With few exceptions, our entire first year of travel was spent in areas where we were always easily identifiable as “foreigners” or “tourists”. You get used to it after a while. In fact it can be wonderful because there is a kind of pity given to foreigners that helps when you’re lost or clueless as to what to do in a particular situation. Except for our time in Argentina and South Africa, we have always stood out for our size, our clothing, our language and the color of our skin. However in Europe, our experience is quite different. We fit in – very well – almost too well. People only speak to us in English if we specifically ask them to do so. Strangers ask us for directions. We are expected to know how the local restaurants work (which is not always intuitive). People really think that we are from the area. That rarely happened last year. When they find out we don’t speak German, French or Swiss German, the first guess is that we are from the Netherlands. This is understandable given that we both come from Germanic heritage – Deb’s mom was born and raised in Holland, Colburn’s father’s side of the family comes from Germany and Austria – and English is widely spoken in the Netherlands. So, if you speak English and look Germanic, you must be Dutch! I guess if you only based it on our looks, it would be completely possible.
One lady was convinced that we were from somewhere in the UK because folks from the US wouldn’t be biking with their kids. And Lucia was once mistaken for being Italian because she reflexively responded to a question in Spanish rather than English. Embarrassed, she came back to us exasperated, but we all have had to fight the urge because if we’re not speaking in English, we must have to speak Spanish as it is the only other language we know. Unfortunately, it’s not a common language here so we’re left playing charades or trying to get by on the simple phrases and words we do know. But, it’s pretty amazing how much we can actually understand without knowing much about the language. The other day, we were cycling through a little town and saw a house that had a sign on it that was a very long word. We doubled back to take a picture of the sign and when Colburn asked permission, the gentleman standing outside explained to us in German that the word was word was the year the house was built (1758), possibly written in the local dialect. He then went on to explain that the area has been wiped out by the Turks, the Franks, and we think, the Allemani but then was rebuilt in the 1600’s. His particular house used timbers and materials from the 1600’s but was actually built a century later. And we understood all of this without actually speaking German. Pretty amazing. The other aspect of travel where we feel like we fit in is being on our bikes. It’s wonderful to see how many people bike around town – older ladies going to the bakery for bread, young adults going to work, toddlers on their balance bikes tooling down the path. Everyone bikes. But perhaps the most surprising to us has been the number of 60 or 70-somethings we see touring on bikes. If I had to estimate, I would say that probably two-thirds of the folks identifiable as bike tourists (are using a map) are in the 60-80 year old category. Now, they aren’t carrying all of their gear with them like we are; it’s a different type of cycle-touring. They don’t camp, their luggage gets forwarded from inn to inn, they have electric assist bicycles — but they are still out here doing the same basic thing we are – seeing the Rhine by bike. It’s totally awesome.
Surprisingly, we have only seen a couple other kids carrying gear on bikes – one at our first campground and another at our last one – both with a single parents. When we feel that we are intrepid bikers, we remember that we are in Europe and there are folks way tougher than us doing the same thing. We stand out only because the kids are carrying stuff, not because we are biking 1200 kilometers.
With almost 800 kilometers completed, we have settled in to a lovely routine with bike touring. Unlike the Upper and Alpine Rhine, the well-cycled Middle Rhine has not presented the navigational or topographic challenges we experienced early on in the trip. The route now clearly follows the river, often on the tow paths as we had expected. The going is easy and the days enjoyable. Our bodies have adapted to the demands of cycling nicely – no more sore butts or tired legs. We carry a lot of food with us because we need to stoke the engines frequently. That being said, we can easily add 10 or 15 km to a day if we need to without anyone having a meltdown. It’s just not a big deal anymore (it was the first couple weeks).
We like to camp for a few nights then stay in a hotel, hostel, or funky Bonn camper hotel – we are staying tonight in a 1983 Airstream – or, the other night, a 9th century castle. That was a real treat – but was hard-earned as the climb was steep!
We ride for a few days then take a day to enjoy the area. We can do school on most days, even if it is a full riding day. We have settled in to our routine and it’s good. Soon we leave the Rhine to visit some family in the south of Holland then take a train up to visit more family in Amsterdam. After Amsterdam, we cycle down the coast of the Netherlands to the Belgian border where we will store our bikes for the winter. We intend to hop back on them in the late Spring to ride the Danube from outside of Vienna down to Prague and possibly even beyond. We will have to see what the Spring holds for us, but for now we are enjoying the ride!
4 responses to Fitting In
Back in the old days, when I was skulking around Europe, you could tell if someone was an American because they were wearing socks. Never really have figured out how people manage that.
Now, everyone does…..American culture has invaded the world….
When we traveled, Americans wore bright colors and always sneakers. We did not and were often taken for locals wherever. Fun, but yes, disconcerting!
It’s just funny to us to actually fit in because we’ve always stuck out!