An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

The Old Country

There was only one way to get to Europe in 1967, if you were a low-rent traveler. Icelandic Airlines flew daily from Kennedy airport in New York City, to Luxembourg, a small duchy squeezed in between Germany and France. Their well-worn Boeing 707 aircraft were notorious for being very crowded, but the price was right.

Keflavik airport, where all Icelandic transatlantic flights make a stop for refueling, is situated on a sea-level mud flat. The climate varies through the seasons, from cold to flash-freezing. The overcast felt like it had not parted in 500 years. The airport building itself was, to say the most, functional. It didn’t help that our third seat mate had spent the entire first leg talking about tuberculosis.

TB, he said, was the curse of the Icelanders. It was the climate, damp and cold and dark, he said. Fully half of all long-term residents of Iceland were infected, including one third of all U.S. naval air personnel assigned there. He himself, a contract civil employee of the U.S. air force, had noticed some unusual changes in his health of late. If he was infected, he would head for the Swiss alps as soon as his contract ran out, to be cured by the mountain air.

After a couple of hours on the ground, to give us plenty of opportunity to buy heavy wool sweaters hand knitted by Icelanders, we re-boarded. Our new seat-mate was coughing when he got on, and kept on coughing all the way to the European mainland. Since he was a native Icelander, who did not speak English, I was left free to imagine any scenario that might explain his condition. Imagining TB, I took as few breaths as possible.

Once on the ground, the July weather was dry, clean, sunny and warm. Luxembourg was a living, breathing picture postcard of old Europa, and our first night was spent in a delightful inn with a mountain view (not hard to come by, since the city (Vaduz) is surrounded by mountains). Next morning, we got on a bus for Frankfort.

Our first European cruising bus, like our first time in bed, was something that will stay with me always. It was so much better than anything I had ever imagined that I couldn’t stop giggling. Seats like armchairs and window glass that went up and up and up: how would I ever get myself into another Greyhound?

We had business in Frankfort. An old buddy who had been stationed in Germany had told us that the best used car deals were to be found there, and we had decided to buy a van to camp out in. Our first stop was – trust me, there is no way I could make this up – Herr Smiling Doktor Jacobi Ford. Determined to hold the price down as low as we could, we turned down VW van after VW van, each slightly more worn than the last. Finally, our sales rep escorted us into a dark, dusty building filled with vehicles of dubious utility, and pointed to a grey and blue van covered with a thin layer of dirt. It was, he told us, the absolute best buy in the house.

We were skeptical. He cheerfully jumped in, turned the ignition key, and it started right up. The tires, he pointed out, while slightly worn, were free of blemishes and holding air. The lights, heater and horn worked. It was cheap. The shift lever, which came horizontally out of the dashboard, took some getting used to, but it ran nicely and had adequate brakes. The motor was underneath the front bench seat. The back looked big enough for a double bed. We took it.

Later, we were to find out that our nifty itinerant bedroom had been designed for use as an in-town delivery vehicle. Weighing more than a Volkswagen van, and driven by an Austin A-40 engine meant to power a vehicle half its size, it would prove to have been a poor choice for sustained-high-speed all-day driving. At the time, however, we were ecstatic. We had successfully completed our first foreign transaction.

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