Perfect road surfaces, plenty of cycle paths, careful drivers, leafy public gardens, brand new cars, two metre wide flat television screens, enormous hypermarkets, glossy Porsche, BMW and Mercedes agencies, chic Luis Vuitton handbags and an iPhone 5 in every hand. Here we are in the middle of a society ravaged for five years by an economic crisis. We have our doubts. Is this really an economic crisis? Isn’t it perhaps more of an existential crisis?
Security or liberty?
Is the success and power of a nation measured by the importance given to the security of its inhabitants at the expense of their liberty? Is the development of a state proportionate to the amount of regulations that its population is prepared to accept?
As we arrive in Austria the sun has paled and we start our search for water for our daily wash, a ritual we have by now got down to a fine art. As we pedal along we keep an eye out for any pipe, tap, fountain, river or public lavatory. The first one of the team to see a likely spot signals to the others and we set to, washing away the salt left by dried sweat, and the dust that has accumulated during the day, becoming ingrained in our tanned skin and encrusted in our hair. But this evening we cannot find any available source of water and decide to ask at the local fire station.
A huge guy with shaven head, an alert look in his eye, opens the door and we ask if we can use the tap outside the building. He answers politely, in good English:
- I’m sorry but we have to have authorisation to open the main valve. We’ve got showers in the building but I am not allowed to let you in. I am really sorry.
- No problem. Do you know where we can find water?
- There’s no easy answer. Let me think….
After burning up a few calories to galvanise his cerebral functions, he told us:
- Follow the street for 500 metres, cross the railway track, turn right, and follow the edge of the field for another 300 metres. You will find a tap there. But take care because it is reserved for the local farm workers and if they see you they may start shouting at you.
The guy is perfectly pleasant but we can’t believe our ears. What goes on inside the heads of people like him? How can they bury themselves in rules to the point of not being able to see the light of day? We are at the foot of the Austrian mountains; rivers are flowing by and automatic hosepipes watering the fields. All we need is about two litres of water… A situation like this would never have arisen in central Asia…
Austria and Germany: Regulations
We don’t know anybody in Vienna and decide to avoid the capital and follow the Danube for a day’s ride. It is one long slalom, overtaking and avoiding the hundreds of cyclists out for a jaunt along this well known tourist’s route. Some of them are taking advantage of the sunny Sunday to infuse some oxygen into bodies softened up by weeks spent staring at a screen, a computer at work, a telephone during pauses and a television set in the evening. Others are on a one- or two- week bicycle tour; the latter loaded up with more bags than we ourselves carry, as if bound for distant lands.
Then a storm brings us down to earth and we take emergency shelter in a garage where the door has been left open, belonging to an unlit apartment on the first floor above. The space is empty but for a small motor boat, 4.5 metres long, with towing gear. Two hours go by, it is night time and the rain doesn’t let up. We decide to risk breaching the rules and regulations governing Austrian private property and spread our mattresses on the floor… At six o’clock we get up and without further problems set off for Munich in Germany. What a relief! There’s probably the death penalty for such a crime in Austria!
In the Bavarian capital we are put up by Hélène, the wife of Christoph whom we met in a bar in Istanbul. He is away on business and we won’t have a chance to see him during our two-day stay. The town is superb, the preparations for the Oktoberfest are under way and motorists hoot their horns at you if you cross a red light whether you are on a bicycle or on foot. Why do they feel violated when, using our common sense, we bend their rules a bit? Are common sense and flexibility reserved for the so-called Third World?
While we wait for the start of the traditional beer fest, we depend on the biergarten gardens with open-air tables where you sit with your own food but order drinks, in this case Bavarian beer. The serving girls are picked for the number of beer mugs they can carry in either hand, five litres being the minimum required. We find ourselves sitting at a table with young members of a modern church community.
Morgan: The guy opposite me is an American who comes out from Minnesota several times a year to spread his religious beliefs among young Europeans. I don’t feel any empathy with him, and I don’t trust him. His smile, his look and his manner are not convincing. I have tried to find out more about the community but have not managed to extract much by way of information. He must have sensed that I was not about to follow in his path. But this brought up in me the old question: why does Man expend so much energy trying to create communities with a common belief? Isn’t true richness to be found in diversity?
460 km in 2 days
Our hostess has already gone to work, it is 8.45 a.m., and we shut Hélène’s front door, not forgetting to leave the duplicate keys inside. Leaving Munich behind us we set off on a journey of 200 km to reach Fabian and Katherin, tranquilly installed in a duplex near Lake Constance. Fabian is the former flat mate of some friends of ours, and has been following our progress on the internet from the start, and invited us to stay with him. An offer of this kind lends us wings and we cover 200 km at an average speed of 25 km an hour in heavy rain. We have not swallowed a whole lion, just received a warmly worded message.
We spend two glorious evenings with them. We feel the positive vibes in their house and also between the two of them as a young couple. They radiate kindness and take genuine pleasure in sharing with us. We drink with them the rum they have brought from Cuba, and the five of us stay up talking until late into the night.
How many times on our trip have we regretted not having recorded our conversations with our hosts? Because when a subject comes up again there is always a new twist to the argument and new reactions which bring fresh life to our own thinking.
The following Sunday morning they both come with us on their bicycles for the first 25 km. We say our good-byes and from now on they know they have some new friends in the South of France. The 36 hours of rest have given us the strength to take on 260 km in one day. Bertrand, with whom we shared the first six months of our journey as far as Antarctica and the descent by raft of the Yukon, lives at la Chaux-de-Fonds, 25 km above Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. He knows we are a bit crazy at times but he would never imagine that we could cover 260 km in a single day. We know he is due to arrive from France on a train arriving at midnight and want to surprise him by being at the station, assuming he will have to change trains at Neuchâtel. But despite our best efforts we only get there at 2 a.m., too late for Bertrand, but early enough for us to camp by the lake. But we could not care less. A grand moment awaits us in the shape of a week-long rest in the company of our friend.