How to quit worrying, ditch your job, and ramble Europe in a ’90s spacevan: Part 5 (finale)
Matthew Anderson is an American engineer who relocated to Germany a few years ago for work. In his spare time, with reckless abandon, he pursues a baffling obsession with unexceptional Eastern Bloc cars. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions. –EW
In Part 3 of this series, covering the European adventures of me/wife/dog/weird-Fiat-based-camper-van, I shared a photo. In the foreground, Luka looks for a place to relieve himself in the shadow of our Hobby 600 Wohnmobil. In the background, a jagged limestone peak. Not pictured; me repeatedly punching myself in the head for damaging the camper before the first tank of diesel was gone.
Let’s go back a couple of months, shall we? A friend of mine, Marcus, had informed me that the Fiat Ducato van (on which the Hobby 600 is based) boasts a low floor and, hence, relatively low center of gravity. This means lithe handling, for a van, earning it a sporting reputation within the 1980s camper crowd.
Marcus was in my head as we carved up the San Bernardino pass in the Swiss Alps. We were in a hurry. Another friend of mine was getting married the next day and we needed to make it to Chianti in time for the welcome party.
The rhythm of the pass was like Climb Dance but underwater. As each apex came nearer, I fed on the throttle earlier and earlier to gain a leg up on the 2.5-liter turbodiesel’s boost lag. With elevation grew my trust of the camper’s dimensions, which let me push to apex earlier and bring the big side slabs of aluminum ever closer to rocks and guard rails.
Dog and lady were neither impressed nor amused. I would stop after this next one … promise! I cranked the wheel hard right and buried my foot, plastic cutlery clanging in our cabinet. The apex passed under the right-side body overhang. The engine boosted up and the bus started to track out to the left edge of the lane. CRUNCH … DRAGGGGG … CRACK!
My wife and I locked eyes. Lukas looked concerned, too. I pulled off to the side of the road. What greeted me underneath the camper made me sick to my stomach. The leveling jack, which normally hangs down 2-3 inches, was stuck through the subfloor. I walked around and got some fresh air. My only real option was to pile back in the camper and press on.
Our first overnight stop, at a quaint farm overlooking Italy’s Lake Como, allowed further investigation. I asked the farm owner if she happened to have a torch and a vise … but senza fortuna (no luck). She made up for it with a plate of home-cured meats and cheeses. As long as there was no water ingress and the leveling function somewhat worked, I’d have to punt this fix to another day. In the meantime it meant strategically parking to minimize use of that gimpy leg.
That worked for the next four weeks. Now fast forward to the small beach town of Torre de Benagalbón near Málaga, Spain. I’d been keeping one eye open for a metal fab shop or friendly-looking garage, and one popped out of nowhere on our way back to camp from paddle boarding. I sat down at our folding picnic table for a cram session of relevant Spanish vocabulary before riding my bike back down the hill.
Here goes nada, en español:
Matt Anderson: Good day.
Young Metalworker: Hello.
MA: Yes, hello. I have broken my cat (emphæsis on the wrong syllæble) in Switzerland. The cat on my camper. (He lifts it). I have bent him (shows a couple of photos on phone). Can you fix him by cutting him or making him hot with an acetylene surprise?
YM: … Ok, we can fix it. No problem. When you remove it, put it in this pile (gestures a pile of broken gate latches, ladders, and makings of a grill). When do you leave?
MA: Today is Monday. I must drive Thursday. I can install him on “miracles” … sorry, I mean, “Wednesday.”
YM: That is possible, yes.
MA: OK! I apologize for my bad Spanish. Bye.
YM: Relax. Bye.
Well, that was only a little awkward! I scrambled back up the hill and had the jack removed in minutes. Back on the folding Chinese clown bike I went, coasting into the shop entrance in my still-dripping swimsuit. I chucked the leveler on the pile.
On Tuesday, I rode by and noticed my part on the “When We Get Around To It” mound had not yet been gotten around to. I freaked out a little bit and tried to find the young metal worker. I sheepishly called out “…hhhola?” An old fella popped out from behind a big machine, so I was relieved to find someone yet peeved that I’d have to, once again, try to communicate as a toddler does to a full-grown adult.
MA: Good day. I was here in the past. Monday. I have the bent cat over there. The boy said he fixes it by miracles … I mean Wednesday. Maybe you are family with it?
Old Metalworker: … I don’t know about it. Let’s look.
Me: Oh, good. Can you cut him and make a soldier on it? Or make it red and move it?
Old metalworker: I think we can try something a little simpler. Just give me a few minutes to find the right tools.
Me: Super good! Thank you!
I was stunned by this man’s approachability, absolutely friendly demeanor, and willingness to attempt the repair right away. He quickly fixed the jack in a hydraulic vise, wandered every corner of the dirt-floored shop, and returned with a 4-inch box section. Slipping it over the leveler like a Harbor Freight racing jack handle on an unsuspecting 3/8 drive ratchet, he returned it to its original form in one fluid motion. Damn.
I ask what I owe. “Nada,” he says. I won’t stand for that, so I slip him a 10-Euro note and depart with my standard string of gracias-es and apologies for the quality of my Spanish.
I pedaled my garbage bike up the hill, past the fig trees, olive groves, vacation residences, and into the tiny expat-run campground. Channeling the dopamine and adrenaline from my successful interaction and repair, I sealed the floor and bolted the piece back in place while the cooking coals for dinner heated up.
Another crisis, another solution. I think I’ve learned my lesson though when it comes to fast driving and slow repairs. Slow driving and speedy repairs are smarter.
This marks the end of the Space Van series and our adventures with it in Europe, but fear not! The Hobby came home with me to the Carolinas, which means the saga continues. Thanks for reading!