Take a second to recall every example of bad driving you've ever witnessed. Excessive speed, excessive slowness, no-look lane changes, drifting out of lanes in curves, drifting out of lanes in straights, tailgating, hard braking, passing on blind curves, slowing down after passing, reversing on the motorway, stopping on an entrance ramp, talking with hands whilst using a mobile phone and driving a manual-transmission car, etcetera.
Now imagine a land where all of this is commonplace, where it happens with such regularity that no one cares. That land is called Italy.
I spend a week in the country's Tuscany region as part of my epic European adventure (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and I'm the only one using my horn. Everyone else seems to be OK with this. They thrive in it.
Making good progress through a particularly twisty bit of road one day, I get schooled by a dude on a Vespa. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. The strap on his 1/2 helmet is undone and a cigarette hangs from his lips. He waves cheerfully as he passes me in a corner.
In temperature and topography the area reminds me of Texas Hill Country. But, thankfully, no one here takes Toby Keith seriously. There is no air conditioning, and after a week in 38C (100F) heat I'm ready to head north. I push hard toward Genoa, then up the quiet space between Milan and Turin. The eastern side of the Piedmont region has a charming flatness. By European standards it is sparsely populated, which allows for some of the quietest roads I've experienced this side of the Atlantic.
I spend the night by a river in northern Italy's Gran Paradiso National Park. It is one of the prettiest places you could ever hope to go, but I don't get much chance to enjoy it. I'm up early the next morning and pushing toward Switzerland's capital city, Bern.
Before this trip, I knew little about Switzerland beyond its being home to watches, fancy knives, and WWE superstar Cesaro. Now it's one of my favorite countries. I arrive via Great St. Bernard Pass. The corners here are swooping, allowing more speed with less stress. The quality of the road is good. The views are incredible.
I make Bern by noon. Tomorrow, when I ride out, I will wish I had arrived earlier and stayed later. The primary reason for this is the Aare, a glacier-fed river that serves as a tributary to the Rhine (which I will be following back to the Netherlands over the next few days).
I first heard about swimming in the Aare five years ago. It's the nature of being an expat, however, that when I have money/time for travel it almost always gets spent on trips to Texas and Minnesota, where my family and friends are. The desire to come to Bern has been a constant, but it's taken me this long to get here. I've been missing out.
The jade-colored, mineral-rich Aare rushes through Bern at a pace of roughly 4.5 mph. That doesn't sound quick but it's faster than most people walk. It will pull you off your feet. Stand near the river's bracingly cold water and you'll hear the sound of its rocky bottom churning –– thousands of stones and pebbles being ground smooth. Dip your head below, and the sound is intense: a whooshing, crinkling ring. An adventure film would use this sound to represent something immense and unstoppable, something with its own gravity.
A gravity that pulls people to the river's banks and encourages them to jump in. It is hyperbole to say EVERYONE in Bern swims the Aare, but it's not a huge exaggeration. At any given time on any given warm day, you'll see hundreds of people in and near the river. You'll hear their laughs and shouts in response to the cold. A surprising number even let out a distinctive yodel: "Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"
A popular jump-in point is Eichholz, the urban campsite where I've pitched my tent. From here, it's a roughly mile-long float/swim to the city center. There is a ritual of getting in, of building yourself up mentally. People stand knee-deep in the water like wildebeest amassing at a crocodile-infested river, waiting for some instinctive cue to jump.
I wade in, feel my feet ache from the cold, and my shins go numb. Inspired by the Swiss yodels, I offer up my best grito and leap into the current. I pop my head out of the water with a deep, "huhuh" –– cold pushing air from my lungs. The flow is so strong I'm already 20 feet downriver. And just as quickly, I am the most purely happy I've been in a year.
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