The last six months (part 2)

What goes around comes around, and so it happens that part two also begins in Istanbul, where Grace and I met again almost three months after the first time. This time we had a good chunk of time to ourselves – it was Grace’s summer break – and a desire to do something completely outside my comfort zone, and go to Europe.

We spent two weeks in Turkey, stuffed ourselves with bread and fresh fruit and veg and cheese and hazelnut butter and all the good things, and then crossed over into the Balkans where we proceeded to do much the same for the next month. Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Croatia…not that they’re all the same, but when you’re condensing six months into a thousand words you need to simplify somewhere. It was fabulous travelling – affordable, hitchhikable, full of local markets and even more local spirits. Bosnia and Herzogovina is a strangely governed country (two completely separate and autonomous regions that fought a bitter war and now share an army and a national flag), Montenegro is stunning, Belgrade is grungy hip, Zagreb is home to some of our coolest friends and Bulgaria to one of the best value airbnbs in the world.

From Zagreb to Italy in a day, via a series of strange hitchhikes including a tradesman who dropped us in a crazy electric field under a massive set of power lines where our skin was buzzing and we were getting electric shocks from the grass, and a man in a very nice car and a fancy suit who challenged all our pre-conceived (or rather, informed-by-experience) notions about the generosity of people in fancy suits towards hitchhikers.

Trieste was nice, Venice was a nightmare, Florence (or more accurately the fantastic couple we couchsurfed with in their farmhouse just outside it) was probably the highlight of our trip and in Turin I got to meet up with an old and very good friend who I hadn’t seen in years. We tried but never quite mastered the art of eating apertivo – seen by some as finger food that you nibble on while having an after-work drink, by others as a valuable source of free dinner if you know what you’re doing.

Next to France, where we met up with my parents and brother and joined them for a two-week jaunt that crossed the Tour de France at no less than four places. In Annecy we saw  l’Etape du Tour, on Mont Ventoux we stayed opposite the Va Va Froome wagon (in fact this photo is taken from exactly where we were camped, and the cat on the road was a birthday gift from Grace to her dad!) at Alpe d’Huez we watched the switchbacks from a precarious perch halfway up a chairlift tower, while at Gap we discovered that starts make for terrible viewing.

In Paris we watched the final few laps on the Champs Elysees, went to Musee d’Orsay, drunk sparkling rosé at Parc des Buttes Chaumont and made great use of the Velib system, certainly the best of its kind that I have seen.

Our last day of travel was perhaps our finest, from Paris to London with a bagged-up road bike in tow. We started by buying a “mini-group ticket” on the TGV to Calais – three tickets for half the price of two. At Calais we changed trains to get a bit closer to the port, from the next station shared a cab to the terminal and then sat there for an hour, caught between indecisive and stuck.

By some completely bizarre method of ticket pricing that makes me wonder whether Joe Hockey works for P&O, tickets on the Calais-Dover ferry cost around €30 per vehicle, or the same amount per individual foot passenger. So we were looking at paying €60 between us until I worked up the courage to confront an old German couple, who didn’t speak much English and didn’t have too much of a clue what they were doing, and ask if they’d take us across the border in the back of their campervan. Which they duly did.

So far so good, but they dropped the two of us, our backpacks and my increasingly heavy bike by the side of a random intersection outside a town called Folkstone. I’m going to find it on Google Maps so we can see how remote it is: this is it.

We spent about an hour and a half by the side of this roundabout, and time passed fairly quickly (by roadside hitchhiking standards) once we realised that the button on the nearby traffic light made the lights change immediately, allowing us to stop cars at will, ask for lifts to London and get told to fuck off in return (these Folkstone folk were the least friendly of our entire European adventure).

Eventually we asked someone for a better idea, and they directed us to another roundabout a mile or two down the road, I balanced the bicycle on my head and off we went. Half an hour’s walk, an hour more waiting at the next intersection, a fruitless walk around a local carpark trying to find an untethered trolley for the bike, until it started to rain and, by the luckiest stroke of luck ever, a spacious VW van answered the one last helpless thumb of the hapless backpacker with the bike on his head. Many thanks to Paul, even though he did spend the hour-long ride to Mottingham Station telling us about the foreigners that are taking his son’s jobs, forcing his son to sit at home smoking pot and drinking alcohol all day long.

Mottingham Station was only an hour and a bit by tube from Putney, where my uncle and aunt and their lovely family live, and Putney was only a 5 minute bus and one final 10 minute bike-on-head walk away from home, and we were HOME HOME HOME, and that was the end of the holiday! All up the journey had taken about ten hours and cost us about €35 each – pretty much the same as the bus but arguably more fun, and in any case our only option as the buses don’t carry bicycles. Wine was especially delicious that night.

We spent a few days in London doing Londoney things before we had one final victory -$1000 each in United vouchers thanks to the EU’s generous airline compensation policies – and one final loss – my bike wheel was destroyed at the ever-so-gentle hands of the baggage handlers.

And now we’re in Richmond, Virginia, and I’ll write more about that some other time.

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