Hi, I'm Lee. I'm currently walking from Madrid, Spain to Kiev, Ukraine on foot. Click here to learn why.
And so: Germany.
Of all the towns I've been through, Bad Bentheim has to be the best-named. No contest, really. "Bad" only means "bath", but I prefer to imagine that I'm willingly posting from some town so rough and tough that the roadsigns are obliged to warn off unsuspecting travelers.
My reception into Deutschland was the warmest of any of the countries I've yet walked into. In Gildehaus, the first village I found, I stopped to take dinner at a tavern called the Grafschafter Bahnhof. "Give me something good and German," I told them. "Something with meat, and a beer. Doesn't matter what."
This they did, and soon enough the owner, Holger, asked what I was doing in Gildehaus. I told him I was here because of a German, Werner Herzog, and I explained my purpose. The man was bowled over. "We must inform the press!" he said.
He called a reporter he knew for the village newspaper. The reporter agreed to come, but only after the football match between Germany and Columbia had finished, natch.
I finished my dinner and paid my compliments to the chef, Ilona, whom Holger is fortunate enough to also call his wife. The reporter came and I told my story. "We are also sponsoring your trip", said Holger. "The dinner and all the beers you like are on the house."
To put the cherry on top, I also met a businessman called Gert and his wife Petra; they gave me a room in their home for the night. "What you are doing was my dream when I was your age," Gert told me. Next morning, he gave me a lovely wristwatch manufactured by his own company and enough cash to eat well for a week.
And this is what I've discovered while walking: if you give people a chance to help you, most of them will. It isn't begging. It's presenting yourself as a person who could use some generosity, and then taking it gratefully.
Before I left for this trip, many people warned me against thieves and thugs. I've met none of them yet, knock wood. But even if I do, it won't change the fact that this walk has shown more kindness than I've seen in all my life. From the massive funds given me by my Fellow Travelers worldwide, to the little encounters -- like the teenage girls who last week saw me walking and caught up with me down the road to give me a beer, nicked from Dad's fridge -- it's been gravy.
And I was grateful for last night, because it rained on me for all or part of every day in Holland. When the sun did come out, it was for twenty minutes at a time, just long enough to bake me alive in my waterproofs. When I succumbed to the temptation of stripping off these layers, the rain would punish me by coming back at double strength.
"It's not usually like this here!" is what everyone told me. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, and be thankful for two Dutch treats: the stroopwaffel, pictured above, and the Uitsmijter, pictured below.
The stroopwaffel is a heavy little snack, two waffles joined together by gluey syrup. "Uit smijter!" is what you yell to someone who gets thrown out of a bar for being drunk and disorderly. What this has to do with an arrangement of eggs, ham, bread, cheese and vegetables nobody could tell me.
I enjoy food more now than I did before. In my civilian life, I ate only to live. I was like Henry David Thoreau who, when asked what his favorite meal was, said "the nearest."
You may imagine that now, with wind and rain and muscle aches, sometimes a good meal is all I have to look forward to each day.
I won't lie: I'm lonely out here. It's only now starting to settle in, like damp into an arthritic's bones. I almost never see the same person two days in a row. And I've never gone this long without seeing someone I love, or someone I could really call a friend.
As I walk, I carry out imaginary conversations with people I know in my head. I talk and imagine your responses. We joke together. You advise and counsel me.
If you know me and are wondering whether you've been in one of my imaginary conversations, then you probably have been.
So these strangers, then, are my one-day friends. Like Benny, the trucker I met and wrote about in the South of France, who welcomed me into his home in Holland when I called the number he'd given me. Or Boris, who cooked me eggs laid by his own chickens who ran around the yard with the goats, circling us as we ate.
And the hundreds who gave me conversation, a bit of friendly advice, who told me a dirty joke or when to turn left. The hundreds who let me photograph their faces, hundreds of faces belonging to people whose stories I'll never have the time to share with you on this journal. A smattering:
Those with better access to maps than me tell me that where I am now is almost exactly equidistant from Madrid and Kiev.
I'm halfway home.
Last week I told you my budget was thinning, and my thanks to those of you who responded to become my newest Fellow Travelers: Geoffrey Balasoglou, Carla Hills, Mia Bass, Raymond Bedalow, Joan Bedalow, Beverly Hoffman, Gary Lemons, Lisa Lucas, Sebastian Neumayer, Cassandra McGovern, Nicholas Nelson, and Todd Strong. You've all helped me so much.
I'm really scrooging it now, camping almost every night. I usually don't even bother with camp grounds here, which are almost as cramped and depressing as American trailer parks and whose owners sometimes charge dear prices for a patch of ground. ("I sell memories," one proprietor told me. "When the people go home, what do they remember? They remember the great outdoors, and the jet-skis with the -- how you say -- water cannons.")
So farmer's fields serve me well. You have to find ones that are empty of cows and horses, and even then you must be careful that the barbed wire fence you may have to scale isn't electrified. This is something I learned the hard way.
