Home2010 JournalsContact Us

 

#13  10 Years On...  2001-2010

 

Who Would Have Thought??

Quite unexpectedly, we've been living the life of almost fulltime overseas travelers for the better part of 10 years, something we thought we might do for a year or 2 if we were lucky.  Our general plan was to learn the ropes of international cyclo-touring by traveling in relatively bike-friendly and safe Europe and then slowly circumnavigate the globe. But we weren't on the road long before the 9/11 attacks occurred, making us feel wildly unwelcome and unsafe as Americans in much of the world. Sobering as they were, the attacks didn't spoil our appetite for traveling but did make us far less adventurous than we'd anticipated being. What follows is a cross section of those 10 years, slicing through the years with a look at several major topics rather than chronicling where we've been.

 

Perils We Have (so far) Navigated

9/11 & Terrorism

My normally very sensible mother, who was 25 at the time of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, bought Bush's fear mongering and hype that the Twin Towers attack on September 11, 2001 was the beginning of WWIII.  Her memories of WWII instantly loomed large and among her concerns was that as aliens in Europe we would be scooped up and placed in an internment camp. That was an unimaginable scenario to us but she had witnessed a similar response to the Japanese living on the West Coast of the US during WWII and was terrified. She of course wanted us to immediately fly home to be safe.

Like almost everyone in the world, we were scared, overwhelmed, and confused.  The attack was at the end of our first 5 months of biking overseas and we weren't keen on returning home so soon after spending years dismantling our lifestyle to travel.  Fortunately, returning home wasn't even an option right away as there were no planes flying initially. But in my mother's mind, being at home, being with her, would make us safe.


Feeling safer around Germany's minor transportation hubs.

We, however, presumed that the 2 most dangerous places to be in the world immediately after 9/11 were on an airplane and in the US. Though shocked and, like the rest of the world, totally unable to imagine "What's next?", we quickly decided to continue our travels. Americans, whether at home or around the world, were obviously targets but being on German river bicycle paths (where we already were) seemed about as safe a place to hide as any. Outside of Germany, our gear made us look like Germans; inside Germany, no one was quite sure where we were from but "Americans" was rarely anyone's first guess.

Our sense of vulnerability as terrorist targets was very high in the first days after 9/11 because some thought randomly killing American individuals would be the next phase of violence. We bought a shortwave radio on 9/12 in an unsuccessful attempt to access international news in English on a daily basis. Our fearfulness slowly diminished with the passing months though 10 years on we still factor in our exposure to terrorism, we still track the news details when  the terrorism alerts go out.

Our primary strategy for dodging terrorism continues to be avoiding concentrations of people, especially big name tourist sites in high season. This is consistent with our general traveling bias to avoid long lines and high prices, so it doesn't change our plans much. But none the less, the threat from terrorism is never far from our minds since 9/11 and it does influence the choices we make, both where we go and when. And we continue to keep a low profile and avoid broadcasting our nationality to improve our odds of being safe--I'm not eager to be some man's ticket to paradise.

Mad Cow Disease

Though we'd eaten little beef for years before we started biking abroad, the threat of Mad Cow Disease became a worry for us as full time travelers.  The poor handling by the British of their outbreak in the 1990's was fresh in our minds and avoiding the incurable disease was a top priority for us as we ventured overseas in May of 2001.

While abroad, there would be no buying of nutritional supplements enclosed in gelatin capsules as gelatin is made from cows--we would bring our own year's supply instead. Dining out was trickier as one never really knows all of the ingredients in their food.  Some overseas chefs consider the absence of chunks of meat as sufficient accommodation to qualify a dish as vegetarian and others overlook meat stocks as an issue. In some countries, virtually all canned beans in the markets were in some type of meat base.

Soups and many sauces immediately dropped off our menu as sorting out whether they had a beef stock base would be impossible in so many unfamiliar languages. Our closest call that we know of was a white cream soup in Turkey that turned out to be made of beef brains (brains are the riskiest part of the cow to eat). Only time will tell if we succeeded in avoiding ingesting a lethal dose as the the untreatable disease normally progresses very slowly.

Respiratory Contagions

SARS and the H1N1 virus easily could have been show-stoppers for us but rather than cancel our plans during these frightening epidemics we chose to follow the news very closely for months.  We viewed them both as serious threats and constantly re-evaluated the risk of exposure as we pressed on. More frequent hand washing, dodging crowds, watching for dead birds on the ground, and buying face masks were our other responses for these threats. And for the H1N1 we bought a thermometer so we'd quickly know if a fever hit the hallmark 104F that would qualify us for treatment with Tamaflu where ever we were.

Bedbugs

We were alerted to the growing bedbug peril late in 2010 by the media and as fulltime travelers, felt doomed to encounter them. Lucky for us, the infested, first-world cities are concentrated in the US and Canada, with London being the only first-world city in Europe on the list. But the really bad news was that it didn't sound like the scourge would be contained anytime soon.  A bedbug experience seemed like a "when, not if" peril for us.


Hoping to never find bedbugs.

