Isabelle and Tom

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Wednesday 19 July 2017: Aalter-Brug to Schoorbakkehoeve

“Excuse me, do you have any idea where we might be able to camp around here tonight?” Unhesitatingly, casually, without any pause to reflect on negatives: Isabelle, “You can stay in our garden.”

Easy.

We followed a horse drawing a cart carrying two pairs of identical twins and two sisters.

Invited to drink with everyone at the table.

Space made in the garage so we didn’t have to camp outside – there was talk of a storm, which didn’t happen, coming.

Invited to join them for dinner. It was no trouble: the food was already prepared.

“Would you like to use the shower? Here it is, and there are two towels. And here’s the toilet.”

“Would you like an aperitif before dinner? Whisky and coke? Rum and coke? Gin and tonic? Something else?”

Conversation with a friendly, open, young family and their friends in the beautiful garden of the beautiful house they are renovating on the banks of the Ghent-Brugges Canal. With a menagerie of chickens, geese, sheep, horses, the runaway dog and the curious cat: “What’s in this tent? Let me in! Let me in!”

“Would you like another drink?”

“Would you like to try this?”

Interesting talk. Interesting people.

More good people.

As the night drew to a close: “Let me show you the code to the house, so you can get in if you need access during the night; for the toilet, for a shower, for something from the fridge, food from the kitchen, water from the taps. Oh, and there are crates of bottled water, beer and various other things. Feel like at home.”

“Sorry to keep repeating this, but thank you so much.”

“It’s normal. If I were doing such a journey, I would like it if people did the same for me.”

It’s normal.

We’re strangers.

The world is not a scary place … if you’re not afraid.

Bicycles and Croissants

Tuesday 18 July 2017: Asse to Aalter-Brug

So ‘Bicycles, Trains, Trains and More Trains’ has turned into ‘Bicycles, Lots of Trains and Back to Bicycles’.

We arrived in Brussels early yesterday afternoon – after disembarking our eleventh train since mid-Saturday afternoon, spunking €500 on tickets for the stress-inducing privilege, plus €200 in hotels, and around €100 in sundry employing-more-typical-means-of-travel expenses – with a renewed sense of vigour.

Some way into Belgium our proximity to the UK seemed heightened. As the more clearly Germanic architecture gave way to the more delicate, bricky houses of Belgium, something suggested home wasn’t as far as it had been when we mounted the train in Austria.

Its geography seemed easier to navigate, too. Zeebrugge announced itself, and the sentiment: “I’ve had enough of trains,” had already been expressed and shared along the way. “Maybe rather than getting at least a couple more trains to Calais, we can ride some of the way? And how far is Zeebrugge? there are also ferries to the UK from there.”

‘Zeebrugge and ferry’ will always be imprinted on my mind due to the one that went down in February 1987 at a similar hour to me rousing to a kind of consciousness in an ambulance, and then a hospital, following a rather spectacular – I can only speculate, as I wasn’t able to witness it, obviously – motorcycle accident.

We referred again to maps.me. Despite its flaws, it has proved a useful tool to have so far. Zeebrugge: just up the coast from Dunkirk and Calais, and we wouldn’t really be going out of our way to get there. Also, it arrives in the North of England, and working our way South to Melton Mowbray would be preferable to North and having to circumnavigate London.

The ferry takes a considerably longer route, but there’d be fewer days riding in England; plus, we could stop this train-business in Brussels, ride to Gent, stop overnight there, then on to Zeebrugge some time Tuesday. The only thing is: I’m not sure if the ferries that go from there take bicycles on board as they are. When we get to Brussels, we’ll head straight for a cafe and make use of their wi-fi to check.

Negotiating our way out of Brussels Central Station, disappointingly, was not that easy with fully-laden touring bikes. With lifts to platforms in Germany already providing challenges there, and locating ways to get to ground level here, we got a tiny insight into the kinds of challenges that wheelchair-users face every day! Not easy. Your ease of access is much more restricted than I think you would imagine; and in countries like Germany or in a central European hub such as Brussels you’d think that facilities would be better than most. If they are, Jesus! Much much much more needs to be done. Much!

I digress.

We sat in an overpriced cafe drinking overpriced cappuccinos – not eating, as it was so ‘drogo’, as Agnieszka had said to me in Polish to disguise our embarrassment for only ordering what we did amongst the flows of free-spending tourists. It was a good coffee, but a bad cappuccino. I’d have begrudged €1 from a vending machine – but €3.50?!

Still, we were there for the wi-fi. Zeebrugge. Ferries. Aha, P+O go from there, so the bicycle option is an option. Let me just check how much. “Jesus, it’s a lot more expensive than Calais.”

“How much?”

“For one, £175. That works out at about €400 for both of us.” Agnieszka’s face sank in a way that steals the joy from your soul when you see it in a loved one.

