Gift-wrapped in dreams: our VW van

Christmas gifts in our home usually meant the traditional toys, books, cosmetics and games. Practical as we were, there was always the element of surprise and celebration. But, December’s gift back in 1971 far surpassed anything we’d ever given — or received — before. It became our legacy of love: the gift of cherished memories.

As our children reminded us on that December day many years ago, “We must be the luckiest family in the world.”

We were living in Damascus, Syria, thousands of miles from our relatives and friends, but as we drove the 100 kilometres to pick up our new Volkswagen Camper in Beirut, Lebanon, we indeed felt blessed.

We had looked at a Mercedes and a Volvo, but fell in love with the VW. Because we had been living outside Canada for over a year (two years with the United Nations), we could purchase the vehicle duty-free. Now we were on our way through military checkpoints to collect our prized possession.

Mountains with snow-capped peaks loomed before us as we slowly drove along narrow roads to Beirut, that cosmopolitan city where delicacies from around the world could be purchased — along with the traditional Christmas turke

Paper bag wrapping
We arrived on a Saturday, the banks were closed, and the dealer wouldn’t accept a cheque; however, Ousteyan, the friendly money-changer on the street corner, cashed our cheque ($3,400), and handed over 11,000 Lebanese pounds in a brown paper bag. My husband plunked it down on the dealer’s desk (I’m sure he thought we had robbed a bank), and we were on our way. We packed our snug little home on wheels with Christmas treats and headed back to Damascus.

Thirty-five kilometres outside Beirut, in the Lebanese foothills, the weather closed in on us; it was snowing heavily. The road was blocked, and we were forced to turn around. Our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened, however, because a friend — the owner of the world-class Charles Hotel — despite literally having a full Inn, somehow managed to provide us with a beautiful suite (we later learned his mother had vacated her apartment for us).

The next morning, the weather cleared, but the pass was still closed. We were advised to go south, down and around the mountain. This route turned out to be a treacherous, winding road through the village of Marj ‘Uyun, deep in Fedayeen territory. A bus and two Syrian taxis were taking the same journey, so we joined their convoy.

At times, I feared for our lives, especially when headlights focused on deep ravines over the sides of the mountain. And I prayed many prayers, as our girls munched on food from the camper’s refrigerator, and our two-year-old son napped in the camper bed, oblivious to the danger.

My husband must have had concerns, but he remained calm while conversing in his Canadian-Arabic dialect. We could hear his “mar Haba” (how are you?), “shukran” (thank you), and “afwan” (you’re welcome), to men who came back every hour or so to check on our children and help push us out of drifts. We reached Damascus in 12 hours, a trip that normally took two. We were exhausted, yet at the same time exhilarated as we carried our three little ones (all under six) into our apartment. The children, half asleep, were whispering, “we’re so lucky!” We were in total agreement!

Closeness leads to change
Our camper gave us comfort, security, and shelter wherever we travelled. Its closeness helped us grow and learn from one another, changing forever how we viewed ourselves. And best of all it gave us memories: cooking octopus beside the Aegean Sea; swimming in the beaches off Dubrovnik; camping in the mountains of Switzerland; feeding the birds in St. Mark’s Square; playing cards on rainy days in London; and sailing home again on the SS France.

After many trips throughout Canada and the United States, we all shed tears when, years later, we sold our camper. The hammock-bed over the front seats was by then a foot too short for our son, and the double-bed we had installed in Germany to fit into the pop-up roof, was much too small for two teenaged girls.

That inanimate object of glass and steel was perfect for a young family, but like our children, who were so precious at each stage of their lives, we couldn’t wrap and store them all for sentimental value. All we could wrap, treasure and hold fast were memories. Another family, perhaps several families, share special memories because of our VW camper, that old faithful Guardian Angel on wheels that came gift-wrapped in dreams many Christmases ago!