Monday, March 30, 2009

I have spent my last few nights sleeping under a bridge

made it to Amsterdam.

This city has a lot to offer, for starters it is absolutely gorgeous. One of the best cities to just get lost in and explore. The streets are hills and bridges of cobblestone, twisting alongside an endless conduit of canals. House-boats line the edges of every street. Cyclists, vespas, and pedestrians zip over old bridges and through back alleys at every hour of day and night.

It rains here everyday. Puddles dance atop the cobblestone and capture romantic colours of diffused light; the kind of light only revealed through a filter of heavy slate clouds. I thoroughly love the viscous atmosphere, although I take pleasure in seeking out the first seldom rays of sun to occasionally grace my skin in the early day.

I literally have been sleeping under a bridge the past few nights. One of the best social spaces to ever be squatted in Amsterdam was opened last Saturday. It is called "Under the Bridge," and for good reason: I imagine that the vast majority of passers overhead have not the slightest clue that the space below their feet becomes alive every night with music of all kinds, masses of people, laughter, and good food. The bridge is enclosed by a modernest warehouse structure with massive walls of glass on each side; it is a bit like living in an aquarium, except most people cannot see in and we have a brilliant view of the harbor. It is prime real-estate, and if laws here are as pro-squatter as I hear, the space will not be evicted for quite some time. Every night there is voku (I am not sure if this is a colloquial term or not, I have heard it used in Germany as well. It is basically a vegan dinner ideally prepared from skipped food. Anyone is welcome to come and partake, but donations of a couple euro are strongly encouraged), and beer is only 50 cents a bottle. Any wall in the place is considered open canvass for spray paint, except one which is used to project presentations or films onto. On various nights there are lectures presented on a range of interesting subjects (from the origin of money and what it has become today, to securing online information, to forums on the Israel/Palestine conflict, etc..). There is a solid group of programmers and hackers that have been making good use of this space. Some of the work that they have demonstrated to me is very impressive; they are sure to be a great resource for learning more about coding, hacking, linux based systems, and various web design and animation skills.

I have also been spending time with another group of generous people who let me crash at their place my first few nights in Amsterdam. They are a wonderful group of people, all very optimistic about life. And they are fantastic cooks. I have spent quite a few mornings in their living room drinking tea and delving into various books in the house library.

...And to answer the question you all have been waiting for: Yes, the hash is quite good. Most of the coffeeshops are pretty lame though, filled almost exclusively with tourists and soon-to-be-frat-kids set to get stoned out of their skulls before going into the first year of college. I have stumbled upon a few coffeeshops that appear to have intelligent life inside, and are perhaps even worth checking out, if only for novelty's sake. Novelty which I imagine will wear off shortly as I spend more time getting to meet people here: most locals have either grown out of smoking... or simply started growing their own. Criticism aside, I can say that one of the best sunny days I have spent in Amsterdam started early one morning with a double shot of espresso and a banana-nut-hash muffin.

That is it for now. I have found another place to stay: with one of the friends I made in Copenhagen. It looks like I will be staying in Amsterdam for a little while, working on a website for the Copenhagen group among other things. So I will let you know how it goes, I just wish I had my bike here, that would be fantastic. Maybe I can pick one up somewhere temporarily. Anyway, cheers, I miss you all and will talk to you soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ah, the sweet smell of anarchy in the morning

Copenhagen has a HUGE active anarchist scene, as does Berlin. I spent my last week or so exploring some of the infoshops, social centers, and autonomous spaces that cover the city streets. Here are a few:

Goodbye EU, Hello Christiania:

Christiania is a completely autonomous town in the center of Copenhagen, basically a small self-governing community which, for lack of better terms, seceded from the rest of Denmark.

I spent my last couple of nights in Copenhagen at Umgdomshuset (translates literally to "youth house"):

Mention Umgdomshuset to anyone in copenhagen and expect extreme mixed reactions; love them or hate them, this place has one hell of a history and is worth checking out. Personally, I found the people here to be some of the nicest, most helpful, and most politically educated that I had found durring my stay in Denmark. This is a badass place, and an awseome resource for the youth culture here.

