I have a friend whose son has just started working in Switzerland, and I mentioned to her that he would find it very clean and orderly.
This rather stereotypical comment was based on a single visit to the country when I was eight! Then I said, “he might also come across noodle soup with a poached egg floating in it”. Isn’t it strange how memories simply flood into your mind, unbidden, like a website popup?
My stay in Switzerland was for one night only during my first foreign holiday in 1964. Prior to that family holidays had been to Arran, Skye, Wick and Lossiemouth. For some reason, however, my dad decided we should do a big trip to Italy. With hindsight, it may have been to celebrate his 40th birthday. Whatever the reason, it was a great adventure.
Looking back, it took a lot of courage to embark on a holiday of that type, not least because we were driving. The car in question was a black Morris Minor, and courtesy of an AA Routemap the three of us, mum, dad and I drove through England, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland then down into Italy. On the return journey we took in Austria for a bit of variety!
Our trusty little Morris Minor
They had booked a hotel at Lido de Jeselo, close to Venice, but all other overnight stops on the three-week journey were ad hoc B&Bs in the various countries we travelled through. No TripAdvisor, no mobile phones, no GPS, no online booking systems – and neither of my parents spoke a foreign language.
My dad was a qualified motor mechanic, so he was confident that he would be able to tackle any “car trouble”. If that little car could talk – what tales it would tell – but ultimately, the only repair required was a new front tyre.
The holiday must have made a huge impact on me, as I still have vivid memories of certain highlights. No doubt some of these have been reinforced over the years by becoming part of our family folklore, but given my parents are no longer here, it is remarkable that they have taken such strong root in my childhood memory book.
One of the many canals in Venice visited on a day trip
So, what do I remember? In the sixties, there was little UK motorway network, so even driving to Dover was not practical in one day. This meant an overnight stay with an old school friend of my mum’s in Stafford.
We had been stopped by an accident en route, and my dad had gone over to see if he could help. I remember lying in bed and overhearing my dad quietly saying that the driver had died at the scene. This made little impact on me, but for my parents it must have been a stark reminder of the risks they were taking.
We travelled on the overnight ferry from Dover to Ostend and I was wrapped up in a travelling rug and slept comfortably on a window ledge. My dad must have been very tired when we docked in Ostend because his first experience of European driving took place literally on the wrong side of the road. He realised his mistake and made a quick U-turn.
Another wrong turn was in Germany when he got totally lost and we ended up following a funeral procession to a local crematorium. My dad was also an undertaker, so this diversion caused much hilarity and this tale was retold many times.
I remember a B&B in Germany where the owner assured us she spoke excellent English. Unfortunately, the only word she knew was “yes” but with a mix of sign language and a phrase book we spent a comfortable night there and I had my first experience of sleeping under a “continental quilt.”
One of our Gasthaus stays - in Austria or Switzerland
We had stopped just outside Cologne in a layby, and my parents were consulting the map, looking for somewhere to stay for the night. A young man in a sports car stopped and offered to help. He had good English and said he knew of a great hotel.
His cursory “Follow me!” was like the starting gun for the Wacky Races, and I can still see my mum sitting with her hands over her eyes as dad tried to keep up with Prince Charming ahead as we raced through the centre of Cologne. The traffic lights seemed to have a life of their own and my dad had still not worked out what the solid amber or flashing amber meant by the time we screeched to a halt outside a very posh and expensive hotel.
Suffice to say we spent the night in a Gasthaus on the outskirts of the city.
The German autobahn was a feat of engineering and speed – and our wee car certainly turned heads – not least because it was a right-hand drive. Lorry drivers in particular looked somewhat bemused at the little beetle look-a-like but we got plenty of waves and toots of the horn. I also remember a huge lorry passing us and shedding large pieces of flaming rubber from its tyres.
I’ve mentioned the noodle soup with poached egg in Switzerland, but I also remember travelling through the St Gotthard’s Pass. I didn't realise it at the time, but my dad was not overly comfortable with the hairpin bends and sheer drop, nor the train journey through the Pass. We were also met by an incredible hail storm at the other side, which soaked everything in the boot. I thought it was all very exciting!
Dad also inadvertently drove straight through the Customs Point on our entry to Italy, and we were stopped by an officer brandishing a gun. He demanded to see our passports, and asked where Scotland was. My dad eventually agreed with him that it was in Denmark as this appeared to be the only way to appease him. He asked to search the boot, but when he saw the primus stove and teapot sitting atop our cases (pre McDonalds and Costa remember!) he gave a disgusted wave, and sent us on our way.
When we finally got to our destination we had 12 nights in a lovely hotel and the manager took us under his wing and treated us like VIPs for our entire stay. Every night for dessert I had fresh cherries and gelato. I had never tasted a fresh cherry and even today cherries make me think of that hotel dining room.
My parents outside our hotel - not bad photography by an 8-year-old!
On the day before we left, mum and I went to a local hairdresser and she had a “shampoo and set” and I had my hair cut and styled. At dinner that night, the hotel manager lifted me on to the table to show me off and I still feel the mix of pride and embarrassment at being the centre of attention. In the sixties in the west of Scotland this was just not the done thing.
I look back on the adventure now with very fond memories, tinged with sadness that I can’t ask my parents more about it. My dad was very affable and people genuinely warmed to him, so I suppose he didn’t really think about how he would overcome the language barrier. My mum was very organised and practical, and no doubt she packed sensibly and carefully and kept a sense of routine for me.
But the most striking thing is how powerful those memories are from almost 60 years ago. Digging out the old photos was an experience in itself and the feel and smell of them evoked more emotions.
It will be 30 years this month since my dad died, but he was a great role model, and a strong influence in my very happy childhood. That's why I've dedicated this blog to him. Thanks dad!
"Every day we make deposits in the memory banks of our children."
Charles M Swindoll
Stay safe, take care