Monday 21 September 2015: Bad Bellingen to Bad Säckingen
At the beginning of my ride, back in June, there were farmers selling cherries and strawberries, they were rolling hay in the fields. Now there are apples everywhere, nuts falling from trees and the only crop still in the ground is corn, just about ready to be picked.
It’s as beautiful a day’s riding as I’ve had. It’s sunny and warm but not hot. Under a big upturned bowl of blue sky, I follow the river for a while then traverse the city of Basel.
The city provides directional street signs for cyclists just like the ones for motorists. I have to be on my game looking out for the right signs, but I manage to cross the whole city and its suburbs without referring to either my map or my phone. Chuffed.
I pass a number of inviting cafes along the river in Basel but I don’t have any Swiss money yet, so I don’t stop. There are also people playing boules. I think I should learn to play boules – I like that, unlike lawn bowls you can play it just about anywhere.
Once I’m out of the city I stop and make my own coffee and just breath in the day.
I ride into Bad Säckingen towards the end of the afternoon and find the hotel I booked online. The Hotel Schneider is wonderfully old-school and in excellent condition. As I check in the owner asks where Five Dock is – that’s the suburb where I live. He had been to Sydney in 1987 – I asked what he knew of the city, looking for a landmark from which I could explain Five Dock’s location, and he sheepishly answers, ‘Kings Cross’. (The Cross was Sydney’s red light district before being killed off by a government in the pocket of real-estate developers. In 1987 it was definitely still … red lit.)
My room is maybe one of my favourites of the whole trip, simple, clean, charming, and it really feels like it hasn’t been renovated in any way for 30 years and yet everything is good. There’s a shared bath, which is fine. In the hallway there is one of those electric brush shoe shiners – my grandfather had one of those, I think.
I walk into the old town looking for dinner. It’s lovely – with winding, pedestrian-friendly, narrow streets weaving among (presumably post-war reconstructed) classically old German buildings. I find a place which is basically a pub and order something which proves to be pork swimming in a mushroom sauce with spätzle and a decorative lettuce leaf and tomato combo.
Afterwards, I wander around some and find an ice cream shop and get the best-priced scoop of the whole trip so far: €0.90. Score.
Tuesday 22 September 2015: Bad Sackingen to Brugg
Overnight I received an upsetting email. There’s someone whom I am very keen to see while I’m in the United States and they’ve now emailed to say that they feel that might not be for the best.
I want to write about it here because it has a big impact on me, this email and its effect on my plans, and – for that matter – my emotional state, which is already a bit all over the place.
I don’t want to write about it here because the author of the email will read this, and I don’t want to expose or upset them. I guess that is the challenge to this sort of writing. In telling my own story – which is where I want the focus to be, sometimes I edge into telling other people’s stories.
So, for now, I’ll just say that yesterday was a lovely day, I’d slept well and woken happily in this funny old-school hotel room and then, reading this message, it’s like the skies have darkened and even the air is heavy on my shoulders.
I have a messaging session with a friend about it and he’s both supportive and insistent that I not fall into a well, if they don’t want to see me, they don’t want to see me attitude, but pushes me to find a way forward to make the meeting happen.
I pack up quickly and leave the hotel feeling rushed and stressed and sad. Plus, the underlying emotions of the ride nearing its conclusion and the stresses of Zurich.
The day is grey and threatening but never produces rain.
I ride into Switzerland over an ancient covered bridge. In the town on the Swiss side, all the shops and restaurants are shuttered closed. No wonder, given the strength of the Swiss Franc, who would shop there, given the convenient option of Germany just across the bridge?
The town feels like it is Novartis, the pharma company. All the non-residential buildings seem to be part of their campus.
I pick up the efficient Swiss cycleway signs and follow route #56 from there to Brugg with relative ease.
I lose the trail as I’m nearing Brugg and switch to the equally well-signposted walking route, which is steep but okay. After two kilometres or so I find the cycleway again and follow it through the outer suburbs and into town.
