Riding the second saddle

„Look, a tandem!“

Even in a bicycle-weary city such as Berlin, whose inhabitants are long used to all excesses in biking fashion, the sight of a couple on a tandem is likely to evoke a dreamy expression even in the most annoyed driver, stuck in the traffic-jam. There is something about tandems that turns people mellow – some romantic notion of young lovers pedalling together among blooming fields on a sunny day, joined by their love on the same bike. Well, let me tell you after five years of experience: biking a tandem is no ride on rosy clouds. It is the ultimate test for any marriage. You think the weekly collection of dirty socks scattered over the flat, the flirting of your husband with that red-haired woman on the party, or the suspicious text message he got last night are reasons good for a marital crisis? Well, you’ve never been on the back seat of a tandem.

They say there are two hard things about riding a tandem: to agree who will be to the front and to synchronise the rhythm of biking. We were, in theory, predetermined to be the most harmonious couple that ever sat on a tandem. Being essentially a non-biker, I was more than happy to leave the steering into the experienced and intrepid hands of Volker. And about synchronising rhythms – well, I never had a rhythm of my own to start with. I could just fall into his rhythm, relax on the back seat and enjoy the scenery. But then- „You are not pedalling!!“ comes from the front. Of course I am pedalling, I pedal so hard that my knees hurt. „I am pedalling!“ I shout back, catching my breath. „I am doing all the work here!“- retorts the front. And here it goes….

Our tandem clashes revolve not only around the respective input in propelling the family vehicle forward. Some of them touch immediately upon the very cornerstone of any relation – the question of mutual trust. A typical situation from the morning traffic rush: my limited vision from behind Volker’s shoulders magnifies and distorts the potential hazards on our way. A reddish glint catches the corner of my eye as we flit through a crossroad. “Red!!” escapes my mouth before I realise these are just the pedestrian lights. But it is already too late. “You don’t trust me!” – is the immediate outcry and the next War of the Härings starts.
Sitting on the rear saddle of a tandem, holding handles that do not move, deprives you of choices – you cannot turn back when you get angry, cannot take another road, cannot even press a brake. Well, of course, one could always insist on getting off, but then you are stuck in the middle of nowhere. So, you just have to keep on moving, no matter what – bound „in good times and in bad times“ by one shared bike chain.

Luckily, specific physical laws apply within the system of a tandem. First law of tandem-dynamics: net anger supplied to the system equals the net work done by the system. In practice this is to say, more indignant I get, stronger I push the pedals and quicker our tandem races forward. Paradoxically, by the time we reach Kulturforum the muscular strain and the speed have vented all indignation. Volker, however, soon realised what fuels our tandem, and got in the habit to mention deliberately an annoying experience, such as an unjust review or a declined application, – in order to increase my pedalling power.

That is how we race through Berlin, propelled by anger and love, at times accompanied by the whimpering or singing of our kids on the two-seat extension of the tandem.

It is not that I ended up on the back of a tandem out of my own will. I hardly had another choice. At the time Volker was dashing on his bike along the streets of Nürnberg on his way to primary school, my own bike rested in a shed in a small mountainous village somewhere on the Balkans. The steep paths of the village were best suited for feet or for donkey hoofs. A bike, even if it was, like mine, of the famous „Balkanche“ brand, could never serve as a means of transportation there. My bike surely had its uses – during chicken chase in the backyard, or raising clouds of dust on the unpaved road among the gardens for instance, but no one in his clear mind would even contemplate biking from the hilltop with the church down the serpentines to the Tante-Emma-Laden and the village pub. By the time I moved to the flatter and more biker-friendly capital, my bicycle had rusted away. The next attempt to tame the two wheels came years later, when I arrived as a foreign student in Beijing. You might have seen photos of Beijing from the early 90ties – that endless sea of bikers flooding the boulevard of the Eternal Peace, with no cars or buses in sight. Could there be a better place to learn biking than in the “bicycle capital of the world”? That’s what I thought while I contentedly pedalling along the quiet lanes of the University campus. Until one day I ventured on bike beyond the campus walls to go for a date at the Beijing University few kilometres away. The moment I reached the main street with the market, I was caught in a whirlpool of bikes, pedestrians, carts, cars, buses; being elbowed off, kicked and pushed from all sides, till I was finally tossed out disoriented and with trembling knees onto the sidewalk.

I never made it to the date. May be this was fated, because few days later Volker showed up – and this is how the string of events, that ultimately put me onto the back seat of a tandem, was set in motion.

