Monday, January 08, 2007

Europe with the In-Laws Part I

The following summarizes a trip that my wife and I took with the kids and my wife's parents. We had planned the trip for a while, but shortly before the start of the trip I learned that I would be taking a new position back in the U.S. We would have to cut the vacation short so that I could be back for training on April 16.

Day 1, Thursday, April 5, 2001 – We got off to an early start, and we left almost at the time I had planned to leave. Since it was a weekday, I expected very heavy traffic, but we only encountered one major traffic jam. While we were driving, my daughter figured out that nobody else in the vehicle understood her when she spoke to me in German. So, we talked off and on in our “secret” language the rest of the trip.

Our plan was to visit Rothenburg, and then drive on to Munich. We made it to Rothenburg before noon. I dropped everyone off a short distance from the medieval center, and I went and parked the van. I had to park it several blocks away, and I asked my wife to meet me right at the entrance to the old town. I parked the van, and jogged down to where I was to meet my wife. There was nobody there. I walked down the block, and then circled the block. I looked for them for about 15 minutes, before I decided that they might have walked on into the city. I started in that direction, and then saw them standing outside a grocery store.

We walked into the medieval center, and it was really well preserved. There was an old town wall that circled the city. We climbed to the top and walked halfway around the city on the wall. There were open crosses at regular intervals in the wall, where the defenders of the city could shoot at anyone trying to breech the walls. We had a fantastic view from the wall. We could see a really big church on the other side of the town, and everywhere we looked there were very colorful wood frame houses.

After a while, we climbed down from the wall and walked through the medieval streets. There were quaint little tourist shops everywhere, so we didn't make very good time. We stopped in a little Italian place and had some pizza and pasta for lunch. After lunch, we continued down toward the market square, stopping in lots of shops along the way. Once, my wife and my mother-in-law went into a shop, and my father-in-law and I took the kids into a candy store. Since it was almost Easter, they had loads of Easter candy. They also had an animated Easter bunny sitting in a rocking chair. This fascinated the kids. They were petting the bunny, and a woman working in the shop came over and gave them both some candy. We thanked her, and left the shop. My son asked if he could eat his candy, "so he wouldn't lose it."

We continued toward the square, stopping for ice cream along the way. We reached the square, which was surrounded by ancient buildings. The most prominent was the Gothic town hall, which had a 200 ft. tower. Parts of the town hall dated to the 1200's. The front part was completed in the 1578. There was a large fountain in the square, and I put the kids up on it and took some pictures. We were searching for the world famous "Christmas Village", but we could see no sign of it. Finally, I saw a German couple carrying a sack with the store name on it, so I asked them for directions. It was just half a block away, and we all walked over to it.

We went into the shop, and it was fantastic. It was just like Christmas year round in there. They had every possible Christmas decoration you could imagine. In addition, there was a large collection of cuckoo clocks. My son told me that he wanted to live in the shop. The shop was like an enormous maze spread out over multiple floors. We probably spent an hour in there before buying a few things and leaving.

We were starting to run a little short on time, so we started back toward the entrance to the city gates. On the way, we walked by St. Jacob's Church, which was built beginning in the 1300's. It was one of the most prominent buildings in the city, and very beautiful. But, we didn't have much time to explore it, so we continued toward the city gate.

Once we got there, it was still a long walk back to the van. So, I left everyone there, jogged back to the van, and drove back and picked everyone up. We decided then on a slight change of plans. We were going to head straight to Munich from there, but we decided to drive down the Romantic Road. This would add at least a couple of hours to our trip, but we decided that it would be worthwhile.

So, we left the autobahn and headed cross-country. We all enjoyed the countryside much more than what we had seen from the autobahn. My father-in-law commented on the tiny villages that we kept seeing. We would see a cluster of a few dozen houses, and then half a mile away would be a similar cluster. Pasture or farmland usually separated them. My father-in-law was curious as to how these little villages came to be, and how they sustained themselves.

The major attraction on the Romantic Road is the large number of walled cities. These cities have the medieval charm of Rothenburg, but fewer tourists. The first one we encountered was Dinkelsbühl. It looked a lot like Rothenburg, but was smaller. There were almost no tourists. A number of well-preserved towers surrounded the city walls. We drove through the city gates, and drove around the town before continuing on our way. We discussed spending the night in one of those little towns, but we were afraid it would put us too far behind schedule.

