Thursday, 11 August 2011

A Midsummer Bonkers Road Trip: The Travel Bit - Part 2

Right, so here are some more things that struck me on this trip...

Germany is also a car park

In a recent post I had a real pop at the notorious traffic black spot / hole that is the Antwerp ring in Belgium. Two weeks of driving around southern Germany and Switzerland have unequivocably confirmed that in high summer at least, certain sections of Germany's motorway network are also a car park. I heard on the radio that Germany has 200,000 separate traffic jams a year, and I swear that most of these were on the A8, A5 and the northern extremities of the A81 at the same time as I was the other week. In particular, exits with Böblingen in the name should be studiously avoided. Indeed, if any reader is thinking of going on holiday to Germany at this time of year, I would urge them to give the whole of the Stuttgart area a very wide berth, or as they say over there: "wide roomily drive around" it.

A small hire car is a contradiction in terms

I have been renting cars for work on and off for some 20 years and (with the very occasional exception) have mostly resigned myself to the fact that regardless of how often I specify the smallest and most basic category of car - for which the illustration on the laminated car menu might be a Fiat Panda, say - I will invariably end up with a bulky wide-bodied jet of a people carrier or something not far off it, with a name I have never heard of. This time I was given a Kia Venga. Hello? Who came up with the idea of naming a Korean car after the present first and third person subjunctive of the verb "to come" in Spanish?

Call me conservative, but it wouldn't have been a top of the head choice for me. As it turned out, after I had grown accustomed to its cumbersome contours and noisy ignition, I came to appreciate the incredibly economic fuel consumption of the diesel engine. I would happily rent this car again on my return to Stuttgart in 10 days' time, not least on account of the Swiss vignette indelibly affixed to its windscreen; it cost me 40 SFRS for the rest of the year, even though I was only able to use it for all of two days. But peel it off at your peril, as we read in Wikipedia:

"They are usually constructed in such a way that detaching and reattaching them is impossible without destruction, ensuring that drivers can't use the same vignette on more than one vehicle."

That said, I found this photo on Ebay!

All caravans are Dutch

Now I may moan about the traffic congestion in Belgium and Holland, but at least the problems are not compounded by motor homes and caravans. No, this is because all the Dutch ones are on the move in Germany, obscuring my line of sight and occasionally swaying in an unpredictable and unnerving manner. They will always have at least three bicycles attached to the back, which helps to thin out the indigenous (over-)population of the blessed things that are set to try visitors to their own country.

"Wash & Go" gets a new spin

As some of my Facebook friends may recall, I had a bit of an incident with a nectarine on this trip - specifically, trying to eat it while driving. Well...inevitably, just a couple of bites in, bright scarlet juice spurted forth and landed on my white T-shirt and beige skirt. Knowing that speed was of the essence - in stain removal that is, not driving - I reached for my bottle of mineral water and upended it over the spreading red patches. I proceeded to rub each affected area as best I could, while keeping one eye on the road and the remaining hand on the wheel.

This derelict driving behaviour prompted a flurry of disapproving comments on my Facebook wall, including this from my best friend Clare:

"Do I take it that you have fitted hands-free laundry equipment in your vehicle, Ms Musson? Still, as long as you weren't using your mobile at the same time. That might have been dangerous."

A croissant, but not as we know it

I would like to counsel readers staying in German hotels not to be tempted by the croissants they may find nestling amongst the bread rolls at the breakfast buffet. For notwithstanding their convincing shape, these are not really croissants at all, in the sense of flaky, buttery, mouthwateringly lardy, light as a feather hollow-centred morning goods. Rather, they are dense and stodgy interlopers destined to disappoint and make you wish you had risked the boiled eggs even though they might well have been soft and cold by now. The exception to this rule is croissants served by my friend Claudia in her home (of which more anon). They were the real deal (possibly baked off from an authentic ready-made dough), and if I hadn't already stuffed myself with cupcakes I would have got stuck in without a moment's hesitation.

The credit card swipe of suspicion

It is commonplace nowadays for hotels to take an imprint of your credit card or note your passport number when you check in. This is in case you do a runner, presumably, or completely clean out the mini-bar without declaring so much as a finger-thin sachet of peanuts. What irked me on this trip was the fact that I seemed to be constantly asked to leave a deposit for this or that, which is clearly a further sign of distrust. It started at the airport when I was picking up my hire car: the rather aptly named "Thrifty" desk took a deposit of 1000 euros off me to cover possible damage to the vehicle, while the hotel in Stuttgart with the robdog Internet charges wanted a deposit of 20 euros just to unlock the phone in the room! Doubtless to cover at least part of my long calls to Nigeria. And hey, at the airport they even charge you a euro to use the trolley, which can only be recovered if you are prepared to walk your empty trolley the half mile back again to where you found it.

