Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Friday, September 17, 2010

European road trip

For nearly thirty years, I have wanted to go back …

Those who know me know that I have wanted a Mercedes-Benz for a very, very long time, since I was in primary school. I especially love the ones with the diesel engine, not just for the fuel economy but also for the way they run, not like the brutish American trucks, but ticking smoothly along like a European taxi cab. Someday, I hope, I may have one.

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.

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Blogger Baydog said...

Wow. You really have me wanting to do just that right now. I'd much rather see the small towns than the big cities. Any day. I really need to get away

Fri Sep 17, 05:54:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Back when Pat and I were just starting out, we had a General Motors pseudo-diesel car. It was a disaster. In the face of government mandates to improve fuel mileage, GM decided to create a diesel engine based on the hugely successful Oldsmobile Rocket engine block. On paper, especially to GM executives, the idea probably looked good. But it wasn't a good idea at all.

The problem was that the Rocket engine block, while excellent as a gasoline engine, just couldn't stand up to the compression that a diesel engine requires. Early 1980s GM pseudo-diesels were probably the worst engines ever.

The resulting negative publicity pretty much doomed any popularity of diesel engines in the U.S. -- even for highly successful and reliable diesels.

Pat and I had been given a GM pseudo-diesel car as a wedding present. It ate up all of the cash wedding gifts, and then some, in repairs. It ate up about half of our income. I wanted to get rid of the car. Pat insisted that we should keep it -- "It's so economical," he pleaded. Yeah, when it was running, it got 40 MPG, great for a Detroit gunboat with a V8 engine. But economical is supposed to cover the overall cost of owning the vehicle, not just the fuel consumption.

Then he said it would be wrong to get rid of the car because it was a wedding gift from his parents, and it would offend them, especially his mother, who was dying of cancer, if we sold it.

I even wrote to Dear Abby about it, and she advised that we should get rid of the lemon as soon as possible. Pat wouldn't even take her advice.

The car was stolen, but the thieves who stole the car were stymied when the chop shop wouldn't take it. So they drove around until they ran out of fuel and then vandalized the car. The insurance company (not the insurance company that we have how) took nearly a month to pay the claim.

Finally the car's air conditioning (an absolute necessity in Houston) broke down. We couldn't afford the repair. At last, Pat listened to reason, and we agreed we would sell the pseudo-diesel and get a more reliable car.

We looked at Consumer Reports and other evaluations of cars. We were determined that we would never, EVER, have another lemon. We couldn't afford a new car, so we looked at the best used cars.

The absolute, number-one, totally completely best ultra-reliable used car in the early 1980s was a Mercedes diesel. I would have loved to get one of those. But there was no way at the time that we could afford even a used one. So we got the second-best, a Toyota Corolla.

Sat Sep 18, 12:58:00 AM MDT  
Blogger O Docker said...

Part of my first bike trip to Europe followed that route north along the Rhine - from Basel through Strasbourg and Heidelberg to Frankfurt.

The nice thing about a bike trip is that you're always on back roads and can stop anywhere.

Bringing a used car back from Europe today can be pretty tricky. Usually, the only cars you can get through customs are models originally built for the US market. There's a famous story of how Bill Gates tried to import a super exotic European market Porsche that hadn't been OK'd by the feds and it sat in customs here for 12 years.

Sat Sep 18, 03:54:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Yikes. I guess when people who have lots of money and do the custom-ordered Mercedes thing make sure the cars are outfitted for the U.S. But I have heard of people in the military who buy a car overseas and bring it back; perhaps the armed forces have some sort of special arrangement. And my uncle has brought over two 1959 Bentleys that he picked up as junkers -- one that he subsequently fixed up and one that he uses as a parts car.

Sun Sep 19, 12:30:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Frankie said...

Nice to read this post about your memories of traveling in EU. It sounds much like some of my own childhood memories with my father Citroen! And you guys, whenever you get to EU, don't bypass my place without coming in for a beer!

Mon Sep 20, 02:02:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Oh, don't worry -- I would never go all the way to Europe without paying you a visit, especially since you live in the sort of little place that I like.

Tue Sep 21, 11:43:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Sheri said...

What a great story. I was just reading about people who buy cars across the country and use it as a vacation excuse. This takes that a bit further and in a very cool way!

Wed Oct 20, 05:20:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Jackie said...

Wow. That was such a dreamy travel experience. I was imagining the classic scene I see in movies. The classic European travel. I always wanted to own a Mercedez-Benz, too. When my husband and I visited my parents in Indiana, we were able to chat with some Indianapolis used car dealers near the neighborhood. Too bad we stayed for just a short while in Indianapolis. Used cars for sale there are actually big because really Americans are always interested in owning the latest. But for me, it doesn't matter if it's brand new or used one. Buying a used car isn't that bad.

Fri Jan 21, 01:36:00 AM MST  

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