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.

Geometry

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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.

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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.

Between Goat Tracks and Heavy Metal: The Paradoxes of Cycling the Norwegian Coast

A land of purity, nature and fjords – or so the Norwegian tourist propaganda would have it. Here is the Nordic heart, as it both once was and should be again. Here still are relics of the pre-Christian myths that used to be common across Aryan lands. Here are the blond and strapping men and women with their blue eyes and clear skins. Here is the real origin of humanity, above the Arctic Circle.

I wanted to find out for myself, to see whether the myths measured up to reality. I was in Norway for a few months and planned to ride a Norwegian section of the North Sea Bicycle Route, a 4000 km circuit that hugs the coastline of the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Scotland and England (with the odd ferry thrown in to make the necessary crossings). I had already ridden the whole Dutch and German sections, along with a stretch in Denmark, so now it was Norway’s turn. I would begin at Arendal, and make my way back to Oslo.

Six Lessons

Within a few hours of setting out, I learned a number of very important lessons. First, the season for bicycle touring in Norway is short, perhaps a couple of months. By September, the rains, winds and chills begin sweeping through, harbingers of the long winter to come. I happened to be out pedalling towards the end of that month. Second, Norwegian rain is cold and wind-driven. Rather cleverly, it has learned the knack of getting through and underneath the toughest wet weather gear.

Third, the ferries crossing fjords cease operating at the end of August. On the first couple of occasions, I dutifully cycled to a ferry wharf, only to find the ferry securely tied up for the icy winter to come – and this was on what they call, in a moment of sheer utopian dreaming, the ‘Norwegian Riviera’ (on the south coast). Each time I took a break, perused the map, and realised I had tens of kilometres extra to ride around the fjord.

2010 September 22a

Fourth, the terms ‘flat’ and road’ do not go together in Norway. ‘Precipitous climb’, ‘twisting’, ‘ear-popping drop’ are the common epithets. My eight-speed internal-hub bicycle from the flats of Denmark required a good deal of upright dancing as I climbed yet another peak. Within a day or two, my old mountain climbing skills returned, and my legs began to bulge like a steroid-abusing rider on the Tour de France.

2010 September 21a

Fifth, Norwegians have a curious approach to signs. Given that I was on an international bicycle route, and given that the agreement between the countries includes something approaching a uniform standard of signage, I expected roughly the same approach to signs as I had experienced elsewhere on the route. On the parts that I had ridden thus far (the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark) this was indeed the case. But Norwegians have their own idiosyncratic ways of interpreting such agreements. Sometimes I would go for half a day without seeing a sign. Was it because they assumed the twisting, tortuous road, over precipitous mountains and by snaking fjords, was obvious to all? Was it because people had acquired them as useful pieces of steel for the sake of, say, target practice? Or was it because they could hang them on the wall of home, get drunk with friends, and laugh themselves silly over foreigners trying to find their way?

While I was pondering such matters, a plethora of signs would suddenly appear. This made matters only worse, for on one intersection, signs would send me to all directions of the compass – all of them part of the North Sea Bicycle Route. Or, two signs would face one another, directional arrows almost touching, pointing to one another.

2010 September 28a

The only viable conclusion is that these are the modern equivalents of ancient runes, an esoteric code only for the initiated.

People: Caught in Between

The sixth lesson concerned the people I met. The tourism propaganda may be one thing; the political myths of national identity may be another – digging into a reconstructed past to provide an authentic feel to a relatively new nation-state; but the people themselves are strangely caught in-between.

It first struck me after a long, long day of riding. Perhaps it was the rain, which had given up flirting with me and simply went full throttle. Perhaps it was the hundred kilometres or so that I had ridden, the last of it on a steep goat track that seriously made me wonder whether I had lost my way in the dusk. Perhaps it was the two women, who appeared mysteriously on the track just after I had managed a covert crap, and pointed me towards Langesund. By this time, I was well and truly past the ‘wall’, for I had entered a liminal zone, between exhaustion and untapped energy. All of this set the scene for my arrival in town.

I loaded up with beer and food at the only shop and set out to find Victoria Gjestgiveri. It had disappeared. Or rather, it reappeared after I had pedalled in circles for quite some time, in the dark and the rain. Needless to say, it was in the centre of the village, hard by the wharf.

