Person: Tom the Pom
Location: A suburb of London, when he can be found there
In honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee (and if you haven’t seen Grace Jones’ recent hula-hooping performance for Her Majesty, you have no idea what you’re missing), I think it’s time I introduced you to Tom. Or as he calls himself, Tom the Pom (Pom being Australians’ derogatory term for Brits). Tom is a gentleman who has graced my humble couch not once, not twice, but three times. I also hold him personally responsible for turning me into an addict.
At first glance, Tom appears innocent enough. A rakish, lumbering fellow who puffs faux cigarettes that blow faux smoke, Tom has the look of a man always on the verge of heading on safari, and it was he who first introduced me to the dangerous pleasures of long-distance bicycle touring.
I met him on New Year’s Eve 2009, when he and his friend Lizandra came to surf my couch. As it’s my tradition to visit an art museum on the last day of each year, I had them meet me at the Museum of Modern Art. And as we sauntered past Rauschenbergs and Warhols, Tom and Lizandra shared the story of how they met, each biking alone through West Africa (an unlikelier place to meet, if ever there was one). Later that night, Tom mesmerized me further with photos of sand mosques and oases filled with date palms and watering holes, and tales of being graciously welcomed into obscure villages by tribal leaders offering food and places to camp.
But despite his Scheherazadian-like tales, I was certain that long-distance bicycling was not in my future.
“I could never do that,” I told Tom, delicately sipping my Earl Grey tea the next morning. ”My butt would hurt too much, and I’d be bored out of my mind. I’m simply not meant for the road,” I assured him, pinkie finger extended, as I set the cup down.
“Of course you could!” Tom said, slapping my back so hard the tea nearly spurted from my mouth. ”It would be good for you. You should try it. You need to get out of New York City more. And besides, I can already see that you work too much!”
I laughed off his naive comment. Tom had known me less than a day. Of course he didn’t realize that I’m the laziest human being in Christendom, a woman who likes nothing more than languishing in bed writing blog posts, hates normal forms of exercise, and considers not eating a small piece of chocolate each day a sacrilege.
And so we said our goodbyes, and I tucked away his comment for a full year. But then he returned, this time with a fully loaded bicycle in tow, and mesmerizing me with more photos and a trove of maps documenting the trip he would be embarking on this time: Quebec to New York City.
My curiosity was piqued anew. I am an inveterate traveler after all.
“Why do you like biking so much again? Why travel that way when you could as easily take a road trip?” I asked, with equal measure defensiveness and desire.
“There’s no better way to see the world!” he smiled. “And you could do it. I know you could. You should start with the Santiago de Compostela. The Christian Pilgrim’s Route through France and Spain. You can even stay for free in refugios along the way if you show them a Pilgrim’s Passport.”
Finally, he’d hit upon the magic word: free. Free accommodations if I traveled by bicycle? I was hooked.
And so, on Labor Day weekend 2010, I did the unthinkable: got on a folding bicycle loaded with two panniers and biked from Brooklyn to the tip of Montauk on Long Island to test my touring mettle.
Now how do I convey the gloriousness of that first dip into the addictive waters of bicycling? Imagine the wind blowing against your skin. Or the smells of freshly cut grass, sand, sea, and smoke from the occasional barbecue, all wafting through your nose like a Proustian orgy. The dopaminergic rush of moving at high speed past an ever-changing surround on all sides. The meditative lull of legs moving in hypnotic rhythm to a beat only you know. In short, it’s the most incredible feeling I’d ever experienced.
And, like any addiction, it’s also exhausting, dirty, hot, sweaty, you name it. Still, Tom was my dealer now, and I’d become his travel-bicycling junkie.
Which is why, in November 2011, I packed my bags, boarded a plane, and traversed a small section of the famed Santiago de Compostela route that Tom had first lured me in with, traveling along an obscure route through northern Portugal into southern Spain that blew my mind with its peacefulness and beauty.
Recently, Tom returned to New York for a third time. Now he’s leaving from Savannah, Georgia – where his last trip sadly ended after his bike was stolen outside the post office – on his way to San Francisco, California.
“I’m doing it!” I told him, gleefully. “I’m going on a six-month biking trip through Asia! Aren’t you proud of me?”
He looked at me through a fake puff of smoke, smiled easily, and bit into the crumpet he’d brought from England as a gift. A dealer knows when he’s locked in a client for life.
“Great,” he said, staring at me with knowing eyes, “I guess you need to start training then, don’t you?”
From “The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea”
3 cups unbleached flour – 450 grams flour
2 teaspoons salt – 10 millilitres
1 1/4 cups milk mixed with 1 1/4 cups water – 300 millilitres mixed with 300 millilitres
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil – 30 millilitres
1 teaspoon sugar – 5 millilitres
2 teaspoons active dry yeast – 15 grams
1/2 teaspoon baking soda – 2.5 millilitres
7 Tablespoons warm water – 100 millilitres
Butter or shortening to grease pan
Crumpet rings: 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) wide and 1 inch deep, greased
Makes: 8-10 crumpets
1. Sift the flour and salt into a warm bowl, cover, and place in w very low oven for 10 minutes.
2. Warm the milk, water, oil, and sugar, then add 4 Tablespoons (60 millilitres) of this into yeast, which should soon froth and go creamy. If using dried yeast, stir the yeast into all the liquid and leave in a warm place until frothy.
3. Make a well in the center of the warmed flour, and pour in the yeast mixture, then the rest of the liquid, if any is left.
4. Stir and beat the batter energetically for at least five minutes, incorporating as much air as possible.
5. Cover the bowl and leave for two hours at warm room temperature, until the surface is covered with bubbles.
6. Dissolve the baking soda in 2-3 Tablespoons of warm water and stir into the batter, beating for another few minutes.
7. Cover the bowl again and leave for another hour.
8. Lightly grease a large frying pan or skillet with butter or vegetable shortening.
9. Place the crumpet rings on the pan, three or four at a time, filling each ring almost to the top with the mixture.
10. Heat gently for eight to 10 minutes, until the surface becomes pitted with holes. If holes do not appear in your first batch as much as you would like, add a little warm water to the rest of the batter.
11. Slip the rings off and turn the crumpets over to cook for another four minutes.
12. Either serve immediately slathered with butter, or save them to toast on both sides later.