Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Ausfahrt means "exit" in German. This wasn't the only German word we learned, but it was the easiest. After the sign appeared several dozen times, we kinda caught on. One thing that wasn't as catchy was the German word, die. We assumed (and prayed) that it meant "date" in German because this word gave us quite a nervous chuckle on the day of the Fiat.

When we had made it out of Cologne and were steadily making our way down the freeway, I looked down at the electronic display on the dash and read: "Die 07 April 2009." Seriously, die? Here we had just survived a one-way street, shifting issues, German hand gestures, sketchy directions, map phobia and this Italian Fiat's dash read: "Die 07 April 2009." We thought at the time that surely it meant "date" until we took off the next morning and looked down to see that it had changed. None-the-less, we survived, so it must have merely been a horrific translation coincidence. By the way, die means "the" in German.

Other things we learned the day of the Fiat:

Roundabouts are everywhere. They're actually everywhere in Europe. Very intimidating at first.

The posted speed limit is a suggestion only - and not like it's a suggestion in the states.

Locals faithfully abide by the slow lane/fast lane. If you are going the suggested speed limit, stay to the right!

Roads are VERY narrow. Do not mistake them for one-way streets. Grip the wheel, hit the gas, hold your breath and brace for oncoming traffic.

Castles are around every bend on the Rhine river. Literally.

Neighbors of castles are most castles. My husband, a man, posed the thought: "I wonder if it was like - who can build the biggest castle?"

Mirrors are posted on sharp corners to let you know if there is oncoming traffic. Pay attention!
Be patient going up a hill to see a castle, especially in a manual. Take it slow, speak kindly to your car, shift with confidence and think happy thoughts.
I think I only killed the car three times total?

Monty Python's Spamalot is playing in a theatre next to the Cologne train station. This was the sight we saw that guided the Fiat back to its home.

At the train station, you have to pay one Euro to use the bathroom. That goes for both men and women.

The Subway (sandwich shop) in the Cologne train station does not have pepper jack cheese. They do, however, have cream cheese.

My journal thoughts of Germany: "Rough edges but green inside."

Needless to say, we have some of the fondest memories of this stint on our vacation. We did make it from Burg Eltz to our hotel along the Rhine somewhat effortlessly. We drove through Bacharach, our homestead for the night, several times and ended up asking for more directions to find our hotel, however, when we did, one of the nicest hosts in the world poured us the greatest glass of Riesling, ever.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Fiat

The Monday before we left on vacation, I was driving to work and listening to MPR, like I do every morning. A news story came on regarding Fiat, an Italian car company looking to merge with Chrysler. The reporter concluded the story by saying that any U.S. citizen not familiar with Fiat may become so soon. 8 days after I heard the report, I became familiar with Fiat.

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009: I'm sitting in a Fiat next to the train station in Cologne, Germany. We're not in a Volkswagen, which are made in Germany, but a Fiat, which are made in Italy. An impostor with a key that looks exactly like a Volkswagen's. Shawn and I have just rented this automobile for 24 hours in order to drive ourselves south along the Rhine River in search of castles and our hotel.

Now, I had prepared myself for renting a car. I had read about the costs, the procedures, things you should ask, things you should have them show you, European street signs you should know. I applied none of this said knowledge.

Instead, we walked out of the train station, found where the cars were kept and to our complete surprise, found no one tending the cars. After scanning the vicinity for human life and finding none, I pushed the unlock button on the keys and woke the Fiat from the dead. We threw our luggage in the covered trunk, tried to remove anything marking this car as a rental (to avoid being vandalized) and familiarized ourselves with the car's controls and the several maps we were given of Germany. Do you remember maps? Literal pieces of paper with a mousetrap concoction of roads that are supposedly supposed to help you find your way? When map-reading turned unsuccessful, we took off with the hope we'd instinctively find our way.

We made it out of the parking lot, down the road and came to our first corner, a logical place to turn. So we did. We followed two cars in the turn and therefore felt safe about our decision. We, and they, were wrong. We had all turned down a one-way street. My face started to flush. The leading two cars proceeded to make their u-turns while I waited in line. When they were out of the way, I proceeded forward and turned slightly to the left to put myself in the middle of the road. All I had to do was reverse into a parking garage, turn more left and pull back out into the road. Question: How do you make a Fiat go in reverse? Did I mention we are in a manual? My face deepened it's flush.

