Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bishops and God and a Load of Istanbul

There's nothing like consistency within the Church. When a youthful and virtuous loved one is struck down by terminal cancer and you ask a vicar or priest how God could let this happen, he'll respond with some meaningless tat that we can't know the mind of God or something equally vacuous. All very convenient. But in Nicaea back in the year 325 it was possible to know exactly the mind of God, even to define the mind of God, because hundreds of bishops descended upon the place to discuss that very thing.

The walls of Nicaea

It's all now a bit laughable what these people were seriously discussing. Was the Father and the Son one in divine purpose or also one in being? Easy, neither. It's all made up. Next! What date should Easter be? Easy, it doesn't matter. Probably later is better because we might then get some decent weather for the Bank Holiday weekend. Next! What is the role of the Holy Ghost? What, seriously? It wasn't a ghost; it was Mr Jenkins from the amusement park in a mask, you pesky, meddling kids. And on it went.

They also came up with a list of new church laws, or canons. The first of these was to forbid self-castration, which seems like a sensible if largely unnecessary rule to me. Or maybe it was the fashion at the time, I don't know. Perhaps you couldn't walk down the street without someone chopping off their bollocks and lobbing them at passing traffic. Another rule was that the presence of a younger woman in the house of a cleric was banned. Given that these were Catholics it might have been wiser to prohibit the presence of eight year-old boys. I mean, when do you ever hear of priests and young women?

Anyway, why am I talking about all this? Because I'm here, in Nicaea, the very place where all this, erm, important stuff was decided. It's not called Nicaea any more; it's now known as Iznik. You can see why the bishops and their vast entourages descended upon this place. It's lovely. It sits by a large, turquoise lake, surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides. They also do nice kebabs here. I bet that was a big pull. If you've been discussing ecumenical matters all day, in the evening you'll probably want to go out, get lagered up and finish off with a tasty doner or two.

The lake of Nicaea

This is one of my last stops here in Asia Minor. My vast Turkish adventure is coming to an end. I cycled the 1,200 kilometres from the Greek-Turkish border in the north to the scolding hot south coast via the cities of Bursa, Eskişehir and Konya, the home of whirling dervishes. From there I ferried myself to Cyprus and back and after a quick visit to Turkey's modern capital of Ankara and another 1,000 kilometres I'm now a day's ride from the ferry in Yalova that will take me to Istanbul. All the roads entering Constantinople from the east are motorways and arriving by boat seemed the most romantic way to take myself back to Europe. Besides, I saw Michael Palin arrive in Istanbul by boat and I wanted to copy him.

After a week's break with The Lovely Nina in Byzantium, it's only two or three days before I'm out of here and I cross over into Bulgaria. And then after doing only nine capitals between the end of March and early August, I'll be visiting another nine in a single month. This is their highest concentration on the entire tour - Sofia, Pristina, Skopje, Tirana, Podgorica, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana - in about 1,900 kilometres on the road. And after last year's grand total of four currencies (sterling, euros, Swiss francs and Czech korunas), I'll have to deal with nine different ones in 30 days. Expect me to be offering handfuls of change to Slavic shopkeepers with the bewildered look of a British pensioner.

And then two days from Ljubljana, over the border in Austria, it'll all be done for another year. 2012 has disappeared even more quickly than the last one, whatever it was called. By the time I reach Graz for my second visit on this tour in mid-September I will have cycled something close to 22,000 kilometres. Happily I'll still only be two-thirds of the way to the end with 16 more capitals left to do, including the largest capital by population (Moscow), the capital within the dodgiest country (Minsk in Belarus) and the capital with the most disgustingly pungent canned fish dish (Surströmming in Stockholm). They have to open it outside under running water, for Christ's sake.

Britain and Britons can often be quite down on Europe. But it is the most amazing place on the planet. The concentration of capitals and national differences are what makes it the most interesting continent on which to cycle. Within an hour you can find yourself in an entirely different culture. That wouldn't happen in the States or in Australia. Where would be the fun in cycling there? God knows. Or at least a bunch of bishops could visit my hotel room in Nicaea and decide for Him.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Mr Bore, Mr Big and Mr Bullshitter

Places like this worry me. They make me feel like a snob. I'm not judging people on appearances, honest, just on the shite they spew. Does that make me a snob? Sod it.

Here's a story I may have told before but I can't remember. To be honest, this little bit of my trip is a genuine holiday and I've been on the gin. It's way too hot for me to be arsed to search back through eighteen months of blogs to check if I'm going through old material. Anyway, here's the story. In 1996, I moved to Austria for work. It was a normal office job, just like any in the UK. What I loved was that, despite the number of people in my division, there were no office politics - people worked and lived and ate large quantities of pork in beautiful, peaceful tranquility.

