Reflections from just over a month on the road

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It is hard to put into words what I am feeling, this past month is a jumble of emotions and memories. It is hard to conceptualize the fact that I did actually leave my job over a month ago and have since then been unemployed (other than 3 days of freelance work which I have taken on which I will discuss in my next post) and travelling Europe. I have been over 4 borders, heard 5 languages and have completely changed my body. I have climbed 1200 meters (on a bike), I have explored cities I never thought I’d have the opportunity to see and I can honestly say I have made friends which I am sure I will know and hear from for many years to come.

Throughout this experience there have already been many trials and tribulations as well as ‘A Ha’ moments. In reality it has been a real eye opener spending this much time with my partner. We have been married for 11 years and together for 13, but in reality we have never spent a dedicated extended amount of time together. Our life in London was actually becoming more and more disconnected. As both of us excelled and moved forward in our careers, yes we had more money and could buy each other nicer things, but we saw each other less and less. Often it would feel like we would meet up at weekends when we were both still pissed off and tired from what happened during the week so we would want a drink, which would then make us even more pissed off and tired, and we would never really have that time to communicate and connect. I thought spending this much time with my partner would be much more difficult, but as the stress of London life has melted from both of us it is actually just comfortable and rewarding being together. You are going through some difficult experiences when you are in foreign countries, not to mention travelling through those countries on a bike, and you get to share and grow from those experiences together. Don’t get me wrong you can definitely get on each other’s nerves. Someone always feels like they are doing more, and someone always feels like they could do more, but you learn to compromise and understand what the other person needs.

There is also the adaptation to different cultures. Personally I have found it more comfortable in Germany than I did in France, Belgium or Luxembourg, even though French is (that little bit) easier for me to understand. For me, I find the German culture more relaxed and closer to the mindset of British culture. Although I would definitely say I have enjoyed the food more in France and Belgium than in Germany.

There are other cultural norms which take constant getting used to, for example Sunday is a closed day for all shopping and often eateries and bars, so you need to be prepared to make your own way on those days. In Germany we have even found that shops, bars and restaurants often still close for a two hour lunch break as well. Other fun tidbits have been that guesthouses often aren’t listed online so you can’t book ahead of time, toilets are generally separate to shower rooms and cars and walkers have the utmost respect for cyclists.

Generally everyone we have met have been kind, welcoming and helpful. Other than their curiosity as to why Americans would vote for Trump and why British people would vote for Brexit, I haven’t felt any nuances of stereotyping and/or other ethnocentricisms towards us on this trip.

The riding and the places we have seen have been beautiful, inspiring and sometimes, believe it or not, boring (by this I mean you are travelling at a very slow pace on a bicycle and in reality sometimes you get tired of seeing the same countryside scenery, or another small town with a medieval cathedral)… but you can always be sure it will be different and surprising. The riding has been difficult in different and varied ways. Like most people I think I really had no way of preparing for this trip, I worked all the time, and in reality who has 5 hours a day to dedicate to cycle training, so I went into this generally unfit. After a few days the riding was really taking a toll mentally and physically, but after about three weeks it all seemed to get easier. I could see muscle definition on parts of my body that I didn’t know I had muscles in. We started by doing 35-40km’s a day and feeling pretty tired and now a 50km day feels easy. I no longer feel breathless climbing flights if stairs and lugging the bags around doesn’t feel so hard. I also have a pride in my physical abilities which I havent really felt before. I feel confident I can do the riding now.

With these body changes there have also been unexpected difficulties. At the beginning I felt like I was in a constant state of having thrush (or a yeast infection for my American readers) which didn’t get sorted until I picked up some special (magical) soap in France. I lost a lot of weight really quickly and even though I was eating a lot, I was waking up at night hungry (which had never happened to me before). I have now levelled out on the weight loss. I got sore on the inside of my butt cheeks, but I now have calluses there which helps the situation. When the riding got too much I felt pretty emotional and irratible. That is now controllable but I have learned when I need to rest and when I need to eat. Going to the bathroom (number 2 that is) has been a constant worry for me on this trip, as I am sure it is for anyone who changes their lifestyle this much. I have learned to think about what I need to ensure I stay healthy.

