the Baltic to the Black Sea; round one.

This stretch of land in particular has drawn my fascinations for ages, I came to decide that a heritage trip of sorts had to happen, and it had to happen on a bicycle.  I not only wanted to explore the landscape, but also wanted to explore/observe themes of home, longing, and belonging, for a potential long term project.  Last June I gathered the gumption, gear and gofundme guts for the long lonely ride from Warsaw to Istanbul.  I had applied to artist residencies everywhere in between these two outposts, and was granted a studio space at the exact halfway point.  Everything was falling into place in a terrifyingly perfect fashion.  The night before hopping on a plane, I received the news of a fellow cyclist and dear friend passing away.  I was swiftly overcome by a sharp prickle of caution, and the deepest desire to dedicate this upcoming journey to this incredibly soulful life that had left the world far, far too soon.

Toting 20 extra pounds of photo gear, I eagerly departed the crispy metropolitan Polish city with two-wheeled trajectories leading me to the lower Tatras mountain range in Slovakia.  Where I found myself in a place which possessed a crispness of air and water that only pristine primary old-growth forests can have.  Several little nooky banks on the Orava river became my dirtbag nest for a few nights.  Mosquitoes got so bad in the wee hours, that I just got into the habit of waking at four in the morning and kicking off by headlamp.  This was a moment of the day where the bakeries are freshest, tractors and trucks were still asnooze, and the roads are absolutely empty.  Uniquely, this summer provided deluges of relentlessly passing thunderstorms, which became an unexpected refreshment from the otherwise 105 degree days characteristic of every Slovakian summer, except for this one.   

On one of these damp days, I woke up nestled in my sleeping bag between two tractors at the Kral’ovany train station, which seemed an unmistakably perfect set for any upcoming Wes Anderson movie, and I was graciously greeted by food poisoning likely from a sketchy stack of pierogies.  I remember that day passing slower than most, as I assure myself how much I adore solo travel, being ill and alone is so, so far from ideal.  Things go wrong, they always just do, so I just weaseled my rickety rig onto a train that took me over the last 50km of the Tatras.  

As the landscape became more and more ironed flat, each and every village was signaled by an iconic Orthodox steeple and a water tower, pretty totems of higher powers and hydration. This poky preciousness continued all the way to bustling Bratislava, where I got to meet the Danube. 

Along this gargantuan river, I found such extensive highway systems created exclusively for bicycles, complete with teensy tiny dotted lines, lanes, little guardrails and stoplights.  A route that introduced me to cyclists of all types, 100 year old ferry boats made entirely of logs, and the impeccable charms of Hungary.  Lovely-ness is an understatement for the countryside and communities that I encountered on this leg of the trip, not to mention the river providing chilly dips and tiny secluded beaches to sleep.  Nearer to the larger cities, sometimes these posh apartment-buildings of ships would putter on by, and I remember noting that I probably always will prefer the perspective of being sandy and sore muscled on the beach rather than sitting in an air conditioned boat box.  

It is this exposure that I have found to love about cycle trips, a little surrender to subtle shifts in weather, terrains, people, breezes, birds, colors of rocks, tastes of food, you’re undoubtably “in it”, all of it, marinating and meandering.  Such meanders brought me to Budapest, where I indulged in a few days of old art admiration and the serendipitous path-crossing of an old friend with whom I last saw in Havana.  In huge places such as Budapest, it doesn’t take much city cycling to miss the freedoms and fearlessness of the forests.  Its literally and figuratively dodgy in a place where everyone is distracted on cellulars or the snappy urban stimulus, alas I was stoked to slip out of the outskirts before the sun came up the following day.  

A ferociously flat 400 kilometer luscious pancake of land lie ahead, and was swiftly finished in two cruisy days, and this former-ottoman outpost became where I hung my helmet for the next month.  Belgrade had a soul and a smell that tickled the senses, and few cities have had similar effects on me, Seattle, Detroit, Warsaw, cities with this sort of subtle vibrance and vibration.  Eastern Europe has a hard to explain frigid warmth about it, and those whom I met carried a similar quality of tough tenderness.

I checked in to my Artist residency in Dorcol, yet a strange string of events over a few weeks landed me in the living room of some beautifully scrappy skateboarders, and then to the back room of a squat on the other side of the city.  I had found the creative community thriving in ways no longer comprehensible in California, and had found what I had seeked.  I may have seen more live music in four weeks than I had in a year, biked, created and rambled for roughly a few dollars a day.  The squat building belonged to the government, and was a former instrument repair shop for the music of the Yugoslavian military, a history that was highlighted with an exhibit of images and artifacts found in the building. The space was created with so much of the tenderest loving care, yet found itself straddling this fine intimate line of legitimacy.  As a highly respected cultural center in Belgrade, the local university utilized the space for their MFA and BFA exhibition, and some disgruntled neighbor had shut off the electricity the evening before, so the whole operation had to be powered by generator.  Artists are among the greatest at facing opposition in great and graceful ways, yet to this magnitude, It made me feel like the biggest weenie.  A big weenie for doting on internal blockades that feed fears restricting creation, and finding myself surrounded by those who additionally battle an external aversion beast.  Even in the smoky cigarette haze of interior spaces, my privilege was to me as clear as a cloudless day.

Being an unfavorable stone in the sandal of a conservative government, then going on about your merry way is something I admire so much about squat culture, and while they certainly come in many shapes, sizes, and intentions, this particular one carried itself with a rumpus and gritty integrity that had earned its deserved respects from 98 percent of the folks that mattered. 

On the other corners of the city, I spent some days peeking potentials and projects at the numerous local refugee centers, according to research and articles I had read previous to this trip, Serbia has been allegedly one of the main thoroughfares into Europe for those seeking shelter or asylum from their home countries.  What I regarded firsthand was an extensive population of unaccompanied minors in the streets.  As this worldwide crisis has such a localized variability, and this city in particular a large population of children alone, I had an eagerness to bring something to the literal table at one of these children’s centers.  With limited time and the flexy nature of these open door centers, I managed to arrange an afternoon of collaboratively creating an art and assisting in the center for the rest of the day.  As such an eeny-meeny minor undertaking, a morsel of a sliver of the big picture, It felt a little more than alright to interact with these children and know that these particular ones were in such good hands.          

To complete my stay in Belgrade, with the assistance of new friends with photo labs and the movers and shakers of the squat, I swept together an exhibition and feast with a swiftness on the night before my departure onward to Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey.  A few people I had met over the month came through for my teeny show, and stayed after for drinks out on the roof.  At the very moment I was rambling on about wanting to stay, my steel frame stallion was being stolen by a savvy city scavenger.  I allowed myself a few day pity window and then flew home.  So it goes, to be continued as soon as time, moolah and circumstance can allow it.

Lastly, I’d like to bring some attentions to the many supportive friends, family, friend families, family friends, fellow scrappers, and strangers that were involved in the makeup of this trip. Namely, the great handful of those whom supported my campaign, those who highfived, heckled, and hosted me along the way, Norwegian airlines for turning a blind eye to my giant janky bike box and forgetting to charge me, The pretty Prvns boys of Beograd, Tunisian sardines, smoked sprats, my dear friends for consentually cyberbullying me into continually chugging along on this art dream, the inspiration and dear memory of Tatyana Schmid, and of course Kvaka 22.

now, images; first half is shot on 35mm (some of it old/dirty/damaged) and the second half are some digital snippets/snapshots from a canon and a select few from an iPhone.

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