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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

To Get to the Other Side (part 1)

On Dinsdag, 5 September, I packed my bags once again, saddled up my trusty bicycle, and left the little home I’d found in Groningen.  Saying goodbye was difficult.  Joop had become a good friend, and then there was L.  I had only just met her a couple weeks earlier, as we cooked together for Gratis Eten, and I was pretty sure I was falling in love.  But she had her own life, and I had to leave town.  My path led southeast, through Stadskanal, and to the border at Ter Apel.  There wasn’t even a control point, just a sign—EU deregulation at its best.  Passing over the unfenced frontier, I was flooded with a feeling of nostalgia, and an irrational and sudden fear of Germans. I slept in a bus shelter in the open countryside somewhere between Haselünne and Fürstenau, 140km away.  The next day I skirted north of Osnabrück, on the way to Minden on the Weser.  With each cycle of the pedals, the loom of my thoughts gave another turn, pulling tighter on the threads that led back to all the people receding behind me, and ripping apart the fabric of my future.  At the day’s end I was just 20km from Rinteln, where I wasn’t due to arrive until the next afternoon, to stay with the Oma of my dad’s German family.

The path to Rinteln took me over the Weser mountains. The sight of mountains was invigorating; I had been in the flatlands for months, and where the Autobahn took the same even path through the hills as did the Weser river, my little country road rewarded me with a climb straight over the top, and a swift descent into the valley, where I was soon knocking on Oma’s door. What a strange idea that with nothing but an address we can come from another country and arrive at someone’s doorstep, that in this expanse that spreads beyond the horizon, all comprised of little patches of earth like the one beneath our feet, live all the people on the planet.  We allow the distances of our known world to be mediated by telephones and automobiles, each carrying its own sort of magic.  It’s liberating to go from one point on a globe to another on your own sweat, and have a chance to see every blade of grass in between.

Map2Groningen

My dad had stayed close with a family he had lived with as an exchange student in his youth.  We called them our German family, and had visited them a couple times when I was in high school.  I stayed in Rinteln a few days, Oma and I shot some dice and she stuffed me with food till I had a potbelly.  On the 10th I set out again and crossed into former East Germany.  The Harz mountains spanned the border region. On their highest peak, the Brocken, the witches were said to converge on Walpurgisnacht, the night before May Day and a time for rebirth and rebellion, bonfires or burning police cars, since the times of resistance to the Christian genocides and the early expansion of state and capitalism.

The weather was perfect: warm in the day and crisp at night, and the earth rejoiced in the change of seasons and came to fruit.  On a curving road up a hill near Querfurt I ate the best apple I’ve had in my life. It was a windfall, beneath one of the ubiquitous roadside fruit trees, colored with a pale pink that seeped beneath the skin and into the flesh of the fruit itself, which had a flavor and consistency like a cider so confident it had left its liquid state to form itself into a shape of its own choosing.

Dienstag, 12 September

On the mountain below Eisenberg I slept in a stone tunnel going through the hill, across the back of which ran an old railroad. I was lucky to find it: I needed some cover over my head because the cold of the previous night had soaked me and my sleeping bag with dew. I had been warned by old-fashioned Oma about the dangers of the East—the Gypsies and the Poles—while the younger members of the family shook their heads but pointed out, with a touch more realism, that nazi skinheads were a big problem.  They advised me not to sleep outside on the other side of the old border.  In actuality I was threatened throughout the night by a much more old-fashioned bogeyman: what sounded like a bear tramping around one end of the tunnel.  Thinking of Werner Herzog’s movie, Grizzly Man, I imagined it would be comical if I were gobbled up by the wee black cousin of North America’s titanic ursine, accompanied by a heavily accented and cynical voice-over. Of course, I was safe from all manner of beasts and vagrants, and in the end the point of such fears is not to keep people safe but to keep us divided. White Americans told never to go into the inner city at night share a common experience with the children of these hills half a millennium ago, who were frightened with big bad wolves and witches, even as 1,000,000 people accused of witchcraft were executed in just a century, in the name of Public Safety.  The result of the “Burning Times” was to sever any last cultural remnants of gender equality, herblore, spiritual use of organic hallucinogens, nature worship, transgender identities—basically anything healthy that would stand in the way of Christian dualism, scientific rationalism, and unbridled capitalism.

