Moving south along the Autobahn towards Dresden, rolling at a comfortable velocity somewhere in the high seventies ends rudely when the satnav decides to plot a course via the centre of that beautiful tragic city, perhaps best known for being the target of one of the final war crimes of WW2 when it was decimated by Allied incendiary bombs even though the war was already won. Nonetheless some very beautiful buildings either survived or have been restored. Modern Dresden however, or at least the pars which I pass, are a massive traffic jam. I try to filter where I can and try to look at the architecture, the vehicles and the people when stationary. It seems that many of the traffic jams, as in London, are caused by empty unused bicycle lanes. Still, it’s an interesting city.
Moving on, I plan to stop for fuel before the Czech border which by my calculations is about 20 miles away. It turns out that I am wrong. Suddenly a small sign, some words inside an EU flag, proclaims that we are in Czechia, the motorway signs change from blue to green, and there is a speed limit. The driving style changes too. Signs for Prague become more frequent. Then there is rush hour traffic and we are in the city. Everyone is changing lanes at speed, the traffic feels hectic and I am glad when I exit the major road and enter the suburb where my friend P now lives with his wife and kid.
2am, New Year’s Day, 1996. My pink mohican has long lost its shape and sticks to my otherwise shaved head with sweat and the beer which is liberally being thrown into the air by everyone instead of being drunk. We are moshing to Smells Like Teen Spirit, the room a heaving mass of teenage bodies, everyone shoving everyone else, lost in the chugging riffs of the late Kurt Cobain and the mist of steam. It’s minus 15 outside and boiling hot in this room. Cobain died over a year previously but our generation took it badly and some of us are still in denial. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Suddenly there is a sting on my left forearm, like a bee’s but worse. The sting becomes more painful and I scream and possibly swear. Someone, it’s impossible to tell who, has fallen into me, lit cigarette first. It extinguishes upon my skin. Earlier, around midnight, as the clocks told us that 1995 was behind us, I watched someone shoot a firework squarely into P’s chest as the whole of Wenceslas Square turned into a fire storm. Things used to get crazy in Prague in the 90s, when freedom was new and exciting.
I roll into village like suburb which is calm and peaceful. P greets me outside his gated community home with his two year old J on a tricycle who is wearing a motorcycle speedway t shirt and a bright blue helmet. He checks out Veronica with awe. I unpack and meet P’s wife S, a senior justice worker. P these days works at a financial institution. They live in a beautiful spacious two floor apartment. P wants to travel the world and live in different places as he has done before, but S’s senior role ties her to Prague. J goes to an English language nursery, and they speak to him in English and Czech at home. He has some toys: a lovely set of wooden building blocks, a couple of cuddly creatures. But the majority of his possessions are children’s books, in Czech and English. They had a big TV but J pulled it down and it broke; they have not replaced it and don’t miss it. P says that whenever they get J a gift, it’s usually a book.
We go to a local pub. It’s in a new building, there is a gym and a massage parlour there, and student accommodation. It’s a Monday but the place is relatively busy. There are all sorts of people there, younger, older, some in t shirts, some dressed more formally. A football game is on, and Czechia is losing to Russia 5 – 0. The beer arrives. As P points out, it’s proper Czech beer, poured properly, about a third of the pint glass is head it’s even and creamy, and doesn’t foam or bubble over the edge. We last saw each other in spring in London, so there is a lot to catch up on. Inevitably we find ourselves speaking about European identity. He’s not sure there is such a thing. But older structures remain. The financial institution he works at has its headquarters in Austria and their approach to regional business, in terms the countries where they operate and their hierarchies recall the Austro Hungarian empire. He thinks that in a changing world the EU is necessary as a collective safety mechanism from external threats. Not surprising: Czechia’s recent history includes Soviet, Nazi and Austro Hungarian invasions. Locally he is disillusioned with politics and is planning to vote for the Pirate Party in the upcoming Prague mayoral elections. He thinks that the Greens in Germany have not been good for cities and the economy and hopes they don’t gain a foothold in Czechia. It’s an interesting insight into the Czech middle class psyche: thoughtful, intellectual, outward looking and realistic.
The next day I ride to Munich. The conditions are challenging: the surface of the motorway to Plzen and beyond is not great and the wind is very strong. It’s tiring, and whereupon in Germany I was averaging 125 or so, here we’re rolling along barely at 100 if that. Veronica is grumbling a bit, maybe she’s not enjoying digesting I’m leaning forward and it’s heavy going. Eventually I reach the German border and it’s onto the Autobahn. The wind weakens and the surface improves. Munich is still a long way away but the route lies through a nice forest, and the pretty backdrop makes the distance feel less.
The previous evening I asked what was it that in the 1930s caused a very large number of people in Germany to participate in one of the most monstrous developments in history, given that 1920s Berlin was the intellectual and cultural capital of the world, a truly international city and the height of tolerance and multiculturalism. P pointed out that similar events have occurred in recent history too, albeit on a smaller scale: Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia for example. Would Munich, where Hitler first came to prominence, provide some historical answers?
As it was, it did not. On arrival one is struck by the very different architectural style to other German cities: big and yellow. The old buildings set the tone. The area where my hotel is situated is has a number of casinos. Old Munich is about half a mile away. One gets a feeling of certainty and self assuredness from the city and the people. I spend a bit of time wandering around, looking up at the huge old buildings and the vibe one gets is that it’s always been like this, regardless of who was in charge. One can spend a lot of time wandering around Munich staring up. It makes one’s neck sore but thankfully my neck muscles have been strengthend by the very strong winds on the ride here. A lot of people here wouldn’t say they are German: they are Bavarian, and from this one can conclude that whilst Bavarian industry has an important role to play in the overall German economic success story, one does not get the sense that many people in Bavaria have little interest in trying to shape Germany’s or Europe’s destiny. They are Bavarian. A thought occurs: if the concept of the nation state is decreasing in usefulness, then surely a union or an association territories like the EU is a good solution to hundreds of individual entities like Bavaria having a far reaching trading and defence ecology without particularly having to identify as either German or European.
One thing is noticeable though: the lack of integration. The numerous groups of Arabic speakers, mostly young men, keep themselves to themselves and one does not see mixed groups or interaction between these groups and native German speakers.
I conclude my evening with dinner at the famous Augustine’s Restaurant, opting for a Bavarian sausage platter and a surprisingly tasty alkoholfrei bier. I’ve been drinking alcohol free beer during much of the trip and a lot of it tastes genuinely good. V messaged me earlier saying that she liked Munich when she visited until she got food poisoning. On my way out of the cavernous establishment I observe a rodent trot across the the floor between tables. This understandably puts me on edge as far as food hygiene is concerned and I hurry out hoping for the best.
Sleep is frequently interrupted by a group of guys shouting outside, but the awful episode of the previous evening is more than made up for by a very good breakfast, the best one I’ve had to date. I repack everything and roll out: an unplanned visit to Austria followed by a run to Switzerland.