I learned how to ride a bike by learning how to yank myself out of a free fall onto gravel. I was 7 and we had just moved to a small town near the military base in Germany my dad was going to teach on for two years. My parents bought me a blue folding bicycle and we went camping with the Stolzes. Sandra was my age, and Blair was a year younger.
Our dads positioned us on our bikes at the top of a hill, on a small gravel road, steadied us, then sent us down. My memory puts Rothmans in their mouths and bottles of beer in their hands, young men free and heady in Europe in 1972.
By the end of the weekend, knees embedded with bruises and gravel, grunting through tears and pedalling furiously when I started to fall over, I could ride a bike.
(I learned how to swim in Germany too, in a military pool where a man with a big belly and a speedo yelled and poked me with a stick if I reached for the edge of the pool. There’s a theme here).
The 70s were the days of free range parenting, and my bike and I quickly fell in love. I would hang a little plastic bottle of apple juice around my neck and roll away from the grey white apartment building with the strange metal blinds and five other Canadian families, down a little trail along the tiny river a block away. I’d ride to the next town, look at sheep and perfect, cosy community gardens, beg samples from the carpet store for my dolls, learned how to buy gummi bears. Then the next town, finding the world on my wheels. Later, when my parents’ marriage started unraveling, listening to the wind and the steadiness of my pedalling.
Over two years, we threaded across every country in Europe in our orange VW camper van with the pop up top, Fjords and farmers and small icy streams I fell in. My father pretending to see the Loch Ness monster before throwing a beer can out the window in the green hills, accidentally camping on a wasp’s nest the summer my uncle traveled with us in Denmark, sending him screaming out of the tent in his yellow pyjama suit.
We camped in Rotterdam beside the water one summer, and a guy pulled in on his bicycle, and swiftly unpacked khaki panniers, made a tent, took a tomato out of his bag and cut off a slice with a red Swiss Army knife. I watched in awe — just him, his bike, a tent, a tomato. Self-contained, completely free, independent, alone.
“I want to do that,” I said to my mother.
“You don’t even like tomatoes,” she said.
Like my parents, the Stolz parents broke up in Europe, and my mother got sad wet Christmas cards from Mrs Stolz for years. She finally met a nice man and married him and he died quickly. Blair became the youngest mayor of a town in Alberta. Sideburns and dads with cigarettes and beer while driving disappeared. I rode four decades in my bike seat, always exploring.
But until this week, I never pulled into a campsite along a European river on my bicycle. The universe opened up to put me on a bike route through Bavaria, starting in Rothenburg and following the Altmuhr river to where it meets the Danube. Two friends, a cruiser bike, panniers, no helmet, towns that look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. A few words of German returning to my lips. Freedom and strength in my legs. Tomatoes — which I now love — and gummi bears in my backpack.