Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.


Geometry, Land and Track: Bodily Memories on a Bicycle

The feel of the air, the sense of a track, the lie of the land, the geometry of a bicycle – many are the triggers for unexpected bodily memories. Even a reasonable amount of long distance cycling in different parts of the world is enough to build up a collection of memory tracks; except that they are not mere memories but intensely felt experiences, returning with a bodily intensity and vividness that continues to surprise and delight.

The preconditions: leave the world for a couple of days or more. Mount a bicycle, loaded with enough supplies and gear, and set off into remote parts. Soon enough, the great pleasure of a ride is upon me. To be a dualist for a moment, while my body settles into its rhythm, my mind is free to wander according to its own preferences. Or rather, my mind finds itself subject to the messages my body is sending. And unexpected messages they are.



On a recent ride and on a new bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker), I began to recall my many rides in Germany on an old Pegasus. I had bought it second hand, and over a couple of years I had cycled the route of the Berlin Wall (Mauerweg), along the Spree river from its source (Spreeradweg), and many rides around Herrnhut in the far east of Germany. Fond I became of that worn but reliable German bicycle. I even began to taste lunches of ryebread, cheese and cherry tomatoes, as well as the chocolates for energy that cost next to nothing. I felt intensely the bumpy farm tracks, the empty single lane roads through forest and farmland, the dirt paths through biospheres, and even the dedicated bicycle paths that criss-cross the country. But why those rides, tastes, experiences? And why that bicycle? Unable to answer the question, I let my mind wander again, only to return the Pegasus. At last I realised: the geometry! Both bikes put my body in a similar position. The position of the seat in relation to the pedals, the places for my hands on the handlebars, the angle of lean – all felt the same. But it went further, for the gear shifts and ratios, the cornering, and the comfort with a load brought the two even closer together.


Lie of the Land

Moments later my memory tracks were in the Netherlands, on a glorious ride of self-discovery a decade ago. My body began recalling not the bicycle I rode then, but the way seas and land are inescapably part of one another. Dykes and polders seemed to be about me, as did the exhilarating experience of finding myself all alone on the Waddenzee in the north of the country. Mostly, however, I felt I was in the midst of waterways and opening bridges, which would be raised to allow canal traffic to pass. Why did I recall the Netherlands so vividly? I pondered this question while salt spray hit my face, born by a sea breeze that ruffled the waves and formed white caps on the chop. I was actually passing through Swansea, south of Newcastle. Here Lake Macquarie passes into the sea, the passage winding its way like a sea canal. The low-lying land on either side is bolstered by seawalls to protect the land in a storm. As I rode up to the bridge crossing the passage, the red lights came on and I pulled up. The bridge began to open to allow some boats to pass through. The Netherlands indeed.

2010 August 009a

Sense of a Track

A little later, my senses of balance, sight and smell had me transported to a glistening wet fahrradweg (bicycle path) through a deep European forest. A ribbon of black twisted its way through ancient and dripping trees. Rain spattered on my jacket, soaked through my helmet and splashed up on my shoes (mudguards seem designed to direct all water into the tops of one’s footwear). About me I felt a biosphere, and I began to recall that intense feeling of wishing that the path and its forest would never end.

2013 April 092 (Spreeradweg)a

Actually, I was cycling along a relatively rare experience in Australia: a dedicated bicycle path through a forest. These paths tend to be rail-trails – old railway lines (for coal mines, sugar cane or fruit orchards) that have been converted the bicycle and walking routes. Rare though they may be, I seek them out whenever I can. On this ride, the day was cool and threatening rain, and soon enough the track was a glistening wet black ribbon through a dripping forest. No wonder I found myself in a European forest.

Warm Bed

As I gradually became soaked from the driving rain, an intense anticipation came upon me. A dry, warm hostel, with a massive meal and a chance to dry out – my body leapt at the expectation. Now I could have been anywhere: towards the end of that endless fahrradweg through the dripping forest; crossing the border in Jutland between northern Germany and Denmark; the soaking rain along a quiet track in the Dutch Veluwe; autumn rains on the North Sea Bicycle Route in Norway; or a squall blown in from the sea in Denmark. On each occasion, I felt the bodily pull of dry clothes, a grand meal, a shelter for the bicycle (after its wipe-down), a warm and dry bed.

The Best Stretch of Road in the World

A paradox lies at the heart of cycling over great distances: some stretches of road you want to go on forever, but that feeling can be generated only because they do come to an end. That is, eternity can be eternity because it always ends, inevitably too soon. How does that work? The best way to gain a sense of the paradox is to tell the stories of a few of those roads. Some of them you experience once; others call you back, a call you try to answer.

The Netherlands: Thick leaves of ancient trees shade out the sun of a late northern European summer. A turn, a small drop and the narrow road is cool away from the sun. The hoary trees soften the sound, so I slow the bike and make the few kilometres stretch out a little more. Uncharacteristically for the Netherlands, the road turns and twists a little, over rises and drops, past low banks cut in the earth. And uncharacteristically, the smells are not the sharp ones of cattle urine and shit, working overtime fertilising the polders. Instead – and welcoming – are the softer smells of moss and leaves, old bark and forest animals. So I savour the air, suck it in. As I do, I feel the large Dutch breakfast providing plenty of energy reserves, and my legs feel toned from a week on my steed. Until now I have been exploring the length and breadth of the Netherlands, from where my parents came. The sheer pleasure has been enhanced by the enjoyment of being on my own, relishing the time to myself after being freed from a disastrous relationship. But of all the many cross-country fietsrouten with their careful signposting, of all the many curious corners, out-of-the-way villages, of all the dykes, fields and loping runs along flat fields, this piece of road remains etched in my bodily memory.

