Andy had already built and tested it by the time I arrived at his little apartment in Tbilisi with its high ceilings and vine-strangled veranda and grand wooden doors so typical of the city’s vintage townhouses. With a blue and white paint job, the sturdy little machine sitting in the basement looked absolutely perfect for what was likely to be a very long and challenging task. I was also due to renew my four-month visa, which simply involved crossing the border into Georgia and returning the following day. So the fourteen-hour overnight train trip served three purposes: to appease the bureaucrats, to visit my old best mate in his new surrounds, and to collect the bicycle that would depart Armenia beside me – with Tenny at the handlebars.
She was so excited when I returned to Yerevan with her brand new bike! Seeing the world had been a dream for her for as long as she could remember, although I suspected that she hadn’t expected the opportunity to arrive in this form (or with that much facial hair). With a couple of months to go until completing a five-year design scholarship at Yerevan’s Institute of Fine Art, it had not been difficult to see that continuing the journey as a couple really might be a feasible option. Propelled by the headiness of our early romance, we began making rash, exciting plans to wander the world together.
‘How would you feel about going to Africa?’
‘Oh, I really want to go to Africa! I want to see the people, the colours . . . very natural, everything. And, er, small children – er – nigger? Nigger? Am I right?’
‘Erm. You can’t say that in England.’
‘Black people . . . ?’
‘Mmm-hmm . . .’
‘Black people children. Oh, they’re lovely!’
‘But you really can’t say “nigger” in England.’
‘It’s very . . . politically incorrect.’
‘Yes, OK. Ha ha! Oh my god – sorry – I would like to have black child! I don’t know – they are lovely. They are all the same!’
‘Oh dear . . .’
There were one and a half million black people in Britain. In Armenia, there were two. One had married an Armenian woman, and now played for the national football team. The other owned a cocktail bar.
‘Yeah – every time they are naked, and they are running – oh! It’s good . . . yes. And . . . what?’
‘Oh – er – nothing.’
Unfortunately, Tenny was one of the eighty million people unfortunate enough to hold an Iranian passport. As I looked through the practicalities of the overland routes we might take, I discovered that there was a list of fewer than ten countries in the world that she could visit as a tourist without a lot of protracted, expensive, restrictive and by-no-means-guaranteed visa applications in Tehran, which hardly sounded compatible with the open-ended odyssey I had in mind. Suddenly I was confronted by a horrible truth: the reason I never met travellers from anywhere other than Europe and North America was not because of a lack of desire to travel on the part of the rest of the world. It was simply because they were not allowed. Sticking a pin in a map would never work for them. Dreams alone hadn’t taken twenty-nine-year-old Tenny any further afield than Armenia, one of the few nations still open to her. And this wasn’t just true for Iranians. It was true for pretty much everyone.
I realised what an enormous privilege it was to be able to travel with the freedom I’d taken for granted until now. My countrymen and I had instant access to a hundred and seventy-one nations; the ability to pop over to almost any spot on the planet whenever we damn well felt like it, thank you very much. The same was true for almost every Western national, who together made up a tiny proportion of the planet’s population, and it was sickening how many took that privilege for granted and instead sat at home in front of their televisions absorbing other people’s twisted opinions about the world. The thought made me furious. What the hell was everybody doing, lapping up that complete and utter crap every day? Didn’t they know how lucky they were to be able to see the world for themselves?
I felt helpless in the face of this obstacle; one that all the cycle-touring experience in the world would never help us to circumvent. The least bureaucratically treacherous route I could find turned out to involve forgetting Africa – again – and instead heading for India, via Pakistan and Tenny’s homeland of Iran. Though there would still be paperwork required, it would in theory be possible, and I reassured Tenny, as my mother would say, that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ – even though I had barely the faintest belief in the old saying at that moment.
My mum – bless her. She had inherited a stockpile of those phrases from her Lincolnshire family, and would always pull one out half jokingly during a pause in a delicate discussion. It always managed to bring a bit of perspective, reminding us that mankind’s collective wisdom had already immortalised our conundrum in a clever little package of words.
I hadn’t expected to see her and my dad again so soon.
