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Thoughts from the road #1 – August & September

Thoughts on What I’m Doing, Am I Enjoying It, Cycling in the UK, France and Germany, What I’m Watching, What I’m Reading, and What I’m Listening To.

I am currently writing from a hotel room in Graz, Austria, feeling a little rundown after coming down with what is most likely a bad cold but could be COVID-19 (the test results arrive tomorrow). This, in a way, slightly sums up how my cycle ride has gone since beginning on August 20th. I’ve travelled through some beautiful places and camped in some idyllic spots, but much of my journey has been hampered by medical issues of varying degrees of concern. First, before I had even left the UK, I busted my knee climbing up a very steep hill just before Hastings. Though I persevered for a couple more days in France, I ended up having to take the train to Paris. Then, midway between Paris and Strasbourg, I had a bit of a heart scare with some prolonged violent palpitations mid-climb, and, given how in 2020 I underwent some scans for a heart condition that went undiagnosed (or were incomplete), I was scared enough by the situation to take the train the rest of the way to Strasbourg. Germany was more successful – taking it slowly, I’ve learnt, is the way to avoid both knee and heart problems, so the 80-90km a day slogs turned into gentle 50-60km rides, with enough time to stop in various towns and rest up with an ice cream or a hot chocolate. Using this tactic, there was no train-taking in Germany, and I managed to ride from Strasbourg, up the Black Forest, to Munich, and then all the way to Salzburg in Austria. Having said that, the ride from Munich to Salzburg was hampered by food poisoning, which provided a very uncomfortable and exhausting 150km over two days. And now! COVID-19! Or maybe not. At first, I thought it was a cold, or an allergy reaction to *something* — runny nose, a lot of sneezing, a sore throat, sinus pain. The whole sleeping in a tent at a relatively high altitude in temperatures of 4 degrees certainly didn’t help. But the loss of taste is a little concerning (though could still be a cold!) and I’ve since found out that these symptoms are all in line with the most common symptoms to receive from the Delta variant if you’re double-vacced (which I am!). Alas, while the ride from Salzburg to Hallstatt was genuinely staggering in its mountainous vastness and beauty, the rest of the ride to Graz was cut short by this ‘cold’, and I had to take the train for a third(!) time in this trip. Though, surprisingly, I’m not actually too bothered. I thought at the start that I would feel very unfulfilled if I didn’t complete the whole route through cycling alone, but it turns out I’m not actually one of those completionists. It’s of course very fulfilling to complete a route without mechanical assistance, but I want to enjoy the ride — I don’t want to turn it into a needless slog for the sake of bragging rights. If this means more injury-related train rides, then so be it, and if, as I suspect, it means taking the train for a bit when the nights camping become too cold and treacherous, then that’s not a problem either. What I’m doing isn’t necessarily intended as a hardcore challenge to myself. Actually, what am I doing?

WHAT AM I DOING?

This question can be interpreted in two different ways: either ‘What actually is it that you’re doing right now?’ or ‘Gus, what the fuck are you doing?’. The first is simple to answer: I’m currently on a cycle ride through Europe where I’m stopping in various cities along the way, often for weeks at a time, to work my online editing job in order to fund the trip and because, well, it’s my job. The second is something I sometimes ask myself as I’m cycling. Why are you choosing to cycle with all this weight, without knowing where you’re going to be camping in the evening, to then spend time in cities working on your laptop just to try and break even with the amount you’re spending cycling through Western Europe? It’s not for environmental reasons, though that’s a bonus. And I don’t think it’s because I’ve gone mad – many people cycle tour, and many people work remotely, so there have to be many more people out there like me who do both at the same time. I think the reason I’m doing this is simply because I want to. It sounds adventurous. It allows me to see more of the world. And though I said that this isn’t necessarily intended to be a hardcore challenge to myself, I did want to test myself. 2020 was a year of self-reflection, insulation, functioning within myself because there was nowhere else to turn. I grew less independent, less social, less happy with what I was doing with my life and how I was living with it. And so, inspired by a Youtube series where a guy unicycles around the world, and filled with wanderlust by the idea of working remotely and travelling at the same time (which is termed as being a ‘digital nomad’ though let’s not use that term please, it’s very wanky), I decided to do this little cycle ride. If I didn’t enjoy it, then I would stop. And if I enjoyed it, brilliant! So, am I enjoying it?

AM I ENJOYING IT?