Italy: That magical piece of road does not always appear when my legs and the day are fresh. Some years ago in Italy, it appeared unexpectedly after a tough climb up a spur of Apennines from Pistoia (near Florence in the valley below). On the winding road, snaking ever upwards, sleek Italian pelotons sped past me, haughtily sneering at my strange, small-wheeled cycle. Yet I have the last laugh, since I sail past them at San Baronto, where they have fallen off their machines, eager for wine and smokes and abundant carbs. It’s only half-way, I think as I smile at them, tackling the next climb to Vinci. Now the midday sun of a Tuscan summer bears down, while I kept a keen eye out for ‘aqua’. Then it comes upon me: a single-lane road winds its way along the spur, past centuries-old low stone walls on either side. On the mountainside terraces, olive trees mingle among the grape vines. Small houses with semi-circular red tiles sit in folds of the land. Washing hangs on short single lines on the side of the road. A goat looks up at me, pausing with whatever tasty morsel it has found to chew. Absorbing the smells, view, and feel of the road, I barely notice my dry throat and weary legs.

Germany (eastern): To be on a bike on the first real day of an eastern European spring – especially if you happen to be with a frisky riding companion – is almost a guarantee of a great ride. Bitter winds, the threat of snow and sub-zero temperatures have only just passed. But for some reason they are suddenly a distant memory, for now one’s body responds to the turn of the season in a wholly different way. Sap is rising, clothes come off without noticing, sun-starved skin is eager for exposure. So we ride, slipping out of town in the far east of Germany, heading for the Czech border. And there it is once again: a ribbon of road over gently undulating hills, lined by trees eager to grasp the sky and push out buds. We sprint, race, ride in circles on the road, laugh and play – for what seems like an eternity.

Denmark: The pressure of a sprint to make the last ferry – so it is when we have to catch the boat from Southern Jutland to the island of Fyn (from Fyndhav to Bøjden). After a sleep of the dead, we wake too late and leave in a hurry from Sonderborg. Before us are a stiff climb and then a drop. With no time to settle into the saddle, to loosen up legs, to stretch stiff shoulders, and gently ease into the day, we set off at breakneck speed. The seconds tick by. The hill grows ever longer. Lactic acid burns in our legs. Breath is raw in our throats. At long last, soaked with sweat, we crest the hill to see the ferry below preparing for departure. We drop like stones, the spokes spinning in the sunlight. We bank low on curves, pedal furiously and whoop as the wind dries our sodden clothes. The ferry captain sees us coming, fires up the engine and … holds the boat for a little longer. We collapse on deck, trying not to think too much of the crossing of Fyn before us.

Australia: Rarely does a dedicated bicycle path, with its obstacle course of dogs and walkers, measure up to a great stretch of cycling. Instead, those roads appear serendipitously. Most of the day may be spent dodging potholes on the side of the road, with cars buzzing your shoulder. Then, an unassuming turn opens out onto a whole new vista. Here is a single track, with not a motorised vehicle to be seen or heard – a road that has forgotten it was originally built for cars. It passes over hills with stunning views, is pressed in by trees and bushes that have not been allowed to grow as they will, slides past quiet farms without a dog in sight and offers spots that invite you to stop, light a fire and boil a billy for a quiet drink. That road exists in my Hunter Valley. It is one of the best pieces of cycling road I have encountered, precisely because it was never intended to be so. I hope it will be there forever, but it is threatened by the coal mines that keep expanding thereabouts. Who knows if it will be there when I seek it out once again?

Bikes on Dykes, or, ‘Moin’ All the Way

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.

Lessons Learned

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 Christina 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.

Into Sønderjylland

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).

On Ancestors

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.

Through Uncivilised Europe: Copenhagen to Sofia by Train

Angry border guards who throw you off trains, alcohol smugglers, war-torn villages, bombed-out taxis – Europe may claim to be the origin of ‘civilised’ society, but it is often far from it. But it also has the sensuous Copenhagen, the obsessively organised Germans, the faded Austro-Hungarian glory of Budapest, the sheer energy and desire of Belgrade, and the impenetrability of Sofia. I was in Copenhagen and wanted to get to Sofia in Bulgaria, from north-western to Eastern Europe. What better way than by train? Unless one wants to sell an organ or three and take the infrequent Orient Express – a luxury option for the obscenely and obnoxiously well-to-do – the best way is to break the journey into a series of local trains.

Six days it took, although the actual travel time is about 48 hours. Why so slow? I wanted to stop for a while, taste, smell and touch a city like Budapest and Belgrade on the way. I was also newly in love with a woman from half a world away in Copenhagen. We wanted to celebrate the discovery and passion with a journey that few in Europe have actually taken in its entirety. Across the heart of Europe, in sleek first class seats with tea and coffee on a tray, rattling sleepers that lulled one to sleep with the familiar rock and creak of a train, and in broken-down carriages that boasted mythical dining cars we journeyed, marvelled, laughed and were sobered by the sheer variety.

