Friday, June 09, 2006

The Morning After the Night Before

You know how it is when you’re on holiday.

There’s no rush.

You crawl out of your sleeping bag, all blurry eyed, whenever the mood takes you. The younger you are, the later in the day this is likely to be. Passing traffic, the dawn chorus, distant nuclear explosions: they all mean diddley-squat to your average 22 year old.

That’s what we did, on the morning of Friday 26th July 1974.

Crawled out of our sleeping bags.

Hauled on our jeans (no need to put on a t-shirt, since we’d have slept in those, I expect).

Stumbled to the sink, one after the other, and blinked at Brigitte as we directed a splash of lukewarm water faceward.

Flung open the back doors, and stepped gaily into the German sunshine (I’m guessing around about 10am, so the sun is already high in the sky).

Blinked in one direction, at the vista of vine-laden landscape stretching away down the hill below our cosy lay-by.

Blinked in the other direction, as a succession of German motorists passing down the road into Enkirch stared back in disbelief. ‘No, Helmut darling. Those are not Struwwelpeters. Those are hippies, from England.’

Blinked into our breakfast bowls, as we devoured the morning muesli. Quite probably we had a sackful of the stuff, purchased from the organic supplies shop in Prince of Wales Road, Kentish Town. We did that sort of thing in those days.

Felt better. Gathered up our pans and bowls and cooking stoves and checked that we were leaving the nice German lay-by in the condition in which we found it. Piled into the back of the Earthtruck.

On our way to Istanbul, and all right with the world.

Got some good sounds going on the stereo. Striking it Rich, by Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks (a memory of which I am exactly and precisely certain, for reasons which will become clear much later in this narrative).

Fired up the engine. Swung the wheel to the right, to turn back out of the lay-bv and begin our stately descent back to the floor of the beautiful Mosel Valley.


Let’s be more precise: came to a grinding halt, as Yaya slammed on the brakes to avoid us piling into the opposite verge.

Swung the wheel again, only to discover it swung just a little too easily.

Switched off the stereo, the better to collect our thoughts.

Got out.

Examined the undercarriage, to assess why the wheel swung too easily.

Noted the bits of British Bedford iron, dangling down.

Swung the wheel again, somewhat more gingerly, to assess the connection between the ease with which the wheel turned and the bits of iron clattering against the tarmac.

Panicked, since Bertha was at this point parked diagonally across the highway (albeit a deserted country highway).

Despatched some of our number up the road, around the bend, to wave at descending German motorists. Or perhaps deploy our regulation Euro warning triangle: I’ve no idea what the law was in those days, or even if we were carrying one.

Panicked a little more, and got out the jack, from the toolkit on the roof we’d never imagined touching or opening, let alone deploying in a genuine automotive breakdown emergency.

Slowly – very slowly – arrived at the realisation that some of us were shortly going to have to walk down into Enkirch. And look for a mechanic.

Who probably wasn’t inclined to speak English.

And that, dear reader, brings us neatly back to the image we first displayed right back at the start of this story…

That’s Yaya, by the way, wearing a small tree on his head, Struwwelpeter-style…

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Brief Travelogue

The Mosel river valley lies just to the East of Luxembourg, in the German Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. Look at it on the map, or Google Earth if you have the necessary software. You can’t miss it: a wiggling ribbon of waterway running between Trier and Koblenz that looks for all the world like a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine - and nowhere more so than right in the middle, round the small provincial town of Traben-Trarbach, where the river curls and loops back on itself in a manner guaranteed to make geography teachers the world over wax lyrical about the imminent formation of oxbow lakes.

It’s a wide, navigable river, lying at the bottom of a steep valley, and the valley sides are indeed covered with vines, because this is the heart of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine district, where they produce the Riesling, the Müller-Thurgau, and the Kerner. It’s popular with tourists, too, which is presumably why Bertha the Earthtruck took a short detour in this direction in the summer of 1974.

I don’t remember getting there. I was still in the back. I do remember us stopping to stretch our legs, shortly after we turned off the main road near Koblenz. The road hugs the river all the way up the valley, and we found a parking place where we could walk down to the water’s edge, and it must have been a dry summer because the water was low and there were rocks exposed in the shallows, and I imagine some of us took off our shoes and dangled our feet in the water, and it all looked a bit like this…

It had been a long day. We’d travelled all the way from distant Amsterdam, and been held up at the German border, and by now the sun was starting to set. It was time to find a quiet spot away from the main road and get our heads down for the night. So we piled back into Bertha and drove on-a-ways, coming eventually to a little village called Enkirch. Here Yaya found a small road leading away from the river, back up into the hills and along a densely wooded ridge that bordered a smaller valley, running parallel to the Mosel. After about a kilometre we decided we were far enough from civilisation not to cause offence, so we swung into a convenient lay-by overlooking open fields and woodland. Then we unpacked the Primus gas stove, and set the stereo playing softly, and ate a hearty meal of vegetables and brown rice in the gathering twilight.

