Tag Archive: Vespa


Aftermath of New Year's...

Only the day before my mom & aunt left, I had planned to give my mom ‘un petite tour,’ a little ride, on Vespa.

To my dismay, upon starting Vespa, she sprang a leak! With the fuel tap on, petrol dripped alarmingly from a pair of holes in the frame below what I now know to be the carburettor.

This was on the morning of the last day my mom was visiting, the day we planned to visit Eze and Monaco, so I wheeled Vespa back into the garage, put a pan beneath, and decided I would work it out later.

Dani, ever the curious problem-solver, noticed the pan beneath Vespa when he went into the garage’s extra refrigerator for beers when Iain was with us. After some negotiation (Dani is very, very clever, but has never dealt with a Vespa, or any scooter,) we got out the manual and opened her up on New Year’s morning, when Iain and Shelley were still asleep – though it wasn’t long before Iain arrived with his camera!

Do I look like I know what I'm doing?

My ultimatum was that Dani was not allowed to take apart anything which he didn’t know how to put back together. I had visions of my carburettor in pieces and them leaving on their flight.

We figured out that the fuel hose wasn’t leaking, and I finally felt the leak coming right from a tiny hole below the fuel hose, on a small part of the carburettor. Dani managed to wedge my compact mirror and a torch/flashlight into the space in such a way that he could see the hole was a deliberately drilled hole.

We were stuck as to what to do next..

It would be Scooterworks to the rescue: I told Dani I would call Neil, (whom I would recommend to any Vespa or scooter fan in London in need of repairs, or who wants to purchase a scooter, etc,) when Scooterworks re-opened after the holidays. He would be able to tell me what was wrong; my only hope was that it wouldn’t require major replacing of parts, or the major taking-apart, of much of Vespa.

Do not be broken, Vespa!

Here might be a good chance to explain how, and when, Vespa is returning North with me.

Much to my mother’s relief, I decided immediately upon arriving safely at Verity’s – way back on 11th November 2011 – that I would not be riding Vespa back in January. I’d survived one North-of-France ‘Arctic’ journey, and I was not about to subject myself to another. Verity very kindly said that it was a very good idea for me to leave Vespa in her garage and collect it in the warmer months.

There happens to be twelve days in May between my sister-in-law’s wedding in New York State and the start of my commitment to model at the Flemish Classical Atelier in Bruges, Belgium.

There happens to be ONE luxury auto-and-passenger-train from Alessandria, Italy, to Den Bosch, in the Netherlands, smack in the middle of those twelve days: on 26 May.

My intention is to be on that train, with Vespa. I will ride Vespa along the Cote D’Azur from Nice to Genoa, and then North to Alessandria. Then I will ride from Den Bosch in Holland to Bruges.

None of this was going to work if Vespa was broken!

Greasy hands.

I phoned Neil a few days after Boxing Day, and explained the leak. He told me that there is apparently a pin-hole valve (that small hole where we pinpointed the leak,) which allows in more fuel as needed when accelerating. Sometimes the valve can get stuck open with a tiny bit of grit or debris. One must tap the aluminium pan at the base of the carburettor with the butt of a screwdriver or something similar (on a newer Vespa the pan would be plastic,) in the hopes of loosening the grit. One must also run the engine hard with the fuel tap off until the carburettor runs dry (& the engine stalls) which may also blast out the grit.

If this doesn’t work, the carburettor must be removed and taken apart.

Dani and I had tried the ‘run it dry’ technique, even though we didn’t really know what the problem was, and it hadn’t worked. I mucked around and tapped the carburettor and ran the engine hard a few times, turning the fuel tap off, and marvelling at how long it took to stall after the tap was off.

It worked!

Relief!

I made sure Vespa really wasn’t leaking anymore, and then put her away, ready to ride to l’Eglise on Sunday. Whew!

Pink sunset over the Esterel.

I began my day by walking to the market in the village centre and ordering ‘un demi-poulet fermier,’ or half of a farm chicken. Verity highly recommends them. You order in the morning, and they roast the chickens in the side of this van with a rotisserie built into it. A few hours later, you come pick up your hot, roasted chicken (or in my case, half). While they roast the chickens, they roast potato wedges below the chickens, so all of the herby-greasy-chicken-fat bastes the potatoes. I learned you need to order those, too – I asked about the ‘pommes de terre’ and the woman said, ‘we don’t have enough, you have to order those, too – next week.’ (In French.) Not unfriendly, but matter-of-fact. So, next time, I will order my potatoes with my chicken.

So of course, I went home and mauled the chicken. YUM.

But in between, I went to church.

I’m enjoying the regularity of the Mass, the predictability of it as well as the variation. I still get completely lost when they sing and I don’t know the page number, and I think it’s quite interesting that there seem to be long pieces that everyone sings without looking in the hymn book, as well as bits which even I can figure out are the equivalent to the ‘Our Father’ recitations and those sorts of thing. There are certain parts where people cross themselves, and then other parts where they make little mini-crosses over their mouth or chest. At times, some people kneel, but not everyone, and at other times, everyone stands. I quite like not knowing the significance of all of it, and trying to figure it out, or just absorbing it.

It’s also incredibly sweet that at the end of the Mass, Marius says to everyone, ‘have a good Sunday,’ in French, and then says in English, ‘and Kelley, have a nice Sunday,’ and then, to the German girl who is visiting, in German, ‘have a good Sunday.’ (I can’t remember her name, but he remembers it.) And possibly my favourite part, at the end: When Marius and the alter boy kneel briefly and bow their heads towards the altar, Marius is holding a big glass jar full of sweets, which he then takes to the door and gives to everyone (mostly the kids,) as they leave. It’s just too cute. I chose some huge, pink, sticky, strawberry-flavoured thing and worried about my teeth.

