Before he retired, my father was the principal at our local elementary school. Every summer, he would make it his task to create a trip that was planned from A-Z, only it was usually the same trip. He still managed to spend at least a couple of months planning it. I don’t know what it was exactly that he planned, but I kept seeing him with his map, marker, and holiday catalog (“Urlaubskatalog” – your new German word for today). The summer had to be spent abroad and needed to last roughly 2-3 weeks. Or regular vacation destination was Corsica (not Mallorca, as you may have guessed) – and island off the coast of France and Italy.
The night before the trip, my dad prepared the car – it was the era of driving; nobody really took airplanes yet. Or maybe it was just us. He packed suitcases, studied the map another five times (although after the nth trip, he must’ve known the way by heart), and it was one of the few times where I felt like a little girl before Christmas. It was the “getting away from it all” that was attractive… no school, I would play volleyball on the beach and get ice cream at the local beach bar.
We left early in the morning. More like noon, but we INTENDED to leave early in the morning. Dad was always late – no matter to what or where. We were at the beginning of a two-day drive. I would have the backseat all to myself – it was paradise. To this day, my mom knows every single word to the children’s cassettes I made her play in the car radio. Until the age of the walkman came around. Ah, bliss… more to them, I believe.
We drove all day. Dad had planned each stop carefully (I think- he had to have – what else was he doing with the map and marker?!). At a certain time, we had to pull over to a “Raststätte” – a little resting area with benches right by the Autobahn (German highway), where fellow vacationers were taking their spots and enjoying their home-cooked packed lunches. Mostly meatballs, sausages, and potato salad. And hard-boiled eggs. Gotta have the hard-boiled eggs. Damned be those who left the salt at home.
As the night approached, we parked the car in an empty parking lot right before the St. Bernard pass in the Swiss mountains. Nights would be freezing. But I had my pillow and blanket from home, the whole back seat and – my cassette tapes. Mom and dad slept in the reclined front seats. Not sure, to this day, if they slept a wink at all. It must’ve been the most uncomfortable way to spend a night ever. But they did it every summer. No matter where we went. Not once did I offer my backseat – sorry, mom!
The next morning, we would freshen up at one of the gas stations nearby (with lots of other travelers). Everyone had their little “Kulturtasche” (a little bag with toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, hairbrush). We would proceed through the Swiss mountains (longest tunnel in the world… not sure about that, but it seemed like it. To me, it was the last step before the approaching summer; for mom it was hell – she hates tunnels).
On the other side of the pass, temperatures were drastically high compared to the freezing night we just survived. Once we reached Italy, we would stop at one of their highway eateries and grab an Orangina (the ESSENCE of summer – that’s right!), coffee, cheese sandwiches, or have whatever was left over from the previous day’s Autobahn- lunch. We then proceeded to Genoa – a port in Italy where we would take a ferry boat to Corsica. Boarding became normal over the years – you wait in a long line of cars, all anxious to board. Once or twice, we took the night ferry instead of sleeping in front of the mountain pass – it wasn’t the same. The smell of gasoline mixed with anticipation and impatience while boarding prevailed. Once we were directed to our parking spot in the hold of the ship, we went on deck to watch our Corsica Ferries leave the harbor.
After about 4-6 hours of playing cards (I don’t remember exactly how long, I had to research it – I never knew. Time flies when you’re young), we reached the port of Bastia. The last leg of this trip was right in front of us. The heat was almost unbearable at this time. That and the smell of gasoline made it a little less magical than when we boarded, but we still had three weeks of summer ahead of us.
The smell of eucalyptus and dry sand let us know that we were approaching our destination. The air was burning. We would park the car, check into the “private” visitor area (a small and simple building right behind the gate with either a German or a French receptionist – or a French receptionist who spoke German),where we would receive the key to our bungalow.
We took this club holiday so many times, so many years in a row, it felt like I grew up there. I learned how to swim, made life-long friends, wonderful memories, and discovered my passion for Nintendo (GameBoy at the time) there. We set up camp on the beach each morning after breakfast, would have lunch at the little hut close-by, and sunbathed and swam until about 4 or 4.30 in the afternoon. When I was in the kiddie club in the morning, dad went scuba diving and mom windsurfing. I hated the kiddie club as much as mom hated surfing – so we quit. I tried windsurfing and hated it too. So I tried scuba diving. Hated that even more after our Belgian instructor scared the life out of me during an instructions session, and I went back to surfing. The older I got, the more I started reading and playing non-water-involved sports (i.e. Volleyball and Tennis). Much safer, I figured.
Not everything was all flowers and rainbows – quite the opposite. But like every dysfunctional family, we knew how to keep the facade. Especially since there seemed to be more than one strange family on this island. I drowned out most of the bad memories, some persist and are just processed as “what it is”. It’s a terrible thing that nobody should ever have to encounter or live through – on any side of it.
What I like to remember is the positive side of this summer growing-up phase: My favorite time of day- evening. On your way back to the bungalow, you would pass through the camping area located in the middle of the eucalyptus forest. The smell intertwined with that of shower gel and outdoor toilets. Really a mix that you have to experience (or not) and is hard to describe. If you’ve ever been camping, just remember what that smelled like. Campers would get ready for the night – to first hit one of the local restaurants and then ponder why they had to take this vacation every year at the beach bar. My favorite time – right before dinner, when everything calmed down; everyone was with their party, and the nights were short. Unfortunately not always, and not always drama-free. But they were part of everything.
Each summer was memorable in its own way – when I was a teenager, I fell head over heals for a Dutch boy, while my best girl friend whom I met there fell head over heals for his friend. Very convenient… In every way! The boys left at the same time and we were left behind, crying our eyes out, listening to sad songs in a loop and wondering when we could see them again. That’s the thing about summer romances – they’re not meant to be seen again. Ever. It is what it is. Yet the campfire would never glow as bright and the songs would never be as happy.
Finally, it was our time to pack up the car, the suitcases, the tan and the memories. “The same summer will never return”, I hear my dad saying every year. Just like he reminded all of us constantly to keep drying off after we went swimming because each droplet of water acts as a magnifying glass and the sun burns your skin even more when you’re wet. I rolled my eyes at the time because I just couldn’t hear it anymore – mom and I would make bets as to when he would say it. Or we wouldn’t dry off on purpose just so that he would say it. They may, after all, be the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve received from my dad… if that’s saying anything.
The journey back was always a blur – I just know we somehow arrived at home and had about a week until school started again. I’m a September child, so my birthday was always approaching quickly – but yet seemed so far away in August after a vacation on that island. I may never see you again, Corsica, but I’m grateful to have known you and made those memories with you. I will never forget you.