The European highway system is a great way to shuttle vehicles across the continent quickly. But not necessarily cheaply. The trick is to route yourself through countries with no tolls. So this means staying away from Italy, Spain and France, and keeping to countries like Germany and Belgium. Our route westwards skirts the French border as we thumb our noses at their expensive highways, only ducking in at the last minute to the port town of Calais to catch the Eurotunnel to England.
Lining up to board the train that takes us beneath the English Channel
The Eurotunnel is a pretty cool system, taking only 35 minutes to make the crossing. And if you cross at non-peak hours, it's a bit cheaper - around £35 per motorcycle. The ferry is £5 less expensive, but takes an hour longer.
Speaking of which, the pound sterling has plummeted because of the Brexit vote, which makes it perfect timing to visit the UK. The exchange rate was hovering around £1 = $2.10CAD at the beginning of the year, now the pound is sitting at $1.67CAD! A 25% discount from pre-Brexit rates! At least there's one silver lining to this dark cloud.
Daylight disappears from the windows as the train descends into the underwater tunnel
At almost 38 kms, you'd think the Eurotunnel is the longest underwater tunnel in the world, but there's actually a 55km tunnel in Japan! We'll have to try that one someday. The 35-minute ride gives us time to chat with the other motorcyclists on our train. We met a Dutch couple riding two-up, they're on a 5-week vacation around the British Isles. Also some UK riders returning to the continent.
One of the British guys walks over and gives my bike a comprehensive inspection:
"You've got some scratches here. Did you crash?"
"Yeah, that was from the time I dumped it in the Sahara Desert!", I explain proudly.
It's like he didn't hear me. "There's a few more on this side".
He seemed equally offended that I obviously was not skilled enough to keep my bike upright, and also perplexed as to why I hadn't fixed the cosmetic damages yet to mask this fact...
"Oh yeah, that was the time in Colombia when..." he wasn't listening, still checking my bike for more evidence of my lack of riding prowess. *shrug* "Your bike is very clean", I offered back.
He nodded with pride.
On British soil, the border official looks over my UK passport and gives me a very heartfelt, "Welcome back!" Wow, after all that ribbing from border guards all over Europe, this felt like coming home... despite not having lived here for decades...
Once through, I hear the same official over the communicator peppering Neda with question after question, her Croatian passport in his hand.
I shouldn't be mean... but HA HA!
On our way to London, we grabbed lunch at one of those gas station rest stops
We've got a list of things we want to see and do in the UK. One of the items is to find the best fish and chips place. This is our first one in the country, from a fast food chain called Harry Ramsden's. Mmmmm, so good! We also learned that mushy peas is a big thing in the UK. Neda wasn't too fond of hers, so I had her portion in addition to my curry sauce. Mushy peas. Not bad...
I'm going to like it here.
Note the newspaper design on the plates. The practice of wrapping up fish & chips in newspaper stopped in the 80s when it was deemed that the petroleum-based ink transfer from the newsprint was unhealthy. Today almost all newspapers used soy-based ink, but the ban on wrapping f&c in newspapers was never repealed. Brits weren't having any of that frou-frou vegan sh*t...
We've timed our arrival before the rush hour, so it only takes us a couple of hours to travel from the Eurotunnel port in Folkestone to London. It's a bit strange having to ride on the left hand side once again. We spent the whole winter in Thailand riding on the left, then a couple of months in Eastern Europe riding on the right, now we're back on the left. My brain is getting all confused...
Neda asks me to take the lead once we're off the highway and in the city, since she doesn't trust herself to stay on the left without a median. Heck, I don't trust myself! I tell her to warn me over the communicator if I make a mistake and start driving on the right.
I don't do too poorly. Only one mistake when I entered a round-about and forgot to look right (instead of left, like I did). An Audi screeched to a halt beside me as I cut him off. Surprisingly, he was polite about it, no doubt the Canadian license plate might have had something to do with it. But in my helmet I winced and shook my head at myself. Be more careful!!!
We've been invited to stay with my cousin who lives just outside of the city, but because we're here so early, we've got some time to kill until he gets back from work.
So we pass the time by dropping in on the iconic Ace Cafe!
Nestled in the west-end of London, in an industrial neighbourhood, is the legendary motorcycle cafe. Originally built as a roadside stop, it flourished in the 1950s and 60s as a hangout for leather-clad bikers called "rockers". They raced from cafe to cafe on stripped down machines with low-mounted handlebars, these motorcycles were called... cafe racers.
The theme at the Ace Cafe is chequered flags. They're everywhere!
The Ace Cafe closed down in 1969 after the era of rockers faded away. It recently opened in 2001 and is now a museum of sorts, its walls decorated with vintage photos of a by-gone era. And in every picture, a Norton, Triumph or BSA.
Ace Cafe Logo is an Ace of Clubs from the deck of playing cards
Today, the Ace Cafe is a popular spot to hold rallys, both two-wheeled and four. The scope of the cafe has expanded out to four wheelers as well. We had hoped to drop in here and talk with a few of our two-wheeled brethren, but outside, we only saw vintage cars. Our bikes were herded away from the gleaming machines pulling into the lot and we parked in a forgotten corner. This evening was vintage car day and an E-type and a Corsair were slowly maneuvering into position in the favored parking spots right in front of the cafe. We checked the bulletin board and on the calendar there was also German (BMW+Mercedes) Car Night, Porsche Car Night, Volvo Owners Meet, etc.
We are obviously here on the wrong day.
Still, there are friendly car owners who feign interest in our bikes but talk more animatedly when we ask about their autos
After passing time with the car guys, we head out to meet up with my cousin
Weng Fai lives about 40 miles outside of London but now we're stuck in rush hour heading out of the city and our wide panniers make it impossible to filter through traffic. We're only a little bit late and my cousin is standing outside his home waiting to flag us into his driveway.
