The basement tapes

Emerging from the tunnel into sensible, affluent Austria the motorway floated down over the fields on raised concrete pillars. Southern Austria has a more gentle landscape of rolling hills and lakes. We skirted the southern shore of the Worthersee, that I thought merited a look. Cyclists, joggers, and walkers were out in force, wearing their understated earth tones and pedometers. Wrapping around to the Northeasten corner of the lake, we stopped and pooled our euro realising we had exactly enough for a beer and a sandwich each to the cent. After that we headed out onto the motorway that snaked it’s was through the hills to Graz.

Graz is a pretty, mid-size Austrian town set on a river. Its famed for producing the condom stuffed with walnuts, as Clive James puts it, the governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, though a local we got chatty with told us he doesn’t want a bar of the town anymore after they went to the trouble of naming the footy stadium after him. We found a nice central spot to park and wandered the pedestrianised centre. Some French architect had build a bubblelike building of glass and honeycombed steel and plonked it mid stream in the river, and we went there for a pricey beer and to watch the uninviting water flow past. We then walked back past the funicular through the lanes of the old city, where we stopped for some sausage as night fell. Sated (15 is my limit on schnitzengruben), we retired to the van and manged to wake up ahead of the parking inspectors.

Al in front of Murinsel bubble cafe in Graz

Continuing north we headed for Vienna. The motorway was particularly uninteresting on this long stretch of tarmac, belting out monotonously across the plains. I’ve been to Austria a few times before, but always to ski so I was looking forward to seeing the coffee shops and east-meets-west ambiance of Vienna. As usual, my mind was warped by repeated viewings of The Third man, and the traffic filled reality didn’t instantly press it’s charms upon me. We drove aimlessly around the centre at a crawl, but after eight hours behind the wheel I just wanted to layabout so we followed a bus/tram lined road to the western edge of town and the Vienne-Ost camping ground.

Checking the emails again it seemed that a bloke from Glastonbury was genuinely keen on the van, god knows why, and was prepared to fly out to buy it. I gave him a ring to calm his nerves and dance around the topic of the van’s condition. I told him about the missing exhaust, but thought I’d have one last crack at fixing the speedo so didn’t mention this. He was prepared to pay our asking price, but could only fly to Salzburg. about 500 clicks to the west. I agreed, figuring even if wasn’t as good as he reckoned, he’d have to be fairly committed to buying once he got here.

This was an excellent piece of news, giving us a nice cash boost and somewhat vindicating our decision not just to buy the van, but also to skip town on the mechanic in the Pyrenees two months ago before he could have our engine out. However, we’d also grown attached to our brown van and I still wonder if it would have made it all the way to Australia. Probably not.

We had a few days of sunning ourselves in the campground before having to go. We had a last sentimental ride on our bikes, which we ‘d included in the deal. I’ve had 5 bikes stolen in thieving London, but this had been the best one I’d pedaled. But the shipping costs were more than it’s secondhand value. We’d be vanless soon, with only what we could carry on our backs, so we rationalised our gear, sent a couple of boxes of stuff off, then went for a overdue haircut. Bequiffed, we had an afternoon beer in a beer garden attached inspiredly to a psychiatric hospital, and watched the patients pair off and quiz each with clipboards on the grounds. We figured they were more likely mild depressives or bratwurst fearers then the rock back and forth in your own filth type of psychiatric patients.

The next morning, I set about trying to fix the speedometer. The Haines manual devoted a cursory two paragraphs to it, with a photo from a different model van. After poking around again under the dashboard to no avail, i tried to trace the cable to the left front wheel. To get a proper look at it, I would have had to disassemble the wheel housing, something I lacked the tools or the time to do, but I did notice on the photo of the termination of the the cable under the hubcap, there appeared to be a little circlip that mine lacked. It was worth a shot, and after driving to about seven dealers and mechanics, I found one that specialised in older model VW’s. The chief mechanic, after making some jokes in german to his laughing crew as I stood there giving him my best stare of contemptuous indifference, finally wandered to the storerooms and through me a  tiny c-clip on his return. Outside in the street, I fitted it and with only moderate hopes gunned the van out into the street. Success! for the first time since the outskirts of London months ago, the needle bounced into life and the odometer resumed its rolling on 99,000 km. It seemed like a small thing, the van seldom threaten to break any speeding laws, but I reckon not having a speedo would have put a lot of buyers off.

We headed out to Salzberg on the van’s last voyage with mixed emotions. I was glad that we’d found a buyer and stood to recover a hunk of cash that standing by the van in the mechanics forecourt in the Pyrenees had seemed unlikely. But we had grown quite fond of our little home, of cooking breakfasts as storms raged against the windows, or waking up to the sound of gulls next to the Atlantic. From now on we we would be at the mercy of train and bus schedules, of hotels and hostels, of leaving backpacks in station lockers and lobbies. And a small amount of anxiety was mixed in as well, that the van not breakdown as the sale was within our grasp. However this anxiety was forgotten quite quickly, as the stunning rugged mountain scenery of Salzkammergut took all our attention away. We passed one beautiful alpine lake, but couldn’t bring ourselves to drive past the second, and turned off at the Mondsee and parked by it’s shores. Swans herded there cygnets around on the grassy shore, and the craggy mountains were reflected on the lake’s still surface in the late afternoon light. After a refreshing beer we continued in the dark to Salzburg. Karina and I had come to this pretty old town before we married, enroute to skiing in the good Bad Gastein. It had been winter then, and snow had covered the town and overlooking castle, and we had wandered markets drinking hot gluwein past boutique store and overblown Mozart chocolate shops (I never understood the Mozart-Chocolate connection), joining the throngs of stately couples in fur coats.

This time we had a beer in a Irish pub next to the icy town river that because of a cookin’ guitar duo playing there became several. I was woken up at some evil hour of the morning by a policeman banging on the window. Dressing, and holding back the urge to throw my voice, I found the road I’d parked in had become a clearway with me blocking one lane of the early morning traffic. While Karina slept, I drove around looking for the airport, unintentionally seeing several different neighbourhoods of the town before stumbling across it and falling asleep in the Airport carpark. I was helpless without my GPS. We roused just before the buyer John’s flight had arrived and were having coffee when I saw a bloke who instinct told me was the one. He was with his 5 year old daughter, and seemed relieved that so far he hadnt completely wasted his time. I babbled a bit about the van, though I wasnt in a great selling mood owing to the hangover. He took a first inspection and immediately noticed more rust than I’d noticed myself, as well as the scratches and off-colour attempt at hiding them. I offered to drive first and explain the nuances of the van, but underneath I was afraid he’d get in and immediately start grinding the gears as is very easy to do, or the van would hiccup as it does sometimes deaccelerating sharply.  I said we were looking for the train station but the road signs took us to a freight station, and we became lost as we tried to navigate together. By the time we found the station he seemed happy that the van ran well and pulled out his wedge of cash without offering to drive first. We did the paperwork, wished him good luck on his intention to drive with his daughter straight back to England, then jumped on the first train to Vienna. Arriving, we stopped for a coffee at one of the overpriced yet lovely street cafes and Karina made me take out the cash from my bulging pocket that was making me look even happier than I was, and put the rolls of twenties somewhere safer.

We caught the afternoon EC train to Budapest, and as the train rolled over the wide Hungarian plains that lie south of the Danube, I was gently rocked into a happy daydream as I imagined how long this windfall would last us in a place like India.

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