Stories The Journey Travel

The European Adventures of Shuffles, Jon, and Me

A convoluted tale of planes, trains, and automobiles. And motorcycles.

My beef with a lot of motorcycle publications is that they’re often writing about how awesome it is to test ride a bike in foreign country ‘X.’
Moto Adventurer

It isn’t always so glamorous. Like now. I’m running through Brussels Airport, half chasing a fellow journalist, half waiting for another.

RELATED: Michelin Road 5 – Tire Review

“Come on, Shuffles,” shouts Jon, not breaking his power walk.

station

 

Jon is the journo leading the way. Tall, good-looking, and English, he strides with a sort of “Tally-ho!” confidence and speed that is usually reserved for film characters. Shuffles, meanwhile, is Welsh, and lost in a valium-induced haze. He’s damaged his back and hates flying, which meant self-medicating before boarding. He had planned on more or less clocking out for this trip to Seville. We all had.

We’re on our way to the launch of Michelin’s Road 5 tire and the French manufacturer has placed us on a flight that includes a connection, which is something of a schoolboy error if you’re trying to get people from point A to point B without difficulty. Of the last five flights I’ve had that included connections, only one has gone as intended. Most have resulted in my being stuck cooling my heels at an airport bar, waiting for the next flight to wherever it is I’m trying to go.

‘Waffles, beer, and chocolate – Brussels is my kind of place.’

To that end, I feel Jon’s purposeful stride is unnecessary. Our flight to Seville was scheduled to have left at exactly the time our plane from Heathrow finally touched down in Brussels. In other words, our plane is in the air and we aren’t on it.

all_three
Your protagonists: me, Shuffles, and Jon. Notice how much fun we’re (not) having.

“Why are we running?” I say to no one. “Ah well. Let him burn off some energy, then we can grab a pint.”

Before we had even left the plane, the very helpful and chocolate-dispensing flight attendant had warned us that it seemed unlikely we would be able to catch another Seville-bound flight today. We’d need to check with the folks on the ground, she said, but probably we would be spending the night in Brussels – the airline putting us up in a hotel – and flying out in the morning.

MORE LONG-FORM: Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway on a BMW K 1600 B

That’s cool with me. Waffles, beer, and chocolate – Brussels is my kind of place. I’m perfectly happy to be stuck here overnight, but Jon has his heart set on being in España by day’s end. He’s on the phone with Michelin’s UK press guy, letting him know what’s up, then searching the interwebs for alternative means of getting to Seville.

pint
All I want is one of these.

“We could fly to Malaga, hire a car, and drive the 200 kilometers to Seville,” he says. “What’s 200 kilometers in miles?”

I glance behind me down the terminal and wave at Shuffles. He looks as if he’s been hit in the head.

It’s already been a long day for each of us. Hitherto, Shuffles and I have never met, which is a shame because it turns out we both live in Cardiff. And both of us were up in the wee hours this morning to make the 150-mile journey from Wales’ capital city to Heathrow in time for an 11am flight. Shuffles drove; I rode my bike. Jon also drove to the airport, making his way from a town about an hour north of London.

IMG_20180223_153740
It’ll be awhile before we get here.

Two-hundred kilometers is 125 miles, by the way. If you know where you’re going and drive like a Spaniard you can cover the distance in an hour and a half or so. But I’m steeling myself against all of Jon’s ideas because they sound like they might involve spending money. I have recently parted ways with RideApart to start my own thing (ie, the thing you’re reading), which means I no longer have an expense account. Which means there is no way in hell I’m spending a penny more than is absolutely necessary. As we walk, I try to sell Jon on the merits of Brussels nightlife.

RELATED: This Too Shall Pass

When we get to Brussels Airlines’ help desk the flight attendant’s prediction is confirmed. There are no other flights – on any airline – heading to Seville today. In my head, I’m already planning our impromptu night out in the European Union’s capital, picturing a street cafe somewhere that serves french fries and sausages and huge glasses of beer. But Jon is undeterred. He’s on the phone with Michelin again and the company in charge of its travel arrangements seems to be pulling suggestions from a book titled: 101 Not Terribly Great Ideas.

The first suggestion is that we fly to Faro, Portugal, rent a car, and drive 200 km to Seville. Michelin will cover the tab, but the timings are such that we likely won’t be rolling into our destination until 4 am. The next day’s itinerary, meanwhile, has us scheduled to be on a bus to Monteblanco race circuit at 07:30. I politely suggest that my interest in tires is not great enough for me to put myself through this.

me_on_train
The face of a man who’s wishing he could have waffles and beer.

I try again to sell the guys on the whole Waffles and Beer in Brussels plan, but neither seems to have heard enough about Brussels nightlife for this to whet their appetites. Additionally there’s the fact it really isn’t a good plan. The timings are such that we wouldn’t reach Seville until the afternoon, by which point we would miss most of the event and it would be a huge waste of time and money for everyone involved.

Which is something to keep in mind. Michelin has already spent a fair bit of moola to get me this far, and it’s going to be spending quite a lot more to make things right. The least I can do is play along. So, when the travel company phones up with its next plan I concede without quarrel.

The plan is this: take a train to Paris, fly from Paris to Seville. Good enough. We’ll miss having dinner on Michelin’s dime with the rest of the mo-jos, but there will be time at Charles de Gaulle Airport to have a sit-down meal, and surely it will have a few good places to eat. I mean, if Houston’s airport can have a damned Cat Cora restaurant the offerings in Paris will be fantastic.

taxi
Brussels traffic

Brussels Airport is about 8 miles from Bruxelles-Midi station, from whence our train south is set to depart. What we should do to get there is take a train. There is one, and the journey takes 20 minutes. But Google Maps is suggesting there’s a 1.9km (1.18 miles) walk to actually get to the airport train station. Shuffles has already demonstrated a clear aversion to walking anywhere and even the able-bodied amongst us aren’t terribly keen on huffing heavy bags full of motorcycle gear that far. So, Jon offers to foot the bill for a taxi.

