An Unhurried Journey

"Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world." -Alan Watts

All Roads Lead to Rome, or the Tale of a Box

Fucking ridiculous, I think to myself as I cycle past some ancient Roman ruins. I don’t care about the ruins. If anything, they annoy me. I’ll never cycle in this city again, my inner monologue continues as I grit my teeth while shakily riding on a one way cobblestone street. I am going against traffic, cars blaze past me on my left, leaving almost no space.

Riding a bicycle for an hour in Rome is a rather stressful experience. Well, let me rephrase; partaking in Rome’s traffic for an hour is a rather stressful experience, regardless of how you do so. Especially when you’re in a hurry. And everybody seems to be in a hurry. I’ve regularly heard honking after the traffic light switched to green and the first car wouldn’t immediately move. And by immediately, I mean immediately. The honking literally starts after a second.

It takes a lot of nerves, stamina and improvisation to get to one’s destination, for the cyclist faces many obstacles. Including, but not limited to: Cars parked on the first lane of the street. Cars parked two lanes into the street. Cars parked on the sidewalk. Cars parked on bicycle paths. Cars parked on pedestrian crossings. Bicycle paths that end in a flight of stairs (seriously, are you kidding me?). A confusing, archaic road system giving the impression that it was planned two thousand years ago (because it was), leaving one to face sudden one way streets. Intersection after intersection, ubiquitous roadworks, tramways cutting across streets, sidewalks with huge border stones.

In short, its choked. There are too many cars, motorcycles, buses, trams, bicycles, electric scooters, pedestrians, and too little space for all of them. Coupled with the fact that rules are seen as loose guidelines, it truly becomes a jungle out there. But while you have to be tough to survive in this environment, it’s not without its fraternity. You can get away with some brazen maneuvers as long as you wave a hand in apology. On the other hand, road rage could almost be classified as a passion of the Italians. They love it. Its comical how unreasonably upset they get. I learnt the hard way that showing a middle finger is not taken lightly.

Absolutely fucking ridiculous, I think to myself again. Stupid cardboard box. That’s why I’m stressed. I’m looking for a simple cardboard box. A lot hinges on this cardboard box. I need it to get out of this city, to get out of Italy. The second wave is hitting. Restrictions of movement are imminent, looming on the horizon like a dark storm front. I spent the last week compulsively checking the news, coming up with different plans of where to go, trying to sail around the storm.

It’s a pity, I really would have loved to explore the rest of Italy. Originally, I only wanted to see parts of the north on my way east. But after getting a taste of it, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. Having seen the Lombardy, Liguria and the Tuscany, I was in awe of their diversity. Of how different the flatlands of the Lombardy felt to the rugged, isolated coastal area of Liguria with its perpetual wind, drab sky and picturesque architecture.

Especially the Tuscany, boasting one of the most lovely and romantic landscapes I’ve seen, with its rolling hills (not unlike some areas in Switzerland) topped by medieval towns, full of vineyards and olive trees, made me realize once more that there is no such thing as “Italy” or “Spain”. That in reality, the parts making up these entities have to be seen, understood and appreciated on their own.

Looking at the map, I felt the familiar call of the unknown. Names such as Umbria, Abruzzo and Puglia were like secrets to be uncovered. What was waiting to be discovered there?

Besides, Italy has more to its name than just natural beauty. It provides the traveler with an experience of exceptional richness and density that isn’t easily rivaled. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Everyone knows about Italian food, for good reason. Home to one of the best cuisines on the planet, traveling in Italy becomes a culinary delight, consisting of more that just pizza, pasta and gelato, for each region proudly prepares its own dishes and specialties.

Don’t get me started on the language. Standing in a bakery, listening to the local seniors leisurely chat with each other, unable to understand most of it, I listen to the flow of the conversation as one would listen to the rippling of a stream or the song of birds, not looking for meaning but taking the sound at face value.

Something in the way the words are pronounced, the way the language is spoken, makes me feel deeply at ease, like a part of me is finally home again. It carries real weight, heavy and buttery, yet at the same time smooth and musical. Syllables are often drawn out, savoured on the tongue. It makes me think the language isn’t just the means to an end, that it’s not merely serving as a tool of communication, but that the very act of speaking is done with pleasure and joy.

