It's been six weeks since we last left London to tour the British Isles and it's been such a wonderful leg of our trip - rounding the top of the Scottish Highlands, island hopping from the Isle of Man to Ireland, then meandering down the Wild Atlantic West Coast. But now we're super-exhausted from traveling.
We brace ourselves for re-entry, the thick, congested urban atmosphere slowing our crafts' descent. Ugh, the traffic. We tiptoe between stopped cars, our wide panniers prevent us from lane splitting with any amount of confidence. I forgot how bad it was. At least the weather is sunny!
Getting off the roads to grab some nosh
We are coming into London from the west, and the Ace Cafe just happens to be on the western outskirts of the city. There's a symmetry in stopping here, because this is the first place we visited when we first stepped foot in the UK and now it will be one of the last!
It's the middle of the day during a work week, so the parking lot is empty. We don't have to fight vintage cars for a parking spot.
Food in the UK has been spectacularly unhealthy for us. So we have vowed to eat better.
But not just yet...
In the UK, I've discovered that everything tastes just a little bit better with mushy peas.
As we leave the Ace Cafe, Nick, a fellow rider from Italy spots our license plates and we chat a bit
If people we meet along the way show interest in our trip, I normally hand them a business card with our blog and contact information on it. Later on that evening, I find this picture sitting in my inbox! Grazie Mille, Nicola!
Staying with my aunt and uncle while in London
My cousin is in the middle of moving to Scotland, so we're now staying with my aunt Jennifer and uncle James for a couple of days.
It is just not sufficient to say that they are wonderful hosts. They've raised three kids of their own, but my aunt and uncle have played the role of den mother and father for the extended family for decades. The post-secondary education system in Malaysia is neither good, nor very well-recognized internationally, so nearly all of my cousins have studied abroad, attending universities and colleges in Australia and the UK (and Canada). And the cousins who do study in London automatically have a mom and dad away from home.
I think it's a role they feel very comfortable with. We sit in their kitchen one morning and my aunt is cooking a hearty English breakfast for us, and it just feels so homey!
Later on that evening, they take us out for dinner and my aunt regales us with tales of my dad when he was a young man. Fascinating stuff!
Spending our last night in London out on the town. This part of the city is known as the West End
The West End is also known as TheatreLand, with over forty theatres in the district. One of them is The Queen's Theatre.
Inside the Queen's Theatre!
Neda has always wanted to see Les Misérables, which is one of her favorite plays. She's listened to the soundtrack a million times, seen the movie, and the play was set to come to Toronto in 2013, but we had already left on our trip by then. But now that we're in London...!
Neda was super-stoked! This was high on her bucket list, it made me very happy to see her so excited.
Les Mis was not actually #1 on her bucket list. She wanted to see the new Harry Potter play, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child". The grand opening was in London three months ago. She thought we'd just swoop into town, go online and pick up a couple of tickets.
So I went online and checked. Sorry, Neda. There's an 18-month wait for tickets...!
At least Les Mis has been running for 32 years (longest running play in the West End), much easier to get tickets for that!
Spilling out onto the streets of Piccadilly Circus after the show, we were both humming, "I dreamed a dream in times gone by..."
So... many people have complained that in all the riding videos I've taken, looking through my windscreen is like looking through a glass of muddy water. A very thick glass.
Ta-DAH! My cousin's partner works at BMW and got me this new windscreen at cost. Thanks Martin!
We said our final farewells to my family in London and headed out back on the road.
Trying to find the tickets for our Eurotunnel reservation to take us back under the English Channel
Neda and I get separated on the train! The doors close between our bikes
When we exit the train at Calais, France, we follow the line of vehicles out into the roadway. We have to drive on the right-hand-side now! Six months in SE Asia riding on the left, then three months in Eastern Europe on the right, after that, two months in the British Isles on the left, now we're back on the right... Ugh, our brains are so confused!
It's only a couple of hours on the highway and we arrive at our next stop (No, not Arches National Park):
Visiting our very good friends, Thomas and Eva in Belgium!
It's only been a year since they visited us in Thailand, but we've missed them so much!
We're spending the weekend with them, and it's a good thing that we've been to Leuven a few times before, so there's no great need to go out sightseeing. Because all we want to do is relax, hang out and catch up with them. Every time we visit their place, their renovations come along a bit further. Eva shows us their new wall decoration: The National Parks of the US. They've fallen in love with the vast North American wilderness! Having been on the continent for the last couple of years, I can see why. It's so different than anything you can find in Europe.
Thomas and Eva are vegetarians, so it was quite a change coming from our steady diet of saturated animal fats in the UK to super-healthy plant-material-food-stuff in Belgium.
We also take some time to run some errands. We've been to Leuven so often that I have a favorite barber just down the street that I go to get my hair cut. Thomas decides to try out my barber as well, getting his beard professionally trimmed. He is so happy with the way it turned out, that he's going to go all the time now. Me, not so much because this time, they cut it a bit too short for my liking. :(
All weekend long, Thomas, Eva and Neda poke fun at my too-short hair. Mainly the fact that I don't like my too-short hair. Because that's what friends are for.
Eva is learning how to play the ukulele! I pluck out a few notes on the couch
One afternoon, Thomas and Eva leave us to attend a family birthday party. So they trusted us to look after their apartment while they were gone.
We PMed them while they were at the party. Thomas is not amused...
Oh, it's so awesome to hang out with them again!