The proprietor pointed me up some rickety stairs, in the vague direction of my room, and said:

‘We have a band playing tonight. I hope you don’t mind’.

‘Of course not’, I said.

The band turned out to be a Norwegian death metal band, and the stage was immediately below my room. After some two hours of viscerally absorbing the music, I drifted into sleep with images of goat tracks, mysterious women and death metal music.

At breakfast the next morning, I met two of the rockers. Both were black-clad, heavily pierced, with long black hair and festooned with anarchist and Satanic symbols. They also had a six month-old baby with them. The father pulled his black hair into a pony tail and picked the baby up out of very conventional new pram with all of the latest gear – nappies, blankets, bottles clothes, towels, lotions, and what have you. To make sure that the baby was safe, it was cocooned in its own snug capsule. The father cooed and poked and doted all over the baby, smiling broadly.

Rather than the facile conservative point that human beings seek the comforts of life, even if they posture and protest for a while, it seemed to me that the near-surreal night at the guesthouse in Langesund picked up the in-betweenness of life in Norway. The death metal band, which is part of a complex metal subculture, invoking all manner of pagan and pre-Christian motifs, sits side by side with an overdeveloped welfare state that cares for one from cradle to grave and even beyond.

At a subtler and deeper level, this curious liminal state made some more sense when I had called into a small shop later on the ride, seeking a map to make sense of the puzzle of roads and fjords and signs. Three women were inside, with quick smiles and inquisitive eyes. Only one spoke a language I knew, to the slight and passing embarrassment of the other two. We chatted for quite some time, about home and what in the world I was doing here, cycling in late September. Yet they seemed uncomfortable. Not with the situation, not with chatting to me, but with their bodies. The clothes they wore were quite new, but they sat awkwardly.

Seeking an answer, I looked out over the village. It was neat, white, well-maintained, wealthy even, with the odd expensive car passing by. Not a poor fishing village, that was clear, but also not a vast disparity between rich and less rich. Surely, the quiet wealth of the place didn’t come from fishing. I looked out over the small harbor, with its fishing boats and small transport vessels. And there it was: hard up against the fishing boats was a sleek ice-breaker with a massive helicopter landing-pad at one end. That’s not for checking on fish, I thought to myself. I asked the solid woman in the shop:

‘What’s that ship?’

‘Oh, that’s for patrolling the oil rigs’, she said.

It should have been obvious: here was the source of the new wealth, but here also was the source of discomfort, the feeling of being in-between. On bodies that had grown up with making-do with little, expensive clothes sit oddly. In a culture where frugality in an unforgiving climate had been the norm, sudden wealth is disconcerting.

2010 September 25a

Snus, Satanism and the Veneer of the New: Norway and Its Contradictions

Norway defies expectations, as full of contradictions as it is of fjords and mountains: a European country that perpetually thinks of itself as on the periphery; a place where equality is regarded as the highest virtue and yet wealth is everywhere on display; an ancient society overlaid with a veneer of glittering modernity; a deeply conservative Christian place where Satanism is rife; an obsession with health and exercise with an incurable addiction to snus.

I had the chance to experience Norway, up close and personal, for more than three months while living in Oslo. During that time we immersed ourselves in the city, rode bicycles along the ragged, fjord-riddled coast, travelled by train over the ranges to Bergen and back. We lived there from late ‘summer’ to early winter. Why ‘summer’? In the same way that Australia really does not have winter, so also Norway does not have a decent summer – by which I mean 40 degree heatwaves, killer UV readings, beach swimming for nine months of the year. A tell-tale sign of the absence of a real summer is whether the people are heliotropic: do they unthinkingly move into a rare ray of sunlight? Do they dine al fresco when the sun looks like it just might peek out, even if they need winter furs and blankets to do so? Does everyone strip off and try to sunbake when the mercury gets above zero? If the answer is affirmative, you are in a place that has no summer. But the winters are stunning. The first snow-storm hit us in the early days of November – and that was late start to winter. No panic: snow-ploughs out, fingers itching to grab the cross-country skis, work forgotten at any excuse to get out and enjoy the crisp air.