Then there is this mind-boggling amount of history, taking the form of countless buildings, churches, cathedrals, towers, ruins and art. It’s nonstop sightseeing of the highest caliber. World-renowned places and landmarks such as the coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, the leaning tower of Pisa and the duomo of Florence (which is the most impressive building I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are just a stone’s throw apart.

In-between these big names are lesser known towns and villages which are just as worth a visit for the traveler with spare time. Pavia, Genova, Lucca, San Gimignano, Volterra, Siena (my favourite city in Italy), Perugia, Assisi and Viterbo were all memorable in their own way.

And then there’s Rome.

~~~

I was excited to try cycling. It was the one way of traveling left on my list, after hitchhiking and walking. One day, the stars aligned, I hopped on my stepmothers sturdy women’s bicycle (very comfortable) and cycled from my hometown in Switzerland to Rome. I never set out to reach Rome, but, as the saying goes…

That’s around 1100 kilometers. It took me five weeks. At an unhurried pace, of course. So, what’s it like? Well, I’m glad you asked.

In a way, it’s similar to walking. In the way that will leave you open and exposed to the environment. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you get an intimate impression of your surroundings. On the other hand, you get an intimate impression of your surroundings. Let me explain.

Is it flat, hilly, mountainous? Every inch of elevation is felt. Cycling over the alps is not something I’ll forget anytime soon. Both the struggle to get up, and the almost inappropriate amount of fun I had riding down.

Is it clear, rainy, storming? The primal fear of feeling the first icy gusts of wind accompanied by the heavy raindrops of an advancing storm front while cycling up some mountain pass in Italy, with nowhere to take shelter and daylight that’s quickly running out, is something to behold. But equally so is the feeling of relief, gratefulness and downright euphoria of seeing the sun rise bright over a clear sky the next morning, knowing I got through it.

It’s this intimate connection to the environment that, while challenging at times, makes it so satisfying to look back on the way, knowing that I got here using only my own strength and will. This makes reaching a destination so much more meaningful.

Another aspect cycling shares with walking is the complete independence it offers. I can rest when I want, I can move when I want. I set the pace. No need to wait for anybody, no need to adjust to anybody.

It took me some time before I was able to fully appreciate this freedom though. Let me try to illustrate. After cycling for some time, I’d naturally notice signs of fatigue, my body telling me it wants to rest.

I’m not a fan of the restrictions and paradoxes language puts on communication here, for where really lies the difference between me and my body, but in language and concepts of thought?

Anyhow, more often than not, I would simply push on, ignoring those signs, thinking I hadn’t cycled for long enough yet or that I should just continue for a little bit more. When I finally did give in and rest, I would start back up too soon or prolong the break way more than need be. It’s here that a mere convention of speech (me and my body, the rider and the horse) manifests itself and starts creating conflict in reality.

What started happening after a while, almost by itself, was a letting go of this need to control and steer the course of events. I started being more in tune with myself. I rested when I was tired.

This had a surprising effect. During my break, not planning how long I should rest for, but rather just resting, there came a moment where I simply didn’t want to rest anymore. Where I wanted to move again and where movement felt great.

This came as something like a revelation. That I needn’t be driven like a slave to move. That it can actually happen by itself. Like the rising and setting of the sun, like the passage of clouds through the sky, I move and I rest. Giving myself over to the journey like that was not only freeing and liberating, but greatly enhanced its intensity, alongside my ability to fully enjoy the highs and truly experience the lows.

To me, we have far too little opportunity to live like this nowadays. Everything is scheduled, everything is planned. The alarm clock determines when we wake up, the lunch break dictates how much time we have to eat. Living like machines, we lose touch with ourselves and have to re-learn the basics of what it means to be human, to be alive.

~~~

Talking about pace, while this is subjective, I think cycling really does hit a sweet spot. Quicker than walking, it provides more stimulation while at the same time not being too fast, thus retaining a fair amount of the grounding and calming nature of walking.

Given the necessary time, it also seems feasible to me to cover immense distances entirely by bicycle. I was surprised by how much mobility it actually provides. Doing anywhere from 50 to 150 kilometers a day, cycling across Switzerland, for example, takes around three to seven days. That’s not too bad, is it?