The next day I made it to Zwickau after a long detour around an imposing wall of highway construction.  In Zwickau I rested for a couple days and met up with my dad, who was taking a vacation from his well paying and hellish 70 hour a week computer job to bike with me for ten days on my way to Ukraine.  I had decided to stay in Ukraine for the winter because I had a free place to live and would not have to worry about sleeping on the streets.  My slavophile mother was working there at the time, and had room for me.  So, I abruptly lost my rugged independence. How much cooler would I be if I biked the whole way to Ukraine by myself, and found some squat with pirated electricity to keep me through the Russian winter, no mention of embarrassing things like parents?  And have you noticed how the heroes in bildungsroman fantasy stories are always orphans?

An interesting distinction I was soon to notice: in Western Europe I hardly ever met the parents of anarchists I otherwise got to know quite well.  Just like in the US, anarchists made their families disappear in favor of an independent lifestyle, and parents were decidedly uncool.  But in the East, people found ways to balance their lives of rebellion with their family lives.  Sometimes it seemed they had to; economically speaking it was often impossible to move into apartments of their own, so many still lived with their parents.  Perhaps this even had some benefits, giving them practice at explaining and presenting their beliefs to people who did not share them.

So there I was, travelling with my dad for a bit, trying my best to get over my silly embarrassment, and also missing the freedom of scraping by for free and the ability to decide how I travelled.  But there were plenty of bonuses for my epicurean side: since my dad was past his years of sleeping on the ground and I couldn’t afford to travel the way he did, he payed my fare.  Weighing all the factors, I prefer my way of travelling, and I would prefer it even if money grew on trees and it weren’t necessary to work 70 hours a week to travel in luxury.  However, I’d be lying if I pretended that I didn’t enjoy living it up a little while travelling through the region with the best beer in the world, and damn good food to go with it.  In Zwickau my dad insisted on taking us to the city’s brewery, which I do hope becomes collectivized rather than burnt down when the revolution comes, because it would be a shame if only people with money ever got to enjoy those beers.

My favorite part of the city was east of the center, at the convergence of four walls. The first and oldest of these walls was the Mulde, Zwickau’s river. Central European cities identify strongly with their rivers, a welcome relief from the SimCity landscape of the US.  Rivers can be natural barriers, separating societies and eventually causing enough divergence to create new languages and cultures.  But they can also facilitate transportation or spread a common identity.  As barriers they are natural, organic, and fluid.  The people on either side are allowed to negotiate their own relationship with the river.

The next of these walls, dated to 1408, were the Pulverturm and Stadtmauer: still standing segments of the massive battlements that once surrounded the entire city, testament to the constant warfare of the time as minor polities conquered one another and grew, scrambling towards the State’s vision of peace in which all power is centralized under one Authority and everyone is subjected to a single system.  The third wall comes from a time when the only thing standing in the way of peace was the competition between the two remaining state powers in the world. It is just inside the old Stadtmauer: a solid line of homogeneous apartment blocks, symbolizing the old Soviet satellites, more for their humourless and authoritarian aesthetic than for their relatively universal housing rights.  And the final wall is the unassuming fence sealing off the area around the river, where construction crews work ceaselessly to upgrade a highway. For me this has come to symbolize the advance of the European Union into the East, and really neoliberalism in general: raising a destructive ideal of the “standard of living”; speeding the transportation of resources and manufactures from the new internal colonies to wealthy consumers in the West; and slowly expanding the heavily fortified borders to absorb more “underdeveloped” countries into this suicidal machine.

HorniBlatna4

Coming down Horní Blatná

Sobota, 16 Září

Having crossed the Erz mountains at Horní Blatná, we were now in Čechy—Czechia, or the Czech Republic if we insist on following tradition and conflating the country with its government.  Whispering rivers traced gentle contours like the fingers of a lover over the broad shoulders of forested mountains that stretched to forever.  We ended the second day since leaving Zwickau in Horšovsky Tyn, where I washed my pants for the first time in three months.  I should have known better.  It was the grease holding them together.  No sooner had the scourge of cleanliness been visited upon them than a worn spot on the rear I hadn’t the time to patch up in Groningen burst forth with several promising holes.  Alas! my only pair.

