Feck the Itinerary

Motorcycle adventures and other stuff …

Moscow to Moscow – Tuesday, June 28th

July 4th, 2011

The distance from Ivangorod to Saint Petersburg is less than 100km, so we might reasonably have expected a short day. However, we lost an hour on crossing the border into Russia, so it was already late afternoon and we had yet to find somewhere to stay. JP had been expecting to stay with Alex, but Alex was not due back in Saint Petersburg until 7pm. He had kindly looked up a couple of hostels for us, and had sketched out directions to find them on a Post-it note. The sketch looked ominously like a bunch of grapes with some twirly stems. But it apparently represented some blocks of flats and a complicated series of junctions (which we were to ignore). However, Alex had assured John, it was all much more simple than it looked, “just follow the road into town until you reach a big arch and then turn left at the lights …”

Things started to go wrong with the directions, when we misinterpreted the word “Prospekt” for a street name. We dutifully followed Alex’s instructions, and ended up in an industrial area, quite clearly miles from the historic and beautiful centre of the City. We needed a rethink.

Of course, both the guys had Garmin. Unfortunately, neither have detailed Russian maps. This was no oversight. JR had ordered and received Russian maps a month or so earlier, but they turned out to be incompatible with his unit, rendering the Cyrillic alphabet as gobbledygook. Nevertheless, with his knowledge of the relative layout and geography of Saint Petersburg, John was sure that if he zoomed out to the large scale map, he should be able to pick a route to the centre.

Our renewed optimism was short-lived. After the first turn, the road ahead was closed and, unable to find an escape from the one-way street, we found ourselves heading back out of town. Then it started to rain …

We musThe magnificent Hermitage Palace, St. Petersburgt have gone round in circles for miles before John’s system paid off, and we arrived on Nevsky Prospekt … but we were a long way from Alex’s recommended hostels, and we had no way of getting reliable directions for alternative accommodation. We weren’t even quite sure how far we were from Saint Petersburg’s main tourist areas. The only thing we could say with any certainty at all was that we were all soaked through and thoroughly fed up. Somehow we hadn’t expected Saint Petersburg to be so … big!

Now it was my turn for a brainwave. What we needed most, I decided, was McDonalds: the comfort of a hot coffee and a Big Mac, and access to the Internet. In my best BBC Beginners’ Russian, I asked directions from a passer-by. Most of her reply was, of course, lost in translation.  We did establish that there was a branch about 2km further on, but we couldn’t find it. We spotted an Ibis Hotel across Ligrovsky Prospekt, but were prevented from getting to it by a railing separating the two lanes of traffic. The rain was still coming down in stair-rods and we could make no sense of the road system. We turned left and made a two or three kilometre det… Unfortunately the Hermitage is closed on a Mondayour before arriving back on Ligrovsky Prospekt.

The hotel was full, but the kind receptionist rang through to the Moscow Hotel and asked them to save a couple of rooms for us. The cost seemed exorbitant, but we were in no position to argue. JP declared that he would spend the following day searching for an alternative. Spirits were low and tempers were frayed. We badly needed a lift and, luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for things to start looking up.  John and I arrived back in the car park to find JP talking to some chap on a Harley. Maxim!

Maxim was in Saint Petersburg for a Harley Davidson rally and, at some point during the kerfuffle over finding a hotel, he had texted John to find out whether we had arrived in town. As soon as we were able to let him know that we were booked into The Moscow, he came over to meet us and find out our plans.

The Aurora, now a monument to the October RevolutionIn fact, Maxim was due to leave for home in Moscow the following evening and asked if there was any way he could be of help. JP, who had, regrettably, taken the brunt of the fallout over his inept couch-surfing friend’s directions, did not hesitate. “Yes please, Maxim. Please find us a decent hotel in Moscow … near the Metro, with bike parking and Wi-Fi.” “… for $50 per night”, added Maxim with a smile. “Absolutely”, said John, “… and then please meet us somewhere really, really, easy to find, and escort us to it!”

We agreed to meet on Wednesday in the car park at Ikea.

