maandag 18 November 2019
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Literatour: On the road to the Buchmesse [English]

Writings and musings

It’s Sunday 17 July when my alarm goes off at a ridiculously early hour in my student room in Groningen. Taking the very first south-bound train, I and my fellow northerners and writers Lienne and Philip travel to Maastricht, then on to Aachen by bus, and from there we leg it to the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, where the LiteraTour group is already performing test rides while waiting for us. Twenty writers and musicians from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are getting to grips with their racing bikes, making their first tentative rounds of the square by the museum. Merry greetings are exchanged, as we haven’t seen each other since our first introduction in Maastricht in May. Some of us share our anxieties (to an untrained bookworm, 100 kilometres per day seems an impossible challenge), but fortunately we’re starting out on more familiar territory: after an excellent lunch, the poet Tobias Kunze, children’s book author Simon van der Geest and others offer music, calligraphy and writing workshops. I join Tobias for two hours of challenging exercises in recitation, tempo and freewriting.

Invigorated with new ideas, we are called into the museum for the official opening of the tour around five. The group holds its breath momentarily until a horn loudly blares the starting signal, and with that, the tour has well and truly begun. Naturally, being culture addicts, we first wander around the museum for a bit, though we really should be getting down to work. The results of our workshop can be recorded in the SoundTruck, a mobile studio that will be driving along with us for the entire week. After fifteen minutes of recording a group work in the sweltering truck we’ve got a moment to grab a few quick forkfuls of lentil salad before it’s time – no escaping it now! – to hop on our bikes for the first test ride. It’s a serious uphill trudge to the highly symbolic tri-border point – especially when you’re still trying to figure out how to work the gears on your bike! I fight the momentary panic that whispers in my ear that I’ll ever make it, that I’ll fall off my bike from exhaustion tomorrow, that I’ll meet an untimely end on a racing bike rather than the ever so desirable pneumonia-in-my-sleep-at-age-ninety-five. But then I reach the top, along with everyone else, and on the way back to the hostel we all learn the first poetic lesson of this journey – that whatever goes up must come down. Thank heavens. Unfortunately, however, we discover this principle while bumping down a forest track littered with gravel and loose stones.



-Pebble that falls into the water-
trees lining the river
crease the asphalt blanket
simply as seen fit

just as history does
with the blanket of knowledge
that blinds us all

Alex Janse

After that first day, our cycling tour passes me by in a daze. I can say one thing about cycling: it plays havoc with your perception of time. Which can be quite unpleasant, such as on our first trip to Bad Honnef, where we take a wrong turn that leads us down several kilometres of gravel roads (how time can grind down to an excruciatingly slow pace!), leaving us so knackered upon arrival at 6 o’ clock, after 120 kilometres of cycling, that many of us lack the energy to even write anymore. Fortunately, Bad Honnef has excellent beers on offer, which somewhat lifts our cyclist troupe’s spirits. You notice right away how surviving such a physical ordeal (and sharing a beer afterwards) bonds people together. The first close friendships are already emerging, and the next day, with everyone refreshed and back on their bikes for the next 60 kilometres to Koblenz, everyone supports each other. The trip to Koblenz is smoother, and we’ve gotten used to the various yells we use to warn each other. A brief instruction:

GEGEN: oncoming traffic
AUTO (VON HINTERN): Car (from behind)
STUMPF: post (the most important word we learned this tour, because with someone else toiling along in front of you, it’s often too late by the time you spot the road hazard!)


If you should ever choose to risk life and limb on a racing bicycle, you’ll master these basics in no time at all. But to master poetry, our brave fellow cyclist Dasja of School der Poëzie offers a workshop in Koblenz, with poems by – among others – Mustafa Stitou and Paul Celan. On the road to Koblenz we already found inspiration in Bukowski’s poem Style, declaimed in German and English at his birth home in Andernach – which, tragically, now houses a carnival clothing shop. Thankfully, such contrasts are good fodder for a poetry workshop. In the evening, we can test out our fresh writings on the stage in the downstairs bar of Haus Metternich. Our German fellow travellers, who together form the Massentrend group, give a tight performance, dedicating their beautiful piece Wir sind architekten to our great hero and shepherd Rick de Leeuw, who is always prepared to give anyone with overly cramped legs a push. Besides Massentrend, Nico Feiden, Lienne Boomsma, Alex Janse, Ricardo Frederiks and I also recite a freshly written poem.

On the last big ride of another one hundred kilometres, despite the fact that none of us were looking forward to it in the morning, the asphalt flashes past below us. Not one stumpf hinders us as we cycle along motorways we’d never dreamed of cycling on, and every rise of the road brings us a view of fairy-tale castles nestled in every crook of the river Rhine. The sun heats our backs to thirty-three degrees, but he who cycles fast has the breeze on his face and doesn’t feel the heat until he stops. A faster group of five sprinters separates from the main body, cycling ahead to the break location, but at the end of the day we all roll into Mainz together, loudly singing along with the music of the clever Alex, who has fixed a speaker to his backpack. Mainz is the perfect city for drinking beers on the banks of the Rhine, and in the afterglow of the hot day, many head to the centre to carouse until the wee hours of night.

Unfortunately, morning does not wait for a sorry bunch of muscle-aching youths. But we are lucky to have a refreshing sprinkle of rain during the next forty kilometres to our final destination of Frankfurt, producing spectacular mud paintings on everyone’s backs. Entering Frankfurt we’re all slightly chilled, with some nevertheless wiping away a tear or two of joy, or is it pain? In the hostel, we’re forced to dance in the hallway to stay warm, because we’re too early to check in and have to wait for all thirty of us to use the three showers. Within an hour, however, we’re back on the street, freshly scrubbed and cleaned, heading to our ultimate objective: the Frankfurter Buchmesse, where our final product will be presented. We’re informed about the programme of the book fair and quickly funnelled back into the metro for our last workshop and SoundTruck recordings.

Dining together, tired but satisfied, in a local eatery (with the German specialty of spaghetti ice cream for dessert), we can look back on a great physical and literary adventure, which is happily not entirely over yet: next morning, we’ll end it with a city tour to view the street art of Frankfurt, and in October we’ll be performing at the Buchmesse! I can’t wait to see how we’ll work, create and have fun together again. As everyone gradually starts to drift off, to catch trains, to visit town one last time or to grab a drink somewhere, I can’t help feeling slightly sad. What goes up, has to come down again. Luckily I now know how to climb mountains with the least amount of effort.

Three girls look up when the music stops
A boy fills his lungs with smoke, gets on his bike and pedals
Past everyone else. Some man makes a call
A girl across the street answers her phone
The other side of the connection is
Three hundred kilometres away, where her grandma lies
In the hands of someone else.
We think: sometimes it’s better not to know someone by name; not to know something
Today we ladle out neither guilt nor responsibility
The usual combo deal is temporarily unavailable.
There’s a mosquito in the room, we’re sure of it
We can’t hear it but still
We just can’t sleep. In the morning we wake up and count the bumps
Every hill we cross reminds us of
Building houses on our backs, the scaffolding, the foundations,
Just so the earth won’t sink away in heavy rain.

Esmé van den Boom

Dit artikel heeft betrekking op de volgende regeling(en) van het Fonds voor Cultuurparticipatie website: Jonge Kunst

Dit artikel is een portret uit de reeks verhalen die we delen binnen het programma: Cultuur maakt iedereen