I know I must be hitting middle age because tsunami’s of nostalgia keep washing over me. The latest was prompted by the news that Brazil, the last remaining country to produce the Volkswagen camper van, also known as the hippie bus, is to end production after 57 years.
My seven-year-old excitement knew no bounds when Dad roared up the avenue in the second-hand, red VW bus. Our family was preparing to leave soggy Ireland to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu for six months. The bus was to be our home during the drive across Europe. Once there, it would become a mobile production unit while Mum and Dad made a series of documentaries on the people, history, and wildlife of the island. This was 1972 and I didn’t even know what a hippie was, but Mum and Dad with their three little girls packed into a VW bus must have fit the mold.
Mum set to work sewing bright orange curtains for the windows. Soon, with the film equipment stashed under the seats, we were off to catch the ferry to England. London in the early 1970’s was a psychedelic experience. I remember sleeping on the floor of a musician friend of my parents. It was all Indian prints and sitars and smelly incense, and it blew my provincial Irish mind. I lay on a makeshift bed on the floor gazing, transfixed at the first lava lamp I’d ever seen. But that was nothing compared to the thrill of driving up the ramp into the hovercraft that would take us across the English Channel from England to France, and feeling the airbags inflate beneath me, before skimming across the sand flats and splashing into the sea.
We were on a very limited budget, so, even though it was March and freezing, all five of us spent our first night in Paris squished into the back of the van. To pee, we had to get out and squat in the gutter, much to the horror of the early dog walkers—their dogs got to poop on the sidewalks! Not surprisingly, after that we graduated to cheap hotels, at least one of which doubled as an up market brothel as my older sister later informed me.
In France my sisters and I discovered bidets, fizzy water, and Nutella. Who knew you could eat bread and chocolate? Surely an invention of the gods. Bolsters, on the other hand, were a form of torture, only good for annihilating your sisters in a pillow fight.
The van chugged valiantly across France and into Switzerland, where the heater conked out. By now it had truly become our mobile playground, filled with books and sketchpads and colored pencils. Entertainment was never hard to find. When my sisters and I got tired of squabbling, we could sit for hours gazing out the window at the passing scenery, marveling as we climbed up into the Alps at the snow-filled valleys. Until then I had never seen more than a dusting of the white stuff. Once we had driven through the Great Saint Bernard Tunnel and crossed into Italy, we begged to stop so we could sink, up to our uxters, in the snowdrifts at the side of the road.
On the outskirts of Turin, the driver’s window of the van got stuck, allowing in icy blasts of air. While it was being repaired, we spent a night at a wonderfully old and creaky hotel, undoubtedly haunted. Much to our delight, several black cats slept in a basket on the wooden counter that served as a front desk.
Riding the vaparetto through the canals of Venice, I felt like I’d stepped into a Richard Scarry book. They had water taxis, water ambulances, water police, and of course, gondolas. In St. Mark’s Square, on a chilly March day, the pigeons were more numerous than the tourists. We giggled as hordes of them descended on our outstretched hands to nibble the corn kernels we offered them. I still have the miniature glass goose I watched the glassmaker swirl out of yellow and black glass.
On the outskirts of Rome, my parents looked up an acquaintance. Unfamiliar with the eating habits of small children, he took us to a fancy Italian restaurant and plied us with Parma ham and slivers of dolphin meat. My devious seven-year-old brain went into action. At one point my mother turned and praised me for trying the unusual food. Little did she know there was a pile of discreetly rolled Parma ham deposited under the chair of the corpulent Italian gentleman at the next table.
My sisters and I fell in love with the Botticelli’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. From the windows of the museum we looked out over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio and marveled at the golden carp swimming below us. Whenever I see a Botticelli, I think of those golden fish.
Arriving in Rome late at night, we huddled in the backseat while Mum and Dad fought bitterly over the frustrating one-way system. When we finally found a hotel room, it was well past midnight and all the restaurants were closed. The owner, a cranky old English fart, said, ‘I hope your children don’t wet the beds,’ much to our indignation. We sat in bed eating handfuls of raisins and sipping watered-down whiskey. (I suspect that my parents merely wanted a bit of peace and quiet, but it’s possible that that is where I first acquired a taste for the smoky, burnt caramel flavor.) The next morning we began our Roman adventure with breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel, overlooking Roman ruins, filled with cats dining on spaghetti provided by little old ladies.
The van roared past Naples and Mount Vesuvius in a hell-for-leather attempt to catch the ferry at Brindisi for the island of Corfu—our new home for the next six months.