I'm prone to allergic reactions to bites and chemicals so I was even more anxious about getting bit that Bill. Plus, the difficulty of ridding one's belongings of the critters once you've been selected sounded daunting. So, after an upsetting bout of online reading, I began inspecting the beds and bedding of our rented rooms each night before we brought our luggage into the room. Of course finding the critters could put us in a terrible bind as we commonly have no other lodging options available to us on a given night than the one we are standing in.

There was no reason to think we'd encounter bedbugs in Europe at this time but I put the inspection routine in the same category as my almost subconscious evaluation of each room on the "fire trap" scale--both are good habits to cultivate. Such practices only take a minute each day and could spare us a huge amount of hurt so pardon me while I rip apart another neatly made bed.

Unfortunately learning more than we wanted to know about bedbugs is making us even less adventurous than we already are. The likelihood of bedbug exposure will be factored into travel to non-first world countries in the future.

Floods

High water and flooding have actually been our most real perils. We came very close to being trapped for days in Decn, Czech Republic due to serious flooding in 2002, our second year of travel, and escaped by literally taking the last train out of town as the roads were impassable. Multiple times every year since then we've been on moderate to high alert for hazardous high water situations.


Near Padova, Italy: a bike path thru a deeply flooded cornfield.

In November of 2010 we found ourselves just missing inundation around Vicenza, Italy, not far from Venice. A soggy summer and fall had left the ground waterlogged so it only took a few hours of a 24 hour storm for authorities to close Vicenza's city center to traffic because of the rapidly rising river. Luckily our hotel in a surrounding industrial park only had minor standing water.

On our way to Padova the next day, extensive high water and flooding was still evident even though we could see that the river levels had dropped 6-8' overnight. Even though the water levels had dropped dramatically, we still made several detours because of closed bridges. (It was however a great year to learn a lot of Italian words for "flood.")

Our close-call in 2002 made us careful weather and river watchers as we realized how vulnerable we were as visitors, especially on bikes. Our foreign languages skills aren't strong enough to rely upon being alerted to a high water threat by a brief announcement on the TV or overheard conversations in markets or at hotel desks. We were acutely aware that we needed to be proactive, which included watching rising water during storms, asking and asking again if we were concerned about flooding on the roads, and selecting hotels on higher ground to increase our margin of safety overnight. 

 

What Has Changed the Most For Us in the Last 10 Years?

Without a doubt, the usefulness of the internet and the increasingly ability to access it overseas have been the biggest changes in our traveling life over the last 10 years. As for everyone, the list is long in the welcome advances on the net.


2002: our 1st laptop & hardware for connecting to the internet.

In the last several years, there has been an explosion in the number of lodging establishments that can be accessed online in Europe--a trend that hit Europe much later than in the US. The new B&B industry in Sicily that was in part funded by EU development money almost exclusively advertises online. Bill often uses Google maps to locate a selection of lodging establishments in an area that otherwise seems to have none. And the increasing number of online reviews helps us stay away from the noisy and less-clean accommodations. (I love reviews that complain about the pillows and breakfast. Those issues don't even register on my list of concerns.) 

However, it is still a cat and mouse game to determine the best way to find local lodging online as sometimes it's a regional B&B website that is most powerful, sometimes it's dredging up individual websites, and occasionally clearing houses like booking.com deliver the results we want. And in some areas the best, or only way, to find a good value room is to ask at tourist information for a recommendation or a leaflet.

One of our tricks for planning our arrival and departure dates to Europe is to check room prices and availability at the Ibis Hotel chain in our transit city. Checking their prices is the fastest and most reliable way to determine months in advance if our plans will be coinciding with an event that will squeeze us out of the lodging market. It's a terrible thing to unwittingly arrive in a city that's already fully booked even though the prices have doubled.

And of course, we use the internet for an increasing number of services, including ferries, trains, planes, museums,  weather updates, locating favorite grocery stores, and downloading product manuals so we can ditch the hardcopy. Keeping in touch with family, friends, and our finances are also top online priorities and Skype is a joy when our connections are fast enough to support it.

Accessing the internet has become wildly easier in the last 10 years. You can read the early horrors of attempting to get online that I summarized in 2003 by reading "Internet Access 2003". Bill has spent hundreds of hours over the last 10 years pushing the available technology to get us connected to the internet, starting with telephone lines, then wifi, and most recently, cell phone links.

Even in 2010, connecting to the internet was not always a sure or happy undertaking. As is possible in each country we visit, Bill sets us up with our own cell phone internet access that often runs $20-30 a month, which is cheaper than similar speed services we can buy in the US.  We save a pile of money for his effort as hotel fees run from free to $25 for a day and amazingly in Amsterdam in 2010, almost $25 per hour! 

 

Win, Lose, & Draw

Win:  Staying Alive

We've managed to travel overseas for 9-10 months of the year for 10 years without suffering serious injury or illness nor being victims of serious crime. Our injuries have been the garden-variety injuries of recreational athletes and our illnesses and injuries could all be self-treated. The big health scares and challenges that we've had would have happened even if we'd been at home.  Fortunately our dollar losses have been greater from the few items we unintentionally left behind than what has been pilfered from us.  


