Cycle travel

Now that I’ve been home for a few days I’ve had some time to reflect on bicycle travel. Mainly, I want to do more of it. Perhaps the most exciting part of bicycle travel is studying, and I mean studying really hard, super extra-hard, to learn the foreign language of the country that you intend to visit so that you can have a great time never using it and instead talking to everyone in English except when you very cleverly ask the waiter for more water or where’s the bathroom can I please have a hamburguesa.

Before I went to Mallorca this time I studied Spanish for a year beforehand. No one in Mallorca speaks Spanish, or, more accurately, wanted to with me. Especially our Norwegians, who were pinned from morning to night teaching us how to speak English.

The only lengthy convo I had in Spanish in ten days was doing the security check on Delta with the nice lady who was standing between me and the gate in Madrid as I tried to get home. She interviewed every single passenger, or at least the suspicious ones, well, okay, me.

“Where have you been?” she inquired.

“All your life?” I asked, trying to make a joke that didn’t work at all.

“In Spain,” she said, harshly.


“Doing what?”

“Bicycling with Norwegians and Texans and Coloradans and a Virginian.”

“How many days?”

“About ten.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”


She immediately switched to Spanish. “Any other languages?”


“Which ones?”

“French, German, Chinese, Japanese, and I also happen to speak well English goodly.”

She got really suspicious. “Do you use these languages for your work?”

“No,” I said.

“Why so many?”

“So I can speak with people like you in order to get back on the plane into the U.S.”

“How did you learn them?”

“I studied.”

She was unhappy with all these answers, so she went back to the beginning, hoping to trip me up. “What were you doing in Mallorca?”


“Anything else?”

“Watching the Norwegians win the drinking competition and watching the Americans win the hangover competition.”

She scowled some more. “Why do you speak so many languages? If it’s not for your job, it’s not normal.”

“That describes me,” I said.

“What does?”

“Not normal.”

“Your Spanish is excellent. How did you learn it?”

“When I was 13 I got put in Mrs. Simon’s Spanish class at Jane Long Junior High by mistake. She named me ‘Franciso.'”

“Oh, you learned it in school.”

“No. They kicked me out of class when they found out it was for 9th Graders and I was only in 7th. I really hoped that they would put me in Mrs. Barrett’s class, I had a huge crush on her. She also taught Texas history and every year took the kids to the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, but she got divorced and moved out of state. I was totally in love with her.”

“Then how did you learn it if you were ejected from all classes?”

“Juan taught me, from El Salvador.”

“Who is he?”

“My parents got divorced when I was 15 and my dad was living in this little apartment complex off Braes Bayou called The Governor’s House, and Juan was the maintenance man, he had fled El Salvador’s civil war and he’d always be hanging around looking for somebody to chat with instead of maintaining, and I was kind of lonely and he taught me Spanish because he couldn’t speak a lick of English and I still remembered how to say, ‘My name is Francisco’ from my two days in Mrs. Simon’s class back in 7th Grade.”

“So you learned everything from a maintenance man? Can you read Spanish?”


“Did the maintenance man teach you?”

“No, that was later in high school when I took Spanish from Mrs. Perez.”

“How many years was that?”

“Two, but I failed both years and didn’t learn anything.”

“Then why can you read?”

“Because in college I took Spanish with Ms. Elias Barrientos. I aced Spanish then because I’d failed it so much in high school.”

“Okay,” she said. “You can board.”

“Don’t you want to know how I learned Japanese?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Which was a bummer, because I wanted to tell her about Dr. Fish Doctor, who taught me my first kanji in a subway. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that story before.



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23 thoughts on “Cycle travel”

      1. I know the truth; you’re that good at languages. Recall I witnessed you stopping to help lost Chinese tourists lost in LA …and switching to the right dialect. I will never forget the look of relief – and happiness – on their faces. Or, in Paris with French and Japanese colleagues at a big dinner and meeting where you simultaneously translated in French to Japanese and back w/ English for the only person couldn’t speak either language… thank you very much. Or your gig as a German translator AND interpreter. Or refining my conjugation of Spanish verbs on the way to a Spanish language interview. And those are just the ones I’ve seen firsthand.

    1. Wanna speak Spanish and have the guy with the leaf blower roll his eyes and answer you in English because your Spanish sucks 1,000 x worse than his English? Go to SoCal.

  1. Robert C in Redondo

    I’ve been trying to teach myself Italian for the last several months, were going to Italy to catch a few of the Giro stages in the Pyrenees. It’s kind of fun learning another language, but teaching this old dog new tricks isn’t easy.

    As always Seth, a great read, thanks!

    1. It’s not using it, it’s the fun of learning it and the anticipation of the travel. As a wise friend once said, “It’s not the flop in the bed, it’s the walk up the stairs.”

  2. I totally get the part about studying. Learning a new language is some of the most fun you can have off the bike.

    1. Not to mention shouting, “Gracias!” when cars wait to let you pass.

  3. Learning language, even my native tongue was for me, an experience similar to Toms Skujins crash. My brain just isn’t wired up for it, now if need someone with a brain full of useless information, I’m your man.

  4. I just finished a week of travel in southern Germany. I brushed up on my rusty German before leaving and I was surprised that I didn’t meet any Germans whose English was better than my German, which isn’t great. Even the English-speaking guide at Neuschwanstein Castle (apparently copied from the Disneyland castle) had such a thick German accent she was difficult for me to understand–and most of the people on the tour were not English speakers but took the English tour because they were even less German speakers.

    In contrast, I’ve never met a German in L.A. whose English was worse than my German. I suppose all the Germans who speak English real good move to Amerika.

    In France, where I am now, few people outside of Paris even try to speak English. They still think French is so important that everyone should learn it. So you CAN speak a foreign language you’ve studied in foreign country if you pick the right language and the right country.

    1. So, there’s this thing called irony, sometimes (feebly) disguised as humor … never mind … and enjoy your trip!!

  5. Your Spanish must be pretty damn good if you were able to have that conversation. I’m not sure I’d be up to it even in English.

    Also, the comment from BAR about you translating French/Japanese was too funny: I thought I was the only American I knew who had done that. I was in a tiny town in Provence called Murs about 10 years ago and stopped in at a patisserie. These two hapless young Japanese women came into the shop, looking for eclairs or something but speaking no French. The shopkeeper, it goes without saying, spoke no Japanese. How fortunate for both parties that this random gaijin was there and could interpret for them both.

    Languages are fun.

  6. If you lawyer as goodly as you write, if I’m ever on Dearh Row….

    I go to Israel in two days for two weeks. I speak Hebrew, used to be fluent, but I’m rusty. I signed up for 2 guided bike tours, but I don’t know the Hebrew terms for bicycling stuff since I wasn’t a cyclist when I lived there. Speed Cadence sensor is חיישן מהירות according to a translator app. First day is in the Galilee and second day, hills of Jerusalem. Don’t know if Ill meet any Norwegians.

    1. Sounds like a great trip. The practice makes the trip better, whether you use it or not!

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