Once again I’m on a Zen cycling adventure and this time it’s down the Elba river to Hamburg Germany. Using the Bikeline trail maps as a guide I started from Prague on the Vltava river which feeds into the Elba.
And what a start! Arriving rather bleary eyed after a 4am check in at Gatwick. In the centre of Prague I bumped into Andy, an ex paratrooper who had just had a lifesaving operation and he insisted that I celebrate with him.So there we were, drinking champagne in a posh restaurant and watching the town clock do it’s tourist thing, and finding it ever harder to tell the time.I eventually managed to pull myself away. I don’t usually drink, though Zen people do partake a little Sake apparently.Then off to my SERVAS host who lived a couple of Ks away. He had just got home from work but was happy to take me out for dinner in his car and see sights that I would otherwise have missed.Next day I was raring to go down the Vltava. The route was a little undeveloped and mostly suitable for mountain bikes, though the railway ran alongside, I stuck to the trail and took care of a fallen branch blocking the trail with my pruning saw then found a suitable wood for the night.The route offers many alternative diversions and being very interested in WW2 I made for TEREZIN, a fortress built under Emperor Josef II to protect central Bohemia and used later as a Nazi detention camp.The experience was so harrowing that I spent the night in a hotel in town.Many of you will be aware of the slogan ARBEIT MACHT FREI (“Work sets you free”) that greets you when you enter these concentration camps. I thought I would continue to tell my story using this as a theme as I wandered through what was East Germany.
photo(22)But let’s look at this statement a little closely.For the nazis it must have been a cynical attempt to fool the inmates- but is there any truth in it when we strip it of it’s horrific connection? Governments pressure their populations to work longer hours hours to pay off it’s debts. Employers cajole their workers to work harder and faster to increase production to increase profits for the shareholders, many of which are pension funds, and the managers. But does this make the worker free?. We are promised that if we work enough years -around 40 -and constantly increase our earnings, we shall receive a bountiful pension when we reach the age of sixty or so.And when we reach that age they increase it to around 70. Whats more, the wonderful pension is then reduced, or made less attractive in monetary terms. In Germany, where I am at the moment, many workers take on more than one job to earn enough to buy all those lovely things that promise freedom, such as cars that choke up the countryside, Internet phones which clutter up our minds, trips abroad, to get burnt on the beach, high -powered motorcycles to revisit a lost youth, this time with attitude.
Much of this stuff may give us some passing happiness, but does it really offer lasting freedom? I visited friends in Paris last month and met a friend who had given up her career after nearly burning herself out. We visited an exhibition on Sharmans. Those chaps ( they all seemed to be men) offered their tribes an insight to their hidden natures, sometimes with substances some of which I was kind of familular from my heady days in 60s California.
Where work was considered a tribal betrayal and it would have been very bad manners to ask someone ” what do you do ” very uncool as ones identity wouldn’t be revealed by the type of job you did.
Maybe we are heading down a more fruitful track. But this route is full of potential pitfalls. In the temples of India last winter I saw many serious- looking westerners attempting to bliss out surrounded by untold squalor, charlatans, and increasing corruption. In a government- run night club in Cuba I remarked to a couple of local teenage girls enjoying a sexy pop video that Che Guevara would turn in his grave if he saw them. They replied that they ” just wanted to be normal”. As their social revolution runs out of steam, with the youth betraying the dreams of the old, will they find freedom?, they won’t find it through work, as nobody seemed to be doing any.! And in New Zealand I was shocked to find that the rivers are no longer reaching the sea as agribusiness, dedicated to suppling the U S with butter, is using up the water. Mining is threatening the national parks. In fact the boast to tourist that the country is a green natural haven, is beginning to look thin, as they strive to match Australia’s GDP.
The freedoms that the postwar Brits were seeking, and in many cases found -, no weekend working, fishing in crystal clear rivers or sunbathing on beaches without burning because of the thin ozone layer – all seem to be turning sour.
When I reached retirement age I managed to avoid the temptation that my part time job was offering. Stay until 70, double your pension and even work full time. But how to make the break to freedom from work?. First I decided to sell the car; the bus pass was just being introduced and it would save heaps of money. And as I had been using the cycle for many trips the idea of spending the summer touring through Europe came to mind. So for the next four months I cycled and trained over 5000 miles through central europe, taking in a SERVAS conference in Poland and a 10 day meditation retreat in Latvia. I Ended up in balmy Scandinavia, where a stranger put me up and escorted me to the airport.The trip of a lifetime, not quite, as when I returned home I realised that this way of spending part of the year was to replace my previous commitment to work. Ironically, I now was the possessor of three modest pensions plus a house, so all that hard work was paying off.
To bring this right up to date, I’m sitting on a bench overlooking a delightful small lake fed by springs from a nearby river, with a charming wooden hut behind me.I shall sleep there tonight courtesy of Susanne, a cyclist I met a couple of hours ago along the road. She hailed me and I stopped to make contact.
