50 km from the Turkish border). We only have Greek coffee! Never mind, we don't mind drinking Greek coffee, especially when it tastes the same, has the same colour, the same smell and is served the exact same way as Turkish coffee... The Greeks, who at our approach, run to the nearby orchards to bring us back a few stolen apples... The Greeks who energetically explain to us that we do not need to go to Macedonia, we might as well stay in Greece, since Alexander the Great was truely from here. "Alexander the Great is ours!"
We'll go to Macedonia anyway. After, all, it is a recurring theme of our trip that the one of the locals telling us not to go any further because there is nothing to see there, because it is dangerous, because the people over there, well, let me tell you, the people over there... Hardly have we crossed the border that we find the familiar atmosphere we have always found when visiting Eastern Europe over the last few years. On the streets, all we can see are Ladas, Zastivas, 4-L Renaults, and horses covered in little bells. Little old ladies walk along the road, their back curved, and a scarf on their head. The colours, even the brightest ones, become somewhat dull here. And of course, we find again the red and purple dyes - extremely common for ladies' hair -, the hairdos and make-up straight out of magasines of another era, and fashion trends that are hard to describe but see us sit at cafes' outdoor terraces for hours - a great observing outpost for this show from another time.
From Macedonia, we go through some varied scenery, quickly: awesome lakes and mountains, incredible views from the top of passes, where one is king or queen of the world, small churches and isolated villages in wild landscapes. In Albania, all of this is completed with bunkers. These bunkers were madly built, in great numbers, to defend Albania against its ennemies. That means pretty much everyone for this small communist country, living in autarky, but however friend with neither China nor USSR. Bunkers everywhere, as far as the eye can see, more frequent than road signs. Bunkers, and Mercedes cars. 4 cars out of 5 seem to be a Mercedes. They are all over 20 years old, but according to the locals, "they are the only cars that can make it on our roads!" Along the road, we see a few people farming small plots of land. Albania does not look like it is taking off. No obvious sign of economic development in the countryside, no tractors. Farmers still work with picks and rakes. A few donkeys here and there carry some hay. Fair enough, Tirana, the capital city, shows a few signs of development by comparison. But we do not find there the feverish activity usually associated with developement and that we find for example in Croatia, Montenegro or even in Macedonia. In fact, Tirana is more a gathering of multi-coloured buildings, with no organisation or structure whatsoever. On the streets, full of potholes and half destroyed, the trucks regularly loose half their load (it is up to us to avoid whatever is coming off the top of the truck!). Tirana is a chaotic, polluted, dusty centre that the police vaguely - really? - tries to organise, blowing in their whistles and frenetically moving their arms in all directions.
Albania is loathed by its neighbours. It is the "country of thieves", the "centre for bandits and crooks". We meet a young Albanian who speaks reasonably good english and tries to explain. During the decades of communist dictatorship, there was hardly any schooling or education. Since the end of the communist dictatorship, one has to pay to go to school. To the vast majority of Albanians, who already struggle to just feed themselves, and who have never been to school, the idea of sending their kids to school, and pay for it, is simply weird and unrealistic. When the borders of Eastern Europe opened up, and the region started developing fast after the Yugoslavian war, the Albanians suddenly saw a lot of wealth right next door to them, at their neighbours'. How to acquire such wealth for a country that had no means, neither economic, nor educative, nor structural? Small theft and bigger traffic have reinforced a reputation that was already harsh for a country that had organised and centred itself for decades on a strict Canon code, based on the law of the stronger. When we ask this young Albanian about Albania's future, the next step? "There is no future here, no help, no education, no redistribution, only a few corrupted people that get richer and richer. We all try to go to Europe, to Italy or France, or England" he says.
After Albania, the signs of development become more and more frequent. Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia... From the roads to the cost of living, to the cars or the level and quality of building, at first sight, it does not look so different from the level of development of their Italian and western European neighbours. We thoroughly enjoy riding on those nice smooth roads, just rebuilt, mainly by the EU, after the war. The scenery is fantastic: from fjordlands to little alcoves to small beaches, sometimes complete with one of those old, full of character, towns. We spend more time admiring the scenery than meeting and relating. This is probably an opinion reached too quickly but it seems to us that the more "developped" (economically that is) a country is, the poorer it is at relating to one another. The locals seem less interested in our bikes, more indifferent to our coming through.
With a few notable exceptions however. Like this family from Montenegro, now living in Switzerland, but back to their birth country for a holiday. They see us on the road a few kilometers away from the border with Albania. "Are you Swiss?" they ask us when they see our clothing that has the little Swiss cross on them (the manufacturers DT Swiss and Assos are Swiss). "1/4 Swiss!" Yvoine answers proudly. Here comes the invitation to stop by at their place, to drink the coffee first (espresso! like everywhere in Eastern Europe - we had already been surprised by this when we had travelled to Bulgaria the year before) and the famous Grappa next. The Grappa is the strong alcohol that has been distilled by the family patriarch eversince there has been one of those, on the traditional distiller we can now observe in the backyard. Coffee and Grappa on an empty stomach and a body that has been cycling all day... Our overnight stop after that will not be too far...
