Category Archives: Europe 2022

Road Trip Europe-22/12/22 Another Dumb Accident. What Am I, Getting Old?

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First thing this morning, before dawn, I drive over to my property in Eggersdorf for my first eyeball look in 8 years. I’m still getting used to one major difference in German intersection design. In the US, traffic lights are typically hung in the center of the intersection or on its far side, so the light is visible anywhere you stop the car. In Germany, the lights are almost always placed on the near side of the intersection. Drivers must be careful to stop far enough back to see those lights. A little too far and they’re all out of easy sight and you won’t be able to see them change. Easily avoidable, but the first week or so, I’m constantly overshooting and either craning my neck to look straight up out of the very top of the windshield to glimpse the red light or being “advised” by the driver behind that it has changed and I’m blocking traffic.

German traffic lights disappear if you stop a little too far forward.

I was sure I had left keys for the property gate with the erstwhile real estate agent in 2014 but he insists I did not. Susan is bringing the second set from NY but that does me no good now. I have a vague memory of talking to a neighboring business. Perhaps I left the keys with them so they could park a vehicle in the driveway rather than leave it completely unused. Which business? I don’t know.

On my arrival, I find a completely unexpected situation. In 2014, there was a wall between me and my neighbor and their backyard was occupied by a garage. Now, I find the wall and garage demolished, my gate broken through, and my lot used as driveway and construction yard for a new house nearing completion in that backyard. This despite that the neighbor’s existing driveway on the other side of their property provides equal access.

Broken gate
Property line. A high wall used to separate my lot, left, from the neighbor.
Construction debris deposited on my property,

By German standards this is outrageous behavior but since I have no lawyer, it’s almost Christmas, I’m leaving town in 4 days, and it seems like more of a civil issue than a police matter, there’s nothing I can do right now. I take photographs of the damage and the extensive debris covering my property and head home.

Karl-Heinz and Edelgard are leaving for a holiday road trip to Copenhagen tomorrow, so a few days ago I arranged to leave Biesdorf Saturday morning to stay with another host over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Dec 26 until I drive through the night to meet Susan’s arriving flight in Frankfurt at 6 AM on Dec 27. When I report my plan to Karl-Heinz I run into an unexpected obstacle. He is very worried about break-ins to his unoccupied house and asks me to stay through Dec 26. I can hardly say no to a generous old friend so I reluctantly adjust my plans to assuage his worries. Instead of spending the nights of Dec 24th and 25th with hosts, I’ll spend those days with them and come back to Biesdorf at night to stand “guard duty”.

At any rate, since my remaining days are spoken for; I have to spend this morning and afternoon cleaning up the apartment so as not to leave work for Edelgard next week. I gather up the bedding and my dirty clothes and head down the steep, cement cellar stairs to the laundry room. Now, after my two falls on the ice last week, I’m moving around much more carefully. With a sack of laundry in my right hand, I’m carefully descending the stairs in my bare feet holding the banister firmly with my left. It seems uneventful, but about 6 steps from the bottom my right foot loses traction and shoots off the step, followed immediately by the left. I end up riding the step edges on my right ribs before coming to rest at the bottom. Thanks to my grip on the handrail, the fall isn’t as bad as the earlier ones, but the pain is acute and the stream of cursing continuous. I don’t understand how it could have happened — perhaps some moisture on a step or the lack of a friction coating on the painted cement — but it did. For the third miraculous time, I realize I’m still mobile so I pull myself painfully to my feet and continue with laundering.

Although I’m sore as hell, I pursue my plan to meet Servas host Sabine for a long walk through the Christmas decorations of downtown Berlin. About 5:30 pm I drag myself to the Biesdorf train station for the hour ride to our Savignyplatz rendezvous.

Berlin transit

Sabine is an engaging host who grew up in East Berlin until the wall fell when she was 20. Our conversation is nonstop as we walk first past the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church). In 1943, this prominent church in the center of Berlin was severely damaged in a bombing raid, yet remained standing. 12 years later, its ghostly profile made a deep impression on my 5 year old self as I visited the site with my mother and aunt. Today, the church has been replaced but the core of the damaged steeple preserved in the new design.

Sabine and I continue along Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s version of Fifth Avenue, where all the big name stores have elaborate Christmas window displays.

Leaving the shopping area, still talking away, we walk through dark streets to the Bundesrat, the German legislature with it’s famous glass dome tourist attraction. Due to the building’s heavy security, there’s no way to enter without advance booking, so we proceed to nearby Brandenburger Tor, the famous city gate that for decades sat inaccessibly on the boundary between East and West Berlin. It re-opened to foot traffic when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and is a stop for virtually every tour and tourist in Berlin. As we walk through at about 8 PM it’s relatively uncrowded — that is, not thronged — and we can appreciate the Christmas lighting and a large menorah.

Since Sabine grew up in East Germany (which dissolved 33 years ago), I remark that some older, former East Germans that I talk to sort of dismiss life in East Germany as a bygone not worth discussing. She points out this may be because such people played roles that do not go over well today. For example, they may have been Communist party members with foreign travel or other privileges, or cooperated with the Stasi police to report on activities of their neighbors or even family (if you’ve never seen the movie “The Lives of Others, I highly recommend it). Nebbish that I am, this idea never occurred to me but it is thought provoking. Certainly, in a comparable system, after Germany lost World War II, “nobody” admitted to being a Nazi.

Continuing east along Unter den Linden, a famous [East] Berlin street that has been completely transformed by new construction since reunification, we end up at the Einstein restaurant for a late dinner of Austrian (i,e, to my crude palate, very similar to German) food. Traditional cuisine is surprisingly hard to find as Germany has become home to myriad ethnic restaurants operated by waves of immigrants. You’re far more likely to find Middle Eastern, Italian, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and of course fast food.

Sabine at Einstein restaurant

After dinner, we say our goodbyes and I haul my aching body home on the subway to a long, recuperative sleep.

Road Trip Europe-22/12/21 German Christmas Singalong

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With no chance of making progress on my real estate issue, it’s time for vacation pursuits. Servas host Isolde has contacted me and suggested attending a community Christmas sing in Spandau, a neighborhood on the opposite side of Berlin. This sounds like a fun time so I agree to pick her up and head over there. On the way, I notice a store whose name doesn’t come across well in English.