The repetitive physical action coupled with the ever-changing landscape make for an activity quite conducive to a state of flow, where thoughts are free to roam, akin to looking out of the window at the passing scenery during a long train journey. The line between do-er and do-ing becomes blurred.

There are also some nice to have quality of life advantages. It’s easy on the joints, which means no blisters and little stress or fatigue problems on a physical level (except for very sore thighs). Furthermore, the comfort of not having to wear the backpack can’t be overstated. This also makes it less important to count every single kilo of baggage.

The one downside: There is this thing that you have, and that, as is usually the case with possessions, can limit you in certain regards and make matters more difficult.

Want to camp out in a forest or up on that hilltop? You’ll have to find a way to get the bicycle there. Suddenly feel like hitchhiking? You’ll have to find a car with space for the bicycle. Flat tire? You’ll have to fix it.

I still have grueling flashbacks to a time I innocently took a little shortcut off-road. I ended up getting kind of lost in this farmers field, stubbornly (and stupidly) unwilling to turn back. I pushed deeper and deeper ahead, thinking the road will be right around the corner. It got muddier and muddier, my mood proportionally decreasing with the amount of mud I encountered.

At this point, let me state that I absolutely hate mud. Crossing it can range from being mildly annoying to downright nightmarish. It clings to you like a persistent, pestering street vendor, accumulating on the bottom of your shoes until they weigh a manifold and you feel like you’re walking on stilts. This also means you lose all the profile of your shoes, making you prone to slipping. In the worst case, if it’s the right kind of evil, it goes so far as to create suction, turning every step into an infuriatingly arduous ordeal. God forbid you actually slip and fall. Only then will you know true horror, the mud having completely claimed you.

The entire predicament also doesn’t improve with the presence of a bicycle, by the way. For the bicycle is just as vulnerable to the enemy. Mud sticks to its tires, slowly building up at the breaks. This results in an increasing amount of friction, which snowballs into even more mud sticking to the bicycle. Pushing the bicycle suddenly feels like you’re pushing a Harley-Davidson weighing half a ton.

And there is nothing you can do. You can try to shake it off, only for it to stick right back to you with the next step. You can try to clean it away, with the same result, except this time whatever you used to clean it with is covered in mud. This entire time, the mud slowly chips away at your morale, bit by bit, frustrating you to the point of your entire existence becoming dominated by the fact that you’re in a muddy field with a bicycle and there is no prospect of improvement anytime soon.

My mounting desperation, alongside an inborn disdain for backtracking, provided fertile ground for irrational decision-making. I was ready to do anything to get out of this hell. Without hesitation, I took the first opportunity that revealed itself to me, only to find myself facing another, seemingly insurmountable, obstacle. At least I was out of the mud.

This obstacle took the form of a stream bed. Looked at from the mud field, it didn’t seem too daunting. The vegetation on my side was dense, but I managed to get the bicycle and myself through without too much difficulty. To my relief, the bed turned out to be dry, the stream apparently having run out. Going down into it also proved to be unproblematic. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about getting up the other side.

It was about two and a half meters high, most of it covered with thick undergrowth. There was a part of it that wasn’t too steep, and some animal had cleared a path through the bushes. I myself had little difficulty getting up and through it, although my hair painfully caught on some blackberry thorns from time to time.

I attempted to get the bike up there, but quickly realised this was never going to work. The only way would be to get it up a spot where there was little to no vegetation. There was one such spot. However, this spot offered zero incline, it was just a straight wall.

Over the ensuing thirty minutes, this wall, the bicycle, and I got into an intense wrestling match, my willpower lining up against the laws of physics. I questioned myself multiple times, but I couldn’t turn back now. I was in far too deep. And I couldn’t bear the thought of trudging back through the mud.

It took all the brute strength, bear grylls like improvisation and unwavering determination I had in me to get the bicycle up there. But eventually, I did.

My odyssey wasn’t quite over yet though. While the other side thankfully wasn’t muddy, it was long grass covered in a lot of dew. In no time, my shoes got drenched in all that moisture. It was so extreme that I felt as if I was walking in water. This didn’t help to calm my frayed nerves. I never knew I could get so angry at grass.