I saw Ilona, and Gabrielle and Jean, and Francoise and Jean, and about four other people whose names I can’t remember but who remember me, and who ask after Verity, (who calls every few days for updates,) and I made sure my plans with Ilona were clear for later in the week, and figured out the times for Christmas Mass, which I think my mom would enjoy.

Then, I stepped out into the sunshine and tried to start my Vespa.

It takes awhile to start it from cold, and I’d only ridden it down to the church, so it wouldn’t start right away. I’ve begun to accept this, so I don’t get too nervous if it doesn’t start on the first kick (or fifth, or tenth) kick. It usually takes a few tries. Rather, if it does start on the first kick, I’m mildly ecstatic.

So it wouldn’t start. A gaggle of people from the church, who were chatting in the parking lot, turned to look. Some of them knew me a little, and I tried to reassure them – ‘pas probleme!’ – but they started murmuring amongst themselves, fretting. (The average age here was probably 80.) Some advice was given (in French). I took off my helmet, which inexplicably seems to help me start the Vespa. It’s probably because I can hear the engine better.

Vespa started!

Everyone cried ‘Ahh!’ and burst into applause. I bowed.

La lune & Jupiter tonight; view out the window.

It was only 11am, so I turned left out of the church parking lot, which I’d never done before, and rode down a gorgeous, winding road, over two little bridges, and then up, up, out of the river valley. When I got to where the road connects with the (ever-so-slightly-larger) N7, which would take me to Mandelieu, I turned around. Down, down, down, over the bridges, then up, up up…past the church, through the sunshine, and to the village centre, where I picked up my warm, roasted, demi-poulet.

By noon, I was back at the house, arms akimbo over my chicken whilst Gaston army-crawled across the table trying, unsuccessfully, to ‘sneak up on me’ while I ate. Even a 19-year-old cat just can’t resist the scent of roast chicken. He seemed completely gutted when I ate all of my portion (the rest safely in the fridge,) and whisked my plate away without giving him a nibble. (He’s now sitting next to me, but with his back decidedly to me, and it’s well past dinnertime!)

I settled at my little table outside in the afternoon sun, to thrash out a pantoum for the poetry play. I wrote two poems, grappling with the form of the pantoum, writing and re-writing and re-writing again. I’m still uncertain of the result. As I write this play in verse, and as the story moves along, I’m trying to weave in echoes of earlier poems with later ones, so themes come out, hopefully in eerie ways. I’m also interested in how difficult (or not) it may be to write the darkest poems of a tragic play when I’m in such a sunny, positive place. I might need to finish this in the gloom of London.

Finally, after sunset, I began to close up the house and the shutters. During the sunny, warm part of the day, I’ll turn off the heaters and open the windows to air the house out. Once the sun goes down it gets pretty chilly, so I’ll close the shutters and the windows and turn on the heater in the main room (living/dining room,) and my bedroom. As I moved to shut the window overlooking the valley, I gasped at a gorgeous sliver of crescent moon. The fingernail of light glowed, revealing the faint full circle of the moon. Jupiter shone bright beneath, over the dark valley.

300 metres up to Les Adrets

Made it to Verity's!

Verity drove me to the Auto-Train at Frejus on Saturday. Vespa was outside the station, merrily standing out beside the cars awaiting collection. She was filthy! I guess the Auto-Train is open. Otherwise, all was well: I showed my ticket, and we were good to go.

Glorious sunshine! Warmth! Familiar roads (from my previous visit with Dani)!

This  was why I’d insisted on buying a Vespa in the first place.

Following Verity’s car, I headed off to les Adrets. Or rather, up. The winding DN7, or ‘Roman Road,’ follows the route of the old Roman road, the Via Aurelia. It plunges and weaves up the Esterel, switching up and back and forth and up and up -

I’d warned Verity that Vespa does inclines, but at its own pace. Vespa has become, in my mind, The Little Vespa That Could. A loveable (albeit not cuddly) machine, shiny and pleasing and altogether capable. Within its parameters.

Vespa’s parameter on a small mountain is about 20mph.

So up we went. Steadily. Slowly.

To rip off a page from Verity’s Michelin Guide:

The Esterel.‘The Esterel between St. Raphael and La Napoule is an area of breathtaking natural beauty. One of the loveliest parts of Provence…The contrast between the busy life along the coast and the loneliness of the inland roads is extraordinary – the latter will appeal to tourists who prefer to leave the well beaten track for the pleasure of exploring on their own.

‘The massif, the Esterel, which is as old as its neighbour the Maures, from which it is separated by the Argens valley, has been worn down by erosion so that its highest point, Mount Vinaigre, is a mere 618m – 2,027ft. However, in this mountain mass, the deep ravines and broken skyline dispel any impression of this being mere hills….’

The Roman Road makes for a stunning drive. Rusty-red porphyric (volcanic) rocks create jagged cliff faces, while heathers, gorse, and lavender grow on the rugged hillsides. Cork oaks are carefully half-stripped of their cork, and the red of the bare trunks matches the dry, crumbling rocks. The air grows cooler as you ascend.

Les gâteaux à la boulangerie. YUM.

The road winds from sun to shade, and on a scooter I could feel every patch of sunshine and the shadows cast by each twisted tree. A few cars passed us; we passed a few cyclists. The air was drinkably pure, spiced here and there with hints of wood-smoke.

We passed through les Adrets, past the petit magasin and the boulangerie, which have, even over the past few days, become essential parts of my life here. Finally, I pulled into the sharp, steep slope of Verity’s drive: a driveway that intimidated the heck out of me when Dani & I visited; that he expressed great skepticism I could drive up, or down. I rolled down the drive without hesitation. Over the past two days, I’d gone from London to Paris, (almost entirely) on scooter.

