Anecdotes from 65 years of travel

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 57 of the August 2012 issue.

(First of three parts)

My wife, Flory, and I cycled through Europe 12 years in a row, from 1985 through 1996, each year traveling between 2,000 and 2,500 miles and each year traveling a different route. We biked, just the two of us, through many countries, carrying everything we needed in pannier bags, overnighting in hotels along the way.

Before our first trip, I had taken classes in cycle repair. During our excursions we used thorn-proof tubes, with the result that the two of us combined had only four flat tires in 30,000 biked miles.

We planned our trips so that the inclines would be gradual, although on one trip, after starting in Holland at sea level, we found ourselves after several weeks in a ski area in France, where the snow had just started to turn into slush along the road.

Always traveling in the early spring, we delighted in the budding trees, the blossoming of the flowers and the smell of the green grass after a sprinkle.

Heavy rains made us stop to don our GORE-TEX® gear, and thunderstorms made us dash for the overhanging roof of a farm, where, on occasion, we might rest on tractor seats, stand in a shed or might be surprised by the owners’ offering us a cup of coffee.

Our gear was always wrapped in sturdy waterproof bags, and when we arrived at a hotel after a downpour and examined our clothes in the panniers, we would look at each other and exclaim, “Our clothes are still dry!”

To celebrate our accomplishments, we would share half a bottle of wine at dinner when we had biked less than 50 miles in a day or a whole bottle if we had managed more than 50 miles.

Bicycling in Tunisia

Our trips were not without surprises.

Years ago, when traveling from Seattle to Tunisia by air, Air Tunis refused to transport our bike boxes (in which the bikes were packed) from Rome to Tunis. After long discussions, a supervisor finally consented to letting the boxes accompany us if we paid extra fees.

As these fees had to be paid in cash lire, the Italian monetary unit at that time, long before the existence of ATMs, I walked into every airport office I passed, asking them to convert my dollar travelers’ checks into cash. Finally, a kind soul had pity on me and exchanged my money, after which I proffered the required currency to the appropriate Air Tunis official.

Not believing that our bikes really would be transported, I watched in awe as four Air Tunis workers balanced our two bike boxes on the conveyor belt, which led at a dizzying downward angle into the belly of the plane.

Would you believe that on our arrival at the Tunis airport, our boxes were nowhere to be found? I suggested that I join the baggage handlers in the storage room (note that this was many years ago) and, after rummaging for 15 minutes, we found the boxes.

The 4-star hotel in Tunis, where we had reserved a room before leaving the US, refused to accept our bikes until I showed them the confirmation letter they had sent that authorized the acceptance of our cycles. The bicycles were subsequently put upright in the coat closet in the lobby, with the coats occupying a narrow and sorry place next to the “upstanding” bikes.

During our travels in Tunisia, when we stopped for lunch at tiny cafés in the smaller towns, Flory always was the only woman in the establishment, as only Tunisian men would frequent these cafés.

We had few problems when we biked through the countryside, as many people spoke French.

On the other hand, one afternoon when we were passing a school in a small village, children threw rocks at us, which, fortunately, did not hit us.

In another village, we were stopped by a policeman, who insisted on examining our passports at length (‘Is he going to arrest us?’ we wondered), then took the ballpoint out of my pocket and with it proceeded to draw circles on my hand. After five agonizing minutes, he allowed us to go.

On Djerba Island, off Tunisia’s southeast coast, we visited El Ghriba, one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. The floor of the synagogue consisted of sand, and we had to take our shoes off (Islamic influence) to be allowed to enter the sanctuary.

Since it was the Sabbath and the congregation was orthodox, we were not allowed to leave a donation, as money cannot be accepted by Orthodox Jews on the day of rest.

Although this house of worship was a top tourist destination and was visited by numerous tour buses, it was destroyed by a bomb attack in 2002. (See correction published September 2012.)

Why did we bike in Tunisia? Our Israeli cousin had recommended Tunisia as an excellent cycling country.

When we confronted him later, telling him that Tunisians did not like Americans, he retorted, “Did I say Tunisia? I meant… eh, Turkey.”

Cycling in France

Bicycling in France on a number of occasions brought us in touch not only with many French idiosyncrasies but also with many of the country’s superb pleasures — the freshly baked baguettes, the divine croissants and the exquisite dinners, which were always served in beautifully appointed dining rooms.

As I easily could converse in French, I felt like a Frenchman.

As such, I, together with other French residents, would enter that holiest of the holy, the boulangerie (bakery), every morning at 6 a.m. to buy my baguette, which would be wrapped in a flimsy piece of paper, enabling me to carry my purchase underneath my arm just like everybody else.

When, one time, I dared ask if the baguette was fresh, the baker pushed his finger in the bread’s crust to demonstrate its freshness and replied, “Mais, monsieur, certainement la baguette est fraîche” (“But, of course, the bread is fresh”).

After having bought my bread, I would, like a proper Frenchman, make my way to the presse, the newspaper shop, to buy my daily newspapers. My favorite was Aujourd’hui en France, since it provided weather forecasts for the whole country.

As you may know, when you’re overnighting at a small, owner-operated hotel, it is expected that you dine at the same hotel. On our first bike trip through France, we ran afoul of this rule on several occasions.

On April 10, 1985, we took a room at a hotel adjoining the Loire River. As the posted menu was not to our liking, we asked the owner, “Le dîner est obligatoire?” (“Must we eat dinner in the restaurant?”). When he said, “Non, monsieur” (“No, sir”), we walked to a brasserie, where we had a delicious meal.

The next morning, I questioned the desk clerk about the charge for two dinners listed on our hotel bill.

“But sir, you must have eaten here. Everybody who sleeps here eats here.”

After a long argument, the waiter who was supposed to have served us the previous night was called for confirmation. He shook his head. He had not served us.

Despite this, the owner made us, like naughty children, stand in the corner of the room for 15 minutes before she would give us our bikes, which had been placed behind the washer and dryer the previous night.

I’ll have more anecdotes, specifically, on medical adventures, in my next column.