Will it ever be quiet?

I’ve passed through the Czech Republic and I’m back in Poland. The Czech Republic reminded me of a cross between Poland and Slovakia. There were parts I liked and some I didn’t. It was the first place where not speaking any of the language was a hindrance. I met few people who spoke English which made me feel a little isolated. This meant that when I took a day off in Kutná Hora I longed for a conversation all day. Then when I returned to the campsite and could of tried to talk to the other people staying there, I couldn’t summon the energy to try.

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The Czech Republic is fairly cheap, especially as I decided not to go to Prague where campsites were over double those in other towns. However my money did seem to disappear quickly which is probably more down to my terrible budgeting and spending habits. It was the first place where I managed to leave the country with exactly zero of the currency in my pocket though.

After being in Bratislava, Vienna, Znojmo and Kutná Hora all in quick succession I decided to I needed some time away from civilisation for a bit. So my route back into Poland deliberately went through the moutains to give me some ‘space’ as well as challenging cycling. It definitely did the job and the views were at times breathtaking. There is also nothing quite like a six mile long descent down a winding mountain road.

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However I’m in Europe so we don’t really have wilderness. It’s pretty hard to really escape from civilisation and even when wildcamping it is all around you. Last night I could hear a nightclub somewhere pounding away despite being four or five miles from the nearest town. As I’m cycling on the road most nights you can hear the noise of traffic which I’ve grown accustomed to. In addition the noise of trains and aeroplanes at times seems to be everywhere and also unavoidable.

None of this bothers me it’s just an ever present reminder of humanity over the horizon. Nature itself is far from silent. The woods at the moment seem to literally hum with the sound of flies. I have to say I prefer this to the whine of mosquitoes and they don’t bite. Also larger animals in the woods tramp past the tent on occassion leaving you wondering what they were. Sleep is also bookended by the birds singing and calling away as the light fades and then the sun rises.

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It actually makes me realise how much our homes with double glazing and insulation cut out the sounds that are present all around us. I’m not sure if this is good or bad. I’m someone who sleeps pretty much all year round with an open window due to getting too hot or finding central heating dries out my throat. I think I like the noise, the constant sound that connects me to the world outside my room or tent. So it will never be quiet, which is a good thing because a silent world is a dead world.

Changes

So the mountains of southern Poland and Slovakia were beautiful. They reminded me of the pain and joy of cycling up hills but also the rewards of descents and a fantastic view. People in Slovakia were friendly too including the random gift of half a watermelon.

In Bratislava I met Vinny who also set off on a tour from the cycle touring festival. It was nice to spend a day relaxing and enjoying food and beer with a fellow terrible tourist. It was also quite nice to talk to a native English speaker for the first time since Hamburg. Although most people I have met have spoken fantastic English, there is always a slight language barrier in every conversation.
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Parting ways Vinny headed east along the Danube towards Budapest and I set off west to Vienna. A whistlestop visit to the city before heading north to the Czech Republic. Vienna seems nice but a warmshowers stay in a shared flat reminds me of parts of my old life I don’t want to return to. The stress of rent, bills and possessions. You can also see how different people deal with the problems and enact solutions around shared space within shared houses/flats. At some point I know I’ll have to learn to live with others again and I think after so much time alone it may be tough. Hopefully though my communication skills may have improved on this trip.

My mind has also been wandering and thinking about other ways you change by cycle touring. You definitely start to see things differently and I have found I now very rarely see things as absolute. The world is awash with new continuums that either didn’t exist or were very different before touring. For example cycling in the rain and spending long periods outdoors has made me realise that wet and dry are not absolute states. Now in my brain even the mid-point state of damp is not enough. I can and will mentally catergorise things as dry, slightly damp, very wet or variations on this theme based on a personal and highly subjective continuum.
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I am perhaps more scientific when it comes to another new found continuum. Nothing is now just clean or dirty. Clearly the lack of regular access to washing facilities or even just running water has led to there becoming variations in cleanliness. Personally I have found myself categorising items on a ‘day scale’ around how many days they have been worn. This the enables me, when everything is dirty to select the most worn items for washing. Sadly it’s not a perfect system as not every days wear produces the same level of dirt i.e. it may be hot so you sweat more or dusty on the road. Also I have a rather bad habit of forgetting how many days I’ve been wearing something!

