Dave Richardson: Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Laverda

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Yamaha Motorcycles Street Event - I-90 Motorsports



by Dave Richardson of Moto International

I had the tremendous pleasure of taking part in a trip to Italy, partially arranged by Moto Guzzi North America. Along with National Sales Manager John Stoddart and President Alex di Bagno were four other dealers and my fiancée, Lana, and I.

Joining us were Larry Williams and Nolan Woodbury of the new Moto-Euro Magazine. If you're into European motorcycles and haven't seen this one yet, you're really missing out. To the limits of my knowledge, this is the only magazine about European motorcycles based in the US. This is not your typical read-once-and-throw-away moto-rag. Each issue is truly a keepsake. These guys deserve our support; give it and you will be richly rewarded.

Our destinations were the Milan Motorcycle, Scooter, and Bicycle Show, an Aprilia assembly plant, and Moto Guzzi Raduno, celebrating their 80th year. As it turned out, and is always the case in Italy, destinations are merely the excuse for the trip; the real fun is the unexpected. We came to say that in Italy, Rule #1 is that if we are not having fiasco we are not having fun. Fiasco: isn't that a great sounding word? Doesn't it just sound like something you want to be doing?

Flying September 20th was "up in the air," or possibly "not" due to September 11th. Commercial flight schedules only resumed a few days before our trip, so no one knew what to expect. With a departure time of 8:05 am, we were supposed to be at the airport at 5:00. Oh well, there will be plenty of time to sleep on the plane, not that I ever can. Riding shotgun in a car I can sleep forever but not so flying. Was I worried about another terrorist attack? No, I just don't sleep well on planes. I figured at the time that the terrorists had already used their available plans and that airport security would be high, so in many ways, it was the safest time to fly.
It certainly took more time to get through the airports, I didn't necessarily feel more secure. Lana's son drove us to the Seattle (Sea-Tac) airport. The usual drop-off area was closed with everyone diverted to what is usually the pickup area. All traffic had to merge into a single lane in order to pass the interrogation of a security guard. When it was our turn, she simply asked how many were flying today, we said "Two," and we were waved through. Gee, that sure made us feel more secure!

I told Lana that I always know where to go in an airport: just look for the longest line and that's where I'm supposed to be! Ours was the longest line I'd ever seen in an airport, easily twice my previous record. As would come to be the usual airport experience, there was no real reason that Delta's check-in line was so long-there didn't seem to be any extra security going on-just disorganization or lack of sufficient personnel.

If you fly, do your best to strip off all metal before attempting the metal detector, as they're set now on full sensitive. I doubt if it's even possible to pass wearing Levis Jeans, what with all their rivets and metal buttons. Once you've failed, you'll at least get the hand wand electronic inspection and most likely a pat down. In Atlanta on the way home, I was frisked three times in less than 24 hours. Inspectors took their jobs seriously and were very thorough. For instance, expect to be asked to turn down your belt buckle so they can wand you underneath it. From their perspective, it's a perfect place to smuggle a box knife as one would expect the sensor to be triggered by the belt buckle. Someone was really thinking.

Needless to say, there was room to stretch out on the plane, being only half full. At least the movies were good: Moulon Rouge and also Cats and Dogs. We changed planes at JFK in New York. How strange to actually see uniformed NYPD officers after staring numbly at their images on TV every night for the previous week. Like Sea-Tac, JFK felt somber but businesslike, with a notable lack of music and announcements. I watched it rain out the windows of the airport, wondering if it would help put out fires or make things more difficult. Then again, how could it be any more difficult than it already was?

At least again there was room to stretch out in the half-empty night flight to Milan. And when I couldn't sleep, there were always movies: Moulon Rouge or Cats and Dogs. I maybe slept two hours by the time the plane arrived at 8:05 am, a full 24 hours after leaving Seattle plus an additional nine hours time difference. Only one thing to do: check in at the hotel and go right to the bike show!

The Milan Motorcycle Show is unlike any motorcycle show we see in the US, and not only because it includes bicycles and scooters. This is Europe's largest bike show, alternating years with the Intermot Show in Cologne, Germany. The only other one that rivals it is Tokyo. The center of Milan has this huge exhibition center. I saw buildings numbered to 26 and there were probably more. Multiple shows go on at the same time. And, in keeping with the Italian rule of fiasco, there is no apparent separation between the buildings displaying two-wheelers and those showing women's shoes. And while a listing of exhibitors was easy to obtain, you had to be clever (Larry Klein was) to find an actual map of the grounds.

The style of the larger manufacturer's booths was also very different than a US show. Over here, distributor and dealer personnel that can really talk with people about the bikes staff manufacturer's booths. Some selling goes on, but for the most part, it's informational. In Milan, possibly due to style and tradition or maybe because the crowds are so very large, I didn't see anyone in any manufacturer's booth talking bikes with people. In each case, there was no one except female models, occasionally armed with brochures.

