As we climbed up towards Oregon amongst empty landscape and beautiful scenery a sudden glance in the rear view mirror revealed a large blue car covered with flashing lights.
I really like America and Americans. I feel so at home in the US that I am more of an immigrant than a visitor. No, all you lovely people at the Department of Homeland Security, this is not a confession of illegal activity, really it’s not, so please don’t stick a camera up my bottom the next time I arrive at the border.
I would like to give you some idea of just how much I like America. With my brand-new, freshly unwrapped wife we took a honeymoon trip from Dallas Forth Worth almost to the Canadian border and then on to Sturgis, across the Rockies and back down the western side of the Great Divide before returning home via Dallas. It was a fascinating trip and, having spent three weeks in each other’s company for 24 hours a day, we came back to England happy that we actually rather liked each other.
I love the size of the America; I delight in the kindness which Americans – at least away from the tourist areas – show to foreign visitors and I take great pleasure in the homogenous nature of what is truly a vast country. The fact that you are going to get reliably poisoned by the same brand of fake Mexican food just as effectively in Oregon as the Florida Keys is something which we, in the old world, just can’t quite manage yet.
Even so, there are cultural differences which can cause real discomfort. Take our visit to visit to MCUSA’s headquarters in Medford, Oregon, last year. We don’t have any deserts in Britain. In fact, we have very little empty space so one of my 16-year-old daughter’s top requests was to visit a truly empty part of America. MCUSA’s Managing Editor, Bart Madson,
We stop for a restroom break and a coffee in a tiny town called Denio which straddles the Nevada-Oregon border.
was born, and brought up, in Utah and regularly travels back home across the high desert which splits Oregon from Nevada and then Utah. Bart kindly plotted a route for us which was real pioneer travel, taking us through what is truthfully wild country – and with a capital “W”.
Heading northwest from Winnemucca all three of us are overwhelmed with the stark beauty of what looks like the film set from “High Plains Drifter”. We stop for a restroom break and a coffee in Denio (population 78, unless one of the town’s couples was feeling frisky last Autumn), a tiny town which straddles the Nevada-Oregon border.
After Denio, things get really bleak and empty with no sign of any human habitation. If you ever want a truly epic ride you don’t have to go to the end of the earth – just get a full tank of gas at Denio and head out into the mountains.
We climb ever upwards towards Oregon with the car filled with “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” as we wonder at the utter emptiness of a landscape which would have looked familiar to Sarah Winnemucca in the 19th century.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the car’s rear view mirror is filled with a very large, and very angry looking, blue car covered with a billion flashing blue lights. Since we haven’t seen another vehicle for two hours, we wonder, with some curiosity what the gentleman driving the car wants. Being English, we quite naturally disembark to chat to the Officer. This act, it seems, is not culturally acceptable since said Police Officer becomes quite tense and reaches for his gun. At this point, Carol and I both feel the pressing need for a change of underwear.
Things got really bleak and empty with no sign of any human habitation. If you ever want a truly epic ride you don’t have to go to the end of the earth – just get a full tank of gas at Denio and head out into the mountains.
After terse verbal instructions, we return and sit rigid in the car, eyes fixed ahead and me, as directed, with both hands clamped to the steering wheel for fear of being accused of speaking with a funny accent in a public place – and consequently being shot!
Once he has established that we are in fact English, and therefore unaware of the protocols applying when one is stopped by an Oregon State Trooper, the Officer turns out to be very nice. We have, it seems, broken the speed limit which we were certain was 70mph because we have seem lots of signs confirming this throughout Nevada. The problem is that we are no longer in Nevada but perched on top of an extremely high mountain in Oregon where the speed limit is only 55mph. We inundate him with a plethora of grovelling apologies – and the very pleasant Officer, who has never met anyone from England, sends us on our way with a smile. And, without even shooting us!
The great joy of working for MCUSA is the support offered by colleagues and so when we retell the story at MCUSA’s palatial Headquarters the following day, everyone falls off their chairs laughing at us – whilst making mental notes that the “English Tourist Trick” might be useful for the future.