We were on our way to Istanbul. And all was right with the world.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Random, in its Myriad Forms

Well, I’m back. I’m restarting the blog. It’s been months, I know: a lay-off so embarrassingly long I’d have sleepless nights about it if I didn’t have more important things to have sleepless nights about.

If you’re still tuned in, I apologise. Wholeheartedly and profusely. What I can’t offer is an explanation. It’s a writing thing. For some reason known only to my subconscious, the saga of Bertha the Earthtruck and her circuitous assault on the European mainland just slipped down your correspondent’s list of priorities and got forgot.

Then I cleared my desk, examined my priorities, decided everything was pointless anyway so I might as well work on the thing-that-is-most-pointless-of-all, and started thinking about 1974 again.

These things happen. Which kind of sums up the entire Bertha experience.

Where was I? We’ve left Amsterdam. It feels like we spent a year there, but it was only a couple of days, I swear. We’ve also left Pat in Amsterdam, and we’ll return to him in due course. Right now it’s time to crack on. Toot sweet, big time, with a following wind and our tails between our legs.

If I could, I’d describe our route from Amsterdam to Germany. Fortunately I was in the back, and hung over, so that’s spared you the nerdy details. All I can report about the short journey to our next stopover is the following:

1/ We’d decided to take a look at the Mosel Valley. Someone (I think Yaya) had been there on a family holiday many years before and remembered it as a beautiful spot. Quite how this gelled with our other stated ambition of driving Bertha down the Champs Elysee is anyone’s guess, since Paris and the Mosel were in opposite directions. Like I said, I was in the back.

2/ For at least part of our progress, Andy took the wheel. Yaya remembers being rather surprised that an ex-Royal Navy ambulance could actually travel that fast. I expect we hurtled past Nijmegen at all of 55 mph.

3/ On our way, we discovered that Holland does have a few hills. They’re right there, on the German border: up and down undulating things that astonished us so much we must have talked about it for all of… well, two minutes. Which only goes to show that the memories that stick aren’t always breathlessly memorable. They’re just memories, and random at that.

4/ When we crossed the border into North Rhine-Westphalia, the evening rush hour had started.

I know this last because we had to queue. Right there on the plains of Northern Europe, where the A77 becomes the A57 and Holland merges seamlessly into Germany, was a customs and immigration post; at which everyone travelling to and from their places of work in Wijchen and Heesch and Duisberg and Essen had to stop and prove who they were and where they were going.

I expect they don’t bother nowadays, with the European Union and everything. I imagine it was a fairly routine procedure even then, for commuters and border guards alike. Join the queue, shuffle forward for ten minutes, wind down the Volkswagen’s window, flash your passport with a cheery smile, and off you go.

Of course the word routine only applies if you’re not at the wheel of a Royal Navy ambulance with a two foot high flaming sun mandala hand-painted on each side.

I’ll leave it to Andy to encapsulate the moment, as the eagle-eyed German border guards spotted us drawing to a halt at the back of a queue of thirty or forty cars.

‘Oh look,’ he said. ‘We’re the one in a hundred random sample.’

Looking back, I like to think we introduced a little variety into the lives of Customs and Immigration Deutschland that day. To say nothing of their lovely Alsatian dogs, who were immediately invited on the grand tour of our unusual-looking vehicle and the myriad possessions we’d been invited to unpack and display on the side of the road. Naturally, being young and blonde themselves, the guards were exceeding taken with the decorous picture of Brigitte Bardot we’d thoughtfully left hanging over the sink: one of them even went to the trouble of lifting it up to see if there was anything hidden behind. And of course they enjoyed themselves enormously taking everything apart and then getting us to put it all back together again.

The only slight blot on the proceedings? Seasoned Bertha hitchhikers will instantly recall a post from many months ago called The Great Escape, which concerned the Earthtruck’s arrival at Knebworth Festival and the great convenience of having a six inches by twelve hatch, opening onto the road, in the middle of the floor.

Never did figure out that hole, our border guards. They tried, of course. They clustered around it. They tut-tutted amongst themselves in German. They interrogated us, individually and collectively. They muttered darkly about drugs and weaponry. They gingerly ran their hands rounds the underside of the aperture. They even volunteered one of their number to get his border guard uniform all scuffed and dirty looking at the hole from underneath the truck.

All to no avail. The dogs grew sullen, the sun sank low in the North-Rhine Westphalian sky, and the guards were finally forced to the reluctant conclusion that the hole, like so much in life, had no apparent purpose and offered no prospect of advancement in the immigration service.

What’s worse, they had to let us in.