“Here we are!” we said to Amaya as we pulled into the courtyard of our apartment block. “Come on lets get out and have a look!” “NO!” came the reply, and we spent the next 5 minutes trying to coax her out. We had been telling her that we were finishing, and I think she also knew that this was the completion of something great. Her nomadic, outdoor life had ended and she was staying put in her ‘magic buggy’ hoping that there would be more.
Alas our journey had come to an end. We took the iconic photos in front of the Brandenburg Gate just as we had taken them in front of the Sagrada Familia five months earlier. We feel privileged to have had this time as a family, to see a Europe that few people see and to expose our daughter to so many wonderful things.
“Amaya lick Mamá’s tongue?” Amaya asked me using her super sweet voice thats reserved for requests. “Ummm… noooo,” I reply, “that’s gross.” We are eating in a rather nice fish restaurant and Amaya has just dropped some rice on the floor “oh, a little bird can eat that bit” she announces. Hmm, yes. Its said that two year olds are little barbarians and ours maybe a slightly more barbaric than most. Camping for so long has made us all a bit rough around the edges. We eat out of the pot we cook in for goodness sake.
As any honest camper will attest, part of the beauty of camping is you get to chill out and relax your standards. Waltz around in the same clothes, shower if you feel like it, brush your hair – whats a brush?! Its a time to get away from fast paced city living and societal pressures. One afternoon all three of us managed to get cherry stains on our t-shirts, our care factor – about zero.
From your position sitting in a comfortable office chair and breathing in air conditioned air this may seem disgusting to you, so judge us as negligent parents if you must, but it is said that a bit of dirt is good for immunity. From our position it is brilliantly refreshing to have dropped parenting standards, what does it really matter if our kid has less baths and is running around in slightly grubby clothes. She’s happy and healthy. Camping it seems is the perfect environment for a two year old. They seem to be made for fresh air. Shriek and yell, play rough, throw sand, run around naked, whatever it is the outdoors can take it. The large environment readily absorbs noise and activity, even a full blown tantrum while it may be in public is certainly less out of place than in your local supermarket.
Please don’t misunderstand me, Amaya is not a wild and crazy kid. She’s a sweet girl who has benefitted greatly from living predominately outdoors. Before our trip she was greatly concerned about getting dirty, touching sand, and didn’t really like the feeling of different textures under her bare feet. Now she will pick up a snail and with a wicked grin say “Mama eat it?!”
For a mini person what tops regular camping is being a camping nomad. Simply because you never know what kind of entertainment or delights the day is going to present.
Lunch may turn out to be at a lake – so we enjoy an unscheduled swim.
Another day its raining so we eat breakfast in the campground family room where Amaya’s breakfast chair of choice is a toy tractor (exciting for a 2 year old).
Or its the day of the campground bowling competition (on manually run equipment from GDR times). Amaya won (no one is sure how – but it happened).
We play in a fountain, dance to live music in the town square, stumble upon a local fair, have breakfast on a wharf, the world is her playground with every day providing delights.
We are on our homeward stretch. The Baltic Sea is behind us and we only have a bit over a week before we will find ourselves back in Berlin. Close to 5 months of riding and over 3800km later we have enjoyed our share of adventures and met some fantastic people.
Most of the time the people we connect with are kind strangers who offer us help. Take for instance….
A 36 degree day near Hengelo, Holland. We stopped at a random house to ask for some water. We were given ice water, home grown berries, coffee and an hour or two of enjoyable conversation.
In Bremen while watching the reenactment of “The Bremen Town Musicians” an elderly German tourist slipped me 10 euros to spend on Amaya – evidently overwhelmed by her charm. We used the 10 euros to buy a lovely picture book of the Grimm Brother’s fable.
Then there was Astrid, Andreas and Felix. Resting in their driveway after an exhausting day crossing Hamburg, Astrid pulls up in her bright red porsche and asks us if we would like a coffee in her garden. We obviously agreed and were once again treated to an enjoyable afternoon with some unexpected surprises thrown in. There were rabbits, chickens and macaws much to Amaya’s delight. Most random of all was the large warehouse jammed full of antique horse drawn carts, gypsy caravans and even a 100 year old hearse.
