22-27th July 2012
Berlin is vegan heaven. Nomadic Pete and I hitchhike there from Cologne and all I can think about the whole way is Yoyo’s pizza, Yellow Sunshine burgers and vegan ice-cream.
On the way we stop at a gas station to hitch another ride. While our driver unloads our bags I approach a man standing by his car – “Excuse me, do you drive towards Berlin?” He does, but he doesn’t have space for us. The back-door of the car bursts open and a familiar face pops out – “Jo!” It’s Theo, from the Hitchgathering in Bulgaria last year – the guy I almost travelled with in Turkey. “He hasn’t got any space because we’re here!” Theo indicates his girlfriend who is sharing the back seat. The driver who has just dropped us off and Theo’s driver are speechless – what are the chances? But it gets better, Theo is on his way to “A Flat”, Lisa and Clemens’ nomad base in Berlin, which is exactly where Pete and I plan on staying.
A nomad base is basically a house or flat that’s open to long-term travellers. They run on voluntary donations, meaning people give what they can, when they can. Everyone is considered a host, nobody a guest. Each should play their part in keeping the house clean, cooking communally and sharing what they can.
On the night we arrive there are 19 people sleeping in the one-bedroom flat. Lisa and Clemens sleep in the bedroom and everyone else sleeps in the lounge, on the small balcony and wherever else they can. Pete, Jasper and I lay out our mats on the kitchen floor. Apparently, this is normal.
Th following day, Pete and I go to visit his old university friend Dominic, who works at The Jewish Museum. He not only gives us his bedroom, moving out that very night to his girlfriend’s place across town, but he also gives us a free, private (anarchist!) tour of the Jewish Museum.
I have another friend in Berlin – Stefan, the guy who gave me and Lisa a lift there last time we hitched together. Stefan is my very favourite hitching ride, the only one I now consider a friend, and certainly the only one to come on a demonstration with me! Of course he is reading this, so I have to get a good word in so he and his lovely friend Klaus will host me again next time I come to Berlin, and Klaus will feed me vegan deliciousness and let me doze on his balcony.
After dropping Pete at his hitching spot away from Berlin I have a very vivid dream while dozing on that balcony:
Pete and I are at the Polish border. It’s very dark. I think Stefan has driven us there. There are these giant steel steam trains and I consider getting on one, but it costs €70. They tell me I can pay €40 and just sit on the girders and hold on to the metal parts of the train, but that it won’t be a very comfortable ride. I decide to hitchhike. Pete and I are going separate ways – he home to Wales, I to Slovakia. We share a goodbye kiss and then I wake up on Klaus’ balcony with the trees rustling and the sunlight.
It feels like a real transition dream, because when I wake up, all of my UK friends have left Berlin and it’s time to think about moving on, and time to be alone again for a while.
13 – 22nd July, No Border Camp, Cologne
I get a lift to Cologne from Lille with three French activists. We arrive in the middle of the night and attempt to navigate our way through the city. Finally, we drive down a narrow road that follows the river and there, under a railway bridge on the bank of the Rhine, two circus tents and rows of identical white marquees come into view. A long freight train rumbles loudly across the bridge for several minutes. “Ohh, why can’t we ever camp anywhere nice for these things?”
What to write about Cologne?
Every No Border Camp I have ever been to (Gatwick, Calais, Brussels, Bulgaria), had it’s problems: at Gatwick it was noise and dogs; Calais, gender issues; Brussels, intense police violence and sexual harassment; Bulgaria, constant debates about levels of ‘spikiness’ and the Bulgarian context.
All I can say in way of explanation about Cologne is what I saw myself at the camp. I saw several pieces of paper taped to toilet doors, statements from various groups of people (“we, the migrants”, another signed by various people as “white male-ized person, white female-ized person”, etc.) Apparently this is the way we communicate with one another.
A group of people left the camp because there was no consensus on veganism. At least one person left after experiencing racism, leaving a note on a toilet door. The kitchen, bar and info tent went on strike in response to this. I tried and failed to find out what the experience was, who it was, whether or not the perpetrator was still onsite. Nobody knew.
At this camp I was pleased to see a greater diversity than I have ever seen before at a No Border Camp. At Calais there were many people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Africa, but they were there because “we” went to “their” space and made a camp happen. At Cologne there were people from all around the world who had come as activists, as part of the movement. Still, one of the most frequent criticisms I heard at the camp was that it was too white. Well, of course I hope we continue to grow in our diversity, however, let’s not forget that the camp was actually held in Germany, which has a large white majority.
