The People in Our Paths #2

Canterbury to Melton Mowbray [Part 2]: Sunday 23 July 2017

16:50. Market Place, Melton.

Nine days since receiving the confirmation. Ten days since receiving the warning about what was happening and wondering how in the hell we’d get from there to here.

We’re here.

We’ve journeyed across five countries, almost incidentally, in order to do so.

Despite the circumstances that impelled the detour, we’ve been able to take in: the fabulous riding experience that is Belgium, the scarily erratic to quirkily quaint North of France, the real beauty of Kent, and the, to be fair, not-too-shabby scenery surrounding my old stomping grounds.

The bicycle moments of feeling a place on all of the senses would have been tragic to miss on a headlong, blind dash here. We’ve felt and experienced them together, as we always intended to try and do once we made our first tentative steps towards achieving this way of life a little over two years ago.

Every cloud. As always.

And there would always have been a feeling that some of the world was missing if we’d never made it to England on our outing, so something else to appreciate.

And, of course, last but not least – people: the kindness and generosity of people.

Through our mediated lives, we are led to believe that the world is populated by untold monsters, psychos and fanatics ready to take your life, your belongings or your principles at the drop of a hat.

Then you get out and you meet people; you open your need to people; your self to people. Love is returned and is never the less touching for being much more ubiquitous than our subscriber channels would like us to believe.

Thank you so so much: Peter and family in Asse, Isabelle and Tom in Aalter-Brug, restaurant-lady in Schoorbakkehoeve, and Chris and Caroline in Canterbury. You warmed our hearts on our mini-odyssey here.

Now to family I see all too rarely, so, despite the circumstances, I hope we’re able to enjoy some quality moments together.

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Off Road

Gravelines to Canterbury: Friday 21 July 2017

11:35am. We sit on deck – on a ferry! Seven days and two hours later, after receiving the news on a sunny morning in Vienna, we have travelled to Nuremberg by five trains, Aachen by four trains, and Brussels by two trains, whereupon we sacked that method of transport and returned to the essence – and cycling 😁

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A great route through the Kent countryside up to Canterbury.

Beautiful.

For the first time in a while, whilst being in England, nostalgia kicked in as we pushed up and rolled down hills that ticked every cliché of the England I hold in the heart of the kid who spent Summer after Summer during the school holidays on bike-ride adventures with friends.

This was, yes, the England of my childhood (even though it was my first time in this part of it) and many a tourist brochure. Yes, it is only a small picture, but it is a beautiful one, and a wonderfully warm way to return to these shores.

Life is beautiful when you get off the main roads.

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Impressions

Schoorbakkehoeve to Gravelines: Thursday 20 July 2017

Today we entered France and, boy, had we been spoilt by Belgium!

Ubiquitous cycle lanes and easy riding gave way to:

  • ubiquitous cars speeding past us on a narrow dual-laned highway.
  • a fierce headwind that seemed determined to blow us back to where we came. All day!
  • navigating around, to, through or past, Dunkerque: a puzzle set to ‘Sherlock’ setting; though maybe that’s a wrong metaphor as there appeared no logic on display to unschooled outsiders.
  • the multinational cemetery standing sombre testament to life and the living world we share.
  • the town we went through that didn’t have wi-fi!?!
  • the town with the ominous-sounding name, ‘Gravelines’ – we’re on our way to a funeral! – which, after much cold (dis)functionality, warms the heart with its more quaintly feel of a community evolved naturally rather than conceived to serve an industry.
  • the next day waking up, where I noticed that when I enter another country during the day, I feel a certain sense of displacement or dislocation, but upon waking up there, I’m immediately at home … for a short while only, as in one short ride and a ferry skip across the sea, we’ll be in England – and home.

And what a welcome it was!

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Isabelle and Tom

Aalter-Brug to Schoorbakkehoeve: Wednesday 19 July 2017

“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.

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Bicycles and Croissants

Asse to Aalter-Brug: Tuesday 18 July 2017

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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Twists and Turns

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

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.”

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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.

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Peace and Love

Aachen to Asse [Part 1]: Monday 17 July 2017

Am receiving lots of touching messages of condolence and support regarding the news back in England. Concern is also being expressed that our bike trip appears to have been nipped in the bud so soon.

But, as I have said in a number of responses: these paths have lots of twists and turns, don’t they?

Just as life in this form continues for those whose physical and mental sustains, the journey, whilst taking a wholly unanticipated detour, incorporating a lot less pedal action – though the bikes remain our constant companions, even in our rooms overnight (they don’t snore) – continues.

