One usually associates endless dykes and canals and windmills and immense tidal flats with the Dutch landscape. That feeling of riding along a ‘fietspad’ (bike path) on top of a dyke, past fields divided purely by small canals instead of fences, is a quintessentially Dutch experience, is it not? Not quite. The Dutch have been quite adept at marketing a certain image of their flat land, with its dykes and mills and canals and neat village-museum windmills (the real mills are now modest motor pumps and wind generators). In fact, the same landscape runs all the way from the northern Netherlands through Germany to southern Denmark, that is, from the provinces of Friesland to southern Jutland, passing through Groningen and Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein on the way. If you expect the landscape to change, even subtly, after crossing the border into Germany, you will be disappointed. The land is just as flat; people are everywhere on bicycles; you meet just as many cows and sheep; age-old problem of moving water against gravity and out to the sea means that here too are windmills a-plenty; and the sea-dyke runs all the way up the coast for hundreds of kilometres.
In other words, our ride wasn’t so much dykes on bikes, as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would have it, but bikes on dykes. From Groningen to Copenhagen, through the ancient Greater Frisia, it was a coast-hugging ride I had wanted to do for many years. Apart from a general sense that we were roughly following the North Sea Cycle route, I had not planned it much further, relying on maps acquired, routes found, hopefully a bed in which to sleep for the night. As it was, we covered on average almost 100 km per day, soon settling into a distance-eating rhythm across dyke and canal strewn lands. On the way we met blueberry-stained, Plattdeutsch speaking farmers, swarms of German tourists taking a holiday in the muddy beaches and numberless sheep, cows and bumps.
Finding our Legs
From Groningen we set off, quite unfit for the ride after a long sea voyage to get here (from Melbourne). Groningen was as wonderful as ever, a town of human proportions which had some years ago ripped up a freeway in order to make room for bicycles and people. But I was also a nursing a bandaged thumb. Why? The night before I had impersonated a bicycle-repair klutz: as I was putting lights on the bikes, I cut my thumb with the pocket-knife, dropped a pile of papers on the floor, sprayed blood over them as I picked them up, banged my head as I stood up and kept dropping tools as I tried to work while stemming the flow of blood.
Even with my bandaged thumb, with maps to find, riding legs to find, a riding rhythm for two to establish and last minute adjustments to the bikes, we managed to roll over 70 kms of the polders across Groningen province. And I was keen to linger in the Netherlands, at least for this one day, so we followed the Waddenzee route (marked as Landesfietsrouten, or LF 10). The day was full of earlier Dutch memories, evoked by the sheep shit on the dyke path, the dykes and fields and rich smells of Dutch rural land, the feel of the sun, the mites around 6pm, the sense of open, flat country – the Platteland. I also wanted to ride this stretch out of a perverse desire to complete a job: I had ridden the other section of this route some years before, heading the other way from Groningen, west and south. Now I could finish off this last, relatively remote and rural and quiet section.
It helped that I can get by almost entirely in Dutch, understanding it all and speaking much more freely than I expected. Ik versta het meestals en ik kan het praate veel beter dan ik heb gedenkt. Just as well, for our stop for the night, Nieuwenschans on the border, required Dutch or German, but English was nowhere to be found. Exactly the kind of place you encounter only on rides like this: a small border village with lanes running by its few houses, one cheap motel with great rooms, a pub and two cafes and one small food shop.
By the second day we found our cycling legs, covering 100 km, from Nieuweschans to Scheiburg on the Ostfriesland coast. But now we had entered ‘moin’ territory, or rather, ‘moin, moin’, a shortening of ‘morgen’ and said very quickly to all and sundry. A cyclist comes past, ‘moin, moin’; and old couple walking, ‘moin, moin’; a shop attendant, ‘moin, moin’; a dog, ‘moin, moin’. Soon enough I had mastered the art, voice running ragged by the end of each day with the million ‘moin-moins’ I had growled to anyone within earshot. It was moin all the way to Ribe in Jutland, an unwitting mark of the common territory that used to be Greater Frisia.
