Warmshowers: the cyclists’ version of Couchsurfing. List your home for passing riders to stay, then stay in people’s homes yourself – for free.
I hadn’t used Warmshowers as much as I’d hoped on this tour: on the scale of camping for free versus paying for a bed, it usually fell somewhere to one side, swamped by the effort required to arrange a stay, be a good guest, and make alternative plans in case of non-responding hosts. A day west of Budapest though, I was in for a treat: a stay with Jen and Joe, British downshifters who had quit the rat race and moved out here to run a smallholding. There were pets, there was home-made food, there was conversation with some real live native English speakers in the middle of a foreign country – it was one of the nights that made the trip worthwhile.
“Watch out for the drivers” Joe warned me as I left the next day, “they can be pretty funky”. Really though? I’d ridden through India and China though, and now I was back in Europe’s Schengen zone; how bad could it be? The sun was shining, the bike was running smoothly and I was making good progress, riding along the old highway as a new motorway stretched itself out half a mile to my left.
RRAAAGGGEEE! SQUEEEAKK! A pickup skidded to a halt in front of me, cutting me off by the barrier, the occupant shouting some incomprehensible Hungarian gibberish – it was clear he didn’t like me. “Yeah, fuck off”; I manoeuvred my way around his wheel arch and continued on my way, the closest I could do to ignoring him.
SQUEEEAKK! RRAAAGGGEEE! Here he was again, and now his door was open, the better to shout insults at me through his stubbled lips and bad teeth, his middle-aged flab quivering with hate through his t-shirt. “Yeah fuck off mate”; I palmed his door shut and made to ride on again, except …
He’d grabbed a truncheon from beside the seat and was coming out the other door. This moron was serious; I needed to escape, fast. U-turn. Ride back down the road. Rageface had come round the truck now, and got one good swing … that didn’t connect. Now I was away, on wheels versus his feet, retreating the wrong way down the road as he stood in impotent rage by his truck, parked uselessly sideways across the empty carriageway.
Welcome to Hungary. The worst thing about this attack? It wasn’t the first time.
Back in Budapest I’d had a similar incident – sans truncheons, but with another middle aged van driver running out of his cab to get me. I’d also had my first fruit hit of the tour, so that made three attacks in one country, compared to my previous world tally of one: a happy slapping off a motorbike in India. Hungary had shot straight to the top of the international anger tables; was it just me or did they hate the world in general?
Across the border in Austria the mountains steepened, the weather deteriorated and the locals grew richer, but similarities remained. The owner of an alpine guesthouse joked unprompted that “We’re not all Nazis round here!” I hadn’t suggested anything of the sort; perhaps this lady protested too much? Down in the valley, the posters were up for the EU elections, with messages decrying “EU-Asylchaoten”. I was tempted to graffiti them with ‘#gregxit’ but passed up the opportunity and passed on by, another hated foreigner on a journey; a PhD-qualified professional engineer or just a stinking sponging cyclist, either way I was diluting their Austrian-ness.
In the migrant crisis of 2015, each country had absorbed thousands of immigrants, sustaining some of the highest per capita influxes into their largely mono-ethnic populations. Since then, Hungary’s Viktor Orban had pivoted his party to xenophobia – a move much more concerning than the existence of Western European parties like Alternative fur Deutschland, because his Fidesz party was the party of government that defined the centreground and forged the political issues of the day. In Austria meanwhile, the Freedom Party had become a major political force – partners in the coalition government, no less – on a platform of ending immigration. It was their leader Heinz-Christian Strache who stared down at me from the election posters, demanding that EU-Asylchaoten be stopped.
Once I reached Germany, the blatantly xenophobic posters suddenly disappeared. There was plenty of election propaganda in evidence, and Germany itself had absorbed a huge share of the influx of migrants over the last four years. I was in Bavaria moreover, hardly famed for its liberal mores, yet there was little sign of the vitriol I’d seen in Austria, and certainly not the reception I’d received in Hungary.
There is a theory that homogeneous populations can hate outsiders because the outsiders do not exist in real life – neither down the road to make friends with the majority, nor in politics to punish racist parties at the ballot box. Central Europe has long had a whiff of a reputation for xenophobia, just as it has long had a low level of racial diversity. I guessed the queues of migrants in the middle of the decade had brought these attitudes in contact with ‘the enemy’, and had sparked the attitudes I was so sad to have witnessed now. Four years previously I’d had no problem cycling through Hungary. This time I was relieved to exit the country, and wished I’d still had my Alaskan bear spray.
After I left Austria, the Freedom Party was embroiled in a scandal – selling government contracts in return for good coverage – and the FPO-OVP coalition government collapsed. Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the FPO, resigned, and the country is ruled by a caretaker government pending elections in September. The FPO’s vote share declined at the European elections, though not crushingly so, and they lost one of their four seats. What turn will Austria take now? We can only wait and see.