May 31, 2013

Random Thoughts From Carol

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

OUR PROGRESS:  Since we landed in Ramstein, Germany, in mid-March, our first month RVing in Europe has just flown by!  We have traveled only 1500 miles in that time, keeping with our plan to drive only short distances every day and not spend hours and hours on the road.  We have dipped into 5 different countries—Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg.  Our plan is to spend the next 2 months in France, a country we have been told is very friendly to campers…and is a favorite travel destination for several fellow campers.  Around mid-July we will head to the United Kingdom for 3-4 months.

WEATHER:  It has seemed unusually cold and rainy to us this past month, and we have been told that it has been a very cold spring in Europe.  Most days outdoors we have needed 2-3 layers of warm clothing, including a ski cap and parka for me on several occasions. 


 We have had a handful of days that were short-sleeve weather, and I felt very grateful for such beautiful sunny days.

 

 In Germany, I am thankful for every hour of sun because all that can change in a few short minutes.

PERSONAL FREEDOMS:  Our most sobering incident happened while we were traveling through Luxembourg when we were signaled to follow a motorcycle customs agent who had also signaled a large truck in front of us (carrying a load of cars) to follow him.  I swear, it almost seemed like he pulled us over as an afterthought.  In any case, as directed, we exited the highway and followed the agent for about a mile to an area where all kinds of inspections were being performed, mostly on trucks.  We later learned that these pullovers were supposedly completely “random,” but I suspect our very foreign license plates had something to do with our selection.  Al was asked to show his passport and the “papers of the car.”  Not knowing the reason for the stop or what it was they really wanted, Al showed the agent the RV title that had been stamped by customs at our port of entry in Amsterdam.  That seemed to satisfy the agent, and I wasn’t asked to provide a thing, not even my passport!  Then, as the agent was about to let us go, he asked to look inside our vehicle, so we opened the sliding door, showed him our very small bathroom, then opened the door to our very small closet.  Once again, he seemed satisfied and we were allowed to go on our way.  We felt a bit shaken and intimidated by what seemed to us a meaningless stop.  It was a reminder to us that freedoms that we take for granted in our country aren’t necessarily experienced worldwide.

Two additional comments on personal freedom…We have been told that in Germany it is illegal to home-school your children, and parents who attempt to do this are arrested.  While we traveled full-time on the road in our 29-ft travel trailer in 1989-90, we home-schooled our two children for a year--and felt entitled to do so.  Also, in Germany it is forbidden to blow one’s car horn except in an emergency situation.  We haven’t had any lengthy conversations about gun ownership yet, except for a brief comment over wine one evening with German campmates, and they were totally perplexed at the American preoccupation with gun ownership. 

INTERNET:  Finding available Internet has been our biggest challenge, especially in Germany.  Even when available, it is a bit pricey—anywhere from $3.50 to $6.00 an hour—and quality of signal is usually very poor in campgrounds.  Supposedly, all German McDonald’s offer FREE Internet…except when they don’t…or they charge for it…or you have to have an existing German phone contract.  We have been told that in France free McDonald’s Internet is more dependable, and so far we have found that to be true.  My habit is to compose my blogs offline in the RV at night and then post and link in pics when we have Internet.

 
FELLOW CAMPERS:  I cannot say enough good things about interactions with fellow campers.  These impromptu and random meetings can be quite rewarding on a personal level.  A wonderful part of camping culture, both in the U.S. and abroad, is that most travelers are very friendly and curious and want to talk with fellow campers.  In Europe we have found everyone to be quite knowledgeable about their country and European history, but a surprise to me is that many are not familiar with Colorado.  I had thought our state had a worldwide reputation, especially for its skiing.  Maybe that’s not the case after all… 

Some of the campers we have met have been incredibly kind to us.  One particularly nice woman from the Netherlands insisted on giving us a box of pancake mix and a bottle of maple syrup to go with it!  I tried her mix one morning, and it was no surprise that my pancakes were quite delicious!   On another occasion a German camper gave us some extra campground books that he had on hand—all in German, of course, but quite useful and a nice complement to the ones we bought in Dutch.  The other day we exchanged email addresses with a delightful Scottish couple who assured us we would not be disappointed with Scotland’s beauty.  We had a wonderful laughter-filled give-and-take with them about both of our traveling experiences.  They also informed us that on Sunday golf is not played at the famed St. Andrews golf course and the public can walk the course!  We immediately put that one on our bucket list.  One of our most enjoyable snowy evenings

Went up a bit in elevation and got snowed on one evening

was spent in the warm and cozy camper of a German couple who invited us over for some wine after dinner.  We volunteered to bring the bottle of Reisling that we had purchased along the Rhine, and all four of us agreed it was excellent.  Who knew Al and Carol were wine connoisseurs?

