Chapter 1 – Wet and suffering
This post is part of a series of posts following the adventures of a man on a mission to explore 20 countries around Europe on a motorcycle – go to One for the road.
Not really aware of entering Holland, after Belgium. Antwerp’s eight-lane highway, with its ugly blocks of flats and McDonald’s every five minutes. Flat, uninteresting countryside – they never really caught on with hedges, did they, the Dutch? Wind turbines, miles and miles of new developments, factories, power stations, car lots. I am cringingly aware of my vulnerability in amongst the roaring, speeding juggernauts on these icy roads. Overtaken by three bikes, all of whom waved. I can’t remember when a Brit biker last waved hello. While I was growing up with bikes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, all motorcyclists would dip a chin or raise a finger. Not anymore. Different people ride bikes now. Then, you did it because it was in your jeans. Now people ride them because they’re, like, you know, cool.
Amsterdam. Eleven hours’ sleep. I didn’t bother with the Red Light District, not wanting my worst impressions of Western civilisation confirmed. And I was tired on the bike yesterday – Belgian and Dutch drivers give you no space at all. Now, I sit here, still muzzy with diesel fumes, with my breakfast, and contemplate the scene outside, the green, rain-dimpled canal, and the low, flat grey skies.
There were several things I wanted to avoid on this trip: getting mugged, breaking down, the bike being stolen – but most of all, getting wet. And this, on Day Two, it’s been raining since I got off the ferry. I leave the motorway and head south. Hannover and Osnabruck don’t share many letters, and lie in opposite directions, but it’s surprisingly easy to get them confused; as soon as I see the error I decide to go across country rather than head back into the road works and chaos again. And then it begins to rain.
Immediately on entering Celle, we are all held up by a Volvo. We wait and wait. A van goes round eventually, but the dark-skinned youth from Turkey or Syria or somewhere in the red Golf in front of me stops, leaps out, and runs up to the Volvo, yanks open the driver’s door, screams abuse while pointing up at a nearby NO PARKING sign, jumps back in his Golf and drives away. As I pass, the driver, an old guy, unhurriedly heaves himself out and lifts the Volvo’s bonnet.
A few seconds later, the queue grinds to a halt again, and I swing the bike round the next obstruction, a red hatchback. As I pass it I glance inside and see a dark-skinned youth from Turkey or Syria or somewhere, his face buried in his forearm, turning his ignition key, and I hear a starter motor uselessly grinding.
Celle is very clean and neat and tidy.
Six hours on the road. Love it.
But exhausted. I didn’t expect it to be this tiring.
In a rut
There’s been a groove, a rut, in the motorway all the way from Holland. It isn’t lethal, but does have to be watched constantly. You can assume nothing when riding at speed. This old bike at anything less than 20mph is like pushing a wheelbarrow full of wet concrete with a flat tyre – not easy between lines of close traffic. And the engine’s noise is worrying: there are variants of grumble/rattle/whine/occasional bumps as if a pebble has passed through some gear wheels. So much for the ‘full service’.
Deserted towns. Freezing wind from the side, but at least it’s dry, and the wind from the side and not behind. When it’s coming from behind, being blown into an oncoming lorry is a very real possibility.
East Germany. Entire timber and brick blocks ruined and burnt-out, windows smashed. Coloured tenements, scrubby hills with chimneys and radio towers, a schloss on the hill to the south-east. The icy wind burns my face. Snow on the hills on the horizon. Completely numb fingers. The roads are atrocious. I stop at a McDonald’s for a coffee, and when I look for money in my jacket pocket I find two tubes of sugar from the ferry still in my pocket, and it takes a moment to tell them apart from my frozen bloodless fingers. Three hours we’ve been on the road, and have covered fewer than 90 miles.
Sometime in the early afternoon, seven monster Japanese bikes appear suddenly all around me, roaring like fighter jets, their burly middle-aged pilots revving and shouting to one another, leaping between traffic lights and revving in tunnels. They ignore me completely and I’ve wondered why, until just now, when I saw my reflection in a showroom window and understood why: two pairs of unwashed socks tucked under a bungee strap to dry. Not cool.
Triangle of Death
Snow lies beneath the trees on either side, with steep slopes leading to rushing streams amongst the rocks. A small-gauge railway reminds me that a camp was near here. During the war, this area was known as the Triangle of Death.
The others have long gone and I’m sorry to see them go because it means that the worrying clunk of my own bike are now audible again, as well as shaking her head badly at low speeds.
Climbing out of the valley and back into the dangerous gusting wind, hunched behind the screen, one hand on the throttle, the other shoved deep into my crutch, behind the tankbag. The young trees that line the road don’t even twitch in the gale, while I’m like Quasimodo here. It’s coming from the north now, from a sky that could’ve been drawn by a child let loose with a pencil on a sheet of grey paper: smudged, dull, uninteresting.
We pass widely-spaced trees by the road, several of which bear the becoming-familiar barkless scar and a jar or two of mournful flowers. Three graves in a single mile.
Crissing and crossing
Some towns are deserted, canyons of sheer wall. Some villages are very rough indeed. And here’s this single-track railway again, that we’ve been crissing and crossing all afternoon. It’s so cold, as the route demands that the wind swings round from behind to left to right, that my left ear actually hurts, inside the open-faced helmet.
And now it begins to hail, hard and suddenly. I squint at the mountains, as pea-sized hailstones pelt my face. Thank God I’ve got a scarf to hand to protect my exposed face. I do have such a scarf ready to hand – I’m not a fool, you know – so all I’ve got to do is to pull over, stop, get off, dig deep into the rucksack, and there it would be, ready to hand.
Meat and hair
Reminded to check controls every single time you think of it – once a minute. I was very nearly caught out by an 8-Series BMW just now who suddenly appeared not in my mirror but right beside my knee – and going like hell. If I’d drifted a hand’s-width to the left one second beforehand he’d have had a party anecdote, while I’d have been shovelled, all meat and hair, into a sandbag.
I’ve been aware that it’s been quickly getting darker (cue thunder and lightning, for real), but it’s only when I angrily flash an oncoming car and he angrily flashes me back that I realize that I am, in this lowering cloud and light, still wearing my sunnies. What a mighty dickhead I am.
In Bad Lausick there are no IH signs anywhere, unless you use bloody good map reading to accidentally take the correct road out and then see a small, lone sign two miles out and even then have to ask someone who waves a vague hand and says, ‘up there somewhere’. It was up there somewhere, but there’s no-one on reception. Tired, buzzing, cold, starving. Bastards.
Beer on the haus
The young man on reception is a pale, overweight personification of everything I think a young man should not be. Bad skin, thinning hair, thick lips. Breasts. He explains that he was away from the desk because he was emailing his mother about his military service. “You still have conscription here?” He pulls a face. “Two thousand troops in Afghanistan, for dying, then one thousand to Zaire for UN election monitoring. After this, I will go into supermarket management”. I tell him he is doing the right thing and he kindly gives me a beer on the haus. We all have our place, and supermarket management is his. Freezing and suffering on my bloody old motorbike is mine.
Hands shaking from nine hours on the road, but I feel good. From my room, one window shows a scene of a tree-lined meadow, blood-tinged with the setting sun, while the other one shows only heavy, dark, serious rain. What was that about supermarket management?