Dearest reader, I have not yet admitted to you a detail that I have been partially denying to myself.   We are missing the engine. (Though if you know anything about cars, you’d see that is the missing piece in yesterday’s photograph.  I could not find it in myself to admit what is obvious in words.)  What is worst is that the Italian supplier has managed to misplace our replacement engine and we will not receive it until *at least* next Tuesday.

As lovely as Germany has been, if we stay still for over a week, we will lose our minds and spend the last of our remaining Euros on beer and lodging.  At that point we would also have thrown a lot of Euros at replacing the engine– exceeding the value of the car and losing any hope of completing this in the timeframe we have allotted for ourselves.

It was hard, but we have abandoned the Panda.  It is now in the hands of the local Fiat dealership who did everything they could and everyone there was exceedingly friendly and helpful, despite the language barrier.  Example:  When have you been hugged in consolation by your mechanic?  When have you been hugged three times?  Gerry, Heinz, The Chief, and everyone at Autohaus Schmickler did their best– we looked at salvaging the engine, but it was destroyed in a unique and show-stopping manner, Jason will be better at the description than I am. Starting with something fresh was the only option.

We’ve lost enough time that Plan B is likely not an option, we are evaluating and may resort to Plan C.  What is Plan C?  We’ll let you know.

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More time in Germany, we’ve only driven 525 miles or so.

Something is missing from this picture.

More time to worry about Plan B and now, perhaps Plan C.  If we’re not on our way tomorrow, our goal may be in jeopardy.  Does anybody know someone in Germany who wants a right-side driver Fiat Panda that was manufactured on a Monday?

I don’t blame the Germans for the part being absent, they had to order it from Turin, Italy… they were the ones who said it would be here today.

Oh no, the Italians!

Despite all this, call me Panglossian, but I remain optimistic.


Everyone within 50 meters of this statue becomes very serious. Beethoven radiates seriousness.

Somehow in the ups and downs of my banking haste, I misplaced my camera and left it at a bank.  Thankfully, the kind people at the bank knew there was a crazed American and suspected I would be back… sure enough I was!

In other news, though it is disheartening that I purchased a Montagsauto, there have been countless pleasant surprises along the way.  The food and beer has been great in Germany and balances out the hassle of their banking system and my credit cards.   Jason and I made an Iraqi friend in Cologne and a friend of one of the mechanics who, when he isn’t working a miracle on the Panda, he showed-us around town and was great to talk to.

I like compound words and that there is a large puppet repair industry in Bonn.

Things don’t go according to plan really when you try something like this.  So far, outside of the UK, we haven’t adhered to any of the planned itineraries, so why start now?  With any luck, our revised schedule will be to replace Prague, Budapest, Sibiu, and Odessa with Krakow and L’viv.  I hadn’t planned on this at all, but it will save some time and both should be interesting places.  I suspect that wherever we land, it will be interesting.

Sieberg was a pleasant town to walk around, museums, and a Benedictine monstary founded in the the 11th century.  Our banking excitement brought us to Bonn, where was found Beethoven everywhere (because he was born there), a great path along the river Rhine, lots of churches from between the 11th and 17th centuries (like the Bonn Minster), and a city adjusting to having its capital move to Berlin.


The last two days involved a series of attempts at German banking.   As you may surmise, dear reader, by writing from the same city in Germany, three days into the Mongolian adventure, something has not happened according to plan.  I should be in Prague by now.

The Panda was not only sad, it was dying.  The Germans explained to me that I must have purchased “a Monday car.”  At the low point of the trip, a mechanic with no English, as an attempt to communicate, made the sign of the cross and performed last rites on it, and told us it would be three weeks to repair.  As Jason understands the mechanics of the situation better, he may opt to explain this himself at some point on his blog.  The failure was quite impressive, but is being repaired by some very capable and friendly folks at a Fiat dealership (who will be visiting us next summer in Cleveland.)

Though, I am optimistic about a positive resolution which involves arriving in Mongolia in a month, there are two standing issues: the replacement part will not arrive from Italy until Thursday, and on that day, because the dealership does not accept credit cards, we need to pay in Euros.  Thus, My Adventure in German Banking!

Although famous for eating bamboo, Pandas sometimes prefer Euros.

After visiting over a dozen banks in two cities, I began to theorize that German banks do not actually have any Euros.  Upon entering, there are always pools of ATM’s, and then a second glass door, where you queue up and wait to step up to an informal mini-desk, often glass or plastic and fairly transparent.  You do not step up to a big opaque desk, providing a barrier between you and all the cash– instead, you stand next to the bank teller, as if you were a friend, so you usually you can both look at the same computer screen.   There are no signs of a mammoth safe, no guards, just glass, plastic, some computers, sparse transparent furniture, and mostly smiling employees.

