July 12th and 13th Going home

13th July
The ferry trip was calm and uneventful. Before we left Holland, up on the sundeck I watched for an hour as a driver loaded large trailers of refrigerated produce (the sound of all the refrigeration units was deafening) up on the top deck. I could not work out how cleverly he arranged them so that there were literally only a few inches to spare on the whole deck. I wondered whether he had a scheme because not only did he need to shunt each one up there, he need to turn these 40 foot long monsters then make his own getaway and reappear for the next one.

As I watched, huge ships of huge containers sailed toward the setting sun and I had a strong sense of the vastness of the volume of European trade and the sheer physicality and scale of its components.

As I felt leaving Portsmouth, there is something about sea travel and sea borne freight that connects with a long long history, in a way that flying does not.

After fish and chips and a glass of wine, I stopped into the very air-conditioned smoking room. These rooms seem to always be full of interesting marginal characters, the respectable having sensibly given up the habit. A Dutch couple are there and a man with a long greasy ponytail and in a kilt arrives and immediately engages them in hushed and intense conversation – within about 3 minutes we know that he joined the navy at 19, fought in the Falklands, had a Dutch girlfriend and a friend who was killed in the conflict and his attitudes to sex and relationships. The couple are genuinely interested and moved. Its time to leave and get to bed. I know we will be woken up at 5.30 and I have made the mistake of staying up too late on this ferry – though that was going out where you lose an hour. Up on the deck while counting the trucks I remarked to myself ‘I made it’. Like the last trips, enjoyable and grueling, sometimes boring, full of fundamental self-doubt, the journeys have small moments of intense satisfaction.

An escape – but into a dangerous storm. Reader, read on…

sunday 11th July

I managed to escape from unfriendly Netherlandish campsite. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the manageress, who when I attempted to purchase my second night of beer supplies asked me my plot number then warned me to bring back the bottles, probably had nothing against me personally. I found the whole site like a stiff suburb of some Dutch town, definitely not cool progressive Amsterdam. Those people, mostly middle-aged some slightly younger with children, just sat on their chairs in their white replica homes, the women cooking even vacuuming up aftewards. It was an achievement to get a muttered greeting and eye contact. I felt like an outsider. In the night there was fantastic sheet lightening and rain. Today’s riding, 135 miles was the best of the whole trip a route that hugged the Mosel from just after Trier to Cochem (which I just pronounced so badly to a friendly well tanned and well oiled anglophile German who welcomed me to the site, that he had no idea where I was talking about till I showed him the word on the map. ) There I had a lunch of sausages and bacon in a kind of glazed onion sauce with beautifully chilled bitter lemon. It was the perfect place to stop. Then I headed off the river route and found myself near the Nurburgring. (That’s an ex-formula 1 race track for those who don’t know). I had been toying with the idea of paying for a circuit to kill time (not myself) tomorrow. I pulled up by the side of the road along with a few dozen others and watched for a while. It was mostly cars with the occasional bike and they were going SO fast – tyre squealingly fast that I gave up immediately any idea of trying it out. After that I missed a turn and Emily directed me down what turned out to be 4 mile gravel track through a deeply wooded valley, complete with hairpin bends damp and dark at the bottom. I rode incredibly cautiously but thought that this is what the GS is made for. It certainly coped with the slippery terrain.

Despite nearly stopping at an impostor site just a mile away from this one, I found site number 509 in the asci book, 509 being the number of the house I was born and grew up in. This site is very different to the previous Dutch suburb. I was greeted first by the garulous gardener I mentioned then by a Dutch woman appologising for her lack of English. Like other German sites from last year I remember, if not full of the ubiquitous sober Dutch, Deutsche sites can be filled with working class Germans, with their loud radios, and big dogs. In fact there was a dog fight followed by a big argument with racial overtones as one family sounded distinclty eastern to me, as they replayed some of the argument as they walked back past my tent cannily planted under trees unlike at the last place. ‘Fuckyoo’ was what one of the women was asked to do. There is a word for the English that non-English speakers speak to eachother. I can’t remember what they call it, but this would be an example of it. On the steps to the 1950s style washrooms sat a heavily sweating woman of great bulk and slightly advancing years, explaining to me some woe that included her beating her breast and saying Mea Culpa. The showers seem to need a coin called a 1 Munt piece. I don’t have any Munt with me, various euros and cents but no munt.