This is her paradise, recently acquired when she sold her travel agency business of over 30 years to get out of the rat race. Taking a leaf out of Henry Thoreau’s book, she has her Walden Pond. She is making it ever more beautiful to share with others. So, for her work, has made it possible to live in a different way.
A couple of hours before I met her I bade farewell to Michael, a real english cyclist, drop handlebars, fancy Lycra top, helmet and long legs with not much hair.He had been quite shrewd with his money, invested in the stock Market and taken early retirement from a job that he had lost respect for.Even though this made him a little bit of a Conservative, he agreed after mild ribbing and augument that he didn’t approve of the class system, or any other system that enslaves the worker and squeezes out any individual enterprise or intuition that some may offer. I couldnt keep up with him so he missed out on Susann’s paradise.
The previous day I had met Stafan, a highly skilled carpenter who put me up for the night in his farmhouse, recently acquired for E 7000 and which he was rebuilding. When he completed his apprenticeship he entered upon a very german tradition called Traditionelle Wanderschaft, under which you make contact with a master craftsman or Father who gives you a licence to Wander for the next three years without any money except for a few weeks work for food and then moving on, but staying over 50 k from your home town. He wears a costume rather like the Amish in the USA. Everything else you own has to be given away.As he was brought up in the GDR he has rather fond memories of 3people doing 1 persons work. Still, they had no unemployment, rather than the 16 percent now current. He also supplemented his income by growing dope, but we better not go there.
I mustn’t forget WELTRAD, the traditional cycle manufacturer in Schonebeck. Once the largest cycle makers in the world, they now make high quality handmade models, 250 a year, and also run a restaurant and hotel all staffed by about a dozen people.
Let me end the story with KD my SERVAS host near Hamburg. An internet art dealer who was having a barbeque and invited some friends, one of whom was a boat builder.We saw a couple of his historical wooden ships later, and he asked me to give a thumb -size report on my experience of Germany.
I’ll start with german food. Unlike travelling in the UK where one can always drop into a cafe for the all -day breakfast, here the best I could manage was bratwurst with potato salad. But the german bakery is the best in Europe, unlike that skinny French offering that is inedible in a couple of hours. A sour dough product will keep going for days. As I don’t really drink I can’t pass judgment on the beer, but the plumbing in the toilets needs to be seen to be believed and, of course, spotlessly clean.
As I said earlier, I’m very interested in WW 2, so when I got to Dresden i made for the War Museum. I also survived a V1 doddle bug attack.Putting aside the terrible events of the war, I nevertheless think that it’s important to accurately record what happened. For example, in the museum’s account of the events leading up to the outbreak of the war no mention was made of the German air force involvement in the Spanish civil war and the fact that they were able to perfect their dive-bombing technique on a defenceless population.And then to state that young German pilots were offered up to slaughter without any experience struck me as a bit rich. After all, every participant was scraping the barrel at some time. The other less than honest account was at the border museum at Schnackenburg. To quote from their leaflet;
“this is the border, the dividing line which cuts Germany in two and which separates the Germans in the german democratic republic from their fellow country men in the federal republic. It’s origin dates back to September 12 1944. It was on that day, that in London the representatives of the united states, the soviet union and great Britain agreed upon the course of the demarcation line between the future zones of occupation of the western allies and the soviet union, thus laying the foundations of the present border between the federal republic and the democratic Germany. THIS DIVIDING LINE WAS ESTABLISHED IRRESPECTIVE OF GEOGRAPHIC, HISTORICAL AND ECONOMICAL FACTS AND WITHOUT THE EXPRESSION OF THE FREE WILL OF GERMAN PEOPLE LIVING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER.”
I was so astonished and angry that I wrote this in the visitors book.
“after 5 years of the bloodiest war in history and a further 7 years of nazi brainwashing it seems hardly likely that one could expect the “expression of the free will of the german people living on both sides of the dividing line ” as quoted in your handout to have any reality. It’s time for the people of Germany to face their little told history and the consequences of it. ps this is called the victim mentality.”
To be fair both these examples may have been written some time ago by a generation who were told very little or nothing at school about this period.
So back to the present, the country has the best cycling facilities in the world, someone said that Hitler initiated them to separate the cycles from his beloved VW, and the most respectful drivers to cyclist. The countryside is beautifully clean of litter and the people are civil, friendly and honest. The value for the traveller is the best in western Europe and I felt safe at all times. Forgive me if this is more than a thumb size account, but this was one of the best adventure cycling times I have had and it needed to be given due recognition.
Ps I’ll leave the final word to a senior monk from Chithurst Buddhist Monastery: WORK IS LOVE MADE VISIBLE.
PS. I recently received an e mail from a lady that I met along the route who was with a friend and was feeling rather harassed by him. I told her about ZYCLING and she wrote that she had gone alone for a weeks ride and after the initial panic it turned out perfect.