Then I had German lessons and, over a period of months, I gradually understood what my co-workers were jabbering on about and it was loaded with just as much hateful nastiness as anywhere else. Well, I say 'just as much' but I don't remember anyone in Britain ever claiming that "the Jews got just what they deserved". And that wasn't from some eighty-odd year-old, ex-soldier diehard Nazi but from Astrid, a thirty year-old woman in my office. Who also happened to be a Nazi.

The moral of this story is that, unless you can understand exactly what people are saying, it's easy to hear them through rose-cadenced ear trumpets. As I pass through Europe, with my minimal language skills, everyone seems sweet 'n' lovely but maybe that's a failing on my part. If I could truly grasp everything they said i'm sure I would find that many of 'em are just as tedious or mean-spirited as a lot of Brits that I do understand.

You can use a foreign language to hide your defects. Living in Spain, I saw people with huge personality flaws choose partners with a different native language. While most people asked "She's lovely. Why in God's name is she going out with that dick?", missing linguistic pointers she didn't so easily see through the ruse that he wasn't an absolutely massive tosser. If you're reading this and suspect that you might be an absolutely massive tosser, take that as a top tip: Pick an Auslander. (Also, thinking about it now, since she couldn't have been a native English speaker either, maybe she was an absolutely massive tosser too. Good luck to 'em!)

Anyway, I'm currently in The Ship Inn Hotel, a very nice hotel it seems to me, in Girne, northern Cyprus. This is the first time I've been around Englanders since leaving Spain. It makes me realise how important it is to surround yourself by people who you genuinely like and who don't bore the tits off you. Whether I lived in Spain or Austria or the UK, I've tried to do this. To be honest, here in Cyprus, I've sort of kept myself to myself.

So to the 'personalities': There's one poolside nob - Mr Bullshitter - who goes around telling people 'facts'. One fact is that, here in Cyprus, next week it will be 55C. This has inflated in the telling. The first time it was the high 40s, and then 50. It's like a weather forecast based on Turkey's former rate of inflation. Incidentally, for all global warming's impending doom, the official records say it's never been hotter than about 44C here and so the chance of its reaching 55C is a bit slim, anorexic even. And also the weather forecast disagrees with him.  Maybe he has his own weather satellite, I dunno. To give an additional flavour of how unscientific his approach is, he pointed towards the tops of the local mountains and explained, given the haze, how much hotter it is up there. Sorry, fella, it doesn't work like that. Read a book. There's a reason the snow's on top of 'em and not the bottom.

There's another - Mr Bore - who's told precisely the same set of stories to everyone here, except me fortunately, but I've now heard them forty-six times. He always has a few days covering up to avoid a sunburn, he's been bitten by precisely fifteen mosquitoes - one right between his toes - and he likes to sit around the pool during the day but, at night, y'know, he needs a bit of entertainment. C'mon, man, if you have to repeat yourself so frequently at least make it a story worth telling. Regale us with how the Jews got just what they deserved or something juicy like that.

The final star is Mr Big, a bloke who commands a small crowd of people to listen to his wisdom about how he moved to Greek Cyprus nine years ago and comes up to Turkish Cyprus a few times a year. They sit around him, enrapt, like infant school children as he tells of his mystical adventures. Listen, if you're reading this in the UK or in your home country and think that there's something special or tricky about moving abroad, there isn't. It's often a lot better than living in your home country (if your home country is the UK, anyway) but, technically speaking, it's a piece of piss and any idiot can do it because I've spoken to lots of 'em. Hell, I am one of 'em! If you want to do it, go for it. If you don't, fine. Just don't think that you've done anything 'cool' or should earn any kudos by moving. Even snails can do that.

Tomorrow I leave and I can reimmerse myself in a world of linguistic incomprehension where I suspect I will be more at ease, happy wallowing in my ignorance. Unfortunately to do this I have to spend a few days cycling up massive bloody hills in 40-odd degree temperatures and so I'm torn. And I'll have no gin.

OK, the availability of gin would usually trump being surrounded by idiots, but I really do have to leave. Güle güle!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Day The Shit Hit The Rim

I suspect that at one point during this blog the hackneyed expression "Too much information!" will flash through your mind like a perv in a park. Don't do it; it's not worth thinking in clichés. But if that's my fault then I think it's important that as well as bragging about all the good stuff that happens to me I'm honest when things don't quite work out. And yesterday was one the shittiest days possible.

