Friday, November 26, 2010

Trips in Foreign Lands

Every week or so, I send a list of questions about our upcoming trip to Keir and Robyn.  Will I be able to plug in my hair dryer? Not always (although there are hairdryers and plugs aplenty in India, we will be on the shoestring, backpacking track so there's no telling).   Is there anything we can do to avoid Delhi Belly?  Not that much.  At the end of each of the e-mails conveying their patient answers, they write, “just keep your sense of humor, and everything will be fine.” Fortunately, growing up overseas and traveling quite a bit, I know exactly what they mean. 
My apologies to the tens of people who read this when it was published in Violet a few years ago, but it is a travel story close to my heart.  My middle brother, Erik, tells the story differently.  He says that it was the afternoon when we pulled away from the gas station. It wasn’t the morning, as I tell the story.  He remembers it being hot that morning (or afternoon), not chilly.  He says that we were in a car, not a truck.  Maybe I’m mixing up the stories, he always says.  It wasn’t, after all, the only time my family abandoned a broken down car in a foreign country.  My father always insisted on buying used beaters.  There was the maroon station wagon we walked away from in a snowstorm in Northern Germany and a blue VW bug that died in England.  And others, we know. 
Normally, I’d think that maybe Erik’s right.  Maybe it was the afternoon.  Maybe it was hot.  But the memory of us pulling away from the French gas station in a pick-up truck, our broken down red van bright like an artist’s mistake against the damp green morning is so clear, so immutable, that I know it’s true.  I know that I sat next to Erik in the back, huddling against him as we sat on top of some bundles.  I know that my mother and father and little brother, Keir, were crammed into the cab, next to a Frenchman who was to drive us to the train station.  I know these things, because it seemed important to me at the time.  It was my senior year of high school and I was going to be on my own soon.  I couldn’t have said it, but I was recording these family moments to bring with me – to hang on to as I lay on a bunk bed in a dorm room thousands of miles away.
The van had been our main family car for a good six years.   My father was a teacher on an Army Base in Germany, and he had bought the van from a GI for a thousand dollars.  I was a pretty naïve teenager, but even I knew that the van was a bedroom on wheels, designed for seduction.  My father saw it as a cheap way to move the family around.
            The van was red and industrial.  The GI told my father that it had been used to transport pretzels before he had worked his magic on it.  Inside, the GI had glued light blue shag carpeting to the walls, ceiling and floor.  He had built a huge double bed in the back.  Stereo speakers were mounted in all corners.  And there was a long thin mirror that was anchored somehow to the shag on one side of the bed.  My father thought it was beautiful.  He even had my mother take a movie of him showing off the inside of the van. 
            Of course, my father made some adjustments of his own.  In front of the bed, he added a huge navy bean bag on the floor.  And he had my mother whip up some matching pillows and curtains.
            My father showed the van to everyone.  After a party, he would take a group of giggling, swaying teachers out to the van, and show them the interior.
            From my bedroom I would hear my father in the driveway, “The carpet on the walls creates insulation, so the kids are warm when we camp.”  And, “You can hook this cable up to here, and plug it into an electricity source.  That way you can keep the red light going all through dinner.”  Then I would hear Mozart blaring.  My father was creating a mood.
            “Where do you eat?” a teacher would scream above the music.
            “We throw a plastic tarp on the bed and all sit Indian style.  We keep the dishes in here.” I’d hear my father open up a sliding door to the wooden cabinet under the bed. 
            My mother never came on these tours.  And it only just recently occurred to me that the van might have embarrassed her. 
            The only other person who loved the van was my brother Erik, who took it on dates. 
            So it was during Spring Break of that Senior Year that my family piled in the van and took off for Paris.  We found a little campsite on the edge of the city, and set up camp, attaching a crude tent to the side of the van.  After a day of sight seeing, we would come back to the van, throw a tarp on the bed, turn on Mozart and the red lights, and eat dinner.  After dinner, we would either take a walk or play bridge.
            What I remember most about our time in Paris was that Versailles was closed.  We still have pictures of us locked outside the famous palace.  The three kids climbing on the wrought iron gates, posing like thieves. Erik, his face barely visible beneath his tangled, curly hair.  Keir, seven years old, blonde and rosy like Cupid, pointing to Erik as he scales the gate.  And I’m wearing a pair of purple wrap around pants that balloon around my ankles as I pretend to give Erik a boost.