Ah, the models. Visiting Milan, one would think all women were 25 years old, 6 feet tall, and weighed 110 pounds. The truth is that Milan is a fashion capital and would-be models flock there from all over Europe. Someone told me that one of Guzzi's gals was from Hungary. I'm guessing the best of them work the runways and those in training wind up doing events like motorcycle shows.

And speaking of the beautiful people, all over Milan beautiful and rich young couples do their best to ignore the surrounding fiasco. As best I could tell, the idea is to look unapproachable. The models at the motorcycle show displayed the same attitude. To us this is remarkably stupid: represent your products through people who make potential customers feel unwelcome. That lead to Rule #2, which is that if you try to make logical sense out of Italy, you will fail. Otherwise, I would need to know why Italian men wear brown shoes no matter what color their suit.

Not that the beautiful people are all that different; most people in Italy look good, I believe for several reasons. First off, few are overweight, especially compared to Americans, probably due in part to eating less meat and saturated fats. Italians seem much more concerned with their appearance. Baggy jeans or shorts and a T-shirt would absolutely embarrass an Italian. In cities, men almost always wear a shirt and slacks and women most always wear a dress or skirt. Outside the cities, they seem to walk a lot. Snack foods are rare to find and rarely do you catch an Italian eating between meals-unless of course it's gelato.

And then there is the subject of Italian drivers and Italian traffic. Milan is a busy city with few freeways, so there's a lot of zigging and zagging on what pass as main streets. The taxis are notorious for looping trips that add distance and costs, but who would know!? In truth, I believe the average European driver has and uses more skill than Americans use. And Italian traffic is very Darwinian: if there is a small, unused space, something will fill it in. If you snooze, you loose! Honking is reserved for situations where the person in front of you is holding up traffic but shouldn't be. Legitimate delays are fairly calmly tolerated; dawdling is not. Needless to say, every trip around town was an adventure.

Yes, scooters are everywhere in Italian cities. It seemed that half of them were some version of Aprilia's Scarabeo. I thought that Scarabeos were the Volkswagen of scooters. Hmmm. Scarabeo-scarab-beetle-yes Beetle! Maybe this was exactly Aprilia's intention!

Italy is actually experiencing a shrinking population, which is especially surprising in that, as a predominately Catholic country, they are not favorable to abortion and contraceptives. So perhaps instead their population control plans include allowing pubescent teens to ride scooters in Milan traffic!
Language seems less a problem over time, especially in the cities. Typically for instance, a German conversing with an Italian will use English as the common language. This is convenient for us but has its negative side as it lessens our incentive to learn another language. Sure, we can get around with just English, but we're always then observers from afar, not really a part of what's going on.

Europeans love to use English in advertisements, probably again for the universality of it. But they never seem to get the style right. Our favorite on this trip was a billboard for Ray-Ban sunglasses, with the guy saying, "I am good-looking and lucky." Yeah, I'll bet he is.

While spoken Italian usually goes by in a melodic blur, written words can often be interpreted, simply because so much of English is derived from Latin roots. It's actually fun to sit down and try to read their newspaper. It works best to read fast and see what sinks in, rather than interpret every word. And speaking of newspapers, a Monday sports section includes a full page of motorcycle racing. In Seattle I'm lucky to get the winner's name.

Dining out in Milan was always a great pleasure. We were a large group of Americans looking for an enjoyable evening and Nabucco (http://www.nabucco.it/index2.htm) was only too happy to accommodate us. Again and again we found a great synergy between Italian waiters and us. One told me that they like Americans because we are not overly fussy. Brought me the wrong entrée? What the heck! I'll probably like that one more than what I ordered anyway! Reviewing his comment, I think that Europeans dining out expect a lot and we are less likely to complain so far from home. Needless to say, we pretty much took over a couple of restaurants, much to the joy of everyone except the stern-faced Italian patrons who looked at us as uncultured Americans. After one dining experience, the owner volunteered to take us in his car to a nearby bar. We at first thought he was very nice, especially since our number required two trips. Afterward we thought that maybe he was just trying to get rid of us!
I'd often heard of grappa but never knew what it was. Apparently it's a byproduct of wine, only suitable for bilking American tourists. Yeech!

That first night in Milan, we didn't get back to our hotel until about 5:00 am. I learned that the least effective way to get over jet lag is to essentially stay up for a day and a half and go to bed at what would be my usual time nine hours west in Seattle. Why should that surprise me?!