Barb & her trekking pole readied for the next charging Sicilian dog.

Our ability to remain safe around threatening dogs improved over the years. A series of tough encounters with big 'at large' dogs in Turkey in 2002 rapidly expanded our repertoire of both aggressive and defensive maneuvers that ranged from being poised to spray a charging dog with bug spray, to tossing food at them as we sprinted away or to making a walking cage around us with our loaded bikes. Dangerous dogs in Sicily in 2008 helped us learn the utility of our trekking poles as sticks to brandish at charging dogs while continuing to pedal. And in 2009 our friend Julie emailed some invaluable tips on using highly effective submissive behavior around dogs guarding their homesteads.

Win:  Lots of Exercise

One of the reasons for becoming cyclotourists was to make our daily exercise fun and almost self-propelling and the plan has worked. The issue has been reframed: the focus isn't on getting our exercise but biking to the next town, hiking to the summit, or walking to the market. Exercise isn't a chore on the daily list, it was what gets done as we are engaged in the day's primary activity.

Win:  Recovery

Sleeping almost every night for the last 10 years after 20-25 years of significant sleep deprivation has been a treat for Bill. Working too many 100 hour weeks, with the worst pushing up to 120 hours, had taken its toll on his health and it took about 5 years of our lower-stress lifestyle for him to feel recovered from burn-out.

Win: New Interests


2003: Cooking with an immersion heater
to drop our cholesterol levels.

Over the course of our travels I've learned that I do enjoy hiking after all, but I need it to be above tree line. Hiking in the forests as I did growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the US was a yawner for me as I need to see out, but I love the views and drama of being up higher.

Bill's fear of heights wasn't enough to keep him from pursuing Via Ferrata hiking trails in Italy, trails with 'a lot of air' as the guide books say, and security cables. Elevating our skills, speed, and endurance to match the requirements of many of the Via Ferrata hikes has been a clever way to motivate us to increase our overall level of fitness.

We have both become fascinated by history, especially early history, and have received most of our new history education in museums and at archeological sites as we travel.  Those passive history teachers have become destinations for us as a good museum or historical site is enough to draw us into a country or region for the first time. Our record is spending 2 full days in Istanbul's archeological museum, though even we still didn't see all of the exhibits of interest to us. A number of other museums have been all-day events.

Lose:  Dietary Health  

Compromised dietary health has been one of the losses of our traveling life as we haven't had as much control over our diet as when at home where we'd eaten a very healthy diet for several decades. My cholesterol was so low (125mg/dL) at one point that my physician said "Why don't you add some sour cream or something like that to your diet?" I was horrified but amused. But upon return home from our first year of travel, it had shot-up to 208mg/dL even though we'd done our best to guard our wellness. 


New Zealand 2006: About 40 lbs of food for 10 meals for 2.

Before traveling we'd eliminated or almost eliminated red meat, saturated fats, trans fatty acids, nitrates & nitrites, alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar from our diets. But further refinements while abroad have been limited to recently whacking our sodium intake, increasing our potassium intake, and decreasing our plastic contamination exposure from food and drink containers.

The minimal labeling requirements on food overseas have made even these modest changes difficult. And at times we've had to carry an extra 20-40 lbs of food on our bikes to eat a healthy diet. Without a doubt, our diet would have been healthier these last 10 years had we stayed at home rather than traveled as both access to information about healthy diets and information about nutrient contents would have been greater.  

The downside of trying our best to maintain healthy eating standards was kind of a lose-lose: we didn't do a stellar job and we missed out on indulging in the regional foods as we traveled though we did a little bit of modest sampling.

Lose: Sun Exposure

Our risk of developing skin cancer definitely increased with our cyclotouring lifestyle, which was one of my biggest frets when we decided to become travelers. I'd been a year-round sunscreen user for years before we uprooted ourselves and I knew that my sun exposure would dramatically increase with travel and I wasn't pleased at the prospect.


2002 Turkey: loaded down & sun protected.

Immediately upon arriving in Europe in 2001, I bought a sunscreen with a superior UVA blocker than wasn't approved in the US and could quickly see the improvement in my skin condition from the increased protection even though I was spending more hours in the sun. We use an SPF 50+ every day, plus wear sunscreen long sleeved shirts and long pants to aid in our cause. Wide brimmed hats, sun block gloves, and UV blocking clear plastic lenses shielding our eyes complete our protection strategy. But without a doubt, we both get more UV on our skin than ever before in our lives. We cross our fingers and hope the trade-off of life experiences vs cancer risk looks worth it in hindsight.

Lose:  Social Connections  

One loss from our travels that wasn't unexpected has been a decrease in our social connections. Ties with friends aren't as tight as they were before becoming travelers and some connections have dropped away altogether. Of course, some important new connections have been made along the way but the net effect has been a shrinking of our community.

On a broader scale, effectively being abroad for 7-8 of the last 10 years means that we have not fully experienced our own culture. Of course, there are some parts of it we've been happy to miss, but there are names and events that are a fabric of the culture that have come and gone without us knowing about them--a minor 'not knowing' that will be a social hindrance forever.

