A bimble in Brandenburg

Took a short ride (aka “bimble” according to my English motorcyling buddies on Facebook) south of Berlin last Sunday morning to take advantage of the good weather and get some fresh air. I’ve been looking for and trying out unpaved roads around here that are legal to ride on, which is not easy as most of them are off limits to motorized traffic.

One of the best possibilities to ride semi-off road are the old roads connecting villages, many of which are barely used or maintained anymore. They often start out like this, with large granite pavers and sandy verges. Once the main means of getting from one village to another, it’s now very rare to see other vehicles on them, aside from occasional forestry department trucks and skidders.

The paving slowly disintegrates the further you get into the densely planted pine forest, getting quite bumpy and irregular. Time to slow down!

At some point the pavers disappear altogether, the road gets narrower and the sand gets deeper. It’s unusually dry this spring, despite the vividness of the new vegetation.

After about 5kms (3 miles) the next village appears, as do the pavers. There are some very picturesque little places down here, and they are surprisingly isolated, considering Berlin is less than an hour away. I think the inhabitants here are either farmers or urbanites who come for the weekend.

Back on a paved road, I then rode past large areas of asparagus cultivation. It seems to be everywhere at this time of year, which is high season, and the sandy Brandenburg soils appear to be a perfect medium. Large areas of white and black plastic sheeting can be seen from far away, and there are often many workers in the fields doing the back-breaking work of harvesting this very pricey crop. The local stuff is very high quality, and is supposedly shipped all over the world.

It was then time for a short coffee break at the Scheune, a village barn turned into a biker bar and restaurant. There are sometimes hundreds of bikes parked here, and it then gets pretty loud, which is not always appreciated by the neighbours, I’m sure. Some of the riders who stop here act like Donald Trump on twitter, and don’t really give a damn about whom they bother or insult.

Finally, it was time to head towards home, and I found another old road connecting two villages on either side of some wide-open fields. The landscape here certainly isn’t dramatic in any sense of the word, but it has a soothing quality and a lushness to it that is good for the soul. It feels much more expansive than it actually is. The Himalayan is the perfect bike to discover places like this: relaxed, quiet, forgiving and uncomplicated.

The end of an era

I had to bring my aging Toyota to the garage today to find out what’s wrong with the exhaust system. We had a new one put on less than three years ago, but it’s never been quite right and seems to be rusting away. The problem is that we brought our Matrix over from the States in 2005 (I inherited it after my Aunt Sheila died) and although it’s been the best car I’ve ever owned (bar none!), it is difficult to get many parts for it because this model was never sold here. Luckily, very little has gone wrong with it, and aside from getting louder recently, it still runs like a top. This is partly due to the service it’s gotten at Herr Magnus’ garage. A former Citroen dealer, he has also worked on lots of American servicemen’s cars over the years and long ago agreed to take us on as clients. One of the best things about going to Magnus is being able to check out the other customers’ cars there. Magnus is considered somewhat of an expert when it comes to the old DS models, the so-called “goddess”, and customers come from far and wide to get his advice and help. There are always a number of them sitting around waiting for new brakes or transmissions, or because the hydropneumatic suspension system has to be flushed. I’ve always been fascinated by them, and the smaller, two-cylinder CVs as well. They are so different than almost all the other vehicles on the road.

This one looks like it’s ready to eat anyone who gets too close. Lots of space under the hood and plenty of access to all the various parts of the engine. And those front lights!

Some of them look like they have been in the garage for a long time, and Herr Magnus does indeed have a hard time finding trained mechanics who are willing to work on these increasingly rare vehicles. He wanted to retire himself, due to various health problems, but decided that his 600-euro-a-month pension was not sufficient to enjoy a pleasant post-work life. I also suspect the idea of sitting around at home, not getting his fingers covered in hydraulic fluid on a regular basis was not very appealing to him.

Almost looks like two fish waiting to leap out of the water! Maybe they’re just anxious to get back on the road, and don’t like being kept in the semi-darkness of this old, underground garage. Are there any other cars this unusual, or beautiful?

