That new car smell

An unpublished excerpt from the original manuscript.

With the money in the bank, I indulged my fantasy for a new car; not just any car but the about-to-be-launched year 2000 celebration Volvo V70 model wagon, custom made to my specifications, with all the bells and whistles—power steering, remote door locking, stereo radio and record player, leather upholstery, walnut paneling and even a sun roof. “Just come over and collect it.” My dream car could be waiting for me in a month, in Sweden. As a convinced Volvo driver I dealt with the agency near me and was aware of the promotion encouraging the buyer to collect his vehicle in Sweden, enjoy a European holiday, and deliver the car back to Volvo for shipping to New York, and there is more! The offer suggested Volvo would pay airfares to and from the United States, for two people, arrange hotel rooms as needed at both ends of the trip, and ship the vehicle to New York at no charge. How could I resist? As a clincher, my new car would cost considerably less than if bought from the showroom in Huntington. A sweet deal indeed! The project worked perfectly and would include everything the promotion offered. I decided this was the time to invest in a dreamt-of European Grand Tour, while running-in my new wheels.

SAS brought me to Gothenburg, a bus dropped me and bags at my hotel, for the night, and first thing next morning I called Volvo to say I was on my way. A cab ran me to the factory delivery center to greet the manager, sign the papers and accept the keys. Sitting in an open foyer sat a truly beautiful new dark iridescent green V70 Volvo wagon, smiling at me—a case of love at first sight. I paid close attention to all suggestions and recommendations, and welcomed a solo spin around the test track to try out all the buttons and switches of my elegant Swedish machine. The sunroof slid silently, the radio crisply clear, the windows dropped out of sight, and the luscious smell of leather upholstery was intoxicating. With license plates, insurance policy, roadside service contract and a tankful of gas I was out on the road for the first day in my new car, heading for another great adventure. I gave myself a mini tour of the city, stopping by the art museum and civic gardens, an open plaza to see Carl Milles’ great bronze Poseidon and other park areas dating from the 1923 World’s Fair. By late afternoon as the excitement tempered slightly, I realized I was hungry and tired and ready for an early night. There is only so much excitement you can crowd into a single day.

Next morning, 1 September, I saw the locals well wrapped in anoraks and caps—summer fades as august ends. I was parked outside the railway depot, and on schedule to collect Magnus just in from Stockholm. He had agreed to join me for the first leg of my Grand Tour. His wife, My, thought it a great idea. We set off south on the highway to Halsingborg to visit Martin, his youngest son, to see the twins and share a light meal, before driving on through the evening to Trelleborg, heading for the overnight Ferry to Travemonde in Germany.

Referring to my daily journal, I vividly recall the break-out new car trip in 2000, as an absolutely total joy-ride. After my first day on the road I was in a state of happy rapture: the car was a dream and totally responsive to my every command. The beige–tan leather interior nicely complimented the iridescent dark emerald body work. Over the hills and faraway we zoomed to an easy 90 mph, the legal limit is 120 mph, clearly plenty in reserve when passing slower vehicles. At the port, I joined a queue of holiday traffic and loaded at 9 PM for a 10pm sailing. This huge ferry has parking on the two lower decks with accommodation on the five decks above. A light snack and I was under the covers and ready for sleep in my white cabin, with the steady thrum of the engines far below, but without a creak, a roll, or the cry of a gull to tell me I was at sea. A great first day, a few hundred kilometers on the speedo, and this long dreamt-of European holiday was well begun.

September 2: I was on deck early, a faultless morning, cool and clear, as we arrived in the river harbor, our German point of entry. After breakfast we rolled off the ferry and joined the queues waiting to present passports. Then we were heading for the motorway, and steady boy!—this is Germany! Magnus my instructor goes over signs and the thinking necessary to drive the autostrada, where distance is everything—a ‘stav’—a jam-up where traffic comes to a stop, is not uncommon. The principal points to observe: stay alert, eyes on mirrors and ahead, and apart from that, enjoy the buzz of driving at 90 mph and with no speed restrictions unless posted, you and your car can test each other. This was wildly exhilarating, the low tiled-roofed villages sitting among wooded valleys zipped by with an occasional copper spire as exclamation point as we headed south into the sun. We passed close to Lubeck, headquarters of the Hanseatic League; a union of Sweden and adjacent countries as a strong trading bloc in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. We bypassed Hamburg and by way of maps, great road signs and Magnus’s intuition we reached Spangenberg, a small country town in a green valley, dominated by the castle above, where we were headed for lunch. We walked the winding road to the outer walls, through the gate and bridge over the moat up to the heights and the inner courtyard where a sunny dining room looked over the terrace to the village below. A lunch of fresh chanterelle broiled in butter with salad and a light pilsner quite perfect. Magnus has lost any links to this ancient family seat. The serving girl was surprised to see the name Spangenberg on his credit card, but charged us none the less. I spotted the blue and yellow Swedish flag fluttering from one of the spires, and was thrilled to have lunch in the country seat of a Spangenberg descendant. Europe is soaked in romantic legends and ancient lineages.

