Fiasco in Europe

By David

Hate is a strong word; not to be used lightly. It pretty much sums up the way I feel about travel stories. You know the ones? This is Uncle Bill holding up the Leaning Tower in Pisa or Aunt Mary trying to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh or Doris, who’s into genealogy, inspecting her great, great grandmother’s grave in a church yard just outside Dorking. After long overseas trips friends of my parents’ would often come to our place for an evening of slides showing us the places they’d been. I must have seen a thousand shots of clouds out the aeroplane window leaving Auckland or arriving in London. It beats me how they knew the difference. The clouds sure looked the same.

To the best of my knowledge, Jane is prepared to discuss just about any subject with her father. Politics – she’s slightly left of even me, religion – Jane’s school cured us both, gossip – great and often and hypocrisy – condemned above all else; very little is on her taboo list.

And so, throwing caution to the wind, I am now going to tell you a travel story that eleven years after it took place Jane still refuses to discuss.

I got the idea leaving the Clive Memorial Pool. That was my first mistake. No one has ever had a good idea leaving the Clive Pool. With some perspicacity Jane once described the pool as “If concrete could burn, it would smell like the Clive Pool. Imagine it for a second. Old, dirty concrete soaked in chlorine, on fire.” My idea was that instead of flying between the World Cup swim meets in Europe we should hire a camper van – in America they are called them recreation vehicles. The next day I visited Air New Zealand’s travel office in Hastings and booked the van. We would pick it up in downtown Amsterdam and drive to the first meet in Paris, then on to Gelsenkirchen in Germany, Imperia in Italy and back to Amsterdam to fly home.

I convinced a very young Jane our journey of 2181 miles (3490 kilometers) would be the experience of a life time. We’d park beside Dutch canals, trundle through Monet’s Field of Poppies, climb through the peaks and cols of the Swiss Alps and cruise the bays and coves of the Italian Riviera.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite like that. We had no problem collecting the van and set off on the 310 mile (496 kilometer) trip to Paris. About 200 miles later we arrived in Lille and I took a wrong turn. All night I drove east wondering why the 100 miles to Paris was taking so long. The sign “Welcome to Luxembourg” didn’t seem right so I stopped to check. I had driven 343 miles in the wrong direction and was now 303 miles away from Paris. It took all that day to get to Paris. After 846 miles (1343 kilometers) and 24 hours in the van Jane was expected to swim the World Cup heats in just ten hours. I relented and booked her into one of the team hotels. She managed a personal best in the 50 butterfly. She always was a tough little bugger and on that occasion showed it in full measure.

The next meet was in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. We had time so decided to stop for a night in Loan, the picture perfect ancient French capital. Finally we were experiencing the joys of motoring through Europe. At about three in the morning I was woken by someone banging on the van door. Foolishly, and against Jane’s advice, I opened the door. In very broken English, a man in his early twenties explained that he and his girl friend had parked under trees not far from the van. Their car was stuck in the mud. Could we pull them out? I got out to inspect the problem and discovered that the car was deeply buried. There was no way we could do anything about it until the morning. I was also surprised by the partially clothed appearance of his girl friend. Perhaps, I said, we could call the local police to help. No, he didn’t want that. They would wait until the morning. I went back to van and slept until seven when four police cars came screaming by full of lights and sirens. Several policemen surrounded the car and advanced towards it with hands poised over their revolvers. I started the van and headed towards Germany. Jane was right – don’t open the door to strangers at 3.00 in the morning.

The Gelsenkirchen World Cup went well. Jane had a good meet and swam another personal best in the 100 IM, which was also a Wellington regional record at the time. Our only van problem was a punctured front tire. However I changed the tire without too much difficulty and set out on the 708 mile (1132 kilometers) leg to our next stop in Imperia, Italy. It was a warm Sunday. For 200 miles everything was fine until, just south of Frankfurt, near a small town called Weinheim, we blew another tire. A passing German motorist called a tow truck. We were taken to a garage and told we would need to wait until the morning to have both tires repaired. It was lunch time the next day before that was done and we set off again for Imperia – 500 miles away. That might not sound like much but this particular 500 miles is over the massive Col de St. Bernard that separates Switzerland and Italy and through a 40 mile series of narrow lanes and alleys that lead into Imperia. Finally, at 3.00 am, we pulled into the parking lot beside Imperia’s “Piscina Felice Cascione”. Jane’s first heat was just five hours away.

Two days later we hit the road again for the 815 mile (1304 kilometer) journey back to Amsterdam. We picked up an interesting English hitchhiker on the way who guided us into Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. A few hours later we deposited the van back in Amsterdam and sank gratefully into KLM seats for the 14 hour flight to Singapore. There are two morals to this story. If you are doing the World Cup circuit, it may be boring but go by air. And the second – if you ever have a good idea leaving the Clive Memorial Swimming Pool, do something else.

That was the same trip I had to chase a thief in Amsterdam Airport who snatched and ran off with a bag containing our passports and money. Fortunately I caught him and rescued our belongings. Back in New Zealand on the trip from the airport in Auckland to Napier, our car, the “Blue Beast” broke down and we arrived in Napier on the back of an AA recovery truck. My wife Alison seemed to think it was all very funny.

And Jane? Well she still won’t talk about it.