Paris to Antwerp..

Namibian waltzed into Catering last night, looking trim and virile in his new Swedish cardigan. I complimented him. He’s “back in black”, you might say, an AC/DC reference that’ll be lost on most of you if you’re anything like me.

Anyway, rather than just thank me for noticing how slimming the colour black is on him, he has the gall to claim: ‘I’ve not eaten nothing for two days.’

Double negative aside, this is perfect balderdash – not twenty-four hours ago, he was seen, first-hand, gulping down a bison burger in a riverside steakhouse.

It was the sort of joint that ought to have six foot stunning waitresses on roller skates…but, in practice,  a sullen poor-complexioned girl threw menus at us and got our drinks wrong.

Ah, it’s always a sigh of relief to leave Paris unscathed; the standard of driving really is appalling. If it were not for landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, it would differ only marginally from Vietnam.

Actually, the driving is a little worse there – click the link for thirty seconds of craziness – but not much. So, with Paris behind us, we can relax, put on cruise control and set the alarm clock for the Belgian border..

Dem Bones..

The trouble with tourist attractions is that they’re teeming with tourists.

A bus full of English school children rolls up just as I arrive at Les Catacombes in Paris, considerably lengthening the queue. Standing in the cold, mostly in pairs of various nationalities, feels like waiting for a space on Noah’s Ark.

We wait, and wait, at a drab, colourless shed. It looks like a lifeless building from the German Democratic Republic, yet it marks the entrance to a subterranean ossuary.

Balding Indian men in puffer jackets inspect rucksacks, letting eight people in at a time. A line of people stamp up and down, gazing at their own breath. With numb feet, we descend twenty metres by spiral staircase, down below even the metro and sewer systems.

A sign warns: ‘the tour could make a strong impression on people with a nervous disposition.’ Once deep underground, there is a long stone-lined passage, running for over 500 metres before anything of interest. Sandals filled with gravel, I soldier on under a dripping roof.

They try and spice up the journey with placards on dry mortar walls, but essentially it would be nice if they moved the hut a bit closer to the interesting stuff. Luckily Namibian is resting today; he’d be too tall for all this tunnelling.

In 1785, rampant disease in Les Halles neighbourhood led to exhumed mass graves. Cartloads of bodies covered with black clothes crossed the city by night under watchful eyes of chanting priests. The rotting cadavers were brought here, to this old stone quarry in southern Paris. Now there is no flesh, just bones.

Another Indian man shines his torch, illuminating these bones, and casually mentions that there are six million skeletons here.

Cor, they take up an awful lot of room: bones and skulls are neatly stacked like firewood, about five feet high and thirty metres deep, lining the tunnel interminably. Well, not interminably because then, like the Louvre, you’d never get out.

‘Attention. Difficult Stairway (83 steps). You are advised to climb slowly,’ says the sign by the exit.  Dizzy rather than breathless, I emerge in an entirely different place to starting – which is rather inconvenient if travelling by bicycle; one has to trudge the Citroen-lined streets with a map, looking for it.

Today is a travel day to, of all places, Antwerp again – the fourth time this year. Other than driving through a pea-soup fog in Northern France, there is little to report. But yesterday, I was so busy with a masterpiece on the catacombs, that I had no time to include “Crazy” Sandra, a German pal who is smitten with heavy metal.

She came to Paris to see the AC/DC show, unable to believe that Namibian and I can shun a rock concert in favour of a short nap. It vexes her actually. So I watched a bit, and, ooh, I recognized a song. It’s a great show but I’ll never be a die-hard fan – there isn’t a single trombone on stage.

And, crikey, what an insane volume.  Yet Little Dick tells me: ‘Motorhead are louder than that.’ And he should know; he’s driven on the last couple of their tours..

 

 

Help! I can’t get out of The Louvre..

We’re parked on the pavement – very rock n roll. The repercussion is men urinating against the truck half the night, both before and after the show. Little Dick, parked behind me, cordons off the trucks in a fruitless attempt to protect our rapidly yellowing tyres. I’ve always been in this industry for the glamour.

Today there is a short delay; trucks have to be serviced. Because we’re away from the UK for so many weeks, a couple of overalled men from Britain have arrived in a van, armed with tools.

