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France I: When Your Heartaches Begin

The trouble with leaving one country on a high note is it’s not always mirrored by equally pleasing music on the other side. We entered eastern France just north of Basel and though there was no welcome sign we knew we’d arrived. The land flattened out and the road went to hell. The immaculate geranium-covered chalets of the Black Forest were replaced by faded pastel houses and shabby gardens. Our satisfaction at having reached Ottmarsheim before sundown was deflated the next morning when getting lost we found ourselves buying gas back in Germany.


It was a lonely landscape that first night. Our view looked out to a single house whose owner sat in a grey vest among the weeds, smoking under a full clothesline (fresh and wheezy). Checking-in at reception we had to decide if we wanted dinner or not, and exactly what we’d like to eat. The meal was surprisingly good which was just as well because the next night’s was unexpectedly bad. We’re still not used to parking at the end of a long day’s drive and not finding anywhere open to eat. But we’re the interlopers who now have to accept that even “les bébés” eat later than we do. And so it came to pass that on the outskirts of Chalon-sur-Saône we found ourselves outside a “Buffalo Grill”, just us and two Polish truck drivers waiting for 7:00 PM. When the staff arrived they unlocked the door but didn’t bother to open it. Sitting under striking pictures of Monument Valley and the American West, there was plenty of beer taken in the 55 minutes between under-inspired salad and overpriced burger. As for the service, it held all the charm (though not the haste) of a greasy spoon ten minutes before closing.


It always takes a couple of days to settle into a new place especially if your last spot was of a particularly shiny and glittering standard. We were now in the centre of the country, south of Moulins, and were quite happy in spite of road closures and long detours (les deviations). There was no premonition, no sense of foreboding, not a sniff of a hint of what was to come. Out of the construction with my arm casually draped over the sidecar side (and no elbow bashing), we began to enjoy the ride. And then came the noise, a clunk came from the region of the engine. And a few seconds later another one. We looked at each other silently. I held my breath, praying it’d go away. It was a few minutes before the next one came, but come it did, and it was worse. And on it went, quiet, then clunk until the Gods took pity on us and produced a side road, and at the end a busy gas station.


The noise from the engine was so horrendous it could be turned over for only a few seconds. Initially the alternator was suspected but Fran was lying to himself and ignoring the dollar signs that floated before his denying eyes. Taking the rocker covers off he found enough metal in the oil to start a bloody scrapyard. Holiday-makers, people on the move, even bikers walked by without a glance at those of us who wouldn’t be moving for a long time. I searched bike repair shops in the area but my calls reached only answering machines. This continued after the two-hour lunch break with me getting only one live body who laughed at me before hanging-up. Admitting defeat I got the number of a towing company from the convenience store but nobody at the end of that phone spoke any English. Finally a young biker and his girlfriend parked beside us and offered to help. They were so good-looking I couldn’t take my eyes of them. Honestly it shouldn’t be allowed but finally dragging my gaze away I got them to call the tow truck. The downside was we could only go to the tow yard, but it’s not like we had a choice; they’d long been demolished and left behind with the road kill.

We were unloaded some 50km further south in the countryside. “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The tow company was a small office with a large fenced-in yard. It was a sad place full of people in dire straits, all stuck with vehicles that were going nowhere fast. At least two groups had put gas into “Diesel Only” rental cars (not as stupid as it sounds giving that the word for diesel is “gazole”). Everyone looked worried and a bit lost but they had the good fortune to have insurance or rental companies to call. We had nobody. God were we feeling sorry for ourselves. Everyone in Europe it seems has towing insurance but when we’d asked for it after last year’s breakdown we were told it wasn’t an option on our very expensive policy. Pferdi is still an American citizen on “temporary” touring insurance and paying $130 p/month for the privilege. I’m not sure why they think foreigners can’t break down but then there’s a lot of things I’m not sure of these days.


After relieving me of our credit card the tow truck driver offered to find a motorcycle repair shop. The hours went by and we were forgotten. We gazed over the lonely expanse of fields, broken only by a motel on a small hill. It never occurred to us that we’d be spending the night there but when we enquired again at 6:00 PM about a mechanic we were dismissed with a wave and told to go get a room. A sudden squall blew-in as we gathered our toothbrushes and things, then joined the other sad stranded souls trudging across the road and up the hill. Standing dripping in the lobby I thought surely the only happy people here were the hotel owners for without doubt they must be the same as that chain gang across the road. And I say “hotel” now because motels are when you have a vehicle to park outside and at that moment not a single one of us did.


In the Groupe Chauvin S.à.r.l. office early next morning, two gendarmes were visiting. Beneath their berets they looked about twelve. They went around the counter where one of them kissed a girl behind a desk piled high with paperwork. When they finished socializing I thought the bride-to-be would be a good bet to ask about the progress of our repair options, assuming she was still bathing in the afterglow of the French kiss. While her feelings were indeed running high they weren’t of the warm kind and her sharp hiss of “Non” was only marginally shorter than the time it took for us to leg it out of the line of fire.


We were on our own. It was either spend the rest of our lives in the “Fast Roadhouse Hotel” with the view to the tow yard, where there is of course ample parking, or get to work. We found a Ural dealer about 60k away but they too were closed for the holidays. It was a miracle that the phone was even answered, a second one that she spoke English. But oh that beautiful girl had one invaluable piece of information: the contact number of a Ural mechanic in the Loire. We finally had a place to go.

