My first flight out of America landed in Nürnberg, Germany, where the infamous Nazi trials took place. I was 9 or 10, and I was going to visit my friend Frank. Frank had studied with me at the German school for two years before his father’s visa expired and the family went back to Germany. Frank’s mom picked me up in a brightly checkered VW Golf, and we drove the 30 or so kilometers to their home in Spardorf. Situated in a tidy little suburb close to a major city, Spardorf was a model of German consistency: all the houses here looked identical, or at least intimately related. Hops and ivy attacked Frank’s house with an easy orderliness, and the front door had numbers written on it neatly in chalk. Frank’s backyard was small and green. In the distance, a dark forest, beyond a vast plot of golden wheat, beckoned.
If adventure is the opiate of childhood, bicycles were our drug. Since bikes were in short supply, I used one of Frank’s old bikes, as small and uncomfortable as it was. We rode our bikes into and out of the village, buying ice-cream and building fantasies with our slender imaginations. Then to the forest, where we would gather branches and imbue them with special powers before pumping down the road, farther into the city of trees. Our weapons now bursting with charge, we dueled. At the end of the day, Frank and I biked back home, discussing our favorite Power Rangers.
Adult supervision had a different meaning here. We never checked in with parents, nor had minders follow us around. We used our judgment, and if our judgment failed, our freedom was cuffed in a Chinese finger trap. (The trap was German-engineered.) The world operated according to a tightly choreographed symphony of rules. Expectations were very clear. Punishments were even clearer.
Several years later, I found out how much pain a bicycle could inflict. One afternoon, Frank, his father, Rudy, and I set out to visit a castle on a “little bike tour,” as Rudy called it. The castle was 30 kilometers away, and, like most successful castles, perched on top of a huge mountain. We reached the base of the hill after two hours. Rudy cycled to the back of the group to motivate us from behind. There was little doubt: there would be no quitting, no getting off the bike, no resting. We were going to scale the mountain. I remember groaning inwardly, annoyed that Rudy was such a lovable fanatic and frustrated that I could not curse his fanaticism without feeling guilty. After only a couple of meters of pedaling, my quads tensed up. Rudy yelled something motivational about “training” from behind us. Rudy was always talking about “training” this and “training” that. I tried to focus on the task of pedaling. My legs felt like logs being ripped through a sawmill. It was pretty clear after ten meters that I wouldn’t be able to make it, and I prepared myself for the inquisition I would get from Rudy as he passed me, slung his head back, and raised his eyebrows. I walked the rest of the way up with my too-small bicylce, panting. Rudy kept quiet.
Rudy’s wife, Barbara, looked exasperated and pained when she quizzed me, at the end of the day, about Rudy’s 60 kilometer death march. As my de facto custodian, she seemed genuinely concerned about the length of the tour and the part where we zipped down the mountain going so fast that the wind tugged tears from my eyes. Rudy kept scoffing at Barbara’s pleas to be reasonable next time, like he couldn’t be blamed if nothing had gone wrong. He laughed good-naturedly, hugging my sweaty shoulder, and asked me in a leading way whether I had ever felt scared along the way. “No, I didn’t,” I said. “Did you have fun?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” I said for Barbara’s sake. Truthfully, it was for my sake, too.