Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Travel Tales: Poor Man of Europe

Belgium is usually dismissed with a bored shrug, a mere inconvenience to be rushed through on the way to something more amusing. And I would be the first to agree that many areas of Belgium are best dismissed as prototypes for Boredom City, especially the French speaking parts which are so uncivilised that the men still piss on the pavements and the natives refuse to talk in a language that is comprehensible to the English speaking world.

But Antwerp is a whole different ballgame. The inhabitants are predominantly Flemish people who would rather speak English than French, which is just as well because Flemish is the kind of guttural language that sounds like a pack of drunken gorillas. The Flemish are more reserved than even the English which is either a good or bad thing depending on what you want out of life.

An hours ride from Ostend (admittedly served by some rather grotty ferries), Antwerp is sufficiently different from the UK as to be an ideal first continental jaunt. Whatever you do, don’t come in the winter because it gets colder than the flatlands of Eastern England, whose geography so much of the landscape mirrors - most of the Belgians lock their bikes away for the winter. The customs at Ostend have been encompassing EEC directives for 1992 for the past five years - I suppose if you weigh 20 stone, dress like an out of work refuse collector, ride a chop with huge forks and smoke a joint as you give a vee sign to the customs men, you might just get stopped if they're in a bad mood. Usually you just whizz through. After all, compared to the delights of nearby Amsterdam (Holland and Belgium have an open border), there’s very little that anyone would want to import from the UK.

Belgian police are generally jolly good chaps as long as you don't break any laws. Unlike the dim witted perverts in the British police force, they don’t look for half an excuse to search leather jacketed youths (or truncheon black people for "looking at me in a funny way" - Ed.). However, if you wander around Antwerp in a twenty year old leather a they will stop you and ask politely for your passport. Never having been foolish enough to leave home without mine, I can’t say what would happen if you were stopped without one. Usually, they just enter the details in the computer are stuck in the back of their vans. Luckily, this only happens once, not every day. These VW vans can be burned off in second gear on any half decent bike, but the plod keep Porsche 911s for really high speed motorway chases, which makes for some real fun.

Compared to Amsterdam, Antwerp is a sleepy backwater of a city, but this is part of its charm. Unlike England, it’s actually possible to enter discos and clubs in motorcycle gear; the city has managed to retain some of the laid back feeling of the sixties. There are scores of small bars dotted all over the place, a lot appear to have converted their living room into a bar and knock ed out the front of the house. Beer is either expensive or cheap de pending on whether you drink in the city centre or in some back street. Supermarket supplies of both beer and spirits are commendably reasonable even with the pound at a near record low of 6 Belgian Francs.

The weakness of the pound makes the cost of used motorcycles quite high, but not as bad as a machine starved UK. Some bikes that were dismissed in the UK, like the CB750/900F, are quite popular over here. A grand will buy you a decent one. There are a few of the editor's favourites around (CB450s) for two or three hundred quid, and lots and lots of the smaller stuff. BMW and Laverda twins are also very popular... However, attempted purchase of a bike in Belgium throws one into the midst of a bureaucracy of Kafka-esque proportions, centering around the fact that the number plate stays with the owner and to get a new number plate you have to take the bike to some bureaucratic building so that they can check that it actually exists - and to get there you have to ride or push the bike, but a motorcycle sans number plate will get the police going like a closet bender at a public school reunion. If you actually want to ride it only in Belgium rather than export it to the UK, the game becomes even more complex. Either bring your own bike or a trailer.

Riding a bike around Antwerp is very amusing, all good, clean fun. Only very recently have the Belgians actually had to pass driving tests, so there's a vast number of ancients on the road in big Mercs, and the like, who have little idea about safe driving. Once behind the wheel of a car, reserved Belgians turn into macho maniacs who's sexual prowess hinges on not giving an inch of road space, and hang the fact that they’ve shot through three red lights. About the only thing to slow them down are the quaint trams which, in turn, only stop for passengers.

As well as car drivers who combine massive arrogance with total ignorance, there’s the minor matter of a large percentage of roads constructed from cobblestones. From the pavement these look full of ancient history and character, from the seat of a motorcycle with god relieving himself, they become bloody dangerous. I have been sorely tempted to fit a sidecar to the CBR, just to scare the tin box haulers with some lurid slides.

