Casandra on the Edge

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I saw my first van the day after arriving in Amsterdam. It fit what I had in mind, ran great and I got an honest vibe from the owner, so I bought it.

She’s a 1985 VW Bus camper with about 100,000 miles and a 1.9 engine in the trunk. On the inside is a bench seat that folds into a double bed, dual burner propane stove, sink, refrigerator, stereo, electrical outlets and plenty of storage. I’m not usually the type of person to refer to cars and boats as males or females, but the model of this name is ‘Casandra’, so she’s a she.


It took me awhile to figure out how I was going to pull off this whole buying and driving a van in Europe thing. There’s no way for a foreigner to register a car in the EU anymore, but through the grand ole’ internet I found an American expatriate lady who holds registration for foreigners for $50/month. Donna’s big and jolly and waddles when she walks. She runs the business out of her home with her Dutch husband of thirty years.

On Saturday Donna, the seller and I went to the post office together (you can do everything at the post office in the Netherlands; register cars, get you license, ship a package and it’s also your bank) and to my surprise everything went in her name. Whenever I asked any questions, she would tell me “this is how it works, it’s the only way!”

I handed the guy $4500 in cash and got to hold a Title to my van that read the name of a lady I’d met about 45 minutes prior. After the purchase, she tells me she can’t insure it until Monday. I’m thinking, great now I have to leave the van I paid for and have no proof of ownership for, sitting uninsured in the street an hour away from Amsterdam.

“Don’t worry about, I’m not gonna screw yah!” she said, seeing me off.

I meditated on that a few times over the weekend. It’s only money…please let it be there on Monday…it’s only money…

Well she was there on Monday, the both of them. I showed up at ten and after Donna drank her coffee, while laughing at her own jokes about the Dutch, she double clicked to open Microsoft Word. Then she drew up the contract she’d been promising, the contract that supposedly makes this all legal and assures our liabilities to one another. It was one paragraph and read something like this….

Mr. Morgan paid for the car, but I registered it.
He can sell it if he wants, but he has to tell me.
If he takes off or anything, I’m going to call the
police because I will have to do lots of paperwork.

“How’s that look, OK?” she asked me.

I laughed saying, “yeah, looks good to me” and scribbled next to the X.

Out came some more money. I had to pay insurance and her fee for six months, which totaled $1100. There was also the surprise road tax to pay…$250. Good thing I’d taken out some extra cash in case of “hidden costs” After all was paid for; I had exactly 75 Euros left in my wallet.

The last piece was to go and pick up the inspection certificate. The seller had had it done on Saturday, but I had to wait until Monday for the paperwork.

“Oh you can’t drive it yet, I haven’t heard back on the insurance,” Donna tells me.

Her insurance guy spent about three hours in meetings, on the phone and on the toilet. I spent them playing around in the back of my new home, which was parked on the street in front of Donna’s place. Finally he came through and I was good to go.

“What’s the coverage amount?” I asked.

“100%” she said happily.

“What about on my side…like theft and collision?”

“Oh you can’t get that!” she says with a now familiar tone that says she thought I knew it.

“You mean all I have is liability? I thought you said it was like rental car insurance?”

“Well it is, because anyone can drive it, but nooooo, you can’t get that. Even if you could it would be too expensive. You wouldn’t want it!”

It’s only money… Breath… Breath…

I knew it was going to be difficult to follow her directions to the garage, because on the way to her house with the seller, he had expressed she was horrible at giving directions. Plus it was going to be my first time navigating in Europe. I paid close attention and asked lots of questions when she was scribbling crooked roads and roundabouts all over the front and back of a piece of notebook paper. I figured between that and my memory from Saturday, I could get there.

Wrong. Her landmarks were on the opposite sides of streets and at different intersections, which she had counted wrong and we had gone a totally different way on Saturday. In an attempt to turn around I ended up taking right turn after right turn that somehow brought me into the twilight zone of a posh neighborhood where continuous right turns somehow never brought me in a circle. Having no choice but to attempt a three pointer, I found a little bricked parking spot on the side of the road that ran up against some soft weeds.

Backing into it, I was pleased to find that the sharp turning radius would allow me to pull it off in only two moves. Watching the tall weeds in my mirror for contact and movement, I went slowly in reverse. They swayed and so I pushed the clutch in, shifting gears while still rolling slowly backwards. Between the shifting, the clutch, the break pedal, the gas pedal, the big van, the directions and being in a car in Europe, it didn’t immediately register that the car was still moving backwards.

Then I realized something was amuck. Some cars have reverse in the same position as first, but you just have to push the stick down, so I instinctively thought I still had it in reverse. I shifted out and back in, then noticed I was surly in first gear, but speeding up backwards! I hit the break and it didn’t do anything, then I noticed not only was I speeding up in reverse, I was rising.