            At the end of the week, we took the tent addition down, rolled it up, packed up our two cots and started home.  An hour shy of the German border, the van lurched three times, sputtered, and came to a dead stop.  We all stared straight ahead and breathed a collective breath. Like the second before a race or a parachute jump, the stillness of this moment created in me laser-like concentration on the tiniest of details.  The curtains fluttered just slightly, my mother’s hand twitched before she brought it down on the armrest; Erik turned his head slowly to look at me.  We sat, paused in time, for a minute or two, maybe half an hour, who can tell?  I only know that we could have drifted like that for hours if my father hadn’t leaned over, turned off the Mozart and pulled the emergency brake with a scrape that sliced through the air, jerking us into consciousness and dread.  Erik and I shifted on the bed.  Keir got out of the beanbag, crawled up into the bed with us, burying himself deep into the covers.  We focused our attention on my father who expelled a Zeus sized sigh.   He looked ahead at the highway stretching ahead of us through the countryside, and said,  “Give me the book.”
The Idiot’s Guide to the Volkswagen was a dog-eared tome that was kept in the cupboard, under the bed.  I fished around for it, found it, and handed it to my father.  He stared at the cover for a moment, then opened the book.  He moved past the table of contents to Chapter One:  Finding Everything?  We watched as my father started to read.  He turned the first page of the 300-page book.  We looked at each other.  He turned the second page.  My mother rolled down her window.  He turned the third page, snapped the book shut and barked, “OK, everybody out!”  My mother swung open the passenger door and hopped out.  I reached over, slid open the side door and the kids spilled out onto the spiky brown grass.  My father walked around front of the van, and joined us on the side of the road. 
 “Stay here, “ he said.  “If I don’t return, flag someone down and have them take you to the nearest American Express.” 
For some reason, the American Express was the solver of all problems.  We nodded.  My father hugged us all and started to walk along the edge of the highway.  We watched him get small.  Then he stopped.  He stayed still for a moment, his black trench coat flapping in the wind.  He turned and looked out over the fields, like Wellington.  We watched him, motionless, waiting for the next thing.  He flapped for a while, then turned and walked back toward us.  His walk was slow and deliberate. 
When he reached us, he looked above our heads as he gave us our instructions.  “Brett and Mom will sit here and wait for help.  Try to flag down an American car that can take us to an American Express.  I will walk across the field and look for a town of some kind.  Erik and Keir will walk along the highway and search for high ground.”
            When Erik tells the story, he claims that he thought he was supposed to look for high ground in case it started raining and a flood threatened the van.  I thought it was clear that he was to look for high ground so that he could see if there was an American Express within walking distance. 
            I was pleased with my assignment.  Erik and Keir looked at each other, Keir raising his shoulders like, “I’m with you.”  My father cleared his throat, pivoted, and crossed the highway.  After watching him start to hack his way through a high wheat field with his hands, Erik turned to Keir and said, “Come on.”  They started out along the highway, Erik moving with energy and Keir following a sluggish 30 feet behind.  My mother and I sat down on the prickly grass and waited. 
            As sun started to throw amber light across the fields, we lay back on the ground and chatted.  I filled my mother in on my summer job search.  She talked about a favorite kid in class.  My hand pulled pieces of grass out of the dry dirt. 
            This is all I’ve ever really needed.  To feel grass poke through the fabric of my shirt, as I lie next to my mother talking about nothing in particular. 
            Clouds began to gather and we started to shiver, but made no move to get sweaters from the van.  It could have been half an hour, maybe two.  I know it was darker by the time we sat up and saw my father emerge from the wheat across the way.
            “I made a phone call,” he said, breathing heavily.  “And I think someone will be coming from a local gas station.  We will spend the night in the van on their lot.  Where are the boys?”  We looked down the long stretch of highway, and saw two figures making a shadowy approach. 
“Maybe they found an American Express,” said my father as he slid the van door open and climbed in, reemerging with a half-full jug of red wine, which he poured into a paper cup.  He sipped and watched my brothers take shape. The sky turned purple and a thin line of orange bled across the top of the wheat. 
              Eventually a tiny French car arrived and the family jammed into it as the tow truck pulled the van in front of us. 
            “Now I don’t think there’s an American Express near by,” said my father.  The Frenchman looked at my father and smiled a standard smile.  “We’re going to have to figure something out because I used up our francs at the last rest stop.  I don’t think they’re going to take Dollars or Marks in such a small town.”
            “We may just have to split up the olives and the salami that’s under the bed,” my mother said.
            Erik looked down.  “I ate the olives.”
            “Oh, honey,” said my mother.  “What about the salami?”
            “I think there’s a couple of slices left.”
Our driver followed the van as it pulled into a one-pump gas station.  We watched in silence as a couple of men in black jackets unhooked the van from the tow truck.  After a moment, my father said, “this is the last night we will spend in the pretzel van.  Make sure you collect anything of importance in the morning.  We will be driven to the train station at 6:00 AM.  So I suggest we sleep in our clothes.”  The little French driver nodded at my father, then looked back at us.
