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» Road Trip

Easy Rider
In the Summer of 1998 I booked a return ferry ticket from Harwich to Gothenburg, on a whim. I had a couple of weeks off work and no real plans, but I wanted to get out of the house for a bit. So I took my motorcycle on a 3,000-mile, two-week trip of Scandinavia. Just because I had nothing better to do. I took the bike in for its scheduled service, made sure it was in tip-top condition for the trip, and went for it.

The ferry crossing to Sweden takes roughly 24 hours, and I had the pleasure of spending much of it in the company of a very friendly and welcoming bunch of people from the Chiltern Motorcycling Club (or possibly Chilton; I forget the exact name). When we arrived they rode off in one direction, to Norway, and I rode another, travelling through the night to Stockholm. I think I killed a goose on the way. At least, I hope I killed it. There was some very thick fog to add to the already dark conditions; without any warning I hit a goose with the toe of my boot, a goose which was standing next to the centre line and was invisible in the fog. I wasn't going particularly quickly, thanks to the fog, but being kicked in the chest by a heavy bike boot wouldn't do any creature much good at any speed. I hope I killed it outright, and quickly, rather than condemning it to a slow, agonizing death from the injuries. There was a car a few hundred yards behind me, and I wasn't wearing any reflective gear, so I did not dare stop to see what I'd done to the poor bird lest the same happen to me.

It's very weird to arrive somewhere at 4 o'clock in the morning in the broad daylight. The streets were busy with scantily-dressed clubbers of all genders, who were being turfed out as the venues closed for the night. I made my way to the docks, lay down beside the bike and dozed for a few hours until the ferry offices opened.

On another whim I bought a ticket for that morning's ferry to Turku, Finland, instead of mooching around Stockholm for the day. While strapping down my bike in the ferry's hold I saw another biker securing a Triumph sporting an English number plate. My spirits emboldened, I approached my fellow Brit and expressed delight that I would have someone to share the crossing with. He looked around and, with a strong accent, said, "I'm Finnish. I'm a medical student studying in England. I bought this bike there and I'm bringing it home for the Summer." Finn or Brit, we hit it off and spent the entire crossing of the Baltic on the top deck in the sunshine, drinking beer and putting the world to rights.

When we got to Turku I made ready to hit the road for a blast across to Helsinki, but my companion stopped me. "I've just called my girlfriend. Her parents have a spare bed; you're welcome to spend the night. She'd like to meet you." So off we rode to Tampere instead. My first evening in Finland was spent naked in a sauna with a bloke I'd met only that morning and his girlfriend's brother, whom I'd known for roughly an hour by that point.

The next day I made my farewells and set off. Each day I would pick a place at random on the map, open the guide book to find some accommodation at my destination, and ride there. No fights, no arguments, no hassles, just the bike and me and hardly any traffic at all. I gradually meandered my way northwards, accidentally entering Russia illegally on the way (I only realised when I saw a bunch of bright yellow signs covered in warning symbols and Cyrillic characters, upon which I turned immediately around and scarpered), eventually reaching Rovaniemi, just south of the Arctic Circle.

I don't know if it's due to riding on the other side of the road, or if the culture is so much more relaxed, but I never had any of the hassles which plague my riding in this country. Car drivers always saw me coming and pulled over in plenty of time, instead of hogging the centre line in a testosterone-fuelled attempt to "win" by preventing me from passing. Here you're lucky to get a terse nod from another biker, but over there they wave to each other, with one's cool factor measured by how low one's wave goes. I swear I saw some cruiser riders scrape their gloves on the tarmac. The waving might also be partly due to the left hand's being the clutch hand on most modern bikes, so releasing that hand doesn't cause the throttle to close.

The next day I left the bike at the hostel in Rovaniemi and hopped on a bus to Santa Claus Village, where I sat outside in the blazing sunshine eating reindeer, drinking beer, and listening to Christmas carols... in June. I also got to sit on Father Christmas' knee, and paid handsomely for the photograph of it (though sadly not the negatives). According to the paint on the ground, which couldn't possibly be exaggerated for tourists, Santa Claus Village is directly on the Arctic Circle's line of latitude.

A couple of days later I reached a campsite near Karigasniemi, on the Finno-Norwegian border, and stayed in a log cabin with blackout curtains. I was far north of the Arctic Circle by that point, enduring not just constant daylight but constant sunshine. Even weirder than it being broad daylight at 4 in the morning is to see the sun high above the horizon at 2 o'clock and yet have no idea if it's morning or afternoon. The blackout curtains were essential.

