Brighton To Landshut 27th - 28th June 2000
Troubles Of A European Traveller
Let’s start with the facts. Taking a car ferry to France and driving to Munich is not an epic voyage. It is neither difficult nor dangerous and cannot in any way be compared with Lady Hilary Fipps’s camel trek across Africa in 1923 or Major Poopington-Smyth’s one legged limp across Antarctica last year; however if you are one of those rare breed of idiots who arrogantly thinks they can sort it out as he or she goes along and therefore does no research or planning whatsoever, then said journey can prove fraught with difficulties. We may all be Europeans together these days, but some of us are definitely more European than others.
I set out at 07:00 on 27th June from my house in Brighton with a plan consisting of "Ride to Newhaven, Catch the ferry, Ride to Landshut…." Perhaps there were other details of my plan, if so they were so flexible or so vague as to be practically irrelevant. You will ask if I had a map. I did not. No map of Germany, no map of France, not even a map of England, or of the shifting sand banks beneath the English Channel. There was in fact a chronic shortage in the cartography department. Still in this the age of the 24 hour "international microwave come petrol station", where they can sell you anything from a laminated cheeseburger to a greasy pair of sunglasses at any time of day or night, map shortages were scarcely likely to be a problem. (As it turned out, not knowing the way hardly registered on the problem scale).
I located Newhaven in roughly the same place as I last saw it, a whole 30 minutes from my house, and stood in a queue with two school parties of whining kids and teachers (Isn’t it difficult to tell the difference these days) for a further 40 before being told that as I had a "voucher" I didn’t need to queue up at all. "Why didn’t you tell me that 40 minutes ago !" I grumbled,
"Because you didn’t ask dearie" she replied, which shut me up.
The ferry crossing itself has to be one of the most tedious experiences known to mankind and basically consists of 300 or so adults each desperately trying to make a £1.50 polystyrene cup of coffee last as long as possible whilst refusing to look either at the "stewardess" who is desperately trying to clear away your last cup and get you to buy another, or out of the window for the hundredth time at the desperate lack of view. The two large grey blocks are the sky and the sea, the large grey block that suddenly slides in front of the other two is Dieppe.
Dieppe is like any other fishing village that became industrialised in the 1930s and last received an honorary coat of paint forty years ago. The only way you know it isn’t Newhaven is by the number of scooters everywhere and an unpleasant taste of polystyrene in the back of your mouth. From Dieppe you can follow signs to Paris or Rouen. Neither was on my list of waypoints which started "Dieppe - Amiens" but I took the Rouen route on the grounds that I was sure I didn’t want to go to Rouen but VERY sure I didn’t want to go to Paris.
I contemplated buying a map but I had no French francs (there being no Bureaux de Change at the port or on the boat) and visa was not on without a petrol purchase. Luckily Amiens is signposted once you are safely out of Dieppe.
The route to Amiens was not beautiful. It is a poor agricultural area whose farming lands were destroyed by four terrible years of warfare. Today its main source of income is from tourists visiting the mass graveyards that line the roads. Death and the past hang over the fields like a damp fog and even the sun struggles to get through. I was here once before long ago and visited those places, when I knew less about death and sorrow Tyne Cott, Paschendale, Hell Fire Corner, Ypres….. I was saddened then but I was to be much sadder later that day.
After what seemed like an age I passed a roundabout and entered the motorway. It was dead straight for mile after mile and totally deserted, a good place to test my bike I thought. It was dull but fast, but the boredom of driving on a deserted motorway was about to be broken. Bubbling up out of the tarmac heat haze were a series of concrete toll huts and steel barriers.
"Parlez vous Anglais?" No chance matey where do you think this is America ?
She shrugged not even understanding my French.
"Je allez Metz, Riems…." I thought she was going to cry.
"Combien Strasbourg ?" Now I too was on the edge of tears. Surely there was enough there even for a state official to work with. Another car drew up to the barrier coming in the other direction. A businessman.
"Pardonez moi Monsieur, parlez vous Anglais ?"
He looked at me and drove off. Clearly a shit. By now a convoy of lorries was beginning to build up behind my bike. Their brakes hissed and belched at me. I got the message and wheeled my bike to one side.
"Le billet" I pointed to the ticket machine "Combien ?" I opened up a newly acquired map of France and pointed at Strasbourg. "Je allez" and I traced my finger over the route. She was utterly lost and shouted something over my head to another driver who had appeared behind me.
