The journey so far – 2700 km, 8 countries, I’ll ask Strava about the calories and elevation gain!

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Why I stopped writing my blog!

So, I tried writing this blog on the road, and it was just too difficult, especially as I had to ride, plan, ride, plan, ride, do, visit, eat, wash, wash clothes, wash pots, ride, plan, find places to stay, talk, enjoy, breathe, relax, watch sunsets, visit friends, talk to my stuffed monkey, learn some words in languages other than my own, ride, take photographs, be present, look, learn, read, ride, figure out how to get my bike and five bags on to train station platforms when there are no lifts, eat bananas, talk to deer, count storks, film beetles pushing dung across dusty Portuguese paths, work out what Picasso was trying to say, make my homage to Catalonia, visit the chocolate Lionel Messi, learn what the Catholic Church did to every other kind of faith that wasn’t there own, get sick of cathedrals and crucifixes, understand what cobbles do to bicycles, find out that the French love an overburdened English cyclist, pay my respects to those who died to liberate Europe, cross the whole of Belgium (yay the first country I have crossed in its entirety), ride a 100k in a day in 30 degree temperatures with a full pack (OK I am proud its true), know what its like to burn up all your calorie reserves and eat like a hungry scavenger pilgrim, learn what I am capable of, and then finally find a way home.

But just to let you know so far…

In the first trip I travelled 1200 km on the bike and I don’t know how many thousands more on train, boat and ferry. I visited three countries – France, Spain and Portugal. And if many Catalans get their wish – a fourth. Since then I’ve cycled from Dublin to Belfast over the most contentious border of all in this post referendum, pre-Brexit world (320km) and cycled 1200km through The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. The journey carries on and this Autumn I’m going on the road again. Not sure where yet.

I’m going to post here some of the things I’ve seen so far. But to just to let you know its 8 countries and 2700km so far. I know I’m not going to visit all the EU countries before our stated leave date (mostly because I have a home and work and family) but in some ways it will be more interesting to make this journey before and after. Also, I am not some youthful LeeOrwellHemingway type, though part of me wishes I were. I am more like a younger Alan Bennett having an out of character adventure involving undue physical exertion.

What it has meant to me

A few years ago I struggled to cycle the daily 6 miles to work and back and before this trip I’d never been on an overnight cycling holiday. When I started training for this trip I was a stone overweight and two and a half over where I was in my twenties. I trained for about nine months before the timing was right and I felt confident enough, though still filled with anxiety, to try. I’ve lost two stone, almost returning to the weight I had as a twenty year old. My 36 inch trousers hang off me and are going to the charity shop. I feel stronger and mentally fitter than I have for a very long time. Brexit got me down so much (and still does) but this journey has changed my life and I really feel like I have takenbikecontrol over many things that were going on in my life. Things aren’t perfect with me but cycling (in particular taking on this odyssey) has given me back a new sense of my self. I feel as though things are possible again.

I have also met someone and fallen in love. And she is a wonderful kind and loving person. Before meeting her I had been single for over two years and doubted whether I would meet someone again. But you never know when the next miracle will happen. Cycling has been a big part of this because I feel more confident and comfortable with my self, and more able to love in a happy healthy way. My new leg muscles are apparently pretty sexy too!

I am a political cyclist

I’d love to be able to extend my good feelings to the political process but sadly it seems as fraught, complex and mired as ever. Beyond the easy slogans and broken promises we can all at last see how hard it is to get whatever it is we want from the political process. I hope this time has given Remain voters the chance to see why Leave voters were so angry about a whole load of issues and Leave voters the chance to reflect on whether they will in fact get whatever they wanted from leaving the EU, and to question whether that really is what they wanted, or whether it was actually something different. Something that leaving the EU will never give them.

My own preference now is to use this process to get a sensible dialogue of how we can change things moving forward that makes it better for as many people as possible, undermines racism and xenophobia and keeps us within the EU, and all the greater opportunities that affords. The EU is the only super-national body that gives we citizens certain inalienable rights protected by constitution and the rule of law. We should cherish these and understand why they are important, as they will not waiver. The same can not be said of rights protected by national governments. We vote for a political party not all the policies they enact. It is very easy for political parties to undermine our rights within the text of legislation we never see or at least never have the time to read.