In Čechy, we frequently passed gravestones along the road put up for people who died in traffic accidents.  Well, just after Kašperské Hory, I believe that translates to Kasper’s Mountains, I had to pee real bad.  But I had a good rhythm going and didn’t want to stop biking.  So I’m in the woods, quiet mountain road, nobody coming, coasting down a gentle slope, peeing off the side of my bike.  Ultimately, and you can see coming due to my obvious narrative structure what I could not due to the day’s dozen distracting concerns, I accidentally pissed on somebody’s grave.  The grave of a small child, I think.  I’m a bad, bad American.

Map3Czechia

Ponděli, the 18th

My dad had already left Vimperk. He preferred to bike in the cold mornings, whereas I liked to bike through without breaks, so I would catch up to him before lunch. So I spent the early morning exploring Vimperk’s castle. Here as elsewhere, the oldest and tallest structures that tower over the rest of the town were the churches and the castle, the symbols of moral and political authority, the architecture of each still holding high some of the terror they were meant to inspire.  There were no museums for the rest of the bygone society—the objects of that authority—but their descendants still lived here, mixing concrete on the high road, tending a garden under the castle wall, selling postcards in the giftshop.  The little houses that huddled under the twin towers of God and State were still inhabited, but today’s forms of control were different: the church and castle were empty.  Whoever inherited those institutions was out of sight, removed from the rage of the mob that any day might finally coalesce and storm up the hill, torches and pitchforks in hand.

And the threat of this twin authority is intangible—it stares out the eyes of shop-window mannequins and comes in with the radio waves.  Some things have gotten harder.  Others have hardly changed.  Under feudalism the peasants often had to work four or five days on the lands of the lord, and only had a day or two for themselves.  Today it’s not uncommon for people to lose 80% or more of their income to the mortgage or rent, car loans, health insurance if they have it, and taxes.  Voila: progress.

Perhaps less has changed than we think.  The simple pleasures of life also seem timeless.  By a mountaintop village before Prachatice, a shawl-wrapped old woman sits in her yard reading a book, with her goats and her chickens.  Nothing else matters but the story she is reading and the contented clucking of the birds around her feet.  When I see her I think she has been there forever.

On the 20th the rain clouds that had gathered over Česky Krumlov dissipated and we had another day of gorgeous weather for biking, which we did all the way to Slavonice, just north of the Austrian border.  Around this time we crossed the continental divide, and where before all the little streams had flowed into the river known here as the Vlatava and farther down as the Elbe, through Hamburg into the North Sea, now they were flowing through the Danube into the Black Sea, thousands of kilometers in the other direction.  It’s not the only crossing that occurred that day.  Going up the second to last hill of the day, right in front of me, I saw a chicken cross the road.  And she really did act like she needed to get to the other side.  Now my life is complete.

Vimperk3

Pátek, 22 Září

Speeding down highway 430 from Brno to Vyškov.  On my right, potholes, gravel, and warps in the asphalt threaten to throw me down into the ditch.  On my left, freight trucks whiz by an inch past my ear.  What’s that in centimeters?  Diarrhea is an awful mix with biking.  Three days running and aside from damned uncomfortable I’m dehydrated and drained.  Furious thoughts are my fuel down this hellish road.  My dad’s some half an hour behind me.  Our communication has been strained, and the worst of it is that I can notice in myself all the things I don’t like about him. Biking across a continent gives you plenty of time for regret, if that’s where your mind’s at. I’m fuming at the weaknesses of bad friends back home, and pissed at myself for not being more like the few true friends I’ve held onto.  Embarrassed by surfacing memories of the dumb things I’ve done over the years, disgusted with society for stupidly buying the transparent lies that are poisoning the whole world.  I’m pedaling as fast as my spindly legs can on this narrow strip of road between failure and oblivion.

