Relearning how to live
There is a saying that the devil is in the detail and it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve really begun to understand what this means. The last few weeks have been a masterclass.
It’s the detail of everyday living that you take for granted. We have filters that enable us to live in a detail-ridden world without taking every single thing in every second of each day. We don’t hear the ticking of a clock in a room we inhabit after a while. We habituate. If we didn’t the world would most likely be an unbearable place. Lacking such habituation is thought to contribute to Schizophrenia.
So habituation and acclimatisation is good. But it can also mean that we forget about the details, lose appreciation of their impact on our daily lives. And, after all, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. If you’re not careful, habituation can leave the door wide open for the absence of your details to swipe you around the head unexpectedly. Travel has displaced many details from my life that I’d habituated to. I’m not saying I necessarily want those things in my life but I had underestimated their impact in easing the flow of my daily living. In doing so I hadn’t properly prepared myself for the impact of their absence.
People have a lot of opinions about travel. It seems to some it’s a catch all umbrella for any kind of movement in a foreign land. They think because they’ve moved through a foreign land too that they understand the challenges we’re facing. Their imagination is limited to things they’ve known. To an extent it’s true. There are commonalities. Many daily interactions we’re having now are no different from on holidays that I’ve had. The dabbling in unfamiliar languages, the driving on the other side of the road. But on the other hand everything is different now. We’re not staying in business or even tourist holiday hotels equipped with all the trappings of home life. Mundane trappings that many will never have stopped to appreciate (I know I never did!): a worldwide web of information at your fingertips, electricity, people who speak your language, somewhere safe to park your only mode of transport, knowledge of where the nearest ATM/food is, the ability to dry clothes. Funnily enough, people have often worried about showering when quizzing us about the trip but in reality this is the thing I care least about, I got used to washing only when I’m really dirty surprisingly quickly. I have none of the details surrounding me that form a nice supportive illusion of control over my life. Details that I’d largely habituated to. I’ve stripped back the illusion to an extent and what’s underneath makes for uncomfortable living when you first realise that this is what you signed up for.
Simple, banal tasks that I took for granted before now become the most gargantuan, time- and energy-consuming efforts. Navigating required a whole different approach to the one I’d take at home simply because we don’t have a decent GPS or I don’t know the geography. Finding a place to sleep at night requires a whole different budgeting of time – we now begin looking between 3 and 4 pm to be sure of having a place and being pitched in time for dark. Ensuring you have enough cash requires some forethought, walking many km to find food when you’re ravenous is one task I particularly don’t enjoy but it does make you appreciate the food all the more at the end of it…I can give you endless examples. None of them revelations really, all of them common sense details of normal life but they were details I’d forgotten to be mindful of in the routine of life. None of it is really bad either, just energy sapping. And there’s also the upside that the simplest of things have me grinning with excitement. Cosy socks found at the bottom of a bag. Thinking you’re on the wrong road only to find you’re headed in the right direction after all. The simple pleasure of having pitched in a good spot for the night. And riding past a bakery just as you’re getting hungry.
I think that one of the biggest difficulties is having a foot in both worlds. Living a simpler and more transient lifestyle while firmly rooted in the western, modern system means there is a constant conflict. This whole system is set up with the assumption that people have access to a mobile phone, a computer, a car, a house, electricity and the internet, and why not when most people do? I was aware of it while I lived in the UK and it was one of the reasons I made such an extreme decision, as I knew that half measures wouldn’t cut it. What I wasn’t prepared for was that travelling through Europe would throw it into much clearer relief and place it so often as a barrier to my enjoyment of the experience. That said, Continental Europe makes more concessions that the UK does to our current lifestyle. Most campsites or sleeping establishments are signed from main roads, making it easier to locate them. If it weren’t for this I think we’d have been sleeping rough by now!
The Internet makes life so much more easy than we are aware
Never before have I appreciated how important a commodity information is in my life than right now. Previously I took it for granted that I have information constantly at my fingertips, by virtue of the worldwide web or a common language, the only challenge was to ask the right question. Not so in our new life.
Today, we walked 3 km in the pouring rain because of lack of information. Simply because we forgot to ensure that we understood correctly as the lady in our Pension told us where the nearest ATM was. The reason we needed an ATM was because we’d assumed we could pay by card and had forgotten to explicitly check. The reason we needed to pay by cash was because we’d stopped at a Pension by the side of the road when we’d failed to pick up any campsite signs for the last 20 km with tiredness setting in. Incidentally, the Pension we stopped at was lovely and very cheap because it was off the beaten track – a welcome rest stop that proved a more welcome safe harbour from the torrential rain that set in again this morning. We returned to the Pension, re-enquired – properly this time – and headed out on the bikes since the road wasn’t walkable and the rain had now stopped. So, the lack of information isn’t bad really, it’s just different, and a little tiring at times but hey, we have little else to do than to figure this out. I think part of my ever-rushing mind just needs to realise that we don’t need to do everything in minimal time. It just needs to relax some more. It’ll come.