Elevated by good food and faultless ambience, we sped further south to bypass Frankfurt and arrive in historic Wiesbaden, in late afternoon. Clever Magnus with his ever-ready cell-phone called the Hotel Hansa to reserve two rooms and parking for my car. Quite simple, clean and central we had the early evening to walk ourselves into an appetite. Pepper steak and wild mushrooms, with a glass of red wine was an excellent supper. With more surprises up his sleeve, Magnus called friends who lived in an adjacent building and we were invited over for coffee and to spend the evening with a German film editor—long-time friend of Magnus’ wife and a black performance artist, which encouraged some delightful exchanges of the international kind, especially after we emptied a bottle of Champagne. As we sauntered the three blocks home I reflected on how a good friend from my Swedish existence can be showing me aspects of Germany, while I’m heading to Italy to visit my Russian sculptor friend. And all because I’ve flown to Sweden to collect my new left-hand-drive Volvo. Ain’t Life Grand ? I thought, as I dropped into the black depths of sleep.

September 9: The luxury of waking to another ‘Where am I?’ sort of morning, and an early stroll for breakfast at street level. Discovering the huge market square and the tapering brick spires of the church, then disappearing into a labyrinth of narrow streets in the old town. I was easily attracted to a very tasteful flower shop, with a collection of stunning “bouquets to go,” amongst vases, candles, foliages and glass tanks of gorgeous greenhouse flowers. Just another flower shop? Sure but with great style—a very long way from Hereford Street.
Our promenade brought us to the Kurhaus (cure house) in the heart of Wiesbaden, a huge 1900s bath house, complete with fountains, concert halls, and staircases and galleries filled with sculpture and carved texts, all impressively boring, but huge. Through parks and pools, a cool allée of chestnuts between acres of immaculate lawns, we walked back to our hotel eager to escape the overwhelming grandeur of it all. I pondered how all these acres of roofs and conservatories had survived the wars? While it was tempting to linger and explore more of this celebrated spa town I was anxious to be back on the road, this time heading south towards Darmstadt, on past Mannheim towards alluring Heidelberg, the medieval university town with the spurious glamour of having been the setting for Romberg’s impossibly romantic operetta, The Student Prince. Sitting astride the river Neckar, the old town is pretty much as it was, apart from some rebuilding in the early 1700s. Set among forests high above the river and town, the mighty castle dominates the valley with its rosy brick shaded towers and turrets, hollow facades and empty windows, luring visitors to climb up and explore. I could hardly wait for tomorrow. Magnus reserved rooms near the Bayerischer Bahnhof, we dined overlooking the river, exploring immaculate little specialty shops lining the narrow streets as we walked. The really big show came later. On advice we took the car across the river and climbed among the houses and trees to get a grandstand view as the light show began, washes of light illuminated the interior areas of the castle’s spires and towers, while the facade was up-lit from the slopes below. An exciting free theatrical presentation for visitors and locals to enjoy. The stop in Heidelberg was the highlight until now. My source of all knowledge, Magnus informed me Heidelberg was largely undamaged in World War II on account of the American forces setting up their headquarters there, and thus dodged the later Allied bombs.

Back on the road we drove just an hour further south to our next stop, Baden Baden, the most fashionable of the many watering holes along the wooded hills of the Schwarzwald. Compared with the great Central American land mass, Europe is compact, covered with an intricate web of roads, that cross countries, mountain chains, past lakes and through forests, allowing one to drift from country to country in hours rather than days.
The healing saline springs of this still popular spa town have drawn visitors since Roman times. The city, rebuilt and extended over the centuries, hit its peak in the Victorian era, with writers, royalty, and gamblers visiting the Kurhaus, as well as the racetrack and casinos, among formal gardens beside the River Oos. After walking among the formal flower beds, while chubby locals tucked into towering stands of cream cakes, to the strains of waltz and polka, and sampled the waters in the Trinkhalle, we decided to keep moving. I had almost gagged on the air of sentimental nostalgia lingering over this still cherished vacation town of memories and money. However I enjoy the lingering memory of one ensemble. Panama-hatted, a man sat in his electric wheel chair, a woman hung alongside, in black silk trousers, floral jacket and a wide-brimmed black straw hat, stooped but keeping pace, leading a perfectly clipped tall white French poodle. I let this postcard vignette of Baden Baden linger in the camera’s viewfinder as they passed down the Lichtentaler Allée.

We drove to Freiberg, in south-western Germany, for our last night together, with rooms reserved in an old inn, in the medieval section of town. The bells of Freiberg Cathedral played as we took a Sunday morning walk through the squares and back streets of the medieval town, and while remaining a centre of mining and industry, its ancient heart is now a designated historic site. We left Germany on the autostrada through rural country heading south, for Basel and onto Zurich airport. Light, high clouds, an autumnal haze, and temperatures in the 70s as this part of my journey ended with Magnus heading back to Stockholm. I am grateful to have had my multi-lingual friend to help launch this joyful new adventure, and to his wife My for letting him join me.