I tried to press on to North Cape, but hadn't banked on the cold. Even in the middle of Summer, when you're that far north it's a wee bit parky, especially at 70MPH in perforated leathers. I did, however, buy the most expensive petrol I've ever bought. In 1998 I paid 13 Norwegian Crowns (1.30) per litre. I dread to think how much it costs now.

While bimbling through northern Finland after returning from Norway, I noticed something odd. The roads were, in the main, in excellent condition, maintained very well and a lot of fun to ride, especially on the hilly, twisty bits. But every so often the road would become dead straight for a mile or so, and the tree line would retreat a few hundred yards on either side before returning to hug the road. This happened a few times, and eventually I found out why: the roads double as emergency runways. I didn't see any landings, though.

Towards the end of my trip I decided I wanted to spend a couple of days in Helsinki before returning home, as well as visit a friend in Imatra (of The Tightrope Men, by Desmond Bagley, fame), but I was still deep inside the Arctic Circle, roughly 700 miles away from where I wanted to be. With a cavalier disregard for speed limits, I opened the throttle and blasted down the motorway until hitting Reserve an hour or so later. I found a petrol station, paid a bit less than 1.30 per litre for fuel, downed some coffee, and walked back out to the bike, which was sitting rather oddly. The rear tyre was completely flat. Pumping it didn't help; I could hear a loud hiss which I eventually traced to a gaping hole in the centre of the tread. I don't know how I didn't notice it sooner; a flat rear tyre on a bike causes a very distinctive wobble. As I'd been doing 100MPH+ for the previous hour-and-a-bit, this was a tad worrying. Still, I'd had the forethought to arrange European cover with the AA, so I hauled out my mobile phone and made an expensive call back to the UK.

I sat at the petrol station, drinking more coffee, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After an hour-and-a-half or so, the proprietor of the petrol station addressed me by name. I thought this odd as I'd paid for everything with cash. I looked up and he held his hand to his ear, thumb and little finger extended in the universal "telephone" gesture. He handed me the telephone, and I found out why I'd been waiting for so long: the AA operator had left out a digit from my telephone number, so they couldn't call me back directly. Thanks to international directory enquiries, they'd managed to track down the number for the petrol station instead.

"Would you like the good news, or the even better news, sir?"
"Both, please, in that order."
"It took us a while - there aren't many bike places in Finland - but we've found a tyre for you. There's a tyre fitting place which has a tyre which fits your bike. They've only got one in stock; it was an order which wasn't collected."
"And the better news?"
"It's a mile from where you are now. They can come and pick you up, but it'll be a while before they can spare anyone to do it."
"Never mind; I'll ride there, slowly."

Eighty quid and an hour later I was back on the road with a belly full of food, a tank full of petrol, and a tyre full of air. I had intended to be a hero and ride almost the length of Finland, from Karigasniemi to Imatra, in a day, but gave it up as a bad idea and called in at Rovaniemi for a night's kip before pressing on in torrential rain to Imatra, where I had some god-awful blini in a "Russian" restaurant.

I got to see a proper Russian border crossing, on the main road into Russia a couple of miles outside of Imatra. It looked a lot like other border crossings, but a bit more... sinister. The Iron Curtain had fallen by that point, but there was still something menacing about that low-slung concrete bunker, as if something dark and brooding was hidden somewhere beyond it. Much prettier and uplifting to behold was the castle-like Rantasipi Valtionhotelli, sadly outside my budget at the time so I spent the night in a hostel instead.

I ambled back to Helsinki, mindful of my bike's rear tyre and tyre-bursting adventures of the previous year, and spent a lazy couple of days taking in the sights and the museums (free Internet access!) before catching the ferry to Stockholm, riding across to Gothenburg, and catching another ferry back to Harwich.

The crossing to Gothenburg at the start of my trip was as smooth as glass. No wind to speak of, no waves, just a quiet afternoon's boating on a lake somewhere, a lake the size of the North Sea. The two Baltic crossings were, likewise, millponds. The trip back from Gothenburg to Harwich was hellish. I spent almost 24 hours horizontal in my cabin because I couldn't cope with being upright. I tried standing outside, hoping that the cold wind would counter the nausea. I tried standing inside, hoping that the lack of cold wind would counter the nausea. I tried visiting the loo, hoping that the smell of other people's vomit would cause me to follow suit so that I'd feel better. Nothing worked, except lying down. By the time we reached Harwich I was ravenous but too scared to eat in case I got to enjoy unintended seconds. As we docked the captain apologised for the roughness of the crossing; it wasn't his fault, but it was a nice gesture. Apparently he laid on extra steam to get it over with as soon as possible; slowing down would have just dragged out everyone's misery.