After a too-short weekend with our friends, two lone bikers exit a garage in Leuven, back out onto the European roadways
Keep right. Keep right. Keep right.
Winter is coming. So like single-celled organisms that respond to stimuli, we instinctively head south, away from the impending cold. But also because of White Walkers.
Along the way we have another friend in Basel, Switzerland we want to visit, but since she has cats... we book into an AirBnB just 30 minutes away across the border just outside of a small town in France called Mulhouse.
The AirBnB is run by a German couple. They have SIX KIDS!
We found out that the reason they live in France is because they have decided to home-school their children, and back in Germany, home-schooling is illegal. So to escape prosecution (and persecution of sorts), they emigrated to Mulhouse, which is also right across the border from Germany as well, so they are not too far away from their friends and family back home.
There's a certain stigma attached to home-schooling. The stereotype is that it raises socially awkward kids, not having been exposed to other children their own age. But living with this German family for a couple of days, I could see that this is not the case at all. This tiny community outside Mulhouse is actually a German exclave. All of the neighbours are Germans and they've also escaped to France to home-school their kids. Every day, all the neighbourhood kids get structured time together in the local playground down the street to socialize, like recess at school. It was all very methodical.
The house is littered with books, the walls lined with educational posters. These parents take their children's schooling very seriously and I get the sense that they want their kids to have a better education than what the state would provide them. Socialization included. Every year, their kids would take a German standardized test to ensure that they met (and probably exceeded) the government guidelines.
Our stay here has really opened my eyes up to home-schooling and erased a lot of my preconceptions.
And their kids are cute!
Five girls, aged 3 to 9, and a little baby boy. I realized that the AirBnB is not just a business to help raise money. It's also further socialization for these little girls. When the mother found out that we were traveling the world, she asked if I would provide a geography lesson for the kids. I was delighted to, showing all the places we had been to on our laptop and showing them our pictures. And when I saw they had a piano in the living room, I gave the eldest daughter a short piano lesson!
The girls found us very amusing. Initially, they would peep shyly around the corner and giggle when Neda was in the kitchen cooking, but by the second day, they were actively helping her make the meals, chattering away in German.
Such a great experience! It was very educational for me, just to see a slice of the world that's normally hidden away.
When our AirBnB host saw our motorcycles, she suggested a great, twisty road nearby up in the mountains
Cows watch us on our day ride through the Grand Ballon mountains, 15 minutes outside of Mulhouse
Switchback! Grand Ballon in French means a round-topped mountain. There's an observatory at the top of the summit of the Ballon.
We go for a short hike near the summit, you can see all the twisty roads below
I'm happy because it's a *short* hike
The observatory looks like "Rover" from the TV Show "The Prisoner". LOL!
I just found out it's actually not an observatory, it's an air-traffic control tower. The round globe looks like a Grand Balloon, which is what we initially thought the mountain was named for. It's a radar device used for air navigation. Very cool-looking.
Hiking around the Grand White Balloon Radar Station, view of the Alsace mountain range around us
And then back down the mountain. We have a date for this evening!
Sun is setting so early these days. It's not even 5PM!
Find a spot to park in downtown Mulhouse
We're meeting up with our motorcycle friend, Colleen! She is riding up from Basel to see us. She is not only a motorcycle friend but she's also a cat-lady so although she's invited us many many times to stay with her, I unfortunately cannot. Because I would literally die.
Colleen found a great Alsatian restaurant in this French town.
All of our good intentions about eating healthily go out the fenêtre.
Om nom nom, so yummy! Alsatian Cuisine is basically a lot of pork, done up German style.
It's so good to see her again. We've only met her a couple of times, but we've chatted with her so often online that we feel like we've known her for much longer. As a North American ex-pat living in Europe, it's so interesting hearing about her experiences because they sound like exactly like what we'd go through if we were to settle here after our trip.
Which after having been in the UK for the last little while, is a *VERY* strong possibility. Maybe this Brexit thing will lower the £ enough that our Canadian dollar will actually be worth something...
After dinner, we walk back outside to our bikes. "Where did you park, Colleen?", "Oh right beside your bikes!"
There's a truck parked in front of all of our bikes, blocking them from view of the street. As we say our goodnights and goodbyes, I notice that the straps covering my toolbox on my passenger seat were undone. Strange. They must have come undone somewhere on our ride today.
The next morning, as we were packing up to leave Mulhouse, I notice something else amiss on my bike:
Someone had stolen my BMW roundels on both sides in Mulhouse last night while we were eating dinner
We surmised that when the truck had parked in front of our bikes, they were hidden from view from the street and then some opportunistic vandals (probably drunks) had come by to steal stuff off our motorcycles. They were probably working on my toolbox when someone must have walked by and scared them off.
I was pissed. It's obvious that they were just vandals and not stealing stuff because they needed the money. This will be so inconvenient to replace.
Bah. Maybe I'll replace them with something else. Like the Transformers logo or something funny like that? Wonder if they sell those online...
We're just motoring down the Autoroute in France, hightailing it to the southern coast of France.
Along the way, we stop at the Pilat Regional National Park to set up camp. Neda prepares for us a healthy lunch.
Eating healthy starts right now! For real.
Thomas and Eva gave us this waterproofing spray. Perhaps this will stop the leak in our tent.
Crossing our fingers for the next time it rains...
It's been an amazing six weeks of motorcycle touring in the British Isles, but it got a bit lonely with just the two of us. We're now seeking out all of our family and friends to fill our lacking social quota.
And it's not over yet...