I love the flowing form of the DS, and the fact that it takes a few seconds for the car to rise to its proper height once the ignition has been turned on. While this type of suspension certainly gave the car a smooth ride, it also made it very expensive and difficult to work on due to a need for special tools and training. This old DS is almost ready to roll.

And now my old Matrix sits tucked away in one of the bays, awaiting parts that will (hopefully) return it to its former muffled self. Unfortunately Herr Magnus has to move out of this garage, which he has rented for over 55 years. The landlord decided to triple the rent, which is quite common in Berlin these days, but this proved to be too much for the proud mechanic. When I asked him what would become of this place, he answered that he didn’t know and didn’t care, which I find somewhat hard to believe. You grow attached to the place you have spent a majority of your working life in, don’t you? At any rate, it’s the end of an era, and I will sorely miss walking down the steep ramp into this treasure trove of old technology.

Close to home

This may look like a typical path through the woods, but it’s actually where part of the Berlin Wall was located until 1989. To the left is West Berlin, while to the right is Kleinmachnow, where I now live. Strangely peaceful today, it was once the site of a high concrete wall, barbed-wire fences, floodlights and armed guards, and was nearly impossible to surmount. It’s hard to find any traces of all this now, and the path is usually full of walkers, dog-lovers and bicyclists. I was walking home from a nearby S-Bahn station when it occurred to me just how historic this place is. I walk along it all the time, usually forgetting that 30+ years ago I would have either been shot or bundled off to a very unpleasant prison for being here.

Emerging from the woods, I pass the old “An der Stammbahn” street sign that is slowly being bent out of shape by a healthy birch tree. The name of the street refers to the railroad line that ran along here from Berlin to Potsdam from 1838 up until the end of WWII, when it was destroyed. It was the first railway line ever built in Prussia, and allowed passengers to travel at a “breathtaking” 30 kmh. The sign was put up at a time when this side of the street was a Sperrzone, a restricted zone. This area was off limits to anyone but the people who lived in the houses on the north side of the street. The border guards patrolled along here, preventing anyone without a permit from entering, and when they wanted, they had unlimited access to the houses, day or night.

The street is now full of a mixture of new and old houses, and is a normal, quiet suburban street that makes it easy to forget about its turbulent past. The wall ran just behind the houses on the left.

The political party Die Grünen (the Greens) are the sixth largest party in the Bundestag, the German parliament. They are well-represented in Kleinmachnow, no doubt due to the town’s well-educated, well-heeled residents. This poster, put up as part of preparations for the upcoming European Parliament election in May, says “Europe, the best idea that Europe ever had”, which is something I completely agree with. I can’t vote here, because I’m not German, but if I could, I would vote for the Greens.

Shortly before getting to my street, I pass by my favorite house. A friend of mine’s mother lived in the second-floor apartment here until Alzheimers got the best of her and she was forced to move out. On the other side of the street is a peaceful little cemetery, with signs asking visitors to make sure they close the gates when leaving so the multitudes of local wild boars can’t get in at night.

Next to the little chapel in the cemetery there’s a small area called the Soldatenhain, or the Soldiers’ Grove. Wehrmacht soldiers, including a number whose names are not known, are buried here; most of them killed on the 24th of April, 1945 during the last days of WWII. Many were relatively old, others quite young. They were some of the last German soldiers to die, and were little more than cannon fodder in face of the overwhelming strength of the Soviet Army as it swept through here.

It really is amazing just how normal this suburb is today. It’s developed into a peaceful little bedroom community since the wall has come down, and the scars of WWII, which were enormous, have all but vanished. It’s important, nonetheless, not to forget all the history around here, and to make sure much of it doesn’t repeat itself!

Here comes the sun!

On my way to work this morning I walked past the Reichstag as the sun was coming up. The contrast between the upper part of the building and the rather dull grey sky was stunning, and gone all too quickly. The wall ran right along this street until 1989, but the only visible reminder is the double row of pavers in the tarmac. A lot has changed in 30 years.

