Saturday, July 23, 2011

The vintage car vacation

A long time ago everything was an adventure to young eyes. Few occasions illustrated that as our annual family vacation trip. It was not the destination, but the highlights on our journey. And when I say highlights, I do not mean famous tourist attractions or scenery of epic magnitude. I’m talking of wildlife crossing signs here.

With the reliable Opel Kapitän in Switzerland, Furka Pass, 1966.

Living in the per square kilometre most densely populated country in the 1960s, in a rather urbanized area, life did not hold many surprises for us. Probably more so for people living in rural areas if they visited the western part of The Netherlands, but for us it was just what it was – streets, cars, towns, you name it, but with little space for the surprises more arcadic surroundings can offer you.
So when we ventured out of our safe biotope, we knew life could only bring us exciting expectations. Positioned on the back seat of our parent’s Opel Rekord, Kapitän and Kadett, or the Ford Taunus 12 and 15Ms, not in that order necessarily, my sister and I were ready to absorb everything that was synonymous for life outside urban Holland. And we made a competition out of it. Who’d be the first to see something special, would be awarded with points. As I already pointed out, that could be almost anything: wildlife crossing signs, the first German town to be mentioned on the direction signs, the border, castles, hills, mountains, and best of all, snow capped mountains. Points you could earn varied from 10 for the wildlife crossing sign to 50 for snow capped mountains.

Well, that might have been an easy quiet game to kill the time while on our way, it usually was not. Because Dad also participated. And this was not always regarded as fair play by his offspring, because he had a head start. Sitting behind the wheel, he obviously had more chance seeing things first as his kids on the backseat. Why Mom never participated in the contest, I don’t know, but that was just how it was. Dad however enjoyed it to add new categories to the game, and he chose not to discuss them with us. So, rather often we would hear 'I see a castle on top of a hill, 100 points for me!' Add anything you can imagine to that. I knew Dad was just teasing us, but it infuriated my sister. ‘That is not fair!’ she would shout, ‘You did not tell. We could not know. Mom, tell Dad to stop cheating!’ It was the same each year. Not that it would obstruct the final score, because in the end, nobody knew anymore what his or her score was, and nobody ever won that way.

The competition is one memory that comes to mind when thinking back to the vacation trips op yore, the self cooked food is another one. We were lucky to go away on vacation, stay at modest hotels or bed & breakfasts, but my parent’s 1960s budget did not allow for family dining out at night. So, Mom had to cook, and we always chose a nice location somewhere in the countryside, usually in a forest. Out came the Camping Gaz cooker, and Mom would create a one pan dish. So far so good. If not for the fact that somehow in my memory it always rained when it was time to prepare a meal. Now, that confined us to the backseat, without being able to run around. Fireing up the Camping Gaz cooker was a drama of course. It took ten minutes before it fired, costing about half a box of damp matches. The cooker was positioned between the car and the open door, to prevent the fire raining or blowing out, and to keep as much raindrops out of the food as possible. I still bow to my Mom for presenting is with a meal under such circumstances, but honesty forces to tell me that my sister and I were soon sick and tired of the several variations on rice and pasta we had to consume. Even more so when you know that if you kept the pan upside down, the rice would still stick into it. I’m sure my parents were not thrilled about this too, and not at all Mom of course. I vividly remember the vacation when Dad suddenly decided to break with that self cooking tradition. 1968, the village of Ossiach, in Kärnten, Austria, my father noticed the menu of a so called Imbiss, a modest eatery. It offered potato salad, and if there was something my father loved, it was potato salad. It was cheap, and from that moment on Mom never had to cook on a Camping Gaz cooker in the rain. Or in the sun for that matter.

Ossiach 1968 stays in my memory for one other experience, and one that extended our vacation for two days. The Ford Taunus 15M was a nice car, according my Dad, but it overheated easily. In traffic jams, on mountains, you could count on the front wheel drive Ford to send the needle of the temperature gauge into the red zone. My father followed the advice given to him to extract as much heat from the engine by setting the cabin heater as high as possible. So, there we were, climbing mountain passes in the summer sun, with the heater on maximum. That we survived is still a mystery to me. But during one of our final days of the vacation, the Ford gave up on us. At the Austrian/Italian border, for a short daytrip into the country of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, the border guard said to Dad: ‘Do you know there is water leaking from your radiator?’ No, he did not, because the engine was overheating anyway. We made it back to Ossiach, but the car would never make it to Holland of course as it needed a new radiator. So there we were, in the days without mobile phones or plastic money, and the holiday budget almost depleted. Dad’s employer wired him money for the repair, and the Ford provided us with two days extra vacation. My sister and I did not object.