It was quite a brave move, I thought, for two semi-retired schoolteachers from rural England to jet off to an overlooked corner of the former Soviet Union that most Brits couldn’t even point out on a map. As they emerged through the arrivals gate at Zvartnots airport on the edge of the city, looking tired and pulling suitcases stuffed full with new cycle-touring equipment for Tenny, I wondered what this place would look like to someone who had woken up that morning in Middleton. A child grew from conception to birth in the time it took me to get here. My parents had done so before the sun completed a single traverse of the sky. How did that feel? What did they see, as we exited this smoky concrete monolith and began to haggle with smelly Lada-driving cabbies over the five-dollar fare for the twelve-mile ride home, past the seedy neon casino strip beside the city limits and through the dark tree-lined boulevards of pink stone and black BMWs and orange streetlamps? I couldn’t imagine. It seemed so unnatural to skip continents like that. Yet it was the default mode of international transport for almost everyone alive. People didn’t travel for a slow release of small rewards along the way. They travelled to escape. To work. To do something specific. To visit a premeditated destination, for a premeditated amount of time. Yerevan, for a fortnight. The journey there existed for functional purposes and should be as quick and forgettable as possible – in precise opposition to my own journey: slow and memorable, the destination no more important than the colour of my T-shirt.
We exited the taxi near the entrance to my decrepit apartment building. There were no streetlights here. The pavement was torn up through years of use and neglect. A metal service door hung from its hinges, slightly open, and a couple of stray cats darted out and disappeared into the night as we felt our way past with the suitcases. The stink of rubbish drifted through the half-open doorway from the basement room where great heaps of refuse lay uncollected at the bottom of the garbage chute, waiting for a sporadic visit from a collection truck as they had done ever since the Soviet government collapsed almost twenty years ago and the elaborate support systems of communism were left to rot and rust.
Passing the bare tin-roofed gazebo where old men played chess and backgammon all day, we climbed a small flight of external stairs to the building’s main entrance. Gingerly my mother and father stepped over the steel threshold of the dark rectangular opening and past the remains of the mechanical security code keypad, the door itself and the stairway’s railings long since plundered for scrap, the keypad now nothing but a few scraps of welded metal surrounding a row of circles punched from the steel. Passing the row of disused mailboxes that still drooped from the wall as they did in apartment blocks spanning the ten thousand kilometres from Kaliningrad to the Bering Straits, we clambered up another flight of pre-fabricated concrete stairs, polished smooth by decades of use, turned left at the first landing and jabbed at the dim red spot beside the elevator. Some distant machine sprang into life and a clattering and a clanking heralded the arrival of the lift. The double doors slammed back with a squeal of tortured metal to reveal the dark brown interior, barely illuminated by a greenish pallor from above and with half-peeled stickers and hastily-pasted adverts for taxi services and computer repairs adorning the walls, and I wondered when it would next break down and the neighbours come knocking for a contribution to hire a repairman. Being too small and weak for three people and luggage, I left my parents in the lift and climbed three more flights of stairs in the darkness, praying that the shambolic contraption would deliver its payload safely rather than plummet into the pitch-black depths of the shaft in a tragic explosion of splintered chipboard and human limbs, as the mysterious noises and daily outages suggested it would one day surely do.
But it was my home, and I was strangely happy here. Inside the flat, Tenny heard the great double-bladed brass key turning twice in the lock and leapt from the sofa, forgetting to turn off the television in a rush of nervous apprehension. And thus did the the first meeting between my parents and my Iranian-Armenian girlfriend occur, in an edifice carved from the bleakest period of Soviet history and amid the bloodcurdling shrieks of Armenia’s very own version of X-Factor.
My mum and dad took to Tenny immediately. It would take a little more work for Tenny’s parents to follow suit with me.
First of all was the fact that I was English. English. Weren’t there enough perfectly-good Armenians to choose from? And second, that I’d just rolled up on my bike, unannounced, and that almost immediately said bike was on their eldest daughter’s balcony and my clothes were in her wardrobe. I might as well have landed from Mars! An English tramp, with a bicycle instead of a job, looking like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards and speaking not a word of their language, had snatched away their precious first daughter from her close-knit Iranian-Armenian surroundings and showed every sign of lingering like a bad smell. This simply wouldn’t do at all.
I first met Tenny’s father in her flat over a delicious meal of saffron chicken and rice, cooked into a mysteriously sumptuous plate of food that only an Iranian would ever be able to pull off. At the time, I was camped out in a friend’s flat, Tenny being far too afraid to let me stay at hers while her father was visiting. And I made the almighty error of bringing my digital camera along, foolishly hoping to win him over with a selection of heroic photos of my travels. Instead, he picked up the camera after the meal and began flicking through the pictures himself. This would have been perfectly fine had he not quickly come across the pictures I’d taken of his daughter one morning as she fooled around in her nightie and lay down next to me in her bed. A moment of silent horror came over me as I realised what he was seeing. He turned off the camera without a word while Tenny and I pretended that nothing whatsoever unusual had happened. And the very next day I received instructions to remove my bike from her balcony and to take all of my belongings away.
