Coming Home.

This story continues from last year’s Christmas blog. If you’ve not read it already, it might provide an enjoyable minute or two. If you did read it at the time, pop back for a second visit before you read Part 2.

Here is Part 2 of the story…

Mrs Winchester never slept like a baby normally.  The doctor had described her early wakefulness in various ways, and diagnosed ‘Marriage Anxiety Syndrome’ (DSM-IV 326a) resulting in an ‘over-active sense of responsibility’. She lived with that subtle underlying anxiety of one who cares a lot for the needy – and there was no doubt that Max came into that category. She was, in her words, a light sleeper.  Max, on the other hand was having the time of his life.

Having recovered a little of his decorum following his stumbling across baby Jesus and his teenage parents in the stable, he grabbed his iPad and began writing his journal. He recorded every last detail: the clothes the shepherds were wearing (‘headgear like a tea towel at home’), the state of the stable (‘warm, though smelly’) and discretely omitted Mary’s struggle with feeding Jesus for the first time (he had quietly nipped into the inn for that bit). It was only then that he realised he had a bar or two of Wifi (it was free in the inn), so promptly whizzed off an email explaining where he was and what was happening, to Mrs Winchester, who was duly dumbfounded. She phoned the Community Support Officer again to tell her she’d found Max and heard her snigger for the second time.

Max headed for a hour or two of sleep. He dreamt he heard angels singing, Max 35. Angels.but was wakened finally by the revving of cars in the road below his window. Three massive blacked-out limmos were parked on the curb, complete with their minders and an escort car or two. He slipped his shoes back on and headed for the stable again, there to find a selection of eastern dignitaries gathered round the manger/crib. They were chatting quietly to Mary and Joseph as Jesus slept, and he noticed them handing the young couple some little gifts wrapped in the poshest of wrapping paper.  Max took a picture with his iPad and emailed it home.  “Bethlehem” he thought to himself, “will never be the same after this night, and neither will I.” He proved to be right on both counts.

It was a few days later he decided to head home. Boxing Day had come and gone, and he’d been able to sleep off some of his weariness. It was with a palpable sense of relief that he pressed the “Go Home” button on his TomTom, and waited (ages) while it planned his route through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, into Austria and Germany and back to the Channel. Bluewater seemed a long way away.

He only got lost six times, and broke down just the once – as he was driving round the southern edge of Lake BalatonBalaton – about half way home. Most of the time he slept in the Fiesta, but occasionally he allowed himself the comparative luxury of a comfy bed in a wayside inn.

Max’s final stop was at the side of the road a few miles from his house. He pulled into a little car park on a hill overlooking a beautiful view – you know the sort. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go home, it was just that he was overwhelmed by an inexplicable desire to cry. For a few minutes he managed to contain himself, but finally he surrendered.
For the first time in thirty eight years, he sobbed and sobbed, calmed himself and sobbed some more. Wave after wave of tears engulfed him.  He was shocked to find he couldn’t stop. His body ached with the emotional outburst. Somewhere within his brain he remembered something about the symptoms of PTSD, but he couldn’t care less right now. He knew something deep was happening to him and continued to cry.

When finally his tears ended he noticed the sun was setting – the huge red orb making its way inexorably towards the darkening horizon.  As he sat quietly he felt a sense of peace begin to trickle under the door of his heart. Max put his head back on the headrest. All he could think of was that baby. Somehow the peace he felt was connected to the little newborn child resting innocent and contented in that grotty stable, though he found it impossible to figure out quite how.  He remembered a couple of lines of a T.S.Eliot poem about Magi going to see Jesus, and how they felt. “We returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation...” He would look it up when he got home. He felt like that too … no longer at ease … old dispensation. Weird. He started the engine.

Mrs Winchester was delighted to see him back. He was even quieter than normal – which is saying something. Preoccupied. Contemplative. Stronger. More relaxed in a way. Nothing seemed to matter to him in quite the same way, and despite her efforts she couldn’t get him to open up. “I’ll tell you all about it sometime, my dear,” he told her.

And one day he did.

Canon excel themselves in customer service

Remember my post “For the want of 5p“? Well, I’ve another story to tell you.
On my Big Trip around Europe I lost my camera. It fell off the bike somewhere in the north west of Greece, up by the Bulgarian border, and I had to get another one in Thessalonikii. I chose Canon again – a red IXUS – and loved it, snapping away merrily for a year. I took it to the Arctic too. Somehow it didn’t quite take the strain and stress of my adventure lifestyle at the time, and passed away finally when I got back and was taking some photos in church. The zoom feature was damaged and I repaired it with my Leatherman, the glass of the LCD screen cracked, the casing had seen better days and eventually the shutter button fell off as I was framing the vicar (so to speak).

It was months out of warranty, but I decided to send it back, not least so Canon knew that their little cameras go to interesting places and they could evaluate the wear and tear. I sent it to the MD of course, (customer service departments rarely have the flexibility to be generous) with an entertaining description of its short life, and with the ready acceptance that it had not been looked after very well and they were not obliged to be kind to me. I also said it didn’t seem so strong as my other Canon cameras (I’m on my 4th) which was true.

