Traveling Journal: 1983 My First Road Trip

Here was the equation: I was a Math student in Strasbourg, I was repairing a house 600 km from there, and I didn’t have a car.

I resorted to multiple tricks to travel back and forth between there and here. I say here because I’m writing from this house now. I tried hitch-hicking, train, traveling with friends. I reached a hard conclusion:

I need a car.

Penniless, I couldn’t dream of anything fancy. A wreck with 200 000 km mileage was my destiny. My freedom resided in the choice of the brand, the shape, and the color.

I picked a Renault R12 because it was common in Turkey and I was often traveling in Turkey.

I chose a “break” which is an English name which means in French “Estate body type”. My plan was to use it to travel around with the possibility to sleep in it. I wished I could buy the Volvo equivalent. It was much more spacious. This stays today as an unrealized dream (#NoteToSelf LetsDoIt).

Renault R12 Break

I settled for a lovely red Renault 12 Break. I like red. The vendor told me that he all repaired it himself. This sound like a benefit. 500$ was the cost, a deal.

Manual gearbox like most cars in Europe.

Now I realized that the next step to freedom was to pass my driving license. I decided long before that I was not good at driving because I was too easy to get distracted. So I never cared to pass my driving license, I even avoided it.

I was 23 years old, in February, when I registered for the exam. I got the formal part and went for driving lessons. I missed the first tentative. I was with a car, insured, but no driving license for two months.

Meanwhile, I beg my friends to come with me and do the practice while doing back and forth travels. We were driving through the night by small roads each weekend. One thousand kilometers every week.

The next tentative was a success, I already had hours of driving behind me and I passed the exam like a breeze.

We were now in April, I was a determined Math student during the week and a happy driver during the weekends.

In the house, here, I turned the cowshed into a car workshop. I arranged the car to fit a small mattress, a water tank for a minimal wash, and shelves for supplies.

Early May I met a girl. I shared with her my plan to travel around East of Turkey with my brand new car, all equipped and all. It was adventurous, exciting and she was willing to share this challenge.

I did a quick tour back here to fix the last details in the car. In the process, I removed some extra parts to save weight and make more space. I left them in the cowshed, right on the floor.
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End June we went, the tank was full of gas, all our stuff packed in the back. We crossed the border, hit the Autobahn and here we go!

We went through Germany at full speed ( like 150 km/h), a short passage in Austria and reached Yugoslavia. We were the king of the road. The road was crossing Yugoslavia from one end to the other. At one end it was Western Europe, at the other one Greece with Asia just behind. We decided to cross the long stretch without stop during the night.
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Life was great! I just graduated in Math, I had a nice house, a red shiny car, a great girlfriend and I was driving south for holidays.

She was driving, early in the morning. We were alone on the road. Belgrade was showing up in the distance. The Doors playing in full volume in the nice sound system I had installed.

Suddenly the car started to accelerate and the engine roared. She couldn’t stop it even when raising her feet from the gas pedal. The only solution was to declutch and kill the engine.

Now we were on the side of the road, smoke rising from the car, hearts still beating fast. My diagnostic was that some of the oil used for cooling the engine went into the combustion chamber. Typical of a failure of the cylinder head gasket. Crap!

Our trip was starting to be as smelly as the car. Stranded in the middle of the highway out of nowhere. No cell phone or Google map at that time. I could speak a bit of the language but not read it.

We hailed a horse cart to drag us out of the highway to the local village. We reached a small local repair shop.

My plan was based on the fact that the car type was common in Western Europe and Turkey. It was unknown in Yugoslavia. Fiat was reigning here under the Zastava name.

The breakdown was severe and no ways to find parts. We spent the night dismounting the car with the mechanic. We examined the damage, trying to repair them. I have a mechanical background so I could be part of the work. My girlfriend was waiting patiently aside.

In the morning we went to Belgrade to the Renault Dealer shop. It was hopeless, they didn’t support this type. Getting the part was costly and long. Our trip was suddenly coming to a brutal halt after only 1000 km of cavalcade.

I called the assurance (smart move: I took a travel assurance before we left). Calling from Yugoslavia at that time was like calling from a far away place. It was hard to connect, noisy and costly.

The agent was ruthless: It’s not possible to bring back the car or pay the repair. We will pay to bring back your stuff and book plane tickets Belgrade – Strasbourg for both of you.

Our triumphal tour around Turkey enjoying the sea, the sun, the great food was flying away from us.

I made a suggestion. We could pack our bags and continue the trip by hitch-hiking. When we return to Belgrade at the end we would fly back.

My girlfriend turned to face me and erupted:

You are a ____, you screw up with your lousy plan! You promised something you couldn’t hold. I dump you here! right there, right now. I’m going back home, alone!

I was blasted, I didn’t see it coming.

Life was a bastard. I lost my car, I was losing my girlfriend and my options were to spend a sad holiday back in Strasbourg. Something has to be done.

I knelt in front of her, I begged her again, again, and again to give me one more try. We were right in the middle of the hot street, at noon, in the middle of nowhere.

She accepted to take back her decision, we went to Turkey, spent a wonderful time. Our story went over 28 years, we married and had two kids.

I forgot about the car before we reached Turkey. I remembered about it yesterday went I found some of the parts I left behind.

I had my Proust madeleines moment thanks to a #minimalist challenge.

Turkey, Göreme, Troglodytes caves

Turkey, Göreme, Troglodytes caves

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