6am in France. Why are these road markings so difficult? Ahh, my first lesson. Doing a roundabout clockwise at is not correct. Roundabouts are anti-clockwise on the continent sonny-boy. D’oh. Gives me a mantra for each time I get on the machine: “drive on the right, nice and steady”.
A beautiful start along the Loire. Plumes of autumn mist rising off the river. Pottering along enjoying the warm low-sun orange shades of autumn. All quite idyllic. Manage a whole 89 kilometres in a day. India by 2020.
Delays in Nantes near an outdoors shop mean I have now bought just about every feasible knick- knack conceivable. Can’t stop that ‘what if?’ question now it has gotten a grip. There have been miles of what-if thinking across France. Today I added CO2 canisters for quick inflation of tyres. The luggage sticks out both sides now.
Never done a tunnel before; hell, I’ve never ridden a motorbike before. The ones under the Alps are like descending into the steamy bowels of hell. Ten miles of diabolical duodenum. I wanna get off, I wanna get off. Catch a big rain on exit and find that all the waterproof clothing in the world can’t stop that chilled gonads moment. That first trickle to reach the family jewels is an unforgettable experience only bikers can understand.
Get cut up on the autostrada by a hearse at 120kph. These roads make me appreciate how well Britain regards safety. Green for go, explains my Italian friend, red for stop—if you want—and flashing amber for whatever.
I keep dropping the bike. Each time a bit more of my number plate cracks off. None of the international borders has been a problem, but my luck won’t hold forever. I have only three digits left. I go to a print shop. When the guy hears the problem he drops what he is doing and puts a new one together in a couple of hours. A handmade number plate from Rome: my first custom part. Illegal, but mine was broken wasn’t it?
My first breakdown. The bike not me. Somewhere after Napoli the bike begins to make strange noises from under the seat, like it’s trying to start all the time, even though the motor is running. I get to the service station and find the mechanic. He does his best, but it’s a motorbike. He does cars. At this point back home the guy would point to the yellow pages and go back to his achieving his bosses’ targets. Not here. He starts the bike, opens up the back door (illegally letting me off the toll road) and gets a mate to guide me to the local bike shop. Not before arranging to pick me up later to organise a hotel.
The bike mechanic—‘el pirato’—soon sees the problem. The starter motor has packed in—maybe something to do with the acid that has been pouring out of the battery. Knew I should have learnt how to fill it. Apparently just leaving it for several weeks across Europe while high-speed driving in Summer temperatures has the effect of losing water. And this is a bad thing. Now I know.
As well as a free ride to the hotel and negotiation in Italian for a discount, the mechanic picks me up in the morning and takes me back to the bike. El pirato takes a starter motor off a brand new Transalp sitting in his showroom and puts it in mine. The cost is about forty quid. This is crazy. This should take a week, cost a minor limb and involve experts sucking teeth while shaking heads over folded arms. Instead I am back on the road in under 24 hours. What is it about motorcycles? People seem to realise that travelling on them is a kind of higher calling.
I realise that setting off across the world on a motorcycle I will have to rely on others’ help a great deal. So far so good. That freedom thing people write about is kicking in. All the world seems before me. Arsenal are playing in Prague tomorrow evening. I could go. I won’t. I don’t like arsenal. But to be able to. There’s the thing.
Oh no. Greece also has a fuel strike. Stuck for seven days in Metsovo. A tourist trap town. The restaurants won’t serve us. Don’t know why. We go in, get ignored, hear some derisive comments and leave sheepishly after a few minutes perplexed. So I cook pasta on my camping stove on the balcony in the driving rain. I thought people liked travellers. Throw away some useless knick knacks.
Eventually get out over the Kkatari pass in thick fog. Five metres visibility. This is a new experience. When is this going to be fun again? Good job I can’t see down those drops.
Why am I doing this again? Maybe a thirtysomething crisis, who knows? Why do anything? A librarian had pointed me to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 14. So maybe that was the seed that sprouted one April morning cycling to work in the rain. I remember pulling off the road and smiling yeah, why not, why not? Maybe my teaching was better that day. A few months later, here I am, having a thoroughly miserable time on the other side of Europe. Hurumph, hurumph.
Istanbul is turning out to be quite a European city. The streets are wide. The shops very modern: coffee shops, boutiques and bookshops, all with the obligatory fashionable blond wood. Only the skyline minarets are an oriental reminder. I am too late for Byzantine Constantinople. Hold back a moment of resentment; it’s unreasonable to ask a whole city to live in medieval costume just for my benefit. Throw away some more knick knacks.
It is cold. Should have left earlier in the summer. So I buy a full-length thermal underwear set. Now look like one of those gold-greedy pioneers in the US west just before he gets tarred and feathered. For some reason wearing it makes me want to do a knees in the air dance and sing show tunes. Paint my wagon you son of a gun.
I stay for a week collecting visas eating fried fish in bread handed to me off the boats. These fish never get landed. From sea, to net, to mouth. Now there’s fresh.
The guy in the Turkish AA office gives me insurance even though I don’t have the appropriate papers. Preconceptions about Turkish bureaucracy defied.
A toss up between ploughing on across the cold central Anatolian mountains and going to the south where, as everyone keeps saying, you can still swim in the sea. Easy one. The drive south is a treat. Bright light and cold shadows taking turns down the valleys; sweeping roads and orange leaf fall; sun streaming through their veins and sparkling off the lakes. Autumn is a beautiful golden season.
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