As tourists, people tend to follow the herd. Go to any major "tourist attraction" and you'll find teeming masses of humanity blocking your view of the cathedral or jostling you in line at the museum. If you think it's irritating to you, think about what it does to the locals. How often does the average citizen of Paris, London, New York, or Orlando think "Man, this would be a great town if it wasn't for all the damn tourists." (OK, maybe not Orlando). Regardless, the tourist center inhabitants develop a veneer to separate them from the transients (but of course, not from the transient's money) that come to gawk at the local attractions.
We all have preconceived notions of "foreigners". The French are rude - but they sure can cook. The Germans are way too organized - but they make some fine automobiles. The Italians are disorganized - but they sure can cook too. Regardless of nationality, we can come up with some distinguishing characteristic.
When you get away from the typical tourist attractions and travel at cycling pace, you have more opportunities to interact with people on a personal basis. Often you will find that your preconceived notions are correct - and often totally wrong. We have found that people everywhere are a lot alike, despite their differences.
Here are a few impressions of groups and individuals we met on this trip...
If cleanliness is next to godliness, the Germans own heaven... everything is clean and orderly. Not just rooms and bathrooms, but streets and sidewalks - we even saw crewmen on river barges scrubbing the sides of the scrap metal haulers.
Summer Gardens... passing through rural areas we see hundreds of small garden plots surrounding vineyards, orchards, along the rivers and railroads - anywhere there's a spot of land . Most are very small - as little as 5 meters by 10 meters. There is usually a variety of vegetables growing, sometimes a tiny cabin or shelter, and some type of yard art - usually a gnome . We discover that these plots are called "summer gardens" - rented or leased by city dwellers. They give the city folks a place to go on the weekends to get out into the fresh air and work the soil.
The French are bike nuts - particularly if you ride an odd bike... we're cruising through the countryside on a fine Sunday morning, on the dirt path beside the highway are hundreds of people (we suspect they are on some type of religious pilgrimage, because there is a cathedral in the next town). At one point, the footpath crosses the highway near the foot of a small hill. As we fly down the hill, the crowd parts to let us pass and they burst into applause and cheers - almost like the Tour de France. It seems that whenever a Frenchman sees a cyclist fighting a hill, they must give you some encouragement - clapping, waving, or pumping a fist.
The French are bike nuts - part II... In Strasburg, we stay at a hotel on the cathedral square. As we pack the bike the next morning, a crowd forms. They're impressed that we've ridden so far and are a bit puzzled by the bike. As we pull out, they burst into applause that follows us across the square.
Two couples... Mid-morning on a Sunday, we spot an open bakery in Einville, France and pull up onto the sidewalk. As we come to a stop, a car pulls up and the window rolls down. "Are you Americans?" When we answer in the affirmative, they're out of the car and chatting. Kinga and Alain are a set designer and playwright both in their 30's, on their way to a new home in the Pyrenees (no jobs yet, but they figure that something will work out). Alain wants us to know that the French like Americans, even if they sometimes disagree with our politics.
Later that same day, we are outside Rechicourt-Le-Chateau in the countryside, hot and out of water (being a Sunday, few if any shops are open). We decide that the next person we see, we'll ask if we can get some water. As we round a curve, we see a car pulling out of the drive. The car heads our way, and as it comes even with us, the window comes down and the driver begins to ask us (in French) about our trip. When we ask if we could fill our bottles at an outside tap, he signals us to follow him back to his house, which features a statue of the Virgin out front. In moments, we are inside, given bottles of cool water, served cookies and coffee, and end up spending a hour-long visit with Pierre and Nicole Henry. Though their English is limited to the bit that Madame Henry learned in elementary school before the war, we get an idea of their life, their children and grandchildren, their cats, dogs, and horses, and their fascination with JFK and his former press secretary Pierre Salinger. The Henry's are gracious, hospitable, people and we are happy to have made their acquaintance. We get their address so we can send them a note of appreciation.
After leaving the Henry's, we head on the Heming and stay in a small hotel. That evening, at dinner, the manager approaches and asks us if we know the Henrys. When we were visiting, we had mentioned that we were staying in Heming. Mr. Henry realized that he had made an error in his address, so he called the hotel to see if we were there. The manager of the hotel was one of his relatives and she passes on the message to us.
Two Friends... During our only rainy day, we stop at a shelter to review the maps (we never get lost). Two German gentlemen offer route advice and ask about our trip. They are heading in the same direction on a "sporting vacation" and suggest we try to local wines. A couple of days later, we're stopped for lunch and who should come in but... . When they saw our bike parked outside, they dropped in to say hello.