Folkets Hus is a great place in Copenhagen to have a cup of coffee or beer, have a Vegan dinner priced on sliding-scale/donation, play some kicker ("fuseball," extremely popular in denmark and germany. Every person here has mad skills at this game), and discover the local radical community:

I made a friend from Finland in Umgdomshuset my last morning there. We discovered we were each hitchhiking in the same direction and so decided to make the trip together. Her name is Laura and she is good people. We made it to Berlin and spent a few nights there with some friends of hers. I was able to borrow a bike (mine is still in Brussels), ride around to different design studios and art galleries, and just check out the city in general. I love Berlin, it is like a mini New york, but more colorful. The people we stayed with were all kinds of incredible, some of them even took me to the local climbing gym one evening.

Some other things we did in Berlin included attending an anti-fascist film documentary and an anti-fascist march (Nazism is still very prevelent in certain parts of the EU, and they frequently target activists, hence the massive backlash). We went to a gender-queer bar one night after climbing, and also a gender-queer disco preceded by a vegan dinner.

After Berlin, we Hitchhiked to Utrecht, A town in the Netherlands just south of Amsterdam. We have been staying in the oldest squat in Utrecht. The building was originally constructed in 1878, and has been squatted, I believe, for several decades. The people here are fantasic and are doing everything they can to preserve the building and maintain the original structure.

So yes, that is it for now. I am volunteering some of my time and design skills to the climate activist group based in Copenhagen, they have asked for any help they can get in regards to the design of their website. They have set me up with a place to stay and work in Amsterdam so I should be there for a little while and probably have more frequent access to the internet.

I promise, pictures are coming. Thanks for being patient, and thanks for reading. I miss you all!

(and sorry for typos, I will have to edit those when I am on a machine with English spell-check).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Kobenhavn" in sharpie on soggy cardboard

I had been in Bruxxels for two days at this point, and by eight o'clock in the evening I decided to finally head to the rendezvous point that we had all agreed upon. The directions consisted of a torn-up brown sheet of paper smaller than a business card: scribbled upon it was a triangle indicating three streets somewhere in Bruxxels, some railroad tracks, an orange shop as a landmark, and a blue door that I was supposed to find and walk into. Out of mere coincidence, I arrived at the blue door no longer than fifteen seconds before the squat mates from London spotted me. At this time, hugs were exchanged; then many of us not knowing what to expect of the place where we would spend our next five days, stepped through the blue portal. A few members of the group that we were staying with greeted us at the front entrance, we all shook hands with the twenty-somethings who spoke mostly french and continued inside to examine the space. We spent the next two hours picking our jaws up from the floor, discovering a new brilliant surprise around every corner.

The entire warehouse is two floors, each floor about three times the size of the Nth Gallery, or about a quarter Acre. The Ceiling in each is at least twenty feet high. The artist collective has been renting out this warehouse for three years in order to live and work. In that time they have each contributed enormous amounts of work to the space.

We immediately were lost on the first floor, as it had been transformed into a multi-level labyrinth and indoor treehouse. Sofas and lounge tables periodically scattered throughout each of the rooms, a bar was also present (this is where the collective invites bands to hold shows, bringing sometimes hundreds of people with them; our group actually came to help in preparation for one of these gigs) one massive geodesic dome constructed out of two-by-fours opens up to house two stages, and a dance floor surrounded by an amphitheater comprised of dumpstered sofas. Every inch of this labyrinth is literally covered with art made by the collective.

Once we found our way upstairs, we discovered the kitchen, living areas, bedrooms, and the main social room. The main social room is really just a huge open part of the warehouse. There are sofas about, a ping-pong table, instruments, and many of the residents are studying circus performers so a large part of the space is dedicated to juggling, diabolos, many unicycles, a slackline, rope acrobatics, trapeze, and general circus stuff. Naturally I felt at home.

By the way, the collective calls themselves Matarcar.

There were anywhere between 15 to 25 of us living in the warehouse at any one time, the place is so large you could often go for hours without seeing very many people. We spent the next few days cooking meals for one another, painting, getting to know one another, going out to shows, playing with all the cool circus stuff, watching films, and prepping for the show that would be held downstairs. All in all we had a fantastic time.

