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.

A Real Journey: Floods, Train Crashes and Non-Stop Parties on the Berlin-Amsterdam CNL


It began with a simple enough plan: I would travel on the City Night Line on two consecutive evenings, from Berlin to Amsterdam and back again. Why? I needed to see someone in Amsterdam. Actually, the real reason is that I was keen for a couple of nights sleeping on a train. The nine and a half hour journey each way would begin in Berlin at half an hour past midnight; I would arrive in Amsterdam at mid-morning for a leisurely get together; I would take the return train, leaving in the early evening. 28 hours, there and back.

If only it were so simple.

With half an hour to spare, I arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof to await one of the great pleasures in life – a sleeper. It was to be a couchette, shared with two or three other people. On the platform, I espied a running message on the noticeboard: ‘etwa 2 stunden spater’. What does ‘stunden’ mean? I wondered. A few moments, perhaps.


A fellow passenger stopped to ask, ‘Does this train also go to Copenhagen?’ – in German.

After voicing the few words in German I know, he switched to English.

‘Yes’, I said. ‘A couple of carriages go through to Copenhagen. I took that part of the train a few months ago … but tell me, what does “stunden” mean?’

‘Hours’, he said. ‘The train is delayed by more than two hours’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘Flooding in Central Europe’, he said. ‘The train is coming from Prague and had to take the long way around the floods’.

It would be almost three hours before it actually arrived. The real journey had begun, and I was not yet on the train. At that point, I began to notice that German summer evenings are actually rather cool. I had tossed in a thick merino wool jacket at the last minute, not thinking I would ever use it. That was to be one of the few things that went right on the journey.

What does one do on a big, cold German railway platform in the middle of the night? I walked about, read, wrote, tried to snooze (as most of the other passengers), spent one whole euro to use the station toilet, pondered the universe … until the train squealed and creaked into view. The first light of a northern European summer dawn was already spreading as we boarded.

Now I found that my bed was the topmost one in the couchette. Here, with barely room to stretch out horizontally, I made my own bed in the dark, found a remote corner for my bag (after dropping first from a great height), managed accidentally to switch on the main light, and generally made a great din. The Czech muscle man below grunted a few times in complaint.

At long last and in almost full light, I finally went to sleep, waking some six or seven hours later to find the cabin entirely my own – and to find that all my possessions were still there. The others had alighted somewhere during the morning. I had a simple wash, stretched out, and ate a breakfast of cold and soggy pizza (from the night before) and butter milk. A feast fit for a king!

In the clothes in which I had slept, I negotiated a sweaty Amsterdam summer day to find my friend, but only after missing his stop on the tram line and enjoying a grand tour of parts of Amsterdam I had explored some years earlier. At least now the second thing to go right on this trip happened, for he had a late lunch ready for me and we thoroughly enjoyed our interchange.

Not six hours later my return train was due to depart. However, to get there I needed an Amsterdam tram. Easier said than done. Normally the trams run every five-ten minutes, so one merely rolls up to a tram stop and soon enough a tram clunks by. Not on this occasion. Almost half an hour later an overcrowded tram pulled up at the stop. Unlike China, where people always seem to find room for one more, even if one has to hang from the ceiling, the Dutch are rather uncomfortable with one another at close quarters – an anomaly in a country where space is at a premium. A harried and sweaty driver waved away my effort to pay. The tip was a freebie; I soon found out why. The air-conditioning had given up the ghost, and the effect was like a sauna, with sweat dripping from chins, fingertips and elbows. The signalling system on the tram had gone the way of the air-conditioning, the system that ensured the tracks changed over for our route at intersections. At each turn, the driver opened the door, leapt out with a massive iron lever and changed the tracks by hand. It was more exercise than he had done for a long time. Slowly, painfully, we crept towards Centraal station.

The train itself, the overnight sleeper, actually departed on time, at 19:01. This is not such a great feat since Amsterdam Centraal is its starting point. And a glorious train it is, with part going to Copenhagen, another to Warsaw, another to Moscow via Belarus, and another to Prague. The massive reshuffle happens at Hanover, where the city night line trains meet, exchange carriages and then head off to their respective destinations. I was on the Prague section, for it goes through Berlin.

The first hour or so went smoothly enough. I read for a little, chatted with a travel companion (who had emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia), and made my bed for an early night. After all, I was to arrive at Berlin at 4:30 in the morning, so best to get some sleep while I could. As I was starting to drift off, we noticed that we had been in Arnhem for quite some time. Soon the doors opened, people piled out, bewildered and peeping up and down the platform in search of further information. But the break wore on … the noticeboard said we were one and half hours late, then two and half hours, then three hours and twenty minutes. The conductor finally told me there was an accident between here and Emmerich, in Germany. Or rather, an engine had exploded at the station. We were not going to go through Emmerich on the trunk line into Germany.


Now it was a seriously real journey.

The Dutch immigrant was supposed to be at a conference in Prague, starting at 10:00 the following morning. The train was, under normal circumstances, due to arrive at 9:30. Already, the floods would mean would not be there until lunch time. With our new challenge, he was not sure he would arrive at all, so he began to think of abandoning the trip altogether. I too wondered whether I would make it back to Berlin. Meanwhile, the younger people in our carriage made the most of the opportunity, buying more wine and beer, and then swilling it down while puffing on endless cigarettes. The platform became the scene of a massive party.

To the surprise of everyone, after we thought we would spend the night at Arnhem, the whistles blew and we were herded on board. The train creaked into motion, finally having found a way around Emmerich. I fell on my bunk and was comatose in less than a minute. For once, the delay suited me fine, since now I would not arrive in Berlin until a civilised hour, some time in the morning or perhaps mid-afternoon. I awoke a few minutes before arrival, sweaty, greasy and smelly. I had not changed my clothes or had a wash for the entire journey.


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 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.

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.