I had to struggle up another slippery hill, during which one of the side baskets of the bicycle fell off and went rolling back down the hill. Once I recovered it and got to the top, I, of course, found out that this was a dead end. Some sort of green house completely blocked any way to the street. Back down the bike and I went, to wander aimlessly, until I finally found a way to the street some time after.

Pretty much collapsing next to the street, a concoction of fatigue, exhaustion and relief started expressing itself in a bout of prolonged, slightly manic, laughter. I had spent nearly two hours traversing across what amounted to not even a kilometer, thanks to my own thick skull. Then and there, I vowed never to go off-road for a shortcut again.

~~~

To take a bicycle on a plane with you, it has to be packed in a specific way. The front wheel has to be taken off and the saddle adjusted to the lowest level. This is easy, you can do it yourself in a few minutes. Best to save it for last. You’ll also have to remove the pedals. But first of all, you need the aforementioned cardboard box to put it in. Not any old box will do, you need one specific for the shipment of bicycles.

No worries though, according to a quick internet search, some bicycle shop will surely have a spare one. Right? Well, it might not be that easy. You might check five of them, only to find that none of them have a box at the moment. You might also leave a reservation with Decathlon, for they will “maybe” get one tomorrow.

However, a “maybe” from some grumpy, overworked and underpaid Decathlon employee is not exactly inspiring your confidence. But at the moment, it’s all you got. The presence of this elusive cardboard box determines whether you can book your flight with Turkish Airlines for this Friday. Today is Wednesday.

You need to fly on Friday because that’s the only day the price of the ticket is affordable. The unfathomable nature of the airline’s pricing system being a mystery (I picture some middle management staff putting on ritualistic hats and throwing dice, all the while feverishly dancing around a conference room table), a ticket from Rome to Istanbul on Thursday will set you back a cool 640 Euro, nosediving on Friday to a mere 190 Euro, while skyrocketing back up to a perplexing 1100 Euro for Saturday and Sunday. The next week isn’t exactly looking better.

You’re under pressure. Of course, this is in many ways your own doing. You could have, for example, not spent the last week dithering and hesitating, not knowing what to do. You could also just simply buy a bicycle bag for 60 Euro. But, you made your decision to fly to Istanbul only this morning, and you’re way too cheap to buy that bag when there is a possibility of getting a box for free. So here you are, with problems that needn’t be any, but that’s life, isn’t it?

The next morning, Thursday, (the price of the airfare having increased to 230 Euro) you fight your way through Rome’s traffic to the Decathlon, anxiously hoping they will have gotten a shipment of bicycles and thus have a box for you. You’re there as soon as they open, but, chance not being on your side this time, you’re sent away empty-handed. No box.

You do the only thing that’s left to you. Using Decathlon’s free wifi, you start looking up random stores in the vicinity (furniture, electronics, pet supplies), anything that might have a big cardboard box, bookmarking them on maps.me and paying them a visit. The thought of going to the post office or DHL only occurs to you while telling this story to a drunken Brit a month later. Oh well.

Unsurprisingly, none of those stores have what you are looking for. Against all odds, you decide to check the other bicycles stores again. As luck would have it, cycling to the second one, when you least expect it, you see them. A row of big, sturdy, wonderful cardboard boxes stacked in front of the store. You can’t believe it. Everything is coming together after all. From here on, it’s smooth sailing. You’re home straight, picturing yourself drinking çay and eating börek next to the Bosphorus.

They happily hand you over one of the boxes. You decide to take off the pedals then and there, because you don’t have the proper tool. So you ask the shop for one and get to work.

However, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get the damn things off. You try with all your might, but they won’t budge. While you’re fighting insecurities about your manliness, pedestrians, intrigued by this grunting figure on the sidewalk, start giving you advice, like: “Try pulling the other way round.” You appreciate their intent, but you’ve already tried that.

An employee of the bicycle shop has pity on your poor soul and tries to help you, but, to the relief of your ego, not even he can do it. Snapping out of a momentary fit of self-pity, you cycle to the next closest bicycle shop. Explaining your situation to them, they hand you a huge tool, about three times the size of the one you used before. Armed with more leverage and a new sense of hope, the pedals and you enter another round.

Still, your new tool proves to be no match for the pedals. No matter how hard you try, they are not relenting. Confessing your distress to one of the employees who’s on break, a tall, wiry guy approaching his 40s with a long beard and many tattoos adorning his arms, he looks from you to the bicycle, wordlessly takes the tool from your hand and gets to business. At this point, you harbour doubts that these pedals can be taken off by any one mortal man.

You stare in disbelieve, as this guy who can’t weigh more than 65 kilos despite being taller than you, encountering the resistance of the pedals, merely furrows his brows and, ciggy in his mouth, with what must be a Herculean effort, shows the pedals who’s boss, releasing a faint sound from the back of his throat that gives the impression of mild surprise.

Feeling like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, you profusely thank this superhuman and start back to the other bicycle shop to get the box. Since the pedals are off now though, you are reduced to having to push the bicycle. You try riding it without the pedals, coming close to developing a technique that might actually work, before giving up soon enough.

Half an hour later, you get your precious cardboard box. The way home turns out to be long and laborious, for pushing the bicycle with one hand and lugging the heavier than it looks, cumbersome box over your back, holding onto it with your other hand, would be tiring enough on its own, without the added difficulty of having to navigate around the endless cars parked on sidewalks, the stairs, the big border stones, the tramways cutting across streets…

But you don’t mind the effort, nor the funny looks you get. You have your box, and the pedals are off. Things are looking up. After an hour, you get to the hostel, park the bicycle in the courtyard and put the box next to it. You sit down, take what feels like the first breath you took today, and, after a while of doing nothing, book the flight. Since it’s already dark, you decide to leave the packing for tomorrow. You go to sleep dreaming of prayer calls and baklava.

