The old man with the bicycle

Drawing of the old man talking with young people, bicycle in foreground

It was August 1977 when I met the old man with the bicycle.

I arrived in the old city of Vézelay, France, on a Saturday morning. By bus from the nearest train station 7 miles away. My plan was to spend that day and part of the next there, before taking the bus back to the train station. 

Except I quickly learned that buses didn’t run on Sundays. I’d have to stay a day longer than planned. Which is not a huge problem when you’re backpacking and have no set schedule.

The Youth Hostel was about half a mile down the road from the city and mostly deserted when I got there in late morning. 

Come evening, it was full of young travelers from around the world. Right among them was the old man with the bicycle. 

Which one does not belong?

I first noticed the bicycle. It was old. Probably a relic from before the war. Sturdy. And then there was the suitcase. One of the old ones, like the one George Bailey is given in It’s a Wonderful Life. The old man later told me he got it in ’38 and it had been with him on all his biking adventures around the French countryside over the years.

Then there was the man himself. I found out he was 72. Looked like he’d worked outside much of his life. Thin, weathered. But with eyes and a face full of life and energy. He had no trouble keeping up with the conversations at the Youth Hostel. Even if everyone else was a 20something.

I discovered that he started biking around the countryside on vacations in the late 1930s. And clearly still enjoyed that kind of vacation. Because it worked for him.

He certainly didn’t sit in a corner by himself, nursing a glass of wine, complaining about the rowdy young ’uns of today. 

No, he was right there, in the midst of a group of international travelers. The conversation was energetic and animated. Clearly everyone was having a good time.

As he put it: “Rather together with plenty of people in a youth hostel, than alone in a hotel.”

Amazing what a 70+ French man can have in common with a 20something Israeli female backpacker. Or some German boys hiking their way across France. Not to mention Americans and Canadians. Or a random Swede.

Vacation, done differently

The old man was on vacation. Presumably vacation from being retired at home. To him that meant, load himself and the old suitcase on the trusty ancient bicycle and head out. The Bourgogne countryside is indeed marvelously beautiful, but it’s also hilly. Not easy biking territory.

The other bikes at the hostel were modern ones, with gears to make going up hills at least a bit easier. I wondered if the old man actually biked up all the hills or if he got off and walked the bike up. 

Clearly he wasn’t on a “5 days to every important site in Bourgogne” itinerary. He had no set plan. Just pointed his bike in a direction and started off. Found a place to stay when the day neared its end and that was it. A rambling, serendipitous way of traveling.

He explained that the old suitcase contained all he’d need, including a supply of food. Just in case. 

Really not that different from my own way of traveling back then: I had my backpack and a rail pass. Plus a list of places I might go. All over Europe. Where I actually went all depended on how I felt at the moment. I might have plans a few days ahead, but at the start of the month of traveling, I had no idea where I’d find myself at the end of it.

I figured that this countryside wasn’t all that new to the old man. His actual home was in the region. He’d been around. Instead, a huge part of the experience for him was meeting people from around the world.

What I learned from the old man

In the process of the conversations, I gained some important travel lessons from the old man:

Get out of your comfort zone

The old man could definitely have stayed in hotels along the way. The ones with stars to the name and pampered service. It would also keep him away from folks who stay up half the night and carry on animated conversations.

That’s how many folks choose to travel when age advances. Because they figure they’ve earned that extra luxury. And they have the money for it, so why not? Except they’re then likely to only see things they are used to and comfortable with.

The old man was still looking for new experiences. New discoveries. Travel lesson #1.

Go where there are interesting people you can meet

Hint: They’re not really in the penthouse suite of a 5-star hotel. But you can find them in a little restaurant only the locals know about. Or in a hostel. 

What’s the rush? Choose to go slower

In the US, we talk about flyover country. Which refers to everything between the East and West Coasts. Like there is nothing there? I’ve been blessed with traveling coast to coast across the US twice by train. Certainly got to see much of that flyover country. So now I understand better what’s there and what it looks like.

When we just hurry on to the next goal, we do miss so much along the way. Things, people and places that are truly awesome. But you have to be there to discover them. And that takes time.

My best travel memories are not of hurrying through some list of must-see things, but of times spent with people. Maybe meandering through a city together. Or relaxing on a back porch as the day ends.

Don’t only hang around people just like you

I was in Europe on a video project with Roger, a video producer from Iowa State University. For part of the trip, we had the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, his wife and his trusted aide with us. We visited Brussels and met with leaders in the European Community hierarchy. Also went to the huge Port of Rotterdam. 

The Secretary and his entourage had booked the hotels with the stars. Roger and I found more budget accommodations. They ate in the hotel restaurants. Whatever was provided by that cuisine. I’m sure the steaks were fine and pretty much just like the steaks back home.

Roger and I discovered the little local hole-in-the-wall places. In one place, we asked the person at the front desk for a recommendation for dining. She began to rattle off the usual suggestions. To which we said: “But where do you go out to eat?”

That led us on a very winding drive into the old part of the city and a restaurant in an old windmill. Serving all local fare. Like mussels in a beer sauce. We were the only out-of-towners in the place and it was great.

Welcome serendipity

I know, it’s comforting to have everything planned. And efficient. If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium. I do understand the desire to fit in everything, because you don’t know when or if you’re going to be back there again. And you want to see and do it all.

But it’s when we leave some margin in the plans that we can actually embrace random opportunities that present themselves. 

I still regret that I didn’t say “Yes” right away when I was asked to go waterskiing. 

I was 15, visiting a friend at her family’s summer cottage on an island. Then somebody decided waterskiing was called for. Except, I didn’t have my swimsuit with me. (That could have been solved.) Plus I was afraid I wouldn’t stay standing up on the skis when the boat took off. (My friend did a spectacular faceplant into the water on her first run of the day — and she’d water-skied before). Mostly I kept thinking: Maybe next time. I’ll be better prepared next time.

Except there was no next time. The moment was gone. I’ve since downhill skied a bunch and loved it. But still have never waterskied.

Some of the best things in life present themselves totally unplanned and unexpected. 

Travel lessons that colored my travels and outlook on life

As I went to bed after a night of talking with the old man and other travelers, I decided he was on to something. I wanted to be like him. Who traveled in ways that let him experience the places he visited, and the road in-between. Who interacted with the people he met on the road. Shared with them and learned from them.

The old man at Vézelay (and other encounters while traveling) have impressed on me the value, the importance of really getting to know the places and people you visit. To go beyond what average day-tripping tourists see. 

That’s led me to experiences like laying pavers in a driveway in Berlin, Germany. Or helping paint several houses where I’ve stayed for a time. Best of all: being invited and treated just like one of the family.

I’ve seen first hand the total change a tourist magnet like medieval Rothenburg od Tauber goes through once the tourist buses leave and the day-trippers have moved on. Suddenly it’s evening, the day winds down and those left are people who actually live there and those who are staying in the city. It becomes a much quieter and gentler place. Still so much to see and experience. In fact, with the tourists gone, you can finally really feel the history in the place.

It’s about keeping an investigative mind, open to new experiences and encounters at any age. To realize that I can learn from those around me, younger and older. And that when we all mix together, we’re so much richer for it.