Friday, 30 October 2009

The Biggest Postcard in the World

4 weeks seeing family and friends in Europe from the winner of Lord Williams's School's 'Most Opinionated Old Man' Award 2008.

A few days before I left a friend asked me where I was going from, so he was told. "But Pasc, you do realise it's not called St. Pancreas?"

The Eurostar was cheap and comfortable and I had lots of train-travel advice from this website: ­ seat61.com. Reading through again I now realise now how incredibly 'old man' this sentence is.

BRUSSELS

I started my trip in the capital of the EU, staying with the family of (who else?) my mum's cousin's ex wife, Odette. From then on my quads were going to take a battering as I saw the flatter side of Europe (Belgium and Holland) mostly fly by on bike.

The Atomium wasn't the "opportunity to see the world in the space of a few hours" as promised but is still a spectacular heap of metal. Odette and I then visited the world's diplomatic legoland: Mini-Europe, a cuddly plastic haven representing the EU's current 27 countries. I was annoyed that the half dozen exhibits representing England included none from the north of England. The guidebook did its best at baffling you with irrelevant statistics and oddly placed information. Third in the list of facts about England is "2/3 of the British media belong [sic] to American and Australian groups." France's first fact reads: "At 1568 working hours per annum in 2003, the French are the least industrious people in England."

Thomas, Odette's partner, was kind enough to take a morning off work to show me Brussels - by motorbike! The grittier area Marrolles is worth a mention: young, lively and a bit less comfortable than the rest of the arm chair of a capital. In the European Parliament a tour and talk from a senior interpreter should mean I can tell you the difference between the European Commission, the European Council and the baffling intricacies of EU policy making. Obviously I can't.

BRUGES

In Bruges things were a tad more wild and wonderfully juvenile. Stayed with a Jan, a friend who studied a term in Leeds. A baroque music concert (not a fan), a bottle of beer in the hand while storming round the city on bike, Oxfam beer, and one random gem of an evening...

After lying on a stage prepared for the following evening Jan and I sat around by the market square. After a few minutes a bloke, mid-twenties, cap and curly hair, walked up to us and starting splurting rapid Flemish. I noticed the word 'hardcore' being bandied about the conversation. Both stopped chatting for a minute and Jan turned to me, asking:

"Do you like hardcore punk?"

"...Err, yeah!"

To which the two continued blathering in the guttural wash that is Flemish. So we went into the bloke's car and drove to some suburb of Bruges. Still no idea what was going on, the jigsaw started to fit together as I saw young teens running around parked people-carriers, lumping around bass cabinets, amplifiers, and sweat-fingerprinted guitars. Outside what I later learnt was a primary school were swarms of excited adolescents running around, screaming, smoking and trying to have as much fun as humanly possible. We found ourselves inside and some smiling kids were soundchecking at the front of what I made out to be an immaculate sports hall, through all the darkness and the kids' messy drunkenness. I'm not sure entirely, but there was something about the self-conscious poses, the distortion, the po-faced bloke on fiddling the mixer, the moshing - it all stank of my early adolescence. Battered homework diaries, tiny rock gigs in leisure centres, and sheer, sheer boredom. The band started playing and an immense collective energy, presumably pent up in the weekdays, was let loose. The actual music was a fantastic racket and so extreme it's hard to take it seriously. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ouwteceVCE

I like waking in the morning with something bad reminding of the good. Dull, smoky clothes remind of a cracking bonfire and spilt beer sleeves. Really terribly aching shoulder reveal last night's hectic gig, heavy clubnight or some happy misadventure.

The day after the gig Jan and I did a 60k bike tour to Sluice in Holland, to the coast and then back. Cycling in Leeds now seems twice as difficult with the broken glass, moody cars and massive hills.

HOLLAND

More cycling, straight rivers and quaint order in Wilsum, north east Holland. The last time I saw my 2nd cousins, the Harders, must have been in 2002 - seven years ago. If you're, say, fifty then this might not seem a lot, but when you're a young, sexy schönling like me this gap in time between meeting someone is extremely rare. Was wonderful seeing the Harders again. So surreal that little Stella, wee pigtailed smiling Stella, is now grown up and I'm being driven around by her on a motorbike!

{Before I ramble all over Holland, let's just make sure: 2nd cousins share the same grandparents. Once removed means one generation older than you - geneology.com}.