As things turned out this was a forlorn hope. Bart was driving the same route back to see family in Salt Lake City and rolled slowly across the only stop sign in ten thousand square miles of empty desert – only to be bounced by State Police! Bart proved to be singularly unconvincing as an English tourist – I put his failure entirely down to his unwillingness to risk death by jumping out of the car with a smile and proffering a handshake – and so now is paying the least deserved traffic citation in the history of motoring.
But it’s not only America where cultural differences can cause confusion. Take last week’s Biker’s Classics at the iconic Spa Francorchamps’ circuit in Belgium. Belgians have a very idiosyncratic style of organization and you either accept this, and go with the current, or become very stressed indeed.
A lot of the problem is that Europe, unlike America, is a series of extremely disparate countries with very different traditions and working practices. So, there are real, practical cultural differences. Take the Germans and Belgians as an example. I get on with both but you have to understand the different ways of working. In Belgium, the ends always justify the means. This is a country which functioned perfectly well for many months without any government at all, so free spirits rule.
By contrast, the Germans are, generally speaking, extremely well organized and, contrary to all the national stereotypical jokes, are really warm and good fun. But, and this is a big but, they expect things to be done by the book. So, the nice Belgian organizers allocate a parking spot for some minor German VIP next to us in the paddock. He is happy and off he goes to do whatever low grade VIPs do at Spa. Overnight, a Belgian sidecar crew arrives and they have a large van, a commercial sized dining room tent – they are Belgians after all – and a garage for the bike.
This is not a problem in itself and we move our car and race trailer along, and wiggle things around a bit, so everyone fits in fine and soon we’re all sitting down having a beer and chatting away in a mixture of paddock French and English and generally having a rather pleasant time.
The following morning, the German VIP arrives and things start to get rather tense. The Belgians are now occupying his allocated parking space and this is not right. He has an a reserved parking spot and he wants it – even though it is presently covered by the Belgian’s sidecar garage.
Carol, being the ultimate diplomat, quickly sees that if we move a large garbage skip to the other side of the access road then the irate German can park his car 10 yards away from where he wants to be but no, this isn’t good enough. He wants the place he has been given – and nothing else will do.
I hate arguments but this one is fascinating – especially since it is carried on in English because this is the only common language. Then one of the Belgian mechanics shrugs his shoulders and says he has a solution. It is this. He goes in to the back of the team van and returns with an enormous, cordless, angle grinder, complete with diamond tipped blade. Blipping the throttle on the grinder, he explains that if the German does not move his car now, as in immediately, then the wheels will be cut off the vehicle one by one. The German is bigger than his Belgian opponent but a 10-inch grinder, in the hands of a very intense looking sidecar mechanic, is something of an ace card.
The situation cools, the German’s car is parked where Carol originally suggested and everyone can get back to business which, in Spa, means Belgian frites. Now at this point there needs to be clarification. Apparently only 27% of Americans have passports, but I am now going to provide you with the single reason for the other 73% of US citizens to travel: it is Belgian frites.
Do not confuse Belgian frites with French fries or even English chips. Belgian frites are things of wonder. They are feather light and melt in the mouth, whilst their bouquet is as delicate as an angel’s breath. Truly, they are things of beauty and when topped off with a huge dollop of piquant, super fat, Belgian mayonnaise they become the food of the Gods.
So there we are, with our Matchless G.50 racebike gleaming in the receding sun – a bag of frites in one hand and, in the interests of multi-culturalism, a glass of rather fine French Sauvignon Blanc in the other. All is well with the world and we feel truly blessed to be part of the motorcycling community.
I know that President Obama is a keen reader of STM, so Mr. O I hope that you will take a cue from our experiences. Forget wars and violence – and bring world peace the biking way. Buy Mr. Bin Laden a large bag of Belgian frites, offer him a glass of good quality white wine – and I’ll even let him have his picture taken on our G.50 to clinch the deal and bring harmony to all nations.
Thanks to Norfolk Line (www.norfolkline.com) for our punctual, and very friendly, crossing from Dover to Dunkerque.