Perhaps this owner’s English skills are slightly deficient — or are they catering to bulimics?

After some location confusion, we figure out where we’re going, park about a kilometer away, and walk to the venue. In general, Europeans who go everywhere by bicycle are not good guides while riding in a car because the routes they take with their bikes are often very different from auto routes.

The event is at the Sport Club Siemensstadt. Sport clubs are very common in Germany and many people hold a membership in one. These private clubs provide access to a swimming pool, game fields, gymnasium, etc. They also offer regular lessons, tournaments, and other events, some of them open to the public, such as tonight’s community sing.

Although we’re late according to the schedule, we still arrive way ahead of the singing. Everyone is sitting on outdoor benches facing a small stage with a large display above where lyrics will be projected. There are many families with children.

Family at the Christmas singalong.

Surrounding the area are kiosks selling various holiday drinks and foods. As Isolde and I sit there making conversation, there’s a seemingly endless set of speakers lauding the club, the town, the local government, and who knows what else. Finally, we get around to the actual singing. The activity is led by a female singer and an accompanying keyboardist.

The Christmas singer leading the audience.

The singer is quite upbeat and it becomes apparent by her style that her typical audience is kids. There are a dozen or more Christmas songs, more secular than holy, with several in English. The selection is a little kitschy — the singer said that from the stage, not me — but fun. The singer often repeats a chorus or sings verses out of order, leaving the lyrics switching wildly as someone tries to re-sync them.

Lyrics prompt the audience.

Many sing along and have a good time. In the midst of the crowd, I belt out lyrics, too, secure that in all that noise, my two-note range won’t impinge on anyone else’s enjoyment. Toward the end, a number of Ukrainian refugee children are invited to dance in front of the stage as the singer encourages them.

Ukrainian refugee children (right click to play video)

After an hour or so, the show ends and we disperse to our cars. I drop Isolde at her house and begin the long trip home. It was a very German Christmas celebration.

During the event, rain fortuitously held off, sparing the audience, but as I’m driving home it closes in. Late at night in Biesdorf, the scene is eerie as the street lights shine through the fog.

Late night in Berlin-Biesdorf.

Road Trip Europe-22/12/19-20 A Careless Moment and a Narrow Escape from Tragedy

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The first change in weather since I got to Berlin is occurring. It’s raining today and slightly above freezing. To save energy, I’ve had the apartment heat turned off since arrival, relying on thermal underwear and the ubiquitous German featherbed for comfort. Today, I open some windows to air the place out.

Tomorrow is my meeting with the lawyer to start resolving the preliminaries to marketing my Berlin property. However… around noon I receive an email from her husband and law partner that she is ill and won’t be working the rest of the month — and is fully booked through January. Not what I expected since she was eager to go just 4 days earlier, but there’s no point in speculating whether she’s dissembling. I ask the husband for a referral to another lawyer, which he supplies. I send my analysis to this attorney and within hours he responds that my problem is complex, he has upcoming surgery, and is not interested in handling it. My skeptical hope of progress by Christmas is now dashed. Since I’m leaving Berlin soon, any further work will have to wait until my return in several months. I’ve waited 10 years, so this is just a minor additional delay.

Since there’s no hope of further progress — hope may die last, but it does die — it’s time to start socializing. I begin sending out emails to various Berlin Servas hosts asking if they want to get together before I head for Frankfurt during the night of 26 December.

Mid-afternoon, I need to get something out of the car, which is within feet of the door. Leaving my house slippers on, I go outside. Failing to realize how the rain and cold ground have conspired to create a frictionless layer of slick ice, within a couple of steps my feet go out from under me and I free fall 3 feet onto my back. As I lay there cursing, moaning, and evaluating whether my traveling is at an end, I gradually conclude the pain is all superficial and nothing has been broken or displaced. Blaming my smooth soled slippers for the fall, I reach down and pull them off, figuring my wet socks will have a better grip on the ice.

Slowly and painfully, I get back on my feet and work my way to the rear car door to retrieve what I need. Feeling a little less slammed and surer on my feet, I head back to the house. Just as I’m thinking about bending down to pick up my abandoned slippers, it happens again! My stocking feet shoot forward and I again free fall onto my back. This time my elbows and the back of my head make a secondary impact. I can hardly imagine getting through two such falls without a serious injury and my head certainly hurts where it hit. Miraculously, I realize my pain-wracked body is nonetheless functional. I make it through the front door.

My head didn’t hit hard enough to even raise a lump but there is a neurological effect. My thoughts are quite confused. It’s strange, though, because I know I’m confused and am simultaneously monitoring it. I have to suspect concussion, of course, so my first decision is not to lie down and fall asleep. I unlock the doors in case I take a turn for the worse and have to dial for an ambulance. The layout of the small apartment seems unfamiliar to me. I wander from room to room trying to make sense of it. At one point I walk into the adjacent apartment to see if I “belong” there. I’m also staring at the computer trying to remember what I had been working on 20 minutes earlier, to no avail. Very fortunately, my thinking gets steadily better and in 30 minutes I feel perfectly clearheaded.

As a precaution, I stay awake in a chair for several hours. By evening, my concussion concerns dissipate and I stay mostly horizontal for the next 48 hours to let some of the bruising and aching abate. I am a very lucky guy.

It’s a good reminder, though, of something I already know — one’s life can be permanently altered in 5 seconds of carelessness or bad luck.

Road Trip Europe-22/12/12-18 Tires!

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Monday morning dawns — quite a late dawn due to Berlin’s northern latitude — and I’ve got stuff to do.

I have another vehicle-related obligation. It’s illegal to drive on German roads when there’s snow or ice on them without winter rated tires. The Berlingo, originating as it does in sunny Spain, doesn’t have them of course. I have to buy 4 new tires, and quickly, since it’s consistently below freezing and even snowed a little yesterday. I go to the local tire shop and ask what they have. Their cheapest ones run around US$105 each and mounting them, regardless of where I buy them is another US$75. The price is too high for my taste, especially since the Berlingo takes tiny baby buggy-like 15 inch tires. A look at a couple of other local tire shop websites is no more encouraging.

I turn to German Amazon. Here I find appropriate tires costing just 60% of the local price, delivery included. This is more my style but there is a catch — they’re only promising them within 5-8 days. That means I can’t drive anywhere if the roads get snowy during that period. I decide to chance it since a lot of my upcoming tasks are internet-based and Berlin has an excellent public transit network if I need to move around.