Is it too late for us?  Are we cursed to rebuild the prisons we were born into?  It’s hard to believe in something better and hard to hold ourselves to the ideals we believe in when fucking up is so damn easy.  There’s so much ugliness in this world, like trucks racing down highways, belching out tarry smoke to deliver crates that might as well be filled with old news for all it would matter to the driver, the road-builders, or me.  Forgetting the magic of mountains I had ridden through in the previous days, or the promise of new discoveries for which I was bound, I might as well be commuting down this ugly highway.  If we are to be judged for all the potentials we do not live up to, we are doomed, and we deserve it.

On the roadside a burst of tender blue catches my eye.  A weed, a wildflower, chicory, digging its bitter root through the surly gravel to seek out and suck up the slightest drop of anything that could be treasured, and from this treasure sending forth a tough spine of green at the top of which, finally, blossoms the azure petals that comfort my lonely eye.  I think of all the ways my father has tried to escape the legacy given to him, and wonder if I’ll fare any better.  In the end, we are all responsible for reproducing this world of slavery and abuse, submission and poison.  Every day we put on our manacles and if someone steps out of line we hand the overseer the whip.  A few bear a greater share of the responsibility, and we will make them answer for it if we ever get the chance, but in the struggle to put one foot in front of the other amid all this ugliness, the hardest thing is to forgive one another, love ourselves, and know we deserve something better.

On the 23rd, the sun crossed into the southern hemisphere.  Fall had begun, and at Horní Lideč we crossed the border into Slovakia.  The Biele Karpaty—White Carpathians, are steep, forested dark green, crowned with bare rocks.  Here and there decaying castles are part of the geology.  Families of farmers, peasants even, were out in the sun harvesting potatoes and apples by hand, and pushing plows, or at most riding small tractors.  Gone were the deserted, monocrop fields of the West, with  metal signs bearing the logo of the seed-patenting corporations standing in the place where the scarecrows used to be.  The houses on the hillside accompanied small fields sectioned into orchards, pastures, and rows of a dozen different vegetables.  In small towns people were building their own houses or working in sawmills.  From Puchov the road followed the Vah, a deep blue river wresting a wide valley of serenity from the wild mountains.

Another two days of biking got us through Poprad and past a village called Podhradie, “under the castle.”  From a distance, the village seemed to still exist in the 15th century.  On a large hill above the town, built into the rock, stood an immense castle at least 600 years old, with its towers and walls still standing.  Bails of hay awaited collection in the fields around the battlements.  The last ten kilometers into Prešov were less idyllic.  The road passed through a wasteland of superhighway construction, again courtesy of the EU.  It was no doubt appreciated by the dispossessed and besooted locals, because in a modern economy such projects of desperate carnage always bring with them that magic snake oil, “jobs,” which are in short supply here since control of employment was given over to the Free Market.

After a day of rest in Prešov, my dad unexpectedly had to bike 30km to Košice to catch the train back to Germany, and his eventual flight back to the States.  They had closed the train line here after the discovery of an unexploded bomb from the War.  But we didn’t know this at the time.  The people at the station just sealed their faces and shook their heads, as though Košice was a relative who had been hustled off to jail for some unspeakable crime.  So my dad jumped back on his bike, we said our hurried goodbyes, “see you in a year,” and off he went.

On the 28th  I was on my own again, heading back north, through Svednik, across the border into Poland.  The leaves were falling off the trees, and I was rushing towards my winter home.  In Miescje Piastowe a one-eyed butcher shook my hand when he found out I was biking across Europe.  The teenagers on the corner looked me over with suspicion.

Roads-2

Anarchists and fascists were fighting an intense graffiti war on the walls of Sanok.  Unfortunately, the fascists were winning by a landslide.  Since East Germany, I had had to read the writing on the walls, keeping an eye out for fascist graffiti, especially when looking for safe spaces to sleep.  Around the end of the Cold War, neonazi and fascist movements had exploded in Germany and spread east.  Nazis killed dozens of immigrants and many Roma, even carrying out full scale pogroms in Rostock and elsewhere.  The antifascist movement grew out of the need for self-defense and a popular disgust that the fascists were back.  The “antifas” were a diverse group.  There were the antifascist skinheads, derived from the skinhead movement in the UK, which was originally a phenomenon of working-class youth of color before whites started mimicking the style and then nazis started corrupting the scene.  Nowadays the antifa skinhead scene is largely comprised of street gangs who fight back against nazi attempts to dominate a certain music scene.  Sadly, there is no shortage of these groups that lack political content and revel in machismo and homophobia, though they may be on the frontline in the fight against fascists.