A steep driveway? Pas de problème!

When I first started planning my trip, I realised I didn’t have a Plan B. My biggest concern was rain. The only ‘Plan B’ that came to mind was one which I didn’t mention to anyone and figured I would make happen if absolutely necessary. In Pontoise, I felt it was necessary. And at the petrol station just off the N14/A15, serendipity was once again at my side.

Plan B was a man with a van.

I figured I would negotiate a lift – me and Vespa – in a van. And offer to pay, obviously. I’d considered it back in Lewes when Vespa wouldn’t start.

Just as I was tying my backpack onto Vespa, wondering what to do, a white lorry pulled up to the air-tyre-pressure pumps, and a pair of young men hopped out to top up the tyres. The lorry didn’t have any seats in the back: the space was just right for me, Vespa, suitcase – everything.

The more I looked at the van, the more I began to wonder whether it could actually make it to Paris.

I haven’t got any photos from the most challenging parts of my journey because, obviously, I was busy. But this van was the most dilapidated piece of junk you have ever seen. It is the last thing any mothers in my life (mom, mother-in-law, friends, mother-hen types, etc,) would want me to climb into. The outside was banged, scraped, and dented. It was absolutely filthy inside and out. It looked like something had caught fire in the back – the carpet was scorched. There was junk all over the place.

I approached one of the young men (they both seemed about my age) and asked if he spoke English. None. I launched into some (probably very bad) French explaining what I was after. He didn’t understand. It was time for Charades. With many gestures and some French, I said, ‘Me, Vespa, Paris. Gare du Bercy.’ I took out a map and showed him. I pulled out some cash and showed him.

Lightbulb!

There were some complications, but he seemed interested. At that moment, a woman pulled up to use the air pumps. She spoke French and English, and kindly translated back and forth for us. The young man was concerned whether it was illegal. She said it wasn’t a problem. I showed him my passport. He showed me his driving license. She said it was probably 30 km to Bercy station. His friend returned and he explained. They said they needed to stop by their house and drop off their shopping – there was a Lidl bag in the back (that’s a cheap chain).

Next thing, I was taking my suitcase off Vespa, and the three of us were lifting her into the burnt-out back of the filthiest van in France. And I was thrilled. The young man kindly gestured that I take the passenger seat, and he crouched in the back next to Vespa. We drove for a little while and pulled up outside of what can only be described as the slum district. The first boy (The Talker) went through some corrugated fence / gates. The other one waited in the driver’s seat.

I was incredibly, incredibly aware that I had shown The Talker my wallet full of cash and my US Passport. I had most of my most expensive material possessions on me – brand-new MacBook Air, brand-new iPhone, and Vespa. (I’d brought my cheap ukulele rather than my Gibson, and I had left my engagement ring at home.)

I mimed / spoke French to the driver: ‘Where are you from? I’m from America.’

‘Roman – Romany.’

‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Romania.’

‘Oui.’

I was in a van full of gipsies.

A woman, dressed in many-layered, many-coloured shawls and skirts, came out to look at us. Two of the scruffiest little children I’ve ever seen ran out and stared, wide-eyed. A gaggle of men came out to look. The Talker came back, his arms full with another seat for the van. Another very tall, skinny  man followed him. There was much discussion and arm-waving as The Talker fitted the seat in the back. Then he and the first driver squeezed in together beside Vespa, on the single seat, and the tall guy got into the driver’s seat.

‘He is very good,’ said The Talker. (Presumably as a driver. Because not even these boys wanted to drive in Paris.)

Not my photo but this is what I saw of the Eiffel Tower.

I was never afraid, but I was extremely aware. There atmosphere wasn’t threatening. The Talker was getting things done, and his concern about this arrangement being legal struck me as very important. Because I’m willing to bet that most of the people I saw there weren’t living in France legally. And my offer to pay them for this lift was going to be feeding that woman, those scruffy children, and probably most of the men I saw, for months. Their encampment – their home – was a handful of rusty sheds. If one didn’t look closely, if one didn’t notice the people amongst the spare tyres, torn rags, and broken glass, one would have thought it a rubbish dump.

We were off. The smell of petrol was thick in the air. It was from Vespa, laying on her side. The van, despite looking horrible, ran smooth as a whistle. The Talker lit a cigarette, and I nervously pointed to Vespa lying beside him. ‘Is that safe?’ I said in English. He put it out. There was much map-and-hand-waving. My map wasn’t great – it wasn’t a full map of Paris. They wanted to take the peripherique (ring road) and take the best entrance into the city.

We ended up going straight through the heart of Paris.

The Arch de Triomphe loomed, enormous, from the mist. A giant French flag hung, waving, from its arch. The weather was still so heavy, only the bottom 1/3 of the Eiffel Tower was visible.

We stopped for directions about six times. We figured out that asking cab drivers was best. There were, it seemed, millions and millions of people – on foot, in cars, on scooters. I was unspeakably relieved to be in a van, being driven to Gare du Bercy. It took us over two hours to navigate Paris. Goodness knows how long it would have taken me, on Vespa. When the driver lit a cigarette, I didn’t stop him. At that point, I almost asked for one myself.

Grmblmmfffyrum…(sounds of eating without pause)…

My next text-update to Dani, who was passing on messages to my mother, his mother, and Verity, was at 2:30pm: ‘In Paris! Nearly there. All well.’

I did not tell him I was in a rickety van full of gipsies.

