avoiding a sad panda: via cologne, germany

24Jul11

The panda’s growl has worsened, I fear.  With any luck, we’ll find a place tomorrow morning to take a look and discern whether this is engine related or simply a mere leak in the exhaust system.  I think we all feel better when we’re pushing it to its limit at  80 mph on the autobahn and it seems to make sense that it would be noisy.  What is troublesome, is the country road rotaries and slow-moving city traffic that alarms us with it growling and chattering.  Jason knows more about cars than I do, but I still suspect the Panda is peeved for the rough treatment I handed it in Alton.

Had I believed my high school French classes, I would have realized that the country really does shut down in the late summer and that everything would be closed on a Sunday.  Last night, we were despairing in France, nearly all the hotels were CLOSED and the Panda sounded ill.  The first half of the day (after a delicious breakfast fancy breads, cured meats, fruit, and cheeses) was spent trying to find somewhere, anywhere in northern france that was open.  Nothing was open, which meant we couldn’t even fill the car with petrol because all the gas stations were on automatic– only accepting chipped credit cards.  (In the United States we don’t use chips, I suspect because it is too expensive to upgrade our system– I tried to get a chipped US credit card beforehand, but with no luck.)  We tried a couple larger cities like Lille, but Lille was closed too.

2005 Fiat Panda

So we tossed out our original plans (of Rheims) in the southeast and instead plunged northeast into Belgium.  Ath was closed, but we figured it was small.  So we opted for Brussels, which was somewhat open, but mostly closed for business.  We did find a Fiat dealership… but it was closed.  The Panda seemed to reach its peak level of dissatisfaction in Brussels.  Things were better heading east, though Lueven and Aachen were closed.  We found the saddest rest stop in Belgium which was closed until sometime in late August.  We clipped through the tiniest piece of Netherlands, not much there.  Fortunately, Germany was open for business.

We made it to Cologne, I remembered this was a city of note and it looked like there were Fiat places here.  I didn’t realize how stunning parts of the town (that weren’t leveled by WWII), outside of those area, there still is lots of charm, despite the prevalence of brutalist architecture.  By happenstance, we found ourselves in a sorta-hotel where rooms are rented out in apartments.  There was some real sketchiness about it all, but we’ll have some good stories (including the man who climbed through a window who accosted Jason at night, but proceeded to fix the wifi access.)  We wandered the town, found some sites, and a weinerschnitzel place owned by an Iraqi who gave us some beer glasses as a gift and more importantly, some advice on car shops.

What was learned today:

  • The level of English speaking in France seems to be the equivalent of what I can muster in French, which isn’t much.  Everyone apparently does in Germany.
  • When you turn the corner not expecting the Cathederal in Cologne (Kölner Dom) and you encounter it for the first time, it is stunning– there could be goosebumps, but it could pose a threat, you may simply fall over.  Be prepared.
  • In French towns everyone has outdoor shutters over their windows.
  • If it is Sunday, France is closed.  If it is the end of July (and probably August), France is closed.
  • Hotels don’t give you sheets, just covers.  Even fancy places.  Not sure what that is about.
  • There are American disco radio stations on-air in Belgium and Germany.
  • Yes, some Fiat Pandas lack an internal electrical interface.  No cigarette lighter.  Really.

What is the worst idea I’ve had in the last ten years?  I’m fairly certain it was to learn to drive stick in a country where I had no idea what was around the next bend or winding road, while fighting decades of deep-set habits involving what to expect when you look right or left, while driving a somewhat “twitchy” vehicle that I own.  (The actual worst idea was months ago when I was seriously contemplating doing this and then driving across Europe to Moscow.  Fortunately, that ill-conceived notion did not reach fruition.)

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