Such tires are indicated by a molded in symbol, a three peaked mountain with a snowflake superimposed.

The snowflake symbol for tires legal during German winters.

Naturally, as I search online, I want to be sure any tires I order actually qualify, yet none of the product pages display that symbol. Many do mention “3PMSF”. Initially, I have no idea what that signifies but I start to suspect it’s related to my needs. A quick search determines it’s the alphanumeric representation of the snowflake symbol. It turns out to be an acronym — and the dumbest, most awkward acronym I’ve ever encountered.

What does “3PMSF” stand for? I can barely believe it. It’s the initials of the English language description of the symbol: 3 Peak Mountain Snow Flake. That’s what you get when some tire manufacturer intern is told, “Come up with a typeable name for this icon.” and no one ever checks their work.

I order the tires on and proceed to my next task. I’m driving over to the other side of Berlin to meet my new acquaintances, the engineer couple. Fortunately the roads are dry and I am, thus, driving legally.

On the way, I purposely go bu two Berlin landmarks that are meaningful to me, The first is Tempelhof airport, where I first arrived in Germany as a crying, bratty, 5-year old in 1955. Tempelhof was the only airport in geographically constrained West Berlin, an “island” city surrounded on all sides by the Russian-created, communist state of East Germany. The main way in and out of the city was by air. Although there were several surface routes through East Germany, there was always some risk when travelers subjected themselves to communist vetting, so air travel was often the chosen access. In fact in 1948 and 1949. the Russian occupiers closed off the surface routes in an attempt to coerce the American, British, and French occupied zones of Berlin into yielding to Russian control. To defy this attempt, the US and British made 250,000 cargo flights into Tempelhof over 15 months to keep West Berlin supplied and functioning. This massive effort became known as the Berlin Airlift (or “Airbridge”} and continued for 15 months until the Russians realized their ground blockade was useless and lifted it.

I still remember the rainy night of my 1955 arrival by plane from Amsterdam. By then, a memorial to the “Luftbrücke” had been dedicated at the entrance to Tempelhof. My aunt tried her best to explain its significance and, although I was extremely uncooperative that evening, she must have gotten through to me because the monument remains a vivid memory. Tempelhof, just minutes from downtown Berlin, was finally decommissioned in 2008 in favor of a sterile, remote, modern, new suburban airport, but it still physically exists.

Tempelhof Airport entrance with Berlin Airlift (Luftbrücke) monument

My second reminiscence destination was the old Funkturm, the original Berlin radio/television antenna structure, built along the lines of the Eiffel Tower and containing a restaurant and observation platform. My childhood visit to the Funkturm was burned into my brain and seeing the tower again today stirs many long forgotten memories. It’s been functionally replaced for decades but is now a landmark.

Old Berlin Funkturm broadcast tower with restaurant and observation deck

They welcome me into their home and, over cake and coffee, I explain what I’m trying to do with the Eggersdorf property. They are indeed knowledgeable about such matters. We quickly determine that before I can actually market the property I need to engage a lawyer to handle preliminaries — a title search, but especially the paperwork necessary for my sister, the joint owner, to give me power of attorney to close the sale. Since such a document needs a German notarization, it’s going to take an expert to figure out how to do that without my sister flying from Alaska to Germany for 10 minutes. They have a lawyer they’ve worked with and the wife, Barbara, calls her up to see if she’s interested.

She is. Having a personal lawyer recommendation is real progress. Maybe I can get the property sale prerequisites set up over the next two weeks. I drive home in the evening and send the lawyer my analysis of the issues and possible solutions, acknowledging of course that, unlike in the US, I’m a total novice in the German legal and real estate systems. She writes back very quickly and we set up an appointment for 8 days from now, Dec 20th. Very close to Christmas, I’m thinking, but maybe this can still be pulled off. Hope dies last!

I’m very pleasantly surprised when Amazon delivers my set of tires in just 2 days instead of 5. I immediately throw them in the car and they’re mounted in two hours. I’m now driving legally in all conditions. After that, I go to the nearby Aldi and stock up on food to last me the next two weeks until I leave Berlin. Aldi is my favorite supermarket in any country where they operate. I like to joke they keep their prices down and quality up by running their stores with “ruthless German efficiency”.

My favorite supermarket, Aldi.

My host and friend, Karl-Heinz, in his usual intense way, has instructed me to park my car in his narrow driveway even though there’s ample street parking. Apparently, the residents have staked claim to the parking spaces in front of their property, even though virtually all of them have driveways and/or garages. Of course, I comply with his request while telling him that if it was my neighborhood, I would defiantly refuse to cooperate with privatizing public property. Karl-Heinz, old time German that he is, just gives me a quizzical “why would you say that” look — a look I get every time I try to joke around with him. But he’s satisfied that I’ll do as he asks. Maneuvering the Berlingo into his driveway but sufficiently tucked to the side so as not to obstruct his car’s access to and from his garage takes some precision positioning.

The rest of the week is `pretty quiet. The temperature has consistently been below freezing and the sky cloudy, so it’s tempting to stay in my snug apartment, working on client stuff remotely. My only excursions are strolls to the Netto supermarket 1 block away to replenish perishables, produce, and of course pastries!

Next post:

Road Trip Europe – 22/12/10-11 Settling in in Berlin

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Saturday morning, I wake up in the home of Karl-Heinz and Edelgard on the eastern edge of Berlin, friends I’ve known for over 20 years. They built their large house in the 1970s, in what was then communist East Berlin, under the radar. Official permission was hard to get and they’ve told me stories of bartering for bricks and cement and slowly erecting the structure as they could manage.

Edelgard runs 4 vacation and worker apartments they built into the lower floors and I’m always welcome to one of them. In the old days, we were quite close, spending lots of time together. They’re a bit older than me , though, and in recent times their concerns with health and family matters mean that I still stay here but see them much less. Our relationship has evolved from me being a house guest to non-paying tenant. That makes the time we do spend together even more precious.

My home away from home in Berlin. My friends live upstairs. I’m staying in the apartment with the balcony.

As I arrive, Edelgard, 80, has just had successive eye surgeries for clots and a cataract. She’s confined to bed for a few days. self administering a complex regimen of eye drops.