Exception too for this baker in Bavaria (Germany) who offers us breakfast and gives us her address: "the road is dangerous, please do write to me from Paris to let me know you have made it safely!" We can now picture our postcard proudly sitting in the bakery where we had spent a good hour or two talking about our trip to the baker and her few morning customers. Or this farmer in France who gave us comforting hot tea, brioche and chocolate when we were only looking for water! And what can we say about this little lady, in France, who owns a canteen-cafe for the local workers. As we pull up in front of her establishment, she asks us where we have come from:
-"... (silence) ... and, you have a gun?"
- "me, I would not do it without a gun!"
She clears a little space on a table by the fire, where we sit down and make the most of the comforting heat. She serves us an enormous meal: salad, French fries, pork roast and coffee. She is so excited when she realises we have eaten all the food she'd given us. We have even used our bread to sauce the dishes... There is nothing left! She is so happy. Her smile looks like my grand mother's when she has us over for lunch and that we finish the meal she's made for us. A smile of satisfaction because it means we've liked it and we needed it. A smile that comes straight from the heart for those people for whom cooking for others is like giving a piece of love. As I ask for the bill, she looks at me and says: "you have come from far away on your bikes, you can't have that much money left, are you able to give me 10 euros?"
We make the most of the fantastic mountains and seaviews, the small villages and the delicious, varied local specialties. Austria in particular remains a very special moment. After 6 days of on and off rain from Croatia to Italy, Austria brings us our sun back. Under deep blue skies, with no wind, and in 22 degree temperatures, we go over the European Alps on the country's highest road, the one that takes us very close to the snowy peak of GroBglockner. How good it is to be surrounded by our dear mountains, dwarfed by those majestic peaks and glaciers! Cycling up this infamous road, we are accompanied for the day by Michael, an English living in Zurich that we meet during breakfast that morning. He is also on a bike but a road bike, with close to no luggage: long live the light load! He pedals along with us and looks at us, impressed. He calls us the "mountain goats", given our energy and load. We spend an excellent day in his company: once again, the bikes create an opportunity for meeting! We are so madly happy when we reach the top, after having climbed some 2100 meters vertical, that we fly down the very windy road at a speed of 75 kph, leaving the cars far behind...
Ah ah! Who will stop us now? No one! We are in Munich now, where we spend a few days with our friends Sepp and Kristina, the Hoffmans as well as Yvoine's brother Raphael and his girlfriend. No one! We are now pedaling along the Constance lake, in thick, humid fog. No one! We are now in Freiburg staying with some friends' friends for one night, only a few kilometers away from the French border! No one surely now that we are crossing the border between Germany and France at noon exactly - the exact time we had said we would arrive! There, we are welcomed by 30ish people on their bikes, ready to cycle the first 35 French km with us! Marc, Florence, Emeline, Solene and Michael - Yvoine's family - are waiting for us, on their bikes, with a group of Alsacian friends! We share a celebration picnic by the Rhine river, before getting back on our bikes: our first kilometers in France are full of smiles, celebration and friendship. What a way to enter France! Alsacian "choucroute" (sour kraut), visit of Alsace but above all, joy to meet again with these dear people. After a couple of days, we are ready to go and cycle through Eastern France. We cycle over the last few small hills that separate us from Paris ("the small hills" being the Vosges according to Mike who has delivered his verdict after a close observation of the map, with complete disregard to the locals who call them "mountains"). In between baguettes and chocolate croissants, we do cycle, eventually getting to the edge of Paris.
We arrive so simply, so easily it seems. Daniele and Francois, our friends from Maisons Alfort (South East of Paris) are there, on the footpath just in front of their home, their little dog with them. They greet us and kiss us (the French way). Is it really true that we have arrived? We look at our bikes, half happy, half sad. They still have to ride one more day, on sunday. It will be an important day for them, they will cycle up and down the Champs-Elysees with all our friends! And what a ride that is! On that freezing cold Parisian morning, they have all put their gloves and wooly hats on, to cycle with us. There are almost 60 years from the youngest to the least young! They all pedal along, with a great big smile on each one of their faces, bright pink from the cold. They cycle to welcome us after some 10 months on the road. In fact, they are not the only ones to be there to welcome us. At the "arc de triomphe", we are greeted by the French army who salutes us, in great military style! The official brass band even plays the Marseillaise (France's national anthem) for us, as we go round and round the great big "place de l'etoile" round-about. We even get both French and New Zealand flags! (this is all true of course, except for real, this is an official Commonwealth ceremony). We keep going round that round-about, with long colourful plastic bits behind us, similar to bride's veils, and our special T-shirts designed for the occasion. A present from our friends gathered with us, we wear them to testify of what we have just accomplished: Singapore-France, by bike. And then, Emile ceremoniously gives us our medals. That morning, her mum had explained to him: "do you realise that they have be riding their bikes for 300 sleeps?!" After that, we just have to shake and open those bottles of (almost) champagne, imitating the greatest of the greatest Formula 1 champions...
After all that, we have disassembled our bikes. Our hearts were a bit tight, a bit sad, but happy of all we'd received. And anxious to see what was after, what was behind, over the next hill and around the corner, after the next border, after today!
you can see more photos by visiting the photolibrary.