You can go far in a tiny old car

You know what a relief it is every time you meet people who will always say “no problem!”? Steven Weinberg is one of those people. He is also a globetrotter, adventurer, explorer and much more.

This “no problem” attitude comes in handy when you’re an adventurer. Steven Weinberg has dived every diveable ocean, and travelled from north to south, from west to east and indeed around the world. Steven himself will be quick to thank his parents for inspiring him. His father; the photographer, diver, writer, artist, adventurer at heart and Holocaust survivor, transmitting his spirit and his gratefulness to be alive to his son. His mother; warm, human, “very much a woman and very much a mother”. Then he’ll pin it on luck, being in the right place at the right time from birth. He could have been born a few years earlier and been gassed in Auschwitz, like his mother’s family.

Not to forget his faithful travel companion, one heck of a lady born the same year as Steven, in 1946. That’s the year Renault put the 4CV into production, although this particular 4CV, La Petite (or “the Little One”), is a 1959 model. She is surprisingly strong and resilient for her size and age, and full of charm – the perfect partner. Let’s get in the backseat.

From Laren to La Turbie

Photo: Unni Holtedahl

Photo: Unni Holtedahl

Meeting Steven for the first time, you’d find it hard to believe he could travel around the world in the tiniest car you’ve ever seen with legs as long as his. He’ll gladly demonstrate that he can, and La Petite’s good luck charms, offered by an orthodox nun in Siberia and other acquaintances along the road, dangle happily to see him. The “no problem” thing, remember? Adventurer would perhaps not be your first guess either. Slender, cropped white hair, matching sweater and glasses, an air of mild determination, you might suggest – well, professor.

Steven has a PhD in marine biology, hence his adventures began under water. Although you could say they began at age 1 ½, when little Steven wandered off from his safe thatched roof home in Laren in Holland and was found one kilometer away. Or at age 13, when he moved to La Turbie in Southern France with his parents and his father took him diving. Or at age 15; a boy on his moped from La Turbie back to Laren, almost 1400 kilometers in 36 hours. Or at age 17; two boys on their scooters from Paris to Athens and back again, wisely equipped with a tent and a toolbox.Thinking back on his young years in La Turbie, there’s a shift in his eyes and in his already gentle voice.

Ah, Madame Thomas! She sold sweets in the village and taught me French. So did the local truck driver my parents befriended, who would take me along to Menton and teach me some useful words I might not have learned otherwise.”

Steven became a passionate diver, and a passionate underwater photographer, taking his first underwater picture in 1963. From then on, he hunted with a camera instead of a spear. Thousands and thousands of pictures would follow, first for marine research projects, then for several guides to marine life. Funnily enough, these guides were a result of moving to Luxembourg.

From the Med to the Moselle

Holland, 1982. Jobs in marine research in Europe are rather scarce. Steven has had it after two years on the dole and accepts a position as a biology teacher at the European School in Luxembourg. Truth to be told, he isn’t all that keen on it, and he doesn’t even try to hide it, but still his interviewer sees in him the passionate and compassionate teacher Steven himself  will only discover later, making him a teacher for life.

But what happens when a man whose element is water comes to Luxembourg? Even he gets thoroughly fed up with the rain, and he misses his marine world. Add the end of a marriage and back problems, and his first year in Lux wasn’t the smoothest one. So what does he do about this? He meets the woman who will become his lifelong companion and mother of his two sons, he gets his back straightened, and he uses his long holidays to dive.

Greatly encouraged by his new wife, he combines his passions for diving and photography in making underwater guides, known to French divers as “Le Weinberg”. His very last guide, a revised edition of his guide to the Mediterranean, will be out in May 2013, after four months of diving to get 500 species on camera. His pictures reveal the connection between the man and the sea – in his up close and personal portraits of fish and other marine creatures, often rare, and in his fascination with their eyes. “Lost in the immensity of the ocean, and at the same time I feel at home”.

Photo: Steven Weinberg

Steven feels at home in many places: his native Holland, France holds a special place in his heart, and of course Luxembourg, which he sees as a great country to live in – “I am European!”

“We once had 12 persons and 12 nationalities around our dinner table, and we were able to find a common language.”

Today, if you happen to mention that the water is sort of in the wrong place in Luxembourg, he will say: “Yes, but do you know where it’s going?” Everything serves a purpose.

From Arctic to Antarctic

Steven could never get fed up with the underwater world, but at one point, he did get a bit fed up with underwater photography. He wanted to take pictures above sea level now, and why not make a book? But on what topic, the world is full of them? One morning he woke up and said:

“Oh, yes! The Greenwich Meridian!”