On Monday morning, we ate a strange and rather bland-tasting breakfast of anaemic sausages, “egg porridge” and “baked pudding”, in The Moscow Hotel’s enormous dining room. Then, equipped with a tourist map from the receptionist, we set off to explore Saint Petersburg on foot.

Top of the list was, of course, the Hermitage Museum, with its vast and priceless collection of treasures and antiquities from the era of the Tsars. Our guidebook told us that the Hermitage was founded in 1764 and comprises eight departments, housed in 350 halls. Unfortunately, if we had read to the bottom of the page, we would have noticed that it is closed on Mondays …View of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

We were disappointed, but it didn’t matter. The Hermitage is so huge, it is said that to see everything on display, you would need to visit the museum every day for three years.  Since we only had a day, it meant we could spend more time looking at other things. We took some photos and walked over the bridge to the impressive hexagonal Peter and Paul Fortress.  It is from this fortress, founded in 1703, that Saint Petersburg gains its name.  Originally called Saint Peter’s Burgh, the fortress was renamed Peter and Paul Fortress after the Peter and Paul Cathedral that was built there. We had a bite to eat at the Fort’s café and then continued on to see the Aurora battleship, launched in 1900 and is now, since its retirement in 1948, a monument to the October Revolution.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we had extremely sore feet.

Moscow to Moscow – Sunday, June 26th

July 4th, 2011

John Plumb had taken up the offer of a bed from “Couch Surfer”, Alex, a native of St. Petersburg, so we met up in McDonalds for Wi-Fi and a quick coffee, before tackling the border. We had been told that motorcycles don’t need to queue, which was reassuring, but it was clearly not going to be a particularly speedy transit.

First stop was the Bridge Toll office – illogically situated about 2km out of town. The Toll serves no purpose in the immigration process, other than to issue a ticket with a queue number on it : 1€ for a motorcycle, no change given!

The Narva Friendship Bridge forms the border between Estonia and RussiaWe rode back to the bridge and handed over our tickets. The Toll officer immediately raised the barrier and waved us through to the next stage … Polish Border Control. On the other side of the road, half a dozen Latvian and Lithuanian Harley riders were returning from a Rally in St. Petersburg. We noticed they didn’t hang around long. The Border Guard wasn’t interested in the purpose of our visit. He checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration, made an entry on his computer  and signalled to us to continue to the Bridge … passing all the waiting cars and lorries, and coming to a halt at the barrier on the Russian side.

The female Guard checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration again, and issued us with three forms: a multi-lingual immigration card, and duplicate copies of a customs form. In our haste to get the process over and done with, it took a moment to realise that the customs form was in German. It was quickly exchanged for an English version.

On to Border Control, and John Plumb’s MT350 was beginning to raise a few smiles. We showed the Customs Officer our Russian-language postcard, describing our trip. He glanced at it briefly before helping us to fill out our Customs forms correctly, gruffly marking crosses in boxes we had missed and then checking that we had correctly duplicated the entries on the second copy. By the time we reached the Immigration booth, there was genuine humour behind the stern façade. Dealing with our Immigration cards, the officer laughed as he told us that, two weeks earlier, he had seen some mad Brit who was planning to cross Siberia on a Honda 90! The gruff Customs officer, meanwhile, engaged in light-hearted conversation with John Plumb, as he proudly showed off the luggage-carrying capacity of his front-mounted ammo-carriers!

John Plumb proudly shows off his Russian Green CardImmigration completed, we wheeled our bikes forward a few paces to the Customs booth. With our forms correctly completed, this was really no more than a slightly time-consuming formality. Entries were made on the computer, and a cursory inspection was made of our luggage. Our forms were stamped up, and we were away … at least as far as the first Currency Exchange booth, where John Plumb also had to buy Green Card insurance for his bike. (JR and I are resident in France, and our bikes are French-registered. Our French Green Card is valid throughout Europe, including all the Baltic States, Russia and the Ukraine – though, in my case, the validity was only confirmed after the agent borrowed a pair of reading glasses!)

