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The Story of Spot

Why you may want to consider
buying a camper van for your next Euro trip

Though we didn't find it idyllic, we can say that buying a camper van can make lots of sense IF you do your homework right and have LOTS of luck!

Something in Let's Go Europe initially gave us the idea to consider buying a car. Certainly renting a car for our initial month from EuroCar, the largest renter of cars in Europe, gave us additional incentive as we gazed at the fat ~$1000 bill they presented us.

While it is quite nice and easy to take public transportation in Europe, even to the countryside, we wanted to carry our ski gear and -- ideally -- avoid paying so much for hotels and restaurants. While impracticable in the cold of winter, by spring time a simple camper van started looking pretty sweet.

Somewhat stranded in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany without an easy mode of transport, we decided to investigate what it would take to buy a Volkswagen Westfalia camper. John bought a paper and visited the local VW dealer without much success.

John's Propitious Haircut -- or Full-on Style

La Viva Dolche

In Europe only about a month at this point, Kim and especially John were avidly seeking out caffeine. Fortuitously, directly on the route from our wonderful apartment with the Huts to the local croissant bakery was this curious European concoction -- a hair salon that served espresso and beer.

John also happened to have a pretty shaggy head of hair and although having had a bit of highlighting done before leaving Seattle, he was ready to move up a notch. So into Cool Cuts he marched one morning and asked if they worked on men. Yes? Then please work on mine!

Although John knew no German, they understood enough English to make out that John wanted a curious thing, to have spots or lines on his head like those of a wild animal one might see on African safari! A bit incredulous, all three beauticians urged John to stop this nonsense and get a normal cut and throw in a tad of highlighting, but no, John demanded the full treatment. Early on the first beautician balked and turned away from the task, leaving Christina, the proprietor, to resume the task with a bemused and somewhat incredulous look on her face.

In the end, John came out with a fun cut and some strong highlighting that only finally grew out to get cut off some 6 months later in India. He was delighted and the experience made John a hit - or spectacle - around Garmish-Partenkirchen for the next month!

Purchasing Spot

While, at the best espresso house in Bavaria, Cool Cuts, Espresso and Friseur, John happened to ask Christinia, the proprietor, who could help us cut through the red tape at the registrar's office -- and initially as critical, figure out the cryptically abbreviated German in the want ads!

She barely paused before stating, Kurt, my husband can help you! Serendipity was standing by my side that day, as the first person I asked for advice led me directly to the best person who could have helped us out.

Kurt came on as a fun combination of macho, leather clad super hero driving about in his motorcycle, together with savvy, brilliant penny-stock trader, and tender dad doting on their son, Noel Ellias, while Christinia ran the shop. Having been offered the keys to an American's apartment when traveling in San Francisco years ago, he apparently had been looking for a way to reciprocate.

Wow! He took on this project, and Kim and I, with a passion that left us totally in his debt and jaws sagging. Of course he just urges us to pass the debt along to someone else in need some day!

Kurt spent most of the next week driving around Munchin looking at used vans, checking the online classifieds, and calling around his vast network of friends. He urged us to go skiing and drink more espresso. We relaxed while Kurt toiled on our behalf, never accepting any payment.

It finally evolved that Hans (who courting the friendly but stunning barrista Margaret was around a fair amount and quickly became our friend) had been talking to neighbor Joachim Lechmin over espressos and Joachim had mentioned he was considering selling his Westfalia. Well one thing led to the other and soon Kurt had us the official registered owners of a 1980 Westfalia Joker!

As we spent our first few nervous nights in the camper and sped south form Bavaria, down to Innsbruck, then up again to the Italia Alps and Val de Gardinia, we couldn't help but wonder at our fortunes in having met Kurt and the rest of the great gang at Cool Cuts.

Minor Malfunctions Along the Way

Spot performed admirably in all but two cases. One after shocking her with an all day ride in a ferry to Oslo and the other upon lieing to her that we were headed up the last mountain she'd ever see, then having to go back down the mountain and up it again.

There were a few other incidents, like replacing the leaking water pump in Rome with a super charged version that subsequently shot water out of the sink and liberally sprayed anyone within several meters of the sink.

Or the bit of indigestion she had as we left the Italian Aosta valley and traveled to Albertville in France, and then again when arriving in Holland. The first mechanic just unclipped an electrical component that we never understood the purpose of -- further streamlining the already radically simple VW engine! The second occasion, at Amersfort in the Netherlands, we had a tune-up that probably paid for itself by radically improved performance and gas mileage within the first 50 kilometers!