We get along like gang-busters! I've only seen him once or twice in the last 35 years, but my cousin and I talk like old friends as he prepares us a home-cooked dinner. We are staying with him and his partner, Martin for a few days, and they tell us to make ourselves at home. It's not difficult to do. The Olympics are on TV and Neda is hooked on BBC iPlayer, catching all the gymnastics events while our hosts are away at work. Meanwhile, I pretend to work on the blog...
Weng Fai comes home one evening and asks if we've gone out to eat anywhere. We tell him about the excellent fish and chips at Harry Ramsden's at the highway rest stop. "Oh", he says in a way that makes me suspect that maybe Harry Ramsden's might not be a culinary highlight in England.... It's the kind of polite "Oh" that comes after someone emphatically claims, "We had the most delicious burgers at McDonalds the other day"...
Weng Fai and Martin take us out to their local pub where they are regulars. A proper one, not a chain!
The food here is a cut above fish and chips
Back at their place, I continue to pretend to work on the blog, but really I'm doing some shopping...
Our Kindles have died, so we ordered replacement readers from a store called Argos
Argos is a catalog store where you can order stuff online and then pick up your goods at the closest location to you. Or you can have it home-delivered for an extra fee. There's an Argos outlet just a couple of miles away, so we ride over and pick up our Kindles in-store. I'm going crazy with the on-line shopping, taking advantage of a UK mailing address to have everything sent to my cousin's place. And also the super-low £!!! They haven't adjusted any of the prices to the new exchange rate, so I'm buying everything at a 25% discount with my strong Canadian dollar! Sweet!
If there's anything that reminds me of Canada, it's on-line shopping for motorcycle parts. BTW, I never thought I'd use the words "Strong" and "Canadian Dollar" in the same sentence...
And now everywhere we go: grocery stores, restaurants, etc, we hear people around us speaking English and it sounds very foreign to my ears, after having traveled for so long in non-Anglophone countries. When we go to pick up our new eReaders at Argos, I overhear a fellow shopper speaking English to her kids. I turn to Neda to tell her excitedly, "Hey, tourists!" before I realize... no, they live here...
It's strange and disorienting in a pleasant way to hear background conversations and actually be able to understand them, instead of it being just white noise. This probably affects me more than Neda, since she speaks so many languages anyway. But it's been close to four years since I've been able to understand what's being said around me. And even more importantly, I am now being understood by *everyone* around me. Effortlessly.
I crack jokes, make puns, people laugh with me and not at me. I feel more like myself now than I ever have in the last four years. It's such a profound experience, like I didn't know I was even homesick until now.
If England was a person, I'd want to bearhug it and never let go. Speak more English to me, England!
Things I love about England... well two out of three things...
The Trooper beer wasn't really any good. But we are both loving the other dark English ales that we can readily pick up in any grocery store. Our favorite beer back in Canada was an import called Hobgoblin Ale and now it's sold everywhere! England may be good for the soul, but it's not very good for the waistline...
Speaking of which, Neda really wants to show our appreciation to our hosts by cooking them a Croatian dinner.
Rolling the dough for some home-made gnocchi
And then the stew
And to top it off, some Istrian Supa
Supa is made with hot red wine, sugar, pepper and olive oil. It's served with burnt toast that soaks up the wine until it's all soggy. The burnt toast balances out the sweetness with a slight bitter taste. Normally it's drunk from a communal jug that people pass around when they're gathered around a warm fire on a cold winter's evening.
Sharing a home-made Croatian meal in England
Weng Fai is communicating with the rest of the family in the UK to arrange a big gathering. I overhear him on the phone with my uncle: "mumble mumble... they went to Harry Ramsden's for fish and chips, can you believe... mumble mumble"
When he gets off the phone, he tells me, "Okay, the meeting's set. We're going to take you to try some *real* fish and chips!"
So far England has been all about getting fat. This is not a bad thing.
Okay, these fish and chips at the Duke of Kent pub were a lot better than Harry Ramsden's!
I'm sensing that fish and chips is a source of national pride and the family felt compelled to demonstrate that there were better options than a fast food outlet on the side of the highway. Haha! Just another thing to love about England, the welcoming arms of my extended family! I haven't seen them since our last motorcycle trip in the UK back in 2007. Since that time, my cousin Vern has had a couple of kids:
And they love the bikes! In the parking lot, we were Instagrammed!
So we found out when Motorcycle Day was and then returned to the Ace Cafe to hang out
Ah! These are our people! Two-wheelers of all shapes and sizes now grabbed the primo spots at the front of the cafe: sportbikes, tourers, cruisers. The people sitting on the patio enjoying their pints of bitter give us a friendly nod as if we were regulars. Home! We go inside to grab ourselves a drink.
Vintage Beeza on display inside.
Here's a British biker joke. Overheard at a local bike meet:
"Hey, what kind of bike is that?"
"It's a Bitza!"
"Oh, do you mean a Beeza...?"
"No, a Bitza. It's some bitzathis and little bitzadat..."
Hey, we made a friend! We found out this guy was here to do an interview with a German TV program
As we were chatting with him, the production assistant pulled us aside and asked if we wanted to be on the program. Haha! Cool! Yes!
So she made us sign these release forms
The program was about this German guy who comes to the UK looking for bike parts for his vintage motorcycle. He meets up with our friend who helps him source these parts.
After a couple of takes, the director deems us unnecessary to the program and cuts us out of the shoot :(
What?! Don't you know who we are and what we've done? Have you ever watched Long Way Round? Yes? Well, we're not as famous and as those guys, and we don't have a popular TV series, but we have this blog... hello? where are you going? come back here...!