Smoking, Smuggling Danes

Out of Copenhagen it is a short journey to Hamburg, across the straight to Germany. Denmark is, apart from Jutland, a bunch of islands huddling in the Baltic. So before you can settle into the massive easy chairs that pass for seats in first class (yes, I hate to admit it, but at little extra cost I love to take this option), finish a cup of tea, make your gums sing from a sweet pastry, or clear your mouth with an apple – all provided by the conductor – the train arrives at Rødby (pronounced roughly like roerthboo), a scrappy town whose main claim to fame is the ferry crossing to Puttgarden in Germany. (Speaking Danish is a little like a wedgie: more than half of the spoken word usually disappears into some unspoken place and thereby bears little relation to what is written on the page.) Astonishingly, at least for someone used to trains crossing thousands of kilometres of desert over days on end, the train simply hopped on the ferry. Obviously it wasn’t a long train, but the first time it stopped, waited a moment and crept onto the boat, I thought it was the oddest thing in the world. Especially when you need to get off during the crossing: you simply step out of the train into the ship’s cargo hold, walking amongst the trucks and cars and buses which have joined the train.

Up the stairs to the passenger decks I was looking forward to a grand crossing to the mainland, one full of history in which Danish kings sent ships full of soldiers to fight over Schleswig-Holstein, or in which smugglers would try to make the run in the cover of darkness, or impoverished peasants seeking the supposedly better conditions on the other side.

Not quite.

Passengers regarded the whole business as a necessary evil, a reminder that Denmark really is a tiny country and that the Danish Empire barely a memory. For some childlike reason I love to walk about a ship (or a train), exploring its corners, stairs and alleys. So I made my way out on deck. Instead of a grand view of the sound, looking out to the Baltic states and even Russia, all I could see were the backs and overhanging bellies of other passengers with the grey looks of nicotine addicts. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of smokers. They seemed to have some unwritten pact that they would produce – collectively – more smoke than the engine’s smoke-stack around which they huddled. Al least the floor was soft underfoot, I thought, rather than the usual hard iron of most ships. Until I looked down and realised it was a carpet of cigarette butts.

Back inside I soon saw that the one or two best seats had been fought over and won by passengers in the know. I left them guarding their prizes and meandered past the café, took one look at the food – greasy blobs of deep fried somethings that were all brown and shiny – and kept walking. Duty free maybe? The shop was busier than Christmas Eve back home. Did it have the usual trinkets of duty-free shops the world over? Cameras, watches, mobile phones, perfume, souvenirs? In one small corner a few such faded items hung, but it was really a grog shop. Whiskeys, rums, wines, cognacs, snaps, and beer … above all beer piled so high in trolleys that I could barely see the purchasers. And in the corners of the ferry people stacked their loot, waiting for the crane to lower the grog to their cars and trucks below. The trick was to convince the customs people on the other side that all those concealed crates were really fluffy toys for the neighbours kids, or perhaps parts for the backyard pool one could use two days a year in chilly Denmark.

No wonder my partner wanted to snooze in the train below decks. ‘I hate that crossing’, she said, ‘it’s so depressing and reminds me of the worst side of Danes’.

Retentive Germans

We were eager for Budapest and Eastern Europe, wanting to get out of the overdeveloped and numbing feel of Western Europe. So the passage through the bustling hub of Hamburg was business-like and quick. A nachtzug train with its immaculate sleeper compartment – 6 bars of soap, floors from which you could eat, that slightly burnt smell from sterilised sheets, a firm if slightly ascetic mattress – awaited us on the next platform. I always find the distinctive rhythms of a train deeply comforting, so soon I fell asleep. By the next morning we were in Munich, so I lay awake pondering the massive blob of Germany in the middle of Europe (whose unification, it has recently come out, was opposed by the other countries in Europe in 1989).

One of the great values of war is that it clears the ground in preparation for a complete rebuilding. So it is with Germany. Hitler may have done some unconscionable things with which Germany, Europe and the rest of the Christian world are still coming to terms, but at least he managed to provide Germany with a clean slate. This is really what people mean when they say that Hitler enabled Germany’s late arrival into the modern bourgeois world. Hitler attracted so many planes with so many bombs, which did a marvellous of job of obliterating what was there before. Which is why Germany has such an extraordinary railway system: they were able to start largely from scratch and build a comprehensive and efficient network. To be sure, I miss quirky little railway stations in odd corners (there are still a few of those) and the monstrous steel structures of Hamburg, Munich and Berlin don’t quite have any ambience to speak of, but name a place and time and you can get there by train, bus, metro or tram.

What they do not have are smiling, rotund, Danglish-speaking conductors with trays overflowing with free pastries, fruit and jugs of tea and coffee. No, every item on the food and drink trolley on German trains costs you a part of your reproductive system. But then you can pick up a pile of ryebread, fresh fruit and decent pretzels at the railway station, as well as fill up your water bottles, so there is little to complain about.