A final operation was needed in Groenigen, Netherlands to replace an old, worn out auxiliary battery that had started to overheat (sending acrid fumes throughout the van) back in Italy on our way to Florence and the Cinque Terre. Simply disconnecting the battery solved the immediate problem but we wanted to use the battery at night again.

Helping Druggies with Laptops

After attending sister Lib's and Marv's wedding in Los Angeles, Kim stayed on a month to work in Montana, while John returned to the Netherlands, spent a few days enjoying Amsterdam's peaceful neighborhoods and doing some genealogy, then proceeded northward through Edam and Hoorner to Groenigen.

Everything was focused on preparing for a glorious vacation in Norway, alone in the rugged countryside with no major traveling planned. After all the continual moving, John was eager to hang in one place and start work on his and Kim's web site. But first he had to provision the van, since everything, especially liquor, was reportedly incredibly expensive in Norway -- a simple bottle of wine would cost twenty times that in central Europe, so we were repeatedly urged to take up plenty and plead ignorance at the border if questioned about it.

By the time John took the ferry from Denmark, Spot was groaning with the combined weight of some dozen bottles of wine, a case of beer, a bottle of Bailey's Cream Liquor, and a small bottle of Jeigermeiters. There was also an attendant load of groceries. (As it turned out we never did finish drinking all that booze and sheepishly brought some back with us to the Netherlands.)

Arriving in Oslo, John nervousness over the liquor must have broadcast itself clearly to the serious customs officers dressed in Army fatigues with guard dog at their side. They immediately singled John out of the long line of cars and stopped him to ask about his situation. Ever glib, John was able to avoid lying or getting searched, and the huge line of cars waiting for their questioning to end probably prompted them to turn their sights on bigger fry.

The next morning John repacked the van, getting all but one box of financial papers and one small crate of groceries tucked away out of sight before heading out to see Norwegian Wood, an internationally famous music venue. Sweden's Bob Hurd and others cut up the stage and made for a great afternoon and evening.

Coming out though, the van was nowhere to be found. Indeed there was another car parked in its place. Rushing to the police it appeared that yes, Oslo had its share of crooks, from drug seeking addicts to members of the Eastern Europe and Baltic mafias. In any case, dear old Spot was gone.

Although the police said Spot would likely turn up abandoned and empty in a few days they also said it might take several months before she was abandoned and recovered. Unfortunately the latter was what happened.

After feeling driven to get to Norway where the real vacation could begin, here John found himself with additional hassles and no place to call home. It was the start of a few hellish weeks both emotionally and logistically, as John tried to deal with the insurance and to start purchasing the basic possessions.

Norway's inflated prices collided directly with John's sense of frugality. Eventually John rented a car and took off for the south, then confronted by rain, the west coast and the neat city of Stavanger for a few days change of scenery. Returning back over the scenic Hardangervidda John was getting over the loss and relished the return of Kim, fresh from her stint doctoring in Montana.

Together we toured northern Norway, and just as we were started back south, some 38 days after the original theft, the police recovered Spot.

The Oslo police found our stolen VW Van abandoned a few km from where it had been parked - 38 days after it was stolen. So the short of it is that we altered our venturing and bee lined back to Oslo and bought the van back from the insurance company (who had just cut us a check). Other than major mould from dead refrigerator food, the van's pretty well intact except the ignition -- pried out and now lying on the floor. We now start the car with a screw driver. They did, of course, take John's computer and software, some medications (didn't have anything with "fun" potential), a very odd assortment of things from my first aid kit (like a scalpel, needles...), and some other stuff, but left most things (including food, wine and beer). Sure makes us think they were looking for drugs and salables.

Kim and I are back in Oslo after learning first that our van was recovered (headache-ville since we though we had dealt with everything) and then that everything was largely intact (minus the computer, photo equipment, some medical equipment of Kim's, her pack, and a handful of other items that could be QUICKLY sold for drugs). The druggies even left all ten bottles of wine and 3 months of food and a broken ignition lock. We repurchased the Westfalia yesterday, returned our rental car, did an initial cleaning last night (only the fridge was real bad) and are trying to head out of Oslo ASAP to start the fjord leg of our trip, having fortunately completed all the far north-artic circle portion of the trip. We've a ton of food and wine (hic-hic) to consume.


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