I awake Saturday morning in the vacation apartment and organize my goals. In typically considerate fashion, Edelgard has left me with some staples — coffee, tea, butter, eggs. currant preserves… and milk (she knows me). Saturday morning, Karl-Heinz silently drops off a couple of rolls fresh from the bakery.

My sister and I for many years have owned a mostly vacant lot in Eggersdorf. a modest community about 20 miles east of Berlin. It’s been in my family for about 100 years, having been the weekend retreat (a simple 2 room cottage) of my paternal grandparents. My father told many stories of his adolescent adventures there, including playing piano accompaniment to silent films is the village movie house. During the German Democratic Republic (DDR in German, East Germany to us), the property was lost to the family for about 45 years. Shortly after reunification in 1989, my father and aunt took advantage of a legal window to recover ownership. The long time DDR-era tenant retained rights to the property, however, for many years, while paying s very low rent.

My aunt, angered and frustrated by the lack of access, gave the property to me and my sister in 1995. The lot has since sat largely unused. I once had visions of building a house there for personal use and rental, but those plans never ended up fitting my actual life. For many years, my sister has gently urged me to sell.

Although I speak German, my knowledge of how the German real estate market works is nil – a potentially very costly bit of ignorance. I did list the property with a local agent in 2014 but he came back almost immediately with an offer. I had no confidence that he was actually working in my interest (especially since he told me the buyer pays his fee, not me), so I pulled the listing resolving to first educate myself about the realities.

Well, that’s my primary job now in Berlin. I’ve been inquiring of all my German friends and acquaintances, “How do I get maximum value in selling the lot?” I’ve received a spectrum of helpful advice but one friend in northwest Germany introduced me to his brother and sister in law who are both engineers and homeowners near Berlin. They’ve helped me find online information about the property and we’re going to get together Tuesday to discuss the matter.

My goal is to get everything set up by the time Susan arrives on 27 December so the property can be marketed while we’re road tripping and sell and close without my physical presence. Given that German business and government slow to a crawl during the holidays, this is very ambitious.

Saturday evening, just before closing time, I remember it’s Saturday evening — and I’m in Germany! Almost all German retail business is shut tight on Sundays. It’s considered a worker’s right to spend that day with their families — a very nice philosophy. Gasoline and restaurant meals are about the only things available tomorrow, so I dash over to the nearby Kaufland supermarket to get what I need for the weekend. Kaufland is an enormous store, covering acres. It can take five minutes to transit from one desired department to another. Really, you need map and a motor scooter to find products there. I’m literally running through the aisles, in my slippers, like a maniac, 20 minutes before closing trying to gather produce, meat, spaghetti fixings, bread, juice. and more milk (!) to get me through to Monday morning. Worse, I don’t have a 1 Euro coin so I can’t unlock a shopping cart. Worse yet, I forgot shopping bags and backpack so I’m limited to leaving the store with whatever I can carry loose in my arms. Definitely not a competent foray.

I spend Sunday, working on client matters, researching the property, and kicking back a little. Karl Heinz’s and Edelgard’s younger daughter, Marit, is visiting with her family from elsewhere in Berlin. They’re staying in the other vacation apartment across the hall. Karl-Heinz is cooking a big family dinner and I’m invited to join them. I’ve never met Marit, so introductions are made and we sit down to eat. The centerpiece is a big roast duck — my favorite fowl — and we all dig in.

Karl-Heinz carving the duck.

The conversation is all in German and I’m very pleased that on my 3rd day in Germany I can not only keep up but be a full fledged participant. I was already surprised two days ago when I noticed myself starting to think in German within hours of entering the country. Usually, it takes a week or two. The traditional Christmas meal in Germany is goose and Karl-Heinz is perturbed that it’s unaffordably expensive this year. I’m loving the duck.

Karl-Heinz and family pre-Christmas duck dinner.

The weather is consistently below freezing but the roads are dry. In the next installment, you’ll see why that’s so important.

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Road Trip Europe – 22/12/09 Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn – to Berlin

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Friday morning and it’s time to push onward. Sophie has to go to work so we say our fond goodbyes. The only bad thing about getting to know people through hospex is that some of the contacts are ephemeral. Over the decades, I’ve built up an enormous collection of hosts and travelers and, although most of the initial visits are truly heartwarming, I lose touch with many afterwards. Whether it’s my failings as a correspondent or just the sheer numbers, I stay in communication with some and barely write to many others (and vice versa) — until and unless the opportunity comes much later for a return visit. We’ve had people we visited come see us in New York years down the line. Likewise, we’ve had belated visits at people’s homes 8, 10, and in one case 35 years after our first encounter

I’m pleased to say that, without exception, these renewed friendships and acquaintances pick up right where they left off after years of neglect. Actually, I have the same experience with long time friends from childhood, college, and Alaska — reunions after 10-40 years are joyful and apparently mutually appreciated. Only one old, close Alaska friend has consistently dodged me and he was always pretty self contained. Of course, the fact that I got rather intensely involved, over 40 years ago, with his ex-wife (you should know she and I had been friends for almost 5 years) while he was my Alaska housemate may have remained a factor… Nah, probably not.

During my cross country road trip during the Covid summer of 2020 — pre-vaccine — I visited about 16 households of long lost friends. Taking proper precautions, I stayed over in most their homes — no one got sick and we had great times reminiscing, hiking, boating, cooking, etc. It was one of my greatest trips ever, even when a massive Oregon forest fire was just 24 hours behind me as I drove west.

But, back to the present. I throw my stuff in the car and head for my day’s destination: Berlin, Germany. Today my Berlingo’s name takes on added significance, “Berlin — GO!”

I fuel up in adjacent Mulhouse and it’s only a short hop up the expressway to the Rhine River bridge and the German border. I spoke earlier about the expensive French tollways. Virtually every European country has a network of toll roads that are hard to avoid if you’re in a hurry — except Germany. According to the dearly held doctrine of “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” — culturally this translates as “Unrestricted driving for unrestricted citizens” — the German roads, including autobahns, are all toll free for vehicles under about 8 tons GVW and many inter-city stretches still have no speed limits — yes, NO speed limits.