The next town we encountered was Nördlingen, which was larger than Dinkelsbühl. A circular wall surrounded it, and I read that the town is located at the center of a 30-mile wide meteor crater. We once again drove through the city gate, but this time we decided to get out and explore a little bit. My wife wasn't feeling well, so she stayed in the van with my son while the rest of us walked around a little. The town was very charming. There were colorful, half-timbered houses everywhere. These houses had probably existed in this fashion for hundreds of years. We walked down to an impressive Gothic church that supposedly stands at the very center of the meteor crater. We took some pictures, and then walked back to the van.

It was really starting to get late, so we decided not to stop at any other towns. However, outside Nördlingen there was a bridge under construction and we were forced to take another route. I couldn't see another route on my map that wasn't extremely out of the way, so we stopped at a gas station and I asked about alternative routes. The woman in the gas station greeted with a very friendly "Gruss Gott", which is the common greeting in southern Germany. She told us about an alternative route, which had appeared to be nothing more than a trail on the map. We ended up taking very small farm roads for about 20 miles until got around the construction.

A short time later, we got back on the autobahn, and continued toward Munich. We would occasionally catch a glimpse of the snow-covered Alps to our right. We planned to visit the concentration camp at Dachau the next morning, so we decided to get a hotel near there. We drove into Dachau, which is just slightly north of Munich. We found a hotel, and I went in to inquire about rates. The man behind the counter said that there was a convention in Munich, and all hotels were booked within 50 miles of Munich. I felt sick to my stomach. This could really be a problem, because we needed 2 rooms. I got on the cell phone and called several places in and around Munich. They were all booked up. I even called a hotel at a town 30 miles away, and they said they were all booked up.

It was about 6:30, so we dropped into a McDonald's to eat and develop a plan. Due to the fears from Mad Cow Disease, McDonald's had changed up their menu. I had calamari and shrimp while I considered our options. I knew the risk of not booking in advance, but I hate to give up the spontaneity of being able to just stop in a nice town and spend the night. During all our European travels, we had only encountered this situation once before. But I felt really bad that it happened while my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were traveling with us.

There appeared to be only one option – head out of Munich and stop at small towns to try and find a little guesthouse. We were only about 10 miles outside of Munich when I had to stop and get gas. I asked the man working there if he knew of any hotels. He told me that down the road, in a tiny little village, there were 2 guesthouses. I was certain that they would be booked up, but I decided to give it a try. It was almost 9:00, and I was really getting worried.

I went into the guesthouse, which was located over a restaurant. They had plenty of rooms available, including some with 3 beds. So, I took 2 rooms for 2 nights. I was ecstatic. It was definitely not on the normal tourist trail, which is why it had been overlooked by others searching for a room. There were a couple of disadvantages, though. They didn’t take credit cards, and I didn’t have enough cash. But, they told me that there was a bank down the street. Also, it was a little noisy being right over the restaurant. Another slight disadvantage was that since they obviously didn't get many tourists, we were stared at like we were Martians when we walked through the restaurant. My wife and I took a room with my son, and we let my daughter stay with my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. I sketched out a plan for the following day, and then we all went to bed.

Day 2, Friday, April 6, 2001 – We all ate breakfast together, which was pretty sparse by German standards. All they had was a few varieties of bread and some cold cuts. We discussed our plans for the day over breakfast. We would visit the concentration camp in the morning, and then go into Munich in the afternoon.

We took a short drive through the country to reach Dachau. It wasn't hard to find. Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany, built in 1933. A reported 31,591 people died at Dachau between 1933 and the camp's liberation by the Americans in 1945. One of the prisoners, a pastor, wrote the following while imprisoned at Dachau:

When the Nazis arrested the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew.
When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.

We parked in the visitor's parking area, and walked into the camp. The camp was surrounded by a trench, a wall, and frequent guard towers. There was a gate at the entrance that said "Arbeit Macht Frei", which means work makes you free. I guess this was supposed to inspire the prisoners to work hard. Our first stop was at the visitor's center. We spoke with a woman there, who advised us of the best sequence in which to tour the camp. We first went through the museum, which traced the rise of Hitler and Nazism, as well as the history of Dachau. There were numerous photos and propaganda posters. One of the photos was of Hitler addressing a group of industrialists in Düsseldorf. In addition to being a concentration camp, Dachau was the site of gruesome medical experiments by the Nazis. They had photos of a prisoner being frozen to death in ice water. There was another series of photos showing a high altitude experiment. The prisoner was placed in a room that gradually had all the air sucked out of it. I will never forget the expressions on his face as he was dying.

