The kindness of strangers

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Friday, September 1, 2006

I wasted a few hours in the morning servicing the bike, before heading off for Germany. This was to be another short ride, as I was ahead of shedule and still fatigued. Of all the possible effects cycling could have on my body, the last thing I expected to be seriously injured was my hands. Ever since the morning in Zutendal, I have not had complete control over my fingers. Hold out your hand, palms down, with fingers spread. Move your fingers together, keeping an open palm. Imagine that your left hand refuses to close further than to produce the vulcan sign, and your right little finger remains resolutely sticking out to the side, and no matter how you try, you cannot make them behave. Its really a very strange sensation. It´s also messing with my typing and basically anything involving manual dexterity. I hope it goes away.

As I was approaching Aachen, I noticed a sign for the ´Dreilandespunkt´, where the borders of Holland, Germany and Belgium meet. I checked on my map, and found it was barely 1km away. It´d be rude not to, I thought to myself. What I didn´t realise was that while it was only one kilometer away, that kilometer winds around Holland´s one and only hill, and the Dreilandespunkt is also Hollands highest point (a whopping 327m above sea level. Of course I stopped periodically to aclimatise).

The detour having taken longer than expected, I arrived in Aachen after the tourist information office had closed. There were internet cafes all over the place, so I let google be my guide. This, it transpired, was both serendipitous and a mistake. The internet told me, in all good faith I´m sure, that the nearest campsite was 25km away, and that there were only three hotels in the town and that they were fully booked. I happened to have arrived in the middle of the world equestrian games, so the town was heaving with horsey people.

I set off following a cycle route which, in daylight, leads through open countryside, farmland, quaint little hamlets and traffic-free footpaths. At night it was a treacherous, pot-holed, unpredictable death-trap and at irregular intervals the devilish, iridescent gaze of satan´s bovine sentinals would flash from the dark and a flap of bats rush past my face. When, after about an hour, I saw a small local pub with it´s front door open and heard chatter and laughter from within, there was no way I could just ride on.

As much for conversation as anything else, I asked for directions to the nearest campsite. Never has such a simple question produced such an energetic reponse. The bar was horseshoe-shaped, and barely fitted in the front part of the pub, so when people were sat around it, as now, its a squeeze to move around. Everyone around the bar had an opinion- which way to go, where to go, its too late, too cold, too far away. I drank my beer and chatted with the couple who owned the bar and a few locals. After about ten minutes, a man came into the bar and demanded, in rapid french, directions to the nearest main road. To my surprise, the man I´d been talking to in german replied in fluent french. I thought it strange that a french tourist would walk into a bar in Germany and assume that they would be understood. I said as much. ´Ah!´ replied the landlord, ´but we are in Belgium. Germany is 200m that way!´. I found this fascinating. That the people in this pub lived in a different country from their neighbours, had a different government, different constitution, from those on the other side of the street. I tried asking them about it, whether it matters which side of the street you live on, what the differences are, but the conversation was now being held simoultaneously in French, German and English, depending on who was involved. Its hard enough to maintain coherence in one foreign tongue, for me at any rate, so this was enough to make my ears bleed.

While I´m talking to the people in my corner of the bar, in the background the problem of where I´m going to stay, my problem, has become the property of a conference of locals. Someone phones a more local campsite, but they´re full of horsey people. In the meantime, my glass is continually being refilled, but never quite to the top, always just ´a little top up´. On the house. Some chocolate appears, as if from nowhere, to keep me going.

Feeling thoroughly adopted into the fold of Chez Alito, I begin to hope, maybe someone will let me pitch my tent in their field. (We´re in the middle of the countryside, everyone has a field). Maybe they could see this in my eyes, maybe it was a current, an irresistable mental eddy around that horseshoe bar, but almost immediately the landlady turns to me and asks ´would staying in someone´s garden be o.k?´

She indicates the someones who have made this kind offer, a middle-aged couple with whom I´ve exchanged a few words but little conversation. I didn´t waste any time protesting, they could change their minds. I was, of course, the very picture of surprise and gratitude, introduced myself, bought a round. The husband had a strange looking drink, a red liquor with squirty creme on top in a shot glass with a long stem. I ask what it is, and while the rest of the bar try and explain ´its like strawberries, but smaller´, "do you know ´redberries?" the landlady wanders off and returns with one for me to try. On the house.

We stay a little longer and then the wife says "come, you do not make your tent tonight". So I collected what I needed for the night, parked the bike behind the bar. They lived two streets away, in Germany. A beautiful small house with an orchard in the garden. They made their sofa-bed for me, told me breakfast would be at nine in the morning and then they´d take me back to the pub.

Not only did they give me the best breakfast I´ve had so far on the continent, scrambled egg with spek and brötchen (rolls) they also gave me some rolls, tomatoes, apples from the orchard, and (forgive me for slipping into the culinary jargon) a ´wodge´ of Austrian salami for my lunch. I rode back to Aachen the way I had come, appreciating the change that comes over it during the day.
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