Saturday, September 15, 2012

To Peris(h) by Bicycle

"We are going to perish by bicycle."  Bucharest friend and bicyclist Rupert Wolfe Murray got my attention with those words a week ago.

It's time for another bicycle interlude.   Although this web journal carries the subtitle The Adventures of a Transgender Foreign Service Bicyclist, I've written so infrequently on bicycle themes that I'm scarcely justified keeping bicyclist in the title.  Looking back, I see just a handful of postings in which the bicycle has rolled out to center stage.

New readers interested mainly in transgender and transition-related issues may wonder why they should read about my bicycle adventures.  The answer is simple.  I would not be a bicyclist today if I were not transgender.  My life as an adult cyclist began in 1990 in the aftermath of my week in a psychiatric ward following my attempt to speak openly of being transgender.  As I succumbed to pressure and retreated to the closet, I fell into a deep depression.  I owe my emotional survival in the 1990s to a friend who both accepted me and recognized the pressures I was facing.  It is this friend who put me back on two wheels for the first time in many a long year.  (See Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 7).)

Since 1990 the bicycle has been my primary mode of transportation.  Before joining the Foreign Service, I rode 5000-7000 miles per year, most of it as a daily commuter.  My annual mileage has dropped to half that since I went overseas due to shorter daily commutes and good public transit, but in Bucharest just as in Washington, DC, the bicycle gives me the wings I need to live as a mobile woman of the modern age.  My Rivendell Atlantis takes me everywhere both by day and by night and is nearly an extension of myself.

Riding a bicycle in traffic also taught me an important lesson that became my guiding principle during my transition:  Be visible and be predictable.  In transition as in riding a bicycle, safety is counter-intuitive.  Hugging the curb and staying out of the way for fear of traffic, that's what will get one hurt on a bicycle.   Remember that and riding as an urban cyclist will be a breeze.  Staying in the shadows for fear of how friends and family will react is a recipe for failure in gender transition.   Visibility and predictability are as important in transition as they are in riding a bicycle.  At least they were for me as I rode my bicycle and transitioned gender in Bucharest, Romania.

So back to Rupert, whom I know to be very sane and not prone to talk of sudden death.  

"No, not perish, but Peris(h)," Rupert said as he spread out the map.  "It's a small town north of Bucharest."

We headed out on Saturday morning into the weekend traffic that in its character is little different from weekend traffic in Washington, DC.  In Romania as in the US, weekends are the time for families to run the errands that accumulate during the week.  Traffic was as heavy as on any weekday.

But not for long.   Within 30 minutes we passed the city zoo and entered an oak forest on Bucharest's northern edge.  On the road I set the pace, but in the woods I lagged far behind.  My Atlantis is a touring bicycle built for the road, and I have little off-road riding experience as it is.  Rupert waited patiently for me at key turning points, and a number of times he had to wait longer still as I had to dismount and walk my bicycle around ruts, mud, and other obstacles beyond my riding limits.  But in the saddle or on foot, it was a lovely end of summer day to be in nature, outside the city.

Out of the woods and back on the road, we pushed on northward.  As we did, I watched Rupert with his shirt blowing in the wind and thought to myself, "You know, he really is rather handsome."  Slowly but perceptibly, my perceptions of men and of male beauty are changing.

Then we were in another forest.  Here it was a dirt road, not a forest path.  We should have suspected something from the smooth surface and something further still when we went around a barricade.  There were no vehicles of any kind other than us on the road, and the only sounds were those of the forest and of our own wheels on the gravel . . . until a pack of barking dogs bounded around the bend to tell us we were unwelcome.   We dismounted, walked around the bend, and discovered we had come to the road's end at a run-down looking military facility. Rupert inquired in Romanian whether we could cross to get to the road on the north side of the woods.  The guard's gestures alone were enough to tell me the answer was "No!"  Instead, we backtracked, found a spot where we could exit the woods into a field, and stopped for lunch in the shade.  After that we walked our bikes across a harvested field, the remains at our feet telling us it had been a field of sunflowers.

Country roads took us the rest of the way to Peris(h).  The accent is on the first syllable, and the "s" is a Romanian "s" with a cedilla underneath telling that it is pronounced as "sh."  When Rupert had shown me the town on the map, I realized I had already been there in 2010 on the weekend after I had first reassembled my Atlantis in Bucharest.  It had been a chilly November day, and I had ridden entirely on-road.  I was already surreptitiously cross-dressing but was uncertain whether I should reach out to anyone.  Nervous brooding filled my mind for that entire ride. My fateful conversation with Kyna was still two or three weeks away.  (See Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1.)

So why go to Peris(h)?  I learned the answer when we pulled up to the gate before a Romanian home on a side street.  A woman walked out to greet us in American English with a Texas accent.

Rupert introduced us. "RM, this is Nancy."  Minutes later we were seated on her porch sipping Coca Cola that tasted so wonderfully American after a long ride.

Nancy's husband is a well known Romanian artist and architect, and everything about their home shows this.  They designed the house themselves, and artwork hangs everywhere, even in the bathroom.  Nancy had worked at a university in Texas, where she met her husband in the late 1980s when he had the status of a political refugee on the run from Ceausescu's regime in its brutal final years.   Now they live on the plot of land in this small Romanian town that had belonged to his family before World War II.  Everything about their home speaks of a deep love that has transcended nationalities and politics.

They also live in Romania for very practical reasons.  

"Here my pension is worth something," Nancy told me. "I wouldn't be able to live on it the US anymore."  

That part of Nancy's story caught my attention as I also grapple with the fact that I have lost most of my savings.  I am now less than seven years away from my mandatory retirement from the Foreign Service.  Might I decide to spend my retirement in Romania or Moldova?  That idea is starting to sound more and more reasonable to me.

With Nancy and Her Grand-Nieces
The family picture was rounded out when Nancy's two grand-nieces drove up.  Now the conversations were about their jobs, parties, and boyfriends.  I felt I could have been on a front porch anywhere in the heartland of my own country.

The autumnal equinox is not far away, and I saw from the clock that it was 6pm, time to leave if I did not want to be caught on the road long after dark.  Rupert was staying in Peris(h) for the night, but I had things I needed to do on Sunday.  Reluctantly, I got back on my bike and went on my way, this time entirely on-road.  I paused a short distance outside Bucharest where the highway crosses the railway tracks on a tall, arching bridge in Buftea.  I stood at the top and watched as the sun sank to the horizon.  I thought back on the distance I had come in the nearly two years since I last crossed that bridge.  I looked at the odometer and saw that it would show 100km by the time I reached home, but in my heart I knew that the odometer lies.   In the two years since my last ride to Peris(h), I have journeyed a lifetime, a distance no odometer can measure.

Then I turned on my lights, threw my leg over the top tube, and pushed off for home . . . and the future.

* * * * * * * * * *

For other bicycle-related postings in Transgender in State, see --

Rupert writes for the Huffington Post and is also an prolific blogger.  You can find Rupert's personal web journal, which includes a number of posts about bicycling in Romania, at  

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