Draw: A Better Career Path

Darn it anyway, but after 10 years of spaciousness in my life, I still don't know what would have been the ideal career path for me, I still don't know how I could have more fully exploited my talents. I thought maybe I'd know by now.

I do know that I wish I would have grown-up in an environment that supported year-round sports activities with greater ease but still in a relatively urban environment. I'm envious of the higher-elevation lifestyle that makes hiking, skiing, and walking 'just what you do.' I've become convinced that outdoor sports, especially ones that include the extra effort of elevation changes like with hiking, are the easiest way to meet the near-daily, intense physical exertion that I now believe is key to good health. I grew-up in an outdoors-biased setting, but engaging in sports in nature always required that 1-2 hour drive that made it, at best, a weekend-only activity. I envy the lucky people of the world that can literally step out their door to be on a walking trail in the summer, a trail that becomes a cross-country ski route in the winter.

 

Greater Clarity

Ten years of travel has brought with it much clarity. Of course, we would hope that with the passing of 10 years doing anything we'd feel wiser and more clear. But no doubt the different mix of experiences as travelers has shifted the emphasis of that clarity to a different place than if we'd stayed at home and continued with our careers.

Cyclists vs Tourists: Part way through our first year we threw out our guide book and just pedaled. We saw the sights mostly from the saddle and walked through a museum or old town along the way. Gradually we did an about-face and pedaling became secondary to seeing the sights.


"How do you get all of that on 2 bikes?" is a common question
  & there was even more the years that we camped.

Initially we were CYCLO-tourists and fairly quickly we became cyclo-TOURISTS. We began spending hours in museums and at archeological sites and then began viewing DVD history lectures in the evenings. The more years that we traveled, the clearer it became that traveling was our life, that it was our lifestyle, and that we had to live it like a life, not just a holiday. Most cyclotourists think us very odd as we only ride 2-4 hours most days as most other riders are even more the cyclo-tourist than we were in the beginning. 

Era:  I imagine that people of most eras believe that theirs is the best to be living in and I am no exception. But our travels have made us appreciate that other eras had their dazzle and the late 1800's would be my second choice of a time to experience as a young adult in western Europe. The advent of so many game-changers like rail, telegraph, and electricity must have been very exciting. And being a Roman citizen at certain places and certain times looks pretty good too.

Privilege:  Traveling as made me more clear than ever that I feel privileged to be an American. There is a lot of embarrassment and shame that comes with that title that often makes it hard to say I am proud to be an American, but I do feel the privileges that have come to me with being an American, especially as a woman. Top of the list is being a native English speaker, which is a huge advantage, especially in this era of the internet. While our nationality is a hindrance in some settings, in others it means that we get waved on by, like a border crossings. It's a mixed bag as our roots earn us both hatred and respect but on net, I feel privileged to be from the US.

Personal Safety: Over the years we became very clear about our boundaries regarding personal safety, especially as cyclists in traffic, which also has diminished our enthusiasm for cycling more widely around the world. We also believe that as  Americans we are less safe abroad since 9/11 than before, which is one of the downsides of our heritage, which influences our itinerary and modes of travel. 

Pressing-On: Especially for Bill, the pay-offs from pressing on when the cause looks lost have been huge. I was always a believer in continuing to rush to make the train/ferry/bus/lift even if it was a lost cause on the off chance that they too were late or I had the wrong information. Years of travel in which we did just that several times a year have made Bill a believer as it has paid-off many more times than he imaged as possible.

Discipline:  It's becoming increasing clear to both of us that personal discipline is a key to successful aging. When the pressures and structures of busy careers drop away with retirement, one must rally more internal discipline and direct it in new ways. It basically boils down to having the discipline to consistently do what you know is the right thing to do and not caving in to the inner protests. When my 'whiner' gets going, I tell her "It's not negotiable."


Sipping a German herbal toxic: better than prescription drugs.

Remedies: We've entered a stage of lifecycle where it has become prudent to look for remedies rather than cures for what ails us and to be aggressive in crafting our own strategies when our doctors short list of options is exhausted.

 Self-Discovery: The slow tempo, general quiet, and spaciousness of our traveling life have been great backdrops for our individual personal journeys of self discovery. That all has of course poised us to have a deeper understanding of each other, our relationship, and the complexities of our family constellations.

 

Lessons Learned:  Stereotypes, Fear & Hatred

Stereotypes

Blissfully naive, we headed out on our bikes in 2001 knowing little of the stereotypes, regional fears, and long-standing hatred patterns that would present themselves in Europe. We were startled by what we heard coming from the mouths of Europeans and by observing our own evolving reactions to their words and our own experiences.

I was disappointed to see how quickly I too developed a common stereotype of the French: "Nice country, without the people" as I had no such bias beforehand. I didn't 'get' the Saturday Night Live jokes I'd heard decades earlier about the Coneheads being from France but I do now. I envy friends who have had more positive experiences with the French people but we continue to find their collective attitude detracting from our pleasure while being in their country, though it may be improving with their more progressive president.