I maintain high speed travel is much safer when drivers can concentrate completely on road and traffic conditions rather than spend valuable attention on arbitrary speed limits and traps. Yes, many sections of the autobahns are speed limited, some with variable speeds based on conditions, but in the rural areas there are long portions of just “drive safely”. There are few serious accidents in these sections (I’ve never personally witnessed a crash scene in, cumulatively, about a year’s worth of German driving) but when they do happen it’s a spectacular mess, typically with fatalities.

I’m not ready to sprout highway wings yet, though, because I have a civic obligation to resolve first. Many European urban areas have “green zones”, where only low pollution vehicles are allowed. The criteria for these get stricter over time but so far my 2018 diesel vehicle qualifies for entry. The rub is that each country has its own green zone permit. My Berlingo came with a Spanish C-class sticker but that means nothing in Germany. So I head for the first city hall on my route, in Freiburg im Breisgau to buy my German emissions sticker, the Feinstaubplakete.

Outside city hall, I need to pay the parking fee but, as I’ve seen elsewhere as well, the parking meter display is so worn that, without knowing how the system works, it’s impossible to follow the payment instructions. Not wanting to get an expensive violation, I reluctantly leave the lot and find the nearest street parking which turns out to be almost a mile away. Worse, Freiburg is itself a green zone, so while I’m at city hall there’s a significant chance my stickerless car will be emission ticketed. I hoof it as quickly as possible from car to city hall, where I find a typically German efficient and formal service system. Without an appointment, I tell a clerk what I want, she issues me a ticket (with an apparently random number so I can’t tell where I am in the queue), and told to sit in a waiting area and watch the monitor.

Customer Service at the Freiberg im Breisgau city hall.

After 20 minutes my number comes up and I head for the designated window. To my surprise (I’m always surprised when any governmental or corporate interaction goes smoothly), the purchase process is simple. The clerk looks up my Spanish license plate number which tells him the car qualifies, and for about US$5 I get my permanent German sticker.

Rushing back to the car, I apply the sticker next to my Spanish one and by noon I’m legal in all the German green zones.

German Green zone sticker above Spanish one. After 10 or so countries, I’m going to have quite a collection.

Now I can tackle the remaining 500 miles to my friends in Berlin, doing some low flying up the autobahn. Yes, much of the way I’m not subject to any statutory speed limit but I’ve long set my personal max to about 90 miles per hour (144 kph). Except for maybe short stretches downhill with a tailwind, that’s about as fast as I ever drive. Beyond that velocity, an old Alaska pilot joke invades my brain, “An aircraft is just a bunch of spare parts flying in close formation.” Above my limit, I can vividly imagine one or more of my wheels or ball joints saying, “The hell with taking orders. I’m going where I want to.” and abruptly separating from the car with disastrous result.

Even at 90 mph, I’m far from the fastest vehicle on the autobahn, with other cars – usually expensive, luxury brands – routinely passing me at 100, 125, even 150 mph. I learned decades ago that before pulling out into the passing lane to overtake someone I have to carefully check for fast traffic about a kilometer back because a high speed vehicle that’s barely visible could be right on my ass in seconds while I’m in the left lane. This is all part of autobahn driving and I love it. There is nowhere else in Europe with no speed limit. The maximum I’ve ever seen in other countries is an occasional 130 kph, almost invariably a privilege offered only on an expensive toll road.

I’m now traveling through Baden-Württemberg state, one of my favorite parts of Germany, not least because I have a number of friends living here. Unfortunately, as I’ll explain later, I have business in Berlin to take care of before Susan arrives on 27 December and I can’t tarry along the way. Reluctantly, I speed through towns where I can almost see my friends’ houses from the highway.

About 2 PM, I stop at a highway rest area for a quick lunch special, $9 for a hearty bowl of pea soup with carrots and frankfurter and a large coffee to get me the last 7 hours to Berlin. I can’t get there too late in the evening as my friends will already be asleep. I fuel up the car again in Würzburg and plow on to Berlin with only one more short stop for pastry, coffee, and a few minutes phone charge.

I’ve forgotten one thing about German rest areas — you have to pay over a dollar even to pee. Seeing the bathroom turnstile, I turn around and walk out to a dark portion of the rest area and relieve myself outdoors, in the company of truck and car drivers who, like me, refuse to pay.

The last major autobahn fork. Now, a 200 mile straight shot to Berlin.

I roll into Berlin-Biesdorf shortly after 9 PM, the long day’s journey over. My old friends welcome me as they always do and within minutes I’m downstairs in the vacation apartment they’ve offered me. It doesn’t take long to sack out.

Berlingo safely tucked away in my friends’ Berlin garden.

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Road Trip Europe – 22/12/06-08 My New French Friends

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From here in Girona to Berlin is almost a 1,200 mile drive, which even for a driving enthusiast like me is too much for one day. I’ve contacted a Servas host in Riedisheim, France. Sounds German, doesn’t it? It is, because this is the part of France that has historically seesawed back and forth to Germany. Sophie is expecting me about 6 PM Wednesday. This means I can laze around the apartment Tuesday and gradually pack up for a 3 AM Wednesday departure that will get me through the 600 mile trip over 15 hours, including some potential roadside nap time.

Setting off in the Berlingo for my first extended drive is pretty exciting but driving expressways at night is pretty mundane. You almost never see road kill in Europe because the constant traffic sweeps the lanes clear every 30 seconds or so. Besides, any animal likely to enter the busy roadway was probably never born, because its ancestor was probably run over years ago. Europe is not my primary destination for wildlife and wilderness.

I tank up before the French border, assuming (without any real basis) that French fuel prices are likely higher than Spain’s, and continue through the night.

I’m avoiding toll roads since I’m not in a rush. I often do this just for the fun and challenge even if the extra time and distance don’t make economic sense but in France that’s not the situation. If I took toll roads all the way today I would end up paying about US$86, a significant sum. Thus, I’m bypassing the tolls and driving on some attractive secondary roads.

In most of Europe, one rarely sees police hiding along the road, US style, lurking for speeders and other vehicle law violators. Instead, the roads are peppered with radar cameras and threats of the same. As much as I hate not matching wits with the police, I’ve got to say the policy is effective. For a cheapskate like me, paying careful attention to speed limits is mandatory.