"Uh Where do you want to go ?….I see" He clearly didn’t. "It is difficult to say you know…" I was getting the picture, In fact I had it pretty bloody clearly by now and was contemplating riding round the barrier and sticking my fingers up at both of them.
"How much does it cost ? …..Why don’t you know…don’t you have tourists…?"
"Between 200 and 300 francs. We can’t say." They studied a chart of tariffs.
"Give me that." I took it found Amiens on one edge and Strasbourg on the other where the two lines met was a box with the number 275 in it. "Two Hundred & Seventy Five Francs then" I said efficaciously offering my credit card. Predictably both were totally bemused and presumably stunned by my managerial instincts.
"Non no non" Moaned the linguist petulantly. "In France we is paying at the end. We is taking the ticket, driving the car and paying with the destination."
"Je Comprend. Merci. Fuckwit"
I stuck my fingers up as he swaggered back to his car and rode up to the barrier. Naturally my bike was not heavy enough to trigger the machine. I shall be writing to Mr Berlitz soon with some suggestions for a new chapter in his phrase book.
Slowly the calming tone of the bikes engine and the whistling wind blasting my face got the better of me. It was history, and now I had a nice ride through beautiful countryside to enjoy.
"Trois Francs Si vous plait" What? "Trois Francs Monsieur"
Suddenly swarms of car drivers were all around me daintily handing neatly sorted piles of coins through their windows with limp wrists. Three francs right ?
I looked at my mileometer I looked at my watch and a slow search of zipped and velcroed pockets began.
The bike was clearly as irritated by the constant stopping and starting as I was. The front wheel of the bike felt light and started to twitch. Perhaps something was wrong. I couldn’t get the bike to lean over properly into the corners either and I began to take them wide. I slowed down and the problem worsened. Then the bike refused to turn at all and started to slow down without me braking. It coasted into the side of the road and halted. To say that the back tyre was flat would be an understatement. There was no back tyre at all.
If you are extremely lucky, or lead an extremely boring life it is possible that you have never been in a situation where you are totally at a loss, totally unable to do anything or think of anything to do or of anyway to do it. It is possible you have never crossed the channel on the Newhaven Dieppe ferry or driven on a French motorway, if so you will not be able to understand how depressed, worried, helpless and even frightened I felt at that moment. Let me explain.
I have two mobile phones, super multi-whizz RAC cover, a credit card and a Berlitz French phrase book. Theoretically no problem. However I don’t speak any French, my phrase book doesn’t mention motorbikes, my mobile phones (one English one German) don’t work in France, my current bike isn’t covered by my RAC cover despite the fact that it automatically covers all vehicles I drive (but not in France where insurance is different) and I have virtually no money on the credit card. Oh yes, and its Monday which means all the shops (including garages) in the area are closed today.
I managed to get the bike to an out of town shopping centre here at least I thought I could make some calls and puzzle out a solution over a coffee. But fate had plenty more cruel blows for me. I’m probably being naïve here but didn’t phoneboxes use to have telephone books in them? It was a great idea, an early internet if you will, a directory of motorcycle garages and recovery services in your area all wrapped up in one delightful paper bound package. Maybe I imagined them. Apparently France doesn’t have them anymore anyway. The pay phones in France use a special Nationalised card system. You can buy a phone card in any French Telecom shop. The phones don’t take credit cards and the out of town shopping centre did not contain a Telecom shop. It did contain a MacDonalds however which had driven off any other competition. So I didn’t even get my coffee.
A passing teacher (she could have been a student of course, or indeed a policeman) took pity on me. She was keen to try out her new and improved English, English of course being not quite so popular in France as it was when we ruled it. I had tried German on the grounds that they were over there more recently than us but it seems that the Krauts are right up there with the English, the Australians, the Americans and the rest of the world when it come to people the French hate most.
Jasmin insisted on taking me on an impromptu tour of Amiens. Sadly there was no flying carpet and no magic genie to fix my bike, but there was a battered old Fiat and a friend who knew someone.
"There is one more…he may be able to help but I don’t know….We see him now…."
I nodded smiled and followed whilst trying to think of something more constructive to do.
"The RAC are supposed to help out motorists…. I’m an RAC member…Where’s the number…In my electronic address book….Where’s my electronic address book…..In my flat in Germany……"
"There is just one more… I promise….he is a friend… he can help you….."
