This is an entry from my journal which I wrote during a cycling trip between Amsterdam and Budapest in the summer of 2015.
I got up grumpy. It was 6am, time for Thomas to go to his dentist’s practice, and the sofa on which I’d kipped on was warm and comfy, much comfier than my torn and weather-beaten camping mat which I had used before I can remember. Thomas left the flat, and the key with me, so that I could explore the city before heading off. Münster didn’t strike me as particularly special; amongst the scattered Gothic buildings old couples walked back and forth between department stores. For a moment I thought of thinking of stopping. What if I were just to stop cycling, and sit on that bench over there? Just sit and watch the old people. How long would it take until I gave up? No. I wouldn’t. I’d see how long it would take until people got worried, I’d wait until evening descended, maybe those old couples would take pity on me and give me an apple. Take me home with them to their wooden-clad home and feed me noodle soup. Could I wait there? No, probably not. Two hours at most. I continued to sit there. I had now realised the appeal of cycle touring. To have an indelible endpoint, a trump card that always banished the prospect of procrastination – not procrastinating thoughts of course – I had just daydreamed for 10 minutes about sitting on a bench until the pensioners of Münster took me under their wing. But as I sat on that bench, I began to think that this cycling trip had suddenly taught me something. That each and everyone’s life experience consists of countless millions of codes, patterns that one, for the most part, adheres to on a daily basis: a particular breakfast; a particular route to the station each morning, making sure to finish on a double step at the flight of stairs on reaching the platform; a code that allows one to knock on a certain house, in a certain town, on a certain street, to be let in, where one is embraced by someone they truly love, in this house and no other house. Any other house in the world and they would be screamed at and most likely arrested. Unless of course one has a mistress, or three, or one lives in a tent society. I remember when I was only 10 years old, it was a school night, I’d gone to bed at 9, brushed my teeth, got into my pyjamas, got into bed, then decided to get up, put on my pants, my school uniform, put on my tie, to go downstairs, walk towards the kitchen, where my mum was searching through her sewing drawer. The rest ot the house was in darkness, only this room where my mum knelt down, was illuminated in a dimmed orange glow. I stood there, her back to me, waiting for a response. Perhaps two or three minutes went by, as I stood there silently, without an expression on my face – I didn’t know what to expect – before she turned around and looked at me. I’d never known why I had done it; it had stayed with me ever since. At least I now thought I’d done it, to test those codes, to see what would happen if I played with them. She was clearly annoyed and sent me straight up back to bed. It wasn’t a futile attempt to swim upstream, more of a brief clasp of a low-lying branch before letting go and letting the water carry me downstream once more. Well, this was cycle touring, I guessed, a condensed existence, and I’d briefly tried to play against it, but my legs were getting cold and the old people here didn’t look particularly friendly.
I carried on through Münster. I ticked off a huge task off my to-do list by replacing the velcro piece on my handlebag by going to a fabric shop and then taking them to a Vietnamese tailors. I didn’t take any pictures of Münster, only of my friend Thomas from Leipzig, again, trying to look suave in his dentist’s clinic.
I thanked him and set off on my way again, eastwards towards the Harz Mountains. I thought fondly of the brief time I’d spent with Thomas the previous evening. After we’d had a bite to eat, we sat in his living space, the black rain clouds pulling in an early evening, where he explained to me his conviction that the wide landscapes in the game ‘The Witcher’ were clearly inspired by his favourite German Romantic painter. I’ve forgotten who. He showed me, vicariously through the eyes of the game’s protagonist, dodging the calls of the gutter snipes and prostitutes in the compound’s brothel district and then to the top of a castle ramparts, where we watched the setting sun, which he had timed to perfection, igniting the pale horizon beneath it. We watched it for minutes, intensifying, as the rain outside his flat grew heavier. We then talked of our shared interest in Warhammer. Though my interest had never exceeded my 12-year-old self sat in the attic, painting my Elder warriors by lamplight, I understood the appeal of the world it opened. With an abashed look he gave in to my requests for him to show me his collections. Mine would have filled a tray at most, but after pulling out one tray, another tray, a box, and another box from his cupboard, his collection dwarfed mine by a distance. We looked at the meticulously painted figurines. These are the grenadiers, the pike bearers, the mage… At first, we laughed gently when he revealed the true extent of the hours that had gone into painting these plastic soldiers; it seemed to us both like laughing at a secret joke, he didn’t need to feel embarrassed of course. But as the figurines were taken out from their boxes, assembled as a carefully designed and coordinated army, I noticed that we’d stopped laughing. In awe at this amassed hobby, I briefly looked up as Thomas continued to position the men into ranks, into battle formation, adjusting the alignment of individuals with a measured nudge of a finger tip, his face calm and still, until the army was fully lined up on top of the cushioned footrest in his living room.
