practicalities: specific considerations and lessons learned

06Aug11

The funny thing is that except for the part where I landed at Heathrow and took the underground to Waterloo Station and then the train to Alton, nothing from that point forward matched the plans.  Sure, I was feeling good the first time I heard “mind the gap” and recognized where I was, pulling from memories of high school, but that’s where the familiarity ended.  I found some consolation knowing that I had plans and alternates to the plans and alternates to those alternates, little did I know what was ahead!

Berlin Crosswalk Indicator

As I mentioned, I soon realized that learning to drive stick in an unfamiliar country; with more traffic, narrower motorways and hills than expected, pedestrians and bicyclists sharing the road with  70 mph traffic, combined with Bizarro World driving on the left, was the worst idea I’d had in a long time.  In retrospect, spending more time reviewing traffic laws and signage would have been helpful– versus discovering a round white sign with a red circle means “no cars” by jauntily traveling past such a sign and thinking, “Oh wow.  No traffic here to worry about!”  Thank God, I did not purchase the car in Swindon and experience THE MAGIC ROUNDABOUT by stumbling across it– I doubt I’d be here writing this, were that the case.   The roads were very different and I find some consolation that natives have some issues with the set-up.  Not that it matters for me, I also learned the gear ratios are also a little bit different in Europe than in North America.

As for the car I selected, obviously this Fiat Panda was a disaster, but based on research this seems to be really an extraordinary and unusual failure.  I remain unconvinced that it could have been avoided, maybe next time I’ll try the Peugeot, budget for more days to test and repair, and not buy a right-handed driver’s seat auto.  Although it has been nearly two weeks since the car failed, I remain stunned that a special engine would be required based upon the side of the driver, but I guess this makes sense– naturally with Malta, UK, Ireland, and Cyprus being the only places in Europe driving on the right, the parts would be less common.  I figure, if I tried this again sometime in the future, I know some reliable people in Germany to facilitate a car purchase– I’d definitely by something on the Continent.  Finally, I’d verify the car comes with a cigarette lighter, before purchasing all the charging equipment for interfacing with DC on the car.

Rather than focus all my efforts on planning for the “difficult” parts of the trip:  Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, I would spend a little more on the “easy parts.”  To say that I did not research Germany, except for highways and routes, would be accurate.  Sure English is a Germanic language and as David Sedaris noted, “it’s like English, but sideways,” it is still not something you can get by on just knowing a dozen words (although the exclamatory phrase, “Mein Gott in Himmel!” proved to be surprisingly applicable.)  I would have brought a book or some PDF’s or something to account for this… likewise I would have hammered out accommodations for Western Europe better– driving aimlessly through northern France desperate to find some place, any place, that is not completely shuttered and dead looking at 1AM in late July was not any fun and began to feel like a surreal nightmare with all the shutters everywhere and no sign of light or life, it seemed creepy and was expecting to turn a corner and find ourselves experiencing a real live La Nuit des Morts Vivants  This was further complicated by finding oneself on a toll road with no Euros.  Fortunately there was a workaround (which involved harassing locales and handing them Euros.)   Once we found a place, I was relieved that I could make a joke in French which elicited laughter by the guy at the desk, but not realizing that France closes for a month or two was a mistake.

One of the small joys of the Europe was the Continental Breakfast.  I have since learned that the meal often included with a hotel stay which is called the Continental in the US is not the real deal, causing some to wrongly disparage the concept.  Particularly as we moved east, it became much more focused on savory than sweet and involved all sorts of crazy luncheon meats (bierwurst, csabai, rauchfleisch, head cheese), neutron star dense breads, various cheeses, pickled things, in addition to the other things you’d expect (hard-boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt, crème fraiche.)