I should point out that wherever I went on this trip I finally got cafe staff trained in the art of tea making to my precise requirements. The key all along was simply to be very specific and consistent in one's order:

"A cup of black tea please, with a very small amount of cold milk on the side."

And finally, here are a few strange things I spotted on this trip:

A curious collage of culinary appliances

A fantastically funky phone box

Trees with bits taken out

Green potato crisps

A tower in a bath hat

The ultimate bad taste mannequins

Me and an oversized hula-hoop

So that's it for the travel bits! The perfume-related aspects of the trip will be reported shortly...

Photo of traffic jam from, photo of Kia Venga from, photo of vignette from, photo of Dutch car towing a caravan from photo of an arm from, photo of croissants from, photo of a locked phone from, other photos my own.


ScentScelf said...

First of all, it had not occurred to me until JUST NOW that perhaps Germany is supplying nearly the entire United States with our "croissants." I know the very shapely yet very wrong lumpens of which you speak. (Have noted, as reading and again here, that we are NOT referring to your friend Claudia's croissants, of which I look forward to hearing more about anon.)

Green potato chips. Green must be natural, right? ;) Though, on this side, at least, there is a time honored urban myth about being poisoned by the one green chip in an otherwise "normal" colored batch. The discovery of which might cause excitement enough to be considered a driving hazard beyond peach eating and perhaps even cell phone use.

I must admit that I set a programme [note spelling!} of returning to perusing the blogosphere in a manner that would cause most pleasure and least pain, being one who has shifted from "no pain, no gain" to "no pain, no injury." Landing here is all pleasure, no pain. Thanks for that.

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

Am delighted to entertain, rather than pain!

Yes, I do believe I have encountered those "shapely lumpens" myself on US trips, so there may well be some kind of free trade zone in operation dedicated to the offloading of inferior baked goods. And thanks for overtly excluding Claudia's croissants from my blanket pan. (Is "pan" the noun from "panning"?)

Also, you raise an interesting point about the psychology - and physical characteristics - of green crisps. Which you are well placed to do, given your own recent review of purple foodstuffs.

I too was led to believe that green crisps are in fact poisonous, and that one should pick out any offending specimens, not unlike the black cornflakes you find from time to time (though these may not be toxic).

The greenness in this case is conferred by the supremely healthy addition of pumkin kernel oil, and these crisps do in fact taste quite delicious (dark and nutty, thanks to even the small proportion of pumpkin oil mixed in with regular sunflower). But I will admit the green colour gave me pause!

olenska said...

RE: the green potato chips-- Owing to the fact that I love pepitas AND potato chips, I am now afflicted by herds of culinary lemmings. From their accents, they've come all the way from Slovenia to bedevil me. Curses. :D

Vanessa said...

Hi olenska,

Not wanting to aggravate your lemming or anything, but the green potato crisps were a real highlight and I shall be seeking them out again on my next trip. Probably not bringing any extra bags back with me on the plane, though, owing to their high crumbability factor.

Undina said...

So, a credit card isn't enough any more to secure your possible gluttony or loquacity? In which form do they take the deposit then? Cash??!
Enjoyed your story. I don't know ifvto wish you better trips - what will I enjoybif everything goes smoothly and you won't have anything to complain about?

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

They take the deposit and credit it back to you later - from the credit card if you have enough credit, otherwise (in the case of the car hire company) it would have to be provisionally debited from a bank account. Cash would have been acceptable in the case of the phone unlocking malarkey, I don't doubt.

I have been wondering about just the point you raise, namely "bad news makes better copy", basically.

I guess if my travels all went swimmingly from now on, I would devote more column inches to perfume posts instead. I am not short of ideas for those, but find the travel writing a cathartic way to exorcise the demons on each trip!

JoanElaine said...

Gadzooks! Do you have to pay to use the toilets as well? I'll have to remortgage my houseif we ever want to visit Europe ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi JoanElaine,

German motorway services typically charge 0.50 euro (about 45p) to use the loo - you buy a little coupon which is later redeemable against any purchase in the shop. However, the merchandise in the shop is so expensive you would be better off just writing off the half a euro to use the facilities!

I have seen public loos in Switzerland that wanted 2 SFRS, which is about £1.60! Rather than remortgaging the house, what about bringing over your own Portaloo? For the price of an extra seat on the plane, you'll be quids in in no time... : - )