The next day I took the bike in for its next scheduled service and was asked if I'd been off-roading. The bike had been freshly serviced and cleaned and was gleaming, and they weren't expecting to see me again for a few months. Just over two weeks later it arrived caked in mud, dust, and road grime, with another 3,000+ miles on the clock.

I learned one lesson that fortnight: don't use one's phone while abroad. The novelty of making telephone calls from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia (signals from the latter three reached over the water to the ferries I was on) was too much to resist and I got landed with a bill for 250 for my troubles.
(Fri 15th Jul 2011, 22:36, More)

» Expensive Mistakes

I forgot my wallet, which ended up costing Avis thousands.
About, ooh, 10 years ago now, I went to Finland to visit a chum.

I missed my first flight after I turned up at the airport sans wallet. "No problem, Sir. We don't need your credit card to issue your ticket; your passport is sufficient."
"Yes, but I'll be in Helsinki with no money and no means of getting any, and I'm expecting to hire a car. They'll want to see my credit card, even if you don't. I'm going home to get my plastic and Finnish cash. I'll get the next flight."

Cue getting to Helsinki many, many hours later than planned (around midnight, as I recall), to find the Avis desk (and the other rental desks) closed for the night, with only a single chap on duty for all of them, handling paperwork and keys for late arrivals such as me.

At the time I wasn't quite 25 years old, which meant I could only hire a limited selection of cars. Apparently Avis' insurance company felt that anyone under 25 couldn't be trusted with anything larger than a Ford Fiesta. How prescient of them...

So I rocked up at the Avis desk expecting to be given the key to a Fiesta or whatever Lilliputian equivalent they had in Finland. After much searching by the attendant, and a couple of phone calls to an apparently higher authority, he eventually handed me the key to something called a Nissan Primera. I'd no idea what it was; I wasn't a car nerd. It was a set of wheels. Off I trotted to the car park to find it.

"Hmm. This is a bit bigger than expected. And it's got an SRi badge on the back? I'm sure this can't be what I paid for. Ah well. Too late now. Vrooooom!"

Finland having a population half that of London, the roads are pretty quiet at any time of day. At night, a traffic jam is seeing another vehicle somewhere off in the distance. And 2 litres of finest Japanese engineering travels rather rapidly when the callow youth behind the wheel decides to pretend that the speed limit signs are in MPH rather than KPH. I arrived in Kuopio roughly two-and-a-half hours later. Good thing the Finnish plod were all tucked up in bed.

The next night, after dropping my chum off at home I headed back to the hotel. I discovered that one is supposed to give way to traffic coming from the right at intersections. Driving on the right, as they do, one might have thought the rule would be to give way to the left, kind of the inverse of what we do here. But no. Fortunately the fellow piloting the other car floored it when he saw me coming, so I only took his rear bumper off instead of putting a Primera-shaped dent in the side of his ride. When I called the next morning to say I'd be late because of sorting out the insurance paperwork my chum said, "Yes, I know. I've already heard." Turns out the passenger in the car was my chum's housemate. Small world.

The damage to the Primera? Minor crack to the front bumper, and one of the headlamp wipers was slightly out of alignment. Avis offered a replacement vehicle, but I turned it down. After all, the damage was only cosmetic, and minor at that. It wasn't as if I'd written it off...

The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully and I set out on the trip back to the airport. While cruising along at a somewhat more sedate speed (obeying the 120KPH limit this time), about an hour away from the airport, I heard an almighty bang, then the car twitched violently and started bouncing along the grass verge at the side of the motorway.

"No problem," thought I, surprisingly rationally, "I'll just brake very gently, 'cause I'm on a low-friction surface, and make sure I keep the car in a straight line. Everything will be fine."

There was another almighty bang, and the windscreen turned opaque and cracked. The steering wheel airbag burst between my bare forearms (I still have a faint scar from it; I tell people I used to be a cutter). "Fucksocks," thought I, "guess I'd better plant the brake and hope."