The whole “fast track” process took a couple of hours. But it was painless and good-humoured. There was no sign of any corrupt activity, and no money was taken off us, aside from the 1€ bridge toll. Cars and lorries, however, are a whole different ball game. Some can queue for 5 days to cross!

Moscow to Moscow – Friday, June 24th

June 27th, 2011

Wednesday had been an unsatisfactory day for so many reasons. Once again we had spent the whole day on the road, leaving ourselves limited options for an overnight stop and arriving too late for a proper meal.  We were not in the best of humour faced with a choice of flaccid microwave dishes and frothy beer at 10 o’clock at night.  Tomorrow would be different, we assured each other. We would get on the road early, eat authentic local food in characterful roadside cafes, and see a bit of the countryside – getting to Riga in plenty of time to enjoy the festivities. Well, that was the plan …

Thursday started well. We made ourselves coffee and were on the road by 7am. By 9am we were eating an Egg McMuffin breakfast at McDonalds in Suwalki, and taking advantage of their ever-reliable free WiFi. So much for the authentic local food!

Kodak moment, Lithuanian borderWe stopped for a Kodak moment at the Lithuanian border and again for lunch in a shopping centre in Marijanipole. Other than that, there didn’t seem an awful lot to stop for at all. The countryside was green and flat, the only visible settlements being the odd collection of dilapidated wooden shacks. The only diversions were roadside stalls selling home-grown produce. But we were more pre-occupied with staying Kodak moment, Latvian borderalive on a two lane highway that often accommodated up to four lanes of opposing traffic! Bus drivers in particular have no respect for distance from the vehicle in front, whether four-wheeled or two, and one or other of us frequently found ourselves forced onto the hard shoulder to make way. During our entire transit of the country, we only saw one building that might have been worth leaving the road for: an aerodrome motel, with an old Soviet Mig parked outside it! Despite the excellent road surface, it was with a certain amount of relief that we stopped for a photo at the Latvian border.

We pulled into Riga around 7pm. It was later than we had intended and we hadn’t researched anywhere to stay. Even so, it wasn’t a problem. It was a national holiday and no-one had any intention of sleeping tonight. We stopped next to the colourful market stalls in Kungu Iela, in the heart of the old city, and were quickly surrounded by friendly and helpful people – one of whom used his iPhone to locate a hostel for us. It didn’t take long before we were comfortably installed and back out on the street looking for dinner.

Party goers at Riga’s Midsummer FestivalIn fact, we could have probably saved ourselves some money and had an equally good, if not better, meal down by the river, where the party was in full swing. There were live bands, dancing (though none of it “naked”), barbeques, bonfires, beer and crowds of people, young and old, sporting flower or oak-leaf headdresses, joining in with the sing-a-long. Tradition has it that, during this ancient midsummer festival, everyone has to stay awake until dawn. If a young woman falls asleep before sunrise, it is said that she will never marry.Bonfires aplenty … but no naked dancing!

After our long day’s ride, we faded and went to bed around midnight but the revelry evidently continued without us. When we ventured downstairs at around 8.30am, the hostel manager was asleep on the sofa in the reception! Being a day ahead of schedule, we awarded ourselves a rest from the bikes and spent Friday exploring Riga.

On Saturday morning, we left for Narva, Estonia, and the Russian border.

 

Moscow to Moscow – Wednesday, June 22nd

June 25th, 2011

As we got into bed on Monday, I suddenly remembered … the banners!!! Having left them behind at the Ace, I had asked Jim to mail them to DHL’s depot in Berlin. Though it would have been convenient if I had collected them while the men were working on JP’s bike, the depot was the other side of the city and I am notoriously bad at using GPS. In fact, if John’s Garmin had anything to do with it, I probably would have got lost and spent the rest of the trip circling Berlin’s ring roads … I am strictly “Map Woman”!

