Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just Read the Signs

“Just read the signs; we have very good signs.” These were the last words we heard from our Budget Rent A Car agent in Frankfurt as we set out on a three week spin through Germany and France. High speed motor highways are as emblematic of the EU as the Euro, and despite the high cost of gasoline, western Europeans are almost as car happy as we are. But driving there, by the English-speaking, has its perils, as we found out.

Peril number one, the chameleon Autobahn.
Autobahn 5 begins at the Swiss border and tracks the Rhine to Frankfurt before turning northeast to cross the Hessen plains. Seventy kilometers along the route, I was finding my stride behind the wheel of our leased BMW sedan and congratulating myself on my astute navigation. Just then I noticed that the route sign read “4.” Had I missed a turn?

It turns out that there was no turn. Unlike North American Interstates, where route numbers are persistent, European highways act like chameleons. Autobahn 5 simply disappears, maybe like a river in the desert, and number 4 nonchalantly replaces it. If you don’t believe me, look at the map.

Peril number two, the roundabout access ramp.
European highway engineers eschew the cloverleaf to reroute freeway traffic. They use the traffic circle, instead, directing vehicles into a gyre that spins them toward a new direction. Theoretically this approach is an elegant one; a single exit offers the driver multiple alternatives connected to the circle. But as a practical matter, the traffic circle forces a driver unfamiliar with the routes to simultaneously manage where to exit, traffic already in the circle, and traffic entering the circle from multiple points. I often made two or three complete revolutions before managing to escape what amounted to gravitational forces emanating from the circles’ centers.

Peril number three, when dead reckoning fails.
Not always understanding the nuances of signage, I sometimes depended on a general knowledge of European geography. In Germany I reckon that Munich is “south,” and Hamburg is “north.” Those “very good signs” we heard about usually keep this kind of orientation in play. But what happens if the signs offer a choice between a known and an unknown, as they did once on the beltway that surrounds Berlin. I knew that the Munich choice would lead south, and since we were headed north, it had to be the other, unknown, choice. Well, it turned out that the unknown choice also led south, down a road that eventually narrowed to a lane.

We finally righted ourselves through a comic exchange with a garage mechanic. After determining that we would not be able to converse in symbolic language, he grabbed our map and using two jabs of his finger showed why a picture is worth a thousand words. With one gesture he located where we intended to go, with another where we were. I turned the car around, drove north, reentered the Berlin beltway, and found the proper exit. This time I had made the right turn.

Peril number four, when you can’t get there from here.
Often the case in medieval cities and for us in Strasbourg. We arrived from the north, crossed the River Ill and entered a maze that the Queen of Hearts would be proud to govern. At one point my wife saw a taxi and suggested that we hire it to lead us to our hotel. Too late, the cab sped away. Finally, we decided to ask directions and took our city map into a bar across the street from our parking place. Since the bartender had no customers, he spent several minutes explaining scenarios. Seeing us satisfied, he walked us to the door, but on watching me unlock the car exclaimed “you drive?” “My directions no good.” Finally, he advised us to recross the Ill, follow an expressway that circles the city to a point nearly 180 degrees north of where we stood, and try it all again. It worked, but we left our car in the hotel garage until we left Strasbourg three days later.

Peril number five, interpreting the signs (a.k.a., linguistic nuance).
I have already introduced our linguistic ineptitude. It came into play in France as we drove along rural roads in Alsace. Here the traffic circles present drivers with some cryptic choices. For example, the exits of one read “Colmar;” the next “Strasbourg;” the third “autres directions.” Apparently for French signers, if you weren’t going to Strasbourg or Colmar, you must be going somewhere else. We were also bemused by the use of the “/” symbol painted across a city name to signify the end of a municipal jurisdiction.