We left the museum and walked outside. There was a memorial; a metal sculpture that appeared to be twisted bodies, right outside the visitor's center. We looked at that and then walked over to the roll call area. It was surreal to think that we were standing in the exact spot that the prisoners stood every single morning. We went over to where they had recreated one of the barracks as it was during the war. The conditions that the prisoners endured were really primitive. They were crammed together in extremely tight quarters. Their bathroom facilities appeared to be original. The toilets, washbasins, etc. looked very old.

Behind the barracks there was a long, tree-lined path. The trees had been planted by the prisoners to liven the place up. To the left and right of the path, we could see row after row of foundations where other prisoner's barracks had stood. These barracks had been leveled after the camp was liberated. We continued to the outer edge of the camp, where we came across the crematorium. This was where they burned the bodies of those who died in the camp. There were actually meat hooks in there where they hung the bodies. There were a number of ovens in there, and they still had ash residue in them. It was a very disturbing site. Outside of the crematorium there was a nicely gardened area. We walked over to read a plaque, which said "Pistol Range for Execution."

At this point, it was almost 11:00. There was a documentary film in the visitor's center at 11:00 and 11:30. The film at 11 was in German, and the one at 11:30 was in English. We all wanted to see the film, but we weren't sure it would be appropriate for the kids. So, we decided that I would go watch it in German at 11, and if the film was OK for the kids then we would all watch it at 11:30. I left the crematorium and jogged back up to the visitor's center. The film was similar to the museum layout; it covered the history of Hitler, Nazism, and Dachau. About halfway through the film, I decided that it would be OK for the kids. But, the second half was really gruesome. There was lots of footage of emaciated people, and they showed several scenes of piled up bodies. One scene showed a wagon overflowing with bodies. So, after the film, I entertained the kids while the others watched the English version.

While the others watched the film, I asked one of the museum workers if he could give me directions to the train station. We planned to eat another bite at McDonald's, and then take the train into Munich. After the film, we drove over to McDonald’s to eat and discuss our afternoon plans. Just to make sure, I asked one of the McDonald’s workers how to get to the train station. She gave me directions, and after lunch we were off.

Despite having directions from two people, after a few blocks we apparently made a wrong turn. We were in the general vicinity of the train station, but we couldn’t find it. So, we saw some railroad tracks and followed them until we found a small station. We parked and I got out and checked the schedule. We had missed the train by 5 minutes, and the next one wouldn’t be there for an hour. I tried to figure out the pricing, and I bought a day ticket for all of us. It would give us unlimited rides in and around Munich.

After I got the tickets, we sat and waited. My son decided he needed to go the bathroom. We were next to a feed store, but that didn’t look like a good option to me. I wanted to find a public bathroom to take him to. So, my son and I wandered around for a couple of blocks looking for a bathroom. We never found one, and when we got back to the van my wife said she would just take him into the feed store. I didn’t think it was a good idea, because I did not expect her to get a warm reception. But, she said that there was a woman behind a desk who was extremely friendly, and she let them use the restroom.

At 2:00, we got on the train and rode into Munich. On the way in, my father-in-law observed a boy about 10 years old furiously writing in a notebook. My father-in-law tried to ask him what he was writing, but the boy didn’t respond. I told my father-in-law that he wasn’t old enough to have learned English yet. Also on the train there appeared to be a couple of pickpockets. I watched them as they checked out all the purses on board.

We had decided to book a bus tour of Munich since we were limited on time. When we arrived at the train station, we walked around until we found the bus stop. We booked a 2-hour bus tour that would take us past all of the significant sights. We boarded a double-decker bus, and went upstairs. Because it was still cool weather, the top was covered. The tour guide spoke very poor English. Sometimes, she would switch from English to German in mid-sentence. Once, when she did that my son said, “That’s not good English.” We drove past all of the major attractions, but her commentary was useless. I pulled out my guidebook and started reading on my own about the places we were passing.

Munich had lots of impressive churches. We saw the Frauenkirche (women’s church), which was topped by huge copper onion domes, and the Gothic St Peterskirche. We passed the Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler's Nazis first met in 1920. We passed lots of museums, as well as the extensive English Garden. But we were all so tired, that we were all falling asleep as we drove around.

