The first time Doppo coughed in an agitated way, and then actually stopped, bringing us to a grinding halt on a Swiss road, turned out actually to be a red letter day for me. I can’t remember whether someone told me what to do, or if I just worked it out myself, but I applied what I subsequently came to call My Carburetor Trick: I took the carburetor apart, blew on each part, put it together again, and presto --- we were off again! Imagine, a guy like me, a self-admitted mechanical stumblebum, an engine no-hoper, actually bringing a stalled engine back to life. Is it any wonder I fell in love with little Doppo?
As we headed into the more mountainous areas of the continent, such as Switzerland, those rain-free days of our tandem cycling tour through France two years before were certainly far from being repeated. At Interlaken, a small Swiss town that seems to be a sort of pathway to many of Switzerland’s prize locations, we were stuck in our tent for a couple of days by heavy rain. When the rain cleared we packed up our stuff, got back on to Doppo, and headed directly east into the mountains, where the Susten Pass, at 7,400 feet would be a test that we had no doubt Doppo would pass with flying colours. About 50 kilometres along the way we ran into a sign which said the Susten Pass was closed by a heavy snowfall. We looked at the sign, shrugged, and kept on, beginning a tough climb that we managed to sustain at a speed of about 10 kilometres an hour. Not to worry: Doppo would get us there!
Eventually we ran into some snow, but it wasn’t yet lying on the road, so we kept on, illustrating the old saw that hope springs eternal in the human breast. It became damnably cold, we were in the clouds by this time, but we plodded on, until we were travelling on a snow-covered road that was looking ominous, the snow getting thicker and thicker. Two German motor-cyclists, coming down, waved us to a stop, told us the pass was absolutely impassable, and we had best head on down again. So, reluctantly, we turned around, went speeding down to the bottom, where we had an expensive but warming cup of chocolate in an hotel café, and there we changed our plans entirely. Instead of heading for Italy, why not go back to France, head for Lyons to see our friend Jo Jarru, and then enter Italy by way of the French and Italian rivieras? There’s a joyful sense of freedom that comes from having no fixed plans, being able to change destinations at the flick of a finger, as it were. We didn’t for a moment regret having labored up the mountain as far as we could go, and then come quickly down: it was an exhilarating emotional experience, and one that would last us all our lives, our story of failing to conquer the Swiss Alps. Who knows, maybe it would be worth telling half a century later?
When we made it back to Berne, we tried again for our Yugoslav visas. That same dark-haired beauty who had warned us of the problem regretted the visas had not arrived, but agreed to take our passports to the secretary to see if we could qualify for tourist visas. “I don’t think so,” she said, “but I’ll try.” She came back down the stairs in a few minutes, shaking her head. “At first he said yes, but when he saw journalist in your passport, he said no.” She said she could send a telegram to Belgrade, but she wouldn’t advise it, it would take too long. I asked her if she knew our friend Olivera, but she said she wasn’t Yugoslav, she was Swiss. I said that surprised me, and she ran her hand over her curly hair and said, “I could be anything,” and as I left I thought how right she was, she might even have been French. So, now we knew we were definitely not going to Yugoslavia, but I had been enjoying myself so much just tooling around that I wasn’t really sorry.
In the afternoon we went into a magnificent exhibition of the artist Raoul Dufy, the first time we had seen his work with its wonderful colours, and sense of humour. Afterwards we climbed a hill giving us a view of the smallish city, surrounded by open fields and green patches, that somehow or other seemed effortlessly to be the centre of everything. Sitting there, I thought it would be great to live on the continent, and I made a resolve to go away, learn French, German and Spanish, and then return properly equipped to understand what was going on here. (A resolve I have never managed to carry out.) I noted, “This is us in romantic mood, which we nearly always are.”
The drive from Berne to Geneva took us through Lausanne and along the shore of Lac Leman, all 155 kilometres in heavy rain. We arrived cold and wet, and climbed into our sleeping bags at 5.15 pm in an effort to get warm. On the way Doppo stopped, so I tried my Carburetor Trick again, cleared out a lot of sediment, and off we went, with me feeling almost like a professional mechanic.
We were fascinated by Geneva, a beautiful middle-size, middle-class city with no particular national characteristics, yet somehow giving off this effortless sense of being at the centre of everything. While we were there the Geneva conference that was designed to settle the Korean war and the first Indo-Chinese war, was in session between the United States, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, France and Great Britain, a conference at which relations were so strained that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake hands with, or say a word to, the Prime Minister of China, Zhou en Lai. I noted in my diary that Geneva seemed not to be too impressed by the epoch-making conference in its midst, in which attitude the city was correct, because neither of the issues dealt with were in any way solved, and one of them is still bothering the world today (as I noted in my Chronicle No. 21, published on Jan 18.)
Just as we had been soaked coming to Geneva, so were we as we left. We had to climb a considerable mountain road that took us to heights that seemed almost totally obscured by cloud, mist, and rain, one of those dreary downpours that looked like it would go on forever. We stopped under a big rock to catch our breath: Shirley was crying from the cold, and I was shivering so that I doubted I would be able to drive the scooter if we resumed. But resume we had to do, hoping that eventually we would emerge from this rain, which eventually did let up. We stopped to warm up with a restaurant meal, but when we emerged the blue flecks of sky had given way to a huge black cloud. We hoped to outrun it, but no chance. Thunder, lightning and finally huge hail stones as big as marbles assailed us, so we went into a roadside farm shed for shelter, where we waited for 15 minutes before setting out again.