Still more years passed – and here I was, a newly fledged Berlinerin, living in what might seem a bikers‘ paradise. A bike of my own also appeared one Christmas. But the Beijing experience remained too deeply ingrained to allow me fearless navigation among the Berlin traffic. That is when the vision of a tandem slowly began to take form. And what a grand vision it was – a tandem not only as a city vehicle, but as a means for the two of us to explore the wide world. To be quicker than a pedestrian, but slow enough to experience immediately the distance. The first imaginary route lead from Berlin, through the Balkans and further eastward, along ancient caravan routes, through the endless expanse of deserts, steppes and mountains, where fabled kingdoms once laid, till the East China Sea. But, before we even managed to buy a tandem, Sarah was born. That caused a reconsideration of our travel plans. The tandem arrived indeed, and with it a trailer, which, though cosy and spacious enough for our little girl, also radically increased our family weight. I had to acknowledge that the deserts of Turkmenistan and the steppes of Kazachstan, though teeming with ancient lore, might not the best place for a toddler. A shorter and more child-friendly, though less fabled route, was then conceived – China to Singapore. But then Nora was born. And we had to reconsider once again our travel plans. With the increase of our family’s total weight and the decrease in participants’ age, the route had to undergo further reduction. Thus, the dramatic carst landscapes of Southern Thailand were replaced by the plains and channels of Eastern China.

What used to be a vague dream is soon to take place, albeit on a more modest scale. But as our departure day : the 1st of April 2015, – becomes a less and less abstract date set in the distant future, panic gradually takes over. Volker spends the weekends on the couch, immersed in maps and guidebooks, looking for every by-road, calculating distances, altitudes and elevations. With sparkling eyes he tells of the marvels on our way- ancient water-towns on the imperial channel, Daoist temples on a sacred mountain, saline plains in Liaoning. He speaks of temples, but all I see right now is an enclosure of cameras, mobile phones and Ipads facing us wherever we go. He envisions the sacred Mt. Tai – and I see us pushing for hours our super-heavy vehicle up endless serpentines. He dreams of showing our kids the wonders of the world, but all I can hear is constant whimpering from behind my back: “Wann sind wir endlich da?”

Then, one morning, as we zigzag between cars, buses and tourists at Potsdamer Platz, another thought strikes me. We will be biking in Shanghai! And Qingdao! And Beijing! And in countless other cities and towns that might be tiny dots on the map, but in reality have a million + inhabitants with the respective amount of cars, buses, exhaust gases – and no bicycle lanes or traffic rules. It’s hard enough to be a pedestrian in the crowds flooding downtown Shanghai – how could we possibly even take a turn with our extra-long vehicle on, let’s say, Nanjing Road? “I have an idea, my dear” – I shout through the traffic noise, „Let’s enjoy the rides through the countryside with the tandem. But when we approach a city, I’ll hop on a car with the kids, taking the luggage and the trailer. It’ll be so easy then for you to bike alone on the tandem to the hotel.” Volker does not even consider my remark worth a reply – only his back seems to get broader. That’s it, then – there is some serious city-biking ahead of us.

Then one day our bags arrive. Four fancy, red waterproof bicycle bags, each equipped with an outer pocket. I admire them until something Volker says catches my ear: “So, one bag for each of us”. What?! No way! I might get used to be travelling light, but what about the kids? Let’s start with the essentials – the emergency kit: sun-screen, mosquito repellent, sun-burn gel, insect-bite gel, microflora bacteria, Fieberzäpchen, Beruhigungszäpchen, globuli for infection, globuli for fever, globuli for injury, for bee-stings, for mosquito-bites, for sun-stroke, globuli for homesickness… Did I include the kids’ panacea – the pink plasters with princesses, that are generously applied on every minor ailment or as a fashion accessory? Even if I leave the bottle with herbal cough-syrup and the drops for inflammation of the inner ear, which had faithfully accompanied us during every journey abroad, it still makes an impressive pile. And if Sarah goes on a journey, then the doll Liza has to come along. And if Liza joins in, no way to leave Nora’s baby behind. And what about the clothing – April weather is April weather in China as well. Rain-coats, rain-trousers, fleece jackets, warm leggings, thin leggings, closed shoes, sandals…. Biking fashion does not appeal too much to the two looks-conscious girls in their princess phase, so forget about function clothing and throw in few long dresses with flower pattern. And don’t forget the Lillifee hair pins and the pink sun glasses.
And where will then all the tools, spare parts and electronics fit?

“Balkan!” is all Volker says. We, in Europe’s southeast, are of the fussy type.

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