This past weekend was an adventure indeed. Adrian had suggested getting together for a spontaneous adventure, but until the day before, I had no idea it would be on a motorcycle! I also had no idea that Adrian, instead of taking the easy way out and telling me “Sorry, you can’t come this time,” would drive halfway to Lausanne borrowing equipment from his friends so I could ride along. I had no idea if the equipment would fit, but as if this trip was destined to happen, Adrian’s friend’s wife’s jacket and trousers fit me like gloves, and his other friend’s helmet fit just fine even though it belonged to a grown man– for once I was thankful for my realtively big head. I was alternating between excitement and terror all morning. Until the very last second I thought my fear (and I’m going to continue being frank about my emotions; I thought I was going to vomit with fear) would get the better of me and I would chicken out, walk away and take the train down to Gruyères to see the dairy. I had a hip flexor that was bothering me and I thought, at the VERY last second, that I was not going to be able to lift my leg over the trunk and physically get on the bike! But I settled in behind Adrian, put my arms around his waist (“I know I’m not exactly cuddly with all this protective equipment on but still hold on to me,” he said), the bike jumped a curb and roared into action, and we were away.
I had ridden the back of a motorcycle once before, in Bretagne, with a friend of a friend. I knew the basics. I tried to lean into the curve, move my body when Adrian moved his and not panic when we rattled over a railway crossing or curved around a roundabout at a 40-degree angle. I was only really scared for the first 10 minutes. We whizzed past Thun and Interlaken and straight up into the mountains we had stared at on our first hiking trip. I caught a few glances of valleys far below as we leaned into the hairpin turns on the mountain passes.
There are some pretty major differences between being a passenger in a car and a passenger on a motorcycle. The first, of course, is that on a motorcycle you are more open to the elements and have to wear a lot of protective equipment. Only the helmet is really there to protect you in the event of–god forbid–a crash. The other stuff, the padded trousers, boots (which I didn’t have) and special jacket, is primarily there to protect you from the wind, which gets very cold (in the mountains), bears straight down on you and is totally deafening, especially on the highways (where you’re going as fast or faster than the cars) or in the mountains (where you’re up high enough that your hearing is already affected). I think my jeans would have been torn to shreds if I had worn them on that trip.
The second difference is that as a passenger in a car you can do whatever you well please- read, text your friends, consult the map, stare at the scenery and take pictures out the window. No such luck on a motorcycle; you have to keep almost as much of an eye on the road as the driver does, watching the road signs and the road up ahead for hazards (might want to brace yourself in the event of a curb or a pothole) and curves (your and the driver’s body have to lean into the curves together; if not, worst case scenario you get thrown off!).
So obviously I have very few photos from this trip, only passing impressions of the lakes, swerving through the mountain passes and climbing up into a snowy, cold, misty brown-green moonscape. After several hours we had to stop because in the thick misty fog (I actually think it was a bit of cloud that had drifted down; we were that high up) nobody could see. We stopped at a cozy roadhouse inn for the night– a shared washroom at the end of the hall, two single beds and breakfast, that was about it but what more than that do you really need? We almost rolled right past it because of the fog, but saw it just in time. Adrian got us dinner at the hotel restaurant and I had, for the first time, the pleasure of eating real Swiss fondue. Emmenthal and Gruyère, melted into a pot with a large splash of cherry brandy, accompanied by a basket full of chunks of brown bread and two long, skinny forks for spearing the chunks. If you lose the piece of bread in the bubbling pot, it’s seven years bad luck, or seven years bad sex, or something. The fondue was heavy of course, but silky, delicious and warming and just what we needed after a cold, threatening evening. We looked out at the terrasse of the roadhouse restaurant and saw–beyond the terrasse itself– absolutely nothing, only white. It was like the roadhouse had been lifted up and placed in a giant container of dry ice.
We had a last round and watched some football on the telly with the Portuguese manager and a pair of French mountain bikers— those same steep slopes and scary passes Adrian and I had climbed with the help of that powerful Suzuki motor they had done with nothing but pedals and their own calves of steel; I was in unceasing awe of them.
Used as I was to a camp bed, a broken bedframe, an air mattress, a couch and basically sleeping on anything covered and flat, I slept like a baby in the big roadhouse bed with its thick blanket. We got up early the next morning and after a surprisingly substantial breakfast (bread and croissants with delicious honey, half a dozen different jams including red currant, which I hadn’t had since Russia, sausage and cheese) we hiked around before hitting the road again. The day was bright and clear and we could see where we had pulled over the night before– a brown muddy moonscape with shoots of green and clods of white, barrenness that reminded me of Iceland. It was unbelievable to me that June, anywhere, could be like this.