Anyway, now we are about to enter Eastern Europe proper, we need the banners for photo opportunities – particularly the Russian-language one. If nothing else, it may explain our mission to the authorities when we, inevitably, have to bail out John Plumb for wheeling his bike onto some national monument for a photo opportunity! So far, he has managed to ride or push his bike, unmolested, into pedestrian-only areas in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building amongst others, even eliciting a smile from bemused Polizei in Berlin. He did, however, get a mild reprimand for parking it in front of the Russian War Memorial …

But I digress. Followers of our progress might have been surprised to see John Plumb leaving Berlin on his own this morning, while JR and I fought our way through 8 miles of rush-hour traffic to DHL’s Forckenbeckstrasse depot.

When we finally left Berlin, it turned out to be a glorious day’s ride into the Polish countryside. There is no formal border crossing now, only a tacky collection of booths selling souvenirs and foreign exchange. We stopped at McDonalds in Kostrzyn for wifi and coffee … and established that JP was moving and some 90km ahead of us. Catching up would prove quite a challenge, as the road surface on hwy 22 varied from merely “bone rattling” to unexpectedly “ butt clenching” and we were unable to do much more than 5mph over the speed John could make.

Waterside in GdanskFrom what we were seeing, Poland held a lot more appeal than Germany. Importantly, the sun had come out and, for the first time on this trip, we were warm and dry. The countryside is oddly reminiscent of France, with cheerful-looking eateries and bars in every village. The driving too … though I would say that the French have generally calmed down a little in recent years!

We caught up with JP at a small roadside restaurant, where we ordered schnitzel and coffee. The coffee was made in the typical fashion – simply finely ground coffee with boiling water poured over.  The trick, I immediately discovered, was either not to add milk or not to stir it, so as to allow the grounds to settle, forming a sludge at the bottom of the cup. It tasted good though!

Quaint cobbled streets in Gdansk Old TownGdansk gave us our first experience of hostel accommodation. The first was rejected out of hand, after JP declared that it failed his “Brigid filter”! I didn’t see inside, but a large vertical crevice running from the ground to the second floor, was enough to convince me that the structure might not be entirely sound. We settled on Hostel 21 down by the river. They had a small twin room for John and me, and JP initially accepted a bed in a dorm room … until he saw it and realised that it “smelled of students”!

After our late lunch, none of us felt particularly hungry, so we took a walk by the waterside and had a couple of beers before bedtime.

The following morning, we were due to leave for Vilnius in Lithuania. However, we had heard that there was a national holiday on 23rd June in Latvia and it might be worth getting to Riga a day earlier than planned for their midsummer festival: “beer, food and naked bonfire dancing …” Seemed rude not to.  The quickest way to get there would be to take a short cut across Little Russia, staying in Kaliningrad overnight. We didn’t have the correct visas but, talking to truck drivers, it seemed we might be able to buy them at the border.

In the event, this turned out to be false information. It wasn’t so much a case of not being able to get into Russia, rather that the border guards wouldn’t let us out of Poland! In the event we ended up wasting the morning and backtracking in order to skirt around the country. We spent didn’t get as far as the Lithuanian border, and spent the night at a rural hostel outside Elk. Not our best day.

 

Moscow to Moscow – Monday, June 20th

June 20th, 2011

Rimus Van den Lee examines John Plumb’s sickly 350MTSaturday morning in Arnhem and JP was distinctly uneasy about his bike. Since the carb hose change yesterday, it was running rough at urban speeds and the choke didn’t seem to be helping.  Bemused motorcycle shop owner, , studied the MT 350. “Harley Davidson? What the hell is this?!”

Rimus, in fact, turned out to be an extremely affable and helpful chap. His shop was full of relics of bygone motorcycle glory: mostly dust-covered and almost certainly non-runners. But he offered us hospitality in the form of a flask of instant coffee or exotic fruit juice, while he and JP checked out the previous day’s repairs.  In the end, however, Rimus declared that he couldn’t see any obvious faults and didn’t know what was wrong. “Will the bike make it to Moscow?”, asked John. “No!”, said Rimus seriously. John looked worried. Then Rimus laughed …

JR poses with WW2 gun at John Frost Bridge, ArnhemWe had to abandon the idea of visiting the Airborne Museum, but we took some photos at the John Frost Bridge before carrying on. With our late start, we stopped short of Hannover on Saturday night, and found a campsite near Detmold in pretty Lemgo.

