Once Upon A Time In Munich: My Mother’s Story

This post was originally published on my City Sampler blog.


Once Upon A Time In Munich: My Mother’s Story

As a 1970s traveller, my mother spent most of her time in campsites around Europe, and a combi van was her and her friends’ preferred mode of transport. This sounds like it would have been all very fun in spring and summer, but it seems they also attempted it in winter.

After a week in snow-covered Munich, the seven of them packed up their tents and rucksacks, cleaned up the travel stove, and hopped in the van to head to their next destination.

The engine revved, but it wouldn’t turn over. There was much discussion about what should be done: It needs to be warmed up! – No that won’t help, you just have to keep revving it. – What are you talking about? That will destroy the engine! Maybe leave it running for a bit. – Would some hot water help?

The stubborn van, aware that their traveling was almost at an end and that its passengers were en route back to their jobs and adopted lives in London, had simply given up. Obdurately, it sat on the edge of the campsite, goading kicks and profanities from the group.

Without another option, they were forced to push the van to town. Six of them pitched in to push while one lucky member got to be steerer. I’d always imagined the six of them pushing the van until it got a good roll going before gallantly sprinting to be level with the door and then vaulting into the safety of the steel interior. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine for the first time I pointed excitedly and asked my mother if that was what she had had to do in Munich. She looked at me like I was a bit dense; apparently combi vans are heavy and if the engine doesn’t tick over even with a running start it means you just push it the whole 2k to town. At a rate of about 0.5kph.

They made it to town, no doubt glowing with exertion and a sense of achievement, only to find that the repair was going to take a few days and the rest of their money. They begged a heater-less room for a trifle above a coffee shop and spent the next couple of days sharing a morning pastry and coffee between the seven of them in an attempt to both nourish and warm themselves. They didn’t really drink the coffee, they just held the mug for its warmth, passing it on to the next in the circle only when social convention deemed they were perhaps being greedy.

After an eternity of cold and hunger and sleepless nights, the van was ready to go. Or, at least, it was as ready as it was ever going to be. The mechanics were able to patch, but not fix, the problem meaning that the van was now only able to run at a top speed of about 50kph. Given that their route home included an Autobahn, this was worrying.

Over the next few days of driving, they got a crash-course in German expletives as enraged drivers sped past their sluggish combi. Puttering down the speed limit-free highway at a piddling 45kph, they didn’t make any friends and most likely almost caused a few accidents.

Almost at their destination – or at least the exit route which would enable them to get away from the Autobahn – they encountered road works and only a single open lane. With no choice but to continue on, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. But luck wasn’t on their side.

About 1k from where they could see the end of the road works they heard an ominous bellow, full and rich like a boat’s klaxon. In their rear-view mirror they saw a truck traveling at immense speed, and with less breaking space than would be needed to avoid catastrophe. I don’t know who was driving, but I do know they put pedal to floor – an act which only pushed the odometer up to about 47kph. The opened-up highway was getting closer, but so was the impending road train, and there wasn’t really anything they could do but hope. The truck’s horn blew again and again – like the clap of thunder heralding the approaching storm it got louder and louder with each pull.

The combi was straining, the driver’s leg aching, and every single muscle of every single passenger was clenched to the limit. The truck filled the rear-view mirror, and then the whole of the back window – they could see nothing else. And then, at the very last second, the roadblock barriers fell away and the driver ducked into the lane on the right. The truck, thankfully, kept to its linear path, its klaxon shouting back at them until it disappeared into the horizon forever.

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