The Greek ferry operations are outstanding.

We also came to agree that there is a stereotype that applies to the cultures of the Mediterranean countries. I don't know if ours is directly in line with the conventional wisdom, but our stereotype has become one of people more tolerant of corruption; people with a greater sense of powerlessness that leads to passivity; people that have a bias towards the status quo rather than rallying for what they want or what is right; and people that generally are holding women back. Watching the financial melt-down in Greece in mid-2010 only reinforced the stereotypic image we already had in place from our own visits to the country. The Greek ferry operators and captains however defy the national stereotype and we have nothing but the highest regard for their skills and professionalism.

North-south gradient stereotypes emerged for us over the years too. In 2001, an American businessman explained to us that the Prussian-heritage folks in northern Germany think that the Bavarians in the south are silly and undisciplined and that the Bavarians in the south of Germany think the same of the Austrians to their south. We are more comfortable thinking of the gradient in terms of seriousness, but wouldn't argue with the north-south gradient concept. The same gradient applies in Italy where, in general, the more northern regions have the more Germanic habits of orderliness, industriousness, reliability, and tidiness all of which gradually diminish as one travels south through the country.

Early on we identified the Dutch as hardy, ambitious travelers from our experience of them in the campgrounds and as bike tourists. But we were assured by some Dutch that there was another crowd in their culture that favored being drunk on the beaches at package-tourism hotels along the Med, though we didn't cross paths with those folks.

Learning more about the Polish, especially of their heroism in WWII, left us puzzled as to how they ever became the standard butt of many jokes. If we were going to pick on a nationality for a pattern of incompetency, it wouldn't be the Poles.

Fear

We experienced the 'fear of the unknown' as we crossed the now invisible line of the Eastern Bloc in the fall of 2001 to visit the Czech Republic. We'd grown up in the US immersed in the Cold War propaganda about the evil USSR and we couldn't help but be rattled when we stepped onto their recent turf. Our mild fearfulness and stereotypes quickly dissipated as we became more familiar with the situation in Czech and other former Soviet-controlled countries.

But what was surprising was how much fear still showed on the faces of many of the citizens, especially in the villages. Apparently too many decades of secret police lurking about had permanently damaged many. Curiously, it wasn't the youth that had escaped much of the harshness that were the most welcoming of us but instead it was the elderly men. These were men who new a life before the secret police and the associated repression and some of them knew English. We quickly learned that they were our best allies--the people who were at ease and comfortable around us and who wanted to chat.


2003:USA spelled with a swastika on Naxos, Greece was hardly welcoming.

Hatred

Rampant historical hatred was new to us. We'd grown up with stories of feuds between the Hatfield's and the McCoy's, but it was all fairy tale material, the subject of jokes. Hatred wasn't one of the shaping forces in our WASP'y upbringings in the Pacific NW of the US but we heard more than we wanted to know about that phenomena once in Europe. During our first months of travel a young Frenchman in a campground detailed his mean treatment of German tourists doing business in his shop, which was our first exposure to a lot of residual hatred of the Germans throughout Europe. Curiously, some of the German's we subsequently spoke to knew it was an issue and others denied that there were any lingering problems.

We quickly learned to keep a mental scorecard as to who hated whom so as to stay out of the middle of the hostilities and occasionally we learned where we stood as Americans in the pecking order.  What was most shocking was to read modern information pieces in Greek and Croatian museums that fanned the fires of hatred against their traditional or most recent enemies--positively shocking to us coming from a region where politically correct jokes were the new norm.

 

Citizens of the (Western) World

Toilet Training

Traveling opened our eyes to the large and small differences between cultures. Travel has changed what is on the radar for us. The first year of travel there was a heavy emphasis on Advanced Toilet Training that has continued at a slower pace. I stopped counting once we discovered the 20th way to flush a toilet that first year, though a few more have been added to the list since then.

Still in the bathroom, we learned that in some countries it was required to tidy-up the toilet bowl with the ready brush before leaving the stall and we learned to be alert as to when the TP had to go into a bucket rather than in the bowl. I still find it a bit jarring when in countries where the men give themselves free access to the Ladies Room or when women access their toilets by walking through the Men's Room., but in some places it's just no big deal.

In the Markets

Outside the WC's, my peripheral vision is wide open when on the sidewalks or in the markets as to the conventions. In Italy I must look for the disposable gloves in the produce section to wear when picking up produce--but only after establishing that it is a self-service market. In Italy and other countries, I do wide-angle scanning to determine if I weigh and price my fresh goods or if that is done at a separate counter in the produce (or meat) department or if it is completed by the clerk at check-out.


Lovely, but I won't pay a 'tourist tax' at the supermarket.

Sadly, I've learned that I will generally be happier in certain countries if I shop at retail chain supermarkets than neighborhood or farmer's markets as it is only in the big supermarkets that I can be guaranteed that I will be paying the same price as everyone else for my goods.  