I cannot remember at what point it started raining on Sunday morning, but it certainly dampened everyone’s spirits. Everything seemed hopeless. We searched fruitlessly for lunch and a wi-fi hotspot in Braunschweig, before eventually opting for a Subway sandwich in desperation.  JP began to question whether the MT350 was really up to the trip. Despite the rain, it operated fine at 60 mph on the autobahn, but started to cough and splutter as soon as he decelerated. There was clearly some sort of fuel issue.

Approaching the Brandenburg Gate in the rain …We needed to be out of the wet and texted Robin Jeffery to find us some cheap accommodation in Berlin. What he found was a 4-star hotel in the Eastern sector for €32 per room. The world looked a much kinder place after a hot shower and a beer.

Today we took John’s ailing bike to Harley Davidson Berlin, where it became the focus of much curiosity. Unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t let JP use their workshop to work on his own bike, but the Service Manager did helpfully suggest that he use the pavement outside …

The two Johns duly stripped down the whole choke and carburettor system, while I fetched tools and coffee. The whole process took about two and a half hours. No specific problems came to light. The choke cable was undamaged. Even so, having cleaned and tightened everything while putting it all back together, the bike did seem to be running more smoothly. The sun came out and we were in much better spirits after a late lunch at the Las Malvinas Steakhouse.

It wasn’t the day we had planned. But it was a good one nevertheless.

 

Moscow to Moscow – Saturday, June 18th

June 18th, 2011

Doesn’t time fly, when you’re having fun.  After all the excitement of the last few days, we were quite glad to get on the ferry and start the trip proper.

After a day of R&R including lunch at Loch Fyne, we took a couple of days to journey back south from Scotland. It had been our intention to stop by a few well-known biker haunts and rattle collection tins but we found ourselves short of time and there were more urgent matters to attend to. JR’s bike had apparently sprung an oil leak, and JP needed to get his looked over by Force Motorcycles in Burton on Trent before leaving the country. After our night’s camping in Buxton, I also realised that I needed to shed some excess baggage. It was a shame we were in such a hurry, as the North of England was beautiful in passing and John (JR) and I would have liked to spend a little more time there. Ah well, there’s always the return trip.

Ace Cafe send off with eccentric owner, Mark WilsmoreJP had his cam belt changed and Force mended his centre stand. JR’s oil leak turned out to be a misbehaving Scottoiler, rather than any mechanical problem with the bike. So, reassured and repacked, we hit the Ace Café on Thursday evening. Particular thanks must go to “Elvis” and to ex-GP racer and Stoke Mandeville patient, Phil Armes, and to our friends and supporters who came along to see us on our way.  Once again, JP’s MT350 was a star attraction – only this time he was joined by four other owners with their bikes, including a 500cc Armstrong version with a (frankly, terrifying) top speed of 95mph! And we mustn’t forget eccentric Ace Café owner, Mark Wilsmore, who managed to find a few words in support of our cause … I think?!

We spent a cheap but comfortable Thursday night at the Palace Farm Hostel, in Doddington, Kent, and completed the last 50-odd miles to Dover on Friday morning. A minor Satnav comedy had us all arriving separately at the Check-in desk,  after Garmin directed JR onto the M2, London-bound, despite clear road signage clearly signalling “Dover A2”! Not a huge fan of Garmin, I took off down the A2, while the two John’s did a circuit of the roundabout to confirm their suspicions about the GPS error. All would have been well, had I not mistaken the Canterbury slip road for a lay-by and ended up trapped on the wrong road with no entry back onto the A2.

Dover ferry terminalBy the time we landed in Dunkerque, it was raining. JR and I had to raid a local bank for Euro currency and it was decided that JP, on his slower MT350, should try to get ahead. We took nearly an hour with our foreign currency transaction but, even so, were surprised to get to the Dutch border at Breda without apparently passing JP. As it turned out, he had had a problem with a carb hose, requiring a two-hour repair stop just 30km outside Dunkerque. By the time we had pitched our tents in the Arnhem campsite, it was nearly 10.30pm and most eateries were closed. We did, however, manage to find a tasty schnitzel and a can of beer at an all-night snack bar in Oosterbeek.

