It’s now been over two weeks since I last posted and there are a couple of things I thought I would be able to do while travelling that simply has not been the case:
- I thought I would have more time to write but the distances I cycle each day and the lack of power and internet make writing blog posts harder – I have started to use a notebook to journal some of my experience but I lack the habit/discipline… I’m working on it.
- The sheer amount of photo and video that I’ve been collecting in the last two weeks will quickly outpace my ability to edit and store in the limited time I have on stops. I’ve been thinking about how to automate some of the common tasks needed to sort and edit video and whether or not the apps I use can do that for me.
I have also just been having a good time meeting interesting people talking about what they are doing and getting involved in activities wherever I am and when I can. Perhaps I could reduce the distances I cycle especially considering the knee is still a bit of a nagging problem. However I have to reach Italy, in particular a tiny little town called Rimbocchi, by 20th June at the latest and given that I’ve completely underestimated the distances and the effort required to cycle them on the touring bike – new blog posts have not been a priority.
Duisburg and the House Project
After leaving Amsterdam and my hosts Florian and Carla I noticed that my new route would take me through Duisburg, a town I’d heard about because my friend George Lidgely had spent some of his winters there. I messaged him to ask whether he knew anyone I could stay with and he put me in touch with Helena Hasenkox. Little did I know she was doing something very cool in the old working class neighbourhood of Duisburg.
Helena moved back to her home town of Duisburg after some time living in Berlin. Realising that though the German capital is a great place for creatives and creative projects she told me that the biggest problem if you want to do something new is that because you’re competing against so many existing projects, warehouse communes, artists cooperatives and community projects, it’s much more difficult, and now too expensive to do something. Sounds like London I said, where it’s now pretty much impossible to live as an artist in the city centre if you don’t have someone backing you with money. Even my old Hackney Wick neighbourhood was getting pricey and will be knocked down and gentrified. By the time I return my old haunts will be unrecognisable and my home will be replaced by smart luxury apartments overlooking the Olympic park and rents will probably be 10-20% more. The creativity that defined the area will be lost.
The region surrounding Duisburg is the great industrial heartland of Germany with some very closely linked cities clustered on the Rhine. I imagine that at some point in the future this huge area might become some sort of mega city in the same way that London swallowed all the smaller towns surrounding the square mile and the Thames to form what we now call greater London. The borders of each municipality merge subtly so that sometimes you don’t even realise you’re crossing into another. Though the Germans still have huge industrial interests and, unlike the UK, still invest heavily in engineering, manufacturing and a host of other ancillary industries; this the area has like many places in Europe undergone significant change, loss of jobs, mass migration with a large Turkish population and now an influx of Syrians and Eastern Europeans all over a relatively short time period.
Each town has a specific demographic make up where local stereotypes abound about the type of people who live in each. My friend Fred Van Camp in Dusseldorf, which is a media and arts capital and home of the band Kraftwerk, talks of Essen and Duisburg as if they were roughly equivalent to London’s formerly up and coming East End or New Cross/Peckham areas where people are doing interesting, creative things.
Helena found an abandoned, broken townhouse owned by a former industrialist and was able to purchase it for a steal. With a the help of a lot of friends she converted and restored the house into four apartments with separate living areas, kitchens, yoga studio and a creative workspace. A community cafe provides a place for the locals to hang out, organise projects together and a few jobs for people in the area. The house sits next to unused former industrial land which has been earmarked for development. In the meantime members of the house have been organising community parties using the back garden and the big empty space. In short she saw an opportunity to create a little piece of the Berlin scene and it’s quite an achievement that took around about the last five years.. With the house largely complete nine other residents now live there. A mixture of students, working professionals, artists and so on all contributing to the great vibe.
Suffice it to say I did not want to move on so soon so I stayed a few days to let my knee recover again and to enjoy the welcoming atmosphere of the house. I took part in an Acroyoga class and Helena was kind enough to take me on a tour of Landschaftspark, a former steel mill come tourist attraction and community park. It’s an incredible space, a dream for Parkour addicts who apparently use the old catwalks and corridors to practice their free-running acrobatics. The old pits and many of the walls have been converted into climbing and bouldering walls on a scale I’ve never seen before. No artificial climbing centre I’ve been to can compare. She also took me a to a place which inspired her house project, an old abandoned railway depot where she initially had the idea to do something on a much larger scale. I love the post industrial landscapes, they’re both a symbol of the decay and renewal and having lived in one I think there is a certain charm about these disused spaces. My last stop on her tour was a bike shop cafe started by a few friends for fun but which has quickly become a serious endeavour as word of mouth about their project generated some great PR for them.
As there are capoeiristas living in the house I also got a taste of a class from local teacher Tobi. Even with my gammy knee I can’t stop myself getting involved in a game of Capoeira it’s too much fun and it’s always nice to know that wherever you go you can meet people who are into the same sport. It is an integral goal of this trip to visit Capoeira groups on my ride and train with them. I’ve seen how Capoeira brings people together and it’s so much fun to play with someone you’ve never played with before. Its like getting to know a person non-verbally through a game.
Eventually, as all good things must, it had to end with my departure four days after my arrival. I took my time about it, leaving after 4pm because we were enjoying a little early summer sun in the garden. As I said my goodbyes and left I realised I had not been into the cafe or taken photos of it so I stopped dragged my camera out and then my hosts spotted me and invited me back for a last coffee – this really wasn’t helping my resolve to leave. We nipped into the cafe for a quick coffee before I finally departed on the two hour ride to Dusseldorf to meet Fred and Sam.