We learned three other lessons that day, one concerning energy resources. All too easily do you forget how much energy is burned on a ride, how quickly the wall comes. It hit me in Neuenberg, a long stretch of straight road with nary a shop in sight. Until I spied a ‘Blauberen’ sign hard by a farm, sold by a gum-booted and Plattdeutsch-speaking farmer whom I almost understood, given the closeness to northern Dutch. Half a kilogram of the freshest blueberries disappeared down our gullets. Far better than a sports-bar or energy-drink! We felt like we had had a shot of something very strong and very illicit. Our legs blurred, the wheels whirred and the last kilometres disappeared without effort.
The second lesson involved toilets. Soon enough I developed a unique skill of finding a toilet in the most populous of places. Without the uniquely Australian custom of free and liberally sprinkled toilets across the land, not to speak of long stretches with many trees and few people, here one usually has to pay for the sparse toilets available. Operating on Georg Lukács’s – the Hungarian communist – principle that if one does the deed quickly, the chances of being caught are minimal, I am able to find that brief corner of a building, a low shrub, a tree, where even the hordes swarm.
Hard by the deich/dyke on the Jadebusen we found a ferienwohnung called Cafe Landlust (evocative names would soon become a constant feature of the ride). But I also noticed that the dyke had a knack of being broached, given the long tidal flats and build-up of water in a storm. So on each of its three rebuilds from the 18th century it had risen to over six metres. And now we learned the third lesson: the relationship between seats and bums. As we dismounted, we realised our arses had been rubbed raw in all the wrong places. The seats on the second-hand bicycles had obviously been picked up in bulk, for they were far too narrow, missing my sit-bones, pushing into tender places and crunching anything that dangled. Hopefully, I thought, my delicate parts would feel better in the morning.
It was not to be, as I learnt when first mounting for the next day’s ride. All day, covering 90km from Scheiburg to the village of Ostend, on the Wesel-Elbe Canal, I kept trying to find positions that would avoid the tender places on my arse. It did not help matters in the least that the quiet, reasonably well-sign-posted tracks were as bumpy as hell – farm tracks, lanes really between fields, are not the smoothest of passages, so much so that they deter cars and pretty much any other form of transport.
‘Perhaps we need new seats’, she said.
‘Nah, let’s see’, said I, the penny-pincher, teeth rattling from the bumps. ‘At least we’ve rattled our way across Neidersachsen’.
In between the bumps, I found time to enjoy the ride, the feel, once again, of a northern European summer with its riot of flowers and plants and bugs and birds and animals and smells. In contrast to my bum, my legs were fully into the ride, with plenty of reserve. The day brought us from the province of Niedersachsen and into Schleswig-Holstein, that eternally contested zone between Germany and Denmark. In the end, the compromise was to cut it in half, leaving a German-speaking minority in one and a Danish minority in the other.
On a border of different sorts, between the two German provinces, was Bremerhaven. The arrival in Bremerhaven was an accident, since we had intended to hit the Emer River further south, at the Steinensingel ferry, but ended up at the Brexel ferry, which dumped us in the middle of Bremerhaven. But what a fascinating town: Germany’s main port to the west, from where immigrants left for north and south America, where warships and u-boats departed during WWII, where now container ships ply their trade. As is so often the case with such ports, since the ships now are so large, the container port has moved so the old area has become a museum/tourist zone.
In Bremerhaven I had another memory to tag: the two years Friedrich Engels spent in these parts in the late 1830s, including a wonderful story of a drunken day on the harbour. Engels was here to gain experience in order to work in his father’s firm, but he also wrote his most fascinating reflections on the Bible, in lengthy debate with his theological friends and pastors, the Graeber brothers. Here too he based his tale of the cotton-bale, or at least identified Bremerhaven as a major stage on the bale’s journey from the southern USA, through many hands of swindlers, until it became a garment in Prussia. And here he noted in detail the theological controversies, between the rationalist ministers and the larger number of conservative Reformed ministers. That the latter won shows up today in the fact that you simply cannot find a shop open on Sundays (for one must not work or encourage anyone else to work on a Sunday). Desperate for food, we eventually hunted down a small kiosk with some basic and stale supplies.
