Traveling Across the EU on a BMW (Part I)
How does Europe look through the eyes of an Indian motorcyclist?
January 9, 2010
In contrast to the boxed sequence of screenshots from the window of a car, bus or train, a motorcycle offers the elemental promise of open skies and an unfettered eye.
A long-distance motorcycle journey is, above everything, light years removed from today's favorite means of transportation — the passenger jet. Plugged like spare parts in a taut tubular tin, some 20,000 airplanes hustle several hundred millions of us, year after year, across billions of kilometers. This is one symbol of globalization, distilled to its faceless fundamentals.
Television made the mind of our global village borderless, and the Internet teleported it to seamless islands of communion. Mass transportation by air has made our souls borderless. One steps in, then steps out, immaculately unchanged.
The subtle, incessant shift in the look and feel of peoples across lands, the sudden quantum leap of these across borders, any border, and their powerful resonance within oneself, is simply skipped. Deleted.
No wonder we all peep, voyeur-like, at the partly unclad frontier of space tourism.
Indeed, air travel is much like hitting the Hibernate button on a laptop computer, and then resurrecting it somewhere, anywhere, far away. I await the day voyagers download their brains on to a hard disk (remind Google to back it up), retain their digitized hopes and happy, high-resolution memories, selectively uploaded back into their heads.
They then hop onto a plane or rocket, slumber en route to their dream vacation: Take a MacPlane or a MacRock(et), their iMac heads reformatted to the MacVac(ation) ahead. Rip Van Winkle need never have slept.
But this is why I am profoundly in love with my motorcycle. So would Robert Frost. My motorcycle does not let me sleep. One always has miles to go. And the ever-alert eye, the window to the mind, captures it all, at 60 yards, half a soccer field, per second.
In the final count, travel is about borderlessness.
The world itself today seems as borderless as the air we breathe, or the water we drink. In this, the second winter of the global economic crisis, I cannot help but observe how the financial meltdown has crossed frontiers, and done so even quicker than swine flu.
Or for that matter, more rapidly than my trusted BMW R1150 RS.
I adore motorcycles. I broke much of my right ankle into bits in Belgium after an accident, and learned to walk again after using the same motorcycle for a round-trip to another end of Europe — Spain. Correct: True love is all about forgiveness.
And stripped of the anodyne space-time warp of an aircraft, I love borders, too.
Europe is full of borders. The continent's creative juices have always been inspired by movement, by the absorption of its own fiery othernesses. Marx the German, France's Hugo, Verlaine and Rodin, found themselves inspired in Brussels. Byron and Shelley — Englishmen, in Greece and Switzerland, Ibsen the Scandinavian in Germany and Italy, Chopin the Pole in France and Britain.
Being Indian, I don't strictly qualify for free movement. To me, this is a gift from heaven. Even within the Schengen visa-free zone, I stop at all borders. Meticulously, I check and re-check whether I can proceed. I unwrap myself — helmet, glasses, gloves, protective clothing, the works.
I consider things, touch the road (motorcyclists do this, to get a sense of traction). I scan faces, smell, hear, feel. I try to discern the difference, which seems to have dissolved across borders, here in the Europe of the European Union, but has not really managed to — if you stop. One border is all it takes.
I have an assignment in Bulgaria, with meetings in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania.
From my home in a lost corner of Belgium, the 2,500 kilometer distance may seem a long one, especially on a misty, wet October morning. In between, however, lies the Mad Max lure of Germany's autobahns, and their No Speed Limit.
Before Germany, however, and after leaving Belgium, there is Luxembourg too. However, the Grand Duchy, for a motorcycle, is little more than a few gearshifts down and up.
In contrast to the ether of air travel, the souls of motorcyclists are welded to “infrastructure.” That is why we stroke the tarmac at borders — to get a feel of how grippy the roads ahead are.
Compared to just two years ago (that is, before the current economic crisis), I cannot help but notice the sharp growth in broken Belgian bridges, shut down with no announced date of return, and the fresh zig-zag of ruts and cracks across the roads.
This is how the economic crisis unfolds, here in Belgium and beyond. It will creep and crawl: Deferred road and bridge repairs, fewer teachers, longer years in a job to gain pensions, the auction of community football fields, and more beggars — white and ever-younger.
The crisis will slowly crack the welfare state: 500 doctors quit Belgium every year, five milligram maintenance doses of anti-cholesterol drugs like Zocor are no longer reimbursed — you need a Bigger Problem, like a heart attack. There are also news reports just before I leave that 200,000 Belgians lack hot water, heating, showers or toilets.
Belgians may be known for being nasty behind the wheels of their cars. But few can match their impeccable manners, when it comes to motorcycles. Far, far away, Belgian drivers spot motorcyclists in their side mirrors, move aside and signal: please overtake.
And who can resist that galvanic twist of the wrist, the Promethean surge of 120-plus horses driving just 230 kilograms of machine? Little wonder motorcyclists are termed “pilots” in the French language.
German car manufacturers may be in tune with their counterparts across Europe by advertising per-kilometer CO2 emissions (rather unlike my India, where fuel consumption in liters-per-kilometer holds the key). But top speeds and 0-100 in “x point y” seconds are the iron law in Germany, its defining magic.
And, on the autobahn, it is foolish to test this. Unless you are in a Dutch-registered caravan, loaded with cheese sandwiches, filtered water, spare fuel in jerry cans from low-tax Luxembourg and four bicycles. But German drivers do take great care to avoid their neighbors from the northwest. The only collision I see in Germany is between a Dutch car and a Dutch caravan.
Until Nuremberg in the southeast, I seldom need to drop below 200.
After this, all the way to the Austrian border is a pile of crawling BMWs, Audis and Porsches. Motorcycles of course slip lanes and speed-burst through, but there are fewer of us as I proceed.
I soon understand why — snow. A scattering of it, but still enough to discourage all but the battle hardened, the metal ankled and BMW motorcycles, icon of any engineer's litany — Made in Germany.
BMW motorcyclists know this, of course. Ask me about that near-mythic rumble of constant, flat torque, which makes riding in rain or snow little more than an issue of seasoned animal faith. Ask me about my motorcycle's magnesium cylinder casings, the twin spark plugs, the heated grips, the adaptive force distribution of my front and rear anti-lock brakes, the total separation of steering from drive train.
I have needed all this before in my 500,000 kilometer legacy of motorcycling (12 times round the Equator). I will need it again, when I corner into a 60 centimeter pothole in Bulgaria, and when I force a last-second correction to avoid a truck in Romania, which sends me resolutely, at 150 kilometers an hour, towards the back of a horse carriage.
Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series. Read Part II here.
Travel is about borderlessness. The world itself today seems as borderless as the air we breathe, or the water we drink.
Europe is full of borders. The continent's creative juices have always been inspired by movement, by the absorption of its own fiery othernesses.
Air travel is much like hitting the Hibernate button on a laptop computer, and then resurrecting it somewhere, anywhere, far away.
I am profoundly in love with my motorcycle. My motorcycle does not let me sleep. The ever-alert eye captures it all at 60 yards per second.
In contrast to the ether of air travel, the souls of motorcyclists are welded to "infrastructure." That is why we stroke the tarmac at borders — to get a feel of how grippy the roads ahead are.