With much error, direction-asking, and some arguments all around (they wanted to drop me off at the first sight of a sign for auto-train, but I made them take me right to where it was: heck, we’d gone this far…) we made it. I could tell from their discussion that they were going to ask me for more money than we’d originally agreed upon, but it had also taken a heck of a lot longer than we’d all thought, so I didn’t feel that was unfair. The original price I’d offered, and we’d agreed upon, was €60. The woman had said it was 30km drive, but it was 90km, The Talker explained. They wanted €100. I offered €80. We agreed on €90, I said ‘merci,’ and we parted ways.

I hastily tied my suitcase onto the back of Vespa and made to push it across the road. The suitcase fell off. I dragged everything to the side of the road and tied it on again. Then I rode Vespa up the drive and right to the Auto-Train check-in.

It was 3:30pm.

After checking in Vespa, I staggered to the taxi queue and got a lift to the Gare du Lyon. It was maybe 5 minutes away from Gare du Bercy, but I was in no state to navigate anything by this point.

After getting my ukulele stuck in the turnstile for the loos, paying €0.50 to use the toilet, and riding the escalator back to the main station, I collapsed at the only sit-down restaurant at Gare du Lyon and ordered a croque monsieur, chips, and an Eidelweiss beer. At 4pm, I tucked into the most expensive, and most delicious, grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich I have ever eaten.

Vespa for Beginners: Interlude

I want to pause here and take stock: something I didn’t at all have the time or space (mentally, literally,) to do on Friday.

On Thursday, I rode 56 miles from my home in London to the Port of Newhaven. I left at 10am and took a very nice lunch break for an hour in a pub before arriving in Newhaven at 3:40. So I’d ridden Vespa for a little less than 5 hours. (I know, Dear Readers, I’ll be corrected if I make any mistakes in these numbers.)

I had a lovely, relaxing evening in a pub in Newhaven with food and drink and free wi-fi, and boarded the ferry as soon as I could, making it to bed by 11pm. I didn’t sleep very soundly, but I did get a hot shower and then a rest from about 11 until 3; (4 hours).

On Friday, I rode off the ferry at Dieppe at 3:30 am, and made it to Pontoise by about 1:30pm. I’d had no proper sit-down-and-warm-up-and-eat stops, and I’d stood around outside for about two hours while some really nice Frenchmen helped fix my Vespa.

So, I’d ridden 141 miles in the past 2 days.

I’d been travelling for 10 hours that day.

I’d eaten: 1/2 an apricot oat bar, another fruit bar, one croissant, and about eight coconut macaroons. This adds up to about 1,239 calories. I’d drunk 1 bottle of water.

The average recommended caloric intake stated by the UK Department of Health for women is 2,079 calories per day. However, in extreme conditions (and here I take numbers as recommended by winter camping, which I think is fair because of the continual state of cold I was in, which I shouldn’t have allowed – I cannot adequately describe how cold I was,) I should have been consuming more like 4,500 calories, possibly more.

Fellow Vespa

None of this is to instil pity, because I brought all of it upon myself. However, looking back, I see I might have handled things somewhat differently. (But what, she asks – called in a helicopter to air-lift me and Vespa the hell out of there?)

Now, I was in Pontoise. Vespa was happily full of the correct petrol-and-oil mixture she requires.

I, meanwhile, felt like my soul had been skinned, scraped, and hung to dry. And I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it to the stations on time, considering how long everything else had taken me. I was in a Do Not Stop mental state.

My initial travel estimates, when I was warm, safe, and dry in London, were to double the time estimated by car. This worked for my trip to and from Cambridge, and to Newhaven. The D915 route by car from Dieppe to Paris is 3 and a half hours, so I’d estimated 7 hours, plus breaks, plus contingency ‘in case anything happens.’ (Such as Kelley putting Diesel in the scooter. Ahem.)

We can now see that this estimate was unrealistic.

Paris Gare du Bercy was still some 4o km, or 25 miles, away – but only, ostensibly, by motorway (that sneaky N14 / A15,) and then straight through the heart of Paris, past the Arch de Triomphe, that infamous roundabout with TWELVE intersecting roads.

I probably don’t need to say this again, but I was exhausted. Not a safe state to be in when driving at all, let alone when riding a wee vintage scooter on a Big Scary Road.

So, Dear Readers, I hope you’ll understand why I chose to do what I did next.

Back on the D915, this time, in skimmed-milk daylight. The sun never broke through the thick grey duvet of sky, and the air remained misty and cold. I’d polished off the single croissant during the siphoner-ing, and was once more on a country road with nothing around. Also, being a national holiday, things that might have been open otherwise wouldn’t be. Verity had warned me of this, hence my stock of granola/oat/fruit bars.

I was heading for Pointoise, a fairly large town north and west of Paris. As the population became more dense and the tiny villages began to sprawl and merge into bigger towns, the road network became more and more difficult to navigate. My directions took me onto the N14 for a stretch.

Now, I’d read a (seemingly) clear explanation that the ‘D’ roads are ‘Departementales’ or locally-cared-for roads, and the N-roads are ‘Nationales,’ which are larger, and finally the ‘A’ roads are ‘Autoroutes,’ or Motorways/Highways. So A-roads (which in England are ok for me to ride on, because they are more the level of the ‘N’ road in France,) were out of the question. It would not only completely, utterly mad for me to take Vespa (which can go at 40 mph at a real push, and on a straight or downhill slope,) on a motorway, but it’s also illegal. She’s a 90cc engine and simply cannot go fast enough to be on a motorway. And I would never want to go on a motorway for all of the above reasons.

A-roads in England can vary from being fairly quiet country roads to becoming ‘dual carriageways,’ which can sometimes become a Motorway. I’d ridden on some dual carriageways to and from Cambridge, and down to Newhaven, and though it’s a little scary, the two lanes also mean people can pass you really easily. I thought the ‘N’ road might be something like that.