Wifi was surprisingly rare as an included service once we left the UK.  In the UK, for example McDonald’s, coffee shops, and most hotels, seemed to offer free wifi.  Once in France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany, this was not the usual case.  As we had not prepared for a long stay in Germany, this caused some hassle as all planning required the Internet.  Libraries in Germany did not seem to offer wifi, but often with some hunting some unsecured network could be found somewhere amongst denser population housing.  More than half of the wifi in hotels were broken and most you had to pay extra for, which made it all the more annoying when the thing wouldn’t hand out IP’s or you’d find that one of the routers was broken and only if you set your laptop in a corner of your room at night could you connect to a functioning router.  We’d tell them was what wrong or that their router had been up for 238 days and might need a reboot, but people were very cautions about our advice.

On another note, it was extremely rare to see people with laptops or tablets at coffee shops or bars once on the Continent.  Apparently, people actually sit down and talk, in some parts of the world.  How quaint!

Although Jason did all the driving, I was in a position to observe plenty about the process.  The Autobahn is puzzling because there are speed limits, except these are merely suggestions.  The Panda was not made for the far left lane and usually resulted in annoying an Audi or BMW traveling at 130 mph when we’d drive to overtake slower traffic.  In Germany while driving on the highway, you may think at first that Ausfart is an extremely large city with many exits and a name made for eight year old boys to giggle at– instead, it is the word for Exit.  Another example where a little more language and sign prep could have been handy.

From a provisional perspective, I think we were fairly prepared.  Perhaps I was over prepared, with the exception of having a spare right-handed engine on-hand.  I didn’t expect the car to fail, so I also wasn’t expecting to carry a 45 lb piece of luggage lacking wheels across Germany.  That piece has since been replaced and is in the hands of a little boy named Claudius in Siegburg, Germany.  I will never travel with luggage again that I cannot strap to my back or push on wheels.

For our communications, maybe the satellite phone rental was overkill, but still it was pretty neat to test out and I suspect it would be only thing that would work for the latter legs of the trip.  Getting a cheap multiband phone and getting a pre-paid SIM chip was the way to go (compared to the exorbitant costs associated with a Verizon rental and its roaming charges.)   It was refreshing to not have a “smart phone” and handle a phone which only required a weekly charge.  Still, with more research, I probably could have found better rates than what was offered by Telestial.  Jason used Skype and Google Talk which worked well, when we could wifi that worked, but did require some fancy footwork on his part, when it was blocked in the UK.

The situation with dollars was interesting, particularly with the political shenanigans at home causing the rest of the world to lose some confidence in our currency.  (John Boehner has not answered my letter asking why he wants my car repair to be so expensive and be on the receiving end of some good nature ribbing at 1/3 of the German banks I visited in Bonn.)  I used a Capital One card because it doesn’t charge anything extra for foreign transactions, there were two catches, even in Western Europe:

  1. Our cards lack chips.  In the UK this wasn’t a problem, you’d sheepishly apologize for being behind the times and they’d swipe it.  Once we made it to France, this posed a real problem when the entire country was closed and the gas stations would only accept chipped cards.  It is important to know the PIN of your credit card, sometimes, but rarely, the transaction would require the PIN.
  2. Some places don’t take credit cards.  You may be tempted to use your credit card to withdraw cash for these situation, check the fees before you do, some places will charge $20 for a cash advance.  Instead, I was able to use my ATM card, this was fine except for when I needed to withdrawal more than $300 a day for the auto repair which eventually became moot.  I’ve written plenty about that already.

Upon returning to the US, I had lots of Euros because we were never in a position to purchase the engine.  Do not under any circumstance convert back at the airport, what a rip-off that was.  Instead, hunt around for banks, smaller ones don’t seem to do this, but PNC did for a much fairer rate.  Typically, you want to buy US dollars in the US and Euros/Pounds in Europe/UK, not the other way around– it makes sense to buy oranges in Florida rather than Alaska.

When flying back, even at the last-minute, deals can be found, just not on weekends or Mondays and Fridays.  My flight back was less than my flight there– which I’d planned 60 days in advance.  And although fortune was not smiling upon me for much of this adventure, Air Berlin upgraded me to first class for some unknown reason– The Economist, champagne, and free commemorative slippers!

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One Response to “practicalities: specific considerations and lessons learned”

  1. 1 josh

    I have a sabbatical in 2013. Fancy trying again?


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