I’d set off a little later than I’d hoped at 11, but I’d finally found the elusive Eurovelo route that I’d been looking for ever since Holland. The signs on the road now had little dangling attachments like the tokens the kids had to snatch from go karts as they whizzed around Pat Sharp’s demented Fun House, indicating that this route would take me all the way to Berlin, on through Poland, through miles upon miles of birch forest before ending in St Petersburg. The hangover of the great downpour the last evening began to break up in the sun, and I got my first great tail-wind. I no longer had to stop every 10 minutes to look at a map for the way; the new route led me through picturesque villages, many which looked like those purposefully-constructed villages used by the army for military exercises. It was probably less direct and more zig-zaggy, but I didn’t care a bit. I didn’t seem to notice pedaling anymore. In a trance-like state, my legs moved up and down as if I had sat on a riverbank, dangling them in a cool stream, and my bicycle led me through the dappled German countryside. I entered a little village, past a flint-clad church and across a wooden bridge over a singing river surrounded by tree-lined meadows. I did what I always did when cycling carefree, either counting syllables of songs, imagining slicing a lazer through everything around me, or picturing indelible red footseps from all of humanity on the ground around me, wondering whether a little square inch might be free, waiting for me to step upon it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man sitting in the river. I slammed on the brakes in astonishment; after looking at him for a while I realised that it was only a sculpture of an elderly man, his arms contently resting on a rubber ring coloured red and white like a candy cane, in which he was floating tightly inside. With a bathing cap and glasses, it looked just like a model one of our family members once had, as it looked just like Grandpa Harry, chosen mostly because it matched his utter lack of pretense and ostentation, looking utterly bliss in the peaceful surroundings in which he found himself. As I carried on through the meadow which flanked the river I remembered the stories of how he had loved nothing more as a teenager to travel through pre-war Germany, staying in youth hostels along the way, and I thought how much I would have loved to have sat down with him, to tell him how special it was for me to meander through Europe.
My relationship with the Eurovelo R3/R1 route was initially brief. I always had to keep an eye out for the minidisk-sized squares which dangled under all manner of signs, some of which had been so sun bleached as to become ghostly pale. But as my emotional state became ever more twinned with bliss, I began to lose my way. I doglegged some of these mistakes to get back on track, which led me past an installation by the side of the cycle path. It had a series of wooden archways, each symbolising various epochs of human civilisation. After checking that there was no one else around, in fact I hadn’t seen anyone for ages, I thought it would make a good photo to get me standing triumphantly atop the end platform, which I assumed was the present front line of mankind’s venture into time, but with my camera delay only lasting 10 seconds, my weary pins only got me halfway up the steps, scrambling desperately to attain greatness, but ultimately clawing at the zenith of human potential. This metaphor of my potential failure initially made me laugh, willingly, and then I forced myself to laugh, before deciding not to laugh, and to stop it from travelling with me on my bike, I left the thought behind, and began to cycle away. The land started to become more corrugated, becoming far more picturesque than the corn-covered flatlands of Holland and around Münster. It was late afternoon now and I was beginning to think of finding somewhere to camp. It was in front of a weary eurovelo map at the start of a wooded track, just outside the town of Verl where I started to scan for potential campsites, or even better, swathes of forest where I could pitch my tent for a free night’s sleep. I looked at the map, and there was indeed a large swathe of forest on the map: it was the Teutoberger Wald, covering a wide expanse, disappearing off the edge of the map. It was the forest in which the Germanic chieftain Hermann defeated the imperious Roman legions, the warriors springing out from behind the countless dark pines of the ancient forest, which I now found myself in front of. I’d written a whole dissertation about it: how Hermann had been appropriated by countless figures through German culture: the Romantics, the proto-nationalists, and Hitler, the stage adaptation of Hermann’s victory being one of his most loved performances, extolling the iron strength of Germanic heroism and virtue. A wave of Wagnerian French horns rang deep in my brain, surging out between tall pines shrouded in perpetual twilight. Lost deep in thought, an elderly man in a white bicycle suddenly approached me and asked me if I was lost. ‘Nope, not lost!’ But I was looking for a place to camp, preferably free, if he knew anywhere, perhaps? He said he didn’t, unfortunately, but, ‘Folge mir! Ich kenne einen guten Umweg’, as he knew the shortcuts through the forest. I thought this was a good idea and began to follow this man on his white electric bicycle along another track, leading further into dense woodland. He had a friendly face, with snow-white hair, and a slightly droopy nose, on which rested some glasses. I struggled to keep up with his electric bike, but attempted not to show it as we began to talk in German. After some chatting about my cycling, my route, and my background, I asked him, Wie heißen Sie überhaupt? Ich heiße Adolf. ‘Ah’, I said. There was a pause, the cycling exacerbated the pause, my Adam’s Apple wobbled slightly. In those 10 seconds or so, my dominant thoughts ballooned against my ever-diminishing reason, that just because a man introduces himself as Adolf doesn’t mean he is a massive Nazi, not even a neo-one, he’d be old enough to be a legit one. But I had just entered the Teutoberger Wald, arguably the birthplace of Germanic consciousness and nationalistic pride, and I was struggling to keep up with his bicycle. I began to think of Nazi dungeons, a blonde pet dog named Heydrich that could sniff out my Jewish heritage. And why had he refused to stand in my photo earlier? If he was planning a trip to his underground temple then photographic incrimination would be out of the question. I couldn’t see his face, but since I hadn’t spoken for a while, I assumed that he had experienced this scene all to often. But he dismantled my concerns in an instant. “I am 82 years old… My birthday is two days before the other Adolf’s birthday! … I don’t like him.” He turned to me and smiled gently. I smiled back. A good Adolf. We kept cycling, the pace was ridiculous, and I tried my hardest not to fall behind him. We talked in German about cycling, the Teutoberg forest and life in general. He was on one of his daily cycle trips to the town and back, which he loved doing now that he had his shiny electric bicycle. But where was back? My stomach was beginning to rumble and I really wanted to stop to have a break. What concerned me more was that he was taking me on a shortcut, but to where? Perhaps leading me miles off my route. I’d already cycled over 60 miles and so I asked him “Adolf, where are we going? Somewhere near the forest?” Without turning his head, he answered it in that wonderful Germanic way of swatting it away with a lazy swing of the arm and a breathy ‘Bah!’. A few moments later he tapped his finger on his head and said he ‘was working out some ideas in my brain’. He grinned. It was a grin that told me that he was going to let me camp in his garden. And I was over the moon. We got to a crossroads at the edge of a village and he asked if he could borrow my phone so that he could phone his wife, to warn her. But my phone had no signal. This didn’t seem to faze Adolf, in fact it seemed to invigorate him, like a child who had gone into the forest and brought back a creature in tow, to show all the family back home with pride. We kept climbing and cycled over one of the main passes in the forest, screaming down the other side, hitting 30mph. On another incline we were waved down apologetically by a gangly, bespectacled Dutch cycle tourer riding in the other direction. We pedaled over to his side of the road. Panting and with sweat weaving its way down through various bits of detritus on his face, he asked us whether we knew of anywhere around here where he could camp for free? I felt quite sheepish. He was essentially me, 20 minutes earlier. And would Adolf begin to think that this a common ruse amongst cycle tourers? Approach an elderly man on a bike and ask disingenuous queries about the local camping facilities? But Adolf had approached me. Being the local, Adolf answered and pointed down the road that there was a campsite, he thought, perhaps you’ll find a place there. That was all. But do you know anywhere I could camp for free, perhaps?, asked the Dutch guy. He was completely exhausted. Amongst the pained contortions of his face, he inflected the question with a raised eyebrow. FUCK. OFF. This is my Adolf, find your own. Adolf didn’t budge, not mentioning his hospitality to me, and although we weren’t lying to him, we’d somehow become complicit together in this suppression of information. With a humble nod of the head and a quiet thank you, the cyclist heaved himself on