At the end of the trip, we jumped on the subway and rode down to the town square. We wanted to catch the Glockenspiel at 5:00. We arrived at the square (Marienplatz) about 4:30, and started looking around. The Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) sits on the square's northern border, and the bombed remains of the original town hall, the Altes Rathaus (built in 1474), sits at its eastern end. We were going to go up into the tower, but the door leading to the tower was locked. My mother-in-law met an American woman who was in Germany on a business trip, and they talked a little bit.

We walked around for a few minutes, and looked up to see a camera crew filming. I heard my wife say, “They must be filming a commercial”, and we all looked up just in time to see a topless woman walking across the square as the crew filmed her. We were standing beside the camera, and she walked straight for the camera. My father-in-law grabbed his camera and started taking pictures. He said that his buddies at the coffee shop wouldn’t believe him otherwise. So, I grabbed the video camera and shot a little bit myself. The woman appeared to be a model, and all she had on was a see through outfit, and something like a g-string. She repeated the scene for a second time before they packed it up. I don’t know what my father-in-law and my mother-in-law must have been thinking, but here they had only been in Europe for three days and we had already encountered a topless woman.

At 5:00, the Glockenspiel sprang into action. For several minutes, high above the square, we watched as the figures performed a medieval joust. It was funny to look around the square and see absolutely everyone looking skyward. I thought that would be a perfect opportunity for a pickpocket to make a move. We watched for about 5 minutes, and then walked on down to the Frauenkirche and stepped inside. It was impressive, but we were all really tired. We didn’t stay for long before hopping on the train to go back. We planned to ride down to the main station and then switch trains for the ride back to Dachau. However, I realized that the train we were on went all the way to Dachau, so we didn’t have to switch.

On the way back to Dachau, I studied the train schedule. It appeared that there were 2 stations at Dachau, and the train we were on was going to the wrong one. We got off the train several miles from our minivan. I checked a bus schedule, and there was a bus that ran between the stations. However, it was going to be a while before the next bus left, and it would take a while to get there. So, we piled into a couple of taxis for the ride back to the van.

We got back to the hotel, and decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. We all sat down, and I tried to translate the menu for everyone. The options did not look too appealing, but we all finally settled on something. There was fish on the menu, so I advised my wife to get that. I figured that it was a safe bet. Well, when she got it, it was cold, pickled, and covered with a mayonnaise sauce. She took one bite and couldn’t eat any more. I told her it couldn’t be that bad, so I took a bite. It caused me to shiver in disgust. I don’t know how anyone could eat something like that.

After we finished, my son and I played foosball on a table down the hall from the restaurant. We didn’t have a ball, so we played with wadded up paper. We did that for a few minutes before I took him upstairs and we put him to bed. I had to get back out, though, and walk down to the bank and get some cash.

The walk through the town was really nice. There was a really neat looking church in the town. I walked down past the church to the bank. After withdrawing money from the ATM, I walked the rest of the way through the town. It reminded me of a little farming community in the U.S. It was very quiet, and there was lots of farm equipment about. I could have spent a few days there relaxing. But, we had a tight schedule to keep, so I walked back to the hotel to map out plans for the next day.

Day 3, Saturday, April 7, 2001 – We had an ambitious schedule today. We were going to drive across southern Germany, into Austria, then Liechtenstein, and then end up in either Switzerland or Italy. I checked out, and made small talk with the owner. I had never seen the guy come close to smiling, but I found out later that my father-in-law had taken a picture of him and the girls that were working in there, and he smiled for the photo.

I wanted to take a winding shortcut on some country roads, so my wife drove while I navigated. We drove through farmland for a while before connecting again with the Autobahn. We then drove west across southern Bavaria with the Alps off to our left. It was rainy, though, and we didn’t get many good views of the mountains.

We got to Austria about 10 a.m. and immediately encountered a traffic jam. When we finally got to the wreck, it appeared that someone had wiped out in the rain. The car was really a mess. We drove a little deeper into Austria and then stopped at a gas station to fuel up. We were only cutting across a corner of Austria, so I suggested that we go ahead and buy souvenirs. The store was more than just a gas station, actually. They had a restaurant inside, and a good selection of souvenirs. We made a lot of jokes about buying our souvenirs in a gas station, but we didn’t have time to go into a town and shop.

We crossed the border into Liechtenstein right before lunch. I was shocked that they didn’t check our passports, because they appeared to be checking all the other cars. Right on the other side of the border was a souvenir shop, so we stopped there and my mother-in-law and my wife bought some souvenirs.