I know this is a bad idea – Brussels is renown for having some of the worst traffic in Europe – but Jon is paying, so I don’t put up a fight. And hey, how long could it take to drive 8 miles?

‘He’s entertaining himself naming off all the firepower that walks by, playing killing tool bingo.’

Forty-six minutes, it turns out. And the ride ends up costing Jon €52 (£45 / US $64). But we arrive with enough time for me to buy a hot chocolate. The station is swarming with soldiers and police armed to the teeth, which is unnerving to say the least. Less than two years have passed since the 2016 attacks in which 32 people were killed, and it was only eight months ago police had to gun down a man who had arrived at Brussels Central station with a bomb, but is it always like this?

guns
The updated Hercule Poirot doesn’t take any shit

Everywhere there are dudes with guns. Standing there, drinking my hot chocolate, I count no less than 23 armed personnel. There is a tank parked out front. It turns out Shuffles has an interest in guns. He’s entertaining himself naming off all the firepower that walks by, playing killing tool bingo. I’m eager to move on.

And soon we are. The three of us on a TGV train, moving at 180+ mph, doing that thing that every British resident does when traveling elsewhere in Europe – wondering: “Why can’t we have nice things like this?”

By and large, Britain stopped trying after Brunel died, so trains in the country that invented the train are piss-poor. Dirty, old, slow, crowded, noisy, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and perpetually late, British railways have probably done more to promote car ownership in the UK than any other factor. It doesn’t have to be this way, but for the British habit of lamenting the lack of progress while simultaneously standing in the way of it.

train_interior
I don’t know who any of these people are. They didn’t mind my taking a picture of them.

It’s not as if no one in Britain has big ideas. Once completed, the HS2 system could cut the journey time between London and Manchester by a full hour. But who knows if it ever will be completed because every inch of it is fought by yet another tedious historical society pitching a fit because the route runs near some hole in the ground where Oliver Cromwell took a shit in 1640 or some such thing.

I sit and think all these things in the quiet, clean comfort of the TGV train and soon we are in Lille, where we need to transfer to catch another train. Lille’s train station is miserably cold, with a bar that looks like a great place to get beat up. We stop in, and Shuffles has a pint of lager. I consider doing the same, but decide I will wait until we get to the airport. I’ve not had any food since leaving Cardiff, more than 10 hours ago, but I’ve got my heart set on enjoying my dinner.

bar
Notice how the decor of this bar is such that it would be easy to clean up blood.

Soon we’re on another quiet, clean train, speeding south. Light drains from the sky and I set my phone’s alarm to wake me before we arrive at Charles de Gaulle. An hour or so later we are there, and the whole place seems deserted. There is a long, meandering walk through the drizzling cold to get from the station to Terminal 3, from which our flight is departing, and when we get there the building appears to have been built by the same people who are presently in charge of Britain’s railway system.

“You would think Terminal 3 would be the newest terminal,” Jon observes. “This looks to have been built in the 60s.”

“Even Cardiff’s airport is better than this,” Shuffles says.

Both are right. This looks like a municipal airport in St. George, Utah, or some other middling place you’ve never heard of, not part of the main transport hub for one of the most famously cosmopolitan cities in the world. There are no automatic check-in kiosks, so we have to stand in a long line. As best we can tell, there are only two flights set to leave this terminal tonight – both to Spanish cities, both via an airline that is manning its check-in counter with just two very tired women.

plane
Waiting to get on one of these…

Standing in this line is cutting into our eating time, but I do my best to remain calm. Then there is security, which is using machines that were probably been in operation when I first visited France in the late 1990s (Long before 9-11, France was dealing with Algerian terrorists; Paris was the first place I ever went that had high levels of security). When I finally get through security and into the terminal, Jon is already there, chuckling.

“That’s it,” he says, pointing at a Pret a Manger.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“That’s it,” he says. “There’s no other food here. It’s just the Pret.”

Pret a Manger, for those of you playing along outside of Europe, is a coffee chain that also serves pastries and readymade sandwiches. It has nice chocolate croissants, but it’s not the sort of place that would be your first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth choice as the spot to seek a full meal after 12 hours of unintentional fasting. But Jon’s right – there’s nowhere else to go. With only two more flights set to leave today, most of the terminal has been blocked off. It’s standing room only as passengers crowd the two open gates.

pret
Limited options

The shelves of the Pret are almost bare. Hidden at the very back of one of them I find a cup of soup that has probably been sitting there since I left Cardiff. Along with a chocolate croissant and a warm can of Heineken it will serve as my evening meal, balanced precariously on my lap when Jon, Shuffles, and I find the terminal’s last three open chairs. As we eat I start giggling, then it turns into full-throated laughter. Shuffles looks confused but Jon seems to get it.

“All day you’ve been looking forward to eating at the airport,” he says. “I’m sorry, man.”

The flight to Seville is delayed, of course, but not so much that it matters. Michelin has a man meet us at the airport, and the UK team are in the hotel lobby to greet us with apologies when we arrive. A motorcycle, a tram, two taxis, two planes, and two trains: just before 1 am, my head finally hits the pillow.

Five hours later I’ll be up and getting ready to go ride motorcycles in a foreign country. And, yeah, it will be pretty awesome.

final