The N14 was a dual carriageway (two-lanes,) but after driving for awhile the speed limit went from 70 (kph) to 110. That’s about when I thought it would be a good idea to get off the N14. Lorries and cars were passing me and the gusts of wind threatened to blow me sideways. It was about 11 am, I was freezing cold, and I really hadn’t had much to eat, or anywhere to rest, for most of the day – the day which had begun at about 3 am. I never really warmed up or dried off either, because there was no place to do so.

I got off the N14 as quickly as I could. It wasn’t ‘officially’ a motorway, but it was way too fast for me to be on. I’d seen a few other scooters going along and it confirmed that technically I could be on the N-road. But I didn’t want to be.

I followed signs to Courdimanche, not at all certain of where I was, or how near I was to Pontoise. The small country roads were quiet and felt amazingly peaceful compared to the N14. Unfortunately, they also appeared impenetrable. Even my phone-GPS (which was costing scads of money abroad) didn’t help me that much. I finally pulled off in the large car-park of a discount supermarket. I stood inside for a little while shivering. I should have bought some real food, but I was beginning to get anxious. I needed a proper rest, drying out, warming up, and hot meal more than ever, but without that option, anything else felt like a waste of time.

I hit the road again: the D22 and the D14 around Courdimanche and Osny. I tried to follow the small roads and the signs for villages, thinking that if I chose correctly, each step would take me closer to Paris. It was about noontime when I pulled over at a crossroads and pulled out my phone map again. I wasn’t thinking clearly and had no idea which way to go.

A car passed me and then I was alone again. But le voila! Another scooterist came past. I looked up & he must have noticed the ‘I’m lost / desperate’ expression on my face. He came by and asked if he could help. He knew a little English! I explained that I was trying to get to Paris.

He raised an eyebrow and let out a few words of surprise. He said Pontoise and the N14 was the way to go. I hated the thought of it, but I figured if I could get back to the N14 I would grit my teeth and bear the big, fast road, if it would get me into Paris. There seemed to be no other way.

Then, the nice scooterist offered to lead me to Pontoise! He said he was out for a cruise anyway, and it would be no problem. I cannot describe the relief I felt, not to have to navigate my way on small roads to Pontoise. My mind was a blur of frustration and desperation as I followed him along roads and through villages that I’d already passed only an hour earlier.

I’d been going in circles.

We pulled over by a bridge in Pontoise and I said ‘Merci’ for the hundredth time that day. He said to go over the bridge & there would be signs for the N14.

I was back en route! Or was I?

In retrospect, I really, really should have stopped for a proper break at this point. There were a few restaurants open; Pontoise is a sizeable town. But it was past noon, and it wasn’t as if I ‘only’ needed to reach ‘Paris,’ but I needed to get to the Gare du Bercy, which is in the southeastern part of an ENORMOUS city. I think if I had stopped for a proper break, I would not have made it to my destinations in time (Auto-Train for Vespa, people-train from Gare du Lyon for me).

I rode across the bridge and looked for sings for the N14. All I could see were signs for the A15: Autoroute! No, no! I pulled off at a petrol station to fill up (with petrol, NOT GAS-OIL).

I asked the station attendants, who didn’t speak English, about the N14. More raised eyebrows about riding the Vespa to Paris. They gestured and pointed to the A15 signs again.

Later, when I was safely ensconced in Les Adrets, I would see on a map that the N14 and the A15 are the same road. I would also see that the D14 (Oh, how I love you, D-roads,) did go into Paris, but at that point I would have needed a guide the whole way. I was beyond exhaustion. (Also, the D14 becomes an N road just outside of Paris.)

The closer I got to Paris, the more impenetrable it seemed to become.

So I decided to deploy Plan B.

A note: My friend (historian Richard Barnett) writes: ‘You surely knew I’d say this…the deepest level of Dante’s Inferno is indeed ice, not fire. Check out Inferno, canto 34.’ 

- Thank you, Richard! I knew Dante knew what he was talking about…(And I really need to read it – copies as gifts welcome, ahem-hem.)

Part IV:

I arrived at Gournay-en-Bray at about 7am. It was still dark, but signs of life were finally beginning to appear: there were a few more vehicles on the road, and I passed a pedestrian street where people were setting up for what would certainly be a market. And the bakeries were open! I stopped at a boulangerie for a croissant. (About 230 calories – I’m mentioning this on purpose and will come back to it.)

Alas, it was a tiny shop where there was really no room to warm up, and certainly no room to sit down, and no hot drinks. I’m not sure if I was less cold by then or just numb – I think the latter. You would think I gobbled the croissant, but I actually didn’t eat all of it – I was wound so tightly that I was afraid I’d be sick if I ate it all, so I had about 2/3 and then stuffed the rest in my bag.

How many Frenchmen does it take to fix Vespa?

It was about this time I began to think that I’d probably need to refill my gas/petrol tank. I was well aware that this village was a much better place to re-fill, or run out, than in the middle of nowhere farmlands I’d been riding through. I’d stopped at two petrol stations earlier in the night, but the first one only sold a minimum of 5 litres (the Vespa tank is 5 litres total and you must add oil to the mixture, and it wasn’t empty when I stopped,) and the second wasn’t working at all. The other petrol stations I’d passed weren’t ‘pay at the pump with your credit card’ stations, and they had been closed.