Luckily, I reside in an apartment close to the town centre, so I rarely have to whizz around town on the bike. One good thing about Antwerp, a flat can be rented for around £120 a month and a decent hotel costs but a mere ten notes a night, although you can easily spend ten times that much if you insist on throwing money away. 

It's also quite easy to try to book into the wrong kind of hotel. Sin City is but a few minutes away from the central station (walk out of the station, turn left onto the main street, then right and walk for a couple of minutes), the further you get from the centre the seedier it becomes. For a couple of quid for a beer, you can sit in a bar full of dubious women who take it in turns to get on the stage and strip off their clothes. For some reason, many of these femmes come from the UK and get rather nasty when you refuse to spend fifteen quid on a drink for them. There are also a few blank eyed Thai and Filipino dancers who look so hard faced and hard used that they probably spent their youth locked up in a Chinese brothel. 

Belgian girls rarely work in these bars, preferring to hang about on street corners where they can either pet very rich quickly or spread AIDS amidst the populace. Even further into the seediness you'll find a long street full of women wearing very little sitting in shop windows.

Being close to the docks this area can turn a little violent at times, but generally violence is rare, and a lot less since English football hoodlums have no reason to visit the country - everyone used to grimace when a game was on and I had to pretend to be South American. The sensible stayed at home for the duration.

The girls in Antwerp appear to outnumber the men,but thanks to the national diet of chips and mayonnaise (a surprisingly edible combination on which I've become hooked), tend to be on the large side of plump (but you know what they say about plump women, don’t you?). Fear of AIDS appears non-existent and the general ugliness of the men means even the English have half a chance with the women. Strangely, the arrival of Thatcherism on the international scene means the Belgians have stopped giving you a hard-luck smile when admit to being English. Older Belgians still recall the war and the fact that Britain liberated the country.

Outside Antwerp, the greatest fun can be had on a fast bike racing the pigs to the Dutch border. This is extremely dangerous and criminally insane if you get caught or crash or blow up the motorcycle, but great fun if you make it over the border. If you insist on playing the tourist you can hit the Ardennes which have some nice snakey roads and are a relief from the general horizontal nature of most of the country.

In fact, the landscape is so strange that once outside of Antwerp it’s very easy to become completely lost after half an hour. I once rode for an hour in completely the wrong direction. There are, however, many stretches of countryside that are all but deserted and can be run along at maximum speed. I usually come across these by accident and can't find the same one again, or maybe they look so much the same that I can’t tell if I’ve found it or not. I once spent half an hour riding in Holland without realising it!

Antwerp is an excellent base for exploring Europe, bordering, as it does, Germany, France, Holland and Luxembourg and benefiting from lower living costs than any of the major cities in any of these countries.

One curious aspect of Belgian life is that they haven't actually passed a law making motorcyclists wear crash hats - they just say it’s highly recommended. It’s very quickly apparent that no Belgians ride anything bigger than a moped without a lid in place. I wanted to experience wind in my hair again (yes, I'm old enough to recall the good old days, and despite all the goody-goody shit that’s written about wearing helmets, my head is still in one piece) so I went for a quick blast with the helmet strapped on the back.

My plan was to find a deserted bit of countryside to see what 150mph felt like without a helmet. But | hadn’t gone a hundred yard when a pig Volks startled me my giving me a blast of its horn. The occupants pulled alongside and pointed to their heads and I smiled back.

They then gestured for me to pull over. Some cop, all too fluent in English, resting one hand on the butt of his gun as if waiting for me to get sarcastic (don’t ever get sarcastic with English cops, they turn real nasty), gave me a fifteen minute lecture on motorcycle safety whilst the other fed all the info off my documents into his computer.

Eventually they pissed off and I continued for five minutes when the same thing happened. On the third occasion I took the hint and hoped that the excessive Malone biography fed into their computer would blow its data banks.

But I wasn’t going to give up that easily. As soon as I got out in the countryside I took off the helmet and went for some speeding excess. I only got up to 125mph before the sunglasses frame started digging into my skin with sufficient intensity for me to realise that they were likely to snap and add to the scar tissue. It’s actually much more pleasant to speed with a lid on than bare headed once you get above the ton; it’s not really the effect of the law that is objectionable, it’s the fact that such curtailment of freedom exists. 

Johnny Malone

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