On entering our first very Dutch looking village, we got directions to the nearest forest. After a short while of cycling in the rain, I heard a clunk followed by the word “shit”. Adi’s pedal had locked and then something important-sounding had snapped. We laid the bike on the floor like a sick baby, the wheel still spinning feebly, and found that the derailleur had broken off and taken a couple of links from the chain with it. We allowed ourselves five minutes of unbridled despair before things got practical. Adi was the first to collect himself. He unravelled the greasy chain from the metal and put it in a front pannier pocket while I looked into the distance broodingly… half imagining myself to be a supporting character in some kind of 70’s bike-themed American medical drama, but mostly just being tired.
We escorted it to the forest, disappointed that after all our good fortune and very recent boast about not even getting a flat tyre; our fate should turn in the last country. The fact that this country happened to be Holland: the cyclist’s dreamland, did help to ease the wound a little.
The wooden gate leading to our small patch of land had what looked like written warnings on it. We both agreed that since we didn’t understand Dutch, and there were no obvious tent symbols spelling out our offense in obvious red crosses, as far as we were concerned we hadn’t committed one. Being foreign and the social impotence that goes with not understanding a language can sometimes be frustrating, but can often be an advantage.
We left the sick bike to fend for itself until tomorrow and put up the tent before the inside got too wet. Even though there were houses nearby, the lights of which shone through the trees, we were too tired to be picky. It was 3am and our social awareness slipped with each passing hour, giving way to immediate necessity. No longer were we concerned about such things as being too visible, or too close to civilisation. We took opportunities when they came and once inside our tent, quickly forgot about the outside world and all its norms.
We fell asleep to the wind and rain whipping against the tent
When there was little noise outside apart from the wind through the leaves, we got up and dressed. As we packed away our things, a family stood at the edge of the forest staring at us –which is the usual reaction and we are quite used to it. Eventually, gratified by the spectacle, they left and so did we.
The way to the nearest town was downhill, so unable to pedal, Adi was rolled down the road by his bike. We asked someone for the nearest bike shop and he happily directed us. It was refreshing to be in a country where the majority of its inhabitants had such a good command of the English language and proudly exercised it. Whilst I’d love to be able to speak another language and admire it in other Europeans, I was grateful now to be able to communicate easily with anyone in my own language. I’ll leave learning Dutch for another adventure…
When we got to the shop, a friendly young man assessed the damage. We hoped that the Euros we had left would cover it as well as our expenditure over the next few days, as we didn’t know how much money was left in the account. The man seemed to understand our financial predicament and agreed to use the cheapest parts he had and try to salvage our poorly chain.
The bikes were muddy and messy and looked as if they’d been dragged across six different countries in all manner of weather conditions (which of course, they had), so we took them around the back entrance and left them there while we walked around ‘s-Heerenberg in search of breakfast.
A couple of croissants, a hot chocolate and a pint of beer later, we collected our babies.
The operation was successful, the bike had made a full recovery, but Adi’s wallet took an unfortunate blow. Still, we were thankful that we weren’t in the middle of the Alps when it happened, and that nothing too extreme went wrong.
With our bearings and route quickly established via a map they had in the shop, we got on our way.
For once we opted not to cycle by the river, but on the main roads through Arnhem, Utrecht, Rotterdam and finally to the Hook of Holland. This was because Holland is pretty bicycle friendly whichever route you take, with cycle lanes paralleling most roads. We would be near civilisation so we could easily get food when we needed it and find a public phone to call the bank, and it would probably be quicker.
At first it’s quite intimidating being in the middle of a huge expanse of criss- crossing concrete. Merciless cyclists speed across intersecting paths a millimetre away from your face, and you have to get out there and join them. Some lanes are so big, you don’t know if they are for pedestrians, cyclists, or lorries and you generally learn the hard way. Eventually we got the hang of it though, but it was very different from our nice meandering cycle path by the river.
At night, with the help of road signs and verbal directions, we got to Arnhem. We asked a very friendly, but clearly drunk man which road to take for the direction of Utrecht. He gave surprisingly lucid instructions which would also take us through lots of forests where we could camp. Adi then asked for the nearest coffee shop. It was a place called Omigo. Even though we didn’t know how much money we had, Adi was grinning from ear to ear when he walked out of there with two little plastic pouches of Holland’s finest produce, and I couldn’t possibly hold it against him.
We did indeed reach some forest and after sufficient cycling away from the main roads, we camped in a spot between a few towering trees that cleanly marked off our area. After dinner, we read for a bit whilst indulging in a taste of Adi’s purchases. The tent filled with swirls of grey and we slept soundly through the storm that our muted senses reluctantly registered from outside.
The next day, we never made it out of the tent.
The storm was fierce and bashed against the walls, keeping us firmly inside. We had just enough food and water to last the day and agreed loosely that we would go if it cleared up. When we inched our way outside to go to the toilet, we saw drenched leaves and fallen trees. As our tent was situated snuggly between four of them, we hoped that tonight we wouldn’t get another storm, or else we might be rudely awoken by a collapsing tree smashing our skulls in.
In the morning it was still raining, but we knew we had to leave. We put on all our waterproofs and begrudgingly left our forest.
I cycled in front and we went downhill towards the next town. Adi was unusually slow and every now and then I heard a thud behind me where his bike gently veered off the path and into the grass.
He was quite obviously stoned, and with each inevitable thud, I couldn’t stop laughing. Perhaps cycling through Holland wasn’t the cleverest plan.
We rolled leisurely on. We wanted to make it as near to Utrecht as possible tonight, so that in the morning we could get there in daylight (an ambitious goal in winter). We stopped about 10km earlier when we saw a big forest on our right. It had been raining on and off all day and after manoeuvring our bikes through a narrow path formed by a chunky wooden fence, we pushed them through thick mud until we found a place far enough and flat enough to camp. We had shared a bottle of wine earlier and were still feeling tipsy in that nice, bouncy way before exhaustion overtakes. I set up the tent while Adi unloaded the bikes.