I am supporting The People’s Vote campaign now and for a change in Labour Party policy to support a final say on the deal. People should be able to change their mind in this process, or reaffirm their views, or have a second chance to participate, if they didn’t get that the first time around. It’s clear that the balance of power in Parliament is not such to deliver a strong Brexit on either side of the argument and the government is currently being controlled, as Conservative MP’s have already said, by Jacob Rees Mogg. A general election would hopefully redefine this too.

What next and a short word expulsion entitled “Where’s the Money Allan?

I’ve just got back from a 1200 km cycle ride so I’m thinking about the next journey and also how I want to carry on with everything else. A few things happened to me in the Benelux countries that will change what happens next, and I’ll post about that soon.

When I got back a friend asked me how I could afford all this, which I have to say triggered all sorts of annoyance in me, as I don’t really need to justify any of what I’m doing to anyone apart from to myself. Is adventure shaming a thing. Maybe it is now. Anyway, imagine me humming a few bars of “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and you get the picture of how I was feeling afterwards. Thanks Babs, you’re always there for me.

But then it got me thinking, maybe I should write about this, partly because triggering deserves contemplation and response, partly because its worth me reflecting on whether what I’m doing is entirely sane, but mostly because one of the great sub-plots of the Brexit referendum was the portrayal of the Remain vote as elitist, and the Leave campaign, as somehow more democratic and of-the-people. Despite the fact that both campaigns were fronted by public school educated millionaires. Anyway, I’m an open person. I think its useful for me to put ‘my background’ out there. Then I don’t have to react defensively to what may just be inquisitive questioning.

Well the truth about whether I can afford this or not is that I can’t, not really. I have a part-time job that lasts 7 months of the year and just about covers the bills, I do these trips as cheaply as I can (camping or staying with friends and hosts where possible – it would be a lot easier if I stayed in hotels every night). I have some funds left over from my redundancy last year and the sale of half a small Welsh cottage I owned with an ex-partner (house prices in Wales are not what they are in the rest of the country).

I also received a £1000 award from the Author’s Foundation grant scheme run by the Society Of Authors, which helped pay for some equipment and some time to work on a book. These are highly prized awards and I felt honoured and encouraged to receive one, but it certainly doesn’t cover very much of a trip around 27 countries. And no I do not have a fat (or in fact any) publishing deal or advance for my book.

I come from a low income background so there is no golden inheritance or trust fund involved. My mum was a teacher and a single parent and we never had any money growing up. I have worked for the last twenty years in the publishing department of an environmental charity that paid well below the national average, because I believed in making a change, not money. I have a degree but that was only possible because I received a state grant and the state paid for my tuition fees (those were the days hey). I went to state school. I have lived in what the government’s official definition would call poverty throughout much of my childhood and adult life. I do not exist on a cushion of privilege.

This is the first time in my life I have ever had any sort of flexibility or feeling that I could afford to make this sort of trip. And that’s because I diligently paid off a small mortgage on a low value house for fifteen years and now live in a housing co-op rather than own. For many years I spent my holidays doing DIY on my home because I couldn’t afford to pay for anyone else to do it. I hate DIY!

I say all this because my friend’s comments made me realise its easy for people to say “its ok for him”. And yes at the moment it is. I can do it. But I live on the sharp thin precipice of financial insecurity, with potential disaster on either side. I am doing this not as a luxury lifestyle choice but because it feels important to do, for my own well-being and to learn something that will help strengthen my understanding of life and of myself.

Another friend sent me out on my first trip with some advice. Before you go, she told me, write a biography of your life so far, and then when you get back, ask yourself, who went out on the journey, who came back, and what did you bring back for your community. Well, I’m only part way through my journey so I’m not ready to answer all these questions, but answers are arriving as I cycle, and also when I have time to reflect back home. Things will definitely change and I hope to bring back something for my community, that raises this above what it just means for me.

In the meantime I continue to grapple with the question Where’s the Money Allan? And that’s my little homage to Shane Meadows. Google it!

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