It was still rainy, but you could see some of the beauty of Liechtenstein. Although it is smaller than some counties in the U.S., the valleys are deep green, and there are high mountains to the left and right of the highway. Snow covered the mountains at the higher elevations. We pulled into the capital, Vaduz, at about lunchtime. We stopped and I withdrew some Swiss money, which is the official currency of Liechtenstein. We decided that we really didn’t have time to eat at a restaurant, so it was McDonald’s again for lunch.

After lunch, we backtracked to the town of Schaan, because my father-in-law had seen a photo opportunity there. We drove there, and my father-in-law took a picture of a church steeple with tall, rocky mountains behind it. We then left Liechtenstein and crossed the border into Switzerland. That made a total of 4 countries in about 4 hours. Since there is no toll system in Switzerland, the Swiss make you buy a sticker at the border that allows you to drive on the Swiss Autobahn. But, there was no checkpoint where we drove across, so we drove through Switzerland without having to buy the sticker.

We headed south, and the weather continued to be bad. We eventually started climbing into the mountains as we turned toward the west. The rain turned to snow as we climbed up into the mountains, so we stopped at a little rest stop and my father-in-law and I got out. It was really pleasant, standing underneath some huge trees as the snow fell hard around us. But, it was really cold, so we didn’t stay out long.

We planned to drive through a mountain pass, and then I was planning on dipping down into Italy. As we continued to climb, the traffic started to thin out. I saw a sign that I did not completely understand, but it appeared to say something to the effect that the road ended in 15 kilometers. I didn’t say anything to the others, and I continued to drive. Well, 15 kilometers (and no traffic) later we came to a gate in the road that indicated the mountain pass was closed. On the other side of the gate, the road was covered with snow.

I wasn’t sure what we were going to do, but I knew that this development was going to throw us way off schedule. I looked at the map and could find no other way to our destination. We pulled over and I asked a couple of older men standing outside a garage. We pulled in, and I asked them how a person could get to the other side of the mountain pass. They told me to backtrack for a few miles, and there was a train that took people across.

So, we drove back and found the train station. I bought a ticket to take us to the other side. The guy at the counter told me that there was no way to drive into Italy from there, because that pass was closed as well. He also told me that we could have to take another train once we got to the other side of the pass.

We waited around for almost an hour, and then I drove the van up on the train. We all unloaded and went into a passenger car. The heat was turned up too high, so I found the handle to turn it back down. It didn’t work, though, so we suffered through a very warm ride. There was a young German guy sitting there, and we all talked to him. He worked for a hotel chain, and was on his way to inspect one of their hotels on the other side of the mountains. We climbed really high into the mountains. I had left my sunglasses in the van, and we climbed above the clouds and the sun was blinding coming off the snow. Looking outside the car, everything was white. Occasionally, we could see a rocky area where the snow had slid off, but mostly the entire world was blindingly white.

We found out from the guy on the train that there would be another train to take us on the rest of the way about 6 miles from where we would get off the train. The second train ran through the mountain. We thought about just stopping for the night at a town between the train lines. When we departed, I pulled into a little town and walked into a hotel restaurant to inquire about a room. Inside, there were about 6 people sitting at a table, and they just ignored me. I stood there for several minutes before one of them stood up and asked if they could help me. I told them we were looking for a room, and they told me that they had several available and quoted me a price. I thought the price was pretty high, considering little scenery was visible from the hotel. I checked my watch, and felt like we still had time to make the other train if we hurried. So, we left there and drove to the next train station. This time, we sat in our vehicle as the train carried us through the mountain.

On the other side of the mountain, we decided that we would stop at the first promising town and spend the night. It was already getting late, but it was still daylight. I wanted to have a room well before dark. We drove just a few miles, and came across a tiny little town that was not even listed on our map. The sign outside the town said Obergesteln. I found out later that the population was 200, and the elevation of the town was around 4,000 ft. The scenery was breathtaking, so we decided to pull off and check it out. All of the other cars that had driven off the train continued on down the road, but we pulled off and explored the town.

We could see a couple of hotels (which would more properly be described as lodges) some distance off the main highway. We drove down a tiny winding street to the hotels. I checked the first one, and there was a sign that said that it was closed until summer. The second one was open, but completely empty. I inquired about a room, and a woman working there told me that they had a couple of rooms that would sleep 3 people. The rate was also pretty low. She also told me that we were lucky that it wasn’t a week later, because they were about to close for the season. Ski season was over, and the tourists apparently were nonexistent until summer.

