The Kindness of Strangers

When people post a video of a man taking care of an injured bird and caption it ‘Faith in humanity restored’, I often think that too much bad has happened in the world for just one rescued bird to make up for it – but this might just be my cynicism (I suppose lots of individuals saving lots of birds would make a difference, eventually). However, two stand out things have happened during my travels, which do force me to stand back and accept that humanity isn’t lying face down, dead in the water.

1. I was cycling to Portugal with a friend as part of a charity ride (see the Europe page), about to cross the Spanish border after a week of pacing it down the West coast of France. After cycling down through the cobbled streets around Urruna, my heart slumped realising that it was becoming tough to pedal. Looking down, the inevitable had happened: puncture. We had used our last inner tube on a previous flat, and our pump lay lost on the side of the road from a few days previous. Typically, we had gotten about 5km out of town before I had noticed, and we hadn’t passed any bike shops. It was bang in the middle of the French lunch break (which goes on for hours!) and we realised we wouldn’t make our target of 100km that day. George cycled back to Urruna to try and find somewhere, leaving me on the side of the road trying to flag down cyclists.

We rarely spotted other long-distance, road cyclists on our trip, and today was no exception. Cycling back up the hills, George would take longer than it took us to come down. After half an hour, an old man of around 70 on a battered moped, pulled up and started to speak in French. We shook hands, I mimed what had happened, and he grabbed my wheel, tucking it in between his legs whilst he remounted his bike. I was pretty sure he was saying “Twenty minutes,” over and over, but wasn’t sure. The man and the moped sped off into the distance. I phoned George, who had reached a shop and was awaiting it to reopen.
“You f***ing what?!” The surreal nature of what had happened didn’t translate well over a phone call. “You’ve been politely mugged, that’ll look great on his bike at home, that’s what he was thinking!” A quarter of an hour later, George was back with me, shaking his head in disbelief at my one-wheeled bike resting on the side of the road.
“Is he coming back then, what odds are you giving me?”, I asked.
“50/1,”
The language barrier made it difficult to make a snap decision, especially on my own. Even in England, I’d be reluctant to give a fairly important part of my bike away to a total stranger; but an hour later  (I must have mistranslated his “20 minutes”), a little beep was heard in the distance. The old man, with a fist of solidarity in the air, had come through for me – with a new, pumped up inner tube. He didn’t stay long enough for me to even think about paying him, but looked delighted at George’s face of disbelief. We fist-bumped before he turned around on the pavement and rode off again, fist in air, tooting his horn. Bizarrely nice of him.

2. Back cycling in France again, this time to Rome, we were on Day #3; having just past Evry, and now on the rural roads towards Montargis. The first 3 days had been a nightmare, with a night sleeping rough, multiple punctures and being bombarded by firecrackers cycling through a particularly rough neighbourhood. Day #3, however, had been filled with smooth roads and glorious weather.
“This is how I imagined it,” said Logan, in true ‘Top Gear’ fashion. Literally, as he said that, Trotter looked up at a church in Moigny-sur-Ecole and his front wheel buckled into a pothole. Travelling at 40kmph behind him, I attempted a bunny-hop over the sprawled out mess. My front wheel got caught in his drop bars and sent me flying over the top of my bike, landing on my chin with the flint of the road digging in deep.

Logan turned back and saw the two of us covered in blood. Bad news for our third day. Good news, however, that a French family (mothered by a saint called Pierrette) were eating dinner in their dining room; and had been treated to the spectacle of two English men ‘flying’ through the air – the height of their window meant they couldn’t see our bikes. All 6 of them rushed out, pouring water over me, pulling our mangled bikes off the road and calling the emergency numbers. Within minutes, an ambulance was there. My E111 card (worth it’s weight in gold, hoping that recent politics doesn’t see the end of them) came into play and we got the full siren treatment as all 3 of us drove back up towards Evry. It hadn’t even dawned on us that we had left our bags and bikes on the side of the road.

Once my chin was stitched up, we roamed around the hospital and found 3 unused beds. We were woken up by a nurse who had brought us Coco Pops, croissants and coffee. Bizarre treatment for a hospital. And once we had finished our breakfast and had taken our bowls back to the hospital canteen, we saw Pierrette stood at reception; asking about the three English boys. She had driven an hour out of her village to the hospital, calling ahead to explain and to ensure that we had been fed. She took us back to Moigny-sur-Ecole, and when we arrived she showed us where she had stored our bikes. Her granddaughter spoke better English than her, she she explained that Pierette’s husband is a surgeon-turned-mechanic; who had spent the morning fixing, welding and sanding our damaged bikes. Furthermore, they had booked us a night in a local hotel. Their entire evening, and a considerable amount of their morning, had been spent ensuring that we were okay. They appeared embarrassed when we bought them beer and wine as a thank you, saying “Inutile” to our “Merci”‘s. And then, we went on our way.

Both times, members of the public went completely out of their way to help someone in need; the old man drove back the way he had came to fix my wheel, adding an hour or so onto his journey to wherever; Pierrette’s family spending time and money to fix our injuries and our bikes. Neither asked for payment, instead acting embarrassed when offered.

I was reminded of these events when scrolling through Facebook yesterday. The Rwuandan man must have felt very similiar to me and George as we watched ‘Moped Man’ drive off.

I stopped on my way home to help a cyclist who had a flat tyre. Fixed his puncture and had a long chat, he escaped the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 by walking through the Jungle in Congo. He genuinely couldn’t understand why a random white man would stop and help him and he kept saying he had no money to pay me. He only knows one white man that he can call a friend and that guy lives in Bristol. He thanked me, hugged me and we went our separate ways. What a lovely guy. I just hope the tyre stays up.

 

I have promised myself that if I ever see a cyclist in need, I’ll stop by and offer help; driving to the nearest bike shop if needs be. I’d like to think I would have done it before experiencing being on the other side first, but I never had the opportunity to. If more people do, and do it for the good of the community rather than just to harvest ‘Likes’, then maybe I’ll be able to accept the ‘Restored my faith in humanity’ posts.

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