In a later dining escapade at Ristorante il Coriandolo (http://www.ilcoriandolo.com), Lana excused herself to the ladies' room, only to discover it was gender neutral. And, as is so often the case when far from home, she met a guy from a small town not 20 miles from us in Seattle. He and another guy later joined our group for a drink, not that they hadn't obviously had enough already. They were in town for a professional meeting, had obviously left their wives at home, were looking for a good time, and found it in each other (Honest dear, I wasn't chasing women in Milan.).

Getting around seemed easier this time and I think it was actually because of September 11th. Rather than constantly feeling like "Stupido Americanos," there was a sense of empathy emanating from Europeans. Often opportunities arose for me to say that we are all New Yorkers now, turning sympathy directed to us into a reason to feel more connected to them. Of course, they didn't get the relationship between September 11th and a 9-1-1 emergency call, as they dial 4-1-1 for emergencies and they refer to that infamous date as 11 September.

Moto Guzzi's display at the Milan Show was mostly the same 2002 models we dealers introduced starting last July. Of note were the various special edition bikes we're just receiving now. They can all be seen at the factory's web site: www.motoguzzi.it .

After our Milan weekend, we were bused across Italy (only about 200 miles wide) to an Aprilia assembly plant near Venice. With Guzzi my only motorcycle manufacturing reference point, the Aprilia plant seemed extremely sterile. The place was impeccably clean and orderly. Motorcycles and scooters almost miraculously grew as they moved from station to station on state-of-the-art assembly lines. Most remarkable was how very small the warehouse space was. It all makes sense when you realize they work on the Just in Time (JIT) system. Trucks remove each day's production at night. Other night trucks arrive with the parts to build the next day's production. So while the warehouse is small, there were something like twenty loading docks!

We spent the night in Venice, which is certainly a city not to be missed. Sure, it smells a bit-the canals are basically a sewer system-but the odor isn't much worse than Paris. Actually, Venice is very clean, probably in no small part because the combination of tide, wind, and Venice sinking causes floods about sixty times a year, which wash away the city's debris. No cars or scooters are allowed and Venice is a maze of mostly quite narrow walkways. Getting around is fairly easy, as there are plenty of signs.

St. Mark's Cathedral is a teary eye waiting to happen. Apparently foreseeing the tourist industry, ancient Venetians stole the body of Saint Mark from Egypt and built this fabulous cathedral for him. For all the talk of Venice sinking, I was amazed how fairly level the huge piazza is which surrounds the cathedral. At night-and this was a Monday in late September-we had our choice of five or six open-air bars with live entertainment ranging from popular to chamber music. We chose to hear a young woman playing clarinet that filled me with admiration and envy. When she came by our table on break, I fingered and whistled the Mozart Clarinet Concerto to her on my "air clarinet," which she of course picked up on immediately. She asked if I wanted to play but I knew the limits of my musical skills, especially in the presence of such greatness! The last thing I was going to do was honk clarinet badly in front of the body of Saint Mark!

This is a great walk-around town and feels very safe; Lana and I went window shopping until 2:00 am. You can hire a gondola for a mere $100 ($200 with live music). OK, if you want to economize, these things do seat six, but only two will be side by side. Trying to make sense again? Don't. Venice is a city of great glass art, so of course you can take a free boat ride to view glass blowing and to have the opportunity to spend your large American dollars.

Venice was only half full, all because of September 11th. The best detail of our hotel had to be the postcard. Buildings are very close together, what with the narrow walkways and no need for streets. So there's no place to stand back far enough from any hotel not on the waterfront to capture the usual "picture postcard" shot. Our hotel's card features a view of Venice rooftops, with a white arrow pointing to the appropriate tile roof. All that was missing was the "You Are Here" label.

If you really want to get around in Europe, I highly recommend the Rick Steves travel books (www.ricksteves.com). Over and over again, his information proves to be practical and right on, even when he states that one of the five major expenses in Italy is gelato (Truly, a day in Italy with less than two gelato breaks isn't worth living!). But more than the details, he teaches an attitude and a confidence that will serve you well.

Rick would have killed us for going to McDonald's for breakfast, as he advocates staying away from American icons. After all, you traveled this far to see what makes Europe different from the US! Still, with our group scattered between several hotels, McDonald's made a convenient gathering place. But how strange, that in spite of the usual array of burgers, their breakfast menu apparently didn't make the trip. Coffee and a Big Mac for breakfast?!

The following day, the rest of our group mostly headed to Lecco on Lake Como in advance of the weekend's Guzzi celebration in Mandello del Lario. Lecco is a much larger town with more accommodations just south of Mandello. Lana and I took the three midweek days for a side trip to Tuscany. We had planned to take a train but the local Italy-only line was on strike. Not a nice, predictable general strike, but instead a more effective, unannounced spot strike. Fiasco reigns.