Now we had to get Pferdi north, beyond Nevers, so it was back to that awful counter where Love’s-Young-Dream sulkily took our credit card. If these people were indeed the hotel owners, then we managed to hand them over $700.00 in less than 24 hours. We left that afternoon in a smaller truck with poor Pferdi strapped to the back. For 130k we sat almost cheek-to-cheek with a driver who ignored us. The road closures were still in full force so he fumed even more. We reached the flat yellow and green fields of the Loire Valley, skirted a town, then a village and still there was no sign of the address. You could tell the driver thought we were on a fool’s errand but after passing a well and a couple of houses, we turned a corner and there it was: a beautiful big Ural stencilled on a window. Pferdi was home.

All the way there I’d half expected the owner to take one look and refuse us entry. We’d learned the hard way last year in Spain. This was not Latin America where the last time people saw a sidecar it had a dastardly German uniform inside while a precariously-perched Frank Sinatra single-handedly saved the day, if not the entire war. No sir, no such excitement here. If you don’t fit the mould, or the workshop, you’re not welcome. But Muscat wasn’t any old shop and André wasn’t any old mechanic. For starters he looked like he’d be more at home inside a tuxedo instead of overalls and there was a definite glint in his eye that made me feel he was thoroughly enjoying watching Pferdi being unloaded. Then it was just the four of us standing alone in that sleepy, one mule town and the stress began to ebb away.


In the street André had turned the engine over quickly several times. Now in the showroom with the big glass windows I waited at a small counter squeezed into a corner. In the semi-gloom everywhere was full to the brim: old motorcycles, new motorcycles, André’s first motorcycle (which used to be his Dad’s), a couple of sidecars, tools, machinery and an old forge. Then came the hard bit. I used to be good at French, I really was. I could nimbly hop from the “Avez-vous” to the “Entre nous” with all the grace and confidence of a can-can dancer. But that was in another time and another place and if André ever had English it also was in another time and another place. So with phones smoking furiously he and I got the conversation going while Fran floated around the shop like he’d been given a lifetime pass to the MotoGP pits (with free beer). The diagnosis was brief but brutal: the big end was fried. I’ve asked for more technical terminology here because I’m trying to be a serious writer, and besides, it makes Pferdi sound like a piece of cod. However, Fran assures me that those in the know, will know and for the layperson I’m just to say that the engine gave out.

Click Arrows for Slideshow:

Not only was a complete rebuild required but it was summer in Europe and everybody was on holidays. There’s nothing standard about Ural parts and our go-to guy with the warehouse in Austria wasn’t answering. To top it all the Ural factory in Russia was temporarily closed because they were in the process of moving to Kazakhstan (to avoid sanctions imposed by the Ukraine war). So all out of options we called Zeitlos in Hamburg who once again saved the day. Claus knew a German dealer who kept a large inventory of parts, and (quelle surprise!) had everything we needed. Now that we had time to think, Fran took responsibility for the frying. He and Claus had discussed a rebuild and knew one was due in the future. But we’d pushed the bike too hard and too far in Northern Europe and in the 35+C heat the oil effectively turned to water. Pferdi had done his best, being the little engine that could, until one day he just couldn’t.


The two days of hell were drawing to a close and we were weak with relief. After wheeling Pferdi across the street and settling him behind a hedge in André’s son’s garden, there was nothing more to do but wait. The evening sun softened the glare of the bleached fields as André drove us into Nevers. The small hotel had a nice restaurant and a tiny bar. After an excellent 3-course meal we got quietly sloshed as we relived the last 48 hours and our good fortune at having found André. I thought back to the fatal diagnosis, the scramble to find parts and the day’s end when two grandchildren arrived. Approaching carefully with a foil-wrapped plate there was much bending over, reaching-up and kissing of cheeks. The boy was four and starting school in a few week’s time. In the little pale face his eyes were the wide, almond-shaped violet of children’s book illustrations. His six-year old sister whispered answers to her grandfather’s questions as he gently placed his dinner on the counter. Among the dusty tanks, the tarnished chrome, old calendars and sepia posters for bygone sidecar rallies, in that little sunlit tableau I had at last found my France.


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6 Comments


BI ER
BI ER
Jul 25, 2023

Good to know you landed on your feet. Claus has saved the bacon yet again.

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BI ER
BI ER
Jul 25, 2023

Good to know you landed on your feet. Claus has saved the bacon yet again.

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brian okeefe
brian okeefe
Jul 24, 2023

You lived through one of my worst motorcycle anxieties, in France no less.

That is some real intestinal fortitude right there. Yep, I would have been looking at how to get to a train station.

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leachj1962
Jul 24, 2023

WOW! I have to give both of you a tremendous amount of credit for being so resourceful in spite of the seemingly unbelieveable challenges! I don't know that I would have done as well. I may have turned myself into a 2 year old and thrown a tantrum (although of course, that wouldn't have accomplished anything except release my frustration). Amazing at the end of the day you were able to see France.

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Mike Barnard
Mike Barnard
Jul 24, 2023

So glad to hear you've landed sunny side up. His engine may not be Pferdi's soul, but it is his heart ... look after it like you would your own. Looking forward to reading how it all turns out; I'm sure your petrol-headed readers would love an oily pic or two!

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