Tales from the past

3. How to impress your co-corrector

The fall after the cycling tour in my gap year, in October 2014, I started my studies at the Bonn university. Studying mathematics was as intense as I expected it to be. I remember many hours hunched over exercise sheets and lecture notes confusedly trying to understand what is really going on. It may not have helped that I often took all lectures interesting me, which tended to be many.

But studying also came with a lot of freedom. After the exams, August and September was usually free to spend however one wanted. I used the breaks after my first and second year for more cycling tours. The first one took me around the baltic sea, from Helsinki via St. Petersburg to Berlin. Doing nothing but cycling for six weeks after an entire year studying and thinking hard felt unreal. At 19 and on my second tour, I felt much more confident than at 17. Instead of wild camping, I started to knock on people’s doors in the evening to ask whether I could camp in their garden. Almost always, people said yes. On top of that, everywhere in Eastern Europe, they would inevitably invite me in for dinner with them. Sometimes we would just communicate via pantomime, but sometimes they would also call somebody who spoke German or English. I couldn’t thank everyone I encountered enough for the hospitality they showed me. The evenings with good food, friendly people and a glimpse into their lives quickly became the highlight of my tour. It felt like I really got to know the countries, instead of just traveling through them.

Doing something completely different for a while also didn’t seem to hurt my studies – the semester after my first tour was one of the ones I feel I learned most in, even though I took quite a lot of courses. I’m sure being fully relaxed at the start had helped.

My second tour in Summer 2016 took me from Bonn over the alps and through the Balkan to Thessaloniki in Greece. Having figured out how brillant asking people with a tent works, I did it all the time. Sleeping in a barn next to a horse while a mountain thunderstorm rages outside and the hail pounds on the roof? Check. Sleeping in a castle? Check. Cycling through a small Greek village – so small that it feels like everybody has heard that a peculiar foreigner is cycling through the village before I even fully crossed it – and finding a host inviting me to his minuscule one room apartment? Check.

That last time, I actually got quite a surprised when an hour after darkness, a Greek policeman pounded on the door. I didn’t speak Greek and he didn’t speak English. Eventually, I understood that he had heard from the villagers that I was staying here and wanted to offer me a better place to sleep than the cramped apartment. I thanked him warmly but declined, as to not offend my friendly host.
When I arrived in Thessaloniki, I had two days to my return flight to Bonn and three days to the start of the new semester. I had taken my bicycle apart and packed it up with all my luggage in a giant cardboard box. The last night, I spent in an apartment in proximity of the airport, next to the beach.
It was quite hard to find a cab big enough to transport the box, but I eventually I found one to take me to the new apartment (taximeter off). The driver agreed to drive me to the airport the next day.
When the next day comes, everything is there: The Greek sun, blue skies, me, the ridiculously heavy box with my bicycle. The only thing missing is the cab taking me to the airport. The driver doesn’t pick up is cellphone and I start to get desperate: Only two precious hours to my flight and without the cab, no way to transport the box to the airport. While I curse, I finally notice an old trailer down the road. When I ask the neighbour it belongs to, he is very hesitant at first. When he hears I’m German, his face lights up and he agrees to takes me and my bicycle to the airport. Apparently, he had made good experiences working in Germany two decades earlier; being cross with the landlady of the apartment I stayed in, he tells me that he wouldn’t have taken me if I had been from anywhere else.The box barely fits onto the trailer and seems to rip open at one side, but we make it to the airport in time.

When we arrive at the German airport late at night, I’m as tired as I’ve ever been, having had a lot of stress and a long flight behind me. The box with my bicycle looks like it’s been through a war, barely holding together anymore. I briefly consider ditching the box, but my bike is still disassembled and it would take too long to get it functional again. So there is no option but to push and shove it to the bus, hoping that the box will make it. I have to change trains at the main station and am briefly wary of what I should do there? Should I simply ask a passer-by to help with the box?

But lo and behold, when I get onto the bus, I see Diogo, a post-doc at my university, who was also the teaching assistant for one of my lectures. We have never talked to each other, but mathematicians are all a big family, right? He seems quite surprised to see me in this state, but being a friendly, he offers to help me with the box. Together, we try to carry it down a slope to the platform I have to take – alas, after 20 meters, the cardboard box breaks and all of the luggage and disassembled bicycle pour onto the floor. I quickly put the front wheel back in, but can’t do anything about the handle bar. In the end, I carry the various bags while Diogo tries to roll the bicycle (without its handlebar) down the slope without it steering to either side. It is a fight, but in the end we succeed to get me, my bicycle and my luggage to the right platform. When we part ways, Diogo looks like he is wondering whether our encounter was a particularly weird dream.

One year later, I see him again in an academic function, when he becomes the co-corrector of my Bachelor’s thesis. There, as at random encounters at late buses, he was as nice and helpful as he could have been.