Green Eggs and Ham

Our Traveling Van: Green Eggs & Ham (ours had no popup top like this one.)

As a result of their desire to tour Europe “on the cheap”, my parent’s bought Green Eggs and Ham. Green Eggs and Ham was a green VW bus converted into a camper. To distinguish it from the hundreds of other similar green VW vans, my dad painted its bumpers bright yellow. Expressing his opinion of its air-cooled four cylinder engine, he stuck a huge sticker on the back that said “Quit Honking. I’m Pedaling As Fast As I Can.” It wasn’t the most luxurious of campers. The roof didn’t ‘pop up’, it had a sink and faucet near the side door above the ice powered mini-frig, a fold up table, and a drop down back seat. Sitting in back, my brother and I got a louvered glass glimpse of Europe while my parents enjoyed a panoramic view, one not even hindered by something so clumsy as a hood – kind of like driving a sheet of glass down the road and probably just as safe. I don’t know; they never wrecked it. But during the summer – tour time – we’d crank those louvers open, panting in the heat.

The camper only slept two – my parents. Us boys were consigned to sleep in the close canvas confines of an old Army pup tent outside. Blowing up our green Army air mattresses, we’d roll our eyes towards the van, breathlessly cursing; then smoothing out our Army arctic sleeping bags, we’d throw ourselves down in disgust. We always toured during the summer and the thick down filled bags were more to lay on than under. There was always the errant quill needling you in the shoulder when you tried to sleep at night. But when it came to sleeping in the snow, there wasn’t anything better – it would remain warm and dry, keeping you snuggly and toasted. Later, during our last year, my parents bought a big umbrella pop-up tent – one which seemed roomy until we got a glimpse of the German ones.

I don’t know if was just a German or French thing – but when we’d get to the campgrounds, there would be huge tents – some as big as a house. Peering through their open doorways and windows, we could see cloth walls inside – and not just that, but TV’s, radios, and furniture as well. They seemed to bring everything – including the kitchen sink, and a counter to set it on. These were well made nylon tents, making our primitive canvas constructions look clumsy. Just setting up such a tent seemed an almost impossible task to me; the idea of moving heavy furniture in – house furniture, not that cheap camping stuff – struck me as one of the eighth wonders of the world.

We toured museums and castles, parks and towns. I marveled in the Alps, went skiing on the Zugspitze. We traveled through tunnels through the Swiss mountains (the old Green Eggs and Ham rocking back and forth on the flatbed trains made especially for that purpose), saw churches and cathedrals. I saw the famed Edelweiss high on an alpine slope, descended into the depths of the salt mines in Salzburg, rode a gondola in the Venice canals. We camped and hiked and (rarely) stayed at a hotel. I stared over the Berlin wall at the East German guards; went to a flea market in a dismally lit German bunker. We watched bullfighters slay the bulls in Spain, swam in the warm Mediterranean. I’ve walked in the trickling waters of ancient Roman aqueducts, breathed the air of underground catacombs. We never made Rome or Paris, though I sorely wish we had. But all in all it was a wondrous adventurous time, poking our American noses into places we would never see again.

Traveling through the Pyrenees mountains, cooking on an old liquid fuel Coleman stove (always an adventure) – we toured France, spending but a single night in a hotel. I’ll never forget that hotel room – crowded with ornate furniture, nestling two rumple mattressed beds, it offered a glimpse into the life of the French. It was my first experience with a bidet, and I stayed in the small tiled bathroom, watching the fountain spray into the air with confusion until my mom explained to me what its function was. After that it made perfect sense to me, and there would be times later on – mostly in Spain – where I’d come to wish I had one.

At the time it seemed to me that the French towns and buildings were dirty – grimy, but in a charming, old world way. We woke the following morning and spent some time wandering through whatever town it was; eating lunch at the hotel’s indoor cafe’, we had some fabulous French bread and cheeses, chased with my first taste of wine. I recall the bottle – about half the size of a standard wine bottle, it had a prominent blue “1/4” displayed on the darkly colored bottle. While we were eating a cat wandered in from the courtyard, carrying a dead mouse. We noticed it – and noticed no one else was noticing. Well, when in Rome . . . we carried on with our meal while the cat, dragging its dead mouse underneath a nearby table, started consuming his. And it was in the town’s main square that I discovered the wonders of true French vanilla ice cream, its flavors making the commissary stuff that we got pale in comparison. To this day I find myself eating vanilla ice cream sadly, with a bit of reminiscence. Even the flavors of the premium brands taste like cardboard compared to my memory of that first time, that first taste of the wonderful stuff.