There are many types of antifascists besides the skinheads, that unify along a socialist or anarchist politics instead of unifying along a music culture that may or may not include a political content.  Basically, antifascism in Germany and some other countries is a major, unifying movement, so groups that are involved in other political projects, be they of an anarchist or Marxist nature, also participate.  One of the strangest strains of these are the anti-Deutschen, who believe that Germany has a special status as the most despicable of nations for perpetuating what they see as the worst atrocity in history—the Holocaust.  Thus, Germany needs to be destroyed as a nation, Israel needs to be supported, the Palestinians are bad because some of them use anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the US is great because it supports Israel.  You can imagine there’s some bad blood between them and the other factions.

Immigrant communities also carry out antifascist actions, and were one of the first groups to fight back, even killing a number of nazis in earlier years.  Ramor Ryan’s account of the movement in Berlin shows that in past decades immigrant antifascists and ethnic German antifascists mixed and fought side by side in hotspots like Kreuzberg; but all the antifascist groups and protests that I saw from Nederland to Russia were segregated and overwhelmingly white.

This paradox highlighted one of the gravest weaknesses I noticed in European anarchist movements: a generalized misunderstanding and minimization of race.  Nearly the only forms of racism I heard mentioned were xenophobia and white pride—personal attitudes held by backwards individuals.  Race wasn’t seen as a social structure or an oppressive system that sometimes trumps class; it was just a random fabrication used to mask capitalism.  Many white anarchists in the US also hold this view, but throughout Europe the blindspot seemed to be broader and more general.  I hardly came across any deeper critiques or analyses of race, and I don’t recall a single anarchist bookstore or library, out of all the ones I visited, that had a section on race.  If there had been one, it would have been filled with translations from the US. This is not surprising: Europe was able to externalize its racism through colonialism, while the US had to brutally hold together conflicting populations as a society that was built from the very beginning on slavery and immigration.

On a more bizarre note, it struck me that people in Europe had not yet realized it’s not okay to make fun of Asian people.  It’s a hefty generalization to make, but all across the continent, and coming from popular stand-up comics or committed, intelligent anarchists, I heard time and again the same jokes, enjoyed by everyone around but me, mocking the sound of Chinese (which they could not distinguish from Japanese or Korean) or joking about differently shaped eyes.  I questioned a few people about this and received the earnest explanation that these jokes were not racist, they were funny.  And it almost was funny, how ridiculous and nearly universal this blindspot was. On the plus side, white European radicals are generally lacking in the Puritan guilt and obsession with privilege that tend to sabotage US attempts to address problems of race.

Color blindness or no, the commitment of the antifascists to fighting the more obvious forms of racism was not to be minimized. In the former Soviet bloc, nazis were multiplying like rabbits, and regularly killing immigrants and leftwing activists. Antifascist combatants fought back against this directly.

When I saw the walls of Sanok, I knew I had to find a good hiding place to sleep for the night. Fascist graffiti was everywhere. They also had the resources to make thousands of stickers, many of them encouraging fear and violence towards queer people. One common sticker showed “pedophiles” chasing small children alongside a message about protecting Poland.  Polish fascism is well connected to the political mainstream, and bolstered by the fundamentalist Catholic resurgence.  These incarnations of nationalism have received US government support before and since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and there has also been a good working relationship between the CIA and the Vatican.  The CIA’s predecessor worked with the Holy See to smuggle out Nazis who would be useful for the US Cold War machine, including founding figures in NASA and the CIA itself. And there are allegations of CIA involvement in the Vatican’s election of the Polish pope who played an underappreciated role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

As an outsider who didn’t know any of the few anarchists standing up to the nazis in Sanok (though I would later meet one in Barcelona), there was little I could do. But as long as no one saw me, it couldn’t hurt to scribble over the stickers and leave anarchist and antifascist graffiti on some walls and park benches. I hadn’t brought along my paint markers for nothing.

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