Brugg is a proper small city of 11,000 or so – but it has no tourist office, which I find a little weird.
I arrive at 4:30 but my host won’t be home until 7:00 so I go to a bank to change money and am poking around the shops when he messages that his plans have changed, and I can meet him at the train station at 5:20.
Philip is a lovely guy. He’s originally from outside New York City, he went to university in Boston and has been living and working here, in Switzerland, for a couple of years – in Brugg a bit more than a year. He’s a mechanical engineer, I think he said, by training – but the job he’s doing is a little outside that field – he should be a physicist or some other sort of engineer for the role.
We eat dinner together and go for a walk through the town and he tells me stories of the place’s history – we walk as far an old bridge, which is on the city’s coat of arms.
Wednesday 23 September 2015: Brugg
Philip’s gone to work but left me to let myself out when its time to go.
It rained overnight and now it’s overcast but dry.
I feel like I’ve been a little off-kilter and stressed out for a couple of days. Not on the bicycle – the riding has been lovely – but all the other the other stuff: anticipation around Zurich, and the end of my riding season, and having to go to Ireland on a visa run, and worrying about my coming time in the US, and the person who doesn’t want to meet up while I’m there, and, now, that my elderly mom has broken her ankle and my elderly dad is doing it all rather than bringing in some help. And that I was late to that news as well.
Oh, and my likely host in Zurich hasn’t replied to my latest messages, so I’m not sure if we’re still on.
I’m also worried about regretting the decision to end in Zurich. It will be expensive and, I fear, disappointing. It is what it is – I’m here now and this is how the ride will finish – good decision or bad.
The riding, though – lovely.
It’s 40 km to Zurich and I have a hostel bed there, guaranteed until 5 pm, ready at 3 pm. If I’m going, I should go.
It rained. I stayed. I got a bunch of stuff done, including sending some postcards and posting a load of photos on Facebook. Along with going to the post office, I had a poke around the shops and nearly bought a jumper (sweater). I picked up the bits and pieces to make chili for Philip and myself for dinner.
He gets home from work when the chili is just about ready. It has turned out better than the last time I made it, in Bolzano, for my host there. When I’ve hosted in the past I’ve always loved when my guests have cooked for me. No matter how simple – it’s such a treat to have someone else prepare a homecooked meal for you in your own home. I like being able to return that karma.
We have another pleasant evening, just hanging out and talking and watching the colours change on the buildings and hillside opposite as the sun sets.
I learn there are strict rules in Swiss apartment buildings about noise between 10 pm and 7 am – including no flushing the toilet and men are not to pee while standing. There’s also no wearing of hard-soled shoes – I think just generally. Philip’s former flatmate’s girlfriend favoured heels and wouldn’t take them off when she visited. The downstairs neighbour made quite a stink about it.
So, yeah, tomorrow. It really is the last riding day.
I feel like I should say something about that.
I’m sad it’s the last riding day, really quite sad. In no way do I want it to be the last day, but at the same time, I’m not keen on riding through even colder days. There are other ways I might have done this which would now have me south. But that’s not how it worked out.
I think it’s good to stop when I still want more.
When the time comes, next year some time, I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back at it. I will be sorry to lose my riding-fitness.
I’ve learned so much, from really practical stuff to more life-lesson things. I’ve talked about those throughout and am not keen, now, to catalogue them all but in summary I’ve learned to expect the world to be basically welcoming (or at least indifferent to my presence), that my strength and independence are real and enduring, and that, nonetheless, the connections I have, to the people and places which I love, are also real, and important. That I need them – no matter how free I am, no matter how far away I am, I need my people and my home. Those connections, I think, give a good and purposeful tension to my wanderings.
And now to Zurich – and Christoph. Ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous.
I’ve been thinking about what I’ll say to Christoph if I meet him. I’ve settled on: “Hello. I rode my bicycle half-way across Europe to be here.” And begging his indulgence for a few moments so I can tell him why.
It’s as good a plan as any.
But I don’t think it will happen.