My children tell Mary Ann and I that the only time they remember their parents arguing was on the car trips, when we might discuss proper direction and navigation in a louder than normal tone. As we have certainly matured in our midlife extravagances, we now only have navigational discussions. This fun part of our life together came back to visit us this past year on our two car trips in Europe. Having had a driver’s license for 45 years, and even driven on the wrong side of the road in the United Kingdom and Ireland, I figured that driving on the continent would be a snap. Well it was a snap, but there are always a few high points as we shall see.
In the last issue of the JD Record you will recall the great boat trip in France. That vacation also included renting a car in Frankfurt and traveling in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. Things didn’t start out real well in the lot where we picked up the car. Even at my age, I really don’t like to be embarrassed or to appear to strangers that I might be an idiot. We pack the car with all our stuff (mostly Mary Ann’s!), start the car, and I then try to put the Opel station wagon into reverse. I would have sworn to God it had no reverse gear! I really did not want to go back to the desk and ask how to get it into reverse, due to the aversion of appearing crazy, and their then revoking my rental contract. Fortunately, one of the employees was parking a car nearby and we signaled him for help. Even with the language problem, with some hand motions and body language, he got the picture. It seems on many European cars, there is a ring at the bottom of the shift knob, which must be raised as you move the knob into the reverse position. Ah, so simple when you know about it.
On to the autobahn. You learn quickly to get out of the fast lane, also known euphemistically as the “Mercedes lane”. My little Opel was whizzing along at a speedy 80 mph (130 kph) and we were being passed like we were standing still. Mary Ann humorously wondered how that silver car always seemed to be getting behind us, and then passing again. All the high powered BMW’s and Mercedes seem to be painted silver just like the speeding bullet.
You know you should be able to figure out all those international traffic signs since they are supposed to be visually simple. Oh sure! Maybe, I didn’t study the chart enough. I had a little trouble with the “No Entry Signs” and found ourselves driving down the pedestrian only mall on a busy Saturday in Bern, Switzerland. From then on I paid close attention to such a simple sign.
For those of you who are going to be driving in Europe I suggest you take a look at the following website: www.aviano.af.mil/newcomer/signs/
This past Thanksgiving we had a wonderful trip to Tuscany and Florence, Italy. Alas, again a car, a Ford Focus this time, and I got it into reverse right away. Then things went downhill. From the airport in Florence our destination was a villa (take a look at www.palagina.it) in the Chianti region of Tuscany but first we had to get on the autostrada going the right direction. We had a Hertz map, the map to the villa, but not a good road map. We ended up going to Bologna (wrong), then Pisa (wrong), and finally decided we should be headed to Rome. Back at the autogrille on the airport access road we bought a map, had a cappuccino, and figured it out. You learn in Italy that they do not give you directional hints.
OK, we are going good, then enter the toll gate for the autostrada, and immediately find no way to pay. The cars are backing up behind me, my blood pressure is climbing when the guy behind me yells (maybe in English) to hit the flaming red button. Will wonders never cease, a toll ticket prints out just like in a parking garage! The next challenge is to exit the autostrada. There were seven or eight exit lanes, so which should we take? We elected wrong. Do not go the vincard or telepass lanes. When there was nowhere for me to pay, I back out and head to where we see a human. The lesson is go to the Biglietto (ticket) lane or where the big signs are with the man with his hand out for money. All I can figure out is that all these problems were the fault of Mary Ann for not giving me correct directions!
Driving in Tuscany is really very simple, just be careful on all the winding, twisty roads, and in my case watch for deer, as I am known to hit one every couple of years (local nickname: the Deerslayer). In November it gets dark early, and so we were always trying to return to the villa from a Tuscan hill town, when it was pitch black and sometimes raining. The city of Poggibonsi, between Florence and Siena, will always be indelibly engrained in my driving mind. Italian road signage, particularly on the roundabouts, tends to be at the last moment, with a whole stack of signs, thus making you drive right past your exit or where you want to turn.
Poggibonsi required leaving town (and returning) four times, before finding the miniscule sign to “Greve in Chianti”. I hate Poggibonsi! I want to reassure my children, and all of you, that our navigational discussions have not resulted in a marriage dissolution. These little problems just make each of our trips more memorable. (Published in the Spring 2004 ABA Judicial Record and the July 2006 Chelan County Employee newsletter)