to his heavily-loaded bike and rolled down the hill. We watched him go, and carried on. The forest was thinning now, a townscape appearing, rolling hills bedded with golden crops ready for harvest. It struck me as being similar to visions of sleepy homesteads conjured up by homesick American soldiers in the movies. We stopped, overlooking a valley in front of us, undulating hills studded with white wooden farmhouses. Most of it was his, he told me, it had been in his family for generations, and now belonged to one of his four daughters. We cycled closer to one of the large white houses, surrounded by large beech trees and hemmed in by the wheat. It didn’t really seem like a farmhouse, but rather a townhouse that had been picked up by a twister and gently lowered amongst the fields. We went inside. His wife emerged from one of the rooms off the entrance hall. Her name was Erica, a slight woman with bone-white hair clinging to her head like a duplo figurine. As Adolf began explaining with frantic arm movements and words about my arrival, in the way that people do when attempting to allay and divert other people’s concerns, Erica seemed a bit peeved. I was smelly and dirty and Adolf was doing his best to persuade his wife to let them keep this pitiful animal he’d bought at the market. ‘He’ll work hard, I promise!’ he seemed to be saying. Erica gave in, a stern expression quickly gave way to wordless, and forceful beckoning towards the kitchen. Their Australian sheepdog Moritz bounded up to me, and didn’t go for my throat. It was a regular, non-Nazi dog. I immediately felt at home. The scent of the house was incredibly subtle, not one of detergents and polished vinyl, but one reminiscent of my grandparents’ home: a mixture of polished dust, spiced cakes and orange juice from concentrate. The rooms were high, but clad with furnishings and paintings only to head height, leaving a few feet empty above. I had a well-needed shower, and flatly refused their kind offer of a bed inside, feeling embarrassed at their hospitality, instead setting up my little tent on the edge of the lawn, where tall golden wheat stood directly next to where the grass finished. With the house behind me, the Teutoberg forest could be seen rolling above the wheat in front of me. I joined them for a light dinner where they showed me pictures of their family pinned to the walls around the table. They began by saying grace. Without thinking I bowed my head like them and clasped my hands on my lap as Adolf spoke the prayer beside me. My usual dose of cynicism lay below; if it had tried to climb up then it would have slipped right back down again in an instant. Adolf then announced that he was going to drive me to see the statue of Hermann the warrior chief up on the hilltop. Brilliant, I thought. I’d considered going up the next day on my onward journey, so a trip in the car was fantastic. Adolf was surprisingly sprite as we got out at the deserted car park, the sun was beginning to set. We walked past the shuttered shops with Hermann figurines and Roman wooden swords, until we saw the mighty warrior chieftain, tens of metres tall, brandishing his victorious sword aloft (westwards I think, in a big phallic proclamation towards the French foe at the time of its construction date). The light was beginning to wane, and after a few shots of me with Hermann, we strolled back towards the car. I heard some voices through the trees and saw the top of an open-air amphitheatre tucked down in a dip in the forest. It was an outdoor cinema, Adolf told me. It sounded as if it was gently filling up. The air was warm and I felt a sudden pang of wanting to go over there, to be among some young people, to drink a beer and to watch the sun set going down silently among the trees. I suddenly realised that the forest around me, far from being the dense, gloomy conifers of old, it was of mixed woodland, broad beech like elephant trunks, spindly birch and tall Scots pine, their reddish bark leading me to ponder whether it was the sun which laid its setting haze upon the bark. I couldn’t see Germanic warriors, lying in wait on rotting moss and needles, they didn’t feature, I only saw the forest, apart from the wafting sounds of the disembodied voices, the forest was empty, it stood there, and it alone. I experienced a feeling I hadn’t felt for some time, that of being in an empty space, one which had only recently been full of life and voices. The same feeling I had felt when I rushed back into the village hall to pick up a left jumper on a table, a hall only ten minutes earlier filled with screaming children, giddy with lemonade at a school disco. Not a sombre feeling when walking into an abandoned school or factory, but an intense feeling of space, regarding it for the first time as a space in its own right.
