While I was teaching in Innsbruck in the summer of 2006, I took advantage of a long weekend to rent a car and drive to Leiberstung, Germany, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, the village of my Lorenz ancestors. On the way there, I took the route that the young woman in the Hertz office told me I must take, the scenic route over the Alps. On the return, I decided to travel south, along the Rhine, through France. It was a memorable trip, as I wrote at the time.
I got an idea for a new reality TV show on my way back to Innsbruck.
Ordinary drivers like me are put in cars in countries they have never been in before and whose languages they do not speak. They are provided cheap road maps and told to travel from one spot to another—say Leiberstung, Germany, to Innsbruck, Austria--using off-expressway routes wherever possible.
We viewers will watch them trying to read local direction signs while speeding along at 120 km/hr with a Mercedes a half a car length behind and, following the lead of the Mercedes, winding up on those expressways. We will sympathize with them as they get off the expressways to see a city and become hopelessly lost. We will hiss and boo as they travel miles in one direction only to decide that they have been going in the wrong direction. They may use a basic phrase book that includes “Where is…?” in the local language. Of course, they will not be able to understand the answers unless they come across someone on a bicycle or hanging laundry or filling a tank with gas at a service station, who will say (with a touch of superiority), “Do you speak English?”
We will delight in their mishaps in restaurants. When ordering a meal, they will never be quite sure what they are asking for. And when they nod their heads when the waiter asks a question, we will laugh hysterically, because we will know that he will return with a bottle of the most expensive wine or with a piece of meat that, a week or so ago, could have been part of a cow or rabbit or bottom-feeding fish, and whatever thick brown liquid it is slathered with resembles something that the diner saw earlier in the day bubbling in a roadside ditch.
If there were a show like that, I think I could be the first contestant.
On Saturday morning, just before boarding the ferry at Greffern to cross the Rhine from Germany to France, I decided that I ought to get gas. In one town, a portly gent said there was no gas station in his town, but he was sure the next town had one, or so I took him to say. I couldn’t find one there, however, and a fellow coming out of a tennis club told me, ach, nein, I would have to go to a town about 7 or 8 km. down the road, past the ferry, the Rhinfahre.
I could go on with the twists and turns. I did get gas. And I found my way to the ferry after taking one wrong turn and asking directions from a muscle-bound body-builder who gave me excruciatingly detailed and repeated directions in rapid-fire German. What I got from his hand motions was that I when I came to a point in the road when I could go either left or right, I should go left. I did, and I got on the ferry, and within just a few minutes it carried me and full load of others to France.
When I got off and followed the other drivers straight ahead, I saw a gas station off to my right at the first intersection. C'est la vie.
Road signs showing me the Rhine River route were in front of me, but I didn’t get a good look at them because the Citroen driver behind me honked as soon as the light changed. I wound up on the expressway on the way to Strasbourg. I still regret not driving through the French countryside. From what I saw on the horizon, it is dotted with exquisite little towns built around medieval churches.
From a distance, Strasbourg looked to be worth a stop. But my turn off of the expressway put me in heavy traffic, and I could do little more than go with the others into the city. I wanted to experience coffee and pastry in an outdoor café, but there were no parking spaces, so I just kept turning right until I found the entrance to the expressway heading south.
When I get to Switzerland, I told myself, I will get off the expressway. But about two kilometers outside of Basel, the traffic stopped in the heat of the mid-day sun, moved half a car length or perhaps one or two lengths and stopped again, until a little more than an hour and half later I pulled to a stop in the shade of the customs station. A 30-something customs agent with an odd little wiggle of beard came up to the car. He waved away the passport I offered.
“Will you be traveling on Swiss highways?” he asked.
“I’m going to go to Liechtenstein,” I said. I had made that decision during the long wait.
“Then you will be traveling on Swiss highways. Thirty euro, please.”
I gave him a bill. He returned with a decal, which he put on the
windshield of the car, and my change: a coin that he said was 50 Swiss francs.
“How do I get to Liechtenstein?” I asked.
“Go toward Zurich and get off at Vraarroop,” he said, smiling.
“Go toward Zurich and get off at Vraarroop.”
“Vraaroop” was not on the map. Not even a close approximation.
I had told myself not to complain to the customs officer but I had to say it—though with what I think was a smile. “Do you know how long we have been waiting to get here? How long the line is back there?”
“It is the city of Basel that has caused the delay, not the customs,” he said. “Not the Swiss customs.”
I smiled and waved goodbye and drove half a block and stopped. He was right. It was the city of Basel. Its traffic was clogged by its version of Boston’s Big Dig, and it took me another half hour or more to go just one more kilometer, where the highway opened ahead of me.
I had thought about stopping somewhere in France to have lunch, but had hesitated. What I had left of that long-ago 8 o’clock in the morning French class from a Hungarian refugee priest was little more than Je ne sais pas. I had no dictionary to help me distinguish between pate du foie gras and la plume de ma tante. And I was never quite sure how close one of those little towns might be to the highway, though, in hindsight, after that long wait outside of Basel, that distance would not have mattered.
Now that I was on the road to Vraarroop, however, I was hungry, and when I saw the ausfahrt for a rest stop with restaurant and rest rooms, I ausfahrted. And I lucked out—our reality show fans might think this a set-up—but a woman at the information booth inside spoke English, and with a cultured British accent. She patiently wrote the directions: follow the signs to Zurich, to Chur, then to Vaduz and Feldkirch. I did not ask about Vraarroop.
I picked up a Swiss cheese sandwich and a bottle of water in the shop across the way, and I was off again. I had some misgivings about turnoffs along the way, usually with a BMW or a Porsche on my bumper, but I kept going, and soon enough I was in the principality of Liechtenstein.
Where to stay? Without a guidebook to Liechtenstein, I picked a sign at random in Vaduz and wound my way up a hill to the Sylva Hotel. A notice on the door in German and English told me to knock on the door of the house behind, and when I did, a pleasant, well-fed woman a few years older than I told me the hotel was open but the restaurant was closed. She showed me a room: clean, well-appointed, and at a reasonable price. She quoted me Swiss francs, which Liechtensteiners also use, then translated into euros. It was nice to hear that some currency is valued lower than the dollar. A restaurant would be open within a walking distance of five minuten, or another, 10 minuten, she told me.
The one five minuten away was open, diners were eating on the patio, and the waiter, in his late teens or early 20s, seemed eager to use his English, so there would be no misunderstanding. I ordered—and got—a glass of a reasonably priced Liechtensteiner wine. He brought it in a cruet, and poured about half into a small wine glass. Later he came back and poured more. He had probably been a very good altar boy. I had a salad I put together at the salad bar and finished with a beer.
“No, not Liechtensteiner,” the waiter said when I asked about the beer. “We have no brewers here, I think.”
“But the wine?”
“Oh, yes. We have a very good winery.”
I left him the 50 Swiss franc coin.
After a good night’s sleep, at least until 5 a.m., when church bells summoned someone – Liechtensteiner monks? – to Mass, I was up and packed. And although the restaurant was closed, the hotel’s guests -- I and two women who had had the room next to mine -- had waiting for us a breakfast of coffee, rolls. jam, sliced ham and sliced Swiss cheese.
Then I was off to Feldkirch, just up the road from Vaduz in Austria, with a turn to see the sights along its car-width streets – the standard for streets in small European towns. From there, I angled onto the highway back to Innsbruck.
Next time I’m over that way, I want to spend more time in Switzerland, though preferably not in a line of traffic. And I’m going to carry a map so that I can find Vraarroop. The first trip was entirely too real.