Europe, our final continent and the closing of the circle. We leave Istanbul and its tear-gassed protesters, cross the frontier enclosing the mosques and churches of Bulgaria, cover kilometres of Serbian tarmac, explore the nightlife of Romania and become tongue-tied in our efforts to pronounce the names of Hungarian towns.
Home again after more departures
Twelve yellow stars on a blue background side by side with three bands of green, white and red proclaim the flag of Bulgaria; crucifixes replace the skyward-pointing minarets. What exactly does “returning home” mean, apart from the physical élan we feel as we come back to our starting point A, after so many points B, C, D, E….Z ? We reckon we are about to find out. But not immediately. For the time being our minds are still set on absorbing the sights around us and living to the full what remains of this unforgettable journey, rather than jumping ahead and missing out some of its final stages. So we are back « home » in Europe, where citizenship is something more complex than a simple jurisdictional status defined by Maastricht twenty years ago. After all, and in all honesty, what have we in common with the people of Bulgaria who speak a derivative of Russian and write in Cyrillic lettering? A dominant religion, perhaps? In France alone even Orthodox Catholicism differs from Roman Catholicism. Surely someone must have an answer for us.
Brian shares his feelings about our return home: «As we approach France and the end of our travel, I am conscious that our communal life will soon be over. I shall be happy to have my private space back and to be living alone again, but our life as a threesome has been something very powerful and very precious which I appreciate most just when it is about to come to a stop. So no, no rejoicing over its end.”
Martin has invited us to his home in Sofia for a 3-day stay. He has found us on the Internet and is keen to meet us and discuss his own round-the-world cycling project, planned to begin in mid-August. What can we say to Martin as he describes his 50,000-kilometre dream trip? He knows our website by heart, has seen all our photographs and videos. We are fascinated … as we always are every time someone comes and shares his « master plan» and tells us we have inspired him to have a go. Three years of anecdotes come to life in our heads, and we are back at our point of departure, our bicycles and bags all shiny and new. Martin is a little over-excited, but we think to ourselves: «Give it a go, matey! If only you knew…. » We are proud that Solidream has become a source of inspiration to others, which is what we had in mind when the idea was conceived five years earlier. Yes, it’s become like a woman nourishing dreams. But what have we really achieved? Nothing in fact, apart from a belief in ourselves and in humanity. We were persuaded that it was worth taking a risk or two in order to encounter new kinds of people. We ourselves are nobodies. Everybody is a nobody. Even so, it is all these ordinary nobodies who can make life extraordinary. That is our point in common with the Bulgarians – and Martin is their ambassador. He is setting out to turn his dream into a reality.
In one respect Sofia is not so different as we discover when Anatoli Sveti, Diliana and Martin take us around their vibrant city, to find that for the past month it has been the scene of demonstrations against its ruling oligarchy, which is a mix of economics, criminality and politics. But here the protests are non-violent (as are the authorities) and nothing like what we saw in Istanbul. We sip a cocktail under the trees in a square where our hosts have invited us (even so we manage to pay for a round of drinks…) On Sunday Sveti and Anatoli ask us to come to their home to eat baklavas. The chain of hospitality/generosity looks like remaining unbroken to the very end. And it is all to the good: we had always counted on Europe. To mark our departure Sveti has contacted the local television station, the equivalent of our French TF1, to put us on their eight o’clock programme. We leave Sofia under the eye of the camera.
Solo versus Collective
It is a real pleasure to be joined by Lukas, a Dutch globe-trotting cyclist, for a few hundred kilometres. He has come from Singapore, travelling mainly on his own. He has been tracking us on the internet for several weeks now, trying to meet up with us. And he’s finally done it.
He regales us with anecdotes of his journey lightened by touches of his own brand of humour. It is always enjoyable to have somebody new to share our daily routine, compare our habits, experiences, and impressions of the different peoples and places we have come across. With Lukas it worked out to perfection. As well as keeping pace with us despite the heavy load he carried on his bike, he enlivened the conversation with highly pertinent observations and interesting analysis. He also made us realise some of the major differences between travelling as a team like us and travelling alone.