We rode up to take pictures at an even higher pass before beginning the long descent. A few of my impressions from off the back of a bike speeding from Switzerland to Italy: mountain passes, Adrian speeding to the front of every queue, Swiss German village houses made of planks of wood giving way, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, to Italian stucco houses painted in soft oranges, greens and pinks. The occasional roadside Jesus. Cows of all descriptions, goats, sheep and several horses, including a pair of beautiful silvery-gray ones, by the side of the road. At the centre of one village, a fountain in the shape of a giant iguana. Getting waved through Italian customs without even having to lift up our visors and speak to anyone. A godforsaken gravel road, clenching my teeth and hoping not to lose any. Just over the Italian border, a pumpkin-orange house with a giant red, white and green Italian flag hanging out the window. Adrian stopping in a national park, just to stare at a waterfall spilling into a gorge. He told me I was a natural on the bike! “You’re a really good rider,” he said. “Most people are scared of the curves on those mountain passes but you were just throwing yourself into them, and on that gravel road you were just sitting up a little and riding it out! I’ve never seen a beginner do that. You really ought to get your own bike someday.”
It wasn’t the first time I had considered it. Having never owned a car or a bike, I always kind of hungered for the kind of control over my own life that owning my own mode of transport would bring. Having a motorcycle is just as fast and slightly cheaper than a car, and the licensing procedure is slightly less complicated. I can’t think of anything, except moving, that I could do in a car and not on a motorcycle. And let’s be blunt– no one messes with the lady or the man on the motorcycle.
Adrian and I had our waterfall meditation interrupted after about half an hour by an Italian driver, who rolled down his car window and ranted at us for a good eight or ten minutes in Italian while all we could do was giggle– we speak six European languages between the two of us but Italian isn’t one of them. We got out of there though, because Adrian thought he heard the word “police” somewhere in there. We stopped in a border town and got two enormous coupes of gelato and two espressos for the price of a round of beer in Bern. After Swiss francs and Swiss prices, we and the other Swiss there greeted the Euro like an old friend. The espressos were only a Euro– a bit less than a franc– each, half the price of vending machine coffee in Berne.
We rode on a few more miles to a town called Baceno, where we stayed the night. The Italian villagers, despite not sharing more than ten words of a common language, seemed very happy to see us. Whereas in the mountains 100 francs had bought a single room, 60 euros in Baceno bought us a cozy two-room suite with fully equipped private bath and full kitchen. It looked both clean and lived-in, to the point that I thought the landlady’s neighbour had gone on vacation and her room was being rented out on the sly. We had pizza and calzone in the land of such delights– thin crust and not slathered with tomato goo, rather dotted with it in between the slices of salty prosciutto and the thick, juicy mushrooms and artichokes. We took a walk in quiet Baceno and had a long talk (about the roots of ethnic violence, philosophy, the nature of attachment to one’s roots, deep stuff like that) on the porch of an abandoned wooden shack looking at one of those roadside Jesuses. The Jesus– a bright fresco painted on the back wall of a small house-like structure and surrounded with candles– reminded me of an almost identical one that my great-grandmother prayed at in her hometown of Cerknica (Slovenia) before boarding the train at the start of her long journey to America.
Adrian and I walked through narrow, moonlit medieval back alleys, accompanied at one point by four curious Italian cats. We stopped at another bar for some cheap Italian wine– the bar doubled as a gelateria, so we took full advantage of that too.
The next morning we set out late from Baceno, because neither of us wanted to leave without one last espresso and one last gelato. There were real hazelnut chunks in mine!
On the return trip, instead of going over the mountain passes we took the autobahn, which was like being in a windtunnel. My hearing took two whole days to recover from the wind’s constant assault, even though I was wearing a helmet that sealed off my entire head. But I loved the speed.
We headed through Vaud (French-speaking Switzerland) and followed Lake Geneva for awhile. In a lakeside town near Lausanne we stopped for a nap under the park in the sun,and I played with some silvery-gray baby swans that were hanging around. Then we went to get lunch, and that’s when the dream kind of popped. When we went to get lunch, the foul mood I was in because I’d been hungry did not improve that much and Adrian’s slightly less foul mood didn’t improve any. We got lasagna at a streetside resto-bar after walking past half a dozen restaurants that were either closed awaiting the dinner hour (it was four in the afternoon) or out of our price range. The lasagnas were hardly bigger than brownies, gooey and devoid of any recognizable chunks of meat, vegetable and pasta; the cheese looked like shaving cream. It was served on dirty plates by a polite enough but overworked waiter who was eager to impress us with his English (when I kept mishearing him he thought I could not speak French, even though it was the deafness from the wind that had me hearing “ranger” instead of “changer”).
And the soft drinks alone cost ten francs. Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in Italy anymore.
After that, we had planned to pass by Lausanne but decided not to, because we were both nearing our limit and planned to go there on other trips anyway. Instead we zoomed through Fribourg and into Bern, where I changed out of my corset-tight trousers and flopped on my bed. Long and tiring maybe, but a whole lot more exciting and thought-provoking than a trip out to Gruyères to see the dairy.