Tomorrow the ferry leaves at 2200 hours. The ride should take 3 hours. If I left at 10am I could ride there, back here and then back again and still make the ferry. Tonight its the world cup final, Holland vs Spain and they will be showing it in the bar. I can’t wait. I wonder if there will be violence.

Monday 12th July
What a day. I’m sitting in the dry safely in the odd Stenna terminal restaurant that has rebranded itself as a Sushi bar since I was last here complete with Japanese waitresses. After keeping dry all the trip 5 minutes away from the terminal, riding along the narrow raised road to the ferry, the heavens opened, the sky darkened and a fierce wind blew up. Within a few seconds I could barely see anything through my annoying sun glasses, also the wind was driving me sideways toward the bank apart from when one of the many big trucks went by in which case I was sucked into the oncoming traffic. Scary. At the first opportunity I pulled over onto a cobbled road sloping down toward some houses and sat on the bike with the hazards flashing feeling, in a matter of five seconds, the rain get into my boots which filled up, down my neck and into my trousers. In the sideways wind on the slope I couldn’t do a thing even kick the bike out of gear so sat there in a state of shock, with the traffic roaring by and the trucks sending plumes of water down over the bank. Bit by bit I managed to regain some composure and get some proper glasses out and the rain abated enough to contemplate getting back onto the carriageway. A large truck coming to a stop in the traffic left a big space for me and I started moving the bike back up the slope to the road but a white van, driven by white van man doubtless (or white vaan maan) sped passed me about a foot away as he shot off the main road. Trying to look (for the benefit of the truck driver watching this from a judgemental height) like I get close to an accident everyday, I pulled out and could just about see enough to proceed on the remaining mile or two to the terminal. When I got here, slightly shaken, I must say, I emptied the rains out of my boots and rang out my gloves, sitting on the edge of a pillar on a place on the concrete that I have sat one or two times before in my interminable waits here.

Last night I joined a motley crew of a Dutch couple, the manageress and cook (one person) who sat right in the background in the campsite and a rather mad bearded German (who continually got up to shout ‘Rousch rousch’ to watch the world cup final which annoyingly went to extra time. The concensus in the bar was for the Netherlands, of course but personally I was pleased that Spain won. I thought their players far more good looking with nicer hairstyles than the largely bald Dutch. Whilst at the campsite I did wonder that none of the buildings resembled the rather classy restaurant that features in the ASCI handbook (and the well-stocked shop that’s mentioned was nowhere to be found). As I rode off I noted that nice looking classy building in what appeared to be another campsite the entrance to which was at the other side of the carpark I stopped in and did not spot. It turns out I had stayed with the plebs in the site that seemed to be aimed at a clientelle on benefits but don’t regret a moment. My ham omelette was personally whisked for me by the sweet lady who called me the Englander and added up my bill’s three components wrong. and the potato salad with hard boiled egg chopped in done fresh every morning. During the night I am sure I felt a muffled movement inside my pillow. I came to the conclusion that I had set up camp over one of the many rabbit holes in the ground and that a rabbit was attempting to pop out for a midnight excursion exactly underneath where my head was. I checked this out in the morning to see if my theory was right but there were no burrows to be seen. Strange. The gardener came back and gave me a small token which was a really touching gesture.

Today, with about seven hours to ride the 3 hour journey I also managed to drop and lose my gloves but retraced my steps at one of the service stations and recover them and then drop my Garmin unit taking chunks out of the screen. Finally for such a dramatic journey, about an hour into it, while still in Germany, the sky turned brown and a hot wind blew up. Leaves careered across the motorway. I wondered whether this strange dust storm was blowing over the border from the Netherlands in some kind of mourning for their lost football match. Its still windy outside, promising an interesting sailing. In the parking area of a service stations I discussed the heatwave and humidity with a very elderly man with a noticeably younger wife while he was stamping out a cigarette. He made a point of telling me ‘in the bed room it is very hot’,

Today I’ve learnt that when one minor disaster happens, just keep calm and do nothing as a more significant one may happen as a result of your lack of composure. For the remainder of today I just need to successfully ride the bike up to the ferry deck without falling off and make it up the stairs to my cabin. I am looking forward to dinner and a glass of wine and to showering and getting in to dry clothes.

Friday 9th July Northwards from Geneva

I’ve been travelling relentlessly north from Geneva for the last couple of days. Last night I rode 240 miles from geneva to a so called biker hotel in the Black Forrest.