At least that’s true about the food at the stations. The conductors on the trains are another story. I once had the misfortune to have a bicycle with me, a fold-variety that would take up no more room than a medium suitcase. Alas, I had neglected to bring its cover, so I snuck it in and tried to conceal it. Along comes Colonel Schultz, takes one look at the bike, another at me, and begins to bark commands at me. I figured out that I needed the bike covered and that I had to get off the train, schnell! But I made out that I had no idea what he was talking about, asked him if he spoke Dutch or Danish or French – repeatedly. Eventually he stormed off, threatening the plagues of the Apocalypse as he went. By the time he came back the train was already underway. He stopped when he saw me still there, scowling. I smiled sweetly back, so he threw the detailed timetable you only get on German trains on my lap.

Those timetables are one of the great wonders of the world. Each station, half station, unscheduled stop, smoko, piss break and branch line is listed. It has the time of arrival and departure down to the minute. You can tell exactly where you are at any time, especially since the screens on the end of the carriage announce it in large red letters. None of the announcements over the PA to which I’ve become accustomed elsewhere: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Intercapital Daylight is running about an hour behind schedule’, or ‘well … yes, I think we’ll be there today’, or ‘fuck me dead, this is the wrong line’.

But it did make me think about the conditions for fascism. When I was in Italy (another story) and asked about Mussolini – as one does in Italy – older people would respond: ‘Mussolini might have done some bad things, but at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time’. Like most people, I had heard this before, told to me by school teachers or mentioned in a book, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that Italians would actually say it themselves. Of all that Mussolini did, and of all the studies and history books written on him and fascist Italy, it came down to marshes and trains. But perhaps this common saying reveals a deeper insight, some stronger connection between trains and fascism: it’s not that fascism made the trains run on time, but that if they do run on time it means one of two things. Either we’d better be damn careful, since fascism may be just around the corner, or it’s already here, since the trains are already on time. I’m far happier in a place where one disregards the timetable altogether and turns up at the railway station, assuming that a train will arrive … soonish.

Faded Imperial Glory

From Munich it was a day train to Budapest Keleti station. (This took some getting used to, I must admit: cities with more than one major railway station. St Petersburg is the most elaborate, with something like half a dozen, depending on your direction and destination. In Budapest there were two, Nyugati and Keleti.) But the station really captured much about Budapest: an extraordinary construction, elaborate, majestic, imperial even, but it was a little worn and dusty. Pigeons nested busily in the waiting room ceiling, a shop in the basement sold marijuana biscuits, and not all the signals were working properly. I gained the impression not of a lost era of communism but of the faded glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Toilets are always good indicators of how a people feel about themselves and the toilet at the Central Café, where we spent more time than we had planned, was as good a sign as any. Should you need to relieve yourself, you would descend a grand, marble staircase to a couple of doors. The men’s door, accessed by a coin to the careful guard, opened up to a palace of mirrors, washbasins, urinals and cubicles. A little cracked and worn, perhaps, but it was clean and there was toilet paper. This extraordinary toilet – no, it was really a celebration of the act of evacuation – simply said: we used to be an empire once.

Perhaps one of the best ways to see Budapest if you have little time is take up one of the offers from the taxi drivers who jump on you at the railway station. ‘Taxi’ they say, offering to help you with your bags as you get off the train. ‘Taxi’ they say, in groups of six or seven. My usual practice is to wave them off and find a real taxi that isn’t parked up on the steps. But every now and then it’s worth taking a ride with one of them. The ‘taxis’ are easy to pick – beaten up Trabants with home-made taxi lights on the roof, which are whipped out when you get in to make it all look official. Then you might find that the driver is extremely keen to get you to ‘Hotel Carmen’.

‘It’s cheap’, he points out, ‘just over here. Why don’t you come and have a look?’

‘No thanks,’ one of us replies. ‘We have a reservation at Hotel Erzabet’.

‘Erzabet!’ he cries. ‘Too expensive! 200 Euro! Carmen is much cheaper!’

We insist, but not before he has driven us a few times around Budapest hoping we would agree to see the fabled Carmen.

But you are lucky when you get a quiet, rotund taxi driver with a soft voice like a Walt Disney animal, rattly throat from too many smokes, and a tour around the city. The story of Pest and Buda comes up, the hot springs, the Pest Hill, the Jewish Quarter, and of course the Danube, at which point his eyes begin to swim. After a ride like that you don’t mind that he has just charged you Yom Kippur or Christmas Day rates (they are still way cheaper than any taxi I’ve travelled on).

So we took his advice, walked along the Danube and its famous bridges, climbed the Pest Hill with its grottos and trees and ancient paths, pondered the city from a vertigo-inducing cathedral tower, and even slipped into an Orthodox church service. These churches are wonderful, since you can drop in for a few moments, pay your respects and move on without offending anyone. All perfectly normal: people come and go, meet for a coffee at the door, puff on a cigarette and return to the worship service. And the Erzabet Hotel was not expensive at all.