There’s no getting round the fact that Amiens is a total failure. Every so now and again somebody comes along and donates a cathedral or a Circus or a clock tower to help get the place going again. Maybe there’s a competition, posters and prizes and maybe just maybe Amiens experiences a bit of a Renaissance for a few days, but come the following week, sure as Paris isn’t the right route from Dieppe, its all over again for another century and for Amiens at least its back to business as usual. Monday the 27th June saw business as usual somewhere else .
The motorcycling school was open even if the garages weren’t. The guy behind the desk came straight from a 1930s poster. "Why not take the whole family on a cycling holiday this year, why not treat yourself to a Wangman Masters Cigarette, Why not carry a puncture repair kit……? what kind of an example was I setting for his students (or maybe they were his teachers, or maybe just some passing policemen). I had by now managed to work out that the problem must be the valve and not a puncture but my French was not quite up to "Piss off matey" and curiously that entry was also missing from my Berlitz Phrase book.
"Ah up here there is one…I do not know its name but it is somewhere here…..It is the very last one in all of Amiens…..Ah here it is…..Alas it is shut also today…."
My German mobile phone, which you will remember does not work in France is a wealth of useless out of date information, a hotchpotch of badly synchronised address books from generations of discarded mobile phones. A search for RAC produced nothing (a brief moment of hope cruelly dashed by the luminous yellow letters unemotionally stating "Entry Not Found In Index"). But us computer whizzes are not phased by such a superficially ambiguous answer. By devious methods known only to those who have studied the ancient Chinese arts of the "Next" & "Previous" entry buttons, a number for the "RAC" was obtained
Now I have already told you that it was not possible for me to use my mobile in France, but I haven’t yet told you that it isn’t possible to dial the RAC free phone number from Jasmine’s mobile phone either. This number is not free from mobile phones and naturally needs an international dialing prefix from France, Jasmine’s phone is French but appears to dislike foreigners. She told me she often had problems dialing other teachers in Algiers, (or were they students, or maybe it was her bank manager….). The public payphone, the one that doesn’t take credit cards, did take Jasmine’s French phone card however. It took the whole thing, swallowed it up on one call for me.
"RAC rescue Tracy speaking how may I help you today….?"
"It is for you….she is talking now….."
"Hallo Hallo ?"
"It is the special Emergency people yes….Maybe they can help you….."
"No you want our French number 0800..beep beep beep"
There was no point arguing with our non-communicative phone box. Our time was clearly up.
Jasmine’s mobile phone was in its element. It had been fitted with gleaming new batteries and had been given a new number to try. A French number. It whistled it beeped, hourglass icons and lightning bolts flew across its tiny screen. Jasmine smiled delightedly and rapidly handed it to me.
"There she is ready now …it is for you…..Non don’t press anything just speak….she will hear you now…"
But she couldn’t hear me because Madame RAC did not pick up the phone. Not for another two hours and by then both Jasmine and her xenophobic little mobile phone had gone to work, leaving me and her used up phone card on a grass verge outside a MacDonalds drive thru, itself just outside Amiens.
Although it seemed that Jasmine had wasted her afternoon for nothing, that was not actually true. She had bought me time, the time needed to calm down, get a grip and sort out a plan. I was no longer some pathetic stranded tourist without a friend in the world, I was now once again Super British Biker Bloke.
I shot a longing glance at the MacDonalds but couldn’t force myself to do it. No disaster was so great that you had to actually eat in MacDonalds. I symbolically put on my shades and lit up a cigar.
"OK so what's item number one on today’s agenda Margaret ?"
"It seems we’re experiencing a temporary breakdown situation in a hostile environment sir…"
"Ok George do we have any background information on this…We got a free phone help line number right?""OK George get our techie people working on those public payphones, I wanna know how to make a free call with one within the next 10 minutes. Margaret I want you to make me a list of local hotels. There’s bound to be some kind of local information board inside the mall and they’ll be a cash machine there as well. Come on people we’ve got a situation to resolve, lets move it….."
Madame RAC spoke English which came as both a major surprise and a relief.
"My registration number Jesus I don’t know I’ve only had the bike a week what do you think I am some kind of Autistic Number Freak ! …..One minute I’ll go and see……..Non Monsieur je telephonez moi Non Monsiuer …….." I ran back to my bike. Pen, paper ??? Ok Pen & Hand. Shit no bloody ink !
