The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed carries on from Antwerp. Visiting our cousin did much to relieve our car-trouble frustration. Though our spirits were replenished, our wallets weren’t. Getting cash in pre-ATM times was not as expedient as it is now. I had to find a sponsor back home who would advance funds through American Express on the promise of repayment when I returned home. The process took several days. I mailed off my request estimating we could be in Munich by the time funds arrived. We left with renewed enthusiasm.
Our next stop was Brake to visit my sister’s friend Chris who was studying at a Bible school there. We arrived on a Thursday evening, made our greetings, and retired to our van. The next day, while Chris attended class, we toured the countryside. We stopped beside the mill house at Brake castle to prepare lunch. A date etched into a stones above the door filled me with awe. We were there on the building’s 500th anniversary.
We spent the weekend socializing with Chris and a few of her friends from the school. One friend, Sieglinde, gave me a Bible as a parting gift; it was a welcome companion through the rest of my journey. I still have it today.
We headed to Munich to find the American Express office. We drove through a very dark and rainy night, taking a random exit from the autobahn. We had no hope of finding anything on such an inhospitable night so we parked at the first convenient opportunity and slept. In the morning we awoke and peered out to a sunny day — and an American Express sign above the door across the street. God is good. My friend Greg was also good, the funds were there. Next stop: Venice! We thought.
According to a brochure we picked up at the Italian border, cars were not allowed within Venice and the parking lot outside the city was notorious for thieves. After the theft of our passports in Paris we reluctantly gave Venice a miss. We travelled on to Bologna because, well, why not — we’d eaten plenty of bologna sandwiches. We decided to use the free highway system rather than the toll freeways. To save money, yes, but more for the scenery and relaxed pace. We wanted to be there, not get there.
Bologna’s roads were narrow, twisted, and often one-way. It was clear they weren’t made with cars in mind. That drew us into the town’s history. It didn’t help us navigate. There were many signs directing cars to the toll roads. We had to discern the path to the free highway from our tour-brochure map, which showed the roads but didn’t indicate which way traffic flowed. I kept us heading east as best I could. When we crested a hill to see the sun setting before us I surrendered. We followed the signs to the straight, boring, tollway and continued down the boot.
Next week: On to Greece.
This week’s Mustard Seed carries on from Paris. The theft of our passports soured our appetite for France. The delay waiting for new ones only exacerbated my sister’s disdain. New documents finally in hand, she insisted on a hasty exit. Our next stop was Antwerp, where my cousin, Reynold, was studying medicine. Yves suggested we visit Brugge enroute. We retraced our steps back to Calais rather than try to navigate an entirely new route.
It grew dark and began to rain as we approached Calais. Our van seemed to jerk as I drove but we pressed on. A little later our van began making odd noises. Still, we pressed on. The jerks and noise intensified. At De Panne I decided to get off the freeway to investigate. I stopped at a traffic light and when the light turned green our van made a loud clacking noise and refused to move. There was an empty lot across the road so, in the dark of night and in the pouring rain, I pushed our van as my sister steered it into a parking stall. I climbed back in the van, cold and soaked to the skin.
“What are we going to do now?” My sister asked.
“Sleep,” I replied. She sensed I was not open for more discussion.
The next morning we were amazed to see that we were parked across the street from a Volkswagen dealership, directly opposite the service bay doors. I went in to negotiate repairs and was fortunate to find a customer fluent in English and happy to interpret. The manager said the engine was shot and I’d need a new one. He was willing to do the repairs for $8,000 US cash. It may as well have been $1,000,000. I asked if there was any cheaper option. He suggested a used engine for $3,000. It was still beyond our means. The manager suggested we could leave our van there. He’d deal with it for no charge and we could continue on our way.
The customer intervened to say he’d just seen a used engine for sale in front of a farmhouse. After a bit of coaxing, the manager said he would swap engines for $500 but I would have to get the engine there without his help. The customer didn’t have an address, but he pointed out the right direction and assured me I couldn’t miss it if I kept my eyes open.
I went back to our van and updated my sister — minus the fact I had no address. I hitched a ride down the road and, sure enough, there was a Volkswagen engine sitting on a table in front of a farmhouse. I got out, thanked the driver, and knocked on the farmhouse door. I bargained the price down to $300, paid the owner, and carried the engine across the road to hitch back to town. Surprisingly, someone soon stopped for me and my engine. They were kind enough to make the short detour to drop me and the engine off at the dealership.
With the van in the service bay, my sister and I roamed about the decidedly uninteresting streets in that area of De Panne. The repairs were finished, thankfully, before closing time and we were on our way again. We spent the next day touring Brugge and the following day headed for Antwerp.
Again we left the freeway at a random exit. We drove for quite a while looking for a service station to ask directions. Finding none, we stopped outside a drug store to see if they might have a map for sale. They did. We were two blocks from my cousin’s flat. After relating our adventure, Reynold told us de panne translates idiomatically to automobile breakdown.
Despite unfortunate occurrences and our lack of planning God, with His wry sense of humor, still guided us and the people we needed to meet to the places we needed to be.
Next week: We Continue
This week’s Mustard Seed continues with my European wanderings. Since we bought a van in England, an island, the next leg of our journey involved a ferry crossing to continental Europe. British Columbia has a wealth of traditional ferries, so that made the hovercraft our obvious choice.
