European road trip
The company offers a wonderful package for people who have a lot of money. The customer can order a custom-built car through a dealer in the U.S. Then the customer can travel to Germany, take delivery of the car at the factory, and drive around Europe for a month or so. Once the vacation is over, the customer flies home and the car is put on a boat back to the U.S.
This arrangement, of course, is suited to people who have both the time and the money for an extended European vacation, as well as the money to order a custom-built Mercedes. It isn’t exactly something ordinary Americans can do.
Besides, I’m not so interested in a brand-new Mercedes. I like the older ones, with the distinctive classic lines. The newer ones have become more streamlined, and they’ve lost that unique Benz look. I’m also not so interested in racing around on the autobahns. I like traveling on the little roads and visiting the small places. The experience of a country is much more authentic when one gets away from the standard places the tourists go.
So my car-buying journey would be lower-budget and less flashy. I’d fly over to Europe, find a nice used Mercedes for sale in a village somewhere, wander around the countryside for a while, and then put myself and the car on a boat home – not a cruise ship, but a freighter; many have accommodations for a few passengers, not fancy, but nice enough.
The year after I graduated from high school, I spent a year in England with my family; my dad exchanged jobs, houses, and cars with a scientist at the Rutherford-Harwell scientific laboratories. We were in a Victorian stone cottage in a small village that consisted of about sixty houses, three pubs, and one church. That was a very authentic experience.
While we were there, of course, we took some road trips in the car – a Citroen, not a Benz, but overall a nice car. We journeyed to Scotland on one trip, Wales on another. For spring break, which in Europe is typically two weeks rather than the usual American one week, we headed over to the continent. There was no tunnel back then, so we began the trip by driving to Portsmouth and taking a ferry to Cherbourg.
Our first stop was a country inn in a small village along the Seine, somewhere near Rouen. The owner was a Cordon Bleu chef, as well as a friend of the travel agent in England who had helped us plan the journey. It made a great base for driving around the countryside, and, as to be expected, the food was heavenly. One day, I was not feeling well, so I stayed in the room to rest while the rest of the family went touring. The staff of the inn were very attentive and frequently checked how I was doing; at lunch time they brought me a bowl of hot beef broth. At first, I didn’t think I wanted it, but then I caught the aroma of it and decided I’d take it after all. It was wonderfully restorative; by the time I finished it, I was feeling much better.
In Paris, we were in a small hotel owned by another friend of the travel agent. We left the car parked in the hotel parking garage and either walked or took the Metro wherever we wanted to go – a sensible way to get around, given the city’s serious traffic congestion. One evening as we were wandering around in search of a place to eat supper, we ran across a wonderful Italian restaurant. (Yes, an Italian restaurant in Paris!) It was run by a pair of little old ladies, and most of the customers were clearly regulars, chatting and joking with each other and with the owners, and generally being cheerful. The little old ladies were especially taken with my kid brother, who was about 9 at the time, calling him “un petit choux” (no, they weren’t calling him a cabbage; that’s a French idiom that translates roughly as “sweetie” or “cutie”). The restaurant served up enormous bowls of spaghetti and meatballs; we did not leave hungry.
Another highlight of the trip was a visit to my French pen-pal, who lived in a small village outside of Strasbourg. She took us to one of her favorite spots, a ruined castle on a hill overlooking the village. From there, we could see into Switzerland and Germany, and the Black Forest spread out before us. This was not a touristy spot; except for us, the only people up there were a few locals.
At this point in the trip, I came down with laryngitis – not a good thing, as I was the only member of the family fluent in French. My pen-pal took us to a pharmacy, where the pharmacist took my temperature, looked at my throat, and determined that I had garden-variety tonsillitis rather than strep throat. He then prescribed some throat lozenges that restored my voice and killed the pain.
We continued the journey driving up into Germany, to Heidelberg and then to the Rhine. The drive along the river, in its steep valley, was stunningly beautiful. We stayed in a small inn right on the river, so close, in fact, that the owner was able to point out the high-water marks left on the walls by various floods over the years. On crags above the inn, facing each other across the narrow valley, were two castles; if I remember correctly, their names were Katz and Maus.
On the way back to the coast, we had a slight problem. From underneath the car there came a loud bang, and suddenly the noise of the engine was deafening and the car was filling with fumes. A piece of the car’s exhaust system had broken. We limped along into Belgium, in search of a Citroen repair shop, which we finally found in Bruges. As we came up the road toward the shop, the mechanic stepped out of the front door, holding up in his hand a replacement for the part that had broken – he had heard us coming, long before he had seen us, and he knew exactly what was wrong.
We finished our journey by heading to Calais, where we took a ferry to Dover. When we got home to our village, we discovered that it had snowed, something that almost never happens in that part of England, and there was still snow on the ground.
By the way, if you’re interested in the car in the photo above, there are some like it for sale. You can read about them at Mercedes Motoring.