The door to our previous flat wasn’t just closed for the time being as we left it behind at the end of June, but locked. This was about pursuing a way of life we had worked hard towards for over two years.

Our life was to be lived experiencing the world as viscerally and unmediatedly as possible; working our way around the globe without any specific geographical goals; just following our hearts – both our own and those that pulled them.

I guess, ultimately, we saw ourselves as travelling from A to A, i.e., returning to Poland to embark on our permaculture, eco-project; employing anything that we had learnt along the way. But, just as the route would be the right one, taking us the right way when it felt right, our time of return would also be determined as and when it felt right.

And none of that has changed. The verbs in those previous three paragraphs are all still present (except the one about locking the door: that’s still locked).

Now we are travelling the way that is right, because it feels right: it is just one more twist and turn on this journey, which is just life by any other name – life lived with and on a bike.

Nothing changes. Everything changes. Life goes on.

The journey continues (for all of us).

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But, again, to emphasise, as this is the point where I came in: those messages of support and sympathy have been overwhelmingly touching. Thank you: I love you all.

Peace and love is the most precious thing; we know this, we feel it, and its preciousness is heightened and intensified by its absence; so hold onto it, give it, share it, every moment, as much as you can: make the world a better place.

Peace and love.

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Timetabled Events

Nürnberg to Aachen: Sunday 16 July 2017

11:40am. Back at Nürnberg Main Station after a pleasant enough night at a typical, neat, functional travellers’ overnight hotel. €96 for a double room and breakfast, but you can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep sometimes, especially in situations that are maybe draining on you in other ways; and the area around the Main Station at 1am on a Saturday evening was full of the usual casualties and suspects, so, despite there being a visible police presence, I doubt we’d have got much in the way of a peaceful night’s sleep between us; and the standard over-indulgent hotel breakfast will stand us in good stead, particularly after our day of empty food and spontaneity yesterday.

We made almost 500k, though: not bad when you consider it took us over 60 minutes to find a way to get out of Vienna, let alone finding ourselves in Germany on a Sunny Sunday morn’.

Just over 800k to Calais now: will probably be a stretch to reach there today, so I think we’d be happy if we cover a pretty similar distance, which would leave us with an overnight within spitting distance of it – and the ferry.

We’d still have 300k from Dover, which is no small thing, but given the fact we’d be on the right patch of land, and the one upon which I roamed for almost 30 years, it would already feel like job done; though I’ve got to say I like the idea of cycling there less than the idea of anywhere in the world – now why would that be, especially as that’s where I spent a childhood nurturing my love of bike-rides?

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Connections

Vienna to Nürnberg: Saturday 15 July 2017

“Introduce a little variety.”

Never ones to allow things to get stale, we now find ourselves on our second, of what promises to be who-knows-how-many trains to, well, ultimately Calais; then, from Calais, to Dover

… by ferry

… hopefully.

Since Thursday a new, not entirely unexpected, but not the less unpleasant for that, sense of drama and emotion has been injected into the mix.

On an already emotionally tumultuous morning, whose occurrence feels spooky with hindsight, as the Czech/Austrian border lay less than 150 metres from me, the phone rang.

My sister.

I knew.

Mum.

Twenty-nine months after the first phone-call, when I began the process of grieving the essence of my mum, the moment her fighting physical form gave signs of resignation towards maintaining itself.

According to my sister, it could be as little as 24 hours.

This is the kind of information you feel you should be able to do something with. On a bike between two countries you have never called home, with nothing any longer like a home in the traditional bricks and mortar sense lying anywhere, with all that we own packed into the panniers attached to the only other concrete material things we possess, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, or what I could do.

I knew that I had to get to England as soon as possible, for as long as necessary. I knew that I was in no situation at all to be able to drop everything, pause life here and fly there. This just wasn’t possible. The only option, which I guess made it a kind of solution, was to keep moving forward, play it by ear and cross the most appropriate bridge when the river presents itself.

On we went.

Having been put in touch with them through something of a European middleman for permaculture projects and eco-communities, Benjamin Smit – thank you Benjamin, and then checking out their online profile as nomadic souls who had met somewhere along their paths, settled down, and retained and developed their free-living spirit, I had been looking forward to meeting our hosts for the evening, Lisa and Joey. Different people, likeminded souls. It would be a shame if I couldn’t fully engage with my present due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. But what will be will be: it will just be a question of paying respect to both moments as far as is possible.