We unloaded our luggage and checked out our rooms. They were really nice. They had high, cathedral ceilings with large wooden beams bracing the ceiling. The place was very rustic, and really was more like a lodge than a hotel. To top it off, we were the only guests there. I looked out at the parking lot, and our van was the only vehicle there. We had a spectacular view out the window. There were snow-covered peaks all around us. I felt like we had really lucked out with this place.

We settled into our room (my wife, my son, and me) and then we all went downstairs to eat dinner. There was an older man sitting down alone at a table. We sat down several tables away from him and ordered. There was a little room off to the side where my daughter and my son played with Lego’s. I saw a deer outside, and went outside to capture it on video. It was about 8:00 by then, but it still wasn’t dark.

I walked outside and got some pretty good video of the deer. When I walked back in, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were beside the other man’s table trying to talk to him. (My father-in-law later told me that he walked over because the guy kept grinning at him. I had noticed that, too). It was funny to watch the two of them try to talk. My father-in-law would ask him a question in English, and the man would respond, in a really prominent Swiss German. I listened to them talk for a couple of minutes, and it was comical. My father-in-law would say something like, “Do you live around here?” and then the guy would respond in German. Neither understood what the other was saying. So, I attempted to talk to the guy in German. It was really hard to understand him. I told him that my father-in-law was from Oklahoma, and the guy would say “California.” I kept correcting him, but he kept saying it. My father-in-law finally walked away and left me stranded with the guy. He was really drunk, and I finally decided that he was insane as well. He told me that I spoke very proper German, or hoch Deutsch. He told me that he lived in that little town, and always had. He said that his great grandfather had traveled to Texas in 1866, and that he had an uncle that lived in California. I finally tore myself away from him and went over and ate.

The meal was really good. I had escargots as an appetizer. The kids thought it was cool, but my father-in-law and my wife thought it was disgusting. We finished up and walked upstairs to our rooms. I thought about our schedule for a little while before I went to bed, and concluded that there was no way we would be able to drive into Italy the next day. It was really close, but on the other side of the mountain. We were too far behind schedule, and the nearest pass was far out of the way.

Day 4, Sunday, April 8, 2001 – We woke to a beautiful morning. As a joke, I opened the shutters and started singing “The Sound of Music”. Our van, still alone in the parking lot, was covered with a light layer of snow. When I carried the luggage down, the doors were frozen shut. We had a quick breakfast, and left early. We planned to drive across the rest of Switzerland, turn north into France, and end up in Paris.

The scenery was really great as we drove across Switzerland. We were in the heart of the Alps. We stopped occasionally to take some pictures. Once, we passed a sign for Bitsch, Switzerland. Naturally we had to stop and take a picture of that. We saw a couple of very small Swiss children crossing a road in a little country town, and my father-in-law took a picture of them. Later, we could see the Matterhorn in the distance to our left, so we pulled over in a little town and took a picture of that, too.

Eventually, we turned toward the north. We were headed toward France, but my wife and my mother-in-law wanted some souvenirs in Switzerland. However, all the stores in the little towns were closed because it was Sunday. We stopped once at a gas station, but they didn’t have any souvenirs. Everyone inside was speaking Italian, too. Certain regions of Switzerland speak Italian, others German, and others speak French. Eventually, we came up alongside Lake Geneva. We drove to Lausanne, and pulled off at a McDonald’s to eat lunch. They advertised Swiss beef, and several of us had a hamburger since Switzerland had never been implicated in Mad Cow Disease.

After we ate, we drove into Lausanne to try and find a souvenir shop. We drove around for quite a while downtown, but absolutely everything was closed. I knew that my wife was not going to be happy about it, but I was afraid that they just were not going to be able to get any souvenirs. We left Lausanne and headed toward the border with France. Luckily, there was a rest stop right before we got to the border. We pulled off and my mother-in-law and my wife were able to buy some souvenirs. It also had a spectacular viewpoint, so we took some pictures. When we were back in the van waiting for my wife, I heard the kids sitting in the back of the van playing. My son said to my daughter, “I’ve got to go to work, Baby, because that gives us money to buy toys and stuff.” I cracked up.