We rented a car in Venice and drove on a great four-lane freeway (autostrada) to Bologna. Now as an old Ducati nut, it was difficult to drive through this city without taking the exit to Borgo Panagale. It was, however, late at night and Lana had seen/would see so much motorcycle stuff on this trip, that I decided to spare her this one.

Between Bologna and Florence the road twists through some high country. We had our choice of dogging it in the slow lane bumper-to-bumper with all the big trucks, or trying to keep our little rented Peugeot Saxo off the bumper of the speeding sports cars.

Not knowing the language, I didn't always comprehend the dangers ahead. We came upon a small road construction site where a guy in a red jumpsuit (literally as we soon discovered) with white reflective stripes was painting a line on the side of the road with a brush and can. Really. He kind of jumped out of our way like a startled bunny as we sped past. Lana wondered if when you are sentenced for committing a crime in Italy, you have to do community service with the highway department. Or how about the guy applying for a job there and asking about retirement benefits: "Retirement? No one's ever lived long enough to claim on retirement. But we have a good death benefit for your family."

We stayed in a bed and breakfast on a family farm just south of Florence called Podere La Casellina . Back in the 1960s the Italian government encouraged small farmers to add accommodations so that farm income would remain viable. I guess they didn't want to wind up with the similar high degree of corporate agriculture business as we have. B&Bs like this are plentiful, although we luckily chose a fabulous one. Just a few miles south of the city of Florence, ours was close to both the city and all the great Tuscan countryside.

Our proprietor, Michelangelo, grew up in Florence and has lived in London and Australia. He spoke English with an Aussie accent and was more worldly than probably most Tuscan farmers. He grows grapes and olives (duh!) and keeps a small garden, mostly to feed guests. He produces wine the way his grandparent did, a completely natural method without adding yeast. It is simply crushed grapes naturally fermented (although I'm sure there's a lot more to it that he didn't tell us!). We greatly enjoyed helping him ponder modernization vs. uniqueness, as nearly everyone else in the region applies more modern methods.

His mama lives down the road and comes to the house every morning and night to prepare meals for the guests. Everything she prepared tasted great and yet the ingredients and kitchen were so very simple. Dinner one night included steak that brought forth Lana's proclamation that it was the best she ever had, and she's from Texas! My guess is that food in Europe contains a lot less preservatives and growth hormones.

Observation: in Italy, old women walk. Maybe they're too smart or afraid to drive here!

I asked our host to answer that great question for the ages: how to pronounce his name? Is it Michael-angelo or Mik-el-angelo? Wrong, wrong, double wrong. The famous artist was himself a Tuscan and the people here commonly don't pronounce a "c" after a vowel, so most correct is Me-hil-angelo. So there, you've got one up on your art-snob friends now.

Tuscany is a great place for aimless wandering. The roads are narrow and twisty but well maintained. As seems the fashion in Europe, roads are not marked by number. Your path is from town to town and intersections are marked by the next town in each direction. More so, roads do not bypass towns and towns are built on the tops of hills. So a drive through several towns involves driving up a serpentine hill road, finding in the town the road to the next town, and twisting back down to the lowland again. After a while you get desensitized to "a beautiful castle/church/fortress on a hill over there." And of course, besides usual destinations such as Sienna, we visited Cortona, home of the Bella Tuscany books of Francis May. Lana's got to win one once in a while, right?

In Tuscany, more obviously than in other parts of Italy I've visited, there is very little new to interrupt the view of centuries-old sites. I think it's a happy combination of historical accident and the influence of tourist dollars. Historically, once-larger Sienna lost its long competition (war) with Florence, resulting in Sienna's area south of Florence largely being overlooked for centuries. So this region gives you one of the best tastes of old in Northern Italy. Americans seem to seek out old, especially those of us from the west coast, where nothing of our culture is over 150 years old. I guess that's a big part of what we like about Europe, and why Europeans like to vacation in the US!
So old is cool, but then again, you want to find a laundry mat? Or a restaurant? How about a cuisine other than Italian? Good luck! Italy might rival Japan for most homogenized industrial nation. As a tourist, there seems a remarkable sameness of architecture and people (An American Indian on a Milan subway really stood out.). Part of that perception is their great awareness of the valued tourist industry. A few towns have restrictions on motor vehicle use, many more control the placement and style of new construction. Even the historic landmarks often display replicas of original sculpture, so that the weatherworn originals can be preserved (and you can pay to see them in the accompanying museo).

And then there is the subject of European toilets. I think a good-size book could be written about their public facilities. Sometimes you pay and sometimes you don't and sometimes you tip. In Venice, Lana once attempted to use a public toilet with only 900 lire when the fee was 1000. In American coinage, she was a nickel short and so was turned away!

