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Bike from Denmark to Greece

Flying Bicycles & Italian Politics on the Adriatic Coast
Thomas P. Coppock

During the summer of 2006, my college friend, Mats, and I rode our bikes from Copenhagen to Thessaloniki, Greece. We had plenty of adventures, but one night on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, just south of the spur of the Italian boot stands out…

The world grows dark as the lights of Manfredonia fade into memory. The coastal road is flat and lined with swampy rushes. Somewhere out here there is a campground, but we’re not sure how far.
In the last town, this question prompted the formation of a small debating society amongst the old men who rule the streets from their rusted chairs and eroded stoops. My ears are overwhelmed by a flurry of Italian. "Back in ‘56 I drove that road every day… it’s 18 to Scalo."
"That was before the Lido Bridge. I have a nephew, worked on the Flamingo. It’s no more than 12 to Scalo…"
"Yeah, but that camping closed ten years ago. They’re gonna have to go all the way to Zapponeta…"
"What about that new place outside Lido? He has some spots out back."
"You’re gonna send ‘em to stay with some cold, northern merchant?…might as well go sleep in the swamp. Ma dai."

This last comment comes from an old man who can only be described as cute. Someone has carefully draped a cranberry sweater over his withered shoulders and the toes of his leather shoes lightly kiss the cobblestones as his childlike legs mark the passage of time for some internal clock. He is the picture of serenity, a graceful passenger on the end of the mortal ride, until an outburst like this provides a brief glimpse of the fiery personality that must have characterized his youth. The sweater falls from its perch and the legs cease their perpetual swinging. None of the other debaters take any notice of this sudden change. It is over almost as soon as it starts. The sweater returns to its impeccable repose and the illusion of detachment returns to his body.

The content of his outburst, however, is not as surprising as its physical manifestations. It is no secret that Southern Italians have little love for their countrymen in the North. For a multitude of historical reasons, industrialization was well under way in Italy’s northern cities by the turn of the twentieth century, while much of southern Italy remained in a quasi-feudal state until after the Second World War. This economic disparity only further exacerbated the pre-existing cultural differences between these two regions. Whereas, since Charlemagne first subdued the Lombards in 774, Northern Italy has always been more closely tied to Northern Europe through trade and culture, the South has historically been more a part of the Mediterranean world. While Venice, Genoa and Pisa were building great trading empires, the rulers of Naples, Sicily and even the Pope in Rome stubbornly persisted in regarding the meager surpluses produced by peasants on their vast estates as the only reliable source of wealth.

The North, which was, at least nominally, a part of the German Holy Roman Empire could not escape the political intrigue of the rest of the continent. The various city-states there were constantly in and out of alliances with other European powers, invading and invaded. Savoy, particularly, had a storied reputation for its role in French politics. Northern Italy and Western Europe were so interconnected that when the English King Edward III was defeated in his wars with France, it caused an economic disaster in Florence, as he was unable to pay back the fortune he had borrowed from that city’s renowned bankers.

The South, however, remained largely a pawn and not a player in this political and economic world. History witnessed a succession of invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish who never gave their conquered populations the opportunity to develop independently like their cousins in the North. There was no justice system to protect the fruits of hard labor from grasping landlords, so why work hard? In a world with no justice families need to be close. Who else will protect you? Thus, the term "Italian Renaissance" is misleading. It did not take place all over Italy; Italy didn’t exist. It took place in the city-states of Florence, Milan, Genoa, Siena and Venice (to name a few) on the northern half of the Italian peninsula. In the nineteenth century, when the French-speaking King of Piedmont decided it was time to re-unite all of Italy, no one had the guts to tell him that Italy was just a geographical term for a Southern European peninsula, that even during the Roman Empire it hadn’t had its own identity, that the people had little in common, so he went ahead and did it. Then, he ordered the creation of an Italian language, initiated a massive public education campaign to teach it to all his subjects, and died under the illusion that he was leaving his successors a marvelous new country, finally content to be united once more.

As a result of this sudden conflation of peoples from vastly different backgrounds, Northern Italians have come to regard people from the South as backwards and lazy. Many Northerners feel burdened by what they see as an economic system that heavily taxes wealth created in Northern Italy and throws it away on the impossibly corrupt and Mafia-ridden South. In fact, in recent years, this sense of Northern resentment has coalesced into a separatist political party (Lega Nord) with considerable popular support (Lega Nord received 10.1% of the popular vote in the 1996 general elections).
Southern Italians, in turn, often view Northerners as cold, greedy snobs who neglect the more important things in life, like family and hospitality in their headlong pursuit of wealth. Thus, it comes as no surprise that our debating society members do not want us patronizing the business of some transplant from the North.