I do not mean to silence allegations of racism within the movement. In a movement largely made up of privileged white people with little to no experience of racism, it would be absolutely a miracle if none of the patterns of behaviour they (we) have been taught our entire lives were not repeated to some extent. What matters to me is that we move forward in the right direction, learning to listen, accept mistakes and failures and learn from them. What seems counter-productive to me is the finger-pointing and trigger-happy political-correctness-policing that I personally witnessed at the camp, most of which seemed to stem from white guilt. It’s not that I don’t feel guilty for being white. I do. I’m sure everyone who has ever been to Calais feels the guilt of privilege. It’s just that I’m not under the illusion that the guilt, in itself, is productive.
Somebody dropped a banner off the side of the bridge above the camp. It read “No borders! No WHITE nation! Stop deportations!” Later, the word “WHITE” was covered over with another word, but I wasn’t able to read it.
A large board outside the Info Tent with the “we, the migrants” statement on it had “I am a migrant and I don’t agree with this” written on it in pen.
I saw one (white, male-ized, German) person speaking a lot about how the bar should not exist because people didn’t feel safe with it there. I saw many people from many different backgrounds drinking and socialising in the bar each night. I did not see anyone who was obviously drunk.
An ‘alternative plenum’ splintered off from the main site meetings and began making decisions independently. A large number of people at the camp were not aware of this, and the decisions were not published.
“Rumours” (most of which I heard from trusted sources) also began circulating that the camp itself had E.U. funding, that the organisers had negotiated and co-operated with the police to the extent that they were apparently willing to take masks off people in demonstrations, even if those people may have precarious legal status.
Despite all of this, some useful actions came out of the camp. I would like to report on three of them.
Dusseldorf Hunger Strike Solidarity
One positive thing to come out of the camp was the support of the Iranian hunger strikers outside a government building in Dusseldorf. Groups of activists went there each night, allowing the hunger strikers to sleep free from police harassment, which they have received constantly since beginning their demonstration.
Demonstration at the British Embassy
A demonstration took place outside the British Embassy in Dusseldorf in support of Tarik, an asylum seeker due to be deported from the UK. A small group of demonstrators, a samba band and a banner gathered outside the embassy for around two hours. The Ambassador came out to meet with two representatives from the group, agreed to send a message to the British Government in London and silenced a policeman who was interrupting and threatening a protester. The next day brought news that Tarik’s flight had been suspended, though this is likely due to continued campaigning from within the UK.
Demonstration at the French Consulate
The French consulate in Dusseldorf was occupied by 12 activists in solidarity with the friends and family of Noureddin Mohammed. The demand was for the French state to take his death seriously and provide a full investigation. The group inside sat in a circle, holding hands and singing until they were finally dragged out by riot police and arrested after three hours. A message had already been sent to France, but the group had decided to stay and wait for a response, which never came. A group of around thirty supporters and several hundred police were outside the building until the last arrestee had been taken, whereupon the police immediately filed out, drove all their cars and vans away and the protesters were accompanied halfway back to camp on the train with their own police escorts. All arrestees were released later that night.
A follow-up demonstration took place a few days later at the French Embassy in Berlin. There have also been demonstrations at French Embassies in London, Lille and Brussels. Demonstrations in Calais also continue.
I dream of a female friend with cancer, who shrinks and shrivels to a few centimetres wide. I pick her up and carry her around, weightless. It takes over a week to realise this is a dream about Dad.
Secretly, I shorten my plan further: just use the Iranian visa already in my passport, then head back overland to Dad. I could be two months, three max.
15th October, 2011
It’s 6:30pm and growing dark rapidly by the time I leave Brighton with “M25 East” scribbled on a piece of white cardboard. Still, Pawel has stopped before I’ve even reached my hitchhiking spot. He’s from Czech Republic and has hitched a lot himself, but he’s pretty impressed when I tell him I’m on my way to Iran. He takes me past his turning and drops me on a big lay-by on the A23. It’s now pitch black other than a barrage of white headlights rushing toward and past me. I try to adjust my facial expression from pure fear into happy hitchhiker.
Two lifts later I’m with a family. She used to hitch around Devon a lot; he’s travelled North Africa. We’re miles out of their way, but they insist on taking me all the way to Clacket Lane Services, where I arrive two hours early.