In Italy or Austria, if the pharmacy doesn't have our product on the shelf it is highly likely that they will order it for us and have it later that day or the next morning. And in some countries,  you can 'negotiate' for an item that is by prescription-only but don't bother trying in Germany.

To Greet or Not to Greet

The conventions surrounding greetings and touching are just as complicated as buying produce in Europe. In German breakfast rooms it is impolite not to greet each arriving guest or group with eye contact, a nod, and with the German "good morning" phrase. At the other extreme are the conservative Islamic countries where it is improper to make eye contact or greet passing strangers in most any setting. In many Mediterranean countries a sidewalk chat with the older men on the street might result in a hand being lightly placed on my arm; in conservative Islamic countries contact of any kind on the sidewalk is often forbidden and any I receive is likely in the form of sexual harassment.

Shoes & Feet

Along with monitoring the greeting conventions, we have learned to look down to watch for the conventions with feet. "No shoes allowed" is the policy but often not posted in places like the stairs to the sleeping areas in Alpine mountain huts; Austrian B&B's; and at mosques. Exactly where the proper place is to stand when you remove your shoes matters, as does having clean socks, and whether you stand on a nearby mat in your socks or your shoes.


2010 Bratislava, Slovakia's old trams rumble on.

Public Transportation

When using public transportation the questions are always the same: buy tickets before or after boarding; validate the ticket or not and on board or before; board in the front or the back; and on intercity routes, are the seats assigned or not? In conservative Islamic countries, we add proper gender seating to the list of concerns. In those countries or regions, the ideal is for Bill and I to be side by side with a woman or a wall on my other side and a man or a wall on Bill's other side. To be proper, Bill must be quick to offer his seat to a woman traveling alone so that she can sit next to me rather than next to him or another a man.

Learning the Hard Way

Many of these and other lessons have been learned through blunders but like with any new subject, the more you know, the easier it gets. It's satisfying to walk into a new situation in an unfamiliar country and to know that our observational skills have been honed to watch for culturally appropriate behavior and that we can often get up to speed on the fly without too much embarrassment. In Morocco this year I realized I'd picked up the gesture of putting my right hand to my heart when talking with strangers. I later read that was a sign of sincerity--a culturally appropriate practice I acquired through unconscious mimicry. 

 

Continuing Education

Traveling has become an endless continuing ed program for us, though our studies occur outside of the classroom and without an instructor.  The subjects we have studied are numerous:

Child Behavior & Development.

These studies usually occur during our picnic lunches when they are sited in parks and playgrounds. We are fascinated by the occasional very bright-eyed infant or 2 year-old that looks like he or she is being held back by their physical immaturity; they are the children that seem to be noticing and processing everything but don't quite yet know what to do with the information and lack the ability to engage more fully.

In the parks we also observe the gender differences in behavior. Interesting differences in behavior can be seen between children and differences can also be seen between the mothers and the fathers in the assumptions made and expectations that seem gender based. And it's amazing and sometimes disturbing to watch the varying tolerance parents have for the inquisitiveness of their offspring and to see the effect on the children. It's easy to believe what we have read: that the die is cast for most of us by the time we are 5 years old.

Sociology.

Standing in line at markets, eating picnic lunches, and taking turns waiting with the bikes gives us endless opportunities to watch adults as well as children and learn about different patterns of behavior. I am especially grateful for our travels to Turkey where we learned that men are rarely alone, that they clump together, even to the point of keeping a friend company who is working in a small retail shop. Now when I see clumps of young men that look like they are immigrants when in places like Italy I displace my initial bristling assessment of  "looking for trouble" with a softer, "non-western culture" interpretation and am usually correct.


Dazzling volcanic layers on Santorini Island.

One of my other global assessments when in other than first-world countries is that the enfranchisement of women correlates with the treatment of dogs. When dogs are tied up in inhuman ways, the women also tend not to fare well in the culture. The next step in the progression of women in a society is to check if they are still being used as beasts of burden; if they are the ones carrying the heavy loads on their backs while the men drive the tractors or sip tea. Women have really arrived in a culture when their numbers in cafes sipping tea or coffee equals the number of men with idle time to enjoy.

Geology 

Nothing like deforested land to aid in our study of geology from the road and there is plenty of that in the Mediterranean regions. Often we didn't even have to get off the bikes to admire fantastic examples of rock that was made plastic by heat and pressure and then was folded back on itself. Strata, fault lines, folds, inclusions, and tilts exposed by road cuts sharpened our eyes for geologic processes. Admiring the stunning results of 'uplift and tilt' in the Dolomites is one of our ongoing pleasures of being in that region.

Geography

Vantage points like hilltops, towers, and bridges provide some of our best opportunities to look at the land and the effect of people on it.  We are quick to stop to look for patterns, to look for clues about ongoing processes affecting the landscape before us.

History

History has been our most in-depth topic of study.  We were both science majors and so history was a neglected area in our college curriculums. I've literally written my own history book as we've traveled with the notes I've made on my handheld computer, primarily while in museums. To date, I have 700 files, with a heavy emphasis on the beginning of things.


We've become great admirers of ancient pottery.