~~~

Waking up refreshed on Friday, you take a shower and get your backpack ready. Since your flight is in the evening, it should be a relaxed day. You’ve got plenty of time. You go down to reception, check out, store the backpack with them, and head out to the courtyard to start with the dismantling and packing of the bicycle.

As you go down the last flight of stairs and turn the corner, a split-second before you see it, some ominous premonition wells up in your stomach. A tingling sensation that instantly sends all kinds of hormones floating through your blood stream, increasing your heart rate and sharpening your senses. You know. The. Fucking. Box. Is. Gone.

No, nonononononononono, please god NO!

~~~

Rome is like the cherry on top, or rather like the crown jewels of Italy. Being the epicenter of millennia of civilization, the amassed history is difficult to put into words. It takes sightseeing to another level. Never have I been in a city where it took me three full days just to see all the attractions. If I had to number them, there must be something close to twenty full-fledged sights, most of them worthy of being a (if not the) top tourist magnet if you place them in any other European capital.

As I fought off a surge of panic in that courtyard, this mattered very little to me. I checked the entire place, I ran out onto the street, looking left, looking right. Pointless. My box was gone, no doubt about it. It must have been taken away with the other cardboard and trash early in the morning. The hostel shares the courtyard with many residential flats, leading me to believe an occupant or the garbage collectors must have fatally assumed my treasure was there to be disposed of. I should have known better.

I ran to the receptionist, asking her if she knew what happened, where my box is, wanting, needing her to perform a miracle. After making a phone call, she confirmed my suspicion, the box had been taken away, mistaken for trash. Mechanically, I thanked her, going back into the courtyard, staring at the spot where I had left the box the night before, now an empty space.

Reviewing the facts, the initial shock of the discovery wearing off, I suddenly knew what I had to do, a mental clarity filling the vacuum left by the prior uproar. There were a few hours left before I had to get to the train station to go to the airport. There was a chance. By hand, I loosely screwed the pedals back on the bike (the thought never crossed my mind yesterday), and started cycling to the bicycle shops that have been at the center of my life for the past two day.

Knowing the route and all its treacheries by heart, I got to the first shop (this was the one with the tattooed superman) in record time. To my disappointment, hulk wasn’t there. I felt like he could have fixed all my problems with a snap of his fingers. Instead, I got a soul-crushing: “You are very unlucky, we just threw our boxes out this morning”.

Cursing, I got back on the bike and cycled to the second place, the one which gave me the box yesterday. As I pulled up, there was no lovely sight of boxes being stacked in front of it welcoming me. Talking to the employees also didn’t help, they were out of boxes.

My mood darkening, I remembered Decathlon. I remembered the supposed reservation. I remember the noncommitted “maybe”. I really didn’t like the prospects of everything coming down to Decathlon, but what could I do. With my fate in the hands of unpredictable supply chains and moody employees, I set out to spin the wheel, everything I got on red.

