The Long Road Round Europe

 The van was called Pearl, and she was a big old girl. 1992 Ford Transit, K reg;  a tank more than a van, who we were told would never let us down.

David Hillier

David is a freelance writer and Music Editor for Sabotage Times. He can be found at The Guardian, Vice, The Debrief, Complex UK, Pretty Green and on Twitter talking about Harry Kane.

@Gobshout
sabotagetimes.com

Published

August 27, 2015

My friend Rupert and I bought her from an engineer. He’d transformed her into a camper van with a couch, old timber storage units, gas hob and 60s library carpet, and driven her lovingly around Europe in his 20s.

He didn’t have the time anymore and the £600 he wanted for her seemed like the biggest steal since The Great Train Robbery.

We were to be away for a month, covering 7000-odd kilometres across Europe. We would visit one festival, two stag dos a week apart and 13 countries, give or take. People thought it was a ridiculous idea, that we were too old at 28 for such frivolities. “She hasn’t got it in her,” they said about Pearl. “And neither have you.”

Much of their doubt was rooted in the face that I can’t drive, and Rupert was going to be doing all the legwork. Some might consider this a mug’s role, but Rue loved the challenge of it all. The silliness, the derring-do. It was Boy’s Own stuff, except we were adults, apparently.

The good vibes created by this sustained us throughout the first leg of our journey, a 1000 mile drive to the barren dust land between Barcelona and Zaragoza.

Neither Rue or I put much stock in omens, but punting down the A26 from Calais on day one, listening to 5Live and Andy Murray grind down Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final seemed like a good time to start.

We lost reception of the match 20 minutes south of Reims – the white noise coming from Pearl’s tape deck rising above anything going down in SW19 – but a text from a friend half an hour later confirmed Murray’s victory.

The good vibes created by this sustained us throughout the first leg of our journey, a 1000 mile drive to the barren dust land between Barcelona and Zaragoza.  Our destination was an event called Nowhere; a seven day festival promoting ideals of full creative expression, no capitalism, commercialism, and total harmony with your fellow man. All in 45+ C heat.

Suffice to say it was a uniquely eye-opening week, but our main thought on leaving was how Pearl would be after a week sitting on a plate of sand. And how would we be?

Fortunately Pearl (and, more importantly, Rupert) rose to the occasion, and as she chugged over sand track and dune, powered on by the demonic guitar riffs of the Physical Graffiti tape that had already become our trip’s rallying sound, we emerged into the shallows of civilization with the wind in our sails.

Other than Nowhere and the two stag dos – one in Budapest, one in Tallinn the weekend after- we had no concrete plans. We’d discussed places we might like to go, but it was all to be done  on the hoof. After dropping some Nowhere friends in Barcelona, a quick reccy saw us alight on the idea of Lake Garda. We felt like we’d earned a few days R n’ R, and nothing seemed as conducive to this as a clear, teal, lake that trebled up as pool, bath and wash basin.

For three days there we ate like kings, and I did my best work in Pearl’s makeshift galley. There might not have been room to spin a wok inside her, but when you have the freedom of an Italian Spar you’ll only ever need two or three ingredients. I’ll never forget the seedy, sour-sweetness of their balloon red tomatoes, or peppers the size of Alessandro Costacurta.

Budapest to Talliinn was 1800km, and pockmarked by moments of boredom more than any other stretch. Not least the never-ending A1 autostrada that runs the length of Poland. Seemingly endless stretches of it were ensconced in imposing, overhanging trees on either side. It looked and felt like a road out of a Stephen King film; one that went on for six hours.

Every five hundred meters was an old guy or girl, selling small jars of blackberries. Elsewhere women in garters peddled something entirely different. It was a strangely muted part of the journey. The combination of gloomy surroundings, tiredness and the knowledge we still had some serious mileage to go temporarily curtailed the mood. That or me and Rue were spending too much time together.

I’ve done a reasonable amount of traveling in my time, but I’ve never found it easier to meet people on that trip.

Fortunately, we didn’t dwell on this as a new arrival in a new city meant new faces and new places.  We got into the habit of rolling into cities – Riga, Poznan, Kaunas- after dark, finding a car park or relatively safe-looking alleyway, and heading off into its good night.

I’ve done a reasonable amount of traveling in my time, but I’ve never found it easier to meet people on that trip. I don’t know whether it was because we had a vaguely interesting story to tell, or maybe we were still feeding off the hippy commune vibe of Nowhere, but we fell in with folk and strays in every city.

One guy we nicknamed Cute Chris – he was unreasonably lovely and looked a bit like David James –  ended up coming with us to Tallinn.

From there it was the long road, some 2500 km, back to the UK. Rupert works in film and had a new job starting the next week, so there was no time for catching Zs.

We retraced our steps on Lithuanian roads, and doing so reiterated what we’d noticed the first time round: that much of the country seems to be walking out of step with the rest of the world.  Outside of the main cities, the landscape consisted mainly of hamlets of rusting shacks with corrugated iron roofs, the odd horse and cart sloping along to fill out the 19th century picture. We might have been in a ’92 Transit, but it felt like a space ship in this little patch of Earth.

Still, on we rode, and as Pearl’s bashed up hamstrings carried us on to German soil, we felt a sense of relief at the familiarity of the place. Maybe it was that we’d been so far. Maybe we were just fair weather tourists after all. Or maybe it was the shyster officials that fleeced the last of our Euros as we were leaving Poland.

But I’ll never forget it. We were at the first service station over the border in Brandenburg, and we saw this hulking, great, German military officer weaving towards us through the parked cars. Nothing that new here. We’d got stopped a lot- two men in a 2.5 tonne van a long way from home does look a bit Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.

But there was a difference. He was smiling. Big, proper, country grin. Welcome to Germany.  He checked our papers and had a slyly checked the back of the van for bodies.  Then back at us, with a bearish outstretched hand to shake.

“This is all fine, boys.” The English was perfect, of course. “Welcome to Germany. Please treat it as your home.  But maybe get some sleep somewhere first. You look very tired.”

We got a ferry from Rotterdam to mighty Harwich. Essex had never smelt so magnificent.

It’s been almost two years since we returned and we’ve talked often about doing another ‘Pearl Trip’.  The difference is now we’ve got mortgages and girlfriends and pets and real life stuff going on. It was the last little pocket of our 20s, when the calendar Gods conspired to allow us just enough time and just enough money, and rolled out this great big tarmac carpet for us.

As an aside, when we got back Rupert got quite ill and it turned out had Hepatitis A: a combination, the doctor thought, of a cut he picked up at Nowhere getting infected, and extreme physical exhaustion. Sorry, Rue. (He laughs about it now.)

Pearl is still parked up in my Dad’s garage. She hasn’t been driven in over a year and needs a new battery, poor girl.  I’m not sure she’ll ever get one. In some ways I feel the story’s more complete if she doesn’t.

Words by David Hillier, selected images by David Hillier and Rupert Morency

Published 27th August 2015