Did you know the Dutch (and Germans) call you a "kater" if you're hungover? That's a male cat. Isn't that brilliant? When I'm a hungover, I do actually feel like I'm prowling around, bleary eyed, like one of those misanthropic furry demons disguised by sweet soft fur.

I played around with my 2nd cousin Ellen's underwater camera in the local swimming pool we used to always go to, telling her of the impossibility of doing the same in England. Ellen was lucky enough to have to endure my long rant on English society, school plays where cameras are forbidden, the death of sports days, and general paedophilophobia (excuse the clumsy coinage!). Ellen was shocked and genuinely surprised that a society could be so stupid and bandwagon-happy. So apart from "what do you recommend?", the phrase I unconsciously uttered throughout my trip was "blimey, you wouldn't see that in England!" Ellen's disbelief that such a thing could be so prevalent is justified. She makes me more shocked. In my mum's (and my infrequent) teaching experience, you shouldn't really be alone with a student. You're advised against hugging or any form of touch. But really! The whole thing makes me feel like I want to swear loudly at the nearest piece of furniture.

I love Dutch design, the friendliness, the language, but the countryside is just too flat. Was very happy to see hills and valleys on my way to...

BERLIN

I couchsurfed in Berlin. If you haven't heard about couchsurfing.com then I suggest you go away and think about what you've done. Couchsurfing.org is an online social network for travellers. So in Leeds, if you want to sleep on my couch you can. You leave references so it's as safe as it could be. It's global, not just for young people and you should definitely bother with it.

My first host was Uwe ("oovuh"), an extremely nice bloke who I'd now call a good friend. After an ace Thai meal Uwe took me up this steep man-made hill with half a church dug into it. Uwe then pointed to the rubble mountain (Trümmerberg)I asked him about. After the war the wreckage was put into piles, and trees were planted on top of them. The result being the rubble mountains. Then we went to what was once the 2nd biggest building in the world. Just beaten by the Pentagon, the Tempelhof airport was very much favoured by Hitler and next to Cologne Cathedral and the Atomiom, it stands as the most interesting and impressive slab of architecture of the trip. After a few days in the capital you get used to the constant barrage of bizarre and fascinating things splayed out in the city. Berlin is an endless surprise.

In the evening Uwe and I arrived in a 'Collective' in Mitte (literally the 'middle' of Berlin). Collectives are semi-squats where the tenants have won enough rights to stay around by. There is a very low basic rent paid and everyone is expected to chip in with the upkeep, generating money and raising awareness for certain issues. Very political and anarchistic. Talked to another organiser of different collective in Friedrichshain and she admits that this sort of anarchism can only really work in small groups.

Next night: a meeting with lots of other couch surfers in a West Berlin park (rabbits running around, Thai people selling food in droves). Then to another collective in Friedrichshain, east Berlin, where it took me two hours (and no hard drugs!) to get into the minimal techno. In the street outside we warmed ourselves by a bonfire inside a shopping trolley, a dog milling around, until five police vans rolled up at 3am. They toodled (the only word really) up to the club door which had by then been barricaded. A few policemen shined torches in the window bars, mildly asking them to turn the music down. The bonfire trolley was extinguished and still the police refused to look angry or even mildly annoyed. Our German friend Lotte was absolutely convinced that the punks would start throwing stones, yet she still made an effort to communicate with the police. There were five vans so the police must have been expective the worst. One of the policemen asked me to move on and he was really patient as I told him in my premature, broken german: "Ich musse hier bleiben - Ich warte auf mein Freund... abe, I wired bald gehen... Ja! Danke." I had to wait for my friend to get her bike but would clear off soon. He calmly nodded and smiled.

Berlin is crammed full of history: crazy, ridiculous history. It's easy to sigh Berlin's past in the German Democratic Republic, thinking that everyone lived an oppressed and precarious existence that could easily be ruined by the snitching of a friend. Well, it's true, but stomach this statistic: "20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany." [1] A reporter from a recent Radio 4 'From Our Own Correspondent' programme claimed that schoolchildren now living in East Germany aren't being taught their country's socialist past, giving way to naive and misinformed nostalgia. Among a multitude of things there are two points to remember: the memory, as hardly reliable as it is, often remembers the positive things; second: it's important to think who was asked in this survey. Just the old? The embittered working classes? Nevertheless, the dictatorship afforded secure jobs, pensions, healthcare, low low rent and a general feeling of security. With this in mind, I visited their prison in Lichtenberg where my friend's father had been thrown into. Proof of the GDR's oppression is unavoidable: it was a desperately depressing place. At a time where the BNP (and the National Democratic Party of Germany or NDP) are rising the political party ranks, it's important not to whitewash any history of oppression or ideology.