Finally, Lisa appears, grinning, wearing that silk scarf the woman gave her in Izmir what seems like aeons ago. She’s hitched down from Occupy London, just beginning today. “Why are we leaving now? It’s just starting to get interesting here!” she says as we march to the petrol station across the forecourt. Two huge trucks with IR number-plates grind to a halt in front of us: our lift has arrived. The rear truck’s door swings open and a man climbs down to hug Lisa. This is Peter, and this is the fourth time he’s taken Lisa over the Channel. Peter’s friend is John, another Irish trucker. The guys banter as they boil a kettle and make us tea. We get talked through an Irish sitcom – “Dya see that ther’? Thaht’s just exahctly what it’s loike in Ireland!” – while waiting to board the train.
At the Tunnel the little bus comes to collect us from the big train where we parked the trucks to the much smaller passenger carriage at the front. There are precisely three women on the train, including Lisa and myself.
Now in France, our eyes are drooping. Lisa and I climb up to the bed above the window and try to catch naps in the pauses between jolts and the radio banter between Peter and John.
We wake up in Belgium. We drink nuclear coffee from plastic cups in a service station disguised as a spaceship, mostly empty. Our heads nod involuntarily to 80s synth’ pop. Everything is surreal at 5am.
The sun lifts lazily from the horizon, perhaps as tired as me. Still nobody going our way. We have befriended an unlucky Bulgarian with a broken-down car. He’s been here all night too. We help push his car, but the ignition just won’t catch. It’s Sunday, everything’s closed and he’s skint. The woman working the counter is lovely. She traipses the aisles looking for out-of-date food to give us and calls her mechanic friend to help the Bulgarian. He’s having a bad week. He tells me he moved to Hannover in search of work, but like everywhere these days, there’s none to be found. He met a man who said he was also from Bulgaria and persuaded him to do a job: take four men over the Channel into England – only they weren’t really from Bulgaria, but Albania. Their ID was faked. He was charged with trafficking and spent twenty-four hours in jail. Eventually they released him, but without payment for the job he can’t afford to get home.
The cashier woman’s friend gets the car started and now the Bulgarian just needs petrol money. Our choice is this: leave him here, donate some money, or go with him to Hannover and loan the cash until we get there, when his friend can pay us back.
It’s early afternoon when we reach Hannover. We wait a long time for the friend, but finally a cheeky young chap with an East-European swagger arrives and climbs in the front of the car – his car, actually. He hands me two €20 notes as he gets in: my loan repaid. We drive to meet more men with similar swaggers. One with a green-black tear-drop tattoo under his left eye smiles at us. “Zdrastei!” I tell them: my only Bulgarian – unless you count political slogans. They buy us coffee in a bar. “The car is broken-broken”, our friend tells us, “or I would drive you to Bulgaria.” Damn. They drive us to a service station on the road to Magdeburg instead. We’re going a very different route than expected.
Lisa and I have asked a lot of people where they’re going. As is frequent in service stations, a coach has arrived, making our task slightly more difficult. We ask two guys who say they’re going to Magdeburg, but have to speak to their driver. We watch them join the crowd outside the coach and sigh, but then they wave us over. Outside the coach, we’re surrounded by a small crowd. We feel a little like zoo exhibits, but climb onboard and accept bottles of beer, settling down to watch the surreal in-coach movie in German. “So, who are you people?” I ask the man. “We are like a choir”, he says, “but not exactly like a choir.” “Oh.”
Now we’re looking for a lift to Halle. Nobody’s going our way. It’s getting late. “How about if we just go to Berlin, eat Yellow Sunshine burgers and sleep in a proper bed at my friend’s house?” I only understand half of what Lisa just said, but it sounds like heaven. “Err, yeah!?”
Minutes later we’re with Stefan in his car, hurtling down the autobahn in the direction of Germany’s capital. Stefan will quickly become one of my favourite hitching lifts and will join us for dinner at Lisa’s friend’s house the following night. It’s nice to have a pit stop, and Yellow Sunshine burgers are pretty amazing, even if their fries are crappy.
A text message from Gill: Your dad is well, he’s very tired after a weeks’ worth of radiation therapy which is 2 b expected & he has a sore throat, but I don’t know if there is a connection. He has slowed up considerably but is just as belligerent! Will try 2 email u next sat. Take care.
A close friend of Lisa’s in Germany just broke up with her boyfriend. Lisa hitches to the South to be with her, while I carry on towards Turkey. Off-track and alone, my plans are suddenly thrown wide open. I can do anything I like. I decide to go to Prague, I’ve never been there before. I send two couch requests and am stunned to receive a text message an hour later, saying: Of course you can stay. I read your blog. You are my heroine!