Ubiquitous French radar warning

On secondary roads, speed limits change constantly. 110 (kph) to 80 to 50 to 90… You can be monitored anywhere, never know how much leeway a particular jurisdiction allows, and 2 weeks later, presto, an expensive violation appears in your mailbox — well, in my case it will be in Eric’s Spanish mailbox. These cameras aren’t coordinated. A careless day on the road could result in 5 or 10 violations. There’s some respite in that most radar cameras are announced by a sign a kilometer or so ahead, but there’s never a guarantee. But wait, there’s more! France deploys 3 other radar types along the roads including the worst of all: unmarked cars driven by civilian employees whose automated radar collects speeds and license plates all day long.

On this, my first long distance drive, with the first portion in the dark of night, I’m exceedingly careful to note all posted speed limits and camera warnings. I think I’m sliding through each one without garnering a ticket, but I just won’t know until Eric’s mailbox stays clear. The only time I exceed the limits by more than a few percent is when the surrounding traffic is speeding. I assume local drivers know the system, so when they suddenly slow up, so do I.

Much as I bridle at being subject to them, I think the US would be better off with traffic cameras, with the police confined to callouts and doughnut shops. In gun drenched America, fewer face-to-face police stops mean fewer innocent lives cut short by police bullets. In that regard, automated citations are well worth it — but I still hate them!

Sunrise comes at about 8 AM and my first reward is a beautiful view into the Tarn Valley as I descend to Millau, France.

Daybreak view into the Tarn valley at Millau, France

The next couple of hours are up and down through the Massif Central, an ancient volcanic area, with elevations to 1120 m (3700 ft) and temperatures down to -12 C (10 F). There’s quite a lot of snow cover in places but the roads are dry all the way.

Being in a French-speaking area is always a challenge for me because I’ve never been able to make any headway in the French language. I can deal with signs and such because many words are similar to English, Spanish, or Portuguese but my aural skills — always my weakest point in any language — totally fail me in French. I understand spoken language mainly by picturing the words in print in my head. That step is what keeps me from ever attaining true fluency in any language, but French is the worst. When French words are spoken, I simply can’t figure out how they would be written. My primitive attempts to ask a question often result in a frustrated, semi-polite, nasal, “Quoi?” (“What?”) Even if I get the question communicated, there’s almost no chance I’m going to understand the answer. It’s humiliating, so I’m happy to work my way north as wordlessly as possible. I’m hoping my host, Sophie, speaks adequate English. Thanks to online translation, you can never be sure whether someone actually speaks your language. With Google’s help, I can probably write a pretty fluent message in Kurdish.

I make steady progress, stopping once more for fuel. Midday, I’m looking for a working class (US$10) lunch menu but, unlike Spain, that doesn’t seem to exist in France. The best I can find is about US$28 so I settle for pastries. You can’t swing a dead cat in France without hitting a good patisserie.

Pastry shop in Bellerive-sur-Allier, France

The Berlingo’s USB port is apparently made for accessing music rather than charging and my phone has been slowly losing charge even while plugged in. I’ll have to buy a cigarette lighter charger but for now I make a 30-minute stop at McDonalds to plug in to the wall. It would be quite inconvenient for my phone to go dead while I’m trying to find my host’s address this evening, in the dark. While I’m waiting, I order a large coffee from the menu but it doesn’t appear in the usual assembly line fashion. After a couple of wordless inquiries pointing to my receipt, I see a quick staff conference taking place. Then, a teenager with some school English conveys to me that they have no large coffee cups. Europeans almost always drink little expresso coffees and my order has messed up the system. The kid manages to say they’ll give me 2 medium coffees, which is fine with me.

I continue ambling northeast toward Riedisheim but I’m a little behind the needed pace for arrival as promised, so I hop on the toll road for the last 100 miles and zip along at over 80 mph to roll in on time at 6:15 PM. Sophie’s address is on a dark, dead end street. I see house numbers on the block, but not her #7. I ring the bell at #9 and the guy who eventually responds says he doesn’t know where #7 is. I text Sophie and she comes out to find me. It turns out #7 is right next door where it should be but, unlike all the private homes on the block, this is a large (unnumbered) multi-unit building.

I’m welcomed in by Sophie and Arnaud. It doesn’t take very long to find out they’re a new couple, only together about a month. Neither of them speaks fluent English. Arnaud’s is slightly better but anything I say has to be spoken slowly and simply. Within an hour, our conversation has gotten more involved, complex and intense, with frequent references to Google Translate when any of us can’t convey an idea. Eventually, all three of us are enthusiastically mis-speaking words in the other’s language.

The French seem to eat well almost effortlessly and Sophie and Arnaud serve up plenty of beer, wine, juice (for me), bread and cheese, and a delicious cheese and potato dish in the vein of baked brie or raclette — followed of course by more wine. Our conversation picks up speed as we trade histories, personal lives, family, my car buying adventure, etc. Sophie and Arnaud both smoke, so there are periodic breaks where they bundle up and we all go out on their back patio so they can light up homemade cigs in the freezing weather.

Sophie, 41, works for the city building permit department, leading to repeating jokes about her spending all day at work saying “No.” Despite (or, perhaps, indicated by) the presence of the younger boyfriend, she is pretty clearly a determined woman who plots her own destiny. She tells me she’s never been married and it’s her condo or rental (I don’t remember which). Sophie is definitely no shrinking violet — which is as it should be.

After a few hours of this, we break for the night. I’ve been on the road since 3 AM so I’m definitely bushed.

Sophie has to work in the morning but declares she will only stay a half day (how French!) so we can spend the remainder together. This leads to a jokey discussion about how the French aspire to a 4-hour work week. I get up pretty early but Arnaud doesn’t emerge until after 11 AM — NOT a morning person. I spend quite a lot of time enticing Sophie’s very playful black cat.

Sophie arrives home and we make a substantial lunch, with more beer and wine, naturally. After that, the conversation gradually turns to music. Arnaud is a musician and they are both fans of rock music. We end up spending hours of me finding lyrics in French to my favorite songs (so they’ll understand what is being sung) and then playing audio of them. Most of these were issued before they were born and I’m able to dredge up many which they really like but aren’t yet familiar with. One prime example is Bad Case of Lovin’ You, clearly one of the best rock & roll songs ever produced and one that MUST be played at full volume (although I’m not enamored of anything else Robert Palmer ever did). The evening gets pretty raucous with all of us belting out off key lyrics over the music.

