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.