At this point, I'm mildly panicky. I look down at the stick-shift and tried to place it where the "R" was located. I continued to try this for what felt like 10 minutes. Nothing. I took a deep breath to try and calm myself and looked up to see a giant, white van headed our way. Shit. Pardon my German. I thrust the stick-shift over and over without response. My new German friend has now stopped in front of us and is staring at us, throwing his arms up in the air and speaking something we luckily don't understand. My husband, who I love, waved his arms back at him and put out his hand, palm forward, as if to plead for some patience. My face is now on fire. Okay, first thing's first - get out of this man's way. Due to my several attempts at reverse, we had at least rolled ourselves backwards enough to pull ahead ever-so-slightly to allow enough room for the van to vanish. I didn't look at the driver as he passed but in hindsight, I'm sure he politely waved a thank you.

Okay, we're still stuck and don't know what to do. So, we turned to strangers. We flagged down the first woman to walk by and struck gold - she spoke English! She came over and very calmly showed us how to put the Fiat in reverse. There happens to be a ring right underneath the ball of the stick-shift that I had to pull up on while making the shift to the "R". *Lightbulbs* Hallelujah! We, are, mobile! I now have us turned around and headed down the street the right way. However, we still don't know where we are going.

A little further up the road, we stopped at a gas station. The friendly attendant spoke enough English for us to know we had to, "keep right." So, we pulled out of the gas station and did just that. We kept right. By the grace of something, we found ourselves to a freeway and landed on a road we could now at least locate on the map! The further from the city we got, the more relieved and confident we felt, even though Shawn still had to read the maps and I still had to drive, opposite our norm.

After kilometers and kilometers, we discover, we're lost again. And my face had just begun to cool! So, we pull off our friendly freeway, into town and miraculously came across a Europecar - the company we rented this beast from. We pulled over again and got out to get directions. The very friendly man gave us a new map, walked us out to the roundabout and literally pointed to where we needed to go, told us how many stoplights to go to, what freeway we needed and what exit to take. We were golden. Almost.

We found ourselves to Highway 48. I will forever remember Highway 48 because we went up and down a stretch of it at least 4 times. During that stint, we did stop again at a gas station to ask directions, but as we had feared, the further away from the city we got, the less English people spoke. Eventually, we veered off the freeway and tried to follow the map on our own. We were looking for Burg Eltz. It is said to be one of the greatest castles in all of Europe. However, it is not on the Rhine, like our hotel and the rest of the castles we would see. It is on the Mosel, a different river. So not only were we trying to find our way to this castle, we were slowing finding ourselves further and further away from the river we would need to follow south.

Okay, back to this new route we were taking according to our map. We went as far as it would take us, which was a kid's camp atop of mountain. There was even a giant bear on the sign. We went to the front window and asked if anyone spoke English. When a young gentleman came back, he informed us that he knew where Burg Eltz was, but that it was "very far from here." It turns out "very far" to him meant 12 miles. We handed him some money for yet another map and headed back out the way we came. We found ourselves back to Highway 48 and eventually, found a sign for Burg Eltz. This sign did not exist going in the other direction, we swear. From this point on, all we had to do was follow the signs. These signs took us through tiny towns, out in the middle of pastures, around very sharp corners and finally, FINALLY to Burg Eltz! We had found it! Picture the middle of nowhere, Germany. We were there. The Fiat had brought us there! We were beside ourselves because at this point, it had been close to 5 hours since we first set eyes on the car.

This story is obviously to be continued, since we haven't even made it to our hotel yet, but I'll save that for another time. I will, however, show you the beauty... and the beast.

Burg Eltz

The Fiat

Our Hosts

Brad and Aubrey Rager were kind enough to not only put us up for 4 nights and 5 days, but they were gracious hosts that fed us, guided us, carpooled us to the northern parts of The Netherlands and all around showed us a good time. I'll tell you what, they could write a book (or blog) on any of the following:

Baking (especially peanut butter bars - pronounce "bars" with a Minnesota accent for emphasis and then repeat)

Driving (especially when guided by a TomTom commentated by Sean Connery - "shaken not stirred")

Beer (especially, what I believed to be, Belgian beer - which should never be combined with seafood pizza)

Patience (especially with two very naive travelers on their first European adventure - who happened to email with pre-vacation questions daily)

Speed Walking (especially when late for Mass - Team DeBoer was dragging tail compared to them)

Advice (especially figuring out the planes, trains and finding things on foot)

Flowers (especially when they're tulips; beautiful spring tulips arranged for our arrival - see photo below)

We can't thank them enough but hopefully we'll see them again soon when they're back in the states!


Sadly, the furthest I've gotten with our vacation memories is posting some photos of them on Facebook. I'll intertwine some of my favorites in the blogs to follow, as well as those that are relevant, but in case you aren't on Facebook but can access the links below...

Amsterdam (and road trip to Beerta)


The Rhine (and the best of Germany's castles)

Ahhh Paris

Ahhh Paris (cont'd)


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