As darkness falls, we bundle up and take a long walk around town in the evening fog. Sophie lives right at the end of a residential area so our walk encompasses farm land, weekend cabins and then downtown Riedisheim.

On return, we scrounge up some dinner, more wine, more beer. For dessert, Sophie pours tiny shot glasses of rum. In 24 hours, I consume about a year’s ration of alcohol, although that’s still not very much. Sophie and Arnaud are very amused when I tell them my son Eric says I “drink like a girl.”

As a new couple, Sophie and Arnaud tend to be all over each other, leading me to mirthfully teach them two new American phrases, “PDA” (public displays of affection) and “Hey, get a room!”

We finally call it a night, exhausted from all the laughing and translating. This kind of experience, where travelers are hosted by strangers without any exchange of money goes by the name hospitality exchange, or “hospex”. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and, really, it’s the best part of travel — even though perhaps 98% of people will never even consider it. “Are you nuts? Have strangers stay in my house with me?” “Go to some strange town and sleep in a house belonging to someone I just met? They could be axe murderers!” For people who can’t or don’t want to travel, hosting hospex visitors brings the world into your living room.

These considerations keep wonderful person-to-person interactions a quiet privilege of a select few. The more both parties are willing to give and share, the more they get out of it. Many’s the time I’ve dived into someone’s kitchen, rattling among their pots and pans and spices to whip up a taco dinner for people who may never have had one. I could have zipped across France in my car, stayed in some roadside inn, never met Sophie and Arnaud, and left the country no less ignorant or more enriched than I entered it. All three of us would be the poorer for it. Instead, we’ve contributed in a small way to building one more peaceful bridge between dissimilar cultures.

As well, Servas visits and the like can make connections between generations that are all too rare outside of families. When do people in their 30s, 40s, and 70s share time together, get to know each other in a way that the large age differences melt away in a matter of hours?

The hurdle for most people is that hospitality between strangers means purposely making yourself vulnerable. That can lead to amazing experiences. Incidents of assault or theft are extremely rare. If they weren’t, networks like Servas, BeWelcome, CouchSurfing, and WamShowers would have fallen apart decades ago. Peaceful encounters and insights among strangers are desperately needed in our seriously troubled world.

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Road Trip Europe – 22/12/05 The Car!

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Monday morning — Gemma goes off to work in Barcelona, Eric has finished packing for their vacation. I’m waiting to hear from the car dealer that the money is there and paperwork finalized. At 9 AM Eric and I set off on foot for one of the notarios I had located Friday. In the US, notaries public do very little — they look over the document to make sure there are no blanks, you sign it in front of them, they add their seal, collect a couple of dollars, and it’s done. I have little hope it will be that simple in Spain.

Indeed, when we sit down with a staffer, she makes it immediately clear that they will prepare the document from my draft, they will not include the English version and, in a few weeks, Eric can come in and sign it. The cost will be about $65. Not what I hoped but not out of line with what I expected. Also, not a crisis since I want the power of attorney just as additional authority. Having it mailed to me later is no big deal.

By then, we’ve gotten the all clear from the dealer and drive over there. Once all the paperwork is signed, the three of us head over to the adjacent lot, give the car a mutual inspection, and it’s mine (well, legally, it’s Eric’s, as he has no hesitation pointing out to me with a wicked, teasing grin). I’m extremely grateful for all his help and the use of his Spanish residence status. I’ve gone from car-less to totally mobile in just 7 days, fortunate since Eric only had 7 days for his vital role to play out.

It turns out the second car key is at a distant dealership so Eric will include that with the power of attorney and the permanent registration papers once he has everything in hand.

Taking possession, ready to roll.

I hop behind the wheel and head home to find parking, gassing (well, dieseling) up along the way.

First drive.

Ah, parking. All week, I’ve been with Eric through the troublesome parking process. There is little unpaid parking in downtown Girona. The nearest area is about a 10 minute walk from Eric’s apartment, and the spaces are always in demand. At certain times of day it can be impossible so Eric’s backup lot is a larger one about 30 minutes out by foot.

Looking to park, you evaluate how many drivers are already lurking ahead of you, watch for someone walking toward their parked car, and take their spot as soon as they pull out. It’s a civilized but open ended process. I’ve seen Eric wait 2 minutes or 15 minutes or give up and drive further out of town. It’s always an annoyance.

When I get there, I’m first in the lurking line and within 5 minutes I have a spot. This is my first chance to be alone with the car, so I look it over thoroughly, figure out some of the instrumentation features, and take some initial photos.

When I get to the apartment, Eric has loaded his car and is leaving to pick up Gemma from work to start their one week road trip. We say our goodbyes and thank yous and I, amazed that everything has gone so smoothly and quickly, start planning my own exit from Girona. I was thinking about heading toward Berlin, my next destination, early Tuesday morning, but I decide to just hang around the empty apartment for a day rather than immediately start packing up my stuff.

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Road Trip Europe – 22/12/02-04 Learning a Little about Catalonia

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I haven’t spoken yet about being in Catalonia, a portion of Spain that, despite already being an autonomous region, has its own succinct culture and wants to be its own nation. The language of Catalonia is Catalan, not an offshoot of Spanish, but its own separate Romance language dating back to the original divergence of Latin into dozens of new languages including Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Almost all commercial and, among Catalonians, social speech in the region is in Catalan. Typically, the only non-bilingual Spanish you see written is by Federal agencies. It’s similar to the attitude toward English in Quebec, Canada.

The desire for independence has long smoldered here but picked up speed in 2009 when communities held the first of three symbolic referenda on nationhood. In 2012, the first ever pro-independence majority took control of the Catalonian parliament. They held a protest-filled, binding independence referendum in 2017 which the Spanish vigorously blocked as illegal, including with violent police action before and during the vote. When the regional government voted to declare a Catalonian republic, the federal government treated it as treason, suspending Catalonian autonomy and moving against political leaders, some of whom fled into exile to avoid imprisonment.

Police suppression during the 2017 Catalonia independence vote.

Bottom line: many Catalonians are mighty pissed off and not inclined favorably to residents, like my son Eric, who can’t speak the language.