Eventually we got settled in a Lyons camp ground, and went in search of Jo’s address, that we found without too much difficulty. He was just going out as we arrived, but changed his plans on the spot and invited us up to meet his family, who were already leaning out the window and calling remarks to him back and forth. They had lived for twenty-six years in an old apartment house in a working class area, where they had brought up a family of four boys and a girl (all married except Jo). The brother-in-law was there while his wife was in the country with their children, and two younger brothers. Jarru pere arrived, a heavy old man who seemed not to move up and down at all when he walked, giving the impression of shuffling along through life at a steady pace, as if he were completely the master of his fate. Jo’s mother was quite a small woman with a darkish skin and an impressive air of impassivity. Everyone made jokes about Jo’s English and his having been in Britain, but I could tell they were all immensely proud of it, quite an experience for a working-class boy. Jarru pere wanted to know where was New Zealand, so I showed him on a map. Wine was produced and biscuits, and many jokes were made about how I ought not to drink too much because I had to drive back home.
Then, having accepted an invitation to lunch the next day, we went off with Jo, who took us to look at the lights along the Rhone. We ate peanuts and as we walked back, Jo said, “This is my district. What do you think of my district?” I knew then he would never leave France, even if his prospects might be better elsewhere. He came with us on his motorized bicycle, to steer us on our route home.
The next morning on the way into town Doppo stopped again. Carburetor Trick works again. We went to Place Bellecoeur in the middle of the city, where a monument to the Maquis had been erected on the exact spot where the Germans had executed four hostages. We bought a tall pot flower for madame and arrived there at 11.45. His brother was there, his brother-in-law soon arrived, every arrival marked by handshakes and kissing all around. Jo arrived, then Jarru pere with his air of authority and serenity. Then Jo’s youngest brother with his wife and baby, and his wife’s twin sister. The baby had been taken to the quiet countryside, but had shouted so much it had to be brought home, where it immediately settled into its peaceful routine, among all the noise of non-stop chatter. The meal began when bread was cut in the middle of the table, each person had a plate, and then boiled eggs and tomato and lettuce in an olive oil salad were served from a central plate.
After a time madame got up, gathered the bread and put it in a basket amid loud cries of family derision. The plates were wiped clean with bread, and then came beans cooked in olive oil with lemon juice squeezed over them. After that we were given sausage and beautifully cooked mushrooms. After the plates were again cleaned, came a big helping of delicious cheese, followed by strawberries. Then, black coffee and a drop of spirits. I caused great laughter by wanting to go to sleep, but when the baby arrived with its attractive young mother, I said I had fourteen nephews. But none yourself, asked Jarru pere.? What are you doing in that tent? I said “C’est impossible,” and there was more great laughter. I said to Jo, Quelle brouhaha,”using my favorite word learned at high school. And had to repeat it for the benefit of the family. The brother and brother-in-law went off to work. The meal had lasted for an hour and a half of solid eating. Handshakes and kisses all around as they left. We said au revoir, by this time feeling almost like members of the family. Jo took us to the corner, and we turned to wave at the family who were leaning out waving us goodbye.
Just an ordinary French, working-class lunch? I don't know, but it was certainly a remarkable occasion in our young lives, and we were, and even now looking back over so many years, I remain, deeply moved by it.
* * * *
To make a long story short, in the following six weeks or so, Doppo manfully carried us along the Mediterranean Riviera as far as Rome, across to Florence, and to Assisi, where we slipped and fell off while negotiating as 90 degree angled turn on a steep muddy road up to the camping ground; to Venice and its Lido (we ran out of gas a mile or two short through a miscalculation), and so up through the Italian alps into Austria and into Germany (Garmish-Partenkirchen sticks in the memory, because there we had our first experience of a German cream cake after a tough and cold ride over some mountains); and then across the fabled German autobahns, on one of which we again slipped on some mud that had been brought on to the road from a field by a farm vehicle, and so home. Only two mishaps, and those minor; an ideal, in fact beyond ideal, means of holidaying. Just as we had managed to see the finest actors in England for almost nothing, so we now saw the greatest achievements of Renaissance art and architecture, the world’s greatest galleries, for next to nothing. And we finished with a residual admiration for the ingenuity of Italian engineering that had had the foresight to provide a means of locomotion to the millions of people impoverished by the brutal war they had just come through, leaving just a tiny space for me and my wife to slip through and take advantage of the imperishable wonder of the Italian scooter.
* * *
Doppo cost us 135 pounds, and we sold him for 50 pounds before we got on to the emigrant ship to Canada, in the month of September 1954.
Though the Lambretta has disappeared from the roads, the scooter as a species is as much alive today as it ever was: my recent experience in Dubrovnik, Croatia has shown me that the town is always jammed with scooters, the greater number of them of Japanese make, but many still bearing the name Piaggio, the manufacturer of the Vespa, and many Vespas are still in action, still sold under that name.
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