They kick a few tyres, note the odd mileage – ‘yes, that looks all right’ – then I’m free to sneak off to the Louvre. Oh, and spring didn’t last long, by the way.

Now, why is it that I can effortlessly walk twenty miles, yet standing in front of a picture for twenty seconds has me suffering from “museum legs”? I blame school expeditions. Anyway, impressed by Guerin’s use of light and shadow – and breasts – I start to read the accompanying blurb.

Literally the moment I’ve read the painter and year, I’m exhausted. Sculptures are even worse: they never give you sofas to look at them from. So, eschewing the Egyptian Antiquities, I rest in the Rubens Room. Ah, shoes off and a sit down. Lovely.

But, beware. If it’s anything like the National Gallery in London, you have to keep at least one eye open; slouch too far and close both eyes? – security will pounce, badgering you as though a vagabond.

The piece de resistance, for some, is Leonardo di Caprio’s “Mona Lisa”. That was deliberate – I’m just checking you’re paying attention. Painted c.1503-7, and standing only 77cm high, it’s dwarfed by other Italian Renaissance canvases. It’s flanked by four security guards, an extra guard rail, and a glass front which is possibly bullet proof.

Maybe what renders the smile so enigmatic is the incongruous background of a lunar, volcanic landscape, more like Iceland than Italy.

All this pausing and arty-farty musing, though, has turned my legs to lead once more. And the Louvre, opened in 1793, is just far too big a museum to tackle in one day. I’m off.

It was bad enough deciding where to start, but getting out again? Forget it. I take lifts, stairs, doubling back in a vain attempt to reach fresh air, only to be thwarted by another room full of paintings.

Delirious and parched, as though I’d crossed the Sahara for forty days, I finally emerge in a brilliant electronic cloakroom. Outside, a lunatic walks past, pushing a hospital drip on wheels..

I love Paris in the Springtime..

Have you ever stood at the side of a motorway, or on a bridge? Did you notice how painfully slowly trucks seem to be travelling?

Supposedly in the name of safety, they are all fitted with speed limiters which fixes the speed at 90km/h. No matter how hard one presses the accelerator, the truck is governed at this speed. Safety? It’s enough to bore you to death.

Irish and Spanish lorries appear to be exempt from this law, thundering past at more like 110km/h. The point is that, even after two full days of solid driving, we’re still four hundred kilometres from the next AC/DC gig in Paris. So we’re up half the night again. A high-octane, rollercoaster of an audio book is keeping me awake; Namibian sings to himself with the window open.

Then, disaster! The last of six CDs is missing. Don’t you hate that? Just as the audio adventure approaches its zenith, all I get is a recorded monotone: ‘that is the end of CD 5.’ And there’s no bloody CD 6!

It’s worse than that Friday cliffhanger in a soap opera – let’s assume I watch television for a second – when you have to wait the whole weekend for the next episode. To combat the sleepy sensation, I start singing too.

Ah, Paris, you sigh dreamily. Well, I would sigh dreamily, too, if arriving at Gare du Nord on the Eurostar for a filthy weekend. This morning, however, romantic notions are thin on the ground. In fact, my thoughts match the definition of antithesis; this traffic turns any sane man’s thoughts to slaughtering  Frenchmen by the dozen.

The great paradox  here is that the French – in my humble opinion – have the best roads in Europe. But then there is Paris.

If I leave the French port of Calais, I can estimate almost to the minute what time I will arrive in the Cote d’Azur the following day. To reach Cannes it will take me fourteen-and-a-half hours, give or take ten minutes.

Paris is a different kettle of fish, however. The inner ring road, or “peripherique”, without a single traffic light or crossroads, ought to move fluidly, no? Ha! At 5.30am we discover that the Parisians have closed this major artery without offering a diversion.

A sign reading: ‘Ferme’, and a barrier down at the entrance slip, is all one gets in delightful Paris. Namibian and I are left to thread our way down a parallel avenue past boulangeries receiving the day’s croissants.

On the plus side, though, it feels as if spring is upon us. There are no gambolling lambs, but it’s pleasant to stroll the banks of the Seine in the sunshine, airing our pale toes in sandals. Our colleague, “Gentleman” Steve, taking one look at the gig showers,  rashly advises undressing entirely and bathing in the river. We don’t.