After finally stopping the car, I got out and found out what had happened. The first almighty bang was the rear-left tyre bursting. The second almighty bang was a concrete lump smashing into the underside of the engine, shoving the battery up into the bonnet, breaking the bonnet away from the catch and sending it hurtling into the windscreen, before momentum carried the car over the lump and further along the verge. The Finns run pipes along the sides of motorways, I later found out, and the concrete lump I'd hit was the cap on an entrance to one of these pipes.

Avis collected the remains of the car and paid for a rather expensive taxi ride for the rest of the way to the airport.

So, however much a new Nissan Primera SRi was (I'm sure the concrete lump must have shifted the engine, which is usually a write-off), plus the taxi & recovery costs, plus the repair bill to the car I hit a couple of days previously, is what it cost Avis for the mistake of lending me something their own policies said they shouldn't, because it was late at night and the attendant wanted to get rid of me and go home.

And all because I left my wallet at home.
(Sat 27th Oct 2007, 14:20, More)

» Sticking it to The Man

I don't have a television license.
I also don't have a television. Instead I have the radio, and books, and the Internet, and actual real-life friends to occupy my time. If I had a television it would probably still be in its increasingly dusty shipping carton, doing duty as a coffee table or similar.

I've stopped bothering to reply to the stream of threatening letters telling me that the TV Licensing records need "updating" and warning me that I could be committing a crime and could face vast penalties for my troubles. It seems that if I repeatedly take the trouble to fill in the bit at the bottom which says "I don't have a television" I can get them off my back for a month or two before they start hounding me again, or so prior experience suggests. Well, their records don't need updating. Their records show that I don't have a license because I don't have a television, therefore their records are correct. If I finally do take complete leave of my senses and get a television I'll let them know. Until that happens they can leave me alone.

I'm fed up with their continual pestering of me - and their almost-accusations which cleverly skirt the borders of libel without quite crossing over - as well as their ignoring my previous reminders that I don't have a television, so now I just ignore them in turn. Every so often I arrive home and see a standard template letter telling me that some officious little rat-faced twerp has knocked on my door while I was out working at a proper job and that I could be breaking the law and liable for fines, etc. etc. etc.

If they want to waste my time, I'll let them waste theirs.
(Thu 17th Jun 2010, 19:51, More)

» Well, that taught 'em

Previous job
I used to work as a cinema projectionist. I certainly showed 'em, several times a day.
(Mon 30th Apr 2007, 19:40, More)

» Complaining

Netgear let me down.
In February 2008 I bought an inexpensive Netgear ethernet switch from Amazon. It's worked without fail ever since. I wonder if there's an inverse correlation between how much tinkering with something I can do, and its eventual lifespan.

A couple of weeks ago the power supply started buzzing. It's one of those factory-sealed "wall wart" blocky things, liberally covered in all sorts of foreign hieroglyphics, like some sort of electrical Rosetta Stone. Current UK legislation puts the retailer, not the manufacturer, on the hook for six years from date of purchase, so I prepared to telephone Amazon to get a repair or replacement arranged.

Then I stopped for a few seconds and realised that calling Amazon might be technically correct, but probably an exercise in frustration. Amazon would most likely not have spare power supplies in stock, but would instead either contact Netgear on my behalf, or suggest none too subtly that I might want to contact Netgear directly. So I didn't bother with Amazon after all, but went straight to Netgear.

After wading through interminable IVR menus I eventually got through to the inevitably Indian call centre, and my spirits sank. I could expect to be treated to a barrage of irrelevant and unnecessary questions while the sub-minimum wage staffer on the other end robotically followed his ridiculous script without any consideration for what the caller was saying. I mentally geared myself up for the witheringly scornful letter of complaint I'd be obliged to scribble. Or so I thought.

The chap on the other end listened to my description of the problem ("the power supply is buzzing today. It wasn't buzzing yesterday. I've removed it from the device it powers and it's still buzzing") and, without subjecting me to any unnecessary interrogation, agreed that yes, my power supply was indeed faulty and a replacement would be shipped directly to me, at no cost.

A replacement duly arrived two days later.

How dare Netgear offer decent customer service without a legal obligation to do so? How dare Netgear employ intelligent people in its foreign call centres, depriving me of my right to have my prejudices confirmed with each phone call?

Bah. Bloody Netgear let me down.
(Fri 3rd Sep 2010, 12:42, More)
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