1978 was pre-GPS so we navigated via an atlas of Europe my friend Greg gave me as a bon voyage gift. There are no search or zoom feature in paper atlases so we supplemented the maps with brochures gleaned from tourism kiosks — always quite local and never highly detailed. Once headed in our chosen general direction we followed highway signs.
Since Paris, obligatory for our grand European tour, lay to our west on an east-bound journey, it became our next destination. Yves and Solange, who we met on the Lermontov, lived in Paris. We drove well into the city and picked a random exit. My sister noticed that all the bus shelters had maps so we parked by the next stop to peruse the map. Purely by God’s grace, we were one block away from Yves and Solange's apartment.
They lived in a five story building. The ground floor had a foyer and two suites. Each other floor had four suites. We climbed the steep and narrow stairway all the way to the top floor to announce ourselves. Yves apologized that he and Solange were leaving the next day for a little holiday of their own and needed to prepare. He did, however, invite us for breakfast and a shower the next morning.
Their building predated indoor plumbing and one shared washroom per floor had been jammed into the end of the corridor during a renovation decades earlier. Although probably a luxury at the time, these washrooms were not like the ones we’re accustomed to in North America. They consist of a squat toilet (two lumps to stand on and a hole to aim for), a hose leading from the wall, and a showerhead over the toilet; efficient use of a very limited space. A waste bin sat in the corner for tissue. We were warned that hosing tissue down the toilet would certainly clog the drain. To shower, one stood in the toilet and turned on the almost-warm water overhead.
Upon finishing our breakfast and lavabo, we bid adieu to our friends and headed for the Eiffel tower. We found several vans parked beneath the tower. We pulled ours in beside the others. This was our campsite for the duration of our stay in Paris. We ventured out on foot in different directions each day. By the third day we were finding our sponge-baths somewhat inadequate. I noticed an icon of a person swimming labelled piscine publique on our tour map. After that, public swimming pools became a standard destination in each city we visited.
With so many sights to see, we remained in Paris for a full week. We returned to our van planning to get a good sleep and an early start. The side door wide open. Our passports were gone. This was the first time my sister asked, “What are we going to do now?”
I came up with a very practical answer. “Sleep.” It was late. Our situation wouldn’t be any worse in the morning and our minds would be fresher. Also, the Canadian embassy would be open.
We made our way to the embassy and, after two hours in line, applied for an emergency passport. The clerk gave us a number to phone in a week to check on progress. We saw many sights we would otherwise have missed and my sister enjoyed our daily visits to the piscine publique. On the fifth morning I caved to her daily demands to phone the embassy despite it not being a week. The passports had just arrived; we could pick them up after three o’clock. I wanted to stay one more night and leave the next morning but my sister insisted we leave immediately.
Next week: “Sleep” again.
This week’s Mustard Seed sets the scene for finding wealth in adversity. Robert Burns wrote, The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley. When my sister and I set out for Europe in the late 70’s, our trip proved gang aft a-gley is sometimes superior to best laid schemes.
Through what little research I did, I found we could cross the Atlantic on a Russian passenger freighter; buy a camper van outside the Australian embassy in London; tour around Europe heading in the general direction of Iran to visit our uncle David, who happened to be working there; and tour some more on the way back to London where we would resell our van to pay our fare home.
I booked passage on the MV Mikhail Lermontov solely based on sailing date. We bought sturdy backpacks and stitched Canadian flags on them, bought travellers’ cheques, and obtained an overseas driver’s license from the Automobile Association. Scheme complete!
When time arrived, we left for New York. Three days in, we decided that a six-day, cross-continent bus trip during the heat of August, with periodic short breaks at roadside diners, falls outside the best laid scheme category. We arrived in New York definitely more eager to board our ship and find the shower than to see any sights.
Our ocean voyage was very enjoyable. Many of the passengers were students on their way to study abroad. We populated our itinerary with places to visit our new-found friends.
We stayed a few days in a suburb of London with Neil and his parents. We learned houses there have names rather than numbers. Their house was Mansard Cottage, Loudwater Lane, Rickmansworth, England. We went into London and found the streets outside the Australian embassy were indeed a virtual flea market for campers. We found one we could afford, definitely not a luxury model. We said our farewells to Neil’s parents and headed for Exeter where Neil would study. He and some classmates rented rooms in an old house. It had been converted into a duplex, 1-Ware’s Cottage and 2-Ware’s Cottage. Someone resurrected the old farmhouse at the end of the street and rechristened it No-Ware’s Cottage.
From Exeter, we headed across the Firth of Forth up to St Andrews, Scotland where we celebrated the start of the school year with friends from the Lermontov. Each year students from the university process through town and burn an effigy. One of our friends received the honour of carrying the scarecrow but she was so short few could see her. To sate the complainers I hoisted her onto my shoulders and carried her as she carried the effigy. The front page of the next morning’s paper bore a picture of the effigy, her, and me. I was a minor celebrity in town. Our friends settled in to university life. It was time for us to head on.
Nothing since disembarking in Southampton had been pre-planned; none could have been; yet all was going well. Next stop Paris!
Next week: Gang aft a-gley begins.
Peter T Elliott