This Suzuki V-Strom is often parked right outside, and it looks like the owner (Enduro Alex?) has done some serious travelling on it. I like the two watertight plastic containers he uses for the GPS and cell phone, and his addition to the windscreen is interesting. Looks like the seat has a bit of extra padding as well, which would no doubt help on long days on the road. These motorcycles are supposed to be fantastic to travel on, despite their somewhat uninspiring design.

The beginnings, part II

The weather is poor and riding is on hold, so it seems like a good time to take a look back and write about some of the vehicles I’ve owned over the years. It’s not an especially illustrious bunch of bikes and cars, but it is varied and certainly reflects my interests, the opportunities I’ve had, and to some degree, my wallet. It isn’t a complete listing, by any means.

In one of my first posts (The beginnings) I mentioned my first two-wheeled vehicle, a Lambretta motor scooter, but the list is longer and more varied than that, so it’s time to start telling the story!

The photo above is a good example of how cars in England and the US differed in the 1960s! The green four-door on the left is a 1967 Ford Cortina, and the “barely beige” station wagon on the right is a 1967 Dodge Polara. My family and I had just gotten back to Rhode Island from a year in England, where my father worked at an agricultural research station in Suffolk. My parents, along with my brother and sister and I, lived in an upstairs appartment in a wonderful old villa owned by a woman called Lady Reed. Her husband, who had died some time before we arrived, had been an enthusiastic hunter in Africa and Asia and had obviously kept the local taxidermist busy, as the house was full of his stuffed animals. The tigers and lions scared the daylights out of me at first. But I digress!

My parents had planned to buy a car before getting to Europe, and when we arrived a 1967 Ford Cortina ( I think the best-selling car in the UK at that time) was waiting for us. It took us on a lot of journeys around England and up to Scotland as well. My folks liked it and shipped it over to the States when we moved back. It then became my mother’s car (until my brother wrapped it around a tree), as my dad had gotten himself a huge Polara station wagon, which had seats for 8 people. I started driving in 1975, while still in high school, and the big Dodge became my first car. I loved it, and as fuel was still so inexpensive in those days (35 cents/gallon, if I remember correctly), its big 383 cubic inch engine (6.3 liters!) was still affordable. It was so smooth and easy to drive, and seemed to float over the cracked and potholed roads so common in the Ocean State (also known as the “Biggest Little”). It was certainly one of the last of a dying breed of cars, and after 1973’s oil crisis even American auto makers started downsizing. At some point rust began to get the upper hand and the Polara was sold to my brother-in-law for 500 dollars. He used it for a time to haul tools on his long commute from Boston to a job site in Maine.

Although I was interested in motorcycles in those days, my parents were very much against me buying a bike, and I was going to college, so there was little time or money. I needed something I could drive long distances all year round, so four wheels and with a bit of heat in the winter was the preferred mode of transportation. I kept dreaming of riding big Bonnevilles and Beemers, though, and knew that some day I would indeed get one.

My next car was a 1970 AMC Hornet, which was quickly superceded by a 1965 Plymouth Valiant that my great aunt left to me when she died. It was a wonderful old car with very little mileage, and had been well-maintained. I had it for two years and put a lot of miles on it running back and forth to college in Maine and then Indiana. While doing an internship in the summer of 1984, I was sideswiped by a young guy in his boss’s car and knocked into a telephone pole. My roommate at the time was riding with me, and got knocked around quite a bit (it was his head that put that big crack in the windshield). We were both lucky, however, and got away with little more than cuts and bruises. The Valiant didn’t fare as well, unfortunately, and was a complete write-off. The insurance company eventually agreed to pay me 800 dollars, which I later sunk into a 1971 Dodge Dart. Nothing like those old straight-six engines, as long as you’re not looking for excitement! Hard to find a more simple and practical vehicle.