            “Audrey,” my father said to my mother, “ I think you should join me as I look for items to sell to these gentlemen,”
            “Of course,” she said. 
This is where Erik’s memory of it and mine sync up.  We both remember the gas lantern hung on the side of the van, shining a circle of light onto a patch of dirt.  We remember the carnie atmosphere, my father standing in the dim light like a barker, describing the items that we kids brought out of the van.  A modest crowd gathered.  How did they know?  Had someone from the garage run across the fields to the neighboring village, and yelled, “Come see?”
The first item was a thermos.  I brought it out of the van and handed it to my father who raised it above his head.
 “This is a thermos that I bought for a very good price at the American PX,” he said.  “It keeps hot things hot.  And cold things cold.”  He spoke entirely in English, and although the gathered folk surely did not understand him, neither he nor they seemed to care. 
He passed the thermos to a Frenchman who looked at it, shrugged, and passed it on.  The thermos made the rounds and ended up in Erik’s hands.  Erik placed it on the ground in front of my father. 
            “I had hoped to have this thermos for many years to come,” my father went on.  “But we cannot take it home.  So I will part with it for 10 francs.”
He looked at the audience.  They looked at each other, shuffled, and said nothing.  Letting the moment hang, my father reached into the van and retrieved his paper cup of wine.  He took a sip, looked into the French faces, and said, “I could go as low as seven francs.” 
A Frenchman raised his hand. 
“Yes,” my father said, pointing to the man who exhaled cigarette smoke and said, “duex francs.” 
My father paused, looked at my mother and asked, “two?” 
My mother nodded.
            “Two it is,” he said, his voice picking up energy. Erik picked up the thermos and carried it over to the man. My father leaned over to whisper something to Keir, who disappeared into the van.  We listened to rustling from inside while my father walked in a circle in the pool of light.  Red wine sloshed in the soggy cup.  After a moment, Keir emerged, dragging out a puffy sleeping bag, which he laid out flat in front of my father like a body.
“This is an American sleeping bag,” said my father, raising his cup, “ordered from the Sears Catalogue.  It is dark blue on the inside and light blue on the outside.  The zipper is broken.  But that can easily be fixed.  I would be willing to part with this for 20 francs.”
            The group shifted.  A man flicked a lit cigarette on the ground and walked away.  A woman knelt and touched the bag.  My father smiled down at her.  She turned over a corner of the fabric and ran her hand along the inside.
“Duex francs,” she said.
            My father’s face fell.  He sipped his wine and looked in the remaining faces. 
“Duex francs,” he nodded. 
            Erik and I remember most of the items going for two francs.  After an hour or so of selling and sharing his red wine, my father’s eyes sparkled like he’d found a part of himself that had been lost.  People drifted away and faded into the countryside, clutching coffee cups, pillows, flashlights, leaving two men sitting on the ground. 
             “And, now,” my father said to the men, “we have our last item.” He nodded to Keir who brought out two curtain rods with curtains on them.  “My wife made these curtains,” he continued, as he walked in a huge semi-circle in front of Keir.  “But the curtains are not made from any ordinary fabric.” He strolled up to Keir and took one of the rods, raising it above his head. “These curtains are made out of American pillow cases.   My wife found the pillowcases for a very good price at the American PX.  She then took them apart, and put them back together again, in the form that you see here.”  He handed the rod back to Keir.  “You cannot find curtains like this anywhere.  Because they’re really American pillowcases.”
            The two Frenchman said something to each other, turned to my father and shrugged.  My father stood in front of the curtains and said, “I am willing to part with these pillowcase curtains for a loaf of bread and some cheese.” The men shook their heads, rose and left.
            My father turned to my mother and me and said, “Time to find some dinner.” We collected our scarves, locked up the van, and followed my father across a huge field, walking toward what looked like a small village. 
“We have 26 Francs,” my father yelled back at us.  “I would have made more if the zipper on the sleeping bag worked.
My mother yelled up to him, “I don’t think anything’s going to be open, Fred.  It’s at least nine o’clock.  And besides,” she said, breaking into a jog.  ”I don’t think 26 francs is going to go very far.” 
 “We just have to be creative, that’s all,” said my father.
Erik caught my eye.  “Dad’s loving this,” he said.  “I had to talk him out of popping the lenses out of his glasses and selling the frames.”
“I’m so hungry I want to cry,” I said.  Cold air stung my lungs with every quick breath.           
“I can’t see how there’s going to be anything in that village,” Erik said.
“Come on,” my father bellowed, “I see something.”