Prague. I’m sitting in a main square watching crowds of tourists and horse-drawn carriages weave around one another. Narrow twisting cobbled streets spill off in all directions. Grand Gothic spires rise up behind tall narrow buildings decorated in what looks like gold leaf and cake icing. I sit on a bench beside a wizard and a small boy, not at all surprised to see them there.
Pavel is right about the hitching spot: I get a lift from the motorway slip-road in ten frosty minutes. The man is going to Brno: a great head-start. He doesn’t speak any English, so we mostly sit in silence. He makes one attempt to touch my hands and another my leg, both under the pretext of seeing how cold I am. When I get out he makes kissy-kissy noises as I shut the door in his face. I leave him in the car-park and go in search of Slovakian trucks.
At a service station on the outskirts of Budapest, my phone rings. It’s Gill. “Now, you don’t need to come back, but I thought you ought to know. He’s had another seizure. He’s in hospital. Can you hear me?” I don’t even know where exactly I am. A traffic jam is backing up alongside the service station, blocking off the entrance to all but the most persistent of motorists. A family of Roma musicians are inside eating dinner. They invite me to join them, offer a lift. But I’m going through Serbia, not Romania. I consider turning back. There’s an airport in Budapest – there isn’t one in Novi Sad, where my friend Aleksa lives. I wrap my coat tighter against the wind and peer through darkness at a truck just turning in. As he gets out, I paste a smile on my face – “Excuse me, speak English? Do you go to Szeged?” No, but he can put me on the right road. This guy knows all the back routes. He takes me out of the traffic jam, away down bumpy pot-holed roads.
Aleksa meets me at an abandoned truck stop on the outskirts of Novi Sad. He drives me home to his parents’ house, where I last stayed a year ago. We have plenty to catch up on, but I’ve hitched over 800km in one day, across three national borders. I’m pretty knackered.
My phone beeps in the morning as soon as I turn it on – Please call me urgently. My time with Aleksa largely consists of several hours on his internet hunting for flights.
I get the all-night train from Novi Sad back to Budapest. In my small carriage are a long-ginger-haired Polish guy I met on the platform and a man with small square glasses, light brown skin and a gently impassioned manner in whatever he’s explaining – “tourismy faschismy Serbski schmismay”, is how it sounds to me. There’s a feeling of warmth and intimacy in our carriage as we chug through darkened Serbia. The men quietly discuss and I write, somehow soothed by the incomprehension of their discussion.
In Budapest I take a taxi 22km to the airport. No flights for eight years, then two in a month. This time they have my vegan “meal”.
At Gatwick train station, my visa card declines. I have a spare card to an old account, but the pin eludes me. I call Gill. It’s an extra £50 to pay over the phone, making it £170 total. She says she doesn’t have her card with her. I pay the last of my English money to get to Victoria station, then Euston, messaging friends on the way: I need to find an open bank branch. A friend calls with directions to two. I run through streets, phone to ear – they’re both closed. The train leaves in ten minutes. I peg it through the station to the front of the ticket queue. The cashier tells me to get to the back. “My dad’s dying in Scotland! You have to help me! I have to get on that train!” She won’t let Mango pay over the phone at all – not even for £50 extra. He has to cycle to Manchester station and buy the ticket there under something called a ‘silk arrangement’ before tickets can be issued in London. I miss the train and pay 50p for the privilege of unrestrained sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Back at the queue, I wait for the man to call Manchester and arrange the tickets and realise I’ve left my backpack in the toilet. I run back – past the same people in the same queues, tears streaking my face. It’s still there. Breathe.
Another half hour to arrange the tickets. I almost miss another train. They charge Mango even more than the quote at Gatwick. Tanya and Eddie, on holiday on the Isle of Wight, somehow find an open bank branch within minutes and deposit money into my account. My friends are beautiful and I love every one of them. I am going to Glasgow.
The hospital is far. From Glasgow it’s another train on an obscure line, fifty minutes to the next one. My heart beats faster the closer I get to Dad. I get a different train on an adjacent track, jump off and into a taxi over the road. “Please hurry”, I tell him, “my dad is dying.” He nods.
Inverclyde Hospital looms dark on the horizon. It looks more like a Bond villain’s headquarters. Dad is sitting up in bed. “Ohh – you didn’t have to do this!” he says as I drop my pack by the door. Gill sits next to his bed, holding a bloated white hand. I hug my sister, nod at my brother. “Didn’t I?” He’s hooked up to a machine, dripping somebody else’s blood into him. His head looks like a peeled potato with glasses assembled on it by a five-year old. “Your father’s looking a lot better – a lot better – than he did yesterday”, says Gill.