When the night time temperature in Germany fell to minus thirteen, I wasn’t surprised. When the sun brought a pale haze to the valleys, and when the world stiffened under ice and trees became ghoulish, reaching things, I felt no upheaval. This is how it should be. Europe has always been out to get me.
Six years ago, when I set out from London to cycle around the world, it was also winter in western Europe: the coldest for thirty years.
Serial satellite images from the day I left home, if I’d bothered to look at them, revealed a clutch of blue talons reaching in callous steadiness over Europe. The following day over 250 schools across Kent called parents and delighted their children with the news that school was off; there was simply too much snow for anyone to cope. My first days on the road were spent negotiating up to two feet of the stuff and gangs of children rampaging with snowballs. I was slow and preposterous-looking; the ultimate prize.
The most cherished moment in a child’s life, I have discovered, is this: you are playing in the snow. Your mum shouts ‘Hey Benny, school’s cancelled, too much snow! Come inside for ice cream!’ ‘I’m coming Mum!’ you shout, but as you put the finishing touches to the densest, roundest snow ball of your young life, a huffing, unbalanced looking creature on a weighty bicycle teeters into view. He’s entombed in Lycra, unmuscled, weaving regretfully as if at the back end of seven consecutive Ironman contests. Your best friends gather about you, in a kind of platoon; he sees you all, pleads with his eyes, and develops a look that suggests the slightest distraction might send him painfully crashing to the icy ground. He begs a little in a string of whimpering ‘no’s’, but it’s too late for him, and he knows it. A silence falls as you take aim. Never will childhood be this joyous again.
The attacks lasted for two days. In my memory there was something military-like about these encounters: the kids were organised. For over a hundred miles they fired at will as I rode through Kent, flanking bridges and opening assaults from overhead walkways. I heard call signs, ‘Enemy three o’clock!’ and near Ashford a sure voice commanded: ‘Let’s get him in the face!’ What? No! I thought. Let’s not… But I could only wince as subordinates began chanting with Lord-of-the-Flies zeal: ‘In the face! In the face! Yeah in the face! Get him in his stupid face!’
But that was six years ago… I’m loving it here now.
It’s not surprising that the continent of my birth and earliest wanderings is my favourite of the six I’ve pedaled through. I tell myself I’m not biased, that the history writ large, the gastronomic hedonism, the architectural feats all validate my leanings, but I can’t be sure of that: home will always find a pedestal. We all ‘know’ Europe is stocked high with sweet-scented food, beautiful people, lovers, artists and bike lanes. Bloody bike lanes! Statistically speaking, if my bicycle is to be stolen over the course of a round the world ride, most likely this would occur in Europe too. The bike lanes would probably expedite the pilferage.
|The Danube bike path|
I feel this deep compassion I have for Europe as I stroll about the Christmas markets of Budapest, mulled wine in hand, snow gently piling up in the streets about the many spires of the parliament and the hushed glide of trams glittering with fairy lights. As I stop to admire the pedestrian traffic lights in Vienna which depict two women or two men, and not, as is customary, a mixed sex couple. As I use the excellent city transport systems, symbol not just of development, but of a liberal slant to the politics, of thriving social systems that prioritise equality arguably more than elsewhere, and that should make Americans blush and neocons wither away like vampires exposed to sunlight. And (Brits excluded), Europeans are often so multilingual that you want to remind them how unattractive it is to show off. Around one million Syrians made their home in Germany in 2015 whilst Republican front-runner Trump suggests banning not just Syrians but all muslims, and Australian fear-mongers wage a cynical war against new comers, conflict zone origin or not. I’m proud of my continent, if not in this case, my country. Perhaps Trump would like to meet the mother of the nine year old boy I met in an Afghan hospital who’d survived a suicide bomb with a deformed limb and severe psychological trauma and consider again why families take the risks they do to find another refuge.