More recently our Baltic sea experience was significantly brightened by fellow campers, Bjorn, Kirsten and Simon (aged 2).
There are countless other examples of these chance encounters, however two families we stayed with during our last week in the Netherlands was not based solely on chance – our meeting was some 30 years in the making and the connections span 3 continents.
About 30 years ago a young Israeli called Naim was struggling to fund his travels through Europe by selling paintings in a plaza in a Dutch town called Hengelo. A young couple, Henk and Annie, took pity on him and invited him to stay with them for the night. He stayed for a year. A connection was established with Naim’s family in Israel and Henk and Annie’s family that saw many visits between the two countries.
Fast forward to a rainy night in Israel, about 20 years on. Stephen (my brother), Shoshanna and I were looking for somewhere to pitch our tent in front of the Ancient Ruins of Beit She’an. The lady in the ticket office took pity on us and offered for us to stay with her. Her name is Etti and she is Naim’s sister. We stayed with her for a few wonderful days and again in 2008 for a week.
Earlier this year Stephen and Jess (my sister in law) were staying with Etti who happened to also have guests from the Netherlands. They were Rosanna and Mariette, the 2 daughters of Henk and Annie, along with their families. Upon arriving in the Netherlands Stephen and Jess stayed with Rossanna and Henk (the younger).
We also had the privilege of Henk and Rosanna’s hospitality in Hengelo, along with a few wonderful days with Mariette and Robert and their children Leor, Micha and Yair.
These are the moments that make traveling so enjoyable. The stunning scenery and quaint villages are just a nice backdrop to the relationships and connections we have made on this journey.
The journey began in Barcelona – us and our bicycles and a European continent that stretched out endlessly. We have cycled 3600km over 4 months, inhaled at least 20 bugs, fallen off 7 times, repaired two flat tyres, endured too many cold and rainy days and we have finally made it to the Baltic!
The Baltic is not so impressive by Australian standards but that is what we get for choosing a destination based on an alliteration. Someone smarter than me once wrote, “it is always good to have an end to journey towards but it is the journey that matters in the end.” It has been all about the journey for us. We have meandered through Europe on our bicycles, watching our little daughter grow up. There have been incredibly high highs and the lowest of lows. It has not been all dappled light and ice creams – this has been a very difficult family project.
But we are here and there are many stories to tell.
I am particularly proud of Amaya who is surely the toughest and most adaptable two year old around. She has sat in her little buggy for every one of those 3600km and offered minimal complaints. She has camped in appalling conditions, learnt to say hi, bye and thanks in a number of different languages, met new people every day, and has had to make do with very few toys. Yet she is still super keen to get on the road every morning.
Thanks for reading our blog (please continue)! Thanks to all the kind strangers who have helped us in so many different ways! Thanks to the people who have donated to Clinica Verde and helped change the lives of mothers and children in Nicaragua! If you haven’t donated but would like to you can click on the link below.
We now have the small matter of cycling 400km or so down to Berlin.
At risk of going on about it, there has to be something to be said about a culture where bikes are a natural extension of everyday life. Admittedly we are biased about just how much of a good thing this is given our passion for peddling, but the advantages of a cycling culture run deeper than the pure enjoyment of having fresh air rush through your hair while zooming, carbon-free, through the countryside.
Cycling solves social issues.
The elderly: They keep their fitness, their balance, and most importantly their independence. We met a couple in their late 60’s who said they would cycle 30km without hesitation to to have dinner with their friends, and then at 9pm they would cycle home again. The average Australian would find these distances formidable regardless of age! But it gets even better. They told us that his mother (so I’m guessing she would be in her late 80’s) always makes the choice to ride her bike everywhere because she finds it to difficult to walk to the bus stop! Heroine!
Teenagers: In car based cultures one of the common stresses of parents with school aged children is the time it takes to transport their children around. Many mums feel like they are a taxi service. Getting one kid from daycare in time to get the rest from school, then dropping off one child to soccer, zooming through the traffic to pick up another from a music lesson – this is enough to drive anyone crazy, especially if you are battling Sydney traffic.
Explaining this to a Dutch person just gets a frown of incomprehension. EVERYONE rides EVERYWHERE. Even immigrants take bicycle lessons.