Some of the many topics include: land bridges associated with the changes in the Ice Ages; the first evidence of sails on boats; the development of the potter's wheel; the development of glass making techniques; evolution of the species; the salt trade; domestication of animals; mastery of the dome in architecture; and summaries of major events in many countries. When Bill spins out a "I wonder when....." question in a museum, I can often find a piece of relevant information in my electronic book--tidbits that we've learned and forgotten.  

Languages.

Languages are a source of both delight and frustration to us as travelers.  We long to be multi-lingual and yet we clearly got started way, way too late to satisfy that goal. But the futility of mastery doesn't keep us from trying. Bill's regular studies of German both reconnect him with his school-aged self when he first learned the language and help us immensely as travelers in many countries, including Turkey. Bill's pre-travel course in French and our joint study of Italian on the road further enhance our survival skills and help us with sidewalk chit-chat.

We've picked up grammar books in Spanish and Italian, phrase books in multiple languages, and paid for a little tutoring several times. Our most creative approach to breaking down the language barriers was in Czech Republic where we hired a college student at an internet shop to instruct us for an hour. We made a list of the words we needed pronuncitation help and some special phrases and he obliged. We left with written phrases for "Do you have a space indoors for our bikes?" and the knowledge that at that time there was no phrase for "laundromat" because there weren't any at that time.

There have been more subtle lessons learned about languages too. We've learned that the study of 1 language improves our skills in all the others that we attempt, in part because of the Latin influence on most European languages. I learned that I actually can learn a foreign language but I must have a heavy dose of visual aids instead of the preferred teaching mode which is largely auditory. And most importantly, we've learned that a commitment to communication is far more important than knowing any vocabulary. Taking the few words you know while you keep filling in the blanks with your own language and an amble supply of gestures or pointing will take you far in most situations.


Ephesus, Turkey: reassembled ruins make art history fun.

More recently, our study of foreign languages has us increasingly delving into the origin of English words, which has yielded some interesting discoveries. We also nudge each other for correctness as it is clear that being away from our homeland has contributed to us loosing some skills and vocabulary in our native tongue.

Art & Art History 

Had we a stronger interest in art and art history, we could have whizzed to the head of the class in these topics over these last 10 years, but we lacked the commitment that comes with passion.  But we've read enough handouts and guide book comments to be able to stand on a street corner while looking at a church and surmise: "Baroque, no neo-Baroque....early 20th century rendition, don't you think?" We're not perfect, but we are knowledgeable enough to be able to make good guesses about styles, influences, and centuries when it comes to major architectural elements.

And we no longer need to read the labels to know when a museum exhibit has transitioned from Celtic to Roman and from Roman to Visigoth.  Our reasonably well-educated eyes will occasionally trigger a comment like "What's that doing in here?" when the chronology of a display is disrupted in a museum.  Unfortunately, lack of interest, especially in religious art, has meant that my knowledge of paintings hasn't progressed much beyond the love I developed for the Impressionists in college.

 
Modern version of a tribal necklace: modems & SIM cards.

Connecting to the Internet

Unfortunately, connecting to the internet has been a separate topic of study for Bill over these many years and he could practically chronicle the history of that aspect of the industry with his accumulation of connectors and gizmos. The first years of his studies were concentrated around phone line connections and more recently have centered on cell phones and wifi.

Bill can buy a SIM card with instructions in an unfamiliar language, like Portuguese, and muddle through to connect our laptop to the internet via cell phone. Long sessions with the laptop in Tunisian and Italian phone shops were necessary to make it all work with Microsoft's Vista, though in unlikely places like Croatia and Montenegro, it was relatively easy. France's pricing structure is still prohibitively expensive, so connecting to their systems is still unknown territory.

Crafting the webpage to have a presence on the internet has been another of Bill's major online studies. The teenager of a friend did the groundwork to get Bill launched and he has been on his own with the evolving project for many years.

 

Advise to Cyclotourists

I've filled volumes with specific recommendations in our SideTrips files for fellow cyclotourists but was amused by what came to mind one day for my short list of current recommendations after 10 years on the road:

--use the biggest tires your bike will accept as it may save your life in a dicey situation

--don't plan on riding at night and avoid tunnels (which can be like riding at night) if at all possible

--when on the fence, plan a shorter day rather than a longer one

--do not economize when it comes to keeping yourself and your gear dry in serious rain

--carry a tiny umbrella for taking photos in the rain, sheltering during downpours, and for relief from the heat

--look away from, rather than at, dogs defending their property

--smile: almost everything goes better for you and others if you smile (even if eye contact is not appropriate)

 


Always looking for a way to make fitness fun.

Clarity of Purpose

The Inception

We didn't have a grand plan when we started traveling 10 years ago at the ages of 49 and 50. We did know that our professional pursuits had narrowed our lives too much and that it was time to break out of our tight orbits.

We also recognized that being in good health, having substantial savings, and having no children gave us more opportunities for radical change than many couples enjoy. 