My timing was right: just as I was cruising away from the boulangerie, Vespa ran down and I had to switch to my reserve tank. It’s impossible not to notice this, because when I say ‘ran down,’ it actually runs down – it runs out of gas. It’ll stall unless you switch right to reserve. Then you know you have about 30 miles left before you’re really out. I decided to risk riding a little bit out of town, continuing on my journey, and to my pleasure there was a petrol station with working pumps that accepted credit cards.

The instructions on the machine were, as one might expect, in French. I went through about three rounds of putting my card in and not getting petrol and getting a receipt marked ‘zero’ before I figured out that you took your card out before pumping petrol. The Error occurred during this confusion.

There were three options: ‘Gazole,’ a ‘Super 95,’ and a ‘Super 98′. The latter two were ‘sans plomb’ which I knew meant ‘without lead’ or ‘unleaded’. I was thinking, does ‘Gazole’ mean ‘gasoline?’ when all the while a small voice in my head was going, ‘no, Gazole is Diesel, Kelley. It’s Diesel.’

And of course, by the time I got a pump to work, it was Gazole. As it was frothing out of the pump, into my tank, and as I was thinking, this doesn’t look right, the other half of me was thinking, oh, please just work; just work, even though I know this is Diesel and I’m really screwing things up right now…’

Vespa started, and for a moment, I thought, ok! Then I rode about two metres before she stalled. This happened a few times and then I couldn’t start Vespa at all.

Day was finally breaking. The sky was heavily overcast and grey, and the air was cold, but at least it was light. It was about 8am.

Siphoner

I pulled Vespa off the road and onto the wide pavement. There were a few houses along the road, and as I was pulling out my paperwork for my European Breakdown Cover, a man opened his shutters from his first-floor room. I waved and said ‘Bonjour,’ and he said Bonjour, looking at me quizzically. I could hear a buzzing and banging from the house next door and guessed some sort of construction work was going on.

After spending far too much money calling my Insurance, finding out that my Breakdown Cover was with another company, looking them up online and learning they wouldn’t open for another hour, and phoning Dani a few times in between, I decided to take matters into my own hands. This was entirely my fault, and Vespa wasn’t broken. I had to siphon out the Diesel and fill her up with the right stuff, and it would be fine. Plus, all of that would take less time than waiting for a company in England to open and send someone, somehow – if they would send someone at all (since the scooter wasn’t, in fact, broken).

I noticed a woman peeking out through the kitchen window of the house where I’d said ‘bonjour’ to the man. Remember, I had on jeans, a brown leather jacket (and  a lot of layers underneath,) and my white scooter helmet. There was this little blue scooter with a purple suitcase tied to the back, and a bright orange backpack tied to the seat. I was clearly travelling, and I was clearly stuck. (I’m willing to bet I also, clearly, looked foreign.)

I walked to the house where I’d heard hammering. All of the houses had gates, and all were locked. Then I saw a man in the garden of the house next door. I waved and said ‘bonjour!’ He did the French thing of looking at me, then going back to what he was doing for a few moments. Considering. I waited. After a few moments, he put down his gardening stuff and walked over.

A Practical Lesson in French:

I had out my French phrasebook and asked if he could help me call an auto-recovery service (l’assistance autoroute). He told me it was a national holiday (fête  national) and there wouldn’t be anyone to call. He asked if the scooter was broken (cassé) & I said no, I’d filled it with diesel (je fais le plain au gas-oil) and I needed to siphon it out – ‘Siphoner.’ I said that a lot on Friday morning. I tried to say ‘I am dumb,’ ‘Je suis bête,’ but I’ not sure if that’s right!

He thought for a moment, went inside, got a key, unlocked his gate, and went to the middle house, to find the guy doing construction work. There was much discussion and waving of hands, and a bucket & length of hose were produced. There was a great deal of back-and-forthing which seemed like arguing, but in a problem-solving sort of way. The first guy from the house I’d parked in front of came out. The hose siphoning wasn’t working very well, and he disappeared and returned awhile later with a pump thingy with a hose attached. Perfect! The first guy went and got three empty 1.5 litre water bottles and instructed me to fill it with petrol – NOT GAS-OIL! (I must say that they were all really nice the whole time. Goodness knows what they were thinking.)

And then there were three…

When I returned with three bottles full of lovely clear petrol (which had gone right to my head,) a fourth guy had joined the neighbours. He had the side panel on Vespa’s engine taken off and had wrenches and all sorts of things which made me a little nervous. It didn’t take me long to see that ‘just siphoning the diesel’ was not enough.

A wonderful assembly line formed, with seemingly no instruction. The fourth guy who had the engine open would take out a plug (a spark plug?) and the construction-work guy (guy 2) would rinse it with the clean petrol. Then guy 4 would put the plug back in, kick-start Vespa, and the engine would start up, spewing tons of smoke from the little exhaust pipe (burning off the Diesel). Then Vespa would stall. Guy 4 would take out the plug and hand it to Guy 1, who would sniff it (presumably for diesel) and return it with a few words of discussion. Guy 2 would rinse it, and Guy 4 would put it back in to start the process again.

I, meanwhile, looked on, along with the first neighbour (Guy 3) and his wife, who had joined us at some point.

This process was repeated about 7 times. Each time there was less smoke, and Vespa ran a little longer before stalling. Finally – HOORAY! – she didn’t stall.

Guy 1 explained that it would smoke a little bit but it wouldn’t be a problem (‘Sa va fumes encore in petite moment pas grave.’)

There were a few mutedly pleased looks and lots of wiping of oily hands. I tied everything back onto Vespa (fortunately, I hadn’t had to remove my suitcase, which Dani tied down very tightly before I left the day before – was it only the day before?) I asked if I could pay anyone for anything. Guy 1 directed the question at Guy 4 (the one who had dealt primarily with the engine). All said no, no, no.