The day before we went on a 10 km trek, this time in sunshine along the river Naab, because we’d assumed we’d find a bridge over the river to our campsite. Our assumption turned out to be overly optimistic and so we were forced to walk a good few km past the campsite, waving at it as we went. But it was sunny and we didn’t need to be anywhere else. We also got back to camp in Kuntsdorf 10 min before a near tropical storm came blustering in so we had good reason to look on the bright side that day! The previous evening, from the same campsite we’d set off following signs for a restaurant in Augustenhof that never materialised. This trek resulted in another 10 or so km under our belt but one of the best meals that we’ve had of Bayern speciality food from another restaurant in Berglengensfeld, the town we’d initially decided was too far to go to. Hopefully, you’re getting a picture of how a lack of small pieces of information can compound to produce an overall quite tiring series of events. But they bring good and unexpected experiences too. The campsite from a few nights ago just outside Bergengensfeld was a real picture of hidden tranquillity that we would never have found if we’d been pre-identifying online. It was only by the smallest of chances that I spotted the sign by the side of the road as it was and we later found that this was the only campsite in all the surrounding towns. We made friends with an older couple there who spoke little English and showed us such hospitality and kindness. A similar find just outside Munich after collecting our Carnets reinforces this idea, this one surreally located amidst a Wild Western Saloon and hosted by a crazy guy who couldn’t stop laughing at us and showed us all the facilities in a mix of English, German and Italian down to the tiniest detail of “no paper” available in the toilet! We ate one of the cheapest, most satisfying meals we’d had in the Saloon, watched by the mannequins dressed up as Doc Holliday and Jesse James as we washed it down with a couple of beers and then topped it all off with a 12 hour sleep. Surreal but refreshing and all happened upon totally by chance.
Navigating, such an effort at first because my use of GPS’ had robbed me of the skills I needed to navigate effectively without a satellite signal, is now a sure-fire source of success in the day. I now don’t attempt to work with a map that is too poorly resolved to be useful. I also don’t expect superhuman feats of memory from myself. But nor do I attempt to read the small print of the map whilst riding. I highlight the main town names and road numbers along the route for the day and then I follow road signs to these places, steering clear of the motorway signs. If I know the direction I’m travelling in and the direction we’re ultimately heading I may deviate off piste every now and again – German road signs are good enough and the roads numerous enough that if it all goes horribly wrong I can get us back on track again if needs be. But it usually pays off with good, quiet gems of roads that give a better travelling experience all round lacking as they do the speed demons that frequent the bigger roads and who treat us squarely as obstacles that need to be overtaken irrespective of the blind corners, oncoming traffic or 50 kph zones – there seems to be little tolerance here for travelling at or just below the speed limit. As long as I’m travelling in roughly the right direction (which I define arbitrarily as an arc of about 120 degrees around the precise bearing we need), and the curves are good and the roads quiet then all is good. If all is not good then I change tack. When we hit Berlin and hopefully pick up the Iranian visas then the precise bearing needed will become less precise too, allowing more room for a ‘lost for a reason’ attitude.
And in other countries, this strategy will no doubt need to update. Road signs won’t always be numerous or accurate, or written in an alphabet we understand but for now we’ve conquered the navigation challenge and it feels good to have done so.
There was a period not so long after arriving on the continent that I felt utter helplessness as I thought that access to all the information in the world had just evaporated from right in front of my eyes. I kid you not. But now, honestly? I’m settling in to this information-challenged way of life. But perhaps that’s not the right term for it, the content hasn’t changed but the way we gather it has. I have to employ a combination of speaking to people, maps, detective work from road signs and using my senses to glean all the information I can and the rest of it I have to leave up to chance. The internet seems to provide us with everything but I think in reality it has been robbing me of much. Now I have a chance to reclaim what I’ve lost.
Updating is hard, it’s trial and error, it’s slow and it takes effort and mistakes. When you’re in these transitional periods it feels bad, no matter how much you know it’ll get better and a challenge I face is becoming more patient of these times. I’m intolerant of mistakes, I believe my life as it has been has taught me to be so – a trait I also believe is responsible for the increase in depression in the Western world – and I need to learn tolerance of mistakes as learning experiences rather than as failures. The simple fact is that my mind is railing against every inefficiency it can find and there are a lot to go at when you’re moving from new place to new place. But that’s kind of the point, this is me practicing what I want to put into effect. Right now, it’s not comfortable but I have faith that it will become more natural after not so much longer and I feel deep down it’s worth doing. We’re burrowing down to what really matters to us, slowly but truly. We’re making sure that we prioritise what’s important to us and finding strategies that suit these priorities. And that was the whole and sole point of this journey.