Moscow to Moscow – Sunday, June 12th

June 15th, 2011

Moscow riders with Stephanie Young, Provost of East AyrshireThe Abington Hotel kindly organised breakfast at 7.30am, half an hour earlier than usual, so that we could make a quick getaway to the Scottish Classic Motorcycle Show at Ayr Racecourse. Our surprise appearance came as a result of a clash of dates for our Moscow send-off. We stayed until about 2.30pm and then headed over to the main event.

Moscow had laid on quite a show for us. On arriving in this tiny Ayrshire village, we were stunned to find a field full of visitors’ cars, two bouncy castles and several marquees. There was a bar, a barbeque, a tea tent selling trays of home-made cakes (2 for £1 and, no, you couldn’t just have one for 50p!), local arts and crafts, a children’s entertainer and a bale-tossing competition for aspiring young farmers. We were interviewed and photographed by the local press and, at the end of the day, escorted from the premises by two very good-natured officers from the Strathclyde Police and a local piper.

Without question, the star attraction was John Plumb’s Harley Davidson MT350. Reactions to its suitability in terms of the ride varied from enthusiastic advice to cynical laughter. Even so, by the end of the day, we had managed to persuade both Stephanie Young, Provost of East Ayrshire, and Winifred Sloan, Provost of South Ayrshire, to pose for photos astride the bike. And there is no doubt that its 60mph top speed will do wonders for our fuel consumption over the course of the next few weeks.Moscow departure

 Jim was perhaps less lucky in allowing the local MP to try his BMW for size. He was nowhere to be seen as the Police escort pulled out, blue lights and all, ahead of the piper. Fearing an embarrassing hiatus, JR, John Plumb and I followed at a stately walking pace. After a slight delay, a slightly red-faced Jim caught us up. It seemed that, as the MP had dismounted the bike, she had accidentally kicked Jim’s helmet and detached his visor. Being unable to retrieve his specs from the support vehicle, he was more than a little relieved when a young lady, in true “Carry On” fashion, offered to “pop it in” for him!

John and I stayed with my cousin, Leslie Du Cane, at Skelmorlie. John Plumb had contacted the new owners of his childhood home in West Kilbride and had been invited to stay with them. Jim and Robin headed off to a hotel in Glasgow.

Monday was a rest day.  John Plumb spent the day revisiting his childhood haunts, while Jim, JR, Robin and I, rode up the West Coast for a seafood lunch at Loch Fyne. Robin, admitting that he was a bit sorry not to be coming to Russia with us, left the truck behind and donned a helmet to ride pillion with John.

 

Moscow to Moscow – Saturday, June 11th

June 12th, 2011

Rt Hon Theresa May, Home Secretary, waves off Moscow ridersWe probably couldn’t have wished for a better first day on the road. The good people of Waltham St. Lawrence laid on a fabulous send off, with a silver band, smoked salmon bagels, BBQ breakfast and a magnificent display of classic motorcycles. The weather played ball too. Blue skies and sun shine glinting off all the polished chrome. It was warm enough too for us to show off our Moscow 2 Moscow T-shirts.

Then came 12 noon and the great send off. The local MP, Home Secretary, Theresa May did the honours. A first for her, she said. In all her years as an MP, she had never been asked to do a “wave off” before. We lined up in front of the Lych Gate and, after a few words from Philip Lewis, a former patient of Poppa Guttmann and Trustee of the Trust, who recently ‘celebrated’ 50 years in a wheelchair, we started our engines. Theresa May did her bit, the crowd counted us down, and we manoeuvred deftly through the throng – in my case, rather too closely avoiding a collision with my cousin Mike Mackenzie, Chairman of the Poppa Guttmann Trust, without whom John and myself would not be involved!