My favourite cycle touring continuum is not new though but rather a change to something that existed in my mind already. Bicycle parts are generally new and then become worn before finally reaching worn out. Worn out is the point where in any good bicycle shop they will tell you it should be replaced. When cycle touring with little money though this continuum extends beyond the point of worn out. Bicycle parts get used for more miles and just seem to keep going. That is of course until they don’t, the continuum is finite and reaches a stage where something breaks or is unusuable. The state I would probably label ‘totally fucked’.
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So as I head off to the Czech Republic it is with excitement about what lies ahead but also what new things I will learn about myself and how my view of the world might change.

Love is a lie

Love by all accounts and personal experience is a strange and often illogical feeling. The love of countries can be even more strange sometimes based on a feeling or sense more than rational factors. Luckily being polyamorous with countries is socially acceptable. So I can love Spain for its overt and visually vibrant left wing politics as well as it’s breathtaking landscapes. I can love Latvia for it’s people, it’s simplicity and in the areas I visited lack of the curse of modernity. Now strangely I feel like I have also fallen for Poland.

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Lets look first though at the rational and the negative. Poland has some clear things which grate and I do not like. There is an obvious sexism in advertising for example. The bus stops display an ongoing graffiti war between competing but all apparently far-right wing football fans. There are clear displays of invasion from ‘western Europe’ Lidl, Tescos and other familiar supermarket brands. Plus the armies of foreign tourists being wooed by guides and restaurants in Warsaw and Kraków.

However for every familiar high street chain there seem to be ten independent shops. The cities are especially full of small bars, cafes, bookshops, food shops and clothes/shoe shops. Not all to my taste but it is nice to see this spirit of independence. It reminds me of the vibrant independent business scene that has emerged in Leeds. The smaller towns by their nature are more limited but bar maybe one or two chain supermarkets they are also populated by independent businesses. Poland appears to me to really be ‘a nation of shopkeepers’.

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This gives the county a very different feel to the ‘identikit’ vector graphics of many other places I’ve been. This is also bourne out in how a new house being built looks. Thanks in part I believe to lax planning laws new houses are all sorts of designs and shapes even if the construction techniques themselves are fairly standard. The best example I saw of this was a house with a completely seperate circular tower at one corner. What purpose these two slightly impractical rooms weren’t meant to serve I have no idea but I like how crazy it looks.

To be honest reading between the lines of the above easily identifies why I love this country. It’s familiar enough to be comfortable but crazy enough to be interesting and exciting. Even the language, in which I’m up to about six words is hard but appeals to my thirst for learning and knowledge with it’s complexity.

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However of course this is all new, maybe when you are travelling and a tourist you can’t really love a country. Surely it’s lust at best, a quick fling before you leave for the next one. So in two days time I should be in Slovakia. As much as I love Poland it hasn’t forced me to stop moving and pinned me down. My route though I think will bring me back into the west of the country for a while so maybe there is still time. Plus as with the other countries that fight for the attentions of my heart i.e. Spain and Latvia, I want to come back again in the future and experience it more, test and explore our fledgling relationship.

Warsaw

Warsaw was exactly what I needed.

Now anyone who reads this regularly might be scratching their heads at this point. I have professed to not being a big fan of cities and especially capitals. In fact my experiences in Poland with busy roads pretty much from the border to Warsaw and the negotiation of the urban sprawl of that city to reach the centre, should suggest negative feelings. However Warsaw (and to a lesser degree Poland so far) has been redeemed by two main features.

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The first is it’s history. It definitely has the most interesting recent history of any city I’ve visited so far. I actually was a ‘proper’ tourist for a bit and joined a free ‘orange umbrella’ tour of the old town on my day off. Most of the city was destroyed during the second world war and was rebuilt in the last 40 years. It is a glowing example of why authoritarian regimes should be resisted at all costs having suffered at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin.

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The second thing that led to me enjoying Warsaw were people. I stayed with a Warmshowers host called Anna. She was great, friendly and hospitable. It was good to swap stories and discuss cycle touring, languages and experiences of different countries. I also found possibly my favourite bar I’ve ever drunk in. It’s in the old town and called Same Krafty. The bar serves great Polish craft beer and also plays great music thanks to Katka who works behind the bar there. She also furnished me with some much needed conversation about beer, music, life and again language.

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I already know that people can really make places but I was definitely suffering a bit from loneliness before Warsaw and in need of some human interaction. So Warsaw really gave me a boost. I’m now back on slightly quieter roads south feeling refreshed and re-energised. The half way point has just passed for this trip and to be honest with where I am and how much time I have there are lots of options for routes to get back to Rotterdam. I know that none of them need be very direct. Let’s explore!