Of Arses and Bicycles
Day four, the mid-point of the ride, pushing deep into Nordfreisland (in the state of Schleswig-Holstein), it became clear that something serious had to happen for the sake of our arses. By now there were no spots left that were not rubbed, ground, blistered or raw. They wouldn’t even become numb after a while so that I could ride for a while in pretended ignorance of one’s nether regions. So in the small town of Brünsbuttel, which I translated as Brown Butt, we found a small bicycle shop, longingly pondered the seats, massaged out tender behinds. The existing torture-devices were gladly handed over to the proprietor, replaced with a sumptuous leather Brooks saddle for me and one for my riding companion that did not disappear into tender internal regions. Mounting the bikes afterwards was a tentative process, but I immediately sighed in relief, for the Brooks saddle seemed to know what was required, gently massaging my hind-quarters as it moulded to my shape. I wondered why I had ever broken my vow of some years before not to use any other saddle but a Brooks leather one.
Part of the reason was a perverse desire to save a little money – I managed to hold out for three says. Another was due to the second-hand bicycles we had bought in Copenhagen. We had decided to acquire some recycled bicycles for six months in Europe: good quality bikes, checked over, rebuilt, all by a local operator in an effort to bypass the exorbitant prices asked for bicycles in Denmark. I had purchased a second-hand, 8-speed internal hub Kildemoes; a bomb-proof piece of machinery, designed for rough Danish winters and a life outside. But these worthy bicycle recyclers in Copenhagen had also obviously come across a collection of bicycle seats, perhaps from a friend, perhaps off the back of the proverbial truck, perhaps from some narrow-arse who had designed a saddle with the assumption that everyone else has the same shaped behind.
Later, as I fiddled with my reconditioned bicycle, preparing for the long ride by making all those minute adjustments so that it suited my own bodily dimensions, I noticed a profound difference between Danish and Australian bicycles – all of it to do with the weather. Danish bikes come standard with mudguards and water-and-dirt-proof internal gears, but hardly a bidon (water-bottle holder) to be seen. By contrast, Australian bikes come standard with bidons, but mudguards and internal gears are found with difficulty. Wet, muddy and icy winters versus stinking hot and dry summers.
The Pure Relaxation of Wandering Minds
At a certain point in a longer ride, usually around the fourth or fifth day, your mind achieves full relaxation. The issues that had lain beneath the surface have been brought up, processed endlessly and then laid to rest – arguments, scuffles, petty hatreds, loves lost and so on. Now you can become truly creative. As out arses recovered while we ran up for 100 km along the coastal dyke to the seaside town of Büsum, I pondered the sensuous names of these old Frisian towns. Brünsbuttel we had already met, a place to restore our own butts, and Büsum had its own bodily associations. But we also passed through Dingeldonn (guess), Deichberg (Dyke Town), Deichweg (Dyke Road), Deichstraße (Dyke Street), to name but a few. Butts, bosoms, dongs and dykes … Add to that the towel fetish at the last hotel bed in Büsum (at Hotel Siegfried) and the picture is complete.
And on the next day, on a long, loping ride up the dyke-coast from Büsum to Niebüll, I began noticing and talking with our constant companions – the sheep. So began the speculation on sheep’s udders: the older ones sag and hang, while the younger ones, with fewer years of farmers pulling on them for the precious milk, were fuller and rounder. Did one distinguish between A-cup, B-cup and C-cup, I wondered, without too much titillation.
The day ended in as surreal a fashion as it began. 125 km later, in a town – Niebüll – a little inland and just shy of the Danish border, we were desperately chasing a room in the high summer season when all the coastal beds (at Dägebull) were overflowing with bodies. At last, a room appeared on the edge of town: not only was it called the Nietzsche Pension, but the proprietor, Wolfgang, turned out to be a great lover of Australia. When he heard we were from Australia, Wolfgang Nietzsche’s face lit up – Australia! I have been to Australia seven times!! I love it!!! From then he did his best with English, revealed with a flourish his wall of massive photographs of outback tours (Uluru, King’s Canyon and so on), wanted to know where we live and what the hell we were doing in Niebüll, in Nordfriesland. All we wanted to do was collapse in bed.
A couple of days earlier than planned we rode across the Danish ‘border’, pushing up 75 km from Niebüll and riding deep into Sønderjylland (Southern Jutland) all the way to Ribe. In six days we had ridden a shade under 600 km, so tomorrow was to be a rest day. It gave me a chance to think more about economics, not so much in abstract terms, but in terms of the concrete reality we saw around us day by day.