My map of Europe was reassuringly spiderwebbed in roads, with a key that told of service stations, chalets, roman ruins, speed cameras. I recalled my map of Uzbekistan which looked as though the cartographer had given up or died abruptly before the job was done, as if someone had tugged out the map from where his slumped torso had pinned it to the desk. If there had been a speed camera in the desert, it probably would have been assigned the sprawling yellow shading of a metropolis.
I have to tell you something: service stations in Europe sell sandwiches in packets. In packets! Sandwiches! I’d almost forgotten sandwiches can come in packets. Add to my extreme excitement the discovery of chocolate hobnobs. When I first glimpsed them I did a little jig in the aisle, but stopped abruptly when I realized a displeased elderly lady was looking at me sideways as I directed some pelvic thrusts towards the Weetabix. Weetabix!
I have been roughly following the course of the Danube. Freezing fog filled my days in Serbia and Hungary. Dew made shining orbs on my clothes, and froze to frost. I couldn’t see the landscape, the tilled fields, fully appreciate its boredom. So I listened to vast amounts of funk on my iPod, I imbibed it like hot coffee, it livened and warmed me as I rode.
I haven’t been zipping between must see sights but following instead a random scribble of river on my map, planning less than usual and submitting to whatever the breeze. Mostly I have been happy to enjoy the simplicities I’ll go without and miss when I’m home: Rough camping. Thinking. Following whims. Taking hospitality. Spirited eating.
My campsites have been more carefully selected seeing as though they will be my last for a while: clearings in pine forests. On a rise overlooking mist-filled moorland. Little acts of kindness have followed me like a parting in the clouds, a service station manager in Serbia bought me a sandwich, a map and some tea. An Austrian hotelier gave me a night for free and a huge bag of doughnuts.
Each day the sun has taken its puny efforts below the horizon at around 4 pm, and the dark that follows is long and snow-riddled. I’m always up well before the sun rises again the next day, a teasing, jaundiced smudge in the clouds, keen to make use of the frustratingly few sunlit hours winter bestows.
Nostalgia blurs my days. I’ve remembered my first crossing of Europe, all those sunrises ago, when I was hesitant, intrepid, finally at large in the world and in love with being so. I was clueless of my own limits then. I remembered too all the terrible places I rough camped in 2010, on the edge of suburbia in Italy when the police were called to move me on, but who let me stay instead. And when I cross vast rivers like the Danube, a slippery looking sweep of water as wide as a lake, I recall the Yangzee in China and other monstrous rivers I’ve reached.
The mobility of Europeans is on show virtually everywhere now amid the porous borders of the EU. I found myself talking to a lady from Yorkshire in a Bulgarian village. In Romania I had whole conversations in Spanish, our only common tongue. That it’s easy now for Europeans to move around, to experience each other’s homelands means people have a greater understanding of their neighbours lives, and more opportunity to export the triumphs.
The thing about bigotry is that it has a global home, in this regard it doesn’t discriminate. Europe was where I met Barry: A 70-ish year old man from the UK who’d been living in Bulgaria for six years. ‘This country’s going to shit’ he told me. ‘It’s the Roma people, outbreeding the Bulgarians. Gypsies everywhere! All they do is breed and steal and do things with their women’. He went on to moan about corruption; his only positive reflection was that Bulgaria was cheap. He stood next to me as a bought some chicken from a nearby kiosk. ‘What’s the word for thank you in Bulgarian?’ I asked him, two days into the country myself, so I could thank the shopkeeper. ‘You know, I’m not sure’ he mumbled. I thought: you’ve been here six years. Six! You have Opinions on the Roma, and you can’t say thank you in the lingua franca. Perhaps you should rethink what you ‘know’ and try a bit more immersion.
Talk is of refugees, of course. Even in winter they come, thousands arriving to Austria and Germany every day. I have stayed with a couple who hosted a Syrian family stay in their home, another who had three Afghan men. Another volunteered in the refugee camps, another blamed them for sex attacks and suggested eastern European countries with no colonial history have no responsibility for the arrivals. I was pointed out the part of the Hungarian train station where refugees were stuck after Hungary closed its borders forcing them to take off by foot to Vienna. They are a presence here, invisible to me, spoken of like mythical creatures.