Guess what? The short story is that Canon are mending it free of charge! The lovely lady in Customer Care sent me a warm and fun letter, entering into the spirit of the entertaining exchange, and Canon went onto my list of companies who know how to treat customers well. The camera hasn’t arrived yet but it will, and comes with another six months warranty – and a wise little warning not to try it again! Now THAT is up to Apple standards of customer care. Well done Canon. You’ve won my heart and go to the top of the class.

How do you look after the people in your life? Canon overlooked my humanity and were kind. They’ll be remembered for it.

Bilbo camper conversions won’t. The sad and uppity lady at the huge NEC mobile homes exhibition told me off for photographing her camper vans to get ideas for my own conversion. How silly! All the others were complimented by my interest, pointing out the features, chatting happily away and wishing me well. One guy said how people came back having converted their own camper and often bought a brand new one from them because they loved camper van life so much – for £32,000! Needless to say he WANTED me to take photos to remind me of how good his vans are.

And Canon didn’t expect the blog in their honour either. Want a good camera? Buy a Canon. The service is great and they love their customers. I really like being loved, don’t you?

The Arctic? Cool!

Cool. Well, more ‘Wet’ actually. Yes, the west coast of Norway is very wet as I found out. But stunningly beautiful.

As I returned from my last Big Trip in July 2011 I was asking myself about the next one. Poorly I definitely was, but it wasn’t stopping me from dreaming about the next long ride.

I was significantly ill with the Giardia parasite as I rode back from doing 23 countries in 25 days, the result of not taking proper precautions about ‘wild’ water. My tent was pitched beneath a huge wind turbine in Austria when my body decided to do everything possible to remove the parasite from my system. Fortunately I carry all the appropriate medication for such eventualities and got back to a pharmacy in a nearby town to renew my supplies and enjoy the luxury of a flush loo in a little coffee shop – pristine clean in Austria thankfully. (Solo riding means there is no one to mop your brow or call a doctor when you get ill. Or pack the tent up and load the bike come to that!)

But solo riding can be so addictive. Cast upon the people I meet for conversation, friendship and help when things don’t go according to plan, I develop an assumption that they will like me and help if they can.

And they do and do. Like the guys at Vromos in Bulgaria who turned up within 20 minutes of me phoning them for help, and fixed a stripped alternator belt, and got a tyre repaired at their expense, and checked the bike over.  And when I asked Yavor for the bill he looked at me and said, ‘But you bought the beers!’   I’d show you a picture of them, brilliant blokes, but my camera dropped off the bike going down into Greece and with it the memories therein of 60% of my trip. (I was gutted.)

I’ll get to the Arctic in a minute.  I must tell you about the guys in Thessaloniki who saw me waiting

The 1200GS Club Thessaloniki

by the White Tower and said “Are you coming to the meeting tonight?”  “What meeting?”  “The Thessaloniki GS Riders Club.” Of course I turned up. It was 200 metres away in a cafe in a pretty little park. I asked them if there was a floor I could sleep on somewhere, and a muscular tattoo artist with a big smile and an even bigger heart raised his hand and said “My place” and bought me a drink. The fact I kept up with him at the end of the evening as we zipped to this little village 40km in the opposite direction to the one I planned was a mark of my riding skills on unfamiliar roads in the dark!

The most caring tattoo artist in the world.

A fantastic evening with brilliant guys unfazed by the catastrophic state of their country’s finances. I left Greece on an old ‘tramp’ ferry, sleeping on the open car deck, sheltering from the sea spray.

I slept on the car deck under the stars – and the spray.

Ok.  I left for the Arctic on 13th July 2012. It had been waiting for me since 2009 when I visited

Breakfast brought in by an angel, Puttegarten.

Norway the first time and hadn’t had the time to ride so far north. It was unfinished business and had to be done. The last day of undiminished 24hour daylight (Daylight not sunlight, as a lady on the ferry wisely reminded me!) was on the 17th. I had four days to get from Thakeham to above the Arctic Circle. I decided that the Puttegarten ferry was the route I’d take, up the west coast of Sweden. I got within 30 miles of the said ferry on Day 1, camping in a field overnight and waking to the sound of a car stopping near my tent. A German lady presented me with her good wishes for my trip and a bag of freshly baked bread rolls – still warm from the oven. Brilliant.

The next day and I was up near Oslo.  The day after it was Trondheim.  Then across the

Typical weather for July – note the dry patch to the side of the bike!

1

mountains. (Cold. Snow. Rain. Sharp wind.) A few miles further on from the empty car park I stopped in to admire the mountains I came to the official Arctic Circle. It was still the 17th. Fantastic. Some photos and on to Skutvik to catch the ferry to Lofoten.  It arrived at Svolvaer at half past midnight. In broad daylight. It wasn’t going to get much darker for a few weeks, and the sun was shining in the morning when I

The Lofoten campsite

awoke to my first rest day at a free camping site dedicated to the climbing fraternity.  It had a tap and a ‘drop loo’ (use your imagination) and a view of the sea in front, and a view of the mountains behind.

Two thousand miles in just a few days. I was in the Lofoten, a spectacular group of islands spilling out into the Norwegian Sea.

I had 12 days to get home.

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