While even inexpensive hotels usually have American-style toilets, they are rare in public places. At worst, you get the famous porcelain hole-in-the-floor. For a man doing #1 this is perfectly functional, but for anyone squatting, I don't know how you're supposed to keep pants and underwear out of the way. And as Lana pointed out, most Italian women wear high-heel shoes, so add that factor into the mix, and going to the bathroom becomes a real gymnastic adventure! Maybe a future Olympic event?

Even if you find a normal-ish fixture, the public ones often lack a toilet seat. What's with that!? And even if all else works, you're often left to wonder just how to flush the darned thing. Sometimes there's a button on the lid, sometimes one on the wall, and sometimes there's a foot pedal. Sometimes there's a small and a large button, varying the size of the flush as appropriate. How practical! Farther north in Germany and Holland, toilets often have a little shelf that "things" land on, apparently so you can admire your work. But I thought the whole idea of Mr. Crapper's design was to quickly position odorous material below water level! To save water, some toilets are assisted by pressurized air. We had one of those in Paris last year in a bathroom so small you had to stand in the bathtub in order to shut the door. With so little airspace, flushing the toilet made our ears pop! OK, enough about European plumbing.

Leaving Tuscany (How can one ever leave Tuscany!?) we drove up the west coast heading for Lake Como. There is an autostrada all the way around Milan, which I hoped to enter from the southwest and exit from the northeast. Seeing a sign directing us to Lecco, we rejoiced in our good luck. That lasted about two minutes until our new path dumped us not onto the beltway but directly into Milan city traffic at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. Sigh. I figured the best thing to do was follow the signs, and follow the signs we did, on a route that could only have been laid out by the Milan Chamber of Commerce, designed to take us past every possible shopping and cultural opportunity. Of course, the signs pointing to Como or Lecco only appeared right at the intersections, some pointing right and some left. We emerged from Milan a mere hour and 45 minutes later. In the process, fellow drivers twice asked us for directions. Do we look like we know where we're going!?

Arriving in Lecco, we immediately looked for restaurants. The only one close to our hotel was claiming authentic Chinese food. Perusing their menu, I became doubtful when under chicken entrees I came upon the Pollo con Pepperoni-maybe a vestige of Marco Polo?

Guzzi Mecca: Mandello del Lario. I've read so many stories about going to the mountaintop that I don't have much new to add. Guzzi celebrates their anniversary at an event called Raduno. So as to make it nearly impossible to plan on attending it, the event is usually every other year, but that gets messed up by five-year anniversaries.

Of interest to most visitors will be the newly expanded museum. My first visit there in 1996 lasted only about five minutes, as it was so frozen in time and often photographed, I felt I'd already seen it! Now, Guzzi's museum takes up two floors instead of one and the bikes are spaced well enough to allow lots of good views. A complete 500 V-8 is on display, along with a separate engine, plus a glass display filled with V-8 engine components. I had trouble believing, however, that the crankshaft displayed was the correct one for this engine. On a later trip in February of 2002, Engineer Todero, who has worked at Guzzi for a mere 64 years, confirmed the crank was from an inline four. I hope my keen observation elevated me above Stupido Americano and didn't just embarrass anyone. One of the US dealers told me that they were still painting the walls and laying the carpet Friday, so Guzzi obviously appreciates the fiasco factor as well.

As seems usual, there were about 15,000 people in this little lakefront resort town for Raduno. Half of them were on motorcycles and about 85% of the bikes were Guzzis. I was amazed to see many new 2002s. Especially common was the new EV, which is even more impressive for the fact that it was the last '02 released. The various shops in town all seemed to display whole vintage Guzzis and/or parts, the latter obviously dispersed by Moto Guzzi-kind of funny to see a shoe store with a Rosso Mandello gas tank in the window.

Raduno was a marvelous experience for me, much more so than expected, having thought it would be more mundane the second time around. In one short time span, I talked to friends from California, Holland, France, Finland, Japan, Maine, and South Africa.

Much had changed at the factory since my January, 2001 visit. The half of the production building that was then empty and being painted white now housed the same assembly line we saw at Aprilia. The machine shops had many more modern pieces of equipment and a new quality control center had been added. There was certainly much there to be proud of.

I have a habit when there of peeking into every available window-you never know what you might see. Walking between rows of buildings on route to the wind tunnel, I noticed a peculiar set of engine castings high up in a window. Looking closer, it was the engine case, cylinders, and heads for the (apparently) now defunct VA 10 water-cooled engine that Guzzi was touting about two years ago. As two of the dingy small windows had obviously been cleaned recently right in front of the "display," I had to guess that someone put this eye candy up there just for nosy people like me. I took a few pictures that barely turned out (light leak in camera). Imagine my surprise, then, when the British newspaper Motorcycle News published on their web site a near-identical photo with a big claim of it being a spy photo of something Guzzi was now developing-another blow to the remaining credibility of the British press. I sent them an e-mail wondering if they had been wearing leathers made from mad cows.