Luxembourg, 2004: His journey north – south along the Prime Meridian begins, starting in Shetland, crossing three European and five African countries, always getting as close to the line as he can. Sometimes that involves walking, or canoeing.  Along the line, he meets people who become his friends for a moment in time, long enough for them to open up and for him to be able to take their portraits, long enough for him to make his reflections on the nature of mankind.

“In certain countries, people are kinder. The less they have, the more they give.”

Wisdom gained from among others the people of Algeria, a place he was a bit afraid to go into, but where he discovered great kindness. It was a hop-on hop-off journey, ending in 2007 and resulting in a book with a human message, comparing people and their ways of life through photography.

From Paris to Peking (well, almost)

Paris, 1907: The Paris newspaper Le Matin initiates a rally from Peking (now Beijing) to Paris. 40 cars enter, only five of them are on the starting line and four reach the goal.

“Well, if they could do it, so can I”, Steven Weinberg says to himself, 100 years later. And to La Petite, who has now entered the picture as the second woman behind the man.

Photo: Steven Weinberg

Photo: Steven Weinberg

Luxembourg, 2007: He has already done north – south, now he takes La Petite with him and together they travel west – east. Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi desert. As it turns out, entering China in a car with a foreign license plate is complicated, so their journey ends at the Chinese border. At a stupa, a Buddhist place of meditation, in the Gobi desert, Steven leaves a precious part from La Petite by the prayer mill as an offering. He makes a promise to her that they will do another big journey together one day.

Steven is driven not only by a desire for adventure and exploration, but to discover the ways of other peoples and find less materialistic and more genuine and spontaneous lifestyles.

“Enter a house in Siberia the size of a moving box, and you barely have time to take your shoes off before the table is set with everything they have. That’s when you feel truly welcome.”

La Petite is driven by friendship and loyalty, through dust, mud, snow and ice. She takes care of him, he takes care of her. Still, she returns in a piteous state, the poor darling, and is hospitalized at the Lycée Technique du Centre in Luxembourg, where she not only recovers, but receives a full make-over.

From New York to Paris

Paris, 1908: Le Matin does it again, in companionship with The New York Times, this time from New York to Paris, a considerable challenge given the quality of cars and roads at the time. Six cars entered, three made it somehow.

“Hey, we can do this too, you know!” Steven Weinberg, now retired, says to La Petite.

“Yes, we can!” La Petite nods in agreement.

Luxembourg, summer of 2010: Off they go the pair of them. At the Abbaye de Neumünster, several 4CVs have gathered to wave goodbye. 33 500 kilometres from New York to Paris, for the first time since La Grande Course in 1908. It is a trip of extremes, temperatures ranging from + 45°C in Death Valley to -45°C in Siberia, altitude ranging from 3500 metres above sea level to 86 beneath in the salt desert. That’s exactly how Steven wants it.

World cities: New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Moscow. Desolate places: Olnes, Alaska counting one inhabitant, a church in Canada with a priest, 12 believers and totems on the doorstep. Camping with brown bears, grizzlies and stunning Northern lights in Alaska. Alone in Japan – he has to let his Japanese interpreter go because she can’t ask questions to strangers – feeling lost, then learning the right approach and discovering a great people and an ever present beauty.

In Ulan Ude by the Lake Baikal in Siberia, he meets Igor again, his dear friend who accompanied him on a leg of his trip in 2007, and he feels at home. Different people share a part of the way and the experience with him, including his wife, former students, and people he meets along the way. Steven makes them all start the day with the same word:

Poehali! Let’s go! It’s what Gagarin said right before he was launched into space.”

Re-entering Europe, Steven kisses the ground. The trip around the world has taken seven months.

Where to next?

In the end, Steven doesn’t quite know why he does these things, there’s an inexplicable drive and appetite. “I probably do it because I can’t help it.” At age 66, Steven looks to the future, a future which might involve a new trip to a risky part of the world, but also a future without travelling or diving.

“I could probably live in a monastery or a prison, because I have capitalized my experiences and I could live on them and on other people’s adventures, through books and movies.”

A future in which he is telling his stories to his grandchildren, sitting amongst the art, local handicraft and heaps of books his home is filled with, serving them really gingery gingerbread from Holland and perhaps a word of wisdom from a grandfather and an adventurer:

“We are still young if we choose to pursue our dreams”. Poehali!

By Unni Holtedahl, January 2013

You can learn more about Steven and check out his books on www.weinberg.lu

And you can let La Petite tell you a story here.

 

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