I was not put off. I cared too much for Tenny to let that happen. But that night put an end to the fairy-tale romance. I rented my own flat, and a difficult period of secret meetings began that would last for several weeks. As time went by and Tenny remained persistent in my defence, it must have become obvious that I was not going anywhere and that our relationship was a choice that we, two adults with enough maturity to know what we were doing, had made. And gradually Tenny’s parents must have realised that their daughter’s happiness would not be complete until they accepted her very own hairy English biker.
The acceptance did not come without reservation, however, and it was upon an otherwise unremarkable summer’s morning that the idea of travelling together by bicycle was first mentioned to Tenny’s mother.
Mentioned, and instantly shut down.
‘The situation is . . . the situation is that I am not allowed to go travelling.’
Tenny was slumped in a chair in Serineh’s living-room, gazing at the floor, fiddling absently with her mobile phone.
‘The situation is that . . . I’m useless. I’m not thinking serious. I’m not acting like other girls my age . . . I’m still not independent . . .’
Serineh and I sat quietly, listening.
‘Yeah. The situation is . . . not nice.’
‘What . . . what do you think we should do?’
‘I don’t know. But I don’t want my mother go back to Iran and tell my father, “I think you should go to Yerevan, because we are not sure what Tenny is going to do.”’
In Britain, parents’ legal responsibility for their children ends on their eighteenth birthday. Most adolescents’ de facto independence begins much earlier than that. That aside, I was in lucky possession of a family who had always supported me rather than trying to restrict me, even when they thought that I was making a mistake. My own sense of independence was maybe why, at the age of twenty-three, I’d had few reservations about leaving them behind on a journey that I’d anticipated might take upwards of three or four years to make.
But Tenny’s parents still considered their twenty-nine-year-old unmarried daughter entirely their responsibility. She was studying in Armenia at their permission, and with their financial support. I also realised another thing that ran much deeper. I realised that I didn’t have a leg to stand on in any disagreement about this. Because my side of the argument would only apply to the context in which I’d been raised. My assumptions about my generation’s independence, about how we should be free to fly the nest and experiment in between coming of age and settling down, were just that – assumptions. Now it was my cultural particulars that ran against the grain: I was a foreign interloper in someone else’s world, my deeply held principles now quite alien, and it was absolutely outside my remit to meddle too much. Tenny’s parents were simply exercising their right to prevent their daughter committing what they saw as a dangerous and irresponsible violation of her role in society, and I was learning the meaning of ‘cultural relativism’ the hard way.
Of course, Tenny could simply go against their wishes. Andy had had to deal with a lot of needling when he’d decided to go ahead with Ride Earth, but ultimately he couldn’t be prevented from pursuing his own path. The difference was that Andy already considered himself a free agent – quite rightly, in the context of twenty-first-century British society. The same did not apply to Tenny, born into the closed and conservative Armenian minority of Iran, and to go against her parents’ edict would be to wrong them deeply.
The case was closed, as far as they were concerned. Life continued as before, and I got on well with all of Tenny’s family, as long as we never mentioned living or travelling together – not before marriage, at least, which was of course the next logical step in our relationship, and after which Tenny was my responsibility and we could do as we pleased.
Andy contacted me about a website project he’d been contracted to work on in Georgia, and I agreed to take on half the job as his development partner, borrowing Tenny’s computer and working over an excruciatingly unreliable dial-up Internet connection from my flat in Yerevan. The two-month job was relatively well paid, and if I was careful with my expenses I hoped to pass the first anniversary of my departure from England with the same amount of cash in the bank as I’d had when I began.
It was also a welcome distraction from the fact that – whether I liked it or not – the odds were slowly stacking up against the dream I now shared with Tenny. And I began to wonder whether I might have made a big mistake. Perhaps it had been too rash and idealistic to think that it would be that simple. Maria and Magalie had so effortlessly slipped in alongside us the previous year in Hungary, dropping everything with barely twenty-four hours’ notice. But I was beginning to learn that differences between my world and this stretched further than concerns of freedom and wealth.