A Newbie’s Adventure:
My addiction to travel began in 1993. Never a fan of “packaged” tours, I decided to tag along with my wife on a wintertime business trip…to Germany and France. And plan my own travel connections. I’m also not a fan of winter, so this was a potentially difficult trip for me. Especially as a novice traveler.
Business trips usually involve staying in typical large chain hotels that cater to, well, business people. And business trips demand many hours spent with bosses, clients, and other business people. So forget about seeing the local sites and finding that cute local’s only great food spot. Food designed to please business folks is de rigor. And breakfast can cost as much as a typical American dinner.
So here I am a Europe newbie, alone in winter in a monster hotel, with no understanding on how to navigate Frankfurt and find the “sites”. Even though there are no “sites” to see here besides office buildings, and maybe the occasional museum. What I really need is to get hold of a fast car and hit the Autobahn. Ah, unlimited speed and picturesque countryside. Off to Hertz I go. Being that newbie I have no clue how expensive a car rental in Europe is unless it’s arranged from the USA prior to the trip. In fact you can get a weekly rate ahead of time at about the same cost as a daily rental at the car counter! Oh well, who cares about the cost…I’m in Germany where there are no speed limits and I like to go fast.
Succumbing to a “cheap moment”, I opt for a smaller car. Something like a Ford Escort with 4 speeds and less than 90hp. Yikes. Finding the Autobahn from the city center is a daunting task. At least the car is small enough to navigate the heavy city traffic. Autobahn sign ahead…all right let’s hit it. Peddle to the floor and I briskly go from zero to 100. Unfortunately that’s kilometers per hour. A quick mental conversion tells me that’s about 62 miles/hour! Not exactly unlimited speed, so I push harder and head for a downhill section of the high speed road. Roll the windows up, lean forward, and pound the pedal. Now approaching 85 miles per hour the car just can’t give me any more. Well, at least it was cheap, and the countryside is quite charming. And I have lots of time to get a good look.
Back to the hotel to see about dinner plans. Looks like I’m on my own since this is a business trip for my wife. Maybe some beer or wine and some German sausage are available at the local food mart. Nothing like a picnic in a nice German business hotel room.
Next morning I still have the car for a few more hours. Turns out my wife and her boss need a ride to a downtown meeting, so I offer my services. Why I don’t know since I have no clue where anything is in Frankfurt, or how to find anything in the city. Being a proud individual I efficiently chauffeur the group like a local taxi driver…no mistakes or bad happenings. Even I was impressed. But my time was up with the rental so back to Hertz to pay an amazingly large daily charge for my first taste of “life in the slow lane”.
By this time I’ve developed an extreme distaste for Europe and wonder why anyone would spend their own money to vacation here. My attitude is now hostile and the pits. But it gets worse, much to my amazement. Remember this is a business trip for my wife and I am on holiday. Being ever so adventurous I arrange to take the train to Paris, while she goes by air. Hopefully we can meet up at her next business hotel. Since I am always helpful I stupidly agree to take some business literature she collected, box it up, and send it back home. Simple chore if I was in the USA, just go to the nearest UPS, Fed-ex, or Mail store. Not so easy in Europe. I’m told the post office has all the stuff I need, and it’s just around the corner from the train station. Yeah, right. First you go to a special area to buy boxes. Then you have to pack them, and find stuffing and tape. Then you need to fill out lots of export forms. Then you take everything to the counter and try to explain in English what you want. All the while toting my luggage.
Two hours later I make it to the train station. How hard could it be to figure out the schedules and get on the right train for Paris? Even for newbie. For some reason there are lots of train choices, such as direct, express, local, on and on. And what station in Paris do I want? Who knew there are multiple stations in any city? Should I just pick the one with the only name I can pronounce, or is one closer to the next business hotel than another? Using the dart board approach I book something and hope I at least wind up in Paris. Mild success!
Now in another country I still can’t figure out why people want to do this. My attitude deteriorates even more, with the option of going lower. Maybe Paris and the hotel will revive me.
Paris is huge, spread-out, and cold in winter. A short taxi ride from the train station to the hotel connects me again with my wife. Unfortunately this business hotel is outside the center of all the Paris action, and is truly another business hotel. With no coffee shops nearby, a simple light breakfast exceeds $26…remember this is 1993. Where is Starbucks when you need them?
Another day and more business meetings for my wife. More frustrated tourist activities for me. Maybe I can figure out the Paris metro…I’ve heard great things. Like the trains the day before, many choices with what seems to be no logic. Then the light bulb goes off and I discover how the system works. The trick is to find the metro line endpoints for each line. All the lines crisscross the city and many intersect. You travel on a line from some endpoint in the direction of another endpoint. You then need to figure out what other line drops you off where you want to end up….such as the Louvre, always knowing what the endpoint is for the next line. Then you make line changes at intersection points. Confusing, eh?
Metro travel in winter isn’t so bad, considering how cold and damp it is at street level. Just wish there were more stops closer to the main sites. So after a day of this I now consider myself a metro expert. My attitude however does not really improve. Money seems to be flowing out of my pockets and I have no one to share my adventures with. Maybe my wife can join me for dinner and I can wow her with my metro expertise? No such luck, again. Another night of fast food…and a bottle of wine.
Finally it’s Friday and the end of the business week. My wife promises some together time Friday night. Now for sure I can impress here with my metro expertise. It works out, and we hit the rails to see the Paris sites. Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe, riverboats, bright lights. Turns out to be a great evening but I’m still a bit hostile. Dinner and wine help.
Next day we are off on our own. An extended trip that changes from business to pleasure. We’re off by train to Monaco, Rome, and Venice. Magical hopefully. Just wish my attitude was more “up” but maybe once we cross the Italian border things will change.
The balance of this story can be found in other entries of this blog. A good place to start is “Strangers on a Train”.