I really don’t want to forget the amazing things I have seen which sometimes get overlooked because of the nature of the trip. I would say for me this trip has happened on two very separate levels, the trip that is about the riding (and the struggles that come with that) and the trip that is about the travelling. Some of the highlights for me have been the Citadell in Namur, Belgium, a beautiful little town with lots to offer and our favourite beer pub that we have visited yet. The caves of Dinant, Belgium; I have been to quite a few caves but this was a totally unique experience. The tour allows you to travel the caves virtually alone with the help of an incredibly enthusiastic tour guide. The Grund area of Luxembourg City, which has the most beautiful cafes and restaurants on the river and the fun we had traversing this area during the city wide running race. The canal ride through the Alsace region on our way to Severn France. This could be the most beautiful bike ride I ever ride in my life! The architecture that surrounds the wobbly streets in Strasbourg, and probably the best glass of 2 euro white wine I have ever had. Freiburg’s fun University vibe. My bike crash into a huge river rat as we entered the Black Forest and the mountain climb through the forest with the most beautiful clear streams. And then, finally reaching the Danube river! And all this in one month! I have to pinch myself when I think about how much this wonderful world has to offer us!

Luxembourgish?!

IMG_20180418_144733_874Unfortunately I have to be honest here, I didn’t know that Luxembourgish was an actual language until we arrived in Luxembourg. This very small, very prosperous country, is not very well known around the world but we thoroughly enjoyed our experience there which I will try to relay here.

Cycling in on the Eurovelo 5 from Belgium to Luxembourg we noticed an immediate change. The evening before we crossed the border we stayed in Strainchamps, Belgium to break up the journey from Bastogne to Martelange (this is actually a very short and easily doable journey but we were surprised that we couldn’t find anywhere reasonably priced to stay in Martelange). After staying in Strainchamps, which was in the middle of nowhere, and rolling into the very posh Martelange it became immediately evident why Strainchamps was more in our price bracket.

I had an original misconception that Belgium and Luxembourg would be very similar and as a tourist I wouldn’t notice much of a change between the two countries. This was definitely wrong. As described earlier when we passed through Martelange there was a noticeable change in the economy. The architecture also changed substantially, Belgium felt very old and French in influence, whereas Luxembourg was obviously more modern and colourful. The roads were immediately different as well. Although I was a huge fan of the Eurovelo route in Belgium, you often found yourself on gravel, cobblestone or unmaintained roads. In Luxembourg the Eurovelo route that we followed was fully paved and completely separated from other traffic (90% of the time). As you can imagine this was a very welcome change for cycle tourers.

Luxembourg is expensive. Belgium is expensive as well but for us we noticed a major increase in prices as soon as we entered Luxembourg. Because of this we spent 2 of our 5 nights in Luxembourg with warm showers hosts. As I mentioned in an earlier post warmshowers.org is an online community of cycle tourers that help out other cycle tourers with places to stay and possibly a meal while they are travelling. We were incredibly lucky to have this option and as I will explain, it gave us a personalised perspective into the culture of Luxembourg.

We arrived to our first hosts who live in a small town about 30 miles out of Luxembourg City on our first evening. Our hosts offered us a place to camp in their garden and a wonderful evening meal and drink with the family. Much like most of the population of Luxembourg (nearly 50% foreigners), our hosts were not native Luxembourgish. He was originally from Portugal and his wife was from Quebec, thus impressively their two children (12 and 15) spoke Portuguese, French, German, Luxembourgish and conversational English. We were surprised to learn however that neither of them spoke Luxembourgish. They explained to us that in school in Luxembourg the students speak Luxembourgish in elementary school and a mixture of French and German when they are older (dependedant on the subject they are learning) and some English in their high school classes as well. It was interesting to learn that she wanted her children to eventually go to school over the border in Belgium where the language in the education system wasn’t as complicated, which she felt also complicated their education.