"Pardonez moi Monsieur ave vous les Biros ???"
I dialled again. Madame RAC was busy.
"And where are you now sir ….?" Why didn’t this stupid woman stop asking me irrelevant questions and just send somebody to help ? I looked at the description Jasmine had left me on a torn bit of paper.
"Uh the Geant Supermarket Glisy. That’s in Amiens. ….No Glisy is the name of the district…Yes its in Amiens….What no its like Milton Keynes, a lot of roundabouts surrounding the town, each one has a name……You’ve never been to Milton Keynes……Lucky you…No A.M.I.E.N.S …."
The old town of Amiens is surrounded by Industrial estates each of which has sprung up around an Autoroute junction, each of which has a name and each of which competes against the others for supremacy. Whatever feature one has they all have to have, subsequently there is a drive in MacDonalds and a Geant supermarket at every autoroute intersection. Now perhaps if Jules Verne had build his fabulous circus in an industrial estate rather than the town centre Amiens would be a very different place.
Madame RAC had broken the bad news about my lack of cover on the continent. "Ah it is a different motorcycle Monsieur, and the policy, she is changing every year." I would have to pay. Could the bill be invoiced via the RAC in the UK? "Sadly Non Monsieur". Did he take credit cards ? "I cannot say Monsieur, some of them do some of them don’t". I searched my phrase book for an appropriate expression but Monsieur Berlitz was not to be drawn on this subject. How long would the guy take and what his van look like ? "Half an hour Monsieur maximal. Non it is not like the UK here we are very good at service….The van sir I don’t know, they all have their own, they are all different !"
I stopped and searched nearly every van that entered the car park.
"You said 30 minutes it is now one and a half hours where is he !"
"He is with your bike now Monsieur…."
I hadn’t stopped the black four wheel drive executive Toyota.
French is the only language I know that can be spoken entirely using two words, "Merde" and "Non". The breakdown guy spent the entire time speaking to a string of callers on his mobile phone whilst smoking a cigarette. "Non ..Merde ! (To the phone) Non non non ! ( To me) Merde ! (To the heavens).
Madame RAC called the Toyota’s geosat phone. "Non" He gestured for me to take the phone.
I told Madame RAC that I was aware that all the bike shops in Amiens were shut today and that I would have to stay in a hotel overnight. Why was I travelling on Monday ? Just to annoy her naturally. "Merde!"
We pulled into another area of the industrial estate lined on one side with concrete bunkers proclaiming "Les Chambres Touristique". My repair guy veered across the road to the same side as the hotels, and proceeded to cruise along the left hand side of the street. Maybe he was short sighted, maybe he was just trying to make me feel more at home. "Non, non, non non non" He counted them off for me. "Merde !" An oncoming car also on the same side of the street. "Merde, Merde" we lurched up the curb and came to a halt in the front garden of one of the little concrete bunkers. He leapt out of the car and ran into the hotel. I followed him.
"Voici, neuf domain" He grunted. Pointing at the bunker. I told him it was very nice of him to offer to buy me dinner but I’d sort myself out and see him tomorrow.
"Non, non non" He shook his head. "Merde" and drove off with my bike on the wrong side of the road.
The owner took one look at me characterised, categorised and condemned all in one brief glance. She had obviously been a teacher, or a policeman or a bank manager in a previous life, and correctly assumed that I was not here by choice and would be paying the absolute minimum. She handed me a key and clearly regretted the fact that she didn’t have a room sufficiently vile. Warily she watched me disappear down the corridor taking mental notes of everything I touched, and making a list of everything that would have to be cleaned.
The room was tiny, with an even smaller bathroom which literally fitted inside a built in wardrobe. The bed was no more than two feet wide and the television bolted to the ceiling must have been at most seven inches corner to corner. I put my helmet down on the floor and stared out the window across the rubbish bins to the autoroute beyond. It was perfect for me although at 20 quid a night a touch expensive.
At 08:47 the reception desk telephoned the room to tell me that my repair guy had returned. If I wasn’t taking breakfast in the restaurant, then perhaps I’d like to check out. Well that fitted in with my plans anyway. But the new dawn had brought with it a new repair guy, indeed a new repair company and one of the oldest tow trucks this side of Cuba. The cab was dented and badly painted so that the colour underneath was visible through smeared patches. I tried not to take this as a measure of their ability and failed. Did I really want these people taking my precious bike to bits…?
