In my last post about my Vision Quest adventure, I covered my time in London and Amsterdam as my European bike trip began. After I spent a couple of days in Amsterdam, I made my way south through The Netherlands, taking advantage of the bike-friendly roads and paths in the country.
When I shipped my bike on my flight, I had to remove the pedals and place all of the bike parts in a special shipping box. Once in London, I reassembled the bike – but later realized that I made a slight mistake that would cost me my first mechanical failure. I didn’t screw the pedals in completely straight – one was at a slight angle. Riding my bike mile after mile caused the pedal unscrew itself – and strip the threading in the process. Of course, I had no idea this was happening until I rode into the Belgian city of Antwerp, and my pedal literally snapped off from under me. I had to find a place to stay and then figure out the closest bike shop where I could get it repaired (within walking distance). Fortunately, this didn’t turn out to be too big of a hassle and I was able to get it replaced. While in Antwerp, I met a nice young couple in the youth hostel. They were from Germany – about 21 and 19 I think – and they were traveling Europe together to check out the museums. They were both art majors so they were obviously very into art. They were excited to be in Antwerp because it was the birthplace of Peter Paul Rubins – a famous Flemish artist.
Now, I didn’t know the first thing about Rubins – or Flemish art – but their passion for art was irresistible. They invited me to the local museum with them, and proceeded to provide me with a wonderful Art Appreciation course. This was one of the earliest (though certainly not the only) act of generosity I experienced on my trip. More on that in a bit.
People always ask me if I had a plan or agenda for my trip and I honestly didn’t. Before I left I imagined I would spend a lot of my time in Germany (since I have a German heritage); and very little time in France (because I bought into the stereotype that French are always rude to Americans). But I wanted this trip to be an experience and adventure that had no itinerary. I wanted to be driven and motivated by what I learned and who I met.
And so it was I made my way from Antwerp to Brussels. Once in Brussels, I found myself in the now-familiar position of trying to navigate streets using my maps (yes, pre-GPS) and guide books. I was stopped on a corner when a young man approached me and asked in Flemish if I needed help. I answered in English and he seamlessly made the transition and asked where I was going. I showed him the hostel address and he proceeded to give me perfect directions – and then invited me out for beers that evening with he and his friends! I took him up on the invitation and had a great night out on the town with local Belgians – sampling a wide variety of brews. They proudly proclaimed that beer was invented in Belgium and took great pain in trying to prove this by their intake. But again, this was another great example of unprovoked generosity.
As I was leaving Brussels I had yet another minor mechanical failure: the rear cargo rack suddenly collapsed and my panniers splatted against the street as I crossed an intersection. I didn’t know what to do but I heard a voice calling “come here.” I manually lifted the rack and walked the bike over to a middle age man who had been watching. He told me his house was a few blocks away and he could help me fix the bike. Luckily, it was only a screw that had wiggled off so the repair was quick and easy – but I was again amazed at how someone was there when I needed them.
As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t plan on spending much time in France but the German couple I met in Antwerp convinced me that I *had* to go to Paris – just for the experience (and of course to visit the Louvre). So after spending a couple of days in Brussels, I turned my direction towards Paris and began my journey to the city of love.