Goodbye middle class

Ok so what can I say about Lithuania? The north and south are ok but the middle is far too populated. The cities to me were generic and depressing. The drivers are crazy, with better roads than Latvia to speed on and there are more of them on the roads. Not my favourite country.

However it has seemed to have stirred something in my brain. I may have not have enjoyed the country and my surroundings but I’m still enjoying myself. Either riding or thinking or just knowing I’m not having to get up every morning and go to work. This is a key thing about my journey, it is an opportunity to take back my autonomy and be in charge of my life.

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I’ve recently finished the book “Two cheers for anarchism” by James C Scott and something he argues in the book is that the petty bourgeoisie have been reviled in left wing political discourse but at least they retain their autonomy. They may in some instances find themselves shackled by long hours and a lack of security but the shopkeeper and the smallholder alike own the means of production, which gives some security.

Most of us these days think of ourselves as ‘middle class’ but what does that actually mean? Perhaps we could define it as having gained some elevated status through the ownership of material goods or by attaining a certificate of educational achievement. However on a base level we are no different to the working class, we do not own the means of production. Instead we are interred within offices as structured and stifling as the factory and with tasks as repetitive and unfufillling. We still have no autonomy for our actions and day to day lives. Instead we are sold a meritocratic dream that if we work hard and suceed in a career autonomy will follow. Or failing that our freedom will be granted us on retirement.

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Now these arguments worked for my parents generation. Able to afford to own property (eventually) and often gain enough status and experience to set their own terms for work in their fifties and sixties. For my generation and those that follow there is growing evidence that these rewards have been removed. Yet still we are told to play the game and they will be bestowed upon us.

However reality bites. The ever  increasing gap between rates of pay and the price of land and housing has firmly put the reward of home ownership out of the grasp of a large chunk of the middle class. An English man’s castle is no longer available to all. We’re told we should be more like our European neighbours where home ownership is more rare until you realise that firstly even the rental market is now increasingly unaffordable and that our European neighbours often rent in urban areas where they work but own property as a family elsewhere e.g. summerhouses.

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Yet it’s ok as twenty years of long hours and sacrifice through our twenties and thirties will see us launched into managerial or consulting positions where we enjoy freedom and autonomy as we are valued for our knowledge and experience. As our parents generation retire we will fill their shoes. Now this would make perfect sense and does work for some, however if the average ‘baby boomer’ had 2.4 children and mostly (yes this is a generalisation) only the father worked, this leaves 1.4 children with no shoes to fill. To compound this, endless ‘rationalisation’ by companies and sectors as they realise that they’ve created massive bureaucracies of ‘bullshit jobs‘ reduces the opportunity further.

So what future is there for the middle class? A lifetime of boredom through office work. No autonomy in a world of repeated tasks that can be rationalised as somehow ‘better’ as they’re not physical or on the factory floor. However the engagement and level of skill required in the endless writing and filing of documents, the hours of email and meetings or the numbers swimming across spreadsheets are little different to that required to fit part x to point y on the assembly line.

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In my eyes the worst part is that clinging to the idea that they are somehow better and not working class the middle class has created it’s own cage. If the definition I suggested above is that the differential for being middle class is that of owning certain material goods e.g. a car or attaining a particular educational certificate e.g. a degree then this creates the bars to hold the middle class firmly in it’s office chair with no escape. Those bars are built of personal debt, the levels of which are increasing year on year. Owning those status providing goods, the house for a lucky few, the car or the latest electrical do-dad. This ‘keeping up with the joneses’ to maintain a class status inherited at birth outstrips falling real incomes so people drop into debt. We also are encouraged to continue studying in higher education. This is amid increasing tutition fees and costs of living which equally propels us into levels of debt our Parents did not have to deal with.

All of this to maintain the myth we are a more wealthy, better educated portion of society irrespective of the fact in terms of necessary things for living we have nothing to show for it. Most people I know who either did not attend university but instead learnt some form of trade or have become part of the petty bourgeoisie by starting businesses have more autonomy and often in purely monetary terms wealth than those who work in traditional middle class occupations.

So lets put a stake through the heart of this false notion that enslaves us. The middle class is dead. The UK is a nation of landless peasants, we do not own the means of production and so are forced to sell our labour cheaply in the factory or the office. Until we identify how personally we can (possibly fleetingly) break out of those environments then we will never experience autonomy in our lives and true freedom.

www.limit.fm/musik/?artist=New-Bruises&track=Goodbye-Middle-Class,-Hello-Working-Poor