Border guards

We were to return to Budapest unexpectedly, courtesy of the Romanian border guards. It began, I think, with the dogshit. I had stepped outside the magnificent Keleti Station to take a photograph late in the evening, and as I concentrated on the shot managed to collect a massive load. Much of which conveniently attached itself to the hallway and floor of our tiny cabin. I scraped it out of the deep grooves of my walking boots with matchsticks, she sniffed the floor and wiped it up with ginger ale on a paper towel. The smell lingered …

Finally, after doing our best to pretend that the only smell in our compartment was of freshly-baked bread and coffee (no mean feat of imagination), we drifted off to sleep … only to be woken by the first of a series of border guards and petty officials. They had all spent many years practising the finely-tuned skill of knowing precisely when you had drifted off to sleep before knocking. One after another they came – ticket collectors, Hungarian border guards, Romanian border guards. On each occasion we had an advance warning, then a friendly guy who explains things, then the puffed-up boss with four or five muscle men crowding around.

It was the Romanians who put an end to our quest for Bucharest. We had imagined a journey through the Transylvanian mountains, the glorious hills and fields and then the challenges of Bucharest before going on to Sofia. Not in the opinion of the Romanians border guards. We had blearily negotiated three levels of these guards, from advance party through junior guard to boss. All had the same message: ‘You need a visa to come into Romania’. I questioned the boss insistently but to no avail, for all I managed to do was make him furious. It was as though I had stuck a red hot poker up his bum: ‘No!’ he yelled in Romanian English. ‘No visa, no entry: Australia, New Zealand the same. You must go back’. We were escorted by four guards from the train. Fortunately another train was returning to Budapest, undergoing the same treatment but in reverse.

The carriage back was a Romanian special – it had seen better days and closer relations with cleaners in the past. Yet we laughed, in disbelief maybe, at the extraordinary experience of being thrown off a train at the Romanian border at about 3.00 am, and at whatever small country station. The serious guard placed at our door was less than impressed, but there was little he could do except scowl.

Six hours later we were back in Budapest, enjoying the services of yet more taxi drivers and central cafes. I decided to call the Romanian Embassy.

‘But of course I speak English’ said smooth voice on the phone, almost as though he’d been watching old Hollywood movies of the Iron Curtain.

‘What do I need for a Romanian visa?’ I asked the smooth voice.

‘What is your purpose?’

‘I’m travelling through’.



‘You will need to send me’, the voice said, ‘your train ticket through to Sofia, your hotel reservation, a recent statement from your bank, two colour passport photographs and forty Euros’.

‘When would the visa be ready?’

‘If you bring them by twelve o’clock today I will have the visa ready tomorrow’.

‘So much Romania’, I said.

It was 10.15 am. So we returned to Keleti station, boarded a brand new German train bound south for Beograd. At least the Serbs didn’t need a visa.

Glorious Belgrade

I have never travelled through a country in which the scars of war were so fresh. The newness of the track, freshly laid after it had been blown to smithereens a few years before, the newness of the train in a country with few of its own, the bombed out houses in village after village, slowly being rebuilt as people had the time, found the tools and managed to reuse the rubble from other buildings. Here too were shepherds and goatherds with their flocks. People were out hand-harvesting their corn, since they could no longer afford machines with the end of communism. Now that every one proudly claimed their farms as private property, they couldn’t afford the machinery that the collectives once provided. And a sure sign of recent war was the last bridge over the Danube; or rather, the absence of the bridge. In war of course, the first thing you do is blow up your enemy’s bridges so they can’t move troops around. So it was with the bridge over the Danube just outside Novi Sad.

It was a simple ride into Belgrade by bus. Or at least it was if: a) you can read Cyrillic: b) you can talk Serbian or German; c) you can find the ‘international’ ticket office open and with someone who speaks more than Serbian; d) you can find other travellers who won’t snub you. With none of these options in our favour, we somehow managed to get a scrap of paper that looked like a ticket, boarded a bus that said Београд and hoped for the best.

Beneath the ‘no smoking’ sign sat a grey bus driver with a cigarette hanging on his lip. He managed to belt along as fast as the bus would allow, belching smoke while riding the shoulder in an unofficial second lane to the road. Staggering off a wheezing and spluttering bus we thankfully spied a taxi. The catch was that it too seemed to have been a car-bomb during the war, with vital parts missing. It did have fours wheels and an engine, although the driver insisted in using the engine as a brake – I thought for a moment that it had no brakes at all.

At last, at long, long last on what must have been one of the longest days of our lives, we landed at Hotel Moskva. And what a glorious place it was: a penthouse for next to nothing, the air of old party operatives with the intercom from room to room, a magnificent bath, windows in cubbyholes that opened (no air-conditioning) onto the square. As we savoured the chairs, the view, the bed and each other, I imagined communist officials using it in the past on state business. If there’s one thing the communists did well, it was to build grand hotels and charge next to nothing for the rooms.

And Belgrade turned out to be one the great cities in the world. One would have expected that the capital of a country that had only just come out of a horrific war, with an economy on the rocks, and with the EU keeping a watchful eye on its every move – you would have expected it to be down on its luck, with a sullen mood of resentment and loss at what had been. Belgrade was nothing of the sort. It kept some of the bombed out buildings as a memorial to the NATO attacks, gloried in its energy and unaccountable optimism. It simply felt wonderful (and safe) to be there, to walk the streets at midnight, to sit and watch the people go by, to enjoy the food and the people. Belgrade has been destroyed so many times in its history, since it is at the confluence between east and west, a battleground for army after army from even before the Romans.