Adolf spoke to me of the joy of being in a forest, and we began to speak more of German history. We drove back to their house. Adolf invited me to join him and Erica on the lawn to have a glass of pink wine, not rosé, but a white wine which is stained pink by the barrels, which I’d never heard of. Adolf told me that they always had a glass of wine in the evening, although he often had more than Erika, which he said, laughing, made her think he was more of an alcoholic than a workaholic. We began to talk about Europe and the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria. They felt guilty that they lived in such a big house when so many people were homeless. We then spoke of how this wasn’t too dissimilar from the great migration of Germans from Eastern Europe after the war, and we then agreed that if the Syrians were white and Christian, they wouldn’t be taken in in such small numbers. Night finally began to arrive after a day which seemed to have lasted much longer than the hours allotted to it, whereupon Erica stood up and wished us a good night. After she had left, Adolf then began to help himself to some more wine, pouring me some in equal measure, ‘Komm! Schenk dir was ein!’, and the conversation moved towards the past. Adolf was only 13 years old when the Allies surrounded the beleaguered German forces in the vast forest, now sunk in darkness to our left. Since I’d first met him, his tone had been upfront and jovial, punctuating the air with Bahs! and Humphs!, but now he seemed to withdraw, whether it was because Erica was sleeping upstairs inside, or that the past, becoming ever more apparent around us, deemed it appropriate to speak in hushed tones. ‘You see, the English officers, moved in here’, he beckoned above, ‘and the officer stayed in that room. Of course you can understand that this house would be the one to accommodate the officers.’ He chuckled, sipping some more wine, ‘I developed a love of wine from my father, who upon the arrival of the soldiers, buried his treasured collection, bottle by bottle round in the garden, for fear of it being ransacked. One night, when the English officer was standing on that balcony up there, he saw my father clawing at the earth, unearthing a bottle from the shrub border! …They bombed this area heavily, you see. The German army was completely surrounded, cut off from supplies. There was little or no food, and the house of my father, who had fought in and survived the great wars, was now full of strangers.’ I asked him another question about that time, and for the first time that day, Adolf spoke to me directly, without anger, that he didn’t want to talk about that period of his life anymore. I want to talk about the future, he said. It was now almost pitch black. I can’t remember what we talked about, the pink wine had gone to my head quite suddenly. What I do remember was looking at Adolf, sat across from me on the other side of the table, often in silence, not out of a lack of want or things to say, but in an intense calmness that had now overcome me, sitting outside the family home of Adolf in the warm evening air. As the darkness fell thicker and thicker in front of my eyes, Adolf’s features began to fade, sitting on his chair opposite me, his white shirt and white hair now the only parts visible, intensifying for a moment in contrast with the night. We talked more of things until I began to forget how I had come to be there. We agreed it was time for bed, stood up, compared knowledge of the stars above, he pointed at the moon and said, I know that one. We laughed and I said goodnight, sat in my tent, and looked out at the pinprick of light from Hermann’s sword on the wooded horizon where we had been earlier, looked for some time longer until I fell asleep.