Then we were out on the open road with a 360-mile ride ahead of us. For Jim this was something of an achievement. Following several weeks’ illness in April, Jim is unable to complete the whole European leg of our trip and his participation will be limited to the UK events, culminating in our Ace Café send off on Thursday, 16th. Fearing that he would find the ride to Scotland too fatiguing, we tried to persuade him to put his bike on the trailer and hitch a ride with Robin in the truck. However, the warm weather and the speed restriction imposed on us by John Plumb’s 350cc Harley played in his favour. Just as well really, as the support truck that was due to leave at 12.30pm didn’t get away until 3pm.

There were a few excitements, needless to say. The first within minutes of joining the M40, when Jim’s carefully packed black bin liner luggage came adrift. Feeling a slight ‘flapping’ sensation, Jim attempted to wedge the loose end under his bum, but he was unsuccessful. Moments later a pair of black galoshes were bouncing down the main carriageway and lost forever.

Later, John Plumb briefly treated us to a one man firework display, when he lost the retaining spring from his centre stand at 60mph. Robin had just caught us up and we were fortunate enough to have the truck’s hazard lights to protect us as John effected a roadside repair with gaffer tape. Having driven all the way from Waltham St. Lawrence, principally as a support vehicle for Jim, Robin looked quite disappointed that his services were not going to be required for John either.

We ate a quick meal at the Westmoreland Farm Shop and arrived at the Abington Hotel at around 9.30pm. We were happy and tired and no one bothered to look at the clock until we got into the hotel bar. With today’s ride, Jim had achieved more than he or anyone else really believed possible. He ordered a double whisky and retired to his room … and a hot bath!

We discovered via Margot that the send off event at Waltham St. Lawrence had netted around £1900 in takings for breakfasts, tombola tickets and T-shirts. And another £1000 had been pledged in sponsorship.

 

April 7th – From Russia With Love

April 7th, 2011

I doubt it will have escaped anyone’s notice that John and I are participating in a charity motorcycle ride to Russia this summer. There is plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet about this trip, so I won’t bore you with details here*.

Our journey will take us through many countries and will, naturally, bring us into contact with speakers of a variety of languages. Now, while it is true that English is the most widely spoken second language in Europe, it is also true that we will be spending the majority of our trip in countries where Russian is the principal or second language. And, since I have a particular horror of not being able to communicate or even read road signs, I have equipped myself with a mini Russian language course from the BBC.

When we moved to France in 2007, it had been so long since I had visited any country whose native language was neither English nor French, that I was quite taken aback when, on a day trip to Huesca in Spain, I couldn’t read the restaurant menu. And, when John’s mum came over at Christmas, a trip to the Boya supermarket just across the border, turned into pure farce after she offered to buy us lunch.

The thing was that, although Betty had booked herself in for 10 days with us, she doesn’t really like France. Or perhaps I had better qualify that as she doesn’t much care for things French. She likes the wine, of course. And, food-wise, we were safe as long as the principal ingredients were eggs, cheese, potato or bread. Even so, my efforts to entice her with a traditional raclette dish failed spectacularly. It may have been a coincidence, but use of my “Jour de Fête” electric raclette machine resulted in a street-wide blackout, so omelettes became a staple feature of our daily menu.

Options for entertainment were dwindling and nerves were beginning to fray, so I suggested a booze run to Spain. Betty, I knew, liked Spain, having once owned a timeshare Tenerife …Thus, having bought up as many litre bottles of vodka and cheap brandy as we could justify bringing back in the car, we set out to find a restaurant for lunch.

We were guided to a sunny table on the enclosed terrace and given our menus. Betty studied hers with a degree of irritation, before asking me to call the waitress back for “the English menu”. I said I wasn’t sure that there would be one. “But all those holidays, Betty, don’t you understand a bit of Spanish?” “Of course, they will” she insisted, “all Spanish people speak English!” Well, in case any of my readers are under a similar misapprehension, let me assure you now, they don’t.

