By Tom Kando
I have been in Europe for several weeks. Twice a year I go to my mother, who lives in Bergen,an hour North of Amsterdam. She is almost 97, and going strong.
Last week, we decided to drive down to see my Swiss cousin Hans and his wife and kids. They live in the town of Solothurn, an hour South of Basel, about 1000 kilometers from North Holland.
We took off around 10:00 AM. Although it's possible to get to Solothurn in one day, I decided to do it in two days, for my mother' sake. After all, there are some special requirements for a 97-year old, things like frequent pit stops, and so on.
So I drove, mom sat next to me, sometimes we chatted, sometimes she dozed off, I played the CDs of Cannonball Adderley, Serge Gainsbourg and Maria Callas. We were both warm and comfortable, even though it was raining cats and dogs outside.
We drove through the Belgian Ardennes and across the famous battlefields of Bastogne,then through Luxemburg. My mother slept through that entire country - all 35 miles of it. By 5:00 PM, we were racing down the French Autoroute across the Alsace. On our left we could see the beautiful Voges mountains, still snow-capped in April.
We got to the town of Epinal around sunset, and we decided to look for a hotel. The first three establishments were all fully booked. Finally, I found a road-side Formula One motel (a French chain) which had one room left, for the unlikely price of 29 euros, with an optional 3-euro breakfast.
Mmm.... How could this be, I wondered? What do you get, for such an implausible amount? I asked to see the room. It turned out to be a matchbox, a nearly cube-shaped room about 9 feet long, with a bunk-bed consisting of a regular bed at the bottom and a much narrower bed on top. The nearest toilet was down a totally dark hall, around the corner and up the stairs. The room did have a sink.
We had littlechoice but to take the room, since every other hotel seemed to be full.
Before retiring,we decided to sample the vaunted Alsacian cuisine - you know, maybe one of those mouth-watering Franco-German sausage dishes, with a great Alsacian or Moselle white wine. Unfortunately, the only restaurant which we found open happened to be Serbo-Croatian. But what the heck, we were hungry. Skewered lamb, kabob, such things can also be good. Unfortunately, my meat dish turned out to be nearly 100% pure fat. What I ordered should have been listed on the menu as skewered grease, or skewered lard. That was my French culinary experience on this trip. I washed it down with coca-cola.
Next came the challenge of sleeping. Climbing up the ladder to the upper bed was an impossibility for my mother, and a severe challenge for me. I reached the top bed at the cost of a seriously strained side muscle and a banged-up knee. I spent the first half of the night up there, hitting my head against the ceiling every time I turned in my bed.
After a visit to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I refused to climb up the ladder again. Instead, I grabbed the upper mattress and tossed it on the floor, where I spent the remainder of the night - getting very little sleep.
The next day, we hit the road early, tired and eager to reach the comfort of cousin Hans' beautiful chalet-like house in the fairytale-like medieval town of Solothurn. First, we had to cross the Voges and the Juras mountains, and cross into Switzerland in the city of Basel. Easily done, I thought. With less than 400 kilometers left, we should be at Hans' house by early afternoon.
Everything went well, until we reached Basel. That city - the metropolitan region - stradles three countries: France, Switzerland and Germany. We reached the main Franco-Swiss border, but then decided not to cross there, because if we did, we had to purchase a damn $40.00 tollway sticker in order to proceed on the main motorway. I told the custom guy that I wanted to take a secondary road into Swizterland, and drive to my cousin in Solothurn on a free and leisurely two-lane road.
So he gave me some vague instructions as to how to do that, beginning by turning back into France and driving to a minor border crossing a few kilometers away.
This is where our problems started. Our car didn't have GPS. I still use an archaeic device called a map. It's made of paper, and I like it. But my map didn't do me much good. I did manage to cross back into Swizterland, but then I got hopelessly lost in the suburbs of Basel. I tried to weave my way through the city in the direction of Solothurn, i.e. South, relying on road signs and on instructions from the people I accosted. Sometimes, these people spoke French, sometimes they spoke German, sometimes Schweitzer Deutsch, an utterly incomprehensible patois - Basel being a multi-lingual city. This went on for a few hours, in heavy city traffic.
At one point, we seemed to have finally left the city behind us, driving once again across open rural land. Thank God, I thought, we are doing better. A moment later, we approached a farmer walking down the road. I stopped and asked him to confirm that we were, indeed, driving towards Solothurn. His answer:
- Ach Nein. Zat is totally wrong! Zis ist Germany!
So back we went, to Basel. And across the city.
In time, I did find my way. By 4:00 PM we had finally found the proper road signs and the proper roads. By 5:00, we pulled up in front of Hans' house. Since morning, we had crossed six countries, darting in and out of some of them multiple times!
Our three-day visit was an absolute delight. Trips to mountain chalets, a boat trip down the AarRiver, raclette and fondu for dinners, and delightful company. It doesn't get any better.
However, we only sampled the idyllic life of my Swiss relatives for three days (remembering that guests, like fish, reek after three days).
So, on Monday morning we took off again. Hans had shown me the most efficient return route on my map, avoiding Basel and the Voges mountains. The return trip was mercifully uneventful. This time, I was so efficient that I reached Holland in one day. We didn't even have to spend 29 euros to sleep at some godforsaken motel. By 8:00 PM, we pulled up in front of my mother's apartment. Mission accomplished. The headline should read: 97-year old visits six countries in one day. leave comment here
Friday, April 16, 2010
By Tom Kando