Everything changed as I headed away from Zurich to Chur, towards the suddenly developing mountains and San Bernardino, through immaculate landscapes, freshly green after autumn rains, past tidy barns on steep evergreen covered slopes disappearing up into the clouds. The Volvo and I were thoroughly enjoying this initial run-in, sunroof open, with Strauss’ Alpine Symphony floating through my stereo system, heading for Lake Como—until we hit traffic, and rather than join the crush, I decided it was time to find my room for the night. Further down the road a tiny albergo sign flashed by, I circled back and found the perfect room, whose shutters opened to the garden with all mod cons—all this and breakfast included for $45.

Next morning I joined traffic heading for Milan, and Genoa, and finally began the descent to the coast on a superbly contoured road, a perfect test for my road holding wagon. A totally rapturous drive, a series of “yippee” moments as I headed along the coast road through an endless series of tunnels, between bright sunlit dashes across viaducts and deep gorges, with glimpses of such cliff-side towns as Portofino, and the silvery sea beyond. With dark glasses on, then off, past towers on hillsides, wooded slopes, passing trucks at high speed, and being passed by flying Mercedes at even higher speeds. After my white-knuckle drive, following Harry’s careful instructions, I sailed into Pietrasanta (under the marble mountains of Carrara) and buzzed the bell at 12 on the dot. Harry, amazed, was certain I’d sat in the car waiting for the moment, and could hardly believe I had driven from Como to his door in only four hours. It wasn’t me, I protested, it was me and my new Volvo wagon.

I was ready for a few days of R&R after the intensity of the last week, and enjoyed catching up with my genius sculptor friend Harry Marinsky, first met in Mykonos some 36 years before. He and his partner had moved from Darien Connecticut to the north-western coastal town of Pietrasanta where the foundry producing his work was located. His story exists elsewhere in these pages. It was exciting to be back in the fonderia where his present work, a larger-than-life edition of his stunning St Francis group was in progress. To make sure I understood the whole process Harry marched me through the workshops to see the doves, and the attendant children, and bits of the saint’s anatomy being prepared for the final casting. Always in awe of his creative ability, I feel certain this late work will perhaps become his most acclaimed sculpture. To celebrate and remember the popular and familiar artist, Pietrasanta city fathers subsequently commissioned the group that today ages gracefully in the town’s piazza. One emotional second edition of this admired work was a commission from the Vatican, by Pope John XXIII, for a copy of the 10-foot bronze to be erected in a monastery garden in Assisi to mark the pontiff’s visit there.

I was expecting a favorite travel buddy, flying in to Pisa from Seattle, Jan Thompson, who would join me for the balance of this European journey. On this trip I hated to waste a minute, so with her flight delayed three hours I used the time to revisit Piazza dei Miracoli (the Square of Miracles) to walk the enclosed grass meadow in the presence of the great cathedral, the baptistery, and Pisa’s famous symbol, the Leaning Tower, on this World Heritage Site. While the angle suggests the eight-story edifice should have fallen centuries ago, it’s still there. The tower has been off limits for years but I’m now reassured that after strengthening you may once again climb the ascending ramp providing you have a head for heights.

After a celebration dinner, a good night’s sleep, and fresh clothes, Jan was ready for a sentimental journey back to revisit the ancient port of Lerichi. Fondly remembered from an earlier visit, we wound down the road through palms, pines and billows of magenta bougainvillea leaning over stone walls to the harbor. The promenade was busy, window boxes spilling bright geraniums, while vivid oleander and luminous blue Plumbago bounced off the pink salmon and gold stucco walls of the quayside houses. The harbor was filled with craft of every kind, especially fishing boats and visiting yachts while the air was a heady mixture of wood smoke, jasmine, fish and above all the smell of the sea. It was still early so we hopped aboard a boat bound for Portovenere, on the tip of the peninsula, across the bay, for a sentimental revisit. The curving facades of houses along the quay, in shades of green, gold and salmon rust were typical of so many Mediterranean ports such as Portofino, but this was the end of the road, with no through traffic. Time for lunch at the quayside. Frito misto for me, a plate full of fried small creatures, fish, squid and anonymous others, with crusty rolls and a tall pilsner, quite perfect. Sitting with Jan, looking over the harbour on this mild afternoon, nothing could improve this moment.

I remember such details when I return to the journal I kept during this trip, with enough sketches of places and people, meals shared, mountains climbed and great works of art discovered to fill a movie script, but they don’t fit into this part of the story. I would only say our shared journey was an ultimate travel climax; having the time, the energy and interest to wander the length of Italy, climb through the mountains to Austria and Switzerland, Germany and France and finally, after reaching Belgium, the time to wander the ancient streets of Bruge, and Brussels. I eventually left my new best friend at Volvo HQ to be shipped back to New York. And thank you Volvo!

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