How to quit worrying, ditch your job, and ramble Europe in a ’90s spacevan: Part 3

Matthew Anderson is an American engineer who relocated to Germany a few years ago for work. He suffers from a baffling obsession with unexceptional cars from Australia and the Eastern Bloc. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions, especially now that his move back to the Carolinas (with a shipping container housing a Moskvich, among other nonsense, in tow) has been such a tragicomic delight. To welcome him home to the U.S., we’ve decided to bless him with a dedicated column called “Against All Oddities.”–Eric Weiner

In Part 2 of this tale, we covered how a well-loved, much-personalized Hobby 600 camper found itself in my driveway. It had its share of idiosyncrasies and needs that I earmarked for future attention. This was going to be “home” for my wife and I over the subsequent three months as we traveled Europe, so we deemed a moderate degree of personalization (and sanitization) to be necessary.

Our handful of local test trips, ahead of the big adventure, confirmed a few … deficiencies: no water, no toilet, and a generally itchy, crawly feeling upon walking around inside. But it ran great! The Fiat-based motorhome (Wohnmobile to Germans) drove perfectly, which greatly lightened the sense of renovation burden. Still, we had a whole heap to do.

Lukas inspecting the outdoor area. Matthew Anderson

The first essential step was to install a rear-view camera. I did not relish the thought of cracking my bumper on a tree, person, or animal. Then again, running 20 feet of wire through 30-year old cabinetry and fiberglass seemed like a recipe for an electrical fire. Luckily, technology has progressed to the point in which a small, stowable dashboard monitor can broadcast the exact image of whatever I’m about to damage using only local wiring mods at the camera and display locations. The system needed 12 volts of power, so I bought a spare tail light housing on eBay and soldered the camera wires into the reverse light bulb housing and made a small mod to hold the camera and transponder. There were already two mystery wires dangling out of the dash, and—luck of lucks!—they happened to be ground and switched for 12 volts. Dead easy!

I’ll still back over things, of course. Just more carefully and with more awareness. Matthew Anderson

I turned over the Hobby’s interior decorating to my wife, who is more capable in this arena. She declared the theme would be “That Airbnb we stayed at in Istanbul that one time,” and soon, shipping boxes from the world over landed on our steps. Custom, pineapple-embroidered lace curtains from Turkey? Yeah! Green stick-on tiles from India? For sure! Carpet from as far off as neighboring Ludwigsburg? You know it! In short order, what was once a dingy compilation of thrifted textiles and upcycled plastic containers (see Part 1 of this series for confirmation) rapidly evolved into a living quarters of lace, gold, turquoise, and vintage East German light fixtures. Lots of pillows and a full-sized memory foam mattress rounded out the bedroom/rainy day hangout den. Bringing the seating areas to period perfection involved yet more online marketplace plundering, plus a snowy drive up to Hanover to pluck and complete grey-brown upholstery set. Matthew Anderson

Just look at those Indian tiles and fresh bargain basement carpet!Then, because in nature there is an equal and opposite reactions to every action, the beautification of our van was paused so I could fix the plumbing.

The previous owner’s long-held strategy was to simply rip out any plumbing system that wasn’t working. That meant no shower, no hot water heater, no faucets, no grey or fresh water storage, and a toilet converted to onion and potato storage. (We have the remnant peels as evidence.) Given the total absence of functioning systems, the Hobby’s plumbing predicament required a re-think rather than a rebuild:

What would we really need on the road in Southern Europe over the course of a summer?

Hot water? Nah, a kettle will do.

An indoor shower? I’ll rinse off with the birds and fish, thank you.

Running water for dinner cleanup, plus hand, teeth, and face washing would be nice, though. Oh, and a sailboat-style chemical toilet for emergencies. Gray water collection was feasible using drains plumbed straight down and into portable storage containers.

