Showing posts from May, 2016

#29: Traditional Turkish Ebru water and ink painting (Video)

On our cycles through Ditsingen and Plochingen near Stuttgart, we found a couple of mosques holding open days. A tour, some delicious food, and Orhan Erdogan making traditional Turkish Ebru paintings from ink suspended in water.

#28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, 'Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.'

And before we really know what we're getting into, our new friend Ahmad has led us away from the square, up steep back roads to a sports hall that overlooks the town. 'I live here,' he says, ushering us past two bored security guards, who scarcely look up from their mobile phones.

Heckengau Sporthalle is home to around a hundred refugees, mostly from Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, packed into 'plastic' rooms that divide what used to be an indoor basketball court. The rooms are built for two or four, but Ahmad's second bunk is empty. He kicks some shoes under the bed and clears the table to prepare us some tea: our first taste of refugee hospitality.

There are no ceilings to this cell and we can see the …

#27: Refugees Like It's 1699

Kleinvillars in the foresty backwaters of Baden-Wurtemberg is a town founded by refugees who fled persecution in their thousands, finding new homes across the world, in Britain, the Netherlands, America, and here in Germany.

The only difference with the other refugees who we've met on our journey so far is that these people came here from Piedmont in 1699 and are now indistinguishable from their German neighbours, bar their history.

As we stand around, looking up at the French inscriptions on the old timber-frame houses, an old man shuffles up on an electric bicycle. In a thick Schwaebish accent, he tells us that this is his house. We point out the French on his wall, 'Nothing I can do about it,' he says with a rakish smile.

Karl Blanc is an 87 year old former cattle farmer. His surname is pronounced with a hard Germanic K, but still spelled the French way of his forefathers. 379 refugees originally settled in Kleinvillars and nearby Grossvillars, both villages named after…

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we're suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they're replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.

Already in May, American tourists order show-off steiners of beer and eschew the old town Grundel bakery for a sympathetic Starbucks next door.

Our host Manuel has been a student here for six years and is only now reluctantly finishing up his undergraduate thesis in Islamic Studies. In Germany, he tells us, university studies have traditionally been a personal pursuit whose goal was becoming a better person. A couple of years ago the EU-wide Bologna agreement moved this continental model of higher education towards the more industrial British system, which favours quantifiable …

#23: An Unexpected Hill

There wasn't meant to be a hill. We'd spent days slogging up through the steeple forests of Westphalia, precisely to reach this promised Rhineland.

And for good reason. The cycle path from Koblenz all the way to Switzerland runs along the Rhine, Europe's second grandest river. It's not that we're particularly enamoured with the river birds dipping for trout, or even devouring the same caught and smoked by more human devices. It's not the fairy tale cobbles and timber-frame peach-painted churches. It's not even the sight of the world's largest hand-carved cuckoo clock, a dubiously self-appointed tourist attraction if ever I photographed one.

No: the Rhine is our route because water, like us, prefers the path of least resistance: our thousand metre climbing days flattened to perhaps a couple of hundred.

Bikes aren't the only traffic making good use of the easy riding: railways and roads run both sides of the waterway. Freight is hauled by trains, lorr…

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We're squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Fedasil Sint-Truiden, a Belgian government asylum centre, hosts around 550 refugees in concrete block buildings inside a secured compound. A dusty playing field has a set of swings and monkey bars, as well as a couple of football goals on an unfair incline. Anonymous doors with a Kafkaesque numbering system lead off the echo chamber hallways, punctuated by mouldering shower and toilet facilities.

Mother and two daughters live in another room of the complex, where they have access to cooking facilities, but father has a kettle. After pouring t…

#15: A field in Belgium for the night (Video)

A short video diary, while cooking plantain, after visiting a Red Cross Centre in south east Belgium.

#7: The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that's exactly what we did.

Kate usually lives in Brighton with her husband and their three year old daughter, a quick blue-eyed blonde called Matilda, who excels at the preparation of tea and pancakes. In these precious pre-school years, Kate saw an opportunity to up sticks and move the family across to France.

Now Kate sits in the Darfuri compound of the Calais camp, surrounded by sunshine and numbered tents. Beside us is parked the eponymous School Bus, a red minivan that seems to give Kate a free pass with the police who guard the camp entrances. At our backs is the new school building.

I was last here in July …

#6: Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different.

Grande-Synthe, the first migrant camp in France built to UN standards, is around one fifth the size of Calais. It is home to approximately 1,100 people, mostly in wooden huts with power and electrical lighting, with others living in large white refugee tents. The living quarters are bisected by a single straight road that runs the length of the camp. Around the main entrance are kitchens, welcoming information huts, distribution points and a laundry. There is also a school and, at least on the day I'm there, an unreliable surface for playing tennis (I hesitate to aggrandise the pop up net with lines marked out by rocks as a 'tennis court').

After speaking wi…

#5: Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town.

When I visited the camp on New Year's Eve, I wrote about my optimism for the resiliance of our communities, that they could embrace and include our brothers and sisters from across the world. Today, the entire south side of the camp is sand and dust, people's possessions churned into the ground. Only a few scattered buildings remain, isolated from the rest by a hundred yards of wasteground.

While we were in Calais, we spoke to many people, including Kate Atkinson of the School Bus Project, who we will meet again tomorrow (hopefully) to join one of her cookery classes. We also spoke to Inka (criminally not sure of the spelling - sorry!) who works in the Unofficial Women and Children's Centre, loc…

Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

I'm writing this sitting on the beach front in Calais. A mother and two small children are scootched in the sand, and footprints mark where they've been playing. The wind and the waves come across the Channel from England. We've been pulling together a bench lunch, interrupted by an Englishman complaining about wogs and A-rabs, insistent on leaving the EU, while registering his van in Serbia for cheaper car insurance.

The first few days of this cycle have been about settling into a rhythm. We were sped on our way by a peloton of riders from London (so much thanks to Maryla, James and Grizzly) and pitched up the first night on the summit of Great Lines Heritage Park in Chatham. Up there, overlooking the twinkles of the Medway towns, the shouts and curses of boyracers drunk on the soakings of the May Day celebrations fade out into the wind.

Our camp snuck in the shrubbery between the fence of a college and the dog walking paths. Barking snuffles made an effective alarm cloc…