May 21, 2018
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Cycling through cultural changes


Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

From the Pacific coast of Asia, we have traveled westward for seven months on a series of back roads, highways, bike paths and country lanes. Behind us now are 8,200 miles of intersecting roads that stretch across the earth like a shadow cast from a leafless tree upon the ground.

The road before me and the ones to my back each fade away in the distance toward faraway lands with different foods, languages and customs. Follow one far enough and anything can happen. The only certainty is that multiple cultures will challenge you to live differently.

Each day on this foreign bike tour we must complete the tasks of finding food, shelter and communicating in foreign languages. Throughout this journey, each country we pass through forces us to alter how we do these things.

Before embarking on this adventure, we prepared by taking a six-week Russian course at the Far Eastern National University in Vladivostok, Russia. Our newly acquired language skills served us well; we spent the first two months following rough, often unpaved, roads between small Siberian towns where nobody spoke English.

In Vladivostok, many Russians were skeptical of how we would survive in Siberia.

“What will you eat?” they asked. “I hope you can hunt,” they said, heckling us.

After visiting several small Russian villages, I understood the joke. Village producties, or small stores, in Russia do not contain a lot of food because most Siberians grow crops and raise livestock. Inside a typical producty an inexhaustible supply of vodka and cigarettes fills most of the store shelves.

A young woman stands behind a counter next to an abacus used to calculate change for customers. There is little food, save for bags of rice, flour, pasta and unaccountable old canned goods. When making a purchase, the cashier slides the balls of the abacus rapidly from one side to the other. They slam against the abacus like an 8-ball sinking into the pocket of a pool table.

Making a nutritious meal from a producty proved difficult, so we began eating almost exclusively at small, locally run cafes on the side of the Russian Federal Highway. Cafes were often the only way for us to find healthy food in rural Russia. Inside, one could fill up on vegetable soups, pasta dishes, meat, eggs and even salads for just several dollars.

Russian cafes are multi-functional for cyclists. After our meal, we would ask the owners for permission to sleep outside in our tents. For months, we spent almost every night camping in the backyards of Russian families.

In Siberia, I noticed how food and language interconnect while traveling. The first time I glanced at a cafe menu in Russian, my vocabulary was so limited that I just observed the meaningless jargon before me with a helpless stare. Months later, my Russian had improved enough that I could even read menus handwritten in horrible penmanship tacked onto walls of the roughest Siberian canteens. I knew how to order salads without heaps of mayonnaise (a Russian staple) and ask how much vegetables cost at local markets. Language enabled me to eat better.

Months later, we crossed into Poland where a new culture forced us to reconsider how we would live while traveling each day. The cafe culture died away, expensive restaurants dominating roadside stops. Supermarkets in each town with a wide variety of affordable food replaced Russian and Ukrainian producties. Communication became difficult, and I often found myself talking only with people who could speak Russian or English. The land became more populated, woods disappeared and camp spots became harder to find.

Now we have entered France where it is illegal to camp anywhere besides designated campgrounds, which are mainly closed in December. Farmland sectioned off with barbed wire fences dominates the landscape. Intense rain has reduced the fields to quagmires.

Sometimes in the distance, I spot a small patch of woods where one could hide a tent. But getting there would often require hauling my bike over barbed wire, sneaking onto someone’s property and trudging through mud for a mile or more.

Foul weather and lack of camping space have now pushed our bike trip indoors each night. We daily search for an affordable hotel, quitting early if we find a good deal. To make up for the expense of lodgings, I eat exclusively from supermarkets and bakeries.

Retreating indoors each night has failed to civilize the crazy vagabonds on bicycles. I have begun referring to Ellery and me as “the hotel hobos.” Each night we sit down to a massive indoor picnic. To avoid making a mess, we eat over plastic bags because we do not carry plates.

One night, I watch my friend Ellery making a tuna sandwich. The merino wool base layer he wears has seen so much use on this trip it is now threadbare and full of holes. A scraggly beard hangs from his face. His appearance suggests that tonight he should be passing a bottle of port between a group of bums sitting around a campfire in a California rail yard. He devours the sandwich, stopping to wipe his bushy moustache, with the look of an ideal hotel hobo.

France might be the perfect country for hotel hobos like us. Every town contains a boulangerie, or bakery, where cash registers replace abacuses. In a typical boulangerie, pastries and baguettes, freshly baked each day, are sold for roughly 75 cents. In markets, brie and fresh mozzarella often cost just a dollar. Good wines here are also dirt cheap. After a long day battling wind and rain, a cyclist can retreat inside and live the hobo life quite affordably.

In France, sleeping and eating are easy. Unlike Russia, my biggest problem here is communicating.

“Don’t speak English to French people,” a Belgian friend recommended to us before we entered France. “Try speaking French, even if you can’t. They will see you are foreign and reply in English,” he explained.

I have tried my best to follow this advice. Very little of the French I studied in high school remains in my memory. But after a week here, random French words, numbers and even some verbs have mysteriously resurfaced. I remember just enough to understand prices, ask directions and hold simple conversations.

But to my dismay, French people generally seem endeared by my pathetic attempts to speak their language and they regularly just reply to me in French. Oftentimes, I think the French are often unfairly stereotyped as rude. By just making an effort to speak French, I have found the people here to be some of the most amiable, helpful and charmingly quirky folk I have encountered on this trip.

These days, I ride down the road with several brie sandwiches tucked within my panniers for lunch. I feel a mixed sense of loving French culture and hating how it limits our bike tour. Riding across the country, past the muddy fields and treeless spaces, I catch myself missing the limitless forests in Siberia and the freedom of being able to stop anywhere and ask a stranger permission to sleep on their land, and knowing the answer will be “yes.”

“We are helpless victims of the culture we live in,” I think hopelessly while stopping for lunch, “forced to behave in accordance with the norms and rules of the world around us.”

The crispy baguette and the creamy brie melt together in my mouth like a fresh bun hot from the oven. Being victimized never tasted so good.

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