Around the World on a Bicycle

In 1884, the 29 year old Thomas Stevens set out from San Fransisco on the 'modern mechanical invention' of the Penny Farthing to circumnavigate the globe on his 'big wheel'. His book - "Around the World on a Bicycle" - was published in 1888 and his writings are presented here in blog form. Read more in the archive.

Songs in Slavonia

Six o'clock next morning finds us travelling southward into the interior of Slavonia; but we are not mounted, for the road presents an unridable surface of mud, stones, and ruts, that causes my companion's favorite ejaculatory expletive to occur with more than its usual frequency. For a portion of the way there is a narrow sidepath that is fairly ridable, but an uninvitingly deep ditch runs unpleasantly near, and no amount of persuasion can induce my companion to attempt wheeling along it. Igali's bump of cautiousness is fully developed, and day by day, as we journey together, I am becoming more and more convinced that he would be an invaluable companion to have accompany one around the world; true, the journey would occupy a decade, or thereabout, but one would be morally certain of coming out safe and sound in the end. During our progression southward there has been a perceptible softening in the disposition of the natives, this being more noticeably a marked characteristic of the Slavonians; the generous southern sun, shining on the great area of Oriental gentleness, casts a softening influence toward the sterner north, imparting to the people amiable and genial dispositions. It takes but comparatively small deeds to win the admiration and applause of the natives of the Lower Danube, with their childlike manners; and, by slowly meandering along the roadways of Southern Hungary occasionally with his bicycle, Igali has become the pride and admiration of thousands.

For mile after mile we have to trundle our way slowly along the muddy highway as best we can, our road leading through a flat and rather swampy area of broad, waving wheat-fields; we relieve the tedium of the journey by whistling, alternately, "Yankee Doodle," to which Igali has taken quite a fancy since first hearing it played by the gypsy band in the wine-garden at Szekszard three days ago, and the Hungarian national air - this latter, of course, falling to Igali's share of the entertainment. Having been to college in Paris, Igali is also able to contribute the famous Marseillaise hymn, and, not to be outdone, I favor him with " God Save the Queen" and "Britannia Rules the Waves," both of which he thinks very good tunes-the former seeming to strike his Hungarian ear, however, as rather solemn. In the middle of the forenoon we make a brief halt at a rude road-side tavern for some refreshments - a thick, narrow slice of raw, fat bacon, white with salt, and a level pint of red wine, satisfying my companion; but I substitute for the bacon a slice of coarse, black bread, much to Igali's wonderment. Here are congregated several Slavonian shepherds, in their large, ill-fitting, sheepskin garments, with the long wool turned inward-clothes that apparently serve them alike to keep out the summer's heat and the winter's cold. One of the peasants, with ideas a trifle befuddled with wine, perhaps, and face all aglow with admiration for our bicycles, produces a tattered memorandum and begs us to favor him with our autographs, an act that of itself proves him to be not without a degree of intelligence one would scarcely look for in a sheepskin-clad shepherd of Slavonia. Igali gruffly bids the man "begone," and aims a careless kick at the proffered memorandum; but seeing no harm in the request, and, moreover, being perhaps by nature a trifle more considerate of others, I comply. As he reads aloud, "United States, America," to his comrades, they one and all lift their hats quite reverently and place their brown hands over their hearts, for I suppose they recognize in my ready compliance with the simple request, in comparison with Igali's rude rebuff-which, by the way, no doubt comes natural enough-the difference between the land of the prince and peasant, and the land where "liberty, equality, and fraternity" is not a meaningless motto - a land which I find every down-trodden peasant of Europe has heard of, and looks upward to.

Soon after this incident we are passing a prune-orchard, when, as though for our especial benefit, a couple of peasants working there begin singing aloud, and with evident enthusiasm, some national melody, and as they observe not our presence, at my suggestion we crouch behind a convenient clump of bushes and for several minutes are favored with as fine a duet as I have heard for many a day; but the situation becomes too ridiculous for Igali, and it finally sends him into a roar of laughter that causes the performance to terminate abruptly, and, rising into full view, we doubtless repay the singers by letting them see us mount and ride into their native village, but a few hundred yards distant. We are to-day passing through villages where a bicycle has never been seen - this being outside the area of Igali's peregrinations - and the whole population invariably turns out en masse, clerks, proprietors, and customers in the shops unceremoniously dropping everything and running to the streets; there is verily a hurrying to and fro of all the citizens; husbands hastening from magazine to dwelling to inform their wives and families, mothers running to call their children, children their parents, and everybody scampering to call the attention of their sisters, cousins, and aunts, ere we are vanished in the distance, and it be everlastingly too late.

We have been worrying along at some sort of pace, with the exception of the usual noontide halt, since six o'clock this morning, and the busy mosquito is making life interesting for belated wayfarers, when we ride into Sarengrad and put up at the only gasthaus in the village. Our bedroom is situated on the ground floor, the only floor in fact the gasthaus boasts, and we are in a fair way of either being lulled to sleep or kept awake, as the case may be, by a howling chorus of wine-bibbers in the public room adjoining; but here, again, Igali shows up to good advantage by peremptorily ordering the singers to stop, and stop instanter. The amiably disposed peasants, notwithstanding the wine they have been drinking, cease their singing and become silent and circumspect, in deference to the wishes of the two strangers with the wonderful machines.
We now make a practice of taking our bicycles into our bedroom with us at night, otherwise every right hand in the whole village would busy itself pinching the "gum-elastic" tires and pedal-rubbers, twirling the pedals, feeling spokes, backbone, and forks, and critically examining and commenting upon every visible portion of the mechanism; and who knows but that the latent cupidity of some easy-conscienced villager might be aroused at the unusual sight of so much "silver" standing around loose (the natives hereabout don't even ask whether the nickelled parts of the bicycle are silver or not; they take it for granted to be so), and surreptitiously attempt to chisel off enough to purchase an embroidered coat for Sundays. From what I can understand of their comments among themselves, it is perfectly consistent with their ideas of the average Englishman that he should bestride a bicycle of solid silver, and if their vocabulary embraced no word corresponding to our "millionnaire," and they desired to use one, they would probably pick upon the word "Englander" as the most appropriate.

Posted in stevens blog by Stuart on Saturday 13th Jun 1885 (23:00 +0200) | Add a comment | Permalink

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