Eventually we ordered our meal by touring the dining room to peer at what was on other people’s plates, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. We tried a variety of Latin-sounding words for water, only to be served lemonade. Betty’s misery was compounded still further when, as usual, she attempted to improve her meal with a liberal quantity of salt – only to have the lid of the salt pot fall off in mid-sprinkle. Cue a lot of raised voices and gesticulation.

Determined that we should not repeat any part of that embarrassing exercise, I trawled eBay for a second-hand Spanish course. Needlesss to say, it remains quite a long way down my to-do list.

So, back to the present. I’m pleased to report that I can, with reasonable confidence, say “hello” and “goodbye”, “how are you”, and “I’m fine, thank you”, in Russian.

“I’m fine, thank you”. Why is it that, no matter what language you are learning, you are always taught “I’m fine, thank you”? On almost every foreign holiday I’ve ever been on, there have been mornings when I was anything but.

Alongside, “I’m fine, thank you”, any decent holiday vocabulary ought to cover “my head feels as if it is about to explode, and my mouth feels like the bottom of a parrot’s cage … thank you”. Mind you, my Russian phasebook does thoughtfully include “I think I’m going to be sick” and “Where’s the toilet?”. Additionally, if I’m arrested by the police, I now know how blame someone else.

My favourite, under the “Safe Travel” section, is a page devoted to Bond films. I’m not quite sure how useful phrases like “So we meet again, Mr Bond, but this time the advantage is mine”, or “Your plans for world domination are sadly mistaken”, will be, but I might learn them just for fun.

*To learn more about our 6,500-mile ride from Moscow, Scotland, to Moscow, Russia, visit www.offonaweeride.com.

March 8th – Tall tales from the bar …

March 7th, 2011

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

You’ve probably seen this email circular before. Looks as if it could be Gaelic or otherwise someone’s been on the sherbet. Bet you could read it though, couldn’t you?

It has to be said, there are precious few advantages to being slightly deaf. Under normal circumstances it is pretty annoying, for everyone concerned, to have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. On the other hand, there are times when one catches a few random words from a sentence and, rather than put the speaker to the trouble of repeating, it is easiler, albeit risky, to feign comprehension. And there are times when the random words add up to too much information! In these cases, the “phenomenal power of the human mind” can be guaranteed to fill the gaps with improbable and often hilarious substitutions.

Picture the scene. I’m sitting at the end of the bar, hemmed in by a wall on one side and one of the town’s many harmless drunks on the other. Michael has already told me – and several other women before me – that I have the face of an angel, before turning all teary-eyed and launching into an emotional tale about his prize bull. He’s difficult to understand at the best of times but now his voice trails away to a whisper. I’m none the wiser about the fate of the bull, but I do my best to empathise.

He looks at John. “Have we met before? Are ye married?” We have, in fact, met many times and had more or less the same conversation on each occasion. However, for Michael, every meeting is like the first. He shakes his head. “Ah, if ye were my wife, I’d ………” Ah, here we go. I can’t hear what he said, but my mind has already filled in the blanks. I’m thinking that Michael has probably never had any sort of sexual relationship with a woman so “… Eat properly? Take his medication? Stay sober?” Like I said, all equally improbable. And then he surprises us with a tale of unrequited love for “Bridget”. The only words I pick up are “buttermilk”, “bed”, “marry” and “flying out the window”. The tears reappear and he takes a wad of foreign notes from his pocket and looks as though he might be about to order another pint. The hope is, of course, that we will take pity and buy him a round. Only, John and the Landlord are giggling too much to take any notice, and I have temporarily retreated into a world of my own while my brain processes these fragments into a cohesive story.

The Landlord pours the pint and leaves it to settle. He’s still laughing when he asks me, “Did Michael show you his ………?”

I was startled. His what?! Michael is only a couple of years older than John, but looks 70. He did once unbutton his shirt in an effort to prove his relative youthfulness, and I have no desire to see anything else that might be hidden under his clothes!

It must have been evident from the expression on my face, that I hadn’t heard what the Landlord had said.  “His penny whistle”, he repeated. I was speechless. “No, really”, he persisted, “he keeps a penny whistle in his pocket for American tourists”!