We got inside, played some Manu Chao through the speakers and finished off the last of our wacky baccy, some snacks and the remainder of our wine.
Against every instinct, we got up the next morning and cycled to the city. We arrived in the afternoon as twilight slowly dawned.
I have never been to Utrecht before, but have always wanted to go. It is a student city, vibrant and busy and a lot like Amsterdam (which I’ve visited many times and loved). I knew that if I wasn’t on the bike, and it was a nice summer’s day, I would want to explore it more, but right now it was stressful trying to cut through swarms of people with these bulky apparatus.
We spotted a phone box underneath the train station and I almost got killed about three times crossing the road from oncoming cyclists. Masses of bikes were chaotically piled together on large pavements and crowds skirted around them like second-class citizens.
Adi got on the phone while I was harassed by students trying to get me to answer questionnaires. He found out his bank balance but didn’t have the expected look of horror on his face. We had overestimated our prolific spending abilities and shockingly, there was enough money!
The next task was finding an internet café where we could book our ferry. First though, Adi wanted to check out the train prices to the Hook of Holland. If it was cheap enough, we could even get the ferry this evening.
He came back with the schedule and prices. It was fairly cheap and we decided it was worth it. My Birthday was tomorrow and rather than waking up in some random part of Holland and cycling through rain and cold, we could be in warm dwellings with family and friends.
We dipped into a restaurant and used their WiFi, booked the last ferry and informed family that quite unexpectedly, we were returning tomorrow!
It was compulsory to book a cabin for the overnight ferry and we paid a bit extra for the “comfort” option. We didn’t know what this word would entail, but since we hadn’t experienced anything in the vicinity of comfort for some time, even paying for the word; the sheer idea of comfort was attractive enough to part us with a few extra coins.
After a couple of short train journeys, we got to the port early enough to check in in good time.
We queued with the cars and then excitedly handed over our passports to the lady at the desk. Everything in the minibar was ours, she told us, because we paid for it. We looked at each other with beaming faces, pleased with what “comfort” was promising so far. We dared not hope for a shower, but it secretly swam in the back of our minds with other possible delights.
Inside, we tied the bikes to some railings at the bottom deck before climbing up the many stairs to our cabin.
When we unlocked the little door and walked in, blasted my warmth, we exhaled the day’s events and immediately threw down all of our stuff. It didn’t take long before the carefully prepared room resembled the chaotic innards of our tent.
Adi slumped on the big white bed whilst I opened the narrow door on my right to the shower –yes shower- room. There was also TV and internet.
There was tea on the side, biscuits, fruit and crisps. Inside the fridge were four baby cans of beer, two mini bottles of wine, some orange juice and mineral water. After we both had a luxurious shower and changed our clothes, we went down to the canteen to get something to eat. Choices were slim as they were packing up, so we had a chicken “curry” (the school canteen version). Then we went to the duty free shop and bought some more drink and chocolate. By the time we got back to the cabin, the walls were floating from side to side, the floor was rising and falling, and each step I took had a two-second delay while my brain readjusted to the constant tickling of my sense of balance. My stomach wasn’t happy with any of this and I had to lie down.
My sole focus was to avoid being sick and consequently, I could not face drinking wine or partaking in any other “comfort” activity.
Eventually, I fell asleep breathing slowly through the unpleasant waves in my stomach and head. Adi meanwhile, helped himself to the minibar…
Only a few hours later we were awoken with the unnecessarily loud and cheery melody of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” blaring through the speakers in our room. That was the wakeup call and we had to be off the ferry in one hour.
It was six in the morning when we cycled out of the port. England was dark and chilly. It was really strange cycling on the left side of the road and I was sad I could no longer use my European wing mirror that I was now accustomed to.
Tired and eager to get home, we got ourselves to Harwich station and bought train tickets all the way to Brighton.
We got there at 10am and it was a bright sunny day. Walking down to the seafront, we came across a new Swiss restaurant appropriately named, Swisstorant and were happy to see familiar items on the menu such as raclette, fondue, Swiss Christmas cookies and Ovaltine!
On West Street we found a cheap and trusty establishment and got ourselves a bargain English breakfast. It was my Birthday and I was very happy to be eating high-cholesterol foods in my home town this sunny morning. I didn’t realise until now how much I had missed Brighton! After breakfast and a disgustingly decadent Ben’s cookie, we cycled to our friends’ place in Rottingdean. It felt amazing to be on the tiny little bike lane on Brighton’s seafront, having cycled it millions of times before, but now, everything seeming different. Our bikes were considerably grimier than when they had left, and we were considerably fitter (so we assumed). We were shocked when we saw a gigantic wheel (like the London eye but smaller) in the middle of the seafront; a huge addition to the city I was born and raised in. When we were away the time had gone so fast, but now suddenly it felt like we’d been gone for years.
After a birthday drink and dumping all of our belongings in our friends’ porch, we cycled to Portslade where I was greeted with Birthday cards and gifts, my lovely little sister and my Mums delicious roast lamb! It was great to see my family again.
When it was dark, we cycled back to Rottingdean along the undercliff pass, where stones were scattered from the recent storms and waves still crashed over the sides. We sat with friends on cushioned sofas in front of a fire, the wind whistling and rattling against the windows. We drank beer and reminisced at length about the trip: the time we slept in a golf course, all the times I fell off my bike, climbing up the mountains, the sun in France, the rain in Germany, and the ease with which we could now cycle up hills.
We laughed and told stories and it felt like I’d just arrived on holiday
…even though it was quite the opposite.