An extract from ‘A Thousand Kilometres South’ (2013)
By Walter Jungwirth
Translated from the German by Magdalena Steinhauser
I sought the city to lose myself and find company or maybe just some change, and then there was this car that turned into the pedestrian zone from a side road and took me onto its bonnet. That is how my venerable bronze road bike turned into scrap metal. In an unimaginable turn of events the insurance paid for a new one with a frame made of chromium molybdenum steel, pink flames on white, sixteen gears, levers on the frame.
A bike is a bike and you shouldn’t make a big deal of it, but maybe when you give in to an urge to stroke the crossbar, it injects some soul into it. Anyway, it felt weirdly good and everything was new and sparkling, even the chain. It was the first brand new bike I had ever owned and although its ownership wasn’t due to my own achievements – only insofar as I was able to prevent the worst from happening at the accident – I still felt something like pride when we left the bike shop. It still felt good when I mounted it and the cobbles outside the shop couldn’t take away from the cycling experience, even though the tires were pumped up hard. It felt good to make my way to work on it on the odd occasion, and even better when I took the opportunity to leave the city behind, cycling on roads I had hardly known before. And so I learned to see the city and its surroundings through new eyes. I, who after all these years behind the wheel of a taxi thought I knew it better than anyone else. I felt that there was something secret that was new and pleasantly strange to me. It felt good when I cycled up the local mountain on a whim, twelve hundred meters up; and how tremendous it felt when I had conquered it, even though I was huffing and puffing despite the sixteen gears!
This was in my own hand, and the mountain which I had until then thought of as indomitable, now proved to be a fair opponent. And so, little by little, I felt like I was starting to belong to a completely different group of people, who were less relenting than the majority, or maybe simply more patient, and it impressed me greatly. I enjoyed the wild downhill as well, and so I already tackled the mountain again the next day and made it to my late shift just in time before the time clock started flashing, indicating a violation of the working hours. Afterwards everything dipped in the light of the neon lamps seemed to be even more constricting, despite the long hallways.
When I went beyond the summit point of the local mountain for the first time, it felt like jumping off the ten-meter board, which I had never before dared to do. Now I’d have to either cycle up again from the other side or take the long detour across the plains, and I had shivers running down my spine the whole way down. But I made it home in one piece and I started cycling farther and farther and grazed my orthopaedic doctor’s hundred kilometre mark. When I surpassed it for the first time without any knee pain I had attained a little piece of freedom which I didn’t know existed. Or maybe I had regained it. It almost seemed as if it was rightfully mine anyway.
It was as if the paint was peeling off the mundane and something came to the surface that had only been waiting to be uncovered. It made my job become secondary and I stopped taking on more shifts than I needed and instead dove into cycling magazines, devoured books on the subject and let myself get charmed by maps. There seemed to be an attraction from all of it which I couldn’t and didn’t want to resist. I let myself get pulled into this torrent, get carried along and learned how to deal with aching legs and burning lungs as I kept doing my loops, which took me farther and farther away.
I cycled two hundred kilometres in one go and then I read about people who had cycled twelve-hundred kilometres non-stop, from Paris to Brest and back. You could call it fate that I stumbled across this kind of literature, but that term is pretentious. Who would ever waste any thoughts on where I would end up anyway? Nothing was predestined, every kilometre was left to chance and maybe that was what I valued most. With every additional kilometre my territory expanded and I suddenly had a connection to every road as if we were in dialogue – I learned to fear their perils and appreciated their virtues. And so little stories developed which I kept to myself, and then others which I shared with my companions. I started getting a hint of something I’d thought I would never find: Home.
During these hours on the bike I no longer felt helpless but free, and the limits were only there to be pushed away. My legs would carry me anywhere, wouldn’t they?
I imagined the adventures and thought ‘Paris – Brest – Paris, that’s complete lunacy’ and I remembered my orthopaedic doctor’s warning. And after considering it all and cycling here and there and standing on mountains whose names I hadn’t even known before, I signed up to my first two hundred kilometre brevet in France and thought: such nonsense, I just want to ride the twelve-hundred kilometres from Paris to Brest to Paris. But you need the four qualifying events from two hundred to six hundred kilometres to do that. So I reluctantly did those qualifying events, even though all I wanted was to toe the starting line in Paris. I hadn’t thought it possible to torture myself like this and struggled immensely, and the people torturing themselves with me were like friends to me and we could look into each other’s eyes without having to look away and could hug each other at the finish without any sense of embarrassment.
And then I stood at the starting line of Paris – Brest – Paris amidst thousands of people from all across the globe and I was never again the same person as before, as if a profound pain had finally found its way out.
This extract is taken from ‘Voices from the Outside: UEA MA Translation Anthology’. The full anthology can be purchased from Egg Box Publishing.