Whether I'll be caught out by some farmer and be forced to bale hay to pay my bill is something we may discover in the as-yet-unwritten second half of my story, the story of what happens to an ordinary man who decides to travel on foot.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and micro-waved my feet inside their thick socks and waterproof boots, creating a kind of sweaty soup which rubbed-raw the skin on my toes and left them bleeding and ouchy.
You don't want to see the unbandaged version of that photo.
I´ve at last bought more shoes. Trekking sandals, to be precise. I haven't worn sandals since I was ten or so. I walk around feeling somewhere between apostolic and touristy.
The World Cup is on, and my social barometer indicates the atmosphere is festive. I watched the opening game between Germany and Costa Rica on the big screen in the town square of Minden, or perhaps it's more accurate to say I watched the locals watching the game. Airhorns, beers, pretzels, flags. A man who moved through the crowd with a black-red-yellow striped paint stick, christening people's faces and both of my arms with Deutschland's colors.
The hullaballoo around the games hold far more interest for me than the games themselves. But Minden's little fete won't be much compared to what goes on tonight in Hannover, when Italy plays Ghana in the stadium here. I'll be hanging around the battle zone, camera in hand.
I could use some excitement, because the last two days bored me to tears. I walked along the Mitteland Kanal for sixty kilometers. Safe and direct, sure, but also absent of almost any human interactions, save for brief hellos to passing cyclists and people tanning themselves on top of boats. Yesterday I walked from morning till nearly 5pm without finding a place to eat or refill my water bottle. It's back to the roads for me.
Before that, the Hollywood Hell Drivers provided the highlight of my week. This is a touring show that brings American-style daredevil driving and monster-truck action to small towns across Germany. The drivers execute hairpin turns and ramp jumps while the German announcer yells "Super!" a lot.
I hope the daytime crowd of 70 or so people was enough to cover the costs of the cars they crushed.
And there was also Stefan, a young man whom I met in Melle when I asked him for directions to Bruchmulen. "I'll go with you", he said. "But it's seven kilometers away," I said. "I don't care," he said, "I don´t have a job and as you can see, I'm getting pretty fat."
So he walked with me for an hour or so, chain-smoking and talking of his obsessions: politics, death, vintage cars. "In Germany they are replacing all the workers with robots," he told me, "But this plan has a flaw. A robot may build a bicycle or a car, but a robot cannot buy a bicycle or a car. The companies will see."
I found a flat and grassy field to camp in, so I set up my tent and bid Stefan goodbye. He walked back home in the moonlight. It was nice to have some company for a change.
There was once exception to the boredom of the canal walk, though. I found these elderly folks sitting in the grass, holding an improvised church service with hymns sung to mandolin accompaniment. I filmed them, stunned a little by the surreality of it.
Irena, pictured seated above, invited me to her house. "I cook for you," she said. I accepted.
Irena told me her story as she peeled potatoes. At age five she was found by soldiers in the street at the end of the war. Her family was gone, and Irena doesn't know how or why -- whether killed or displaced or separated in the chaos of fighting, they were gone. "I knew my first name but not my last," she told me. "I never saw my family again. I know I had six siblings and a mother and a father, but I have never been able to find them again or even to find out who they were."
She spent some years in an orphanage, and then nine years in a hospital, stricken with polio.
I guess it isn't hard to see why, after a life like that, Irena took kindly to one particular straggler and adopted him for an afternoon.
I should get going. There's much left to see here, a land where cigarettes are sold from vending machines outdoors in suburban streets, where new gas-stations are opened with twenty-foot-tall metallic-men sculptures standing by them, where moustaches are still very much in fashion.
My thanks to the newest Fellow Travelers: Michael Kaliski, Roxanna Espoz, Amy Fabus, Stephen Iwanski, Telly T. Koosis, Dick Burgess, and a donation on behalf of Richard Morasci's ESL 147 class at Foothill College.
I've had some stress this week, discussion of which falls outside the rubric of this web journal. Sometimes the immensity of how much I have left to walk weighs on me. Back when I was in school or working an office job, I always found Wednesdays harder than Mondays, for similar reasons.
Subject: Able was I, ere I saw Elba.
A long overdue hallo and guten tag from Nowhere Special, Germany.
I had a good few days in Hannover, the most lively city I'd been to since Brussels. I was the guest of Tobias Beyer and his girlfriend Cristina, who were cool about me sleeping on their couch.
The city was flush with foreigners for the Italy-Ghana match on Monday and the Mexico-Angola game later in the week. There was no getting into the stadium itself, and even the public-viewing area with the giant TV screen was too packed to get into during the game. So we moved around the city, watched it elsewhere. I had ample opportunity to film festive crowds, painted faces, mariachi bands, chanting Angolans, boastful Ghanans, politely clapping South Koreans.
World Cup Football is the last public forum in which out-and-out nationalism is acceptably flaunted. It's mostly in good fun, but sometimes makes me a little uneasy to be around. I know history's history, but you'll forgive me if I feel out of place standing in a crowd of Germans who're rythmnically screaming "Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!" to celebrate a victory over Poland.
And it's been a long walk of Nebraskas since Hannover. Other than Wolfsburgh, the home of Volkswagen, it's been small village after smaller village, places so quiet after nightfall that they scare me.