Greenish-Yellow Blobs

Yet, as soon as I too set off to relish that winter air, I noticed two things: ice is slippery and strange yellowish blobs everywhere. As I stepped out of the door on the first icy morning, I almost went arse over tit. Looking up, I saw that people had automatically and unthinkingly adopted their winter shuffle: body held still, legs moving only below the knees, short steps. It was a skill I had learnt the hard way many years before through a series of Canadian winters. Eventually, bodily memory kicked in and I too was shuffling about like a local.

Once out on a Norwegian street, one cannot avoid locals engaged in some form of vigorous exercise. They may be pedalling bicycles furiously up one of the many hills, running deftly over the ice in slick winter gear, doing chin-ups while waiting for the traffic lights to change, beating a path through the forest on skis, calling to one another in that strange lilt with the falling inflexion. And out on the street, one cannot avoid the other side of that obsession with exercise: striding along, I soon found I had to step carefully, for the footpath was spattered with green-and-yellow gobs – and that was just the fresh ones. When I first encountered these deposits, I wondered: does everyone have sinus infections here? Is it the water? The climate? The brown cheese – myseost? No, I finally found out: it’s the snus. Not quite chewing tobacco, snus is a small satchel of finely cut tobacco that you stick in your mouth, preferably high up under your lip so that it sits snugly on your gum, and let the nicotine seep into your system that way. Much beloved in Sweden as well, it produces a nicotine-soaked population, receding gums, teeth problems, warnings from dentists, and big yellow-green balls of snot to spit out on the footpath. All that pure health, clean air and vigorous exercise cannot avoid this love affair with small doses of poison – or is it that such obvious vigour is impossible without snus?

Religion, on the Dark Side

Dig a little deeper and the more of this enigmatic country rises slowly to the surface. On my walk on an early winter’s day, after dodging fair, fit and snus-gobbing locals, I find myself in a hillside graveyard full of granite stones silhouetted in snow. At the top of the hill I enter a church, a Norwegian Lutheran church where worship is under way. Well-maintained and a little over-staffed, the church still enjoys the benefits of state patronage; although in typical Norwegian fashion, so do all other religious and quasi-religious groups. Unlike Sweden, which has recently disestablished the church, and unlike Denmark, which maintains its state (Lutheran) church, Norway has both disestablished the church and yet not. Depending on their size, all religious groups may receive state support (even the humanists!), and yet the Lutheran Church remains the official church of the state.

Why? The largely secular population believes that the church is actually a beneficial feature of their society – but only if liberal bishops are appointed. But what does the church’s own membership think? In the church in which I worship, the grey-hair out the front is a smiling liberal, entertaining the well-dressed children and adults. He may be favoured by the secularists, but not the majority of nationwide church members, especially outside the major cities. Notoriously conservative, or rather, pietistic, the majority would prefer complete separation from the state – so that they may decide their own affairs, their own leaders, their own doctrinal directions.

At the same time, Satanism is rife. Satanism? On a train I see a couple with a child decked out in all the black and silver of Satanic heavy metal; in a conversation in the early hours, my friends tell me of church burnings, black masses and desecrated tomb-stones. Apparently, Norway is one of the few countries where some actually believe the occult posturing of heavy metal bands (and all their derivatives). My friends attribute it to the late modernisation of Norway, to the dominance of pietism (so that Satanism becomes a natural obverse), to the deep and long northern winters, to the veneer of modern and official secularism, to the persistence of ancient tribalism in the midst of a late modernisation …

Perhaps there is something in that last point: Jorunn keeps insisting that Norway passed from a pre-modern tribalism to a post-modern tribalism, without a long period where the private individual was worshipped. If so, it is a mixed blessing, for tribalism can be incredibly supportive and parochial, inclusive and narrow-minded, minding their own and rejecting outsiders.