Yes and no. There are a lot of misconceptions about this sort of thing that I’m doing. The first is that it’s constant fun. People hear travelling and working at the same time, gloss over the latter and think of exotic locations, beautiful backdrops and tons of partying. Which can be true, though not to the excesses implied, but is more than often quite off the mark. This is a lot of hard work, and can be exhausting, draining, mentally challenging, and all the other synonyms that basically mean the same thing. Amid the constant cycling, and working to fund that cycling, there’s maybe one or two days a week where you can stop to rest and sight-see. There’ll be more time if you’re staying longer in cities, and that’s what I’ll be doing in Ljubljana in Slovenia, but at the moment I’m (sort-of) speedrunning these cities (the longest I’ve spent in one was a week and a half in Strasbourg) in order to get somewhere warmer, as I’ve realised that I began my cycle ride a little too late. Of course, much of the cycle ride *are* the rest days, especially when you’re only riding 50 or 60km a day. You can explore lakes, mountains, find nice spots to have lunch or even take a swim in a river. Even riding into gorgeous riverside towns most tourists haven’t even heard of gives a nice giddy rush. However, that brings me onto the second misconception: even on these rest days, people don’t take into consideration how much constant planning there is. How many kms do I have left to the next city, and how many days can I ride it in? Where am I going to set up camp tonight? When am I next going to wash my clothes? When is the next opportunity to dry my tent? When can I next shower? Does this hostel have bike storage? How’s my budget? How long do I have until the weather turns sour? How long do I have until it becomes too cold to camp? Have I remembered everything or did I leave something behind? That sort of stuff, constantly swimming around in your head. While it really doesn’t seem like too much to keep on top of as you’re doing it, it becomes subconsciously mentally taxing over time — this is all to say, my upcoming month-long stay in Lljubljana is well-needed. The third main ‘issue’ with this sort of way of living, though it’s not a misconception, as many of my friends have already asked me about this, is the loneliness. Coming off of a very tough year, the first half of this ride was me trying to remember how to socialise with others. The second half was much better in that regard – I met some wonderful people in Munich and Salzburg, and have worked out a little better how to balance work commitments with hanging out with newfound friends. But! I still miss my friends back home. Along with my cat and Nando’s and full English breakfasts and, weirdly, those tuna and cucumber meal deal sandwiches. I told myself that this ride was an escape from the UK, and there’s definitely truth to that, but I also often find myself pining for a lot of what the country has to offer. Okay, let’s talk about other stuff.

CYCLING IN THE UK

I only cycled for less than two full days in the UK, spanning the 130km from Canterbury to Newhaven, where I’d then take the ferry to Dieppe. The route itself is pretty plain – a lot of country roads, motorway-parallel cycle paths and a hilly, grey coastline. After climbing a monster hill just before Hastings (and by climbing, I mean walking most of it), which is I’m pretty sure where I did my knee in, I managed to find a camping spot in a park…right next to the main trail. There weren’t many options but I was sure my wild camping searching skills would improve (spoiler: they did!). The second day, cycling from Hastings to Newhaven to then take the ferry into Dieppe, was full of pain, but the route — up until the final stretch — was thankfully flat along the coast.

CYCLING IN FRANCE

Taking the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, I cycled roughly 10km in the dark to the nearest campsite and set up my tent. I didn’t know how many nights I’d spend in campsites along my trip, but I fancied a shower and I was not in the mood for some night-time camp spot hunting. The journey from Dieppe to Paris proved to be too much for my knee, which was frustrating — the Avenue Verte between the two cities is a fantastic route, with an incredibly smooth cycle path where you don’t even feel the gently ascending gradient. I ended up having to take the train to Paris, where I stayed in an AirBnB my parents had kindly offered to pay for for my birthday, and spent a lovely couple of days with a friend who was living and working in Paris (hello Cleo!). Determined to not take the train here on out, I managed three days of very boring cycling through the Champagne region on my way to Strasbourg (lots of rolling hills, fields, quaint villages with churches, literally nothing else); however, after a succession of 85km slogs, I experienced some scary violent heart palpitations and thought it better to be safe than sorry, so took the train the rest of the way.

