New to the Old World | NevadaAppeal.com

New to the Old World

Rick Gunn
For the Appeal

Photo by Alex Grobet Rick Gunn, left, and Alex Grobet pose for a photo on a bridge over the Rhone River in Eastern France.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” the woman said from behind the luggage counter. “Your bike has got to be somewhere between here and New York.”

“How reassuring,” I mumbled, “that should narrow the search down to about a million square miles.” Of all the things for them to lose. I felt naked without my bike.

I returned to the baggage area and watched as the last arriving passengers were greeted by the warm hugs of loved ones, before they gathered their things and left.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” the woman said from behind the luggage counter. “Your bike has got to be somewhere between here and New York.”

“How reassuring,” I mumbled, “that should narrow the search down to about a million square miles.” Of all the things for them to lose. I felt naked without my bike.

I returned to the baggage area and watched as the last arriving passengers were greeted by the warm hugs of loved ones, before they gathered their things and left.

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When the baggage carousel hummed to a stop, and I stood in the silence of an empty room.

“Welcome to Europe,” I thought to myself, and walked toward the door.

I climbed into a taxi and the driver exited the Lyon airport. He spun through a series of quick turns and roundabouts as if to shake an unwanted spirit. I stared out the window at the French countryside. I wanted to be excited. But I was tired, hungry and seriously jet-lagged. The driver made a final turn into the “zone industrielle” and dropped me off between a group of dreary gray buildings at my cheap hotel.

After checking in, I collapsed on the bed and descended into a sleep just this side of a coma. Several hours later a knock came at the door.

“Oui, bon-jour? Monsieur … Bonjour?”

I sat up and looked around. I had no idea where I was. I opened the door and the hotel clerk sounded out a lump of deep-throated vowels, before she signaled me downstairs.

Once there, I stepped into the squinted gaze of a man with slick-backed hair, dark shades and a dangling smoke.

“Reeshard Goon?” he asked, looking every bit of the French mafia.

“Oui,” I replied hesitantly. He slid a box toward me. It was my bike. “Oui! Merci!” I shouted, suddenly enthralled with all things French.

I ripped at the box like a kid at Christmas, and within an hour my bike was assembled.

Later that evening I grew anxious to ride and paced around the front of the hotel as I intermittently stared at my wristwatch. Just after 10 p.m., a figure approached in the darkness. A voice pierced the night, “Dude … is that you?”

I focused on the towering figure standing over a bike.

“Alex the Swiss!” I proclaimed and we embraced. I’d met Alex the previous year in Kashgar, Western China, and he’d arranged to accompany me east to his home in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Dude, I’m so glad to see you,” he said with a wicked French accent, then launched a monstrous smile.

I wrapped an arm around his shoulder said, “Me too Alex … me too.”

We spent the evening catching up and when the morning hit, we pedaled into the crisp air and glowing leaves of Europe in the fall.

Alex is a big man, with powerful legs. Having never ridden with him, I was astonished by his strength. He initiated, then maintained a pace just short of a sprint. He admitted that he’d not ridden seriously for eight years.

From that moment on, I dubbed him, Alex, “the Swiss hammer” Grobet.

With my head still nestled in the deep fog of jet-lag, I chased Alex as we dashed into, and then out of, a dozen French villages: Beynost, Villiete d’Anthon, Cremieu, Trept, Le Bouchage, Pont d’ Eville, Belley, Culoz, Ruffieux, Seyssel and Frangy.

I watched with a kind of muted reverie as sharply dressed villagers strolled cobblestone streets, sipped espresso in outdoor cafés, or popped out of “Le Boulangerie” with armfuls of fresh-baked bread. I’d arrived.

All manner of vehicles passed us. Most looked like cars only smaller. These “Smart Cars” could easily fit in the passenger seat of most American “dumb cars”: Suburbans, Hummers and the like. They had to. Petrol here went for roughly 1.47 Euro a liter, which in American terms put it at well over $5 a gallon. That said, it’s not hard to see why the average European is perplexed by American fuel efficiency standards, or the need, for that matter, to burn obscene amounts of gasoline in the pursuit of machismo or status.