High school students can easily ride 20km to school. Not just in summer either. In fact they have no choice as school buses do not exist!
We see bands of teenagers going off to the lake together on a hot sunday afternoon. Girlfriends riding to the shops. A guy giving his mate a ride on the back of his bike. Teenagers, like the elderly, are given freedom, independence, and their own transport. It would certainly leave the parents feeling more relaxed knowing that their child is out and about on their own bike rather than worrying about them catching a ride with a rev-head lunatic who pins his masculinity on how fast he can corner his car.
Between primary and high school students are often required to sit a bicycle test and from then on they are deemed competent to use the bicycle as their mode of transport.
Parents have more time, feel more relaxed, and teens can come and go as they please.
Its a win – win, don’t you think?
Mums with small children: I’m not sure about other mothers with small children but when I was living in the suburbs with a baby I found it hard to find the time to exercise. In the Netherlands mothers put their babies on a bike seat (usually in the front of the bike) and off they go. We’ve seen several mothers sitting in a shady spot in the country side with their little one, obviously they have ridden a bit then stopped for some morning tea. To me its an ideal outing. You can get a lot further than walking, its not as hard as running with a pram, but still great exercise. You can even buy whats called a “Mama” bike with a bike seat on the front AND the back. These come with hefty stands so that loading up the kids is safe and secure. Or even better (but pretty expensive) you can buy a bike with a bucket out the front, they even have seat belts in the bucket. Imagine getting picked up from kindy in one of those!?! Pure fun!
It looks like incorporating bikes into our everyday life could help to reduce depression in old people, minimise teenage angst and conflict with parents, and maybe even help decreases the severity of postnatal depression! Or maybe I’m looking at it through heavily tinted rose glasses?
Of course you can’t grab the best bits of everyones culture. But I do love it how the Dutch are “all in” with cycling and I wonder if Australians could look at cycling as a wonderful form of transport rather than a nuisance on the road. We are, after all, the flattest, driest inhabited continent on earth so whats stopping us?
Amaya snags country number 8 while we float on fluffy clouds through a cycling paradise. The Netherlands is simply as good as it gets for bicycle touring! It is flat, the people are warm and friendly (and speak many languages including English), the food is interesting, campgrounds are ubiquitous and the weather is good (though I am told this is not the norm). What’s more, EVERY ROAD HAS A BICYCLE PATH NEXT TO IT!!!! Please excuse my gratuitous use of capitals but how else can I express overwhelming excitement? It is incredible! Quite literally every road has some sort of bike path associated with it. And there are some cool, sensible road rules to go with it. For example, one courier driver we met told the story that his boss is accepting of the occasional accident or break down, but under no circumstance can he hit a cyclist as he will ALWAYS be in the wrong. Additionally, bicycles are free to ride both ways on a one way street, thus recognising bikes as a hybrid vehicle and something quite apart from cars, helmets are optional.
There are a steady stream of relatively fit people riding past us – everybody says hi – they look happy, they are from a wide cross section of society and not just the lycra clad urban warriors that cars battle with on Sydney streets.
Needless to say we are loving it! It has also been wonderful to share this experience with Mum and Dad, who have been a great help on the road. Amaya has adored spending some quality time with them while seeing some truly amazing things. We entered the Netherlands with no real plan (not unusual) – maybe we’d see a couple of windmills, ride on a dyke or two and drink some Heineken. It has been so much more than that…
We crossed the “Delta Project” which is an astonishing feat of human engineering allowing the Dutch to stop the sea at will. Windmills abound and last Saturday happened to be the annual windmill open day – so we climbed up the insides of a windmill!!! On Sunday we stumbled upon Hollands biggest free music festival and caught up with Amaya’s friend, Lola, who we met in France – along with her parents, Alex and Elisa who are wonderful people! In the same city – Dordricht – we also visited a 1:1 scale replica of Noah’s Ark! It was floating in the harbour and even came equipped with hundreds of animals (some live, most sculptures). Very random location, but quite appropriate given the generations long battle with the sea the Dutch have had and continue to have. To top it all off it hasn’t been one or two dykes we have ridden – we are pretty much riding them all day every day.
So, as we approach 3000 km and meander towards our final destination we are in no hurry whatsoever to leave The Netherlands.