It isn't helping my loneliness, which hasn't really left since I first started feeling it this month. Sometimes when I'm near civilization I hang around too long, desperate for people to talk to, faces to look at. Something other than than big, empty fields.
Last weekend, for instance, I walked through the village of Sophiental and a man came out of his house and asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I accepted, and went in to meet Karlheinz, Christa, their daughter Weibka and kindly grandmother. It shows how starved I am for companionship that I ended up staying the rest of the evening, although I hadn't made nearly my self-set distance goal for the day.
Karl-Heinz gave me some little chocolate-covered marshmallows. "They used to call these Negro kisses," he said. "But now many immigrants come to Germany, and this is unacceptable. Now they call them 'choko-kisses'. This is globalization."
Later that night, Karl-Heinz even showed me his skills on the accordion:
I figure these stops are better than some I've taken lately when, tired out by the sun and desolation, I lay by the roadside and stare up at the sky for thirty minutes or more. I keep thinking of Samuel Beckett's famous words: "I can't go on. I'll go on."
I am now into what used to be East Germany, and it feels different here. For one, English is less spoken, so I find myself using the German language as a two-year-old plays with blocks. German has none of the attractive sonorousness of French, in which even saying "I don't know what" has a certain je ne sais qua to it. But I can, at least, ask for directions and order eggs on toast. And I love that their word for "city hall", where elected officials do work, is "rathaus". A happy if accidental cognate.
For another, folks here seem suspicious of strangers. This was confirmed for me when I stopped in Dorst and found a large family gathered for a backyard birthday party. I asked for directions to the footpath through the forest to the next village. From the way they looked at me, you'd think I carried a severed head under my arm.
I'm talking about the older people. The teenagers and twenty-somethings took an interest in me, even gave me food and went with me to find the road. One guy called Frank explained to me: "My family has angst of you. The man of my aunt, he is a policeman, a very experienced policeman. He does not believe your story of tramping across Europe. He says you look too beautiful."
"Too beautiful?" I asked him.
"Your face and hair don't have enough dirt on them. He says you're not a tramper, he says you're a cheater, a gangster."
Still, there's good people everywhere. Pictured above is a woman who never told me her name. I stopped by her house to ask for water, and an hour later she came down the road in her car to give me some sandwiches and more water and hard-boiled eggs. She was a little embarrased to be photographed in her house clothes, but I think she looks lovely.
I took that food and sat at a picnic table in a nearby park. Mid-lunch, thirty or forty little kids came pouring out of the building next door, yelling and surrounding me. It wasn't a park at all, but rather the playground of a primary school. I was embarrased, but the teachers let me finish in peace as the seven-year olds talked indescipherably to me and made faces at my camera.
The farmers whose fields I camp in every night couldn't care less about my night-time invasions. Sometimes I wake up and find a farmer driving a tractor around the field, taking care to avoid me. I get out of my tent and wave in apology. They go on ignoring me, usally. Once, the guy invited me in for a bowl of cereal.
I've had one major equipment failure, though. One of the metal spires from my backpack's frame has busted through the bag's canvas and now sticks straight up out of the top. Even mighty duct tape can't keep it in. The bag isn't supporting the weight like it once was, so in this case I think ending is better than mending. I'll be in the market for a new one once I get to Berlin.
The little roadside memorials to people killed in car crashes always make me sad, with their crossses and flowers and teddy bears, and the hand-written "goodbye" letters. They also remind me to be very careful.
Reading through some emails now. My kid sister Faith worries that the imaginary conversations I wrote about mean I've turned schizophrenic.
And then there's these encouraging words, from Nick Tyrone: "Ultimately, this was about you setting yourself a ridiculously hard task and achieving it. And man, you're about two thirds of the way there. That's incredible. That's something to be proud of.
"It was brought home for me this month when I sat down to watch Spain vs. Ukraine in the World Cup. It hadn't even dawned on me the connection to your project (amazingly enough) until about ten minutes in, when the commentator started going on about how far Madrid was from Kiev. I'm paraphrasing here but, 'Two nations at either end of Europe. Almost three thousand miles seperates their two respective capitals and perhaps that accounts for the low turn out here today.' In other words, Germany is too far away from either Spain or the Ukraine to be bothered travelling there for the game."
So that's all for now. I will post again from Berlin, where I plan on spending a few days.
I apologize to those of you who've tried subscribing to my email newsletter. The service, FeedBlitz, has never worked for my site, and their tech support department has actually stopped replying to my emails asking them to fix it. I could send update emails manually from the list it's gathered, but I don't usually have time for this. In the meantime, if you have a website I don't recommend using FeedBlitz. They're bumbling fools.
My sincere thanks to my newest Fellow Travelers: John Zielinski, Laurie Zielinksi, Richard Harrison, Mark M., Leah Drennan, Joah Iannotta, and the Wilson family: Dave, Joanne, Matt and Brittany. Also, further support from Paul Cronin. Your donations ensure that money is one less thing I have to worry about as I walk. Thank you so much.
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Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video all rights reserved, etc. etc.
Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video
all rights reserved, etc. etc.