Alex and I, on the other hand, would cover 103 miles without burning so much as a drop of gas. At 9 p.m., after six-and-a-half hours of riding, we reached the ridge top village of Mont-de-Sion in Switzerland. There, we peered down at twinkling lights of Geneva where Alex’s girlfriend, Lori, had a hot meal waiting for us.

That week I would meet Alex’s family – his mother, Hedy, father, Michel, and his brother, Francois. They took me in as their own and showered me with endless kindness. Michel, a chef by trade, cooked lavish meals that included wild game in elaborate sauces, served with Spatzel, a type of potato pasta.

Dessert included a homemade raspberry pastry pie and a variety of exotic cheeses. Nothing was complete without chocolate – Swiss chocolate. Alex’s roommate Edit, a bright young Hungarian student, worked for a Swiss chocolatier in Geneva named David Paganel. The next morning she invited us into her work for a taste. We sampled every conceivable combination, which included: red pepper chocolate, chocolate filled with Earl Grey tea leaves, ginger chocolate, chocolate with crunchy bits of dried cacao seed, as well as straight shot of liquid chocolate mixed with espresso. It was the gastronomical equivalent of a casino on payday.

When we went to leave, we thanked Edit. That’s when I noticed. There was something in her smile. Perhaps it was her intelligent beauty, or gentle kindness; or maybe her ability to speak two different languages. Whatever it was proved disarmingly intoxicating.

I spent the remainder of the week familiarizing myself with the Geneva, and preparing for my ride across Switzerland. I wandered through its back streets and shops and tried to hold on to my cash.

As European cities go, Geneva is expensive. Although the exchange rate appears at first glance to be favorable, $1 = 1.3 French Francs, the smallest things proved overwhelmingly expensive. A cup of (Starbucks) coffee for example, could cost you as much as $4; a simple meal, $40. Here money took on a seemingly gaseous state. Had I not had a plan to contain it, it would simply evaporate. This meant that once I left the hospitality of Alex’s guesthouse, it was almost exclusively campgrounds and self-cooked meals.

This sent me straight to the “Le Supermarche.” You can learn a lot about European culture within their supermarkets. Take, for example, the two aisles dedicated exclusively to yogurt. Or the cheese aisles which hosts 85 different types of cheeses. This is only outdone by the packaged meat aisles, where I’m convinced that if you had mind to, you could reassemble an entire cow, tongue to tail then serve it atop toast.

After fair amount of browsing, I settled on what would most likely be my mainstay for the next seven months: bread, fruit and cheese.

When the week ended, Alex got off work and we once again packed our bikes and rambled 70 miles into the Alps. What started as a network of rolling farm roads through the French villages of Reigneir, Bonneville and Cluses, inevitably began to climb.

Following the Rhone River to Sallanches, we pushed our pedals up a skyward slab of asphalt that wound just past the hamlet of Le Fayet, to his family’s Chalet Le Bettex. Originally a farmhouse built before the turn of the century, the chalet seemed a comparative pin-prick on a ridge beneath the hulking slopes of Mount Blanc. That evening, perched upon the roof of the chalet, we watched as the setting sun paraded a swirl of pinks, orange and deep purples on the mountains glaciers and upper slopes.

I spent the remainder of the weekend with Alex, Edit, Francois, and Hedy. We ate, talked and generally enjoyed the presence of each others company.

When the weekend ended, something quite unexpected came up for me.

In a relatively short period of time I’d made deep connections with these people.

In short, they felt like family, and I loved them as if they were my own. I said my good-byes then pedaled on through the incredible backroads of Chamonix, Martigny, Ernen and Gletsch. That night I pulled deep into the forest at the base of Grimsel Pass. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I replayed in my head the last telephone conversation I’d had with Alex and Edit.

“We miss you,” they had said.

“I miss you too,” I answered, promising that before too long, I would find my way back.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

When: Oct. 1-10, 2005

Where: Switzerland and France – Lyon, Geneva, Sallanches, St. Gervais, Chamonix, Servoz, Martigny, Ernen, Gletsch

Mileage log: 4,350-4,520

Elevation: 400-10,000 feet

Editor’s note: This is the ninth journal entry from Rick Gunn, former Nevada Appeal photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.