~~~

Some of the most memorable parts of this particular journey were moments of profound clarity and peace, both within me and in the outside world. I got to experience those only during the later stages, towards what would turn out to be the end.

Looking back, it seems that before such moments could arise, I first had to settle into this lifestyle, adjust to it, and, perhaps more importantly, overcome certain difficulties.

Those difficulties didn’t consist of getting used to the relative discomfort of sleeping in a tent for multiple nights in a row, never knowing where I would end up finding a spot to pitch my tent, nor in the period where my musculature got used to cycling for multiple hours a day without ever having cycled much before in my life. Those aspects, alongside other minor adjustments, were merely superficial.

In actuality, what turned out to be the key prerequisite for those experiences was becoming aware of unresolved issues I was carrying around with me. Like a splinter lodged deeply into a finger, they would cause a general sense of tension and unease at sporadic intervals, without me knowing the cause of those symptoms.

Cycling played a crucial role in the process of unearthing those issues. The many hours spent on top of the bike, my thoughts unleashed and running freely wherever they pleased, acted as a magnifying glass, helping me see the splinter clearly. Every now and again, a string of those seemingly random thoughts would lay bare an image of some forgotten memory, a strong emotion attached, surprising me by the punch it came with.

In addition, the physical challenges I encountered and had to overcome were like a pair of tweezers used to remove the splinter. Suffering through torrential rainfalls, cycling against gale-force winds and battling up thousands of meters of elevation (I might be dramatizing here, just a tiny bit) were the perfect catalyst for frustration, anger and pain to manifest themselves, to finally be allowed, let out and accepted.

It’s this acceptance that lead to a remarkable feeling of lightness, like a sponge that has been thoroughly squeezed. I became aware of a deep, powerful silence, akin to the gentle surface of the sea after a storm, filling the spaces in-between sounds, in-between thoughts. It felt like a staticky interference between me and my experience had been lifted.

This had no “actual” effect on anything. Cycling uphill was still just as tiring, rain still just as uncomfortable and the cold still made me freeze all the same. And yet, the me that wriggles and squirms away from those so-called “unpleasant” emotions, the me that has to endure them and wants them to be over, took a backseat, not as loud in its protest anymore, not causing as much conflict between what is and what should be.

In turn, all those states previously labeled “bad”, “negative”, “uncomfortable” began to take on a different quality. Experienced simply for what they are, knowing that, like everything else in this universe, they are ever-changing, infused them with meaning, importance and a certain beauty, stripping them of their malice. For how could we know light, but thanks to darkness?

A special kind of emptiness began to envelop… everything. An emptiness that isn’t really empty, but rather completely filled with the immediate experience of the present moment. Looking at the moon after having pitched my tent, marveling at the incomprehensible wonder of existence, I felt so full, so richly connected. I didn’t know such “Vollkommenheit” could exist, right here, in the common, the usual, the everyday.

(The English language does not, to my knowledge, have a word that captures what I’m trying to convey here as accurately. “Completeness” would be the closest term.)

~~~

Decathlon came through. They had a box, with my name on it. I couldn’t believe it.

~~~

~~~

~~~

I sincerely thank you for reading.

It took me quite a while until I was able to write this piece. I went through a little bit of soul-searching in regard to writing, and what it means to me. It can also take time to find the right environment, in which I can focus and put in the necessary effort over a sustained period of time.

I had no idea this was going to turn out the way it did, but that’s the creative process, isn’t it? Perhaps what surprised me the most was how the story about the box proved to be the backbone of the entire piece. I think it worked out well. Though certainly not without its flaws, I like this post a lot. I hope you do too.

Happy new year.

Valentin Raphael

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *