When I was in college during the late ’60s, many of my fellow students spent their summers traveling through Europe. As their parents paid for their education, anything they had left over could be applied to airfare. They generally backpacked and slept under bridges in the hippie style of the time. They’d return with all kinds of exciting stories to tell around the hookah. I didn’t have much to add to the conversation. I spent my summers working at a muffler shop or in a warehouse to enable me to spend another year at college. Even with that, I had to “borrow” my roomie’s toothpaste tube towards the end of the year.
In a way, I envied these students as I loved classical music, art, and architecture. But I wasn’t about to travel like a pauper in pungent clothes, sleeping under bridges, and carrying a giant canvas backpack with a peace symbol inked on the back.
So, after college, I got an industrial sales job, worked my ass off for three years, and managed to save a big pile of money.
“I don’t know, Jan,” my mother said, “you’ve got enough money to pay for half a brand-new house. Do you really want to squander it on a vacation?”
The rest of my family and all my friends expressed similar thoughts. The Depression was barely 30 years behind us and it still had a profound influence on families at the time.
“I understand what you’re saying Mom; you think I should invest this money in a house. But you guys worked hard your whole lives to be able to retire at the age of 50, buy a motorhome, and travel North America. Then dad died of a heart attack before 50, just like his father.
That’s not going to happen to me. I’m not putting my dream on hold for some future date that may or may not come. I intend to enjoy everything available to me as soon as possible, and traveling to Europe has been my most cherished dream since I was a child.” She nodded in disguised disagreement.
Fast forward 40 years to a family reunion when my siblings were in their 60s and my mother was in her 80s. The subject of my trip to Europe came up. They all expressed envy and wished they’d done the same thing in their mid-20s.
“Traveling as a senior citizen is exhausting,” my brother said; “it would have been so much easier if I’d done it when you did.”
“I always thought I had lots of time to travel,” my sister complained, “but shortly after we raised our kids, my husband had a heart attack and could no longer travel.”
“Traveling in your 60s is not the same experience as traveling in your 20s,” my youngest brother added; “you just don’t have the opportunities to meet people and party.”
My family had vindicated my decision.
They asked a bunch of questions, which led to a whole barrage of tales which went something like this:
I got to Heidelberg at about 2 in the afternoon on the first day of my trip. It was hot and air conditioning was not yet common in European cars. I spotted a pub across the town square, or maybe it was one of many grassy town squares in Heidelberg featuring mature trees and a bandstand. The square was surrounded by parking spots on both sides of the street, so I parked my wagon, wandered into the bar, and ordered, “zwei Bier bitte?”
The barmaid gave me a puzzled look. “Zwei Bier?”
“Yes dear,” I answered in English, “please bring me a couple a beers?” Fortunately, most people in Northern Europe speak English. She answered slowly, “Owe kaye.” “What’s her problem?” I thought.
A few minutes later, she plopped two giant glass tankards on my table and left without saying a word. Turns out they were a liter each. That’s almost half a gallon of beer!
In Canada at the time, when you ordered two beers, you got two 10-ounce glasses. What am I going to do with a half-gallon?
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Everyone was sucking on a liter glass. I started sipping on the first tankard and the pilsener was tasty and easy to drink. What I didn’t know was that this beer was 8 percent alcohol, twice what I was used to. After finishing the first one, I was friends with everyone in the bar. After the second beer, it was dark. That’s all I remember.
I awoke to the sounds of horns honking. The sun had risen and I hadn’t closed the hatch. The local commuters got a great chuckle from seeing a tourist passed out in the back of his car in front of a bar.
“Another stupid tourist who’s not used to real beer,” I imagined them saying. But I didn’t mind. I was delighted to have a place to sleep within staggering distance of the bar stool.
The bar was already open at 7 a.m., or maybe it hadn’t closed. Many construction worker-types were wandering in, and back out a few minutes later. I entered for breakfast and noticed they were ordering Weissbier (wheat beer), guzzling it down in one shot, and heading off to work. I asked the waitress about it and she said that was their breakfast. I was glad they also served Kartoffelpuffer, pancakes made with finely grated potatoes, onion, egg, flour, and sea salt.
I’d done a lot of research before taking this trip. In the American West, I’d have ridden my motorcycle, but a trip across northern Europe inevitably involves a lot of rain. Another difference is that hotel rooms were not as plentiful (at least, not in the mid-1970s) and it was not unusual to find yourself without accommodations if you hadn’t booked ahead. On a motorcycle, that would mean sleeping under bridges in the rain – not an option, so I bought a transportable bedroom– a station wagon.
Some readers might wonder why I didn’t buy a roomier Volkswagen van. My cousin had warned me that a van parked in a big city with foreign plates would be an enticement. “You might as well write on the side, ‘Rich tourist, break in and take my stuff!’” he said. He added, “Every baker, grocer and fishmonger uses station wagons, so you can park them anywhere and no one will notice.”
He was right. I was parked next to a VW van in Florence, Italy and the family related a sad tale over the campfire of losing everything in Naples due to a break-in.
I was told to buy in Holland or Germany, and sell in Spain. Cars were a lot more expensive in Spain due to the high taxes, but if one sells “passport to passport,” no taxes apply. You can buy in Holland, drive for a year, sell in Spain, and make a profit, I was told. It was a no-brainer. As I had family in Holland, I landed in Amsterdam.
My uncle picked me up from the airport. He was the CEO of the largest non-ferrous metals company in Europe and, of course, had to show me his office. It was all glass and chrome with fabulous views over the Amstel River. The conference room was next door and featured a large glass table with a dozen chrome chairs. He opened what looked to be double doors to another room, but it was in fact, a well-stocked bar. We enjoyed a couple of Genevers together (Dutch gin-like whiskey drunk straight) and he introduced me to every employee who stopped by. Several joined us for a drink. My uncle was well-liked and respected, which made for a delightful welcome to Holland.
I spent a few agreeable days at his fine house while searching for a used station wagon. It was an exasperating experience. Amsterdam is a congested city and most of the used cars available were high-mileage beaters.
Over breakfast on Saturday, I expressed my frustration. My uncle responded, “I’ve been perusing the classifieds. Let’s go to Venlo today and check out a 1964 Opel Rekord.” I’d never heard of an Opel Rekord, but I’d heard of the Opel Kadett – a horribly unreliable car imported to Canada by General Motors for a short time.
“Why should we drive clear across the country to look at an unreliable car five years older than what I can get in Amsterdam for the price? I asked.
“Because this model is known for its reliability, it’s got low mileage, and I’ve just got a good feeling about it,” he responded.
We drove three hours to a charming little farming town bisected by a river. I saw the beige-colored wagon sitting in the driveway as we parked. It was about the size of a mid-sixties Chevy II wagon or a Mercedes 240D – a big car for Europe. Both the interior and exterior looked to be virtually new. The owner invited us inside the house for coffee, and when I was done, I asked for the keys to check out the car while my uncle finished his coffee.
I drove it for a few blocks. It sounded fine and shifted perfectly. The rear seat folded down nice and flat. I laid on it and closed the hatch to make sure it would accommodate my 6-foot length. Under the hood, I pulled the plugs to check for oil fouling, and the air cleaner for carburetor gumming. That required the removal of some other parts.
When my uncle came out of the house, he was profoundly embarrassed to see the driveway littered in parts and apologized to the owner. Cultural differences I guess; we always inspected cars before buying them in Canada, but in Europe, it’s a sign of distrust. “Well of course we can’t trust him, uncle; we don’t know this guy from Cain,” I whispered. He didn’t get it.
After reassembling the car, I paid the farmer his price without haggling. He was pleased and my uncle was appeased. He said later that it was normal to haggle.
He drove the Mercedes back to Amsterdam and I followed him in my new/old wagon. I was jazzed. It was exactly the right vehicle for my European tour. I outfitted the rear of the car with a wall-to-wall 3-inch slab of foam rubber and a couple of sleeping bags (an extra one in case it got cold), and my aunt kindly made snap on/snap off blackout curtains which covered all the windows behind the driver’s seat for nighttime use. In just a few days, I was ready to travel.
On the last night before I left, I asked my uncle what inspired him to drive all the way across the country to look for a used car.
“Like I said, I just had a feeling about it,” he responded. “At about your age, I learned to trust my instincts. Since then, good luck has been a regular companion.”
I never forgot that.
Header image: Heidelberg, Germany. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Miholz.