November 25, 2007 / 5:10 AM / 10 years ago

From London to Helsinki on two little wheels

A scooter belonging to Reuters correspondent Agnieszka Flak sits near Marijampole, about 5 kms from the Polish-Lithuanian border, during her 2700 km journey from London to Helsinki in this September 24, 2007 photo. REUTERS/Agnieszka Flak

HELSINKI (Reuters) - I was spitting dust; my face was burning after days in the sun’s glare and the dead insects plastered on my windscreen were too many to count.

But the satisfaction of crossing 2700 km of Europe from London to Helsinki on a motor scooter was sweet as well -- the best part being able to say: I have arrived.

People told me I was mad and reckless to rush off to my new job in this way. Four days in all on the road, averaging 90 km/h, and more terrifying moments than I dare count.

After all, speeding on the motorway like a mouse in a herd of elephants is not everyone’s idea of fun.

But the jug of beer at the end of the day -- be it German, Polish or Estonian -- never tasted better than after hours and hours staring ahead, manoeuvring in traffic, and anxiously hoping to reach the next petrol station in time.

The trip this autumn started in London where I set out with a duffle bag tied on back, a small rucksack clamped between my legs and an adventurous friend wedged behind me.

She was my personal DJ, changing tracks on the MP3 player we shared, and also the blinker when the lights of my Vespa did little to make trucks and lanes of cars let me pass.

Once on the ferry in Dover we parked right next to the Harleys and Suzukis, feeling part of the club: not dressed in black biker leathers, perhaps, but we thought we had class.

After we rode off the ferry in Calais and into the right-hand traffic, France, Belgium and the Netherlands passed in a glance. I was amazed I could pass four countries in just one day.

At 151 cc, my scooter engine was just above the legal minimum for using Europe’s motorways, where other drivers seemed astonished to see a woman driving something that resembled little more than a bicycle.

Driving felt like elbowing my way through a crowd. Tall trucks in front of me, behind and to my left. Occasionally the winds pushed me perilously across the traffic lanes.

Motorcyclists honked and shouted the odd “hurray”; whenever a car overtook me, an amazed and confused look and fingers tapping on foreheads was all I would get.

It’s not the safest way to get around: concentrating for hours can be tiring -- that was where the music helped -- and with wheels as small as my scooter’s every hole and bump in the road can deal a fatal blow.

Driving up the North Sea coast was mad, even I admit. No houses to protect us from the wind racing in off the sea.

Whenever I accelerated, the wind, rain and hail hit my face in intensified rage. Dortmund in dead of night, 14 hours later, was never a more welcoming sight.

RUGGED ROADS

A family visit, a break, and it was time to resume my journey alone. By now, the clock was ticking: I was in a hurry, due to report for my new Finnish assignment in just three days.

Fields of wind turbines seemed to dance to the bluegrass tunes in my ear, as the mist of the day waking up curled around.

The German autobahns let me test the scooter’s limits -- 120 km/h, it turned out, far above the official 96 km/h the dealers tell you. The bike shook and seemed like all its parts were clinging on for dear life.

When time allowed I chose hills and country roads, a welcome break from the daunting highways as I headed for Poland.

Where Germany’s roads were smooth, the Polish ones were rough. Drivers made me veer off course, gesturing that there was no room for scooters on the country’s one-lane roads.

One hundred km before Warsaw the “highway” ended. Along with hundreds of trucks I had to switch to dusty roads where I was blinded by lights from in front and behind.

One driver nudged my back number plate and thought it was jolly fun. Not I.

A pilgrim priest asked where I was heading. Hearing my plan, he told me I was mad; then called over his entire bus and asked them to join in a prayer for my soul.

A LONELY AFFAIR

Warsaw, capital of my native country, was the next overnight stop -- though it was already 2 a.m. when I pulled in, a reminder that driving a scooter can be a lonely affair.

Passing through Lithuania and Latvia’s flat countryside at night was probably the worst: one car every 20 minutes, road signs scarce and petrol stations scarcer, unnerving for a scooter with a small tank.

Loads of time to think; I chose to sing at the top of my lungs instead. It kept me company, no matter how off tune I was.

Each border crossing was a test. Most officials would let me pass with a wink, but for the Latvian one, my Italian licence plate, German passport, greeting in Polish and the cotton mask beneath my helmet were too much.

After an hour-long interrogation that covered my life story, he let me go. An overnight rest in the Latvian capital Riga and I was into Estonia, and out again the same day from the Baltic port capital of Tallinn.

Off the ferry a few hours later in Helsinki and the frosty wind hit my face. I had arrived.

And a postscript: a scooter is fine for Helsinki, and with care, on the snow too. But even my trusty well-travelled Vespa, which had first taken me from Italy and over the Alps to London, could not survive the vandals who trashed it just a month later.

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