Coinciding with these observations was the recent switch we'd made from running to cycling for our exercise and subsequently stumbling upon the concept of cyclotouring. It didn't take long to see that travel by bike would radically change our orbits and slow our tempos while enlarging our worlds.  And better yet, exercise would literally be the vehicle for it all rather than be a daily chore as it had been.

Evolving Needs

As we traveled and aged and watched aging in others, our motivation for maintaining a high level of fitness only increased. And when we started hiking in the Alps for a few weeks each summer, we gained a profoundly deeper understanding of what real fitness looked like in us and in others.

As the years rolled by, we became increasingly invested in our traveling lifestyle as a way to stay fit. And we recommitted to an earlier goal to strive for 2 hours of CV exercise every day, whether we were cyclotouring or not. Of course we don't achieve that every single day, but we certainly exceed it on average.  After 10 years of traveling with our bikes it has finally become perfectly clear: our top priority is to craft an ongoing lifestyle around fitness rather than have fitness be secondary as it was in our prior lives.

What Now

But with the greater clarity about our desire to make fitness the pivot point of our daily lives has been the unsettling realization that we don't know how to achieve that goal other than by cyclotouring.  As we've looked around broadly for inspiration, we've realized that there is no guidance from our culture as to how to craft a lifestyle which has fitness as its centerpiece. Any time I try to imagine a living community, situation, or sustainable undertaking that supports that goal I immediately find myself saying "That will never fly because....." We want fitness to be more than repeating the too familiar circuits at the gym or around the neighborhood on foot or by bike; we want our fitness activity to be at the core of our lifestyle, which is what is has been for most of humankind.

We are slowly coming to terms with the fact that as travelers or not, we will not be able to rely upon the tracks of those who have gone before us to craft a lifestyle in which fitness and optimal health are the priority--we'll have to design it ourselves. It is the first time for us to feel like pioneers.  In past pursuits, there were established school and then work tracks to pick and choose from to customize a life direction. As fitness-oriented travelers, we no longer have the benefit of following the lead of others, which is undoubtedly why we feel a bit directionless.

We've come to understand that part of the reason that we have no guides in our current lifestyle quest is that most people continue with work and family as the focal points of their lives after they retire. Work may morph into volunteer work, and family may shift from raising children to grandchildren. We are in the throes of designing a retirement lifestyle that instead revolves around fitness rather than post-work and extended family involvement.

Lacking inspiration for alternatives to cyclotouring, we've laughed and resigned ourselves to the prospect of looping around several thousand miles of generally familiar overseas biking and hiking routes and trails each year until we come up with a new plan. On one hand, it seems such a silly way to spend a life and on the other hand, it is vastly more interesting and stimulating than looping around the same track, neighborhood, or bike route at home multiple times per week to get our exercise.

  


Passenger's-eye-view of de-icing on the runway.

The Future:  Re-Defined for Us on December 2, 2010

It wasn't the first time that our lack of decisiveness in initiating a change was overpowered by the decisions of others and as we were headed home in 2010, that is exactly what happened to us. We'd stored our bikes in Vienna, deciding to stick with our basic overseas cycling routine but delaying it by 2 months for some spring hiking in the southwest of the US. But as we were leaving Europe on December 2, in a flash, the Dutch immigration authorities severely changed our plans for 2011 and our default, traveling lifestyle forever.   

A little-known and seemingly rarely enforced virtual visa restriction was applied to us as we were preparing to board our flight home. We had been in continental Europe 7 months and should only have been there 3 months. The Dutch authorities sent our file to Spain and it will be the Spanish authorities who decided our fate--eventually. The Dutch explained the possible outcomes: being banned from entry into almost all of Europe for 1-5 years; being excused; or having our file considered trivial and being torn-up, leaving no paper trail and lots of uncertainty as to our status. And of course, they told us to expect this to be a slow process (the officer seemed to be applying a Mediterranean stereotype to the execution of this matter by the Spanish authorities.)

At the very least, we will be obliged to limit our European travels to 3 of every 6 months, which given the weather issues for us a cyclists, really means to us limiting our time in Europe to 3 months of every 12. The worst case scenario is that we will need to hire someone to fly to Vienna to bring our bikes home for us if we are banned from re-entry for any length of time.

So, darn it anyway, we'd made peace with slowly migrating to a new lifestyle centered around fitness but now we have to come up with something quickly rather than slowly. Our return flight isn't until May 2011, so we have until April to calmly 'wait & see' as to our fate for the future. But regardless of the Spanish prosecutor's decision, we are sad to say that 2010 is certainly our last year of an extended stay in Europe, bikes or no bikes.

 

PS: January 31, 2011

The Spanish government employees should have returned to work from their extended Christmas/New Year's/Epiphany holiday and we hope to hear from them soon. But to date, we've received no responses to the inquiries regarding our status since the discovery of our visa violation. We continue on, making plans as though the visa violation matter will be resolved favorably, not knowing what else to do. We are also still waiting for inspiration to hit to aid us in designing a new lifestyle that limits us to 3 months a year in Europe. In the meantime, we'll be hiking from a rented RV in the US southwest for 2 months.

 

Our best to all of you,

Barb & Bill

 

Home2010 JournalsContact Us