The dykes and mills and canals are not merely picturesque and welcoming features of a sweeping, open landscape, nor is their only function the preservation of human life from an unpredictable sea. No, what was important was behind the dykes, contained by the canals, pumped dry by the windmills: the endless fields of sheep and cows, wheat and rye that stretched out before us, day by day, kilometre by kilometre. In a word, the physical reality of farming was everywhere around us. No amount of a financialised market can substitute for food itself, the vitamins and proteins and energy and roughage that keep human bodies functioning and alive.
Of course, agribusiness is the capitalist reality of farming, supported in these parts by state subsidies to farmers. And that economic reality showed up in the machinery we met: running along remote tracks through fields of grain and cattle, my simple piece of machinery contrasted sharply with the towering monsters of farm machines again and again. The harvest was beginning in the northern parts, so harvesters and transporters would greet us on a corner, lumbering along a quiet lane (and swallowing the lane itself), or blowing chaff into the wind in the middle of a field.
Peasants had well and truly disappeared, unlike Romania or parts of Bulgaria. Except for one small corner, were we came across a couple of peasants, scruffy and straw-hatted, their equipment aged and fully workable, a cart full of hay pulled by an ancient tractor. Obviously, they were still not persuaded by the value of the massive machines their neighbours had long since acquired.
The ancestors of these peasants had first settled our destination for the day, Ribe, which was celebrating its 1300th birthday (the ancient cathedral has a list of priests and bishops who predate and postdate the Reformation). Most likely Frisians first came here, drawn by the navigable river and its rich farmlands. And for all the claims by the Viking Museum that trade, trade, trade is supposed to have been the drawing power of the town, it soon became clear that the prime concern for the Frisians and Vikings of the town was … cattle and crops. The merchants? They were the unaccountable exception for the medieval town, granted exemption by the king to trade (as long as they stayed within the ‘ditch’ which marked the exception zone).
But why had I wanted to do this particular ride and why had I wanted to do it for almost a decade? Quite simply, the ride runs through the land of my maternal ancestors, the ancient Greater Frisia that stretched all the way from today’s province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands to Southern Jutland in Denmark. It is still characterised by a common sea (the Waddenzee) with its characteristic boats, a common, low-lying and storm-prone landscape laced with dykes and dunes and mills and rich farmland, with its lowering clouds, soft light and long, and stretching vistas of water-strewn fields to the horizon … so much so that the sense of regional identity is greater than the arbitrariness of national borders. A couple of young boys in Niebüll (in Nordfriedland) from whom we asked directions were much more familiar with towns and the lie of the land across the Danish-German ‘border’ than with other parts of their ‘own’ country.
And they still retain traces of a common language. Common language? Of course, Dutch and German and Danish are all part of the same language group, but that is not quite the same thing, for they are distinct languages. The signal of much older common language came with the Frisian street names you encounter in coastal villages throughout these parts of Germany, as well as ‘moin, moin’, the universal greeting for the vast bulk of our ride. And that greeting became a signal of that ancient language: Fries or Frisian. It lies at the root of the guttural Sønderjysk, which Danes from elsewhere can barely understand, or the Plattdeutsch which I seemed to comprehend at a visceral level, or the Frisian spoken today in the province of Friesland, itself the living form of a language that was once much more widespread and is the basis of modern English. I should not have been surprised, for sections in Germany are still called Ostfriesland and Nordfriesland, but surprised I was. Perhaps it was the old dialectic of the immigrant’s child, who knows that the land is part of me and yet not.
Eventually we passed out of Greater Frisia, on the last day of the ride: a brief journey by train from Ribe to Korsør, and then 60km to Haraldsted, close by Copenhagen. The distance barely troubled our legs as we pedalled along the King’s Way, marked by occasional phallic milestones erected by various kings – whether Christian or Frederik or Christian or …. Haraldsted may have been the place where Harald, the king’s guard, took his last stand – ‘Her stod Harald, Kong’s gård’, said the stone in ancient Danish script before the church – but I was not ready to take my stand in one place. Instead of Harald’s statement, ‘I am going no further, this looks like a nice place to settle’, I was already planning my next ride.