An interesting European campground custom is the use of bathrobes to go to and from campground showers.  Some male campers have very colorful robes, and when it is warm enough the men go back and forth in their very colorful boxer-type underwear!  I looked carefully, and I am fairly certain that is what the men were wearing.

CAMPGROUNDS:  European campground bathrooms and showers are wonderful, even better if heated (many are not).  You gotta check things out, however, because one very nice campground we stayed in did not furnish toilet paper!  It was strange in the beginning to see campers strolling back and forth to restrooms with a roll of toilet paper in hand.  Then, there are the restrooms that have multiple toilet stalls but only ONE very large roll of community toilet paper on the restroom wall near the stalls.  You simply pull off what you think you will need before going into a stall—I’m still not used to that kind of planning ahead!  Aside from bathroom quirks, most campgrounds are relatively cheap and many are completely free or have a minimal fee of $8-$10 a night. 

 

 One of our most beautiful free campsites
 
But--be prepared perhaps to pay extra for a shower, HOT water in the shower, fresh drinking water, sewage dump, etc. 
 
No nice way to label it--this is a European dump station
 

Must be a carryover from centuries ago when toll roads and tariffs were a common part of life…
LANGUAGE CHALLENGES:  In the larger cities, finding English-speaking tourist information help is not hard.  However, in more rural areas we have had to pantomime a lot to get information.  Sometimes when we check in, our campground host provides lots of information to us, almost entirely in German or French but with just enough hand gestures and random English words thrown in that we find out everything we need to know.  One day we had several conversations with the man camped next to us; he spoke entirely in German and we answered in English with a lot of hand-talking thrown in.  Amazing what we learned from each other…

STRONG DISLIKES:  This one is easy—lack of plentiful public restrooms.  Using a public restroom in Europe seems to be a privilege that should be paid for—anywhere from 25-80 cents.  However, restrooms in restaurants and museums are free to customers, so a little planning ahead can solve the scarce restroom problem.  My next strongest dislike is paying to use a grocery cart.  This one I don’t understand at all!  Doesn’t a nice big cart encourage some impulse buying?  We just use our handy-dandy cloth bags in the supermarket and buy only what we can carry in 3 bags.  My goal is never to pay for a grocery cart! 

NAVIGATION:  I am thankful for the top-of-the-line Garmin GPS we purchased in Toledo when we visited my brother and his wife last September.  We added the European module and that has been a godsend!   Our GPS avatar, Jill, has only led us astray a few times.   Al has become a wizard with Jill, and we even sometimes use “her” to navigate walking in a big city.  The most surefire way to find a campground is to use its GPS coordinates and, best of all, Jill knows where every McDonald’s is—for free Internet, of course.  As the navigator, I sometimes just give up on our European maps, even the supposedly better Michelin maps.

“Men read maps better than women because only men can understand the concept of an inch equaling a hundred miles.”  Roseanne Barr

 
 

2 comments:

  1. Carol and Al, thanks for your postings. Keep it up. We are learning much from your experiences. For instance, I had never heard of Colmar in Alsace and now I have practically been there. To your being pulled over incident: the only time Lucy Ellen and I traversed the continent on our own was in 1973 after a sub patrol. We flew into Munich and eventually drove to Amsterdam in a rented car. We dipped down into Austria and when reaching the German border to reenter that country, we were asked for what sounded like a "Green card." We were panicked, not knowing what they wanted, having visions of storm troopers and concentration camps. Finally, we handed the official all the contents of our car's glove box and he found what he wanted and let us proceed.
    Bon voyate and many happy Happy Meals!

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  2. We have a "green card." It is our proof of insurance card. We couldn't have driven out of the port of Amsterdam without it. In fact we stayed extra days in Florida because the German broker who sold us the insurance had a typo on it--TWICE!

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