Globalisation, development, whatever your epithet, might lead inevitably to some degree of homogenisation, but there’s enough quirks in Europe to keep a tired traveler interested. Enter McDonald’s in Austria, I have discovered, and an automatic yodeling sound is activated by the door swing, plus the manager will be wearing some form of traditional Austrian dress. I’m not making this up. Europe is a place where people scribble James Brown lyrics on buildings in graffiti paint. It’s a place so bicycle friendly they plough the snow from bicycle paths, not bicycle lanes, but solitary paths! I saw it happen!
Predictably people have stopped to remind me that winter is a bad time to cycle across Europe, as if I’d got my hemispheres confused and was sporting sunnies and a sombrero. When they do a voice in my head says ‘Tell him about Mongolia! The nights of minus 40! Tell him ‘this is nothing!’ Luckily I don’t because another voice says: ‘you cock’. In Austria a lady dog walking was mortified when her darling pet bounded towards me, barking. She grabbed the dog and alternately scolded it and made obsequious noises in my direction. It hadn’t come within three metres of me. She has no idea what I’ve been used to. I’d put my hand into my pocket, watching the hound with narrow eyes and feeling the three stones I still keep there out of habit. I can hit a snarling target between the eyes, South America taught me that.
I flew to Spain to spend a happy Christmas with my family, followed by new year in Vienna. Then back to Budapest to finish up. I followed the Danube through the frozen wetlands of Slovakia, the pavement fretted with ice and piled at points in slush, the river flickering into view between bony-brown trees. And then into Vienna, swerving about the concrete graffiti-dashed supports of highways, as looming as sequoias. I set up a string of hosts on the warmshowers website, for company, conversation and to escape the cold.
So many signs! I kept thinking as I pedaled the Danube cycle way in Austria. Three or four different maps at each information point, which seemed to roll around every kilometer. Zoom-ins, large scale, different angles, extensive keys, florid descriptions with photos of local wildlife. Photos of local guesthouses. Historical titbits. There were maps that told you the location of other maps. There were altitude graphs, almost completely flat lines, in case you suffer some terminal brain disorder and had forgotten you were following the course of a large river and its floodplain. It reminded me of the short story by Borges in which a town so dedicated to making a detailed map they eventually make one bigger than the town itself.
Then more snow, stealing the tarmac in stacking sheets. But on one clear morning by an Austrian curve of the Danube the rising sun anointed the forest, once swan-white with snow piled upon boughs, no breeze to topple it. As soon as light fell onto the trees snow came down in clumps and flecks, a blizzard born under a solid blue sky. It was a spectacle utterly life affirming, visually dazzling, and for which there is probably a specific word in German. And that word is probably Shruntabintafrakan.
I should say German people have been some of the most openly curious, happy go lucky, hospitable people on my whole journey. But in Deggendorf, or any of the other towns that sound like characters in Harry Potter, I couldn’t imagine myself ordering anything from the local cafe’s beer menu.
‘Arcobrau Urfass Hell Vom Fass’? No thanks. Or ‘OK I’ll try some. Easy on the vom though, OK?’
It remains extremely cold, minus 12 by night here in Germany. The ‘Camping’ signs to lure summer bikers look more like warnings not to, loaded with snow and gleaming with ice. As the temperature dipped again the snow became frost-hard and stridently trod. Even the air has turned pale with just an intimation of pink, like the skin of a drowned person. But I’m close to home, that’s a thought that warms my spirit, even if my toes are only present by memory and not by sensation.
Next: The rest of Germany, Belgium, Holland and home. Thoughts about arriving to the latter will be the subject of my last blog post of this trip, though a new blog will rise from the ashes of this one.
Thank yous: My mum, George, Ronan, Siobhan, Anna, Margarita and her lovely parents Tony and Katerina, Lorna and Xavi, Barbara and Andreas, Alexander and Connie, Lui and Betti, Jan and Mirko, Zoltan, and Edit.