The show went off without a hitch, a post rock band called 52 Commercial Road came with the squatmates from London. I had the chance to meet them throughout the week, but they have been friends with the squatters for years (52 Commercial Road is actually the name of an old squat in London). There were a few other bands that played that evening, as well as our friend Tom (who lives with us in London) who did a solo act on acoustic guitar.

I did not stay up too late. Olli (also from the London squat) and I planned to hitchhike to Copenhagen the next day. Turns out we would need our sleep, we hitched nonstop for about 36 hours and met some very interesting people. One guy offered us 100.00 Euros after only knowing us for 15 minutes, drove us way out of his way to get us to a good spot, and then could not understand why we did not want to take his money. We eventually convinced him that we were trying to make the trip for free and he accepted the bill. One guy, who did not speak any english, dropped us at a random point on the autobahn at 2 a.m. Olli and I spent the next several hours walking very carefully back to town. The autobahn is crazy by the way, we went well over a hundred miles an hour in some places.

After a lot of cold rain, a lot of walking, a lot of work, and quite a few interesting characters we made it to Copenhagen only to find out that we were not allowed to crash at the residence we were expecting. Luckily another helpful lady kindly took us in (she is involved with the conference that Ollie and I came up here for). At midnight we crawled into bed and slept for the next 14 hours.

Ollie and I came to Copenhagen to begin involvement with an international group that is planning an action for COP 15. There are three days of meetings that we are attending, but also plan on seeing the city while we are here, and hopefully either find a lift back towards Bruxxels (I had to leave my bike in Bruxxels) or find another cool place to stay for a while. When I find out more about the conference and the action, and IF it is information that I am encouraged to share, then I will let you know. But for now just know that I have a warm place to sleep, food, I am meeting some really cool people, and we are planning something big.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Belgium Hearts Velos, I Heart Belgium!

I now have time to finish writing this post, so here is the new and unabridged version:

So I decided to postpone Paris and start riding towards Brussels instead. I had planned to meet some of the flatmates here today, on the sixth, and wanted to take my time traveling Belgium instead of riding through France and then rushing my trip up here to meet them. So here is how I managed to get from London to Brussels:

The first day of riding was entirely through english countryside with beautiful weather. I slept behind a pub right before entering Canterberry, they had a nice field back there and the owner said he would be more than happy to let me camp on the property. The next day I rode a bit slower and took my time walking the streets of Canterberry for a little while (Yes, the same as the one from The Canterberry Tales). There are plenty of old buildings, churches and ally-ways to get lost in here, It is one of my favorite towns that I have found in England. I have discovered that the best way to ride a bike on cobblestone is to try and hum a favorite tune while riding, it comes out all jarbled and fun.

I was able to make it all the way down to Dover and catch a ferry to Calais on the coast of France. I took a later ferry in order to stop into my last English pub for a while and share a pint with the locals in Dover. Consequently, I arrived in Calais a bit late and ended up sleeping behind a hotel, no one even noticed I was there. It was on a small patch of grass, tucked behind some trees: a small hide-away in the middle of the city. I didnt quite make it out of bed at sunrise, but about the time all of the owels decided to go to sleep that morning (there are a surprising amount of owels, or at least what sound like owels, in Calais).

I spent Saturday morning walking around Calais. I should have just kept riding, as I quickly grew board with the place, especially after experiencing Canterberry the day before. Calais kind of reminds me of the Jersey shore, except everyone speaks french. I left that afternoon for Dunkirque. I spent the night on some farmland there.

In London I spent a long time researching bicycle routes on the computer that would take me to Dover from London. I didn't have a map, but if I stayed sharp I could generally follow the route, losing track at somepoints but always finding my way back quite easily and without much detour at all. Once in France, I didn't have a map or any real idea of the routes here. All I had was a compass, which is what I quickly discovered is all I really need to get around. If I stay on small roads and head in the dirrection that I generally need to go, by the end of the day I start seeing signs that take me to the town that I set off for in the first place. I really enjoy travelling this way, it is not technical, I do not have to check a map every hour or so; I just ride towards the sun in the morning, and away from it in the evening, and check the compass when it's cloudy.

