My family loves to tell the story of the first time I appeared on our local high school quiz bowl show. The show, As Schools Match Wits, had been around nearly 50 years and had theme music to provide it.
My three male teammates and I, all wearing various oversized items of our parents’ professional clothing, drove to the studio after school in our math teacher’s beat up car. Unlike the other teams that took part in this televised regional competition, we didn’t practice – hadn’t practiced – and I had met one of my teammates for the first as we got into the car. Regardless, we were excited to see how we would stack up against East Longmeadow, a high school I knew only for its fire engine red athletic uniforms.
During breaks in the game, the host of the show would interview the four contestants from each team. To ensure that the interviews were engaging, contestants were asked to respond to a series of written questions prior to filming. The host then used these answers to prompt the high school kids while the cameras were rolling.
In response to the question, “What is a dream of yours?” I wrote that I would like to bike across Europe. I had recently begun riding in earnest and my curiosity about the world seemed best satiated from the seat of a bicycle.
The host, a congenial though rather forgetful older man, had shown up to the filming that day wearing brown orthopedic dress shoes. While walking around the set, checking the lighting and volume, the technicians stopped in front of the host’s shoes, horrified. “These aren’t black,” they stated. An quiet discussion ensued, with all parties involved gesticulating urgently. The director stepped out of the huddle and turned to the live audience. “Is anyone wearing black dress shoes in sizes 9?” He scanned the room. One of my teammates, a high school junior and talented trumpet player, who traveled 90 miles to Boston each weekend to play in a group at the New England Conservatory, raised his hand with an abashed smile. The director was visibly relieved. “Great, can you two please switch shoes?”he asked.
Fast forward 45 minutes and we had just finished the first two rounds of competition. We were neck and neck with East Longmeadow as the host went to East Longmeadow’s side of the studio to ask some questions. “I understand you like collecting rocks,” the host said to one of the contestants, launching a protracted explanation of that contestant’s favorite types of rocks. “Why do you like rocks?” the host asked. “Because they’re pretty,” he replied, prompting barely restrained giggles from our side.
The next contestant described the many afternoons he had spent watching game shows with his grandmother and explained that appearing on this local show was very much a dream come true for him. The host then crossed the stage to begin questioning the Amherst team.
I have been dreaming about biking around Europe since I was 15. I’ve read every book I could get my hands on about bike touring and I’ve read countless travel memoirs. Yet it has never seemed possible for me to take the necessary step and embark on an adventure. I spent summers in high school and college studying, working, and completing internships. I graduated college, went straight to my summer job, and was hired days before it finished for the job I’ve been at for the past three years. Taking the time to do something that wasn’t considered productive in the traditional sense seemed superfluous and indulgent.
The host made his way through my teammates, asking them follow up questions regarding the sheets they had filled out. He stopped in front of me, the sole girl, at the end of the row. My three teammates had each dissolved in giggles while answering their questions, so I resolved to be mature and professional in contrast. “So Sasha, I understand your goal is to bike across Europe,” he stated. “Yes,” I agreed, unsure if he had posed a question or not. “So tell us,” he continued, “From where to where would you like to bike?” Having not quite gotten to this part of the hatchling plan yet, I thought for a minute, drawing on my knowledge of the geography of Europe gleaned from my 9th grade World Civilizations class.
First year students at Amherst Regional High School were required to take World Civilizations. A notoriously hard course, it began with a study of Ancient Mesopotamia and ended six months later with the Cold War. Many of the terms from the class had stuck with me: “Fertile Crescent,” “Enlightenment salons,” “Defenstration of Prague.”
I looked back at the host, trying to picture a map of the European continent. “From Portugal to Asia Minor,” I told him.
He thanked us all for our answers, and we returned to the game. I’m fairly certain we won, but my family and friends wouldn’t know the outcome until six weeks later when the episode aired on the local public television station.
I grew up with neither television nor movies. We had no screen in the house. In order to watch major events – the Red Sox’s historic World Series performance in 2004, for example – we called up one of our neighbors. We had arranged to watch the airing of As Schools Match Wits next door. The viewing was fun; six weeks after we had initially recorded the show, I had forgotten some of what had happened and it was fun to have my parents trying to answer the questions along with us on the screen. That is, until they heard what has since become known as my “Asia Minor response.” “Asia Minor,” they asked incredulously as tears of laughter pouring down their cheeks? “Really Sasha?”
When I informed them this winter that the time had finally come to go on this long awaited trip, their immediate question was about Asia Minor, a term used to refer to the land that Alexander the Great conquered in the third century BCE. No, we will not be riding to modern-day Turkey, but rather doing the brunt of our riding in the bicycle-friendly countries of Northern Europe. We will end on the other side of the Iron Curtain with a ride along the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea, through Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad, and Poland.
Whether I will ever be able to live down the Asia Minor comment is another matter entirely.