Dawdling along the Seine as fully-clothed pedestrians, Namibian and I gawp at the house boats instead. ‘Look, there’s a swimming pool inside that boat,’ I point out. ‘Cor, yeah, that’s a swimming pool, that is,’ he replies. He does that…

 

A Stranded Namibian..

At one o’clock in the morning, Namibian is hanging off my mirrors. It reminds me that I should’ve been born into wealth.

There is a rule in this industry: rock, don’t knock. It means, in order to wake a sleeping driver, rock the mirrors – gently.

Too much and you risk spilling discarded wine glasses inside; too little and the driver may continue his erotic dream involving two of Tina Turner’s dancers, subconsciously noting that the wind outside has increased. What you do not do, Namibian, is swing off them.

Are you thinking why not just ring the bell, as with a house? We don’t have one. Well, how about knocking on the door then? Ah, we come to the crux. The noise from pounding fists – aside from the proximity to my weary frame –  is amplified inside the cab. It always makes my heart race. Namibian has rocked me out of bed now, though. So, comparing awakening techniques, perhaps there isn’t much in it.

Ooh, I forgot to mention his forlorn face yesterday at the Danish docks. The ferry to northern Germany accommodated my truck but not Namibian’s.

As he revved in readiness of embarkation, a stevedore blocked his path. It happened to me when I was twenty-three: five out of six trucks got on this boat, heading for a gig in Copenhagen.

Over the CB, I got snatches of directions: ‘turn left at the …lights, then turn…’ Help! I paid a taxi driver to lead the way on that occasion. Last night, though, when the stranded Namibian arrived, he became a little excited.

Parked next to us were several “trombone” trailers“, each fifty metres in length, pulling electricity-generating windmill sails. I believe the expression for his enthusiasm is “like a dog with two dicks.”

Anyway, it’s 1am and Namibian has been up for an hour. He’s woken gradually, prepared hot drinks, and violently awoken a trombone player. Why am I talking in the third person? I don’t know, I’m tired.

He’s woken me. I check for bruises and draw the curtains. There stands Namibian, dressed like a beardless Father Christmas in a hat. Disorientated and squinting, I finally find the door handle, and an arm reaches in with the familiar pink thermos flask.

A journey of 700kms would be perfectly unthinkable without this. An icy draught accompanies the flask and I wonder, not for the first time, why on earth we’re touring northern Europe in February.

As we head south, passing numerous motorway exits – “ausfahrts”, in German – I’m reminded of my ex-girlfriend. She once remarked what a big place Ausfahrt must be, as it is signposted from everywhere.

She’s Australian; the language barrier got us in the end…

Long trucks, long distance..

As a truck driver, the job description entails driving…which is the bit I don’t like.

Trucks, as far as I’m concerned, are simply vehicles for travelling to the next interesting place. Yes, there’s the occasional knickerless strumpet and, indeed, beautiful scenery en route…but international roads, like domestic motorways, are generally tediously dull.

While Namibian fawns over 660-horsepower beasts, and photographs eight-axle juggernauts – we discussed his steering wheel fetish, remember? – I would prefer almost any other mode of transport.

Yet there is little call for rock ‘n’ roll shipping. And how many times have you seen a train delivering lights to a Metallica stadium concert? A rock ‘n’ roll cycling company would, of course, be absurd. So, I’ll accept the driving bit…and stop moaning.

It’s nearly 1900km to Paris, yet we’re off to a poor start. Pulling out of Stockholm’s Globe Arena, all eighteen wheels slide round the first roundabout. This is like ice-road trucking; we might as well be on a lake. The road remains invisible to the eye. And it’s minus nine Celsius.

This time there is no black ice, just an interminable stretch of scary, powdered snow, and a central reservation. The sight of tarmac, two hours later, is a jubilant, yet transient, moment. Soon enough, we’re back to holding our breath and closing our eyes on the worst stretches. Well, one eye – just to reduce the ghastly spectre that peripheral vision beholds.

Now, next time you’re moaning about the price of concert tickets, consider this: to put a truck on the fifteen minute ferry-ride from Sweden to Denmark (Helsingborg-Helsingor), plus the forty-five minute crossing to Germany, costs €468. One way. So, multiply that by two for a return journey, and then by twenty for the number of trucks on the tour.