We both started manically doing sums, working out various permutations until we reached the conclusion that, wherever we travelled from or to, on our present course of trains, trains and hotels, we were fucked!

This was fucking up our finances. Big time! Smashing them. With no idea of the day or date the funeral would be as of yet, we had no idea how long we’d have to stay in the UK stringing out the meagre amount of money we’d have left.

Fuck, we may not even have enough money to get out of England. It all became too much. The adrenalin and the emotion of the previous days flattened and tumbled out of us. Hope and optimism vanished. We clawed at alternatives, desperately, frantically, trying to maintain at least  our position on this smooth road that had suddenly become a vertical cliff-face.

It was a moment of clarity and a moment of crisis.

It was a necessary moment when we returned to defining our lives and situation rather than being defined (too much) by them.

Despite ourselves, as the goal of being back in England became paramount, rather than ‘just’ travelling from here to there to here, we had silently slipped back into dependence on the illusion of convenience – the convenience that comes at such a cost the more ‘convenient’ it is – and the whole convenient lifestyle it condones, fosters and nurtures as part of its package.

We were bicycle tourers and travellers: this was our way of life. And here we had been, since the realisation that England had emerged on the horizon, travelling expensively and uncomfortably (I like trains, but with a fully-laden touring bike they’re not fun) on innumerable trains; therefore buying and eating overpriced and life-destroying crap for our stomachs, and  checking into overpriced hotels along the way.

How quickly we had reverted to Western-Consumer-Type! How easy, once you buy into one part of the system, all the other parts seem so unavoidable, too! How quickly, aside from taking the bikes with us, we had abandoned bicycle travelling when travelling was imperative! Oh, there were extenuating circumstances that had taken over, sure, but we had abandoned so much so quickly; or, at least, lost sight briefly of who we were.

We had, of course, planned to cycle when in England while we could, but were letting our desperation to be on hand in the UK when need be over-ride any other concerns … or even logic.

And it was costing us. This was not who we were – we were bicycle tourers. We were already travelling, pointing our bikes forwards. We had been told on numerous occasions that time was not of the essence. We were carrying everything we needed to travel from A to B, and stop, and go and stop again.

We were exhausting ourselves – spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially – for what? We had achieved a little speed. We had shot through much of the beauty that is Germany. We were nearer a goal, but losing ourselves.

And the goal was ill-defined, in terms of time.

And means.

We are bicycle tourers…

…and we are on our way!

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15:55. Gent. Break. Due to odometer issues – ‘Sigma’ is Latin for ‘unreliable piece of shit’: maybe should’ve checked that before I bought it – I can’t be very precise as to the number of kms we’ve covered or to the amount of time we’ve been rolling, but it’s been fairly easy going: Belgium isn’t known for its mountains or hills. We’ve been riding on and off, on our third significant break, since about 9:30am, so maybe four hours of riding and close to 50k would be a fair estimate.

Just stopped for a vital refuel and refresh, and to work out today’s kind-of target – Aalter Brug. About another 30k and maybe three hours max’ of riding – to find somewhere to camp, which doesn’t feel easy in Belgium: every inch of land feels like it’s been bought by, sold to or allotted to someone. Doesn’t feel like there is much public land, at least, not in the areas we’ve travelled so far.

Think it’s a question of just getting somewhere and asking around: we did OK last night, asking a helpful guy, Peter, who, despite being unsure how to react at first when we asked him about camping possibilities in the area, hesitatingly offered us a spot in one of his fields – he looks after competition horses.

As we have found to be the case so far when asking for a patch of land to pitch our tent, after a while our hosts begin to develop a sense of responsibility towards us and feel that they should offer us more. In Czechia it was the lady mentioning bicycle storage, use of the toilet, then bringing us the chairs to sit on; here it was, again, the toilet, asking if the noise from his water-sprinkler was OK – it was – asking if we need electricity to charge our devices, and the sweet surprise this morning when we opened our tent to discover two fresh croissants from a local bakery sitting outside waiting for us.

Lovely.

Fingers crossed for tonight; you never know in this game.

Twists and Turns

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Monday 17 July 2017: Aachen to Asse [Part 2]

11:08am.

machines are great…

Lifts to Platforms One to Eight at Aachen Station: no problem.

…when they’re working.

Lift Nine, with two/three minutes to go until the train departs: out of order.

“Motherfucker.”

~~~~~~~

To avoid embarrassment, confusion, trepidation and frustration when using their otherwise efficient railway network, I would advise Deutsche Bahn to instigate standardisation training for the staff who provide tickets and ticket information.

Having said that, why are all the carriages raised above or are lower than the level of the platform? Not easy to get fully laden bikes on and off; and what about wheelchair users or parents with prams or pushchairs?

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16:00. Brussels.

Change of plan. We’re bicycle tourers again.