I had the very unexpected pleasure of being introduced to Mr. Roberto Brovazzo, Moto Guzzi's new General Director, and Mr. Andreas Strassera, head of Design for Aprilia and Moto Guzzi. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk with their dealers, especially concerning what Guzzi should be doing in the US. In particular Mr. Strassera and I talked, sitting on the floor of the factory for about two hours. He showed me about 50 concept bikes on his laptop. Afterwards, he held his writing pen in front of my face, there was a flash of light, and now I don't remember anything about the various pictures. Suffice to say, they are hard at work on the next Guzzis. I had been worried that a future Guzzi engine would be like the Aprilia 60° V-twin: longer on performance and refinement than character, which I believe to be Guzzi's strength. I came away with soaring confidence and enthusiasm that the people in charge truly understand just what is a Moto Guzzi. I thought we had a great future before, but now I'm ecstatic!

Saturday was drizzly and Sunday started out just plain nasty. The heavens smiled on us by afternoon however, just in time for the awards presentation. I was amazed to see Mr. Ivano Beggio himself, the owner of Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, and Laverda, there to present the trophies. Of tremendous significance was the fact that his Aprilia World Superbike team was busy winning a race in nearby Imola that very same day, yet he chose to be in Mandello. Thank you Mr. Beggio! I even got to shake his hand!

After all the fun and good food in Italy, it was time to return our rental car in Milan and catch a train to Holland. We planned three hours to get from the airport to the train station by bus and then onto our train. Piece of cake, huh? Well, we were a bit late returning the car, but still had two hours by the time we reached the train station by cab. This Milan station was built during the fascist reign of Mussolini, he noted at least for making the trains run on time. I didn't think the architecture was really that much different from 1930s America: big, bold concrete with large open areas and the celebration of grandiose human achievement.

I wasted a lot of time figuring out on my own where to purchase tickets for international travel. Once I did, I lost more time by not immediately figuring out that I needed to take a numbered ticket and wait my turn at the ticket window (A ticket for getting a ticket?). Once I did, we only had to wait through about 60 or so numbers. Sigh. We finally got called about ten minutes before our train was to leave. Tickets in hand, we rode the escalator up to the second floor, looking for Track Two. Luckily as it turned out, Lana had stacked our luggage onto an available roller cart. Funny how our two suitcases had grown to four pieces of luggage as the trip (and souvenir gathering) had progressed. At the top of the escalator, we were faced with Track 19. WAY down the other end had to be Track Two, but to get there we had to wheel past all the people wandering on and off the many trains coming and going from the remaining eighteen tracks-made me wish I was more practiced at video games. I think Frogger would have given me the necessary skills. Do you know how hard it is to stop an overstuffed cart at full throttle when someone wanders into its path looking the other way? Brakes were good, tires (shoes) not up to the task. Somehow, I avoided hitting anyone, and we arrived at our train with well over a minute to spare. No sense wasting valuable vacation time in Italy!

We reveled in the great advantage of taking a night train to Holland, arriving first thing in the morning. Of course, that was before we experienced just how bumpy and noisy the train was. Only later did I find the appropriate warning from Rick Steves. Bleary-eyed the next day, we dragged our suitcases into the Dutch daylight.

Holland is neat and organized almost to a fault. As with Italy and unlike Belgium, no trace of WW II destruction remains. Yes, there are canals and dykes, windmills, and wooden shoes for the tourists. Yes, you can smoke certain substances illegal in the US in Amsterdam "coffee" houses and every city and town has its very noticeable red light district. The Dutch profess that stopping these desires isn't possible, so the various vices are allowed, but only up to a certain level. So Holland allows marijuana but not heroin and red light districts but not streetwalkers. The unspoken truth is that Holland is a sleepy little country without much otherwise to interest tourists.

So remember the old Seinfeld episode that starts with Jerry and George trying to figure out the relationship between Holland, The Netherlands, and the Dutch? As best I could gather, Holland was one of several small states that combined to form The Netherlands. The locals say "Holland" rather than the more correct but awkward "The Netherlands." I like to go with the name people call themselves, which is why with great respect I say "Indians" rather than "Native Americans." I'm not sure the origin of "Dutch" but I think it relates to us calling Germans in PA "Pennsylvania Dutch," the close proximity of Germany to Holland, and their language similarities. Germans call the Dutch "Niederländisch" (Germans seem to like really long words) and call themselves "Deutsche," which sort of sounds like "Dutch."