Sunday I spent riding through Norhern Belgium. Belgium is bicycle crazy! There is a bicycle shop in everytown, and everyone loves cyclists. EVERY major highway has cycle lanes alongside of the road, If you want to cover alot of ground fast, this is a great way to go. If the weather is nice and you would rather take your time riding in the countryside, there is an entire unofficial, cycle specific, mini-highway network that covers almost all of the farmland of northern Belgium. All of the paths are extremely well maintained, have bridges, traditional road signs, and signs at every intersection telling the towns in each direction and how many kilometers away they are. Cyclists and walkers use this mini-highway system everyday to commute to work or school, go to the store, or see friends several towns away; it is a fantastic system.

Sunday night I walked into a family-owned Belgian pub, it was quite a cold night. I explained I only knew English and where I had riden from. Within minutes I was presented beer and hot soup, and a warm place to sleep. After much thanks, I started off early the next morning. I was determined to get a lot of ground underway, but as chance would have it, I punctured a tire a few kilometres down the road.

I walked into the local bakery in Zarren and asked where I could find the velo-shop. Of course there was a bike shop just a block away, the lady at the counter told me how to get there. On my way, I passed a man named Jim who was out walking his chuahua. We started talking, he said that his father fixes bikes for a hobby and would gladly fix my puncture free of charge. Of course I could not decline his offer and followed him to the house.

Forgive me for not remembering her name, but upon arrival a woman presented to me coffee and bisquits and asked me to have a seat in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Silveer, her husband, was fast at work in the mini bike workshop he had in the garage. Curious to discover that I was riding a fixie, and impressed that I had such an old bike in good condition, he had patched the puncture within a few minutes. The woman, Jim, and myself were laughing and exchanging stories in the kitchen. As my second cup of coffee was being poured, Silveer had noticed that my crank was slightly loose, as I had slightly stripped the inside when riding. Without saying a word, he had attatched a new crank to my bike and transfered my pedals before I had finished my second cup of coffee, completely fixing the slight wobble that had been getting worse over the past day of riding!

We all took photos of one another (which will be posted soon), exchanged hugs, and then I was on my way, with a smile on my face. I am still marveling at how a punctured tire could turn into one of the best highlights of my day! That night I camped a little east of Ghent, on the side of the road. I made some couscous, lentils, and vegetables on my little stove (which is still on of my favorite things that I carry). I even had belgian beer with dinner! I went to bed early and woke up early, a man named Raf was walking his young one in a stroller on the road when I woke, He invited me to his place to warm up with coffee and breakfast. Belgian people are incredible! Raf and I talked for a bit, let me use his computer, and offered me a place to stay if I was ever back that way.

I spent most of that day in Ghent. I love Ghent. It is a university town, so there are young people everywhere. There are tons of good places to eat, lots of very old buildings, and bicycles have completely taken over the town! There are more bicycles in Ghent than I have ever seen in one place in my life. In one market square, you will see THOUSANDS locked up or just sitting there. One person I talked to said that it is best not to own a bicycle in Ghent, most people just find one that is not locked up, ride it to where they need to go, and then leave it for the next person to take. The streets are literally flooded with them.

Aalst is a midpoint between Ghent and my destination: Brussels. I decided to spend that night in Aalst. I rode into town, found the first two guys that looked about my age and asked: Hey do you happen to speak english? -A little bit - Would you happen to have a floor I can sleep on tonight? - One sec... phone call... My friend's parents are out of town for 3 weeks, you can stay with him.

That night all of us met up to play poker and hang out. I tried my best to stay up late with them, but I was now accustomed to waking with the sun, after my first hit of a joint I thanked them all and they let me retire in a back room. Late the next morning I woke, it was sooooo nice to sleep-in, especially in a warm bed. The awsome guy I was staying with let me take a much needed bath at his place, we cooked some food, and then I was off to Brussels. Before leaving Aalst, the guy I was staying with (he asked me not to share his name) set me up with a student to stay with in Brussels for a couple nights: Toon is his name, he is also a cyclist and a wonderful person. He let me sleep on his couch the last two nights, cooked me a chicken dinner, and told me places to check out around town while he is at school. Today I am off to hopefully meet again with some of the flatmates from London (whom I still promise to introduce you to), they should be ariving in Brussels shortly.

...and that is how I got here!

I have pictures that I will post soon, the computer that I am at now will not let me do so.

Miss you all & Much Love