I must confess it’s been some time now that my bicycle, as precious as that relationship may be, is no longer a part of my everyday life. I live in the centre of Athens, in Metz, and when setting out to various chores in the city, I first cross Zappeion gardens, which is so far so good but, then, before I pedal a few more meters down the road, to Syntagma square, I start to get panicky, which escalates as I ride down Panepistimiou st. and, by the time I’ve reached Omonia, I have bitterly regretted the whole idea. Athens is not a city fond of bicycles, even if many drivers give friendly honks, greeting you and making you feel like cycling in the centre of Athens is an act of resistance.
Resistance to all those who overtake you in a hurry, swearing at you for delaying them, as if they don’t know you will be meeting again at the next traffic light. Resistance to the pace of everyday living, resistance to glumness, resistance to the easy way of doing things, to speed, to uniformity. Cycling, then, for me is like the wildly painted house sprouting amongst the nondescript apartment blocks, like the small flowers poking from the bitumen. Cycling for me is an act of resistance and an alternative way of dealing with one’s everyday, of refusing time’s wear and tear and laying claim to a more human city.
I grew up in the periphery, in the city of Larisa. Summers were spent in the nearby Platamonas river. The bicycle always played a leading part in the life of the family and the city, without it ever occurring to us that one day it would be an act of resistance. My father cycled to and from work and, to my mind, this was always connected to the “family being back together” at the end of a long day. So, then, when it got dark, we would run out to welcome dad and his bike. The front door opened, dad passed the bicycle to my mom, and took me in his arms. The bicycle rested behind the door until the next morning. Early on a Sunday, we would wake up, dad took care of the bike and my sister and me put on or Sunday best for our customary ride. Myself at the front, my sister at the back and dad pedaling, the three of us started out for a ride to the Aquaduct, where the countryside began. We played, we ran, we gathered flowers, then, all three of us got back on the bike again. Through the magic of photography, I have held on to a couple of favorite moments from my childhood. In one, the three of us are on the bike. My father youthful and handsome, and us in pretty dresses with well combed hair, starting out on the Sunday ride. The second photograph is on the way back. We’ve stopped by the nearby bakery. My father is holding the big baking pan while my sister and I are walking the bicycle back to the house.
Nor was our family different. Bicycles were the main means of transport. I recall another scene with a bicycle that today seems surreal. On special Sundays, we used to order ice cream from Olympion, the town’s central patisserie. I remember the delivery boy from the patisserie coming on a bike holding in one hand the metal tray with the ice creams, which were all in tall glasses. Two scoops of ice cream with whipped cream and syrup, all arriving perfectly unmolested.
This was a time when I was still very young and life flowed slowly, to the pace of a bicycle. As I grew, I learned how to cycle, skipping the training wheels stage, of course, and so I soon took life in my hands. I could now pedal as fast as I wanted and so ride at much greater speed. Our legs full of scratches and gashes, but that never slowed us down. Growing into adolescence, was the time of the great excesses. On our bikes, we broke all the rules and rode roughshod over every boundary. In the summertime in Platamonas, boys and girls would get on our bicycles and disappear. To sports fields, beaches, by the railway tracks, under bridges, up and down steep slopes. My bike was the sole witness of the first great love. We held hands while riding, then we fell over and our bikes were the first to embrace. Afterwards, our bicycles took us to ever more deserted spots and we rewarded them by parking them side by side. I honestly feel that the bicycle of my adolescence saved me many a time from ennui, melancholy and self-destructive loneliness.
Growing older still, we got caught up in things. Gainfully employed and running around, with very few breaks which were always in the Cycladic islands, on rugged beaches that disallowed cycling, so that childhood’s best friend was no longer necessary. Until my children arrived, and the old treasure chest was opened and words started to get their meaning back. Sunset, sea, bicycle, trip. I watched my eldest daughter going for broke, trying to balance on two wheels. On the summer she succeeded, we would leave in the mornings and get back in the afternoon. We took every path, to wherever it led us. We would get tired and stop for a quick dip. Next, we turned pros, bought ourselves gloves and helmets and went on greater distances. One morning, we came across a group of foreigners touring Greece on bikes and, after following them for many kilometers, we promised ourselves that next summer, we would join them. The bicycle became my ally again. This time to get closer to my children and inspire in them the joy of escape, traveling, dreaming. At about this point, the bike turned into resistance. Resistance to electronic games, isolation, alienation. We chose cars that could transport bikes. And my joy was immense, watching my children get sunburned in the summer and sucking life dry and, at Christmas, instead of game boy and play station, asking for the next bicycle. This is not to say that the bicycle and our frequent escapes were the only solution, but, to me, it was an important ally. Imagine my delight when my son was old enough to ask me urgently to show him, that very afternoon, how to ride on two wheels because he was in a hurry to start training. “What’s all the rush, Stergio?” “I want to cycle round the world with my best friend”, he said. “That’s not something you do on four wheels.” So, the thought came to me of a little story, going around the world on a bicycle.
Peter and his friend Stergios decide to travel around the world. On the travel notebook they jot down everything they need to take with them: a compass, maps, flashlights, and everything they need not to take with them: girls, moms, dads. But when Stergios announces his decision that they are to travel by bicycle, Peter finds himself in a very awkward position. How does a traveler tell his best mate, “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle?” It’s all his mom’s fault. She is always taking him on holidays to rocky islands without any roads. Now, Peter needs at all costs to learn how to cycle. It is a matter of life and death. He tries very hard but he keeps falling over, again and again. But who said the good things in life are easy? Peter will realize that for some things it’s worthwhile giving your very best.
Now, with my son, we’ve saved an afternoon every week for cycling. Though it isn’t easy going up and down the streets of Metz, until we get to the countryside. But this is our time together. It is something we both enjoy and share. I am always dreaming that my children will become travelers, the way others dream their children will get into university or succeed in life. I think that, once I manage to get them to dream of travel, I will have succeeded. All the rest in their life’s novel, they can choose for themselves.