As they conclude their epic global trip, bicyclists find that kindness accompanies them to the end.
The drunk Austrian wobbled unsteadily in front of us, clutching his beer to his chest. “Good, gut!” he yelled as we strummed and sang. Behind him, on a park bench sat a long row of folks who occasionally peered at us as though through a thick haze. As I beat the drum, I watched as one of them fished a hypodermic needle out of his pocket and held the point in the dancing flame of his lighter. A man sitting groggily before me demanded our songbook so he could accompany us. Drew handed him the book and he sang with us, in between nips he took out of a small bottle and hiccups that racked his figure and suggested severe gastrointestinal insecurity.
Despite the shady nature of our venue, we decided to continue playing. A police station was nestled on the edge of the park. In fact, the police had already seen fit to kick us out of the first spot we’d picked. Almost as soon as we had started playing, a generous Moroccan migrant worker had enthusiastically distributed a beer to each of us. We left the cans where he had set them, but the cops also requested we not display these beverages so publicly. We complied, though we wondered at the apparent lack of concern the lawmen demonstrated for all the other people drinking and indeed doing things less legal in the park.
As we biked out of Vienna the next day, we felt relieved to be out of the big city and back into the simple, pastoral pleasantness of the countryside. With only a few hundred miles to go, we anticipated an easy trip to Paris where our journey would end. The weather, however, turned against us. The summer temperatures, of which we had sometimes complained since January, suddenly turned cool. Forty or fifty degrees may not seem too cold, but when we went for days at a time without benefiting from indoor shelter, we felt downright chilled. As we prepared for our two week trek across Germany, we reasoned that at least we weren’t wet.
In Germany it rained every day. We might have seen the sun once or twice in during two weeks, but I wore my visor all day long to shield my eyes from the constant drops of precipitation. We forced ourselves to drink our frigid water. As we biked we swung our hands madly to encourage circulation. At night we huddled around a large campfire, trying to dry out our clothes in the smoke. Torrential onslaughts often interrupted our dinner and sent us scurrying for the tent. One night, we happily traded hygiene for dryness and camped under a bridge infested with pigeons.
The weather, much to our chagrin followed us into France. Having studied French in many years ago at Park High, I became a back-up translator for Drew, who spoke fluent French he learned growing up in Africa. Anyone who remembers “Freedom Fries” must admit that relations between the U.S. and France are not untroubled. In fact the French as a people don’t have a stellar reputation for friendliness. I privately dreaded exposing myself to the wrath of a Frenchman sure to be incensed at my butchering his language.
Necessity, however, sometimes conjures bravery where there is none. I ran out of water and found myself knocking on the door of random house. A man opened it. “Good day, sir,” I began. “I travel by bike. I have no water. Help me you obtain?” I quiveringly queried. The ruddy complexion of the man turned curious. I soon found myself standing by his sink. He grabbed my bottle gave it a hard look. The container had traveled with me since Turkey. The clear plastic had become opaque and greenish algae had taken root in the bottom. He flung my bottle into the trash, muttering something incomprehensible, and ran downstairs. He returned with a brand new unopened bottle. Not knowing how to explain that the old one was fine, I thanked him and tried to make my exit, but he assaulted me with a rash of questions about the bike trip. I immediately failed to understand anything and told him as much, yet he persisted, rephrasing and speaking slowly until he penetrated the thick cloud of my incomprehension. It was not the last time we met with unexpected kindness in France.
Near dusk one night, just two days outside of Paris, our map failed to reveal a crossroads at which we found ourselves. I approached a well-built man collecting walnuts. I conversed with him in halting French for five minutes before he asked where I was from. Upon hearing the answer, he responded in English, “So you speak English?” From then on, we communicated much more easily. The man invited us back to his home to examine his map, but before we saw the map, he invited us in for a beer. Halfway through the beer, he offered us the use of his shower, and soon we found ourselves invited to stay the night.
Laurent Dufour and his wife Christine proved well-equipped hosts. Laurent, through his work as an accountant for farms and vineyards, had a well-stocked supply of champagne, to which he generously treated us. The co-inhabitants of his home, twin toddlers, entertained us by, in the words of their mother “doing everything they are forbidden.” Indeed, on the strength of their performance, I recommend twins only to the most energetic and capable of parents. Amidst the frolicking toddlers, we could hardly believe our luck. We planned to eat a vegetable soup on the ground huddled around a fire, fighting over utensils. Instead we found ourselves sipping champagne in a cozily-remodeled farmhouse, eagerly anticipating the cheese course.
We began this trip knowing we would expose ourselves to uncertainty. But, as only death is certain, surely life is not without its own vicissitudes. By embarking on this trip, we threw out many of the controls of which most people lucky enough to have the option avail themselves: a set place to live, a reliable income, a sedentary life. Thus, while maintaining responsibility for ourselves, we made ourselves available to the help and hospitality of strangers, but also to a lesser extent, to their whims and malevolence. Among the diversity of cultures, countries, and religions through which we traveled, one characteristic predominated: people’s proclivity towards kindness.
Darkness, without doubt, exists. I saw it leering out at me through the eyes of the unfortunate addicts who gathered around us in the park in Vienna. They lived, it seemed, on the street, with no home and no one to turn to. Their slow progression towards destruction, self-imposed though it may have been, was a sorry sight. Before we realized the nature of the place at which we played, we put out the guitar case, hoping to gather a crowd. Once we realized the nature of the crowd we did gather, we played without hope of earning bread money. Surely, we reasoned, a bunch of homeless junkies would save what little money they had for chemical rather than musical entertainment. While packing up, however, we found to our astonishment that we had earned a few euros. Before we left, a few of the folks shook our hands warmly and smiled through their haze of dependence. Even here, appreciation and kindness to strangers had not died.
Upon returning to Montana, I am mostly thankful. Thankful for the experiences I have had and the people who opened their homes and lives to me along the way. But I am also hopeful. Hopeful both for the world and myself; hopeful that despite whatever haze through which I may suffer, I too can cling to kindness.