For a while I hadn't been looking forward to Wednesday. It was a longer ride than normal, out of Bursa - a strange and massive, traffic-stuffed city - with several mountains to climb and, if the previous days had been any indication, a hurricane in my face. As it turned out, with a cool-aired, half-six start, nothing but a gentle breeze, an overcast sky keeping the sun off for the uphill bits, and mountains that seemed to melt away, I was an hour and a half ahead of schedule with only eight kilometres to Bozüyük, my destination. Life was perfect. All was well.

Yes, all was well with the world...

But then it wasn't well. I got a puncture. OK, that's a pain in the arse but no worse than that. I flipped the bike over, got out one of my spare inner tubes - one I'd previously fixed - and test-inflated it. And that's when I realised that I'd previously put it back in the bag with the intention of fixing it and then I'd never actually got around to it, lazy sod. Not to worry, I had a second, brand new inner tube. I took off the tyre and reinstalled it with the new inner tube. I inflated the tube and, once again, all was rosy.

Except it wasn't. What is the one thing you must absolutely do whenever you change a tube? That's right, you check that whatever caused the initial puncture isn't still inside the tyre. Because, of course, it might puncture the second tube.

It punctured the second tube.  Had I checked it? No, I hadn't. Was the thing still inside the tyre? Of course it was. One kilometre down the road I had another flat tyre, but now I had no spare inner tubes. Brilliant! What a dick. But that was the least of my worries because that's when I noticed it: The crack. In my back wheel rim, the wheel that takes all the weight. A spoke was spontaneously removing itself and destroying my wheel in the process. I'm riding on 700Cs, a non-standard size outside of western Europe. Replacing or repairing the wheel in Turkey could take forever, or at least long enough to seriously disrupt my entire ride. To finish this year in time for the exams I might even have to miss out Cyprus, and UniCycle49 sounds crap.

I still had to get us to town. Now, of course, the overcast sky had gone. I pushed the hobbled chopper the seven kilometres to Bozüyük in the now mid-afternoon, blazing July sunshine.  And I burnt my stupid face off.

On the edge of town, with a similarly-coloured complexion to that of Mr Strong, I found an old bike repair man. He couldn't do much about the non-standard, cracked rim but he trued up the wheel so that the knackered spoke wasn't deforming it and we repaired the puncture. At least the bike was rideable now, for the final 500 metres to the only hotel in town.

The edge-of-town old cycle repair man

So with a broken rim, a crispy face, an evening of puncture repair ahead, a solution to find to the mystery of how to replace 700C wheels in a country that doesn't generally sell them, and the prospect of a three-year trip in tatters, my mood wasn't great. I thought I would cheer myself up by doing something crazy, like going to the toilet. Maybe I'd do a little wee or something. Y'know, fellas, sometimes, as you're in the bathroom and heading bowlwards, it's a discrete time to let out a little gas, relieve some pressure. And there's nothing wrong with that. As long as it is gas.

Mmm. Mine wasn't. Despite avoiding Turkish tap water and not having had a kebab for a couple of days, my insides were, unknown to me, molten and, yes, inside my cycling shorts, I cacked myself. There you go. Feel what you like: disgust, sympathy, sexual arousal, whatever, it's out there now. In retrospect, perhaps it had been very wise not to look forward to Wednesday.

You might be wondering why I'm telling you this. Part of it stems from a similar incident in Majorca, aged 18, when, with another dodgy stomach, something equally tragic happened on a mountainside while walking with my brother and he has loved to bring it up at parties whenever possible while I frantically deny it. So instead, to exorcise the demons before they emerge, I'll tell everyone now and get it out of the way. Don't go thinking I'm a serial cacker - twice in a lifetime isn't bad. I think. Now that I've confessed, I realise that there was no one present during this second incident and it need never have got out at all. Unlike the...ah, you know.

Anyway, it's alright now. The cycling shorts are thoroughly washed. Today, I managed to crawl the forty kilometres to Eskisehir and find the one bike shop with 700C rims. While waiting for Ibrahim to rebuild my wheel, I was also entertained by Ümit, the next door barber, despite an initial misunderstanding on my part (Me: "Ah, so you're from Africa then." Him: "No, here." Me: "Oh, I thought you said Berber.") He taught me a few words of Turkish and we had an instant football connection because the unfortunately named Turkish star, Tugay, had played for my team, Blackburn Rovers a few years back. My trip was saved.

Ibrahim, gladiator of the wheel

Ümit, a barber, definitely not a Berber

And I've managed to go the whole day without soiling myself. So far. Things are looking up.