I said ‘Merci, merci beaucoup,’ about a million times and thought of kissing them on cheeks but thought maybe that would be a little too much. Then I got back on the road, beeping my tiny little horn and waving as I drove away.

Merci! Thank you, kind French people just outside of the village of Gournay-en-Bray along the D915, who took a good two hours out of your day off to help me! What teamwork! What problem-solving! What a lesson for me! (What an idiot I am…)

Oh, yeah: I was back on the road. Va-rim, rim rim. It felt like Vespa was running better than ever.

They’re going to be dining out on this story for months.

I really need to read Dante. Meanwhile, those better-read friends of mine can correct me if needed – but I’m tempted to say that if Dante really knew what he was talking about, Hell would be cold, not hot. The phrase ‘when Hell freezes over’ became a reality for me on my ride to Paris.

I want to note at this point that I’m not complaining. I don’t think I ever pitied myself during this trip, because even at the most challenging points, I reminded myself that it was entirely my choice to be there. And it was. I had a proper adventure, I survived, and now I’m telling the tale.

Friday morning. The ferry arrived in Dieppe and kicked everyone off at 3:30am. I had time for half an apricot  cereal bar, which consisted of approximately 188 calories (the half). I became quite interested in the caloric content of what I ate throughout the day, because I’m sure I consumed far less than I burned. I kept thinking of Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his Arctic journeys.

Did I mention it was cold?

I’m not sure if I’d call it a mistake, exactly, to think it would be warm and sunny as soon as I crossed the Channel. I’d been worrying that it would rain during this trip. The irony is that I was mostly worried it would rain during my UK leg, on Thursday, and the UK leg was the most glorious weather of the ride to Paris. When I later told Verity about the cold, she said ‘Oh, of course! The North of France has terrible weather!’

This weather was, I have decided, the worst weather I could have encountered. If it had been pouring down with rain, I would have had to immediately re-evaluate my situation. I probably wouldn’t have set off from Dieppe. However, riding off the ferry at 3:30 am, effectively the dead of night, I thought the mist and cold and dark would burn off and warm up with the sunrise.

Little did I know that the sun would not rise that day.

I spent about 40 minutes, maybe more, riding around Dieppe to find the right road which would set me on my way to Paris. I was determined to spend the time I needed getting on the correct road so I didn’t go off track. Dieppe was completely shut down, darkened, closed, asleep. I saw one person and had no intention of asking for directions. The dead of night in a port town? No, thank you. My new phone began to immediately prove its worth with the GPS satellite navigation which tells you where you are. It also ended up costing an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. That little light in the darkness kept me hopeful.

So, I finally set off down the D915. As soon as I left Dieppe, all the streetlights ended, and a thick, wet mist hung in the air. It was cold, but I was pretty pleased at that point to be heading off so early. If all went well, I would even make it to Paris early!

Right.

For the record, Google Maps reports that to drive from Dieppe via the D915, through Pontoise, to Paris Gare du Bercy, in a car, would take about 3, 3.5 hours. So I doubled it because that’s about how long my other journeys took: twice that of a car. Remember, Vespa can go 30, 35 mph average, happily, and she was loaded with a small suitcase, a backpack, and my ukulele as well as me. So 6 hours plus breaks was my estimate. I needed to drop off Vespa by 7pm, but I needed to be on the TGV (high-speed train) at Gare du Lyon for 5:45pm.

3:30am to 5:30pm should be more than enough time, right? SCADS of time. I could fly to the States and back in that amount of time.

Right.

It was cold. And wet. I had to keep my helmet visor up, because the mist was so thick it immediately covered the visor in damp, and the air was so cold that the visor and the air fogged with my breath. The few oncoming cars that passed me dazzled my mist-soaked glasses. Otherwise, it was pitch black. I could smell it when I passed what must have been large livestock in the fields immediately off the road (later, in the daybreak, I realised I’d been passing cows,) but I couldn’t see a thing. It was the kind of wraith-mist that put me in mind of the creepy creatures in Tolkien and Harry Potter. It was the kind of dark and mist that makes you begin to see things that aren’t there. It was the kind of cold mist that makes you start to go a little crazy. It makes you wish you were anywhere but there, somewhere dry, and safe, and warm. And not, not alone.

I rode like this for hours.

My posture became more and more hunched, trying to block out the cold. The few cars that passed got messages of mental envy – YOU HAVE HEAT! YOU HAVE A RADIO! You are protected from the elements!  The wind whistled through my pushed-back visor and my arms and shoulders locked onto keeping to the road. The white lines painted on the edge of the road and in the middle of the road were the only things I could see, and I have never been so grateful for white stripes of paint.

I stopped in one of the blessed, rare pools of light cast by streetlights . They rose up, rarely, an oasis in the dark, to mark the turning-points to little towns or villages. I put my contact lenses in and put my glasses away, and I wrapped my mouth and nose balaclava-style in my too-thin scarf and stuffed my helmet back over it to try to protect my face from the cold.

In the pools of light, there would be a few houses, shuttered, closed, and dark. Finally, I saw a sign which made my heart leap for joy – one of those universal ‘rest stop’ signs with symbols for food & petrol – I’ve never been so glad to see a symbol of a fork in my life. I followed the signs to Forges-les-Eaux.

My hopes sank as I drove into a small, darkened village. I turned down a side road where a light shone. It was a tabac - a corner shop selling magazines and cigarettes. It was open!

It was 5:25am.

