By the grace of Zygote Press, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Grafikwerkstatt, I find myself in Dresden. Located in the former GDR, along the Elbe river between Berlin and Prague, Dresden is a city of a little more than half a million people, thriving in Germany’s post-soviet reunification, with businesses filling the shops and enough government involvement to keep it all running beautifully—at least it seems that way to me. But I’m getting off track. I’ve got five weeks here to carve wood blocks, set type, and make prints. And right now I want to talk about the acquisition of a bicycle.
Dresden is a terrific cycling town. Bikes don’t quite rule the streets: that honor must go to the excellent municipal tram system. But there are an awful lot of bicycles rolling all over the place, and plenty of shops. You see people of all ages, and bicycles of all kinds. That phrase used by American bicycle advocates—”we’re not holding up traffic, we are traffic”—seems completely unnecessary here. No one honks at cyclists.
The day we arrived, jet lagged and exhausted after about 35 hours traveling (curse the layovers), we walked around the early 19th century Neustadt, or “new town.” This is the neighborhood left standing after the war, a tight cluster of 4-story buildings with first floor shops, lining narrow, cobbled streets, all run down during the Soviet era, but still standing, then taken over by young people, including lots of squatters and entrepreneurs. As we passed one of them on the day we arrived, a city official giving a tour pointed out a shop where I could buy a used bike and sell it back at the end of my stay. Sounds good. I figured a city bike or a mountain bike—something with slightly fat tires to manage the cobbled streets and tram tracks.
I’ll spare you the details of prices, of second hand shops, co-ops, and rental shops, of stores closed on Wednesdays, or in the middle of the afternoon, of which take credit cards and which would not.
The long and short of it is that after two days that included all of the above, I went—still bike-less– to hang an exhibit of my prints with three other resident artists—Ellen Price from the US, Anna Garberg from Sweden, an Nicolas Sphicas from Greece. The show is in an old firehouse converted to a gallery, the Alte Feuerwache Gallery, in a slightly swanky
neighborhood called Loschwitz. And as I described my adventures to the gallery manager Hans-Peter, he said “I’ve got a bike back in the shed. Why don’t you just take that?”
Sheds the world over have the same musty smell, and the same kind of chronologically layered organization. For a person who cares very much about bicycles to be confronted with that smell and that style of organization at the hand of a generous person attempting to help out a visiting artist, the situation is precarious, indeed. “What, exactly, might I get myself into behind that wooden door,” I said to myself. This could be absolutely any kind of bicycle, in any condition, I knew. But one doesn’t want to reject hospitality. One wants to move gracefully around a foreign city.
In fact there were two bikes back in the shed—a rickety old three speed, and a very hot, full suspension mountain bike outfitted with Shimano Deore components: The Checker Pig 6000. Full suspension is not my style, but with everything tight, lightweight, and built for high performance, I felt like a very lucky man. “It was left to us by a lawyer who was moving away,” said Hans-Peter. “Take it.” So I did.
We put some pressure in the tires. I adjusted the seat. And Dresden was open to me in a whole new way. The trams are magnificent, miraculous, even, to a Clevelander. But on a bicycle I am faster. I don’t have to wait, or to change lines, or to walk to and from stops. Today, a beautiful, sunny Saturday, I pedaled the excellent bicycle trail along the Elbe River, which goes to Berlin and beyond in one direction, to Prague and more in the other. I didn’t go quite that far. I rode about 40 kilometers round trip, dallying for beer in a town called Heidenau. I don’t really know my way around Dresden yet, beyond the gallery, the Grafikwerkstatt print shop, and the Neustadt, where we’re staying at the Raskolnikoff Hotel. I get lost sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. I find my way. It’s perfectly comfortable mingling with the cars and the tram. I’ve got a bike now, and I am traffic.