For most of the spring, we’ve been cautiously planning a trip to Europe with a focus on art (for our daughter’s sake) and World War II (for our son’s sake.) I say “cautiously,” because we got a great deal on plane tickets – but were waiting for a magic genie to leave us the funds to afford the accommodations. The Olde World is not a cheap place to visit for a family of four.
While we renewed passports, we quizzed friends about how to save money traveling in England and France. One friend, a Brit living in St. Pete, suggested renting a camper-van to explore about the country-side. Apparently this is a thing – and I fell into a rabbit-hole researching our many options. I was energized by this idea! I had visions of camping on the Cliffs of Dover and driving on the wrong side of the road. Monica was more realistic: it’s hard enough getting coveted campsites in a country where we know the territory, speak the language, and understand the customs. It might be stressful in France looking for a place to legally park and sleep (and pee). Although Paris has some cool new public urinals.
I insist that you visit the Daily Mail’s article about these innovative “pissoirs” that are getting rolled out in Paris and Amsterdam. A lot of Americans might not fit into one of these things. And in my family, it’s the women and children who are always scrambling for restrooms. I don’t need more places to pee.
Paralyzed with indecision over places to stay, Monica booked a fancy hotel on the coast of Normandy.
Then a metaphorical Battle of Normandy occurred in our lives. Just as American Jeeps faced German Volkswagens, we had our own US vs. German showdown. Be patient – it takes time for this analogy to develop:
First the wheels fell off. Not literally, but while driving with a group of distance runners on their way to their last training run before the Boston Marathon, a tire exploded at the absolute worst place to break down in the Tampa area: the Howard Frankland Bridge. Monica safely navigated to the causeway (ironically, just opposite where I snapped a transmission cable on a Saturn , proving that if it can go wrong – it’ll happen on the bridge) and AAA came out and put the spare on.
How many Boston marathoners does it take to change a tire? We’ll never know. I love the last picture of our friends Jonathan and Pila – they look like Ralphie and Randy in A Christmas Story right before Ralphie knocks all the lug nuts in the snow.
Then, just a day after getting the tire replaced, our mighty, invincible Dodge Ram Van, which rolled flawlessly for 9,000 miles last summer, shut itself off at a stop sign 5 blocks from our house. It took almost 3 weeks to diagnose the issue and get the part to make the repair (the engine was fine – the computer died. Yes, a 2002 conversion van has a computer.)
Then, one beautiful evening while the Dodge was in the shop, on the same street where it died, Monica spotted a Volkswagen Westfalia with a For Sale sign on it. “We need to take a look at it,” she said.
I had no idea this woman’s fetish for old vans.
This van was only visiting our ‘hood for a couple of days. Was it meant to be?
The next day we met a wonderful octogenarian couple who should serve as an example to all of us. They’re “Snowbirds” meaning they winter in Florida and summer up north. But they don’t live in some stucco duplex in Del Boca Vista Phase 2. They live on a sailboat in a marina, travel the country in a Westfalia, and make their summer base in the northeast. Alas, they were getting weary of the camping lifestyle and decided it was time to part with their 1995 Westy.
No, we weren’t in the market for a van from Clinton’s first term. But this thing has the pop-up tent, a fridge, stove and sink. And it even came with it’s own little “pissoir.” Park and camp!
You know how this turns out. We bought it – quickly – which, I’ve learned, is the only way to get a Westy. They don’t go up for sale often, and they don’t last when they do. But the decision to buy it became a debate of Euro-trip vs. Euro-van. And ultimately, we were trading our Europe trip for the Westy. Honestly, the anxiety of traveling on an airline in dubious financial condition, into England in the middle of Brexit, for a trip we already knew was a stretch for our budget; we were looking for a sign telling us not to go. And this was it.
I hope the previous owners don’t mind us including their photo – and I hope they follow our adventures in their van.
I feel like the Westy is the perfect support vehicle for Monica’s marathon training. I could prepare a track-side omelette and hand it to her mid-race.
There was one major question mark hanging over this van. The sellers had replaced the compressor, but being salty live-aboards, they felt no need to replace the damaged AC hose and various other critical items. A vehicle without AC in Florida might as well be missing its engine. I was afraid the job would be similar to the $1800 we spent on the Dodge shortly after we bought it. I took it to a German mechanic near our house (one of my favorite customers from my days as an oil salesman). First he laughed at me, exclaiming, “Who’s going to fix that for you in Tennessee or Kentucky???” Then he fixed it for less than $300, which somehow felt like I was saving money.
So this summer is looking more like a return to the shady green Appalachian Mountains, which were such a pleasant surprise last year. And we also have a couple of obligations. First, the middle row bench seat to the Westy is in Ocean City, New Jersey. We happen to know one other person who spends their summers in New Jersey – and it happens to be Ocean City. We need to get that seat, because I’m not sure how many miles our kids will make it sitting hip-to-hip. So we’ll have to see if we can find Snookie and JWoww on the Jersey Shore. Second, I have an important day of medical tests in Cleveland this summer. My last few trips to Cleveland have been solo and it’s harder without the family with me. We have a lot of ground to cover between the Boardwalk, Lake Erie, and the Carolinas.
Before that – we need to get acquainted with our new rolling home away from home.
In our next post: The maiden voyage of the Westy.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.