Before moving to Florida in 1985, I bought a 1968 Rover 2000 TC from a woman I had studied with in Muncie, Indiana. The Dart was rusting away and I wanted something a little more exotic. The Rover had originally been brought to the States by an Air Force officer stationed in England, which was not uncommon. It was definitely an eye-catcher, but also in need of a fair bit of work. And it didn’t have air conditioning, so it wasn’t the ideal car for Florida’s tropical weather. I enjoyed having it anyway, and managed to keep it running with a lot of help from friends, and later drove it up the east coast from Florida to Rhode Island when I moved back to New England; a trip of more than 1000 miles. At some point I got tired of working on it and bought a used Renault 18i from my parents when they got a new car. I drove that for a couple of years, but had lots of trouble getting spare parts or finding a garage that would work on it, as Renault had stopped selling cars in the U.S. Although very nice to drive, it did have its problems. The heat never worked properly, making long trips in the winter a thing to avoid. I sold it to a Russian doctor in Boston when I moved to Germany in 1990.

Colder days

The days have finally gotten colder, and it really feels a bit like winter now. There’s a frosting of snow on the ground and the motorcycle is in the narrow little garage it calls home, waiting for warmer days to come. I’m happy I don’t have to depend on a motorcycle for commuting. I have a couple of different ways to get to work, and right now a bicycle and train are the preferred methods.

I’ve left the battery in the Himalayan, as it’s a bear to get out, at least compared to the old Beemers. The diminutive 12-volt device is squeezed into a tight little spot under the seat, and surrounded by a number of cables that would have to be unclipped in order to get the thingie out. Other riders write that it’s a no-brainer, but I’m feeling unadventurous and have attached it to a trickle charger instead. This should keep it from dying a premature death.

As visible in the above photo, the battery is indeed well hidden. Sandwiched in between relays on one side and the air filter on the other, I’ll leave it where it is as long as it keeps doing its job. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, right? It’s not like the old Beemers were always super easy to work on, but in general there was a bit more space and a few less cables. It is somewhat amusing though that the Himalayan is considered a really straightforward, uncomplicated bike which can easily be maintained by its rider. It was made simple so that it could be quickly fixed on the side of an Indian road. But it’s still a modern bike that has to meet Euro 4 standards, and it has a charcoal filter on it, ABS brakes and fuel injection, so there are bound to be more electronic gadgets and cables than a bike built in the early 1980s. The benefits of this are that the bike uses little fuel, puts out less emissions, and stops quickly without sliding all over the road. I guess this is worth the inconvenience, and with time I’m sure I’ll be able to get the battery out of its little cave without too much trouble.

In the meantime, my trusty old bike still allows me to enjoy the freedom of two wheeled-transport, and at the speeds I ride it’s not too difficult to see the patches of ice that occasionally appear right in front of me. This way I can burn a few calories and create my own heat. And there’s no battery to worry about!

The best of both worlds

This week was very unusual in that I was able to both go skiing and get a ride in on the motorcycle. What could be better?

My wife, daughter and I went skiing for a week in southern Austria as a Christmas present to each other. Although the part of the country north of the Alps was literally buried in up to three meters of new snow, cutting off entire areas, the town we visited in Kärnten/Carinthia is on the southern slopes of those high mountains, and had more wind than anything else. The ski areas were able to make enough of the white stuff to provide good skiing, however, and we enjoyed a few days carving our way down uncrowded slopes. At times, the sun even managed to pierce the heavy cloud cover, and Austrian hospitality and good Apfelstrudel made for a great time.

The higher elevations (here at the Ankogelbahn, at just under 3000 meters) did have a lot of snow however, and there was a very real danger of avalanches. Although the operators warned everyone to stay on the prepared slopes, the temptation to head down through the deep snow that covered the off-limits areas was just too great for some people.

Whoever put this sticker on a mailbox in the train station in Bad Gastein certainly had a sense of humor! Sometimes you really do have to be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the weather has continued to be mild, and there’s no snow in sight. There has been talk of another “Beast of the East” rolling in, but so far this has not materialized. Not wanting to let an opportunity to ride go to waste, I hopped on the Himalayan this morning and headed into the city to work, all the while dreaming of longer journeys to come in the spring. I’ve only ridden a few hundred miles on this bike, but already feel very much at home on her.