Grumpy had however been replaced by one of the other seven dwarves and he sprung down from the cab to greet me. His red overalls were stained in the most curious places, arms and knees were clean but the centre of his back was a black splodge. I can’t even get my hands into that position had somebody else been wiping their hands on this guy ?
"Le moto eh Swish swish swish eh eh eh ?" He grinned and made a fish like movement with his right hand.
I was glad to see it firmly secured to the back of his truck and preferred not to think about what may have happened to it since I last saw it.
"Non non non" I replied pointing to the flat rear tyre.
"Ah merde!" He sighed knowingly, we were getting on great.
I jumped into the cab with him and we headed off back into Amiens. Chain smoking had clearly stunted his growth so that his head was not quite big enough for the pair of sunglasses he was wearing and every time his head turned round to check a junction they fell off. I couldn’t help laughing. He grinned back and tried to change the subject.
"la circulation eh, Merde !" he scoffed and pointed at the swarming mass of vehicles choking up the road.
"Ah la moto swish swish swish" I stated knowingly and he agreed. Now I was really speaking his language.
Amiens’ Honda centre doesn’t look like much from the outside. A run down old warehouse by the river with a tatty white boarded up front. I had seen the faded Honda logo the day before on my tour with Jasmine, naturally it was the first place we tried. The door was open but the shop was apparently deserted.
As I neared the door I smelt that special smell, that special "its going to be alright we’re professionals" smell. It was rubber, it was chrome, it was leather, and polish mixed together, it was oil and plastic and most of all it was the smell of money. In the darkness row after row of gleaming new Hondas and motorcycle accessories sat silently awaiting new owners. Directly opposite me facing the main entrance was a brand new Blackbird. My bike was going to be ok.
My friendly recovery dude returned with another guy in blue overalls. He too was a chain smoking dwarf but his sunglasses had clearly melted with the heat of his cigarettes to the point where they barely covered his eyes. "Ah Merde Eh ?" he laughed as he wheeled the bike towards the warehouse. I shrugged Gallicly and searched my phrase book. To my surprise he took the bike he crossed the street and bounced the bike up the curb opposite. Perhaps he was parking the bike somewhere where it could wait its turn.
"Un heure ?" I asked hopefully "Non non non" I sighed. Another day wasted.
Suddenly I noticed one of the glass walls on the building opposite silently swing inwards, and I was sure Shorty (blue overalls) was getting shorter. Perhaps it was the heat haze confusing my eyes, perhaps it was Jules Verne’s original motorbike repair workshop, more likely it was just some guy I hadn’t seen pressing some big red button. Whatever it was I urge you to go and visit Amiens just to see one of the coolest Honda workshops in the world. Inside the grotty old warehouse every machine imaginable whirs away encased in a glass box, computers hang off moveable gantries and walkways pneumatically raise and lower themselves to get the mechanic in just the right position.
Shorty (red overalls) and I went off to do some shopping. That is to say he wanted paying in cash (approx £120 - which explains why he was so cheerful), and was escorting me to the nearest cash machine and back via a tobacconist to get the correct change. He chose a packet of Camel cigarettes, I chose a coffee. He refused to take my advice regarding sunglass purchase and I refused to take his regarding maintenance tips.
We laughed in a kind of mutual "what can you do" sort of blokish way and shared a smoke. Blue overalls turned out to be absolutely correct in his time estimation, an hour was much too long. The bike was ready 25 minutes later, the repairs having set me back about £18.
I thanked everybody profusely amidst great cries of "non non non", promised to return to Amiens someday (but not a Monday that’s for sure) and started the bike up. I opened the throttle enough to let all of Amiens known just how happy I was to have her back, slipped it into gear and rode off.
It was 10:30 on Tuesday 28th June. I was exactly 23 hours late.
Five and a half hours, sixteen toll booths, and a lot of mph later I crossed the border into Germany at Baden-Baden. I stopped at the first layby and joined an old couple watching barges pass through locks on the Rhine. I told them how happy I was to have left France, her motorways and her payphones behind me and to be in good old Germany again. Of course they were French and the war generation at that, but I didn’t care at all, and being French neither did they. Two hours later I parked my bike (on the centre stand naturally) in my garage in Landshut. We were here, we were safe, and it was only 90 minutes later than my original estimated arrival time. But best of all I had bonded with my new bike and come out of it with an amusing story to bore my mates with.