We arrived in Mailberg, and what a beautiful warm welcome from the abundance of life in their home – from flora to fauna.

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The ride to Vienna was beautiful indeed; from the simply functional exactly-what-the-doctor-ordered breakfast; to the climbing up to greet the Alps; to the exciting descents, and the tailwind-assisted roll into Vienna; to sharing the way with the impressive Danube – wow! impressively set and impressive in size, and a great cycle path alongside it to enjoy it: you can certainly feel how Vienna came to be such an economic and political powerhouse with such a river to service its settlers.

And the arrival came. Another welcoming us as a friend, as we slung our things inside her cool tenement apartment in the heart of the city.

The evening was kept simple with a couple of beers at a Hofbrau place just a hop and a skip from the flat. Then bed beckoned: the blow-up mattresses serving us indoors as well as out.

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As the morning opened up to let us in

a beep from my phone.

About a day and a half from the call came the text to confirm the feeling:

mum’s body had passed.

The river was here, but no bridge to be seen: you just look where you want to be and build it yourself.

England? From Vienna? Where will A stop? When are the flights? really infrequently; like two times a week; and we really can’t hang on, indefinite in time, waiting for the time the body’s cleared for the funeral.

Make our way to Bratislava. By the time we get there – 24 hours, we may know more. I can fly; A can stay and … or maybe steadily creep back to Poland’s door, where we can kick our heels while waiting for the call.

A plan.

Yes, a plan.

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Vienna we enjoy as best we can, with a semblance of normality; and, to be honest, the powerful architecture did its job turning introspection into admiration. But with emotions so high, through this and through that, we tired soon and thoughts turned to food and beer.

A meal was cooked, and beer was drunk,
and a chilled evening smoothed edges,
and a hazy sleep came and welcomed me in
Making films out of childhood heroes.

I awoke feeling smooth,
until a little jar jagged
and all that was gone was returned.
And my partner in time echoed my mind
We’re going to England together.

The journey we’re on is always the one
We go where it takes us together.
The form may now change
as time rears its essence,
but it’s on the same path we set out.

We set out June 30.
Since then, more than ever
Plans became plots
that circumstance chose to deny
Neusiedler See
turned to Bratislava
Pausing our journey together

We continue along united
Together from here to there

And here was Vienna
and there is England
with who-knows-what in between?
And ferries and riding
with all that we have
Nomadic, with a geographical purpose.

Part of the journey
that makes up a life
Negotiating unforeseen corners

Respecting the life that passed in the night
to share in the love of close family
My partner in time beside me
The way that our path has to take

And feelings so right can’t be wrong

We can all make plans and prepare, but life has to be lived as it is experienced; not as an idea on a piece of paper.
As we set off to a club from our separate lives back in the Spring of 2000 till we closed the doors on our flat in Kraków, we’ve been journeying together one way or another.
This is just a little more overt in nature.

Now we carry all that we have
One place to the next
Sharing the life that we share

And this takes us there
And that brought us here
And onwards our little trip goes

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22:27. We are on train number #4 from Plattling to Regensberg, where we hope to catch a connection to Nürnberg, which is due to arrive at 1am. It looks like we’ll be stuck there until morning, so a rough night in and around the station in prospect, but this is just another tale in a relationship involving some less than conventional travelling arrangements; though having the bikes with us (of course!), but as stationary baggage rather than baggage-and-person steeds, takes this out of the Planes, Trains and Automobiles category into some kind of challenge.

But we’re good at this – I think all humans are: our flexibility and our adaptability are two of our key strengths as a species. While many may fear being plunged into the unknown and having to constantly think on their feet to get from here to where they think they’d like to be, I think this is actually where the vast majority of us shine and thrive and feel alive live live.

Maybe that’s why we set out to do what we’re doing; and why this step needs to be seen as it is: as just another part of the journey, which will become part of the narrative; part of the lives.

Not that it really matters how it’s seen, in terms of a picture. It will, however, be a piece, and though, like all of the pieces, it will stand on its own with life of its own, without it, the space that will be left, the hole that will remain, will forever diminish the value of anything coming thereafter.

As you honour the past that allowed you to be, to lend love and support to significant others, all that speaks to me is love, though not in the abstract I share and feel every day, but in the visceral way that can sometimes burn, can sometimes sting, but is the love come of blood that is life.

And we go to celebrate and honour it – as we should and as we want.

I love you mum x

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