Now add the daily rental price of 38-tonne trucks plus diesel. Understand why concert tickets aren’t cheap?

 

The Stockholm Jazz Club..

Karl fell over last night. Almost sober, he slipped on an icy pedestrian crossing, hurting his back. And his pride.

The deepest wound was being helped up by elderly ladies, fussing over this young man in his thirties. While Anna and I skidded off to Stampen Jazz Club, Karl was no doubt being invited to a coffee morning, or bingo, with his new-found friends.

This Jazz Club in the old part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, turns out to be a pick-up joint for the paralytic aged. A crusty sea dog flexed his tattooed biceps at all and sundry, but the woman he wanted was too drunk to focus.

She danced to some stomping musicians, circling unsteadily until collapsing, and being ejected from the premises. Anna and I remained upright.

Each time I poked my head upstairs to see the other live band, a pony-tailed, ageing Lothario would sidle up and ask Anna to dance. ‘Could we manage this one?’ he asked, each time my back was turned.

Upstairs, a bespectacled duffer tried to propose a toast, presumably just for me being with a young blonde, which resulted in Anna’s elbow knocking white wine all over his glasses.

It was like being reprimanded by a science teacher at school where a twitching of the lips becomes an insubordinate snigger. The teacher – or a short-sighted elder, in this case – increases your detention lengths, but the snigger becomes a chortle. You just can’t help it.

At 2am the metro system is still running every few minutes. ‘It goes all night on Fridays and Saturdays,’ says Anna, who must be up late at weekends.

Today, fussing over a mildly-bruised Karl, we’re off for a splendid, time-consuming brunch in the park. Outside, a hot-dog stand is stationed…on the ocean. This is very exciting to me.

Sated by far too much coffee and waffles, my boyish enthusiasm for walking on frozen sea is accommodated. Karl throws snowballs as I marvel that we are actually walking on the sea. Indeed, some are even bicycling on it.

Despite years in the touring industry, I’ve never understood how, after a good night’s sleep, other drivers can get into bed after lunch and sleep a further three or four hours. I’m envious.

Knowing I’d lie restless, I visit the Vasamuseum, one of the foremost attractions in the world. The Vasa, a ship built in 1628 from a thousand oak trees, managed just 1300m on her maiden voyage before listing and sinking within Stockholm harbour.

In 1961, while the Berliners were being encircled with that ridiculous wall, the Vasa was lifted from the depths. It overshadows The Mary Rose, I can tell you.

‘Heyhey’… which means hello, and goodbye, it seems..

A frozen Stockholm..

A scorcher! Today is forecast to reach the dizzying heights of zero degrees Celsius – hardly sunbathing weather, yet naked men are out and about. I’ll come back to them.

While Karl erects a coffee table barely higher than an ant, Anna serves home-made bread in an upturned, knotted handkerchief. They pad around their flat in fluffy dressing-gowns, speaking lovely, undulating Swedish.

As they boil eggs, I spend a short time watching my laundry from the loo. Though unusual in the UK, Swedish flats commonly house washing machines in the bathroom.

I feel that childish sense of wondrousness this morning: while snow falls on the street far below, I stand at the sink, frowning at a joystick instead of a tap. Breakfast is a further enigma. This continental concept of cold cheese and bread has never sat well with me, but cheese and marmalade together? Anna nods encouragingly.

Fish roe in a tube is liberally applied to my hard-boiled egg – a popular combination on a Christmas dinner table in Sweden. The egg spoon is plastic, which admittedly guards against tarnishing and that metallic after-taste, but it isn’t weighty enough to break into the damn shell to start with.

Narnia awaits outside, a land of fairytale. Ill-prepared in jeans, we drive out to Kalltorpssjon, a lake frozen to a depth of forty centimetres. Swedes skate on this deep lake, wearing salopettes and pushing prams, or towing placid, dummy-sucking toddlers in an array of sledges.

Managing a couple of 1200m laps without breaking any limbs, I brush away the light dusting of snow with an ice-skate, revealing  blackness below. Only a foot or so of ice separates me from fathoms – leagues, even – of freezing water.