We were staying in Nijmegan, near the German border. Nijmegan had one of the three bridges made famous by the "Bridge Too Far" movie, that flick based on the bridge in the next town north, Arnhem. Nijmegan suffered a bombing by the British that still raises animosity. War is war and mistakes are made, but I've got to wonder, instead of bombing a vigorously defended ammunition plant across the border at Essen did someone just unload over defenseless Nijmegan. Ooopps!

Holland is known for its cheese, and I have a penchant for their "stinky foot cheese." But I have to admit, even I was overwhelmed sticking my nose in a Dutch cheese shop and inhaling. How would they know if something had gone bad? At least for Lana, a new form of chocolate was available on every street corner of the town's centrum.

I have long admired the ubiquitous Dutch bicycle, commonly referred to as "old lady" bicycles. They are almost always black with full fenders, upright handlebars, and usually a basket. It is common to see toddlers riding in special carriers just behind the handlebars. You would think these bicycles would be inexpensive, not bending to the cost boosters of new technology or updated styling, but I was amazed to discover that these old girls sell for about $700. Gazelle is the grand old brand of Dutch bicycles, holding 30% of the market, having produced over ten million bicycles, and getting close to their 110th year. I think they're like a Vespa scooter: the dominant old brand can offer fewer features, charge more for it, and sell the most, all at the same time (No offence intended, Victor, just respect!). Old people, businessmen, women in dresses and high heels, all ride bicycles in Holland. Almost never do you see a helmet or fancy bicycle togs. Seeing a mother with children, each riding their bicycle with hair blowing in the ever-present breeze (flat country next to the ocean having few trees) makes you realize that our legal insistence on safety equipment can seem intrusive.

Lana had to have a Dutch wicker basket for the front of her bicycle. We had looked back home, remarkably without finding anything suitable. Finally we found the prize in a Dutch bicycle shop. Sigh. One more very large object to carry home. It had smart little metal hooks for easy attachment to the handlebars. I hooked them over my belt in preparation of the remainder of our Dutch shopping adventure-sure can hold a lot of chocolate!

To the Dutch, a bicycle is good, basic transportation. Of course, it helps that bicycles are provided for in their transportation system, not as here, considered a mere nuisance to motor vehicles. Dutch cities and towns typically have two sidewalks, once for pedestrians and the other for bicycles and small scooters.

Dutch cuisine (Is there such a thing?!) made us teary-eyed for Italy and longing for our next and last European stop, Paris. Our Dutch friends, Grace and Teo Lamers, took us to a Mexican restaurant one night and Chinese the next. I guess they knew that foreigners could only stand so much herring. At least they sprinkle it with grated raw onions to "improve" the flavor. Apparently this delicacy is also known throughout Scandinavia. If you wish to experience it, try the in-store restaurant at Ikea.

At the Mexican restaurant, we tried to make it more like home by teaching the waiter to say, "Dees plate eest berry, berry hot." Even Rick Steves says that his favorite Dutch cuisine is Indonesian. As Indonesia was formerly a Dutch colony, there are many Indonesians in Holland and many of their "Chinese" restaurants are actually more Indonesian.

Paris was a wonderful last stop, as Lana and I got engaged there the previous year. The Paris (mostly) underground commuter train system, called Metro, is an absolute joy and easy to navigate, even by Stupido Americanos. But just when we thought we could handle this old town, we dropped by the Musée d'Orsay. What an amazing place! Even with map in hand, it was nearly impossible to detect the path from the ground floor up to the Impressionist galleries. What, is it a secret? Does museum staff sit in front of TV cameras laughing as we hunt around?

It is all too common to hear Americans complain about French people. Firsthand experience leads me to believe the opposite to be true. I do know of two factors leading to this perception, however. First off, Americans often look for American style in foreign places. The French especially seem to want to show us the French way, thus the inevitable conflict. When in Rome, do as the Romans do? If you want to find the comforts of home, why travel?

The other factor was introduced to me at the home in Lyon, France of a friend and customer, Francois Bestel. Also freeloading were two of his French Guzzi buddies (each owns-guess what-a LeMans of course!). Anyway, the three of them were bemoaning the rudeness of Parisians. Hmmmm. So the French think the people of Paris are hard to get along with, and where do most Americans go on French vacations? Straight to Paris! Scooters are much less common here, possibly because the city has enough main arteries that little scooters couldn't keep up. In their place were scores of mid-displacement dual-sports and super motards. The latter is basically a dual-sport with street-bike-sized wheels (wide 17s), street tires, and a stronger front brake. Born out of a made-up race for ABC's Wide World of Sports, it never caught on anywhere but France, which is why I call it the Jerry Lewis of motorcycles.

