... the Frau slammed the door open, and there I was, on the throne
We are in our 15th year of retirement, and it would be easier to tell you where we haven't been. Russia, Asia, Africa. But then we have meandered without a plan throughout Europe, challenging Vopos and Russian soldiers at the East German border: Achtung! Minen!
Yes, times have changed, but fond memories are there forever.
We have driven French border guards mad, for we could not understand their valiant attempt to speak English. My wife, who had two years of French in high school, seemed to be able to understand ANY language, especially if she were talking to another female.
In the rathskeller of an imposing, castle-like German inn in the Black Forest, the old matron rattled on and on, but I couldn't hardly catch a phrase of what she was saying. My basic knowledge of German did not allow for a rambling alte frau -- especially after several steins of her finest beer.
"She's telling us that her husband died on the Russian Front," my wife told me. "Hush," she said, "I can't hear her."
Hmmph! I thought. My wife doesn't speak German. Where does she come off, hushing me!
Go by car, meet the people ...
I think we counted 13 countries and 48 states in our wandering -- for that's the way we approach travel. Go by car, but take whatever road happens to look good. We have missed North Dakota and Alaska, but Dakota is on the schedule.
Our prime purpose is to go where the people are. Meet the people rather than going to a specific place to view scenery. The scenery becomes incidental.
We have driven a new Saab through Sweden, across the Kategut to Denmark, where we stayed with the base player in the Tivoli Gardens Band. We drove as close to the Iron Curtain that divided Germany as close as we could, and have looked down the muzzle of machine gun. Startling, to say the least.
In Munich, we were spit upon by an old Bavarian soldat, who resented the American presence. And we stayed in the home of a German family who experienced World War II close up. They were very friendly and very helpful, but they were business-like and pecuniary. You were charged for little extras -- a shower, an extra egg at breakfast, petrol for a trip to the museum.
"You vant to buy vatch, cheep?" he said ...
In Austria we stayed at a brand new pension high in the Alps, overlooking Innsbruck. There, our hosts were standoffish; there was accommodation, but there was no intimacy at all -- quite unlike our German hosts.
In the Italian Alps in a snowsquall, a smuggler wanted to sell us hot vatches, which hung from the inside of his overcoat. Honest. We only spent a passing few hours driving in Northern Italy; the officials, whom we asked for directions, thoroughly believed that volume would overcome the language barrier.
We went through Liechtenstein and hardly knew we were there.
In Belgium, we giggled ...
In a Belgian market, we embarrassed ourselves by getting the giggles as the burly grocer checked our items, vocally, by the register. Fortunately he recognized the humor of the situation and was soon laughing as hard as we were. It was delightful. He must have been using Flemish, for I recognized few of the sounds. We three laughed for five minutes, and left good friends.
The English bobbies are pleasant in a one-on-one meeting. But when an international crowd of tourists starts pressing against the barricades at, say, the Changing of the Guard, they can be downright onerous.
A very big Irish policeman, a sergeant, was part of a road block, ostensibly to check on motorists wearing seatbelts. On stopping the car, I asked him what I could do for him. He bent over and looked through the car. "You're not wearing your seatbelt, young man", he said.
With that, I grabbed the belt and quickly connected it. "I ALWAYS wear my seatbelt, Officer. ALWAYS", I said confidently.
"You're not fooling me, young man," he said. "But I'll let you go this time." We smiled at each other, and I drove on. I was older than he was. We both had white hair.
One wipes one's feet on entering Ireland ...
We had spent a few hours in Northern Ireland, and as we approached the border to reenter Ireland proper, the officer told us to, "Step out of the car, please, and wipe your shoes in the hay". This was the time of mad cow disease.
It was the most unusual border crossing we'd experienced. We stood there is the middle of a highway, wiping our shoes in the hay.
For a trip to Mexico, we were advised by many Texans not to drive, take the train. Well, we were headed for the Mayan ruins throughout Central America, and I was planning on doing a magazine article. We were to spend some six months in our research, and were driving a Volkswagen Kombi, which was the favorite vehicle for all the hippies of the day.
Nasty times in Mexico ...
Our trip was over in less than three weeks, and we rushed to leave that country. We had not been bothered by thieves too much, but it was the encounters with the police that turned us off. It started ten miles from the border at a roadblock, where the car and our baggage were thoroughly searched. They let us go after a half hour delay, but a bunch of American kids really got the works -- their car was stripped in the search.
I ran a yellow light in Mexico City a few days later, and an officer blew his whistle vociferously. He told me (I speak some Spanish) that I would have to go to court, and that the fine for my offense was 160 pesetas. He scared us half to death, after hearing stories of Mexican courts from the Texans. So I offered him, very nicely, a sawbuck, which he accepted on behalf of the state.
But I deviate. The bad stuff is not the purpose of this story. But I won't drive in Mexico any more. In fact, we won't GO to Mexico again. And that's a shame.
Funny, but my brother (the doctor) loves Mexico. I think he lives there now, and occasionally comes home to visit his wife, the children and the grandchildren. He speaks fluent Spanish now, and knows enough of Mexico so that he avoids trouble. I repeat, we won't go back.
Canada is an easy place. They speak the right language, most everywhere. We ran into some ill-feelings once while motorcycling through French-speaking Quebec. At a stoplight, a local miner bumped my crashbar as he pulled along side; when I objected, he just shrugged. When he drove away, there was a new scratch half the length of his car. Tit for tat.
In Copenhagen there was a pretty young blond girl/woman asking for money. When I shrugged, her attitude went really nasty and she told us, in perfect English, what she thought of us American Tourists. I learned a few new cuss words.
No coins for the booth ...
Most everywhere we went in northern Europe, the people were kind and understanding. The officials were courteous, but businesslike. But in the Hamburg railroad station, I needed a john fast -- it was an emergency. And since I didn't have any German coins, I found a booth whose coin-op door was broken, and I ran in. Thirty seconds later this large-busted, blond German frau thrust the door open and loudly chewed me out for not paying. I didn't understand a word, and just sat there, businesslike. It was so astounding that it is my favorite travel story -- great for parties.
At an obscure Swiss-to-France border crossing, the French officer tried so hard to speak English while maintaining the official attitude. I couldn't help but break out laughing, for it was so garbled. He took offense, switched to French but he spoke so fast and furious that we just couldn't understand. But we knew he was upset. He did let us come into France, but he made us get out and open the trunk. He was upset.
It is best not to laugh at an official trying to practice English.
We found that, no matter where we went, we could get along if we acted responsibly, did not laugh at the wrong time, were respectful of local authority, listened intently -- and went along our way, amused and happy.
We found that differences in languages can be overcome if you display a willingness to learn a few words of their language. It helps to put yourself at their mercy, at least in the play. It pays to be kind and understanding.
And with that, I have run out of my allocation of words. For now.