Wealth versus Equality

It takes little time to stumble onto the next contradiction, as any visitor to Norway can soon attest. Try to buy a loaf of bread and you will have little change from ten dollars (60 kroner); buy a beer and you will soon see why people nurse one drink for a night; try to buy a train ticket and realise you need either to sell a vital organ first and take out a bank loan. In other words, bargains are not always obvious in Norway. The very same item – say, prawn-cheese (I kid you not) – that costs 50 kroner in ‘expensive’ Denmark, just across the water, costs 200 kroner in Norway. The reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world is fully justified. Why? Mistake? Taxes? Distance? None of the above, for money courses through the Norwegian economy from North Sea oil. It funds efforts to put Norway on the map, such as the Holberg and Nobel Prizes, the glitter of Oslo, obscenely expensive apartments on the foreshore, the ‘future fund’, set aside for a time when the oil runs out, and some very high wages.

Wealth separates, does it not, between the haves and the have-nots, the latter producing the wealth of the former? The desire for wealth makes one strive to crush your best friend in order to make a buck. Not so in Norway, or at least in the public opinion of Norwegians. In survey after survey, Norwegians will state their highest value is likestilling. Difficult to translate, it includes the senses of equality and justice. It hardly needs to be pointed out that equality and justice sit very awkwardly with a cashed-up Norway. How can you espouse equality when the money that is everywhere obvious relies upon and produces inequality? And it is not that everyone is wealthy, that poverty no longer exists in the country. Is it blindness to the reality of life, or is it the problem of the new (wealth) sitting uncomfortably on the old (collective values)?

Veneer of the New

The longer I stayed in Norway, the more I felt it was a case of the latter: the new really is a recent and hastily applied veneer over much older patterns of life. Four examples: one from the villages, another from Oslo itself, a third from bodies and their clothes, and a final one concerning peripheries.

Cycle around the coastal fjords, as I did, and you soon come across a fishing village with a few houses perched on the rocks. Small for heat retention, looking to the sea which until recently was the only mode of transport, wind-blown, often ice-bound, these houses look like they have grown out of the rocks. And yet, incongruously, in the harbour is a massive, new and gleaming oil ship – a tanker perhaps, or a service ship for the oil platforms with a helicopter perched on the bridge, a pipeline ship or a coastal patrol.

Or cycle through Oslo and you cannot not escape the sheer glitter of the city: the vast sheets of perspex and glass, shiny steel, glistening freeways and cranes dancing gracefully to their own rhythms. Oslo continues to transform itself into a ‘modern’ city, with high-rises, freeways, the constant process of destruction and recreation. Along the foreshores of the stunning fjord on which the city sits are ever more sparkling apartment buildings, built just yesterday. Yet all you need do is dig a little and the older stones and patterns of the city emerge: a worn street sign with Danish spelling, cracked bitumen under which an ancient paving stone lies, a gravestone that speaks of hardship and a short life, a rock on a chimney that speak of older building practices.

Yet perhaps the best way to put all this is in terms of bodies. As I travel, I love to observe the way people in different cultures carry their bodies. The almost imperceptible differences show up in a tilt of the head, a way of walking, the way one stands, lost in thought, the modes of inter-personal interaction. On the streets in Norway I was struck by a sense of discomfort. The expensive clothes were worn with little sense of how they should be worn; high heels looked not glamorous but awkward, lycra gear for every form of exercise simply looked ludicrous. Danes would scoff at uncultured Norwegian peasants and fisher-folk. I prefer to see it as a bodily manifestation of the contradictions I have traced: the new sits oddly on a collection of older customs, values and ways of living.

Periphery?

And one of the most persistent expressions of those older ways came as a complete surprise: the perpetually expressed sense that Norway is country on the periphery of the world. For someone coming from Australia I found this ridiculous: is not Norway in Europe? Does not the plane require a half-degree variation from Singapore to head to Oslo? Do not Norwegians travel, incessantly? Yes, yes and yes, but still the peripheral sense persists. It may be expressed by a wealthy middle-class professor who spends all his time abroad, from a close friend who was mortified at having to move back to Norway, from constant comments about Danish imperialism, or from the incurable habit of Norwegians to look southward. Admittedly, if the world is Europe, then Norway does seem a little peripheral; and if your imperial masters (the Danes and then Swedes) characterise you as marginal barbarians, then it probably sticks after a few centuries; and if the train to Oslo used to be a two-car affair that broke off from the main train at Göteborg, then you may feel shunted off to the side. But I read it in a different way: the contradiction of a place that feels peripheral and yet is not, in which the old and new sit together uncomfortably, unmediated and rubbing up against one another.