Like my other experience in a biker hotel, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of people travelling by motorcycle. This hotel was dominated by a work convention of about 20 men, a Turkish family with three small children and a drunk man wearing a towel in stead of trousers who offered me, when I sat down to order a drink and dinner ‘a speech’. ‘What kind of speech?’ I asked, ‘a political speech?’ ‘No, personal, emotional’ he replied in rather hectoring English. “no thanks’, I replied, ‘I prefer my own solitude’. Luckily he didn’t persist though he annoyed everyone else there despite being ushered away by the waitress. It was so nice to arrive there, drenched in sweat as usual and catch sight of crisp white sheets and pillows bumfed up to look like two fruit.

I had a minature television, specially adapted I think, to show only utter crap, and free wifi. It was another small German town to add to my collection, a bit affluent, sleepy but pretty and set in beautiful hilly woodland.

Today I plugged in the coordinates of what looked like a really pretty campsite near Trier but didn’t examine the route too closely. As I feared, I was taken into France via ghastly bits of Strassbourg and got hopelessly lost in Saarbruken, also on the border of France and Germany. (it made me realise how easy it would have been for the German army in the war to march over into France.) In the morning I investigated cutting this holiday short. I was actually getting a little tired and bored of the travelling. I phoned up Stenna as i have a flexi ticked (at extra cost). It was too early to find them at home then remembered the free wifi. I could have done with a day less but Sunday night was booked out. I was on the verge of clicking yes to Saturday night, at about 80 pounds more then realised that its not every day of the week that I find myself with nothing to do but ride my motorbike and cook meals on a stove. I would regret those lost couple of days so decided to stick with it.

This must be the unfriendliest campsite I have every visited, or perhaps it is the woman in charge who has never discovered eye contact or that kind of ‘its a pleasure to have you staying here because after all we depend on people coming back for our livelihood’ approach. Exhausted I pitched my tent in the corner she pointed out on the site map then realised there was no shade. Its right next to a heavily wooded hillside so once the sun sank a little I was out of the scorching sun.

It has been so humid and may well rain tonight (it always seems to when I camp). I will stay two nights here then maybe the last night in a hotel in Antwerp to visit that interesting town. I have a kind of killing time feeling now but don’t want to give in to it. There are some interesting medieval towns right near here (one of them would be walking distance if it wasn’t so humid) so I will ride around and investigate.

On Sunday night the Netherlands play Spain in the world cup final. This site is populated by the Dutch almost entirely and they are nearly all gloomy apart from the man next to me who once I had expressed admiration for his beautiful vintage Citroen, chatted to me about his collection of vintage motorcycles. You seem to appreciate beautiful machines I told him. This gave him a big smile.

Eventually the site owner allowed me to purchase some beers. My next chores are washing up and applying myself with insect repellant.

Les Gets, July 6th

Yesterday I rode the 195 miles over to Les Gets where my friend Geoff owns an apartment. The ride was again through some lovely mountainous terrain though I stuck to the main routes in spite of tolls which a lot of people seem to avoid paying leaving the motorways quite empty. Les Gets is a busy little town dominated by sports and outdoor activities, small groups of cheeky children led by slightly irritated youth leaders, and lots of shops selling such nice looking stuff that it makes you want to take up each of these sports.. There are also lots of restaurants and shops selling regional food. So it feels very thriving and there are some English voices on the street. As you can imagine it was a relief to get here and get really clean and wash my clothes in a washing machine so that they come out smelling nice! I’m really looking forward to going out for a meal. I’ve been eating frugally for a little too long. Even last night we had bread and cheese which is nice at first (the cheeses are lovely) but I am getting sick of.. At Geoff’s invitation and partly to rise to the challenge I parked my bike in the damp underground car park down a steep and twisty ramp. I’m already wondering about how well I will drive it out again.

the right way around a roundabout in France

After a week on my own I hear my voice now in conversation with another human and today there is the negotiation about how we spend the time which I just had not thought about in advance. Last night, in spite of being on a nice firm mattress (i.e. not on the ground) I didn’t sleep that well. One or two things were on my mind. Tomorrow evening is when I have arranged to arrive at Severine and family in Geneva, so for once I have nearly two days to decide how to fill. This is a novel experience and reminds me how the travelling each day and camping means I’ve been able to avoid those kinds of decisions.

Les Gets

I’m at Geoff’s appartment in Les Gets after 195 miles of easy riding. I remember arriving before he arrived and picking up the key from a secret place.

feeling free to make a mess

Maybe that’s what I need – a network of flats and friends over Europe. That would make much more sense than the endless riding from campsite to campsite. I need to work on it.

In Geoff's flat in Les Gets
Ah a washing machine at last