We explain to him how, whenever our budget permits, we like to hang out in restaurants or cafés. As well as rest and calories these occasions give us an opportunity to make contact with the local residents, interact with them and get to know a bit about their customs. For him it is altogether different. Sitting alone at a table he often finds himself being stared at too inquisitively, inducing long and uncomfortable silences. He is often made to feel like a circus freak with people around him wondering what he is doing there all on his own. He prefers to cycle throughout the day and then, always before nightfall, to find a place to camp where nobody will see him. After he has settled in, if someone from the neighbourhood discovers his hide-out, he ups sticks and looks for a more secure spot. He admits to being cut off from the world at times, and yet he is not in the least bit anti-social by nature!
As a team we always hang about the terraces, in the street*, in front of churches, on the beach or at service stations until late in the evening. Once it gets dark and we start to feel sleepy we set off to find somewhere to stay the night. We set up camp in a field, against a wall, under a bridge or in a temple, always making sure we are well out of sight.
Before setting off on our marathon journey we wondered whether we would find people willing to put up three and sometimes four foreigners for the night. We thought we would reduce our chances of mingling with the locals if we were too numerous. But our experience proved the opposite to be the case, and Lukas gave us some clues as to why. « Man is a sociable animal » wrote Aristotle. In the mountains of Kirgizstan, the Cambodian jungle, or the Sahara desert it seems that human beings identify more readily with a travelling group than with a lone figure. In general they tend to regard our exploit as the more reasonable and understandable because in their cultures journeys (often linked to the season and/or migrating animals) are undertaken in groups. And once a common link with a stranger is established, fear and curiosity give way to the instinct of communicating and sharing.
Let’s be perfectly honest about it; the eastern woman is not a myth. We were impressed by them in the Bulgarian capital. Now Raf wants to show us its Romanian rival, Timisoara. Raf is a former fellow student with Brian, who has us to stay in his charming little flat and takes us out for wild evenings in this young student town overflowing, it has to be said, with sensational girls in very short skirts and a jet set atmosphere of bars and nightclubs. With our limited budget we cut rather shabby figures. Even allowing ourselves a few extras we cannot compete with this display of the latest fashions.
Morgan: “I am a spectator in a society of bare midriffs where people look at one another without speaking, float by without walking, create noise but don’t listen… It is a perpetual parade of silicone breasts overflowing from low necklines, men’s over-developed biceps and tattoos extending to their fingertips… the conquest of the opposite sex by means of so-called «beauty» has reached its zenith. In the kingdom of birds the Romanians of Timisoara rule.“
Timisoara (picture coming from http://irinabulmaga.blogspot.ch)
The small town is sumptuous, its squares surrounded by churches and architecture of the same period that has nothing to learn from our own Montpelier, even if there are some similarities. In the daytime we alternate between working on our photographs and, later on, going to the swimming pool where the very same bimbos come to show themselves off in their bikinis and play at who is the best-looker. Altogether a pretty sight.
We leave Raf with our heads throbbing from all the late nights, without forgetting to give him some tips for his road trip by moped from Montpellier to Brittany the following week. We spend the next day in Hungary, yet another East European country. Here we forget about the girls in bikinis and make the most of the smiles and covert glances of the Hungarian girls, even though it takes us a few moments to decipher the names of their towns. We pile up the kilometres passing through little villages each with its own pretty church; it’s hereabouts that we quietly quicken our pace. In three days we have crossed the entire country and we reach the Austrian frontier sketchily marked by a sign reading «Die Republik Österreich » We are far, very far removed from the hassle of applying for visas in Central Asia. Long live the Schengen Agreements for freedom of passage! Off we go… now we will be speaking German (or trying to…) until we reach Switzerland where we will get back to good old French again.