We rode down the Seine from Pont Neuf on the same tour boat that was the site of our engagement. Careful guys: a warm June night boating on the Seine with the Eiffel Tower in the background can be dangerous! We were actually disappointed to have a tour guide that clearly spoke English (as well as French and German and seemingly any language necessary for passengers). Last year our host was a young woman with a pretty voice. After describing each site in French, she would repeat in English: "Ladies and Gentlemen, fough fough fough, fough fough fough, fough fough fough fough, fough fough fough fough." Memories really are made of things like this.

Pont Neuf (New Bridge) is now the oldest of the many bridges crossing the Seine in Paris. Having recently seen the old French movie, "Lovers on the Bridge," about homeless people living there while the bridge was rebuilt, I naturally had to pose for a picture sprawled in one of the bridge's alcoves. That picture you definitely don't get to see!

Paris is the most cosmopolitan city I've ever visited. France has a great variety of cultures intermixed, as is the case with Holland, again because of colonialism. At least as a non-French-speaking tourist, I had the feeling that everyone was accepted, even Americans!

This wasn't the case on my first visit to France in 1996. Northwest of Versailles I stopped at a small-town inn for the night. A family ran it, with the father entertaining, the grown daughter showing me to my room and serving my dinner, and the mother scowling at me incessantly. The next morning, after a shower and breakfast, I gathered my gear and headed for my Guzzi, borrowed from Teo in Holland. Before leaving my room, I left a clean, crisp, unfolded dollar bill; I had brought along ten of them, more as souvenirs than for tips, as tipping isn't the normal practice in Europe. I barely reached my bike when the matron came running out the front door with my dollar in one hand, a picture frame in the other, and a smile on her face! My first thought was that she had rushed to my room to make sure I hadn't stolen the linen. Then I noticed that the picture frame displayed paper money from various countries, so apparently she was excited about having an American dollar to add to her collection. This made me feel good until I relayed the story to Teo. He opined that her joy probably had more to do with discovering that I was American and not English (Old hatreds die hard!), as Dutch license plates closely resemble British.

As on our last trip to Paris, the last night we visited a favorite restaurant just northwest of the Eiffel Tower called Lé Totem. You guessed it: northwest Indian art adorned the interior. This year we gave them an art book to add to their decor in thanks for the great food and memories. The restaurant is just far enough away from the Tower and high enough on the adjoining hill to offer an unforgettable view. In our two visits to Paris, this is the closest we get to the Tower, feeling it remains more magical from a distance. Besides, we maintain a reason to return!

We took it in stride that we needed to get to the airport three hours before departure. Again, delays seemed more to do with incompetence than security. Once our bags were checked, we discovered that there was no one in any of the little booths to check our passports on way to the metal detectors. So, we had petit déjeuner (coffee, roll, & croissant) for a half hour, then went back to the passport check booths. This time, a single booth out of about eight was manned, and the line leading to it defied description. This one was easily twice as long as the one we survived at Sea-Tac.

Lana found the Charles DeGaulle Airport very civilized, as they had a smoking lounge right at the gate. Of course, far more people seem to smoke in Europe than in the US and I can't imagine it ever being too PC to smoke anywhere and everywhere in Europe. Some restaurants are developing no-smoking sections.

Returning to the US wasn't quite the same as going home, as I still had dealer meetings to attend in Atlanta for Aprilia and Chicago for Moto Guzzi. I had a day free in Chicago and decided to wander aimlessly around the hotel near the airport rather than heading into town. I guess few people walk around between the hotels near O'Hare and that's a good thing, as it's not easy to do. Walking along a four-lane highway, the sidewalk will suddenly end, leaving you about a foot between the guardrail and oblivion. At one point I had to time my run through a tunnel, as the only available space was taken up by four lanes of traffic. Imagine major intersections, four lanes in each direction and left-turn lanes to boot, but no crosswalks or cross signals!

The piece-de-resistance, however, was a little park at an intersection in Rosemont. There on one corner was a made-made, somewhat tacky waterfall. On the backside was a little walking path overlooking a silt-destroyed river. Now here's the good part: there was no viable means to get to the park! There were no crosswalks at the intersection, there were no sidewalks leading up to the park's corner, and there were no parking spots! No wonder there was no one in the park! You don't find entertainment like that on the Chamber of Commerce tour map.

The strangest sensation overcame me as I prepared to leave Chicago: this next plane was taking me home! After New York, Milan, Venice, Tuscany, Lecco, Holland, Paris, Atlanta, and Chicago, I was now accustom to having public transportation take me from one foreign place to another, but this one was taking me home! With that thought to cheer me, I didn't even mind that the movie choices were Moulon Rouge or Cats and Dogs.

Dave Richardson owns Moto International on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. The dealership sells Moto Guzzi, Aprilia, Laverda and other European motorcycles. Richardson's Guzziology is the bible on owning a Moto Guzzi, and is full of tips for general motorcycle enthusiasts as well. Pick up your autographed copy today in the Sound RIDER! store .

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