Why is this?  I suspect because there are no Euros to protect.  All the money is in the ATM’s.

This anti-currency configuration poses a problem when one is looking to withdraw more than a couple hundred Euros.  I found that the credit card I am depending upon, despite a significant upward ceiling on total credit and withdrawals, no charges, and a fair conversion rate, limits me one to $200 per day in cash withdrawals.  At that rate, I would be delayed significantly longer than it will take for the parts to arrive from Italy and with the recent game of Russian roulette with US credit worthiness
happening back home, that $200 will get me less and less each day… unless I wait past August 2nd and debt ceiling problem is resolved in a way which doesn’t involve global financial chaos as the United States experienced what went so well for Cleveland, Ohio in 1978. Between the visit to my first bank and the fourth bank visit—the cost of my repairs appeared to increase by several
percentage points due to the falling US dollar—thanks Speaker John Boehner!

After being turned down with my VISA card and sent to the bank of ATM’s five times and with the dollar falling, I tried everything.  I discussed opening an account at Deutsche Bank to facilitate a SWIFT wire transfer—no luck.  I tried speaking German and then tried only English.  I drew diagrams and wrote key German phrases down to hand them (figuring that without Euros, this didn’t pose a threat.)   I tried various cards and accounts, numerous calls home, and in one instance, was even able to login to show what money was available in my account at my bank at home.  Standing side-by-side with the bank teller makes it a very collegial experience, pointing at the screen; it is almost like helping someone out at work, and we taught some words to each other.  That said, it always ended the same, most people seemed to genuinely help, but THERE ARE RULES, and I was gently pointed to the ATM’s or to another bank to try.

In desperation, I found the only Western Union in many miles, but fled, horrified by their rates– both in currency conversion and transaction percentages.

At the end of yesterday, when all hope was nearly gone, all options seemed exhausted, and most banks were closed, we had tried two separate cities and walked at least twelve miles, but at the last minute, we tried a small back at the train station–  this teller was behind glass and it looked tough, the kind of place with cash on hand.   After waiting in line for thirty minutes, I succeeded.  I simply gave her my credit card and passport and amount, she said “I’ll try it, but I’m not sure if it will work,” gave me a paper to sign, and voila!  Euros galore!

File this one under perseverance.  Now to time to plan the new route– sadly no Romania or Hungary, but we’re adding Poland.


All these miles… only to find out it was a different Englebert Humperdinck.  Not always do things go according to plan.


Here’s the article.


 

 

Recalculating.


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.)


Nœux-les-Mines

24Jul11

Yesterday was exhausting, I suspect, at this early point, that this is developing as an ongoing theme.

Left London via rail, due to construction on the line, we then had to take a bus to Alton.  Picked-up the car, Jason saved the day by knowing how to drive stick and being able to adjust to driving on the wrong side.  We picked-up a tire and some odds and ends, like a TomTom in Alton, then made our way to Goodwood– we drove through a lot of narrow roads, without shoulders, surrounded with hedges, along with bicyclists, cars parked helter-skelter, and some aggressive drivers.   A small piece of metal fell out of a car, too.

At the Goodwood Motor Circuit, we connected with a large portion of the other Mongolian bound drivers, rolled some stickers on the car, met some guys from Dortmund, Germany (who appreciated Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company and handed us some actual Dortmunders from Dortmund), and drove a circuit around the race course.  Photos will follow.

Next it was to Dover via a three hour picturesque trip through Brighton, Hastings, and Rye.  The M20, the final road to Dover, was the closest thing we found to our standard American highway– it had shoulders and it lacked parked cars, small children on scooters, and everything else you would not expect on a highway.  Google/TomTom/Every Mapping Service I tried kept on sending us to a route via London which seemed like it would be unpleasant, so I’m grateful that the Stranges (who I met for a delightful dinner at a nearby Brazilian restaurant) and some of the other Mongol-bound cars took this route.   Jason seemed to have really acclamated to the cars coming at us from the wrong side and going the other way on roundabouts just in time for us to board the ferry and head to Calais.

across the channel from dover, uk to calais, france

We had heard it was not worth sticking around Calais, so we switched to the right side of the road and carried on, thinking there would be more places to stop in the very north of France in the summer on a Saturday evening.  Not so.  We also found ourselves on a toll road sans Euros.  After finding a rest stop, we acquired some Euros, met some folks looking for a camping site, and carried on until we found a city– a city with apparently a dozen closed hotels.  Finally we found a very pleasant hotel in Nœux-les-Mines and my disasterous French yielded numerous apologies and a room.

Fun fact of the day:  Fiat Pandas don’t always come with cigarrette lighters.  There is no electrical port in our car.  Everyone we talk to is shocked that this could be the case.  It really is.


Less than two block’s from Dr. Johnson’s home in London…