Europe 1984 – The Big Trip, Part One

By the end of 1983 we had started planning for a big trip, one that would take us on a grand adventure.  This was primarily the result of a couple of unrelated factors, each equally important in pushing us to commit to a plan where we would leave our jobs and travel for multiple months.

The first of these was the impending retirement of my parents, and their plan to travel full time with a thirty-two foot fifth wheel trailer.  A lifelong dream of theirs, they would do so with another couple, Alice and Jeff Metzlar who purchased an identical truck and trailer.  As a footnote, they would travel in this fashion for five full years, returning to Los Angeles occasionally to visit, until illness would force them off the road.  The import of their traveling full time was that the Wade Street house (my family home, which I still own today) would be available to store our belongings.

The second factor was the increasing realization that my career at ASUCLA was stuck in place and that my chances for advancement or development were not encouraging.  Thus, we began to plan a long trip to Europe in earnest.  Our initial thought was to spend six months there, but as planning progressed, we realized that the biggest obstacle to successfully negotiating that amount of time, particularly as we were committed to camping, would be transportation.  We did not intend to limit the amount of gear we carried to just backpacks, so some type of vehicle was going to be necessary.

We decided to shorten the time we would stay in Europe to three months and purchase a new, 1984 VW Rabbit Convertible through Volkswagen for European Delivery.  Included in the deal was special pricing on the car, free shipping to the United States and within Germany, and one free round trip Lufthansa Airlines airfare.  The overall plan would be to pick up the car in Frankfurt, drive it for two or so months in Europe, ship it back to the Unites States, delay our return to the states for a period, then fly back, pick the car up and drive it across country to home.

This plan would play out over the course of five months, beginning in early July when we flew to Frankfurt, boarded a VW shuttle bus and proceeded with a number of folks to a local VW dealership where we took possession of the new car.  The convertibles that year, although not badged as such, were essentially GTI versions of the Rabbit, a more performance oriented edition of that highly successful successor to the Bug.  With a close ratio manual transmission, goodly horsepower and efficient fuel injection, it was quite fun to drive.

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Loading all of our gear into the trunk we made our way north roughly fifty miles to the town of Giessen, where our friends from the 1982 trip, the Della-Rovere’s had landed.  Dave now oversaw a expanded recreation function at a larger army base and we would subsequently use their large house out in the country as one of our two bases of operation during our three months in Europe that year.

We would spend a little less than a week there, getting acclimated, running the car out through the German countryside and best of all, eating lots of good food.  As German’s love to travel, they have appetites for all types of cuisines and thus, any good size German town will have a number of different types of food.  For me, the first night in Germany always features a Schnitzel and Frites, but subsequent evenings found us enjoying Greek and Italian.  One night, we enjoyed a delicious version of Spaghetti Carbonara made table side and would recreate that recipe in camp a number of times throughout the trip, throwing pasta against the side of the tent to test its doneness.

On July 7th our destination was the city of Arnhem in the western part of the Netherlands (Holland).  Located on the banks of the Rhine River, it was featured in A Bridge Too Far the 1977 film based on the 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, which tells the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden during World War II, the Allied attempt to break through German lines and seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands, including one at Arnhem.

We spent three nights camping there at Kamper Centrum on the outskirts of the city.  This is the best time in any trip, when you’ve just arrived and the future stretches out in front of you, waiting to be filled up by whatever events may come your way.  We would spend the next two days touring the Netherlands Open-Air and National Heritage Museum, a Dutch version of Williamsburg and then the museums devoted to the battle of Arnhem.  Two restaurant dinners brought an appreciation for the heartiness of Dutch cooking.

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Windmill in Arnhem

Next up was four nights in Amsterdam, at Camping Vleigenbos where Evan, Rendy and I stayed in 1977 (http://www.noord.amsterdam.nl/camping-vliegenbos).  One of the attractions of this campground was the soft drink machine that dispensed beer, both Heineken and Grolsch.  We spent most of our time wandering the streets of town, with stops at the National Museum and the Heineken Brewery.  Most memorable was a Rijstafel (rice-table) dinner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rijsttafel) at an Indonesian restaurant on the Damrak, not too far from the American Express Office where Evan, Rendy and I scouted out the VW Van we purchased that first trip.

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Our Tent at Vliegengos

Heading south to Paris, we stopped for two nights at Camping Molenslag in Monster, pitching the tent in a somewhat muddy field made bearable given our tents close proximity to the beach.  We would spend a day at Madurodam (http://www.madurodam.nl/en/), a Legoland type experience featuring perfect 1:25 scale model replicas of famous Dutch castles, public buildings, and large industrial projects.

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Camping Molenslag

We landed at Francois and Heike’s in Les Mesnil on July 16th and would stay eight days.  We enjoyed a weekend long party thrown to celebrate the birthday’s of friends Jos and Patrick, sunny days spent lounging in the backyard, eating, drinking and talking.  One episode later in the stay has become part of our family lore, the French Toast Incident.  As with a number of food types we attribute to the French (French Fries, French Dip, etc.) French Toast is unheard of by that name (they know it as pain perdu).  Joanna thought it would be a nice gesture to get up early one morning and make that delicacy for everyone before they went off to work.

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Francois and Heike at the Party

At that time the stove and oven in the kitchen did not have pilot lights.  Joanna was aware of this regarding the stove, but not about the oven.  So she proceeded to cook up batches of the toast, placing them to stay warm into what she thought was a lit oven.   I was peacefully lazing about upstairs in our sleeping bags, thinking of how surprised the others would be when they had a chance to try the toast when I was yanked back to reality by the sound of a large blast and a scream from Joanna that I’d not heard before, nor thankfully have heard since.

The house had a wood framed glass front door that opened into a hallway separating the kitchen from the front room.  When the gas building up in the oven finally ignited from the burners on the stovetop, the resulting explosion blew all of the glass in the door into the hallway, flung open the kitchen windows, tossed the coffee maker off the counter, pulled the front of the dishwasher from its frame and scattered French Toast all over what seemed like the front of the house.   Joanna, in a surge of panic induced adrenaline, managed to leap from the kitchen over all of the glass fragments in the hallway into the front room, miraculously unscathed.

We would spend most of the day cleaning up and getting the door repaired visiting with neighbors who dropped by, as we had become the talk of the neighborhood.  For years to come, every time we would visit Paris we would volunteer to cook.  Our offer was usually kindly, but firmly declined; a testimonial to the forgiving nature of friends and for the lesson learned to always check to see if the oven is lit.

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