The van was tipping! How was this possible? The ground behind me was level, I checked! Wait…I checked? Did I check? Shit!

It was so surreal, because I was sure the ground was level. But the ground wasn’t level. There was no ground. Camouflaged behind the thin wall of high green weeds was a stagnant drainage stream, like the kind they have everywhere in Florida.

With my foot locked hard on the helpless brake and my eyes bugged, my new bus kept inching backwards and I kept going higher up into the air. The lady across the street who was watering her plants and her neighbor who was getting out of his Mercedes both disappeared into my dashboard and suddenly all I could see out my windshield was a grey sky. Then it stopped.

I didn’t know why it stopped, but had figured it was my clever mixture of turning the wheel, killing the engine, putting it in gear, pulling the parking break and smashing the brake pedal down. At that time I still had no idea what I was falling into. For all I knew, it could have been a cliff straight off the end of the earth, so I was a little nervous about detaching any of my body parts from the cars mechanicals. Gradually I loosened my grip on the wheel, then my foot off the brake. She sat still and ramped.

I couldn’t see anything in the back because the weeds were up against the van blocking my view. I figured since any movement might send her sailing into the air, that I better get out quick. Opening the door, I sprang down to the bricks, holding onto the open window frame as if, if she started slipping I’d be able to hang on and save her. But she didn’t move.

The edge of the bricks had caught on a section of the frame and now the back of my new van, hung about eight inches from the lili-pads and green water deep enough to submerge the uninsured engine. Oh, what a mess.

The neighborhood kindly came over to stand around watching the show and talk and laugh in Dutch. We waited together for a tow truck someone had called for me.

Remembering my camera and laptop were in the back of the van, I decided it was time to become an action hero. At that point I could see the water wasn’t deep enough to cause any injuries to me should the van slip, but if the bricks gave way, it would certainly kill my electronics as fast as the motor. Not wanting to climb around in the van and cause any shaking, I opted for using the sliding door. I moved cautiously on the handle, envisioning my motions being so slight that they wouldn’t disturb anything. When the latch clicked open, the hard angle of Casandra aimed for liftoff had multiplied the weight of the door by around ten thousand. So it flew open, yanking my arm and slamming into the end of its track.

But she still didn’t budge. Phew, good girl. With one knee and a big lean, I grabbed my gear and was back out on the street bouncing up and down a little like I’d just finished a Fear Factor Challenge.

Gladly, the giant Dutch man with the winch showed up in less than thirty minutes. It was actually sort of easy to laugh at all of this because of how intense it was, but I was still a bit nervous since this guy wanted to pull my hanging home up by a skinny little piece of metal which was welded onto the front bumper.

“Don’t worry, if I see it start to bend or give, I’ll switch to the axel,” he said.

Can’t you just start with the axel, I wondered?

“Ok,” I said giving in to his greasy gloves and expertise.

“Get in the drivers seat sir.”

“Ok.” Gulp.

I followed his directions and watched his eyes watch my tiny welds. As much money as I’d spent traveling in the last six months was at risk of being completely drowned. He did not move his focus and it made me nervous. Then his head dipped towards the bumper a bit, like he was about to dive and catch something, but the cabled stayed taut.

The van leveled and came safely back onto the ground. I checked underneath and besides some weeds jammed into the metal, she looked fine. Everything seemed to work fine too.

“How much do I owe you?”

“75 Euros sir.”

“Hah, that’s all I have,” I said, showing him my empty wallet.

“That’ll do!”

I handed it over and signed some Dutch stuff I couldn’t read.

“Don’t do that again ok?”

The giant shook my hand with a punishing, fatherly grip and we were off.

An eyewitness neighbor led me to the garage and I got my inspection certificate in minutes. However it took me three hours to get back, because I had no map and Donna’s phone was forever busy.

All is well now though! I’ve got my own little mobile home that’s registered, insured, legal (I think) and I know how far I can back it up without driving off a cliff! Monday night was my first night sleeping inside and it has been a comfortable change from the leaky $12 tent. Life is good!

Here are some photos of the inside and out. I’ll work on getting some level exterior shots soon.

3 Thoughts on “Casandra on the Edge”

  1. kevin Says:

    so where is casandra while you are home? She looks awesome to tour europe in.

  2. Eric Says:

    Holy crap dude that’s freaking hilarious! Sweet ride man. I bet you’ll miss it when/if you ever come back to the states. 😉 Happy Fourth of July.

  3. DynamicMike Says:

    Brilliantly written John.
    I was hooked on every line!
    🙂

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