Strasbourg is a beautiful city! A really, really, beautiful city. Everywhere you look is a postcard view — a quaint river running through, staggering Christian buildings, a really interesting fusion of German and French architecture. I spent two weeks here,

CYCLING IN GERMANY

WHAT I’M WATCHING

One great thing about cycling into Europe is that Dune (the Denis Villeneuve-directed Timothee Chalamet-starring sci-fi blockbuster) is out in cinemas much earlier than it is in the UK. The bad news is that it’s not very good — a lot of stuff happening with little meaning behind it, as if somebody’s condensed the first half of an intensely meaty and politically rich novel into less than three hours – oh wait. There’s spectacle, but spectacle alone can’t sustain, and by the halfway mark as the film gradually grinds to a slow, lifeless rhythm, you’re just waiting for the film to end. I want original (or auteur-driven) blockbusters to succeed in beating the Big Mouse, but this ain’t it, unfortunately. And Zimmer’s score is awful!

I also watched Old in a cinema in Strasbourg, a film about a beach that makes you old directed (and partly starring) M. Night Shyamalan, a director who is, at least in my twitter sphere, having somewhat of a comeback in terms of how people perceive his work. While I think a lot of that is due to how creatively bereft most films are nowadays (once again, blame the Big Mouse) and how his films appear striking and daring in comparison, I have to say, for the most part I was really loving Old, right up until it’s final five minutes, which betrays all it has to say on mortality and the circle of life in favour of explaining away things better left untouched. Blah. 

Other films I’ve watched so far include Annette, Leos Carax/Sparks’ barmy lovechild about the relationship between creation, self-destruction and artistic liberties. It’s my film of the year, I think — surprisingly moving and constantly thrilling, with an opening and closer for the ages. Two other films I’ve watched fairly recently—Free Guy and Malignant—fare much worse, the former being a limp if moistly charming celebration of originality before succumbing to the very thing it’s lamenting (say it with me: Big Mouse!), while the latter is a very bad hour and a half followed by a very good final half hour that still doesn’t quite make up for the endurance test that preceded it. 

And I’ve managed to get through a TV series too! Netflix’s Squid Game, which is all the rage, and something that I was very enamoured by two episodes in (I enjoyed how it was taking time to develop its characters and the scenario, and there was real sociopolitical sting to its commentary), and increasingly less interested in as it grew clearer to me how the writers were forsaking the rest of the commentary for cheap thrills and inconsequential melodramatic twists, revelling in the brutality of it all rather than building on the good work of the first two episodes. The final episode in particular is such an eye roller, as any bite it has left is lost in favour of setting up a second series. Also, 067 deserved better 🙁

WHAT I’M READING

Not much! I’ve attempted to read two books since the start of the tour but it’s slow-going, not because the books are necessarily bad but because I’ve just lost the capacity to read at the moment (it’ll come back maybe!). The first is Keith Ridgway’s A Shock, which is an anthology of sorts of various individuals living in London and the kooky (or pleasantly mundane) hijinks they get up to. Having loved Hawthorn & Child and really enjoyed Animals, this feels more of the same, with classic Ridgway-ian debauchery and loose ends, and, sadly, diminishing returns. I also started reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a book recommended to me whose synopsis is right up my street. It’s, loosely, about a vegetarian, and, really, about being within oneself and attempting to break free/regain your sense of self. Among other things, of course. The book jolts between multiple perspectives and there’s a nice, if not-exactly-particularly-special rhythm to the writing, but for whatever reason I’ve stopped reading it for now. I’ll come back to it later, maybe.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO

Quite a bit! I really enjoy exploring new music and so almost everything I’ve listened to in 2021 has been, well, from 2021. I really enjoyed The Bug’s industrial reggae Fire, which gives the impression of watching the world burn (similar to one of my AOTYs, Nun Gun’s Mondo Decay). Shackleton’s Departing Like Rivers is equally thrilling, though trades mind-melting desolation with groovy glitchy ambience, and Injury Reserve’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix is as experimentally bombastic and ingeniously inventive as you’ve heard, though very little of the album comes close to its scorcher of an opener. I’ve also been on somewhat of a Baby Keem groove at the moment – not much of his album The Melodic Blue particularly works but his collab with Kendrick Lamar, Family Ties, is an absolute belter, and his work on Kanye’s new album Donda is found in its best track, Praise God (the looseness and pitch of his vocals works so well with the beat). In other news, Angelica Garcia has an upcoming EP — her album Cha Cha Palace, which was a fusion of Latin/pop/acapella/ballad/rock/punk and everything in between, was my favourite of last year, and judging by her new single Malaguena, her form looks set to continue.

Anyway, that’s my thoughts, speak to you in like two months or so xox

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