We raced toward the edge of town and, finally, gathered in a clump around a heavy dark wooden door leading to a restaurant.  On the balcony above our heads, we could see a couple of empty, white table-clothed tables. My father looked at the menu in a glass box outside the door.
“Well, according to this,” he said, “we have enough for a filet with french-fries and a glass of house merlot.” 
            “I’m hungry,” I whined.
“I’m pretty sure there will be free bread on the table,” my father continued.  “Here’s what we’ll do.  It’ll look too obvious if the whole family just orders one meal and we all eat it.  So we’ll send your mother in.  She will sit at one of the tables on the balcony and throw bread over the side.  She will eat only a third of her meal.  Then she will complain of a stomach ache and ask to take the rest of the meal home.”
“Fred,” she said.
“What?  This is a good plan, Audrey.  You look normal. No one will question you.”
“Why would they question anything, Fred?”
“Audrey, we can’t just go into a restaurant like this and order one meal.  I’m not sure they’d even let us do that.”
My mother looked up at the balcony.  “Why wouldn’t they?” she asked.
“They’re French.  Audrey.  They’ve got their own rules about things.  Especially when it comes to food.  It’s best not to draw any attention to ourselves.”
“I’ll go in,” I said.   I wanted to eat a pile of bread.
“I don’t think you’re the best choice, Brett,” my father said.  “You’re a young woman, and the waiter may become interested in you.  If I go in, they’ll expect me to order more, because I’m a man.  Keir’s too young, and Erik will forget about us and just eat everything.”
Erik’s eyes widened as my mother cased the balcony.
“OK,” she said, “I will sit at the table on the end.” She tugged at the bottom of her jacket, ran her hand through her hair, and walked through the door.  My father lifted a finger to his lips and pointed to an area beneath the balcony.  We padded after him, across the springy, damp grass. As we stood with our backs against a scratchy wall, we heard my mother say, “Merci, Monsieur.  Un Merlot, sil vous plait.”  Footsteps retreated. 
My mother whispered loudly, “Are you there?”
My father coughed.  More footsteps.  My mother said, “merci.”  After a moment, a white bundle landed at our feet.  Erik grabbed it, untied the napkin and passed out rolls.
            Minutes later, my mother brought down a doggie bag of a very nice cordon bleu and a crepe. After each of us had a nibble, we traipsed back through the field towards the garage.  Me, behind my mother, the damp long grass sliding along my calves.  Stars sprayed across the sky.  I watched my father’s back as he moved with purpose, Erik skipping to keep up with him.  I looked back at Keir, poking through the grass, pulling it through his fists as he looked up at the Big Dipper.  The gas station glowed dimly ahead of us.  I felt like we were suspended in something ordinary and beautiful.
When we got to the gas station, we clamored into the van.  The light from the gas station came in through the rear window.  The curtains, tangled around their rod, lay across the front seats.
            “I don’t see any reason to put up the tent,” my father said, grabbing a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream from under the bed.  He poured it into a jar and passed it to my mother.  “We’ll just double up.  Keir with your mother and me on the bed.  Erik and Kris on the beanbag.  This was my plan all along.  The beanbag is useful, and I didn’t think it would fetch a fair price.  So we’ll use it tonight and carry it on the train tomorrow.”
            My mother sat on the bed and sipped her Bailey’s.  “That’s going to be a lot to take on the train, don’t you think?”  She said. 
            “Well that was my first thought,” my father said.  “But then I remembered the bungee chords.  We’ll bind the bedding and curtains together with a few of the bungees and you can carry it like a sack on your back.  Erik and I can carry the tent.  Brett will take the two suitcases, and Keir will take the beanbag.  I think he can even drag it behind him if we bungee the tarp around it.” We looked around the almost bare, shag blue interior of our van. “Now, let’s play a game of Bridge,” my father said.  “Keir and Mom will play like one person.  That way mom can coach him on his bidding.”
            We piled into the center of the bed. 
As my father dealt, he said, “Now work in your teams.  It’s all about remembering and anticipating.”   And he picked up his cards. 
Erik says that he doesn’t remember playing Bridge that night.  But I am sure I’m right.  We are fixed there in dim light.  My mother holding her jar of Bailey’s as she looks at Keir’s cards over his shoulder.  Erik’s knees pulled up, peeking at me from behind his cards.  And my father, flushed and twinkling, like a benign lord.  
Erik, Me, and Keir outside of Versailles


  1. Brett, I am so loving everything you write, this is fascinating and I can't wait to read it every day. Really spectacular.

  2. Stunning writing. Flawless, Brett. So moving, evocative and specific - your dad in lantern light, hawking your worldly goods - and happy. Touching and hilarious. Thank you.