As a result, different ethnic groups have met, fought, mixed and settled. They are a mongrel people in a mongrel city. But mongrels are always healthier, stronger and more energetic. This mongrel city was a great example, since the people I met and saw are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Well-proportioned, athletic, energetic, they carry their bodies in such a sensual way that you are left in a constant state of arousal, wanting to spend all day, every day in bed with every single one of them. Well, not quite, but they are simply stunning. Then again, maybe … since in survey after survey Serbs seem to come out on top in the frequency and pleasure of sex – even if one takes into to account the inherent tendency for people to embellish such data.

The Sofia run

Eventually Belgrade had to give way to Sofia, but to get there we needed to catch one more train. And what a train it was, the day train to Sofia. According to the timetable it was supposed to take eight hours from Belgrade. Either the driver was reading a different timetable or he didn’t care, since it took twelve hours (the standard time, I was later told). The two hour stop at the border, with guards crawling in the ceiling and hammering underneath, for smugglers maybe, or fugitives, or for their lost sandwich, didn’t help matters. And the train was listed as having a dining car, or at least somewhere to get something to eat. Maybe that’s what the border guards were looking for, since the dining car was either the stuff of myth or it had been quietly decoupled from the train en route and put into some other, less reputable service. We had (just in case) bought a couple of loaves of bread and a large bottle of water before leaving Belgrade. By the end of the journey the drying chunks seemed like a scrumptious meal, washed down with tepid water that tasted like it came from a fresh mountain stream.

I must admit it was refreshing to see no pretence about smoking. Since even children seem to smoke in Bulgaria, it would have been a futile exercise to ban it on trains. People puffed away merrily in the corridors, fumigated compartments with steady clouds of smoke and generally enjoyed themselves. Far better than a train full of edgy, hungry travellers. But I did have to scrape the nicotine off the window to see the fields, farms, mountains and trees of the stunning Bulgarian landscape.

Towards the end of a long railway journey I put aside everything, full of a mix of anticipation and melancholy, looking forward to what awaits and aware that the journey itself is coming to an end. In this case the prospect of a shower, decent feed and fresh water added to the anticipation. And so we rolled past the peeling cement rendering on the outskirt apartments of Sofia, the gypsy carts and the stray dogs, to arrive in the vast cement central station that was new in the 1970s. The communists, I was told, had kept the city tidy and functioning, which is a full time job. Let it go for a bit, as happened after 1989, and a city soon looks dilapidated. Getting things back in order means you have work overtime, which Sofia is certainly doing. Down escalators that had stopped working a decade ago and out into the night, we found a helpful taxi driver who took us from hotel to hotel until we found a cosy spot close into the city and the magnificent Nevski Cathedral. We were to meet some friends in a day or two, but before then we explored the length and breadth of Sofia, wobbling on rough cobbles, dodging falling bricks, fending off money changers and the imploring eyes of gypsy children, wondering at the millennium old icons in the basement of the Cathedral, finding an old brick church that dated from before the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century (he came from hereabouts), and – the crown of the whole trip – a bust of Lenin at the flea market by the Cathedral.

But as we booked our return journey I did look longingly at the line to Istanbul.

Bicycles, Beserkers and Royals: In Search of Denmark

I had wanted to go to Denmark for many years, planning to ride my bicycle up through my ancestral home of Greater Frisia – from the north of the Netherlands, through the Schleswig region of Germany and then into Jutland in Denmark. Why Denmark? I had an image of a small, wise and tolerant country with tall, blond and bearded people (and that was only the women). It was the land of Canute of the waves, Hamlet in Helsingør and kings who are named Christian and Frederick in succession – at least until the inbreeding forced them to bypass the next male in line and crown a queen. I wanted to cycle through its many islands, stay in ancient villages and visit the fabled Copenhagen, or København – the traders’ harbour.

Boots and Bicycles

Finally I arrived, not by bicycle but by plane, on the long haul from Singapore. As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was almost overrun by a swarm of bicycles. They came at me in an endless, orderly stream, hundreds upon hundreds without a break. After a week of waiting, I finally found a break and shot through the gap to the city.

Soon enough I too was on a bicycle. In Australia I had become accustomed to being the only cyclist on a road, watchful of the cars that had no idea how to deal with a two-wheeled vehicle in the vicinity. In Copenhagen it is a different game altogether. Forget the cars, since all drivers are also cyclists and those drivers actually give way, endlessly patient, to the more vulnerable road users. No, I had to get used to bicycles all around me, a perpetual peloton. Bicycles behind, in front, some new but most clapped out (to discourage theft), with riders dressed in jeans, suits, skirts, and coats. None of the lycra-clad road warriors here; no impression that cyclists were a weird sub-culture with their own rituals, for every one in Denmark rides a bicycle, or a ‘cycel’ as they call them.

What did I enjoy most about cycling in Denmark? Was it the long rides through the countryside with cycle routes, destinations and distances clearly marked? Was it the idea that a holiday involved spending a couple of weeks cycling? Was it the way all roads were designed with bicycles in mind and that everywhere you went you could find room to park a bike? Yes, of course.