Realizing that these old men do not, and possibly never have, shared our sense of urgency, we thank them and briefly lean our bikes to the side so we can lift our stiff legs over the bar. They won’t let us get away so easily. We are a blessing, a miracle, angels sent by the Lord to save them from monotony. It’s not every day that a new topic of conversation rides up in orange and blue spandex. In the end they’ll say we’re crazy, but there’s always that seed of doubt. There must be something that possesses those boys to do that to themselves. And that doubt will keep them returning to the subject and provide a welcome distraction from the usual fare of politics, football and the exploits of their youth. So now, they try to keep us longer, to give them more meat to chew on, turn over and spit out. "Where are you from?" they ask.
"Stati Uniti," I reply, making a conscious effort to over-pronounce my Italian.
"You came here from the United States?" they say, looking incredulously at our loaded bicycles.
"Well, we flew to Denmark; we couldn’t ride across the ocean…" I explain haltingly, a grin on my face.
"Now they’ve really done everything. The Americans have bicycles that can fly. Dio mio." exclaims one man for whom, given his wing-like tufts of ear hair, flight also seems like a possibility.
"It’s true," says another "I saw them build a bridge over the Po in two days during the war. Flying bicycles are nothing."
"What, were you building bridges as a prisoner, you fascist dog?"
"Don’t be bitter, Carlo. Communism was a nice dream, but that’s all it was. It takes capitalists to build flying bicycles."

At this point, the conversation devolves into an indistinguishable storm of voices. The usual battle lines are drawn as each man yells louder in an attempt to reiterate his familiar political arguments in such a way that the others will finally see the light and admit their errors. Perhaps one of these old men does have the answer to the world’s problems, but no one will ever hear it. Infuriated by the lies of the stronzo across from him, the man with the sweater starts to rise from his chair, but is stopped as the right sleeve of his sweater begins to slip from one shoulder. He is unable to both keep it from falling and brace himself with the armrest at the same time and after a few tries he gives up entirely and resigns himself to a glare that would scare his granddaughter back into the womb.

Taking advantage of the confusion, we give each other a look and a nod and coast away down the cobblestones. As the din fades away, we hear one final voice ask with obvious confusion, "Why do they bother taking the roads if they can fly?"

Little do they know that in the dark we are flying. All we can see are the stars above and a deep blackness that marks the road ahead. A slight breeze coming off the sea provides some lift, but otherwise our flight is smooth. Occasionally there are lights off to our left. Every light in the distance is this legendary campground until it becomes a cement factory or a beach bar. We know better than to hope at this point. We’ve been to a lot of campgrounds that didn’t exist, plus it’s so dark we may be on the wrong road entirely. But for some reason we keep going. I can hear the whirring of Mats’ pedals ahead of me, guiding me, reassuring me. Then there’s the cla-dunk-dunk-dunk of a patch of rough pavement, but it’s still not enough time to react and my front tire is in one of those cracks that you always regard with detached fear during the day. I can’t turn the handlebars so there’s nothing to do but wait for it to end. Then I’m back on pavement, riding high. My throat gives out a little yee-hah that I don’t remember ordering. This is crazy, I think. This is how people die and become statistics. I don’t want to be one of those people who they’ll always talk about with phrases like "one bad decision" or "should have known better".
"Hey Mats, we could always just camp out in these rushes. We go in a few yards and know one’ll know we’re there… I mean, this campground could be anywhere and it’s already ten, so it’ll be closed anyways."
"What? I can’t hear you"

Now we’re going over a bridge. It looks like one of those salty little inlets that can’t tell if it’s sea or river. Somehow I don’t summon up the effort to voice my fears again. The road is not that hard to follow. It’s darker than everything else, so as long as we follow the darkest area ahead we’ll be fine. Plus, why worry about dying if you’re afraid of living? Of course we could always dig our headlamps out of our bags, but something is right here. We’re both caught up in this bond of inertia and we can’t stop what we’re doing. There’s an irresistible excitement to be living in a world without measure. The breeze smells so much sweeter in the dark and there’s no resistance. It’s like pedaling down a steep hill.

I feel my front tire start to wobble and the telltale sound of tires on the sand, but I manage to hit the brake and unclip my left foot in time to come to a standing stop. The sound of Mats’ wheels fade away and I call out once. Nothing. No choice now. I’m back on the road moving again, fresh from the fear of my recent close call, but determined to catch up, determined not to break the magic. He’s stopped up ahead. I can see the faint reflection from his panniers.
"You ok?"
Around the next curve, there’s another light. The air is getting cooler now and the cold sweat on my jersey makes me shiver.
"There’s a light." I say the obvious just to sound optimistic. Optimism is the most valuable currency on this trip and the longer you can feign it the better.
As we approach, a sign comes in to view. "Camping Johnny" it reads.
"Unfricking-believable" I mutter with a lot less relief than I feel.

We have to walk our bikes down the gravel drive. At the gate a man is sitting inside the reception office as if waiting for us.
"What the hell, dude? I’ve never seen one open past eight o’clock"
I can’t believe our luck and as I walk in the office door, I’m grinning uncontrollably.
"Are you still open?" Now I’m giggling uncontrollably.
"Documenti?" the man can’t help smiling a little too.
"Mats, I’m gonna need your passport."
But we’re both laughing because we’re stupid and we’re still alive and life is great and we’re the luckiest guys on the planet and we’re the only ones who know it.

© Thomas P. Coppock Aug 2007

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