Geometry, Land and Track: Bodily Memories on a Bicycle

The feel of the air, the sense of a track, the lie of the land, the geometry of a bicycle – many are the triggers for unexpected bodily memories. Even a reasonable amount of long distance cycling in different parts of the world is enough to build up a collection of memory tracks; except that they are not mere memories but intensely felt experiences, returning with a bodily intensity and vividness that continues to surprise and delight.

The preconditions: leave the world for a couple of days or more. Mount a bicycle, loaded with enough supplies and gear, and set off into remote parts. Soon enough, the great pleasure of a ride is upon me. To be a dualist for a moment, while my body settles into its rhythm, my mind is free to wander according to its own preferences. Or rather, my mind finds itself subject to the messages my body is sending. And unexpected messages they are.



On a recent ride and on a new bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker), I began to recall my many rides in Germany on an old Pegasus. I had bought it second hand, and over a couple of years I had cycled the route of the Berlin Wall (Mauerweg), along the Spree river from its source (Spreeradweg), and many rides around Herrnhut in the far east of Germany. Fond I became of that worn but reliable German bicycle. I even began to taste lunches of ryebread, cheese and cherry tomatoes, as well as the chocolates for energy that cost next to nothing. I felt intensely the bumpy farm tracks, the empty single lane roads through forest and farmland, the dirt paths through biospheres, and even the dedicated bicycle paths that criss-cross the country. But why those rides, tastes, experiences? And why that bicycle? Unable to answer the question, I let my mind wander again, only to return the Pegasus. At last I realised: the geometry! Both bikes put my body in a similar position. The position of the seat in relation to the pedals, the places for my hands on the handlebars, the angle of lean – all felt the same. But it went further, for the gear shifts and ratios, the cornering, and the comfort with a load brought the two even closer together.


Lie of the Land

Moments later my memory tracks were in the Netherlands, on a glorious ride of self-discovery a decade ago. My body began recalling not the bicycle I rode then, but the way seas and land are inescapably part of one another. Dykes and polders seemed to be about me, as did the exhilarating experience of finding myself all alone on the Waddenzee in the north of the country. Mostly, however, I felt I was in the midst of waterways and opening bridges, which would be raised to allow canal traffic to pass. Why did I recall the Netherlands so vividly? I pondered this question while salt spray hit my face, born by a sea breeze that ruffled the waves and formed white caps on the chop. I was actually passing through Swansea, south of Newcastle. Here Lake Macquarie passes into the sea, the passage winding its way like a sea canal. The low-lying land on either side is bolstered by seawalls to protect the land in a storm. As I rode up to the bridge crossing the passage, the red lights came on and I pulled up. The bridge began to open to allow some boats to pass through. The Netherlands indeed.

2010 August 009a

Sense of a Track

A little later, my senses of balance, sight and smell had me transported to a glistening wet fahrradweg (bicycle path) through a deep European forest. A ribbon of black twisted its way through ancient and dripping trees. Rain spattered on my jacket, soaked through my helmet and splashed up on my shoes (mudguards seem designed to direct all water into the tops of one’s footwear). About me I felt a biosphere, and I began to recall that intense feeling of wishing that the path and its forest would never end.

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

Actually, I was cycling along a relatively rare experience in Australia: a dedicated bicycle path through a forest. These paths tend to be rail-trails – old railway lines (for coal mines, sugar cane or fruit orchards) that have been converted the bicycle and walking routes. Rare though they may be, I seek them out whenever I can. On this ride, the day was cool and threatening rain, and soon enough the track was a glistening wet black ribbon through a dripping forest. No wonder I found myself in a European forest.

Warm Bed

As I gradually became soaked from the driving rain, an intense anticipation came upon me. A dry, warm hostel, with a massive meal and a chance to dry out – my body leapt at the expectation. Now I could have been anywhere: towards the end of that endless fahrradweg through the dripping forest; crossing the border in Jutland between northern Germany and Denmark; the soaking rain along a quiet track in the Dutch Veluwe; autumn rains on the North Sea Bicycle Route in Norway; or a squall blown in from the sea in Denmark. On each occasion, I felt the bodily pull of dry clothes, a grand meal, a shelter for the bicycle (after its wipe-down), a warm and dry bed.

Tongues, Faces and Bodies: Another Way of Listening

‘Would you like to hear the talk?’ She said.

‘Yes, why not’, I nodded.

‘But you won’t understand anything’, said her friend. ‘How can you sit and listen for an hour to language that makes no sense. Surely you want a translator’.

‘Not at all’, I said. ‘I’d rather just listen and watch.

I was in Bulgaria, having completed a road trip from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast. The talk in question was about one of Bulgaria’s greatest women writers, and it was to take place at the town hall of Dobrich, a little inland from Balchik, the seaside palace of a former princess.

So what is it like to listen to a language one does not ‘understand’ in the conventional sense? Obviously, language involves so much beyond the ostensible content. Yet, so fixated are we on the content of the message that we miss all that goes on. Language training has as its aim the ability to ‘communicate’, to be understood and to understand, in written and spoken form. But it thereby misses the richness of language. Often I prefer not to be distracted so, released from the shackles of content. That way you can pay attention to all the other dimensions, such as the intonation, the type and mix of sounds, the movements of tongues, faces and bodies.

Let me give three examples. The subtle lilt of Bulgarian demands little if any movement of body and face. Eyes, nose, facial muscles remain largely still. The head barely moves and the body is kept still. Everything relies on the voice, its loudness or softness, its pauses and rushes, its consonantal conjunctions. By contrast, Russians throw their whole body into a talk. To make a point, a Russian pushes her whole body forward, projecting the words into the midst of the listeners. Her face runs through a gamut of expressions, whether defiance, disdain, charm, sensuousness, seriousness, or a lighter touch. The arms assist in the process, while not drawing attention to themselves. And the Russian sibilants, the breathed consonants, give a weighty feel to what is said – only to be lightened by the ever-present ‘y’ that precedes so many vowels.

What about the Chinese? Once, I attended a group discussion for over two hours, of younger men and women. The men embody in subtle ways the demeanour of the ancient scholar: the goatee being grown, both elbows on the table, which keep the shoulders up. The body is in constant low-level movement, and the hands, holding a pen or perhaps a page, lean over the text. Rarely do they put a hand on the face – to lean, scratch, stroke or pick (hygiene!).

The women have no such ancient model to be absorbed quietly and subconsciously over many years. Still both elbows are on the table, pages and arms move, and they too lean forward. Occasionally one leans back, but the head is held at a tilt.

A speaker is actually quite animated, although rarely does anyone look directly at the speaker. Thin-fingered hands touch, fold and unfold, hold a page, make a note, rub, straighten and curl. Now the elbows move back and lift a little. The head moves minimally and continually, tilting and turning. The eyes are quite expressive, darting about. Eyelids lift and fall, while eyebrows draw together and then part. All while the Chinese tones rush out in a fast-play musical score. As for the sounds, all one need do is rapidly move from curling the tongue slightly back, to pushing its tip up against the upper teeth, to pulling the lips back, to rounding them momentarily…  Soft gutturals emerge, myriad vowel-diphthongs, ringing syllables – all produced effortlessly. As for me, I continue to ponder the strange places my tongue would have to find to make such sounds.