But cycling has a far deeper appeal – its eroticism. Long thighs descending in to high-heeled boots, the slow rhythm of those thighs, the position of the foot on the pedal with the heel hanging over the edge, the push on the foot-brake and the hop down with one foot at a stop – that is the eroticism of bicycles and Copenhagen. One element of bicycle riders in that city is unique in comparison to the many places in the world where I have ridden my bicycle. It is the combination of high-heeled boots, flowing hair, pants and jackets on many of the city’s riders.

They don’t bend over the handlebars of a road or mountain bike; they don’t feel it necessary to be decked out in fluorescent lycra, and they certainly don’t feel the need to race any other cyclist in sight. No, they sit upright and ride in a slow rhythm on a heavy bike designed to withstand salt, rain, snow and the long, cold winters. One after another, in tens, hundreds and thousands, they ride past, boots and long thighs moving up, down and around in synchronised rhythm.

How did bicycles become so common? Did the Vikings ride down to their long boats before setting out on a journey of exploration and pillage? Is it a constitutional right? Not quite, since the comprehensive networks one finds today were actually a response to the oil shock of the 1970s. When a world addicted to that cheap energy source derived from the fossils of our evolutionary ancestors first realised that oil was limited, some countries – Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany among them – decided that alternative transport networks were a good idea. To be sure, bikes were common enough before the 1970s, since they had resisted to some extent the push for American-style suburban development after the Second World War. But they didn’t have all of those facilities – safe road lanes, traffic light treatments, parking, and long distance routes – that are so much part of the cities and countryside today. So governments like that of Denmark set about constructing all the features riders take for granted today. Americans laughed at these quaint little European countries. Australians followed suit, assuming that cars, freeways and suburbs were the way of the future. The British did their usual thing and turned their barbarian noses up at the Continentals. Now they are the ones desperately looking to places like Denmark for alternative models of city living and transport.

Blankets and Beserkers

I didn’t spend my whole time riding in Denmark, for I began to notice some more curious items, especially the blankets in cafes, beserkers in the army, and in-bred royals.

Blankets? In cafés? For some reason or other I find the whole ‘café culture’ a bit of a wank. Trendy, wealthily alternative, chardonnay socialist – all these and more are what I think when I hear the word ‘café’. But the blankets were something else. One day in Copenhagen I was walking past a café and I saw a man sitting outside with a blanket over his legs. Is he sick? I wondered. Maybe he’s recuperating from an illness and getting some fresh air. And then, when I looked inside the café I noticed a chair piled up with blankets. Once alerted, I saw pile after pile, on chair after chair, in café after café. ‘What are those for?’ I asked. My companion, Henrik, said, ‘Weeell, when outdoor dining becomes popular in a place where the weather really isn’t suited for it, you’ve got to provide something so the customers don’t freeze to death’. It makes about as much sense as outdoor heaters in the cafés in Melbourne.

The blankets were the beginning of my insight into a strange little country. It took on a whole new depth with the beserkers. Over a couple of drinks one night, my fellow lush, a lecturer in religion from the university no less, told me that a good number of Danish soldiers believe in the Norse gods. ‘It would be remarkable if there was one’, said Lars, ‘but studies have shown that there are quite a few’. At one level it makes perfect sense, since the Norse gods were in many ways gods of war. Odin, chief of the Aesir (the newcomers who overcame the older Vanir) was not only god of wisdom and poetry, but also of war, sacrifice and death – his spear would never miss. Perhaps the most well-known is Thor; the god of thunder and war, he was the son of Odin and favourite of the common man. And then there was Tyr who lost his right hand to the fenris wolf, Ullr, whose specialty was archery and hunting, and Vali, who was into vengeance.

No surprise that the male gods were the red-blooded ones, swinging axes, wielding swords and hurling spears. What about the warriors on earth who worshipped them? The ideal for such a fighter was to take on the spirit of Odin – whose name means ‘frenzy’ – and become a ‘beserker’: decked out in coats of bear and wolf skin, beserkers went into a trancelike fury on the battle field, and hacked to pieces anything in their path.

Good old Snorri Sturluson, that chronicler of the fading old ways, describes beserkers as fighting ‘without armour, they were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields and were as strong as bears or wild wolves, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves’. Violent, angry, drunk most of the time, eating strange substances, given to weird rituals, bands of beserkers were often used as shock troops in battle since they struck fear into the enemy and had little regard for their own lives. They would have been nice to have on your side but probably wouldn’t make the best housemate.

Beserkers went straight to Valhalla if slain in battle – as did anyone who came to a bloody end. Escorted by beautiful blonde Valkyries, they would spend the day splattering their mates in heavenly combat, with all their cleft limbs and split skulls restored at the end of the day. And then they hit the grog, feasting, carousing and recounting the day’s adventures. Sounds like my neighbours.

The scary thing is that some Danish soldiers see themselves heirs of this tradition. I’m not sure if they wear bear or wolf skins, but they call on Odin for inspiration, Thor for strength and wade into battle looking forward to Valhalla should they cop a bullet or bomb. These days they fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. So who said the fanatics were all with the Taliban?

The Real Royal Family?

By now I was burrowing deeper into the contradictions of Denmark. Here is a small country with a minority language that often feels much more important than it really is. It has an extraordinarily highly developed welfare state, strong unions, very high taxes and yet it is one of the top economic performers in the world today (putting the lie to neo-liberal policies). As for religion, it is one of the most secular countries on the planet, with very low church attendance, and yet few Danes wish to abolish the Danish (Lutheran) Church, which is the only established religion in the country, is funded through taxes and has a minister in the government appointed to deal with the Church.