I parked Vespa and staggered inside, shivering uncontrollably. In extremely bad French, I asked if there was any cafe or anything open. There were two guys inside stocking magazines and newspapers. One did the French side-glance-shake-of-the head thing. The other took pity on me and engaged in a semi-conversation. I asked if I could stand inside and warm up because I was FREEZING, which I think was pretty obvious in any language. After about 20 minutes, where they continued to stock papers in silence, and I choked down a fruit & oat bar (221 calories) and then asked if I could use the toilet. The first guy said no before I had finished the question. The second, kind guy led me downstairs through a few store-rooms and to the loos.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, after I’d stopped shivering (mostly,) I thanked the nice guy, wrapped back up, and left. There was no point wasting time standing in a shop dripping mist on their floor if I couldn’t have a proper rest. What I wanted was somewhere really really warm, hot even, and a cup of tea, and real food.

It was back to Vespa and the D915. Back to the darkness, back to the cold, back to waiting for sunrise.

Vespa for Beginners: Part I

First break at pub in Sundridge for tea.

I’m writing this from The Ship Hotel’s ‘Saloon’ bar in Newhaven. Newhaven does not have much to recommend it, other than being a ‘gateway,’ but I am nonetheless happy to be holed up in The Ship before boarding an actual ship at about 9pm. And I’m happy to have made it to Newhaven without incident, and before dark. Of course, I did leave at about 10am, so I should have made it before dark!

My Vespa journeys have thus far been ones where anticipation is the ‘bad’ part. Of course I was nervous about riding from London to Cambridge, Cambridge to London, and London to Newhaven. Of course I’m nervous about riding to Paris tomorrow. But when I’m actually riding, actually on the road, I’m not nervous.

The ‘Do Not Panic’ moment(s).

I’m too busy being aware - aware of other drivers, aware of the road conditions, the weather, how cold (or not) I am, if I need a wee, whether I’m going to run out of petrol (hurrah reserve tank,) etc etc. And I think that’s a good thing.

The best moments today included the sheer glory of riding through Sussex, across rolling green hills (gorse and furze?) with a purple and blue sky stretched out above me and no one else on the road. Riding at an average of 30 miles per hour means everyone passes me so I’m alone on the road a lot, which is lovely. There are the stretches of dual carriageway where lorries are blowing past and I’m gritting my teeth and hanging on for the ride and

Made it to the Ferry!

praying that all carries on forward, and all those laws like ‘two objects cannot occupy the same space’ and ‘gravity’ work with, rather than against me. And that was exhilarating.

Then there were the stretches of woodland where I passed enormous, perfect fly agaric mushrooms and wanted wildly to stop and take photos, but dared not because the thought process only happened after I’d passed the fungi and I didn’t want to stop in a dangerous place. But they were amazing! And the timing! (See last post.) I rode past fields full of lively pheasants, and I avoided a good deal of roadkill – one fox (very sad, that made me,) and a number of pheasants and hares. The brilliant pheasant feathers made me want to stop and collect some, but for obvious reasons that would have been unsafe.

Some notes I took during various breaks throughout the day:

‘A friendly cyclist slip-streamed me uphill near Bromley, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying!’

Low tide – pungent smells and colourful boats in Newhaven.

‘At a pub in Sundridge, by a fireside having tea. Super-nice proprietor keeps calling me ‘dahlin (darling)’. Came out of pub to find a guy taking pictures of Vespa. I told him all about her! He’s been thinking of getting one. Ace.’

‘In Lewes about to have a fish pie for lunch at The Snowdrop. Famished! Chilly, too, but was determined to have lunch in Lewes because of Virginia Woolf [who used to live nearby]. Plan to ride through Rodmell [where V.W. lived] for last stretch to Newhaven.’

The people I’ve spoken with on the journey have all been fantastically friendly. The barman in Sundridge and the guy who took photos of Vespa were both

It’s not Remy but looks like Remy! Fire Station cat saying hello & trying to climb into my bag.

amazed/wished me luck on my journey. I’m lucky to have so many people wishing me luck!

Upon returning to Vespa after my enormous lunch of fish pie at The Snowdrop, Vespa would not start. If I’d been hungry, I probably would have burst into tears. Fortunately, I’d just eaten, so I Did Not Panic. I am pleased to admit that not a whisper of panic entered my mind.

My first thought swept back to the man outside the pub who’d just given me directions to Rodmell. He had a van. I thought, hmm, I could probably convince him to drive me & Vespa to the port (about 6, 8 miles away,) and…hope Vespa would start in the morning, in Dieppe? Hmm.

Hmm. I took out my phone, about to call Dani, but I knew that wasn’t the best idea. I phoned Neil from Scooterworks, who has become known to me as ‘Neil from Scooterworks,’ the guy who sold me Vespa. I said, ‘Hello, it’s Kelley, [etc]…I’ve just ridden from London to Newhaven and stopped for lunch for about an hour, and now it won’t start, which I find…’ pause. ‘slightly worrying.’

Doom Bar & free wi-fi in The Ship.

Neil patiently explained to close off the choke and fuel, open the throttle all the way, and give it ‘five…no, ten, sharp kicks. Then close the throttle all the way and give it five more. Then turn the fuel on one it’s started.’ I said ok, thinking, I don’t know if I have the energy for all those kicks. (Did I mention that Vespa, being a 1967 manual scooter, is a kick-start?) I closed the choke and fuel, opened the throttle all the way, and gave it just three sharp kicks before it started. Joy! Relief! Thank you, Neil!

I rode through Rodmell, mentally waving to Virginia Woolf, and cruised down the winding road to Newhaven.

My only wish right now was that I could board the ferry earlier than 9pm because I just want a hot shower & bed! I’m so very glad I got a ‘Captain’s Cabin’ on board – it was a special deal and it means I’ve got a cabin all to myself. Guess I’ll just have to have some sticky toffee pudding at The Ship whilst I wait. Or potato skins. Or both…

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