Spain was Spain, and all the things I thought it would be. It seemed to border on a third world country, and was the dirtiest country of all we visited. Not that I minded; I have no problem with a culture’s sanitary habits or cleanliness of their towns. It is just a different culture, that’s all. But Spain seemed to be caught between bright flying colors and slow towns of dismal filth. The people were always great; the food even better, but their living conditions left something to be desired, and I felt a bit of sorrow for the people – while at the same time recognizing their choice to be who they were, and more importantly, the lack of choices in their lives. I found myself savoring the experience, and still prefer the underdeveloped countries to the over developed ones. In such countries the people put you in touch with their culture in a way that architecture never can.

I’ll never forget getting hit with Montezuma’s revenge while traveling in the Green Eggs and Ham. We were somewhere in the lower Alps, heading towards the Mediterranean, and I had the not-so-jolly trots. Cruising through some obscure town, my parents decided to drop by a local pharmacy in hopes of finding a cure. Going into the dusty building, they explained in a mix of crippled Spanish and hand gestures (imagine a hand flying away from the butt, illustrating a spraying action) what the problem was while I stood there, wriggling between misery and embarrassment. The white haired pharmacist’s time lined face finally lit up with understanding, and with a sympathetic glance at me, he handed my parents a tube of some of the biggest brown horse pills I’d ever seen. Going back to the Green Eggs and Ham, I choked two or three of them down – but it was still too late. The urge was upon me, and by the time we’d gotten to the far end of town, it was time to stop.

There we found a supermarket – or at least the Spanish equivalent of a supermarket. Inside a closed, dim building was stall after stall of goods – vegetables and meats – and the smell of rotten produce hung like a palpable mist. People were either leaning against counters behind their goods, or busily hawking them to passersby. I didn’t get good look – my interests lay elsewhere, for I had spotted the “W.C.” set into a rough concrete wall and was making a beeline for it.

Shutting the flimsy wooden door, I found myself in one of those bathrooms that make even a long neglected porta-potty look good. Covered in filth and peeling wall paper, it offered the ubiquitous “hole in the ground” common in many European countries. No sit-downs here; you hovered above the hole, took aim, and let loose. The floor around the hole was covered with near misses, and as I finished my task, I looked around and discovered to my dismay that there was no toilet paper. Being desperate, yet having learned to be resourceful, I looked around again more carefully, and then found myself eyeing the grime covered wallpaper. Most of it was peeling off the walls. So I decided to help it along – and help myself as well.

Old, grimy wallpaper does not make the best wiping material. Call it a bit of traveling advice. If you are traveling overseas and like wiping your butt – take some toilet paper along before you do the dirty deed.

We eventually hit the Mediterranean, and camped on the beach for a few weeks – where I learned to love calamari and a little girl taught me to build sand castles with my hands. We went to a bullfight which seemed grossly unfair to me, and eventually shot over to Venice – a strange city that turned out to hold both sights and disappointments. I left feeling that Venice had somewhat diminished herself by some of the things I saw and experienced there, but the art and the architecture were outstanding. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Luxembourg, a fine little country squeezed into a corner between Belgium, Germany, and France.

All in all we had some great adventures traveling in our Green Eggs and Ham. Sometimes the adventures weren’t the best; sometimes we saw things I didn’t much care for; at other times we saw great things and interacted with fun people. That’s one thing I learned – people are the same no matter where you go, though they may live and do things a different. And don’t condemn it if you haven’t tried it; don’t assume that just because the people live “like that” they want to live like that. Circumstances beyond their control affect their lives, just as they do ours. It was obvious to me in Spain and Italy that many of the people lived hard lives, and I respected them a lot. I’d had my taste of poverty; I know what it’s like. But what struck me the most (despite the physical wonders) was that no matter where we went, the average person was always friendly and kind, always willing to help the bumbling American tourists on their way, traveling in Green Eggs and Ham.