The surroundings got flatter and flatter as we neared France. When we crossed the border, the landscape had changed from mountains to hills. It was rainy again, and everyone was dozing off. We worked our way through the hills and finally reached the French autobahn. We were way behind schedule, but I knew that I would be able to make up time. The French highway system is very good, and police are rare. So, I drove really fast after we got on the Autobahn. I pushed the van pretty often up to 180 kph, which is about 110 miles per hour. My father-in-law kept asking me if I had checked the tires lately. He said “You know what’s going to happen if we have a blowout at this speed. There won’t be anything left of any of us.” I knew that he was only half joking, but if I drove normal speeds it would be after dark when we got into Paris.

My father-in-law started to feel sick, so we pulled off at a gas station about 2 hours from Paris. I felt better about our prospects for reaching Paris before dark at that point. We stayed at the gas station for a little while and had a little snack before continuing into Paris. About 30 miles outside of Paris the traffic started to back up, and when we were about 20 miles from the downtown area the traffic was stop and go. We had several maps that we were going to try to use to get us to our destination. My father-in-law navigated while I drove. But, the problem in Paris, as it is all over France, is that the roads are very poorly marked. It wasn’t long before we had no idea of where we were. We would occasionally see a street that was listed on the map, but we had to give up attempting to navigate with the map.

We spotted the Eiffel Tower, and we knew that the place we were staying was near that. We had booked 5 days in an apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. So, we headed that way, but the other drivers were crazy. Once, I was waiting for a light to turn green. I was in a lane that could either turn left or go straight ahead. The lane to the right of me was supposed to go straight ahead. But, when the light changed, the guy to the right of me came around me and turned left, almost causing us to hit him. This was only a prelude of things to come.

We drove directly in front of the Eiffel Tower, and found the Arc de Triomphe on the map. The Arc de Triomphe is a huge roundabout, with traffic several layers deep. I had seen it in person and on television, and it is a traffic nightmare. So, I wanted to avoid it, even though our apartment was only about 3 blocks away from it. We thought we found an alternate route, so we tried that out.

I could see the Arc down one street, but we continued on our alternate route. The traffic was incredibly heavy. There were no lines indicating which lane to drive in, so the traffic was really staggered out. There were cars weaving in and out, and once we saw a guy on roller blades riding behind a car while holding on to it. My father-in-law said that he had never seen anything like it. I just knew we were going to get hit, and we were getting lost. We could no longer find any familiar streets on the map. Finally, we decided to work our way back toward the Eiffel Tower and just drive around the Arc.

We made it to the Arc, and I drove around it. But, I stayed in the outside lane and never really entered the traffic. From there we found the place pretty easily. We keyed in the code at the door, and entered the building. We rode the elevator up to the apartment. The elevator was one of the ancient types with the cage that you have to shut before you operate it. The key was supposed to be under the mat, but it wasn’t there. We had been instructed that if there was a problem, we needed to go see the building supervisor. I rode the elevator down and rang her doorbell. She wasn’t there. We had our cell phone, so I decided to call the people that we had rented the place from. When got back on the elevator, a young guy stepped out and started saying something to me in French. I asked him (in French) if he spoke English. He shook his head “No”, and then we just shrugged at one another.

I made the call back to the apartment owners in Düsseldorf. At this point, the situation was becoming urgent, as several of us really needed a restroom. We had been driving for quite some time since the last stop. I reached the owner, but he said he wasn’t sure what to do and that his wife was traveling. (I had booked the place with her). He said that he would try to call the building supervisor and get a key to us. I rode back down and rang her bell again, and this time she was home. She didn’t speak any English, and she didn’t understand what I was asking for. I kept saying “Madame Riegger”, which was the name of the woman we had rented the place from. She would nod her head, and repeat “Madame Riegger”, but she obviously had no idea what I was talking about. She finally said, “Le Cley”, and that sounded enough like key that I nodded yes. Luckily, that did mean “The Key”, and not “Are you trying to rob me?” so I finally got the key from her.

We got into the apartment and unloaded our things. The apartment building was really old, but the inside of the apartment was nice. Some of the furniture was antique. We didn’t have much of a view, but for this price ($125 a night) at this location in Paris, it was unbeatable. We hadn’t had a chance to eat, though, so we walked down to try and find a grocery store. There was one across the street, but it was closed. There were no fast food places around, so we went back to the apartment and scrounged around and found some odds and ends that other guests had left. My wife had some disgusting noodles, and I just ate some chips. We rested and prepared to spend the next few days in Paris.

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