Editor’s note: Longtime Santa Monican Charles Andrews is traveling across Europe in a camper van for one year, with his family. This is the second installment in a series of columns about their adventures.
What we mostly write about, in e-mails and the daily blog, is where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. Because not everyone gets to gaze upon Michelangelo’s “David” or Hitler’s bunker or the Acropolis or a lost-in-time Albanian fishing village, and so much more, especially all on one trip. We’re really fortunate, and we give thanks every day.
But there’s a dark side.
Three people. One very small 20-year-old VW van, with two beds, a built-in kitchen that so far doesn’t function, an unreliable fan belt, a missing table that just arrived by mail with no installation instructions, and a brand new Porta-Potty.
One year. Countless missed turns and screaming (well, tense voices) between driver and navigator; a GPS we’ve named James Bond for his accent and his predilection for adventure and danger, and the occasional nervous breakdown; four tows in four months from remote roads and our fate in the hands of some mechanic in the middle of nowhere; and a continent full of mechanics and other people who don’t speak English, dammit.
Starting to get the picture?
That’s only part of the story for the Three Innocents Abroad (so self-named because we are fairly close cousins of Mark Twain, and his first journal of his European travels was titled “The Innocents Abroad”). One is a music-obsessed writer/editor. One a singer, painter, playwright and voice-over actress. (OK, two strong-willed creative types, that’s a good opportunity for peril.) And one is even more creative and strong-willed and … (scary organ music) … a teenager.
Yes, an 18-year-old freshly-minted Samohi grad who agreed to spend one year with her parents in very close quarters. Am I making this up? Is it a premise beyond belief? Nicole’s explanation to the incredulous was simple and to-the-point: “A year in Europe? Free? And I don’t even have to drive? Hell, yeah!”
For those concerned that her parents are discouraging her formal education, she will enroll in Santa Monica College when we return, and certainly go on to get a university degree (or face an ugly fate at our hands). Of course, this year is an education you can’t get in a classroom anywhere. Priceless, as they say. Though we are getting the big bills and I just paid one online. How about gas at $7 to $10 a gallon? Awww, are you upset that it’s hovering around four bucks there in Santa Monica?
My wife Dian and I have been together for 29 years, and Nicole, well, we’ve known her since she was very young. (For the literally minded, no, she’s not adopted, that was humor.) So it’s not like we didn’t know what we were getting into. But, you think you know somebody.
Who knew Nicole would save all her teen attitude ‘til she was 18 and now impossible to escape? Shrewd planning on her part, to make sure her ticket wouldn’t be rescinded. Who knew the undeniably, lovably irrepressible Dian would turn into a crazy American who approaches everyone and starts a conversation about anything, asking questions she already knows the answers to or ones that don’t have answers, of people who usually turn out to know not a speck of English? Who knew Charles’ hair would gray so quickly from obsessing over the chaos he sees around him, nitpicking to death every decision that doesn’t go exactly his way?
And yet, we survive. And even thrive. Because we are like-minded in the most important ways. We are all mostly oblivious to the discomforts of our chosen lifestyle, because we know that’s what makes this trip possible, rather than a much shorter or more comfortable one. And our mode of camping, with a van, makes it possible to go literally anywhere; it’s those out-of-the way places down less-traveled roads that have been so rewarding. (Note: this part is easier for the girls, who both just love camping, than for Charles who greatly prefers easily-accessible hot water, cold beer, and a big soft chair and really big screen for basketball games.)
We’re all really good at letting go, and there’s lots to let go of. When you’re home, there’s a routine that doesn’t twist that much. With what we’re doing, nearly every day is different, with its own challenges, and going with the flow becomes essential. No one has turned into a whiner, not even the teen. Can you imagine?
We each quickly developed an unspoken sense of what it takes to make this journey a success for all. But more than a set of rules, there exists a cooperation and spirit of compromise and giving that each of us naturally abides by.
In all the splendor of Europe that we are soaking in, these life lessons may turn out to be the most valuable souvenirs.
You can follow the Andrews family’s daily blog at anandrewsadventure.blogspot.com