It's often not the Stasi's oppression that sticks in your mind. Some of their tactics were just so absurd. Just consider the spying. A certain class of spies, 'Romeos' and 'Juliets', used purely amorous techniques to spy on people. One east Berliner convinced a woman on the other side of the wall that he was working for the Danish government. The Danes need to just keep an eye on people, nothing to worry about. He even took the poor woman to Copenhagen where a bogus meeting with "Danish officials" was carried out. That is the efforts the Soviets went to.

CZECH REPUBLIC - ŠUMPERK

A really beautiful train ride to Prague, hopped on an old train with cabins and made my way to the Moravian half of Czech Republic. I stayed with Katka, an English teacher, and her family. I have Katka to thank for bringing me into the world of English language teaching.[2]

There are volunteer gamekeepers in the local villages, and they throw parties. One night we went to the Gamekeeper's Ball with another friend, Miloš. A surreal experience: drinking beers in giant glasses with burly amateur hunters grunting around and awful Czech folk-pop nonsense drifting around a field. I thought a giant goulash with dumplings and sour cabbage would be a great idea. My stomach hated me.

Katka taught me the Russian alphabet which is called the azbuka. 32 letters, quite different written than typed. Despite being horrendously difficult, Russian can be very fun to speak and wonderful to listen to.

Czech food is like pornography for the gut, and half as addictive. Totally, completely ungratifying, I'm sorry to say. There is no escape from the heavy and hearty: goulash, lager and those acid-rumbling peppers chucked into every mean and far from lean dish. At night my stomach dealt out just deserts by not letting me sleep. I have scattered dreams of ex-girlfriends, ownership, valleys of emotions, and not sleeping.

You don't need twelve months even to see how much C. Rep is developing. In a small town like Postřelmov you have a new 'bikers highway' and water treatment plant, as well as an updated rail system. A very hopeful place.

LEIPZIG, COLOGNE then HOME

Very pleasant five or so days in a part of the world I'd love to live in one day (East Germany). More döner kebabs and cycling, and a swim in the lake.

I was with a friend Saskia and I noticed something spray-painted on the wall: "Der Mauer muss weg!" I assumed this meant that "the wall must fall!". This tag was to be found all over walls in East Germany during the occupation, serving the purpose as a fingers up to the occupation. This wall was special because it was built only a few years ago. It is just an ugly wall.

I found tons of blatant, deadpan humour like this in Germany. An empty tram passed us when we were drinking in the outside of a bar, and it's destination read: "Weihnachtsmann auf Tour" - "Santa Claus on tour". Or the lyrics to a song by Kissogram: "Yesterday I slept with my hairdresser / Now I've got curly hair and stormy weather".

Night in Cologne with a friend, a run up the huge cathedral in the morning, and then home. Thanks for reading!



[1]Julia Bonstein : Homesick for a Dictatorship - Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,634122,00.html

[2]After my first year exams I took the gruelling 4 week Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). Before travelling I taught some incredible Italian, Russian and Spanish kids for four weeks at Oxford Brookes. Incredible job, immense fun.

Photos: http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/home?tab=mq

5 comments:

Jacqueline said...

Eh bien, cher Pascal, en voilà des aventures.... tu auras de quoi raconter à tes enfants et à tes petits-enfants d'ici quelques décennies. Oncle Pierre et moi te souhaitons, en ce jour de ton anniversaire (20 ans! cela compte) de merveilleux moments avec tous tes amis et avec ta famille de Belgique, de France, de Hollande, d'Allemagne, d'Espagne ....
Bises,
Jacqueline

Philip said...

That was a detailed post card Pascal. A good read. I printed it off and took it to Poland, reading it on the plane. I hope that whenever you end you travelling, you end up in Blighty! Big Brother Philip x

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claireanlage said...

The French the least industrious in England! Gosh, now there's a statistic to shock the chav haters.

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