At the end of the day though I don’t need to convince myself of reasons to carry on, only to reaffirm my knowledge that I want nothing to do with a ‘normal’ life. As stories of ‘Brexit’ abound even here and fresh news of English hooliganism arrives along with the shocking killing of a Labour MP by a suspected right-wing attacker, I can find no part of me that wants to return to ‘normal’ life.
The next challenge that seems so banal it gets overlooked is how to find that place to sleep for the night?
On a recent thread someone commented that they were sure if we looked hard enough we would be able to find a campsite. Which raises the question of “what is hard enough”? Before I left home, when I had my broadband internet at home and mobile data everywhere I moved, finding a campsite, or anything else for that matter was the most trivial of things. Not so now. As I write this we are in our fourth day of no internet access, and even when we’ve had it at a campsite, using it to locate a place to sleep gives rise to a whole heap of other problems. What if we don’t make it that far for some reason that day? Do we want to push ourselves to ride long into the evening to make a target – doesn’t that suck the fun out of it? What about navigating to a single, predefined point in a town or city without GPS? Ever tried that? It’s not much fun either. We predefined a campsite just outside Munich and it took us an age of circling country roads and a multitude of U turns to locate. I assure you it wasn’t fun. And so, once the options were clear, we prioritised happiness and
freedom. It means we have that little niggling doubt every night of whether we’ll find something but so far we’ve ended up with some great places and because we’re not limited to the Google-sponsored ones or online ones we often pay below the odds for them. It means we have had to ditch the purist, camping-only approach (although to be honest in this weather that’s no great hardship) and it means we’re spending a little more when a campsite doesn’t come up but that’s OK because it’s been our choice to do it that way.
Stopping at roadside finds does have its drawbacks too. You’re a way away from anywhere. Today we need to go out for money last campsite we went for a walk following a sign to a restaurant. 10 km later it still hadn’t materialised.
The mantra of ‘suck it up buttercup’ has no place in a healthy world
I couldn’t give two hoots whether people think I’m strong or tough or not, or all those other adjectives that get bandied around as desirable qualities. I’ve always found words and labels woefully inadequate at summarising a whole person so they mean little when applied to me. The criticism of others doesn’t often affect me, other than to make me dislike them. But I’m my own worse critic and unfortunately my inner critic has my ear. One thing I do regularly is tell myself to stop being so soft, to get on with it, be more like others, toughen up. I don’t know why and outside my comfort zone it becomes the dominant voice.
We woke this morning to the rain again, relentless, huge drops, the horizon and closer blurred by the clouds and the wall of falling water. As I sat at breakfast listening to the trucks thundering past and watching the cars overtaking irrespective of the conditions I could feel my trepidation grow. I didn’t want to ride in this. I would have to go out alone on the bike to get money so that we could pay, leaving Mickey at the Pension. Finding out belatedly that they didn’t take cards had thrown an extra spanner in the works this morning. I sat as The Dread – that unidentified feeling of wrongness – grew and grew. I habitually began to battle it rationally – I do it without even realising, until I can no longer sort out the real from the imagined, or anything of the tangled web of reasons I should stay or go. We need to hit the road to get to Berlin for Iranian visas, we shouldn’t waste money on another night here. I shouldn’t be so weak, it’s only a bit of water. Suck it up and get on. Stupid really. I clearly didn’t want to. But I knew that Mickey was fine riding in the rain and I didn’t want to be the one that called a halt to the proceedings. Again. Of course, what I wasn’t factoring in was that Mickey is also fine not riding in the rain and he holds my happiness in high esteem. Still, the decision sat uneasily with me. He asked me what the point was, if I wasn’t happy doing it. This was our travel, our adventure, why make it a test of endurance. Fair point. What am I trying to prove? The decision settled a little more lightly on me. Maybe on another day I’d be fine with it all but today it didn’t feel right. I guess it just feels like there have been a lot of those days recently but I know it’s still early days.
There will always be someone telling you to suck it up and get on with it, maybe it’s you, maybe it’s someone else. But Unless they’ve lived it they can’t possibly know.
You can imagine, and it’s good to try. You can approximate your experiences with those of others. But the absolute truth (and I’m a believer in very few of these) is that even with the best imagination in the world you cannot know someone else’s experience. So never tell someone to suck it up and get on with it. They’re probably telling themselves that anyway and what they need from you is a little kindness and understanding.