Once I have the car, which will be titled and insured in Eric’s name, not mine, I want to carry a power of attorney from him that lets me treat the Berlingo as my own if anyone questions me. I print out a reasonable power in both English and Spanish and set off Friday on foot to find a Notario to authenticate Eric’s signature. Well, that’s a bust. With the help of Google Maps, I ferret out 5 offices all of which either tell me they can’t do it today or are closed early for the weekend. I really want that document but I’m not sure there will be time on Monday morning to get it along with picking up the car and Eric’s noon departure on vacation. No point in fretting since it definitely isn’t going to happen now.

Gemma & Eric

Saturday morning, Eric — who historically has disdained my cooking and in particular my buckwheat-sourdough pancakes — surprises me by saying he’s purchased buckwheat flour (in Spain it’s called Saracen flour) and invites me to cook pancake breakfast for him and Gemma. I gladly launch into the task, although I haven’t been off the plane long enough to get a new sourdough starter established. They seem to enjoy the resulting buckwheat/wheat flour pancakes, judging at least by both of them taking second helpings. Eric even has a small jar of maple syrup on hand.

After breakfast, we pile into Gemma’s car and head about an hour up toward the Pyrenees, the rugged tectonic mountain range that divides Spain and France. For our outing, we’re only going to the “pre-Pyrenees” for a short but steep hike to Mare de Déu del Mont (Catalan for “Mother of God of the Mountain”).

Our destination. There’s a road to the top but we’ll hike the last portion.

It’s an old, mountaintop church, now more productively re-purposed as a restaurant, hotel, and the inevitable monument and cell tower. I learned long ago Europeans won’t climb anything unless you can at least get a beer at the top.

About the closest I’ll ever get to religion.
Son and father.
Roughing it at Mare De Deu Del Mont, Catalonia

We buy refreshments while sitting on the terrace soaking in the magnificent view and the sunshine and then walk back down to the car in the increasing chill. We’re at about the same latitude here as the Catskills, so as we approach the winter solstice the days are currently quite short.

On arrival home, Eric prepares Catalonian paella, very tasty and noticeably different from the more widely experienced Spanish version. The three of us polish off every bit of it. There isn’t much energy left after that.

Eric in repose.

Sunday is a rest day. Mid-morning Eric and Gemma and I head out to a nearby cafe for Catalonian “brunch” which seems to entail sitting at an outdoor table drinking vermouth and eating olives.

Sunday brunch at El Pessic: vermouth and olives

They tell me it’s very popular but in today’s cold weather we are definitely not in a crowd. As we leave, Eric tells me his criteria for re-patronizing restaurants require 2 out of 3: good food, good service, good price. He says El Pessic is now on his blacklist. After, we walk through Girona’s old quarter (Barri Vell in Catalan, compare with Barrio Viejo in Spanish) and eventually back to the 5th floor apartment. Going up and down the steep stairs a few times a day doesn’t bother me but it’s definitely more work whenever I return from Aldi supermarket hauling a backpack of groceries. If I lived in his apartment, I would never own a bicycle. Eric has 6, all of which are invariably carried back up the stairs after each use.

Tomorrow, I must pick up the car and all associated paperwork. If for some reason it doesn’t happen, I’ll be delayed for weeks.

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Road Trip Europe – 22/11/28-12/01 The Spanish Car Buying Experience

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This morning, Eric and I set out to look for possible used cars. The first one we check out is a private ad for a 2005 camper van. It looks like a serious possibility: suitable for sleeping, mileage high but not absurdly so, 4×4. I take it on a long test drive. It has the power to pull hills, the owner seems straightforward, and the price is very reasonable. It’s big and heavy, though, almost certainly a fuel hog, and has a couple of symptoms that might indicate needed repairs but there’s no time to get them evaluated. I express interest but say I’ll continue to look.

Very tempting camper van but with some drawbacks.

The external constraint I have is that in 7 days, Eric is driving off on vacation. Since he has to register and insure the car in his name, all paperwork must be complete by noon this coming Monday — no ifs, ands, or buts. Talking it over on the drive back to Girona, we come to the conclusion that it would be wiser to shop used car dealers despite likely paying a premium over the private market. The advantages are substantial: a one year warranty, more efficient shopping than traveling to individual private owners, and experts to handle all the paperwork.

Unfortunately, as we drive from dealer to dealer, we’re finding slim pickings for what I want. We do, however, find one very appealing prospect on the used car lot of the upscale BMW franchise.

Not where I expected to find an affordable used car.

It’s a Citroën Berlingo, a very common small van sold all over Europe. In fact, the same car is sold under about 5 different brand and model names, so it should be easy to service or repair wherever we go. A long test drive is flawless and I’m very tempted to commit to this despite the disturbing thought that it’s the only suitable one I’ve seen.

This car has amazingly low mileage, almost flawless cosmetics, is only 4 years old, and is – unusually – equipped with 4 wheel drive. Many European vehicles have 4WD added by Dangel, a third party authorized by the manufacturers. The modification is made between leaving the factory and arriving at the dealer, so it’s in no sense a kluge or juryrig. Curiously, this Berlingo costs no more than a similar one without 4WD. Apparently, the market doesn’t value this feature very much, although I do.

My Europe road trip vehicle. The only choice, but a seemingly excellent one.

After looking further, on Thursday we go back and commit to buying the Berlingo. The price is quite a bit higher than the camper I drove, but still pretty reasonable. Now the time crunch is palpable. Our salesperson isn’t working Friday, nothing happens in Europe on the weekend, Eric is leaving Monday at noon, and Tuesday and Thursday are Spanish holidays which means the rest of the week is shot for business purposes.

Eric signs the contract, while the dealer finds an “all risks” insurance policy that covers the car in all countries, not just those in the European Union. This policy costs more and protects less, but it’s essential for my travel plans. I pay a down payment on my credit card and then we run home so I can arrange to wire the substantial balance to the dealer from my US account. Because of the time difference the wired funds won’t arrive in the dealership’s bank until tomorrow, Friday, and there’s no guarantee the dealer will confirm receipt by Monday — the drop dead date.

I’m on pins and needles because it’s absolutely essential that all the remaining paperwork be resolved by then or I’m screwed. But, it’s now out of my control, so there’s no point in fretting until then. Eric and I drive home. The three of us celebrate by eating out at a local pizzeria. As usual outside of New York City, it’s good but a big variation on what I grew up eating.

Catalonian pizza production.

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