The same applies to the royal family. Danes make endless jokes about their dykish queen, her effeminate husband Prince Henrik (a French noble with a liking for wine and his castle in France), their philandering if somewhat ugly sons, Frederick and Joachim, and their collective leadership in the national pastime of smoking. And Danes are amazed at how badly Princess Mary speaks Danish. In fact, as an Australian in Denmark, I seem to trigger comments about Mary’s Australian origins (along with observations about Crocodile Dundee and perhaps Steve Irwin). Yet most Danes are reluctant to consider abolishing the royal family in what is, they claim, the oldest kingdom in the world.

To me it seems that Mary’s main function is to bring some desperately needed outside genes into the royal family, which has had some unfortunate outcomes of its inbreeding. Take Ingolf, or Prince Knud as he is also known, who should have been king instead of the current queen, Margrethe. Until recently the law stated that only the next male in line could take the throne (it was changed only in 2009). However, when it became clear that Margrethe was to be the only child of the previous king and queen (Frederick IX and Ingrid) and that the next male in line was her uncle, the obviously incapable and embarrassing Ingolf, an exception was made at the last minute allow Margrethe to take the throne instead of Ingolf. She was crowned in 1972. Intrigued, I tried to find pictures of Ingolf on the royal family websites. Strangely, they are difficult to find, for, somewhat sadly, he shows all the signs of inbreeding. When royal events stake place, the cameras quickly move from Ingolf to a panoramic shot, or perhaps the flower arrangement. And you will struggle to find out that Ingolf actually lives on a handsome pension, a compensation for not being made king as was his right by law and tradition. To avoid another Ingolf, Mary was found at the other end of the globe.

Of course, the royal family is the one on show to the world, without real power in a constitutional monarchy. But there is another royal family with real power, even more power (at least economically) than the government which rules the Folketing, or Parliament. I mean A. P. Møller-Mærsk, the shipping company – or Mærsk as it is popularly known. Legend has it – at least as it told to new recruits and old hands in the company – that at the turn of the 20th century Peter Mærsk-Møller went around Denmark, cap in hand and knocking on doors, asking each person he met for 1 kroner so that he could buy a ship. Now, a century later, Mærsk is the biggest shipping company in the world. As you would expect, the truth is a good deal more gritty and hard-nosed than this romantic legend of its origins.

From Montreal to Moree, Copenhagen to Cootamundra, you will find the light blue containers with the telltale star and ‘Mærsk Sealand’ printed on its side (Sealand or Sjæland is the island on which Copenhagen is located). The reach of the containers is a symbol of Mærsk’s economic reach: 130 offices throughout the world, 120000 employees, shipping freight, air freight, ferries, salvage, towage, shipbuilding, oil and gas drilling, supermarkets, department stores, plastics production, and even part ownership in Denmark’s largest bank – at least these are the ones officially listed. In a small country of five million people, that is no small achievement. It seems as though everywhere you turn in Denmark, Mærsk is there: withdraw money from the bank, buy groceries, put them in a plastic bag, fill up a car with petrol, catch a ferry, buy something imported, send a parcel, or buy a pair of jeans at a department store – chances are, Mærsk will be involved in some way. Economically, Mærsk is one of the dominating features of Danish life.

No wonder the royal family likes to be seen in the company of the head of Mærsk. Indeed, the founder’s grandson, Mærsk McKinney Møller, is still kicking. As I write he is 97 and still one of the managing owners of the company, although he handed over his role as CEO at the tender age of 80 (he remained chairman of the Odense shipyards until he was 93). Royals, politicians and business heavy-weights like to be seen in his company as well as those of other Mærsk power-brokers.

Perhaps the best symbol of this axis of power is the new opera house, built as a gift to the city by Mr Møller. Angular and ugly, it was constructed over 2001-4 on the harbour in a direct and visible line from Amalienborg, the royal palace. The connecting axis is Frederiksgade, linking the Marble Church (Marmorkirken), the palace and, directly across the harbour, the opera house. Stand at one end and you can clearly see the palace across the harbour; stand at the other end and you look to the real locus of power. In a telling moment, the tax-free, USD$442 million opera house was opened on 1 October, 2004, by the then prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Queen Margrethe, and of course the nonagenarian and real king of Denmark, Mærsk McKinney Møller.

Yet Mærsk does not always have things its own way. Some time ago, Frank Aaen, one of the leading figures in Enhedslisten, the Red-Green Alliance on the far left of Danish politics, bought shares in Mærsk. The reason: he wanted to be able to go to the annual general meeting of shareholders, stand up amongst the expensive business suits in his scruffy clothes, raise sharp questions about company policy, use his inside knowledge about the workings of Mærsk to criticise it in the press, and break the careful control of public relations maintained by the company. That he has now done for many years, much to annoyance of the Maersk rank and file, and much to the delight of other Danes who recount his exploits with great pleasure.

An utterly peripheral observation concerning Danish and Australian bicycles

Preparing for a recent ride across the old Greater Frisia, from Groningen in the Netherlands to Ribe in Jutland, 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.