It all seems safe enough, but most people have mini ice-picks around their necks, to claw their way back onto the ice in the event of falling through. Nearby, there’s a sauna in a hut at the lake edge, from which pink users emerge. Steaming humans walk to the large hole cut in the ice, entered via swimming-pool steps.

Some men –  only men, unfortunately – remove their towels for the rapid plunge into the lake, exiting with appreciably diminished members..

 

AC/DC Tour Reaches Stockholm..

Drat! A cooked breakfast is up and running but I can’t get to it.

With twenty trucks to move, there’s a very well-organised system but it requires a bit of patience. I’m in limbo, waiting to park sensibly. I’m hungry. ‘Well, eat your own cereal,’ I hear you cry. Ah,I’d thought of that.

But, on reaching down for the pint of milk kept on the step inside the door, I find it’s frozen solid. So is the tantalising carton of refreshing apple juice.

Namibian, grinning in tracksuit bottoms, is indicating the depth of snow on his back doors by pushing in his forefinger to the hilt. Little Dick, marshalling his thoughts, has had five cups of tea by now. And he’s finally tidied his cab…after three days of talking about it.

To distinguish ourselves from the general public, we have what is called a laminate – self-explanatory because it is laminated.

The size of a playing card and worth the equivalent of gold dust, the laminate enables us to walk past security into the AC/DC gig…or at least into Catering before the show, and then out again before things get loud. Word from the upper echelons today is that we can have an extra laminate for a wife or girlfriend, but not both.

It’s generally polite in a foreign country to ask if somebody speaks English before bombarding them with stupid questions, but here it’s almost an insult.

Scandinavians look at you condescendingly, narrowing the eyes, and saying: ‘of course I do.’ I blush; golly, she’s beautiful. Well, of course I ask a woman for directions.

Suitably chastised, I find the bookshop I’m looking for. And an internet café, where – Hooray! – the keyboard is in English again. You wouldn’t believe how annoying it is when the rest of the Europeans produce keyboards with full stop, y, w, a, z, @ etc. all in the wrong place. I can touch-type, don’t you know.

Now, how fortuitous that I have an ex-girlfriend, Anna, offering shelter and marvellous conversation in central Stockholm. But how unlucky that she’s taken the inadvisable option of getting married.

Earl Grey tea is in stock here, which fortifies her husband Karl and me in the task of erecting a new sofa that is enormous – so big that it fills the whole evening.

It arrived in umpteen cardboard boxes with instructions that, as men, we ignore, resulting in a lot of unscrewing nuts that we’d just screwed. I fall asleep in a room where golf clubs wear socks…

Oslo to Stockholm..

What a great concert – I slept like a log. I dozed off just as the show went up.

Later, dimly aware of cannons firing, signalling the end of the gig, my alarm went off. Hearing intact, the truck bed was possibly the best seat at the venue.

The Black Ice World Tour is a pertinent title given the road conditions last night. The treacherous skating rink, posing as an international route between Scandinavian capitals, was not only slippery but heart-stoppingly twisty. And dark.

After half an hour, at 1.30am, driving on what might as well be a sheet of glass, we passed a signpost marked, ‘Stockholm 522kms.’ Oh joy. This job would be perfect if it wasn’t for all the driving…and loud music.

The road surface was a sea of black and white, neither colour providing any safety; they’re both ice. Namibian, using his “spaznav” navigational aid, radioed me. ‘There’s a roundabout in thirty kilometres.’ Well, whoop-dee-doo, I’m enthralled.

He was only trying to help, but it removes the skill out of driving, don’t you think? Somewhere underneath the treachery was a rumble strip but it was invisible.

Proceeding gingerly at the outset, I decided, on balance, that we might just as well go flat out, breath held and eyes occasionally closed if conditions looked really bad. All we needed  was an elk to saunter across the road, causing the trailer to overtake the cab – “jackknife“, we call it.

One didn’t, but one of my favourite accident quotes is when ringing the office to call in a broken wing-mirror. They say something like: ‘just buy another one.’ Then you have to explain that there’s been a misunderstanding – the truck is resting on the mirror.

Poor old Namibian. They’ve changed his truck pack of lights. ‘Now there’s a load of crap in the back,’ he told me over the radio, wheelspinning up an icy hill. Jolly frightening stuff, I expect, to a chap who’s used to  African sand dunes…