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.

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What’s Good for the Economy

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Tuesday 11 July 2017: Brno to Těšetice [Part 2]

14:30. Second break in Syrovice. Not many k on the clock – 25.1 – for just over two hours of riding, but it was a bit of a puzzle to piece together getting out of Brno, not only because of the streets that change names but don’t change, not only because it’s sometimes difficult to know which street you’re on due to a lack of signs, not only because, when you do find a sign, you discover that each street has two names – why is that? – and not only because it’s a city; but a combination of those factors does tend to hinder you a tad 🙃

We exited Brno to the South, taking us through the quirky town of Modřice, with its eclectic mix of modern architecture and uniformly low buildings – is there a reason for that? We then passed by, through and next to a network of soulless business parks and logistics hubs, strategically situated alongside some major motorways, looking to serve the insatiable needs consumer culture identifies for us.

The employees sit outside sucking on their fags, exchanging gossip from their other virtual lives, seemingly devoid of any sparks that indicate a soul alive. They’re sad empty gazes that feel instantly recognisable to me from my time as component number 101 in a factory conveyor-belt machine. It is also here that we encounter in quite rapid succession two impatient drivers betraying signs of frustrated masculinity; and some of the other driving indicates an impatience of humans ruled more by machines than by the emotions that unite flesh to flesh. In this highly commercial area you get a very real sense of where people lose the connect with their humanity, as their life-force is claimed to serve the money machine.

It’s nice to be through that brief encounter, sitting in this serviceably sweet centre of Syrovice.

Shifting Terms

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Bielsko-Biała: Sunday 02 July 2017

Today has been about waking up in a bed, following the humbling, overwhelming hospitality of our overnight hosts, Andrzej and Teresa. Their lovely home, situated in what could almost be a village on the outskirts of Bielsko-Biała, with a view of the surrounding mountains, awaited, along with a super warm welcome, a beer and a feast of food; followed by an evening of easy banter and a chilled bottle of vodka.

After a quick shower, we snuggled into the bed and hazily connected our devices to the Internet. So lovely to see the messages of support from our friends and acquaintances: really nice. Thank you one and all.

We awoke some time before 10am – such a nice sleep; and such lovely smells ascending from the kitchen. Smells like Teresa and Andrzej have had a fantastic breakfast. But no, they haven’t. Not yet. They’re waiting for us, with another feast fit for a championship start the day. Again, lovely food and easy banter go down great: thank you so much to you both, and to your daughter, Asia. Wonderful people.

Which makes us think of the owner of the land where we pitched our tent the previous night. Again, wonderful, but consumed by first night, first morning thoughts, we neglected to get a photo with him. But thank you, anyway, Jacek – we won’t forget you (for all the right reasons).

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With a rest day – so soon? – we leave our bikes for one day to check out the city of Bielsko-Biała, taking the second part of its hyphenated name from the river on which it sits. It’s a damp, drizzly, overcast day, and we’re tired, though buzzing through a blend of strange adrenalins based on excitement, wonder, joy and mystery, and maybe fear with a touch of panic, too.

We discover quite a small old town swallowed by various versions of modernity, and, as you make your way towards the centre, it takes its time to work its magic on you. Approaching the heart, you seem to rewind through various epochs until mid-twentieth century socialist realism shifts into a maze of winding, cobbled, medievality.

It’s like a work-in-progress that hasn’t decided what it wants to be yet. But its clashes of derelict and renovated, old and restored, new and nature, do inspire a range of thoughts and emotions, and feelings and ideas. Yes, an inspiring mixture makes for an inspiring place.

The cacophony of times in these human artefacts actually heightens your sense of time here, and the fact that you’re constantly aware of your situation in relation to the mountains means there’s also a very real sense of place, which is somehow, for want of a better word, humbling.

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I like it here.

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And now: sugar.

A wonderful ‘szarlotka’. Boy! does Poland know how to do apple-crumble – a long time favourite of mine 😊 I can understand how I made this place my home for so many years.

Epilogue

Every day is a new experience. There is nothing predictable except our most immediate concerns. That’s how we wanted it and how we are liking it. Lovely.