Following our stay with that couple we rode into Luxembourg City, staying in Kirchburg, just on the outer edge of the city in an AirBnB. We had the pleasure of speaking with the AirBnB owner, originally from South Africa, about her perception of the city. It is a well known fact that Luxembourg is thought of as a tax haven. She explained that the Kirchburg area has grown because of this very reason. The city has needed to expand because of the amount of business coming in (it is a good centre for European business because of its tax status). Kirchburg used to be an area which the poorer people of Luxembourg City could afford, however, much like the areas of gentrification in London and New York, the areas for the poorer Luxembourgish people don’t exist as much in the city any more as foreigners seem to be continually pushing the housing prices up. She also explained to us that it is difficult for the city to grow outwards because of the green belts in Luxembourg. I could understand how these areas would make expansion difficult but we thoroughly appreciated all of the untouched natural areas in Luxembourg during our rides.

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For our final two evenings in Luxembourg City we moved into the Gare district of town, which with the old part of the city make up the city centre. Luxembourg is a fortified city with a beautiful medieval wall surrounding it. You can walk along the wall down to the river which looks up at the higher area of the city. We met our next AirBnB hosts for a drink in the fancy downtown area of the city. Again foreigners, our friendly hosts were from America and Romania. The drinks were similar to London prices, and I would go as far as to say the food was generally more expensive. It was lovely to spend time with them and listen to their story of how they fell in love and got engaged in Trier, a nearby German town, which we then decided to visit in a few days. Both explained to us that neither of them had to speak Luxembourgish at work and neither of them would understand it if it was spoken to them.

We both really enjoyed our time Luxembourg City. It is a beautiful city with access to lots of green space. You can comfortably walk and cycle through the city and there is plenty of nightlife and atmosphere to take in.

On our final day in Luxembourg we left the city to find ourselves mistakenly in city wide race. Unlike the London marathon the race path was not separated from cyclists or runners and we spent a few miles slowly trying to not obstruct runners’ progress. The bike path out of the city, as with all bike paths we encountered in Luxembourg, was beautifully paved and separated from the roads.

We ended our journey at another warm showers, with a romantic adventurer who was an older man that bike packed through Laos and Cambodia. Unlike any of our other Luxembourg hosts he was actually Luxembourgish. He worked in the ministry of education where he actually spoke Luxembourgish at work. Again we spoke with him about the expense of living in Luxembourg and he explained the lifestyle of Luxembourgish people to us further. He noted that generally Luxembourgish people will buy their shopping and supplies in neighbouring Germany because the costs are so much cheaper. Or many times locals will move to Germany or France because of cost of housing in Luxembourg and then only commute into Luxembourg City for work. He also explained that 90% of the people that work for the government in Luxembourg are actually Luxembourgish (in other words jobs are kept internal). He described to us the strain the different languages has on the culture which was very interesting.

My first impression when hearing about the education system and all the languages the children speak, was ‘What a wonderful way to promote multicultural education and language in education’. However, he explained that there is a disinterest among many Luxembourgish people to speak French and that they generally much prefer to speak German as the dialect is easier for them. Further, there are different perceptions of the different cultures in Luxembourg which can cause friction.

The opportunities we had to speak and meet with so many local Luxembourgish people coloured our experience in Luxembourg and helped us to expand on our knowledge of the culture and gain a greater appreciation of the country. I don’t think our experience of the small country would have been at all the same if we had flown in and stayed in hotels as opposed to cycle touring through.

I will reiterate again that Luxembourg was a beautiful, friendly and diverse country and I would highly recommend it to any cycle tourer or traveller. My only advice would be to ensure you take the time to get to know the people and gain a better understanding of what motivates those living and working in Luxembourg.