It’s time to go Plumb Crazy! Matthew Anderson

So, it was settled. I took some measurements of the area under the dinner-eating-and-cribbage-playing bench and located the largest fresh water tank possible—10 Euro via eBay Kleinanzeigen. The only issue was that the external fresh water fill was on the wrong side. Annoying, but nothing 10 minutes, a hack saw, and MAP gas torch couldn’t fix. That’s all it took for me to relocate the filler weld the old hole plastic shut. On top of that, I had ordered some food-safe PVC tubing for the external fill and removed the European-style hose fitting so that it could be filled from anywhere, regardless of regional conventions. A lightly used Shur-Flo on-demand pump completed my hardware install. An on-demand pump contains an internal pressure switch that turns it on or off, rather than the faucets containing a microswitch to kick on the operation. The advantage of this: Pressure is constant, just like at home, meaning the water flows freely and on demand. The disadvantage: If we spring a leak, ergo lose pressure, the pressure switch just assumes you’re brushing your teeth really, really well and will happily empty 100 liters of water … under your bed.

The scavenged water tank fit so snugly that no mounting was required. Matthew Anderson

Why the bed? Well, I had just gotten done connecting the pump and faucets to the hodge-podge of new and existing PVC plumbing, much of it hidden behind paneling. Upon first fire, the pump didn’t stop running, which meant … consequences. I hadn’t thought of my brilliant emergency switch idea yet, which you’ll read about in 45 seconds or so, depending on when you stop laughing at me.

I had clearly not done a proper job of making sure each hose had an ending place, but I realized it too late. The result was approximately 5 liters of water being pumped into our sleeping quarters. After drying it all out, I stuffed small wads of Kleenex in every tube ending I could find in order to isolate which hidden water lines were actually being used. When I hit it with compressed air, spitballs shot out of all offending hose ends. Upon capping all unused T junctions, I repeated the test. Success! Now for adding an emergency shutoff switch …

When I plumb, dear reader, I never make a mess and never get side-tracked. Matthew Anderson

But what about the shower, you ask? Nothing to see here! Our plan involved staying mostly at campgrounds with functioning plumbing services. The outliers will be “rustic” sites, which is Van Person-speak for remote areas where a human outdoor bucket shower would be a newsworthy event for local wildlife. To this end, I picked up a black collapsible bucket to fill and let bake in the sun, while a small USB-rechargeable pump with an 8-foot hose (and shower head already on it) would bring the spray. The whole setup cost 62 Euro. What a world!

Now that that’s all out of the way, we can shift focus to things on which it doesn’t absolutely to work. Being an organized person, my wife championed the notion of procuring devices that bring structure to our otherwise chaotic and spontaneous travels. Spice containers, for example. Tupperware and unbreakable (challenge accepted!) wine glasses. Silverware and cutlery that neither shatters nor clanks. Foam carriers to keep everything secured in the cabinets and zipping ones to keep the clean and dirty clothes separated.

Done. Matthew Anderson

So … where to go? A good friend of mine from college in Australia was marrying his Swiss fiancé in Chianti, Italy, in early June. This at least made waypoint No. 1 and our drop-dead departure date clear. My wife wanted to visit her ancestral home of Albania, so that would serve as waypoint No. 64 or so. The Douro Valley in Portugal was also a must, and it’s right on the way to Albania via France, Spain, and Italy. Timing? We’d figure all that out later. Ideally, we hoped, we’d make it to the wedding for cocktail hour the day before and then make our way to Vlore, Albania. Done. The plan was planned.

Ready to get underway! Remember that scar the Moskvich gave me? Still there. Matthew Anderson

With the upgrades, repairs, and preventative maintenance completed to the best of my crystal-ball estimation, we said our tearful goodbyes and loaded Lukas the Romanian street dog into his bed. We’d thought of everything! I took a deep breath as we aimed for Italy via the Swiss Alps. Our time in Germany was in the rear view, and I was excited for our journey, blissfully ignorant of the fact that I’d neglected to pack a single pair of underwear.

Stop 1: More on that next time. Matthew Anderson
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    Very wise not to try to re-plumb most of those fixtures. Cost-benefit analysis tends to go against RV plumbing repair.

    Clever mount for the camera, too!

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