The People I Meet (Story No. 1): Poor, Poor Pitiful Tom

I was leafing through my biking France journals … and came across an entry from June 25, 1992. About poor, poor, pitiful Tom. Ah, I remember him and his sad-sack, lost-love story so well.

Tom’s story got me thinking: Hey, I’ve been doing this since 1990, when I became obsessed with cycle tourism and rode from Paris to Nice, then Paris to Amsterdam (1992), and somehow convinced Susan to go on a two-month French cycling honeymoon (1993). I’ve been “collecting” all these people and writing their stories over the years. It was only natural, what with me being a newspaper reporter. Maybe, just maybe, somehow, some way they’d make for an interesting book. And now, finally, technology has caught up with me! First this blog and then, one day, a bestselling book. Then the blockbuster movie, an Academy Award and …

So, here you go: The People I Meet (Story No. 1): Poor, Poor Pitiful Tom, an on-going series within the Biking France Blog. I don’t have photos to go with some of these stories & people, as they hadn’t yet invented smart phones in the 1990s. I’ll improvise. The photo in this story is from the artistic vision of Susan

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Tom had the weight of the world on his shoulders … and a map to match


What the hell happened to you?

Tom reeked of despair and desperation. So much so that everyone’s first question for him wasn’t the traditional and pretty-much mandatory youth-hostel inquiry: “Where do you do to school?”

Followed by: “What’s your major?”

Instead, it was: “What the hell happened to you?”

I met Tom at the bar at the youth hostel in Bouillon, Belgium. The youth hostels in Belgium have bars/pubs and serve delicious, high-alcohol-content Belgian monk beer for low prices. At least they did back then.

“What the hell happened to you?” I asked Tom.

Dumped in Vienna

This was all the prompting Tom needed to spill his guts. His long-time girlfriend, Kim, the love of his life, went off to Vienna for a semester abroad. She met and fell in love with a guy, and dumped Tom via a letter. A stinkin’ letter. I know this sounds horrible now, in the age of Skype and FaceTime, but remember, this was 1990. Letters were all we had back then. A phone call? Really hard back then.

Me: “That sucks man, that really sucks. Let me buy you a beer.”

Tom, determined to win back the girl of his dreams, had flown to Vienna. He showed up at Kim’s apartment, unannounced. Let’s just say it didn’t go as well as he had hoped, and she told him to beat it. Tom actually cried as he told me the story. It was kind of heartbreaking.

He got a bicycle – it wasn’t clear if he borrowed or stole it – and started riding. The map he used to navigate was a map of all of Western Europe. One inch equaled something like 1,000 kilometers. He might as well have been navigating with a globe. Somehow – and Tom wasn’t sure exactly how – he wound up in Bouillon. I’m not even sure if he knew what country he was in, as we were close to the French border.

Tom was out of money.

He had a ratty-old sleeping bag, no tent, and was relying on the kindness of strangers to survive. He’d spent the last two nights sleeping in the bowels of a dank, dark little football (soccer) stadium a couple of towns away. He’d met some of the guys on the team and they adopted him (like a lost puppy) after he depressed them with the story of his breakup. They fed him beer and bread, and let him sleep and shower in their locker.

Should I stay or should I go?

“What should I do about Kim? Should I go back to Vienna and try to get her back?” Tom asked me and another guy as we sat at the bar drowning Tom’s sorrows in delicious monk beer.

The other guy was French, and selling law books out of the trunk of his car. I’m not sure how that worked, or even what language the law books were in, but that’s what the guy said he did. I figured it was way too boring of a story to be a lie. I mean, come on, if you’re gonna lie about who you are and what you do, at least make up something a little more interesting. That’s what I did. I mean, that’s what I would do.

Me: “I don’t think going back to Vienna will work. Maybe if you give her some time it could work out.”

The wound was too deep and recent, and Tom was determined to somehow get back to Vienna to try and win Kim back. His mind was made up. The poor guy. I bought Tom one last beer, said goodnight and stumbled back to my bunk bed in the youth hostel and passed out. Like I said, that monk beer is strong stuff. Much better than Ambien, another thing we didn’t have back then.

It’s a suicide mission

I didn’t see Tom the next morning at breakfast, and eventually headed off on my bike. Two nights later, at the youth hostel in Namur, in the bar, I spotted a Dutch guy I’d met at the bar in the Bouillon youth hostel.

Me: “What happened to Tom?”

Dutch guy: “Who’s Tom?”

Me: “The really depressed American guy who got dumped by his girlfriend in Vienna.”

Dutch guy: “Oh, him. I felt sorry for him and bought him a few beers. But then, after a while, I got sick of listening to him go on and on about how he got dumped.”

Me: “Yeah, he is pretty depressing.”

The Dutch guy told me that Tom couldn’t pay his youth-hostel bill, and had to work there until he paid off his debt. He was cleaning bathrooms and dishes. He was then planning to make his way back to Vienna and win back the love of his life. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him.

I wonder what happened when he got there?

Actually, I think I know exactly what happened. It was a suicide mission. The poor bastard.


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