Growing up my family’s vacations were not road trips with multiple destinations, but instead simply a drive to one place, where we remained for the entire time. From Alexandria we usually drove three hours east to the Atlantic beaches of Delaware, where my parents had rented a house for a week in Rehobeth or Bethany Beach. For a number of years after Christmas the Elder children, with various friends, would drive to Vermont for a week of skiing at the Middlebury College Snowbowl – depending on the weather this was a ten to twelve hour drive.
Back then the preparations for a trip were simple. If you needed maps for your trip you went to the local AAA office. If you were unsure of the best route to get from point A to point B, in addition to maps you got the TripTik with each leg highlighted in green. Beyond that you packed your stuff in suitcases, put those in the car trunk, brought reading material for the duration, say the latest Robert Ludlum spy novel, and you were off.
Today things are a bit more complicated and require more preparation. Since our Renault Scenic does not have a GPS, we downloaded to Annie’s Samsung tablet digital maps of all the places we are going. She has a mapping program that integrates with the Samsung’s built in GPS, and this is almost as good as a car’s GPS for navigating. In addition I consult Google maps, and using the directions feature, print out those for the major legs of the route; we’ll use these to cross check the Samsung’s navigation system. Because we are staying in Paris, I printed a map of where our apartment is, which included all the nearby parking garages.
All mobile phones and tablets must be updated with songs, playlists, books to read, audio books, and movies. Of course there was portable music back then too, built in to your car: the eight track tape player (whack the case on your thigh three times if the tape was acting up). Alas, our Renault doesn’t have an eight track player, and my Dave Brubeck compact disc is stuck in the CD player, and will remain there until I get around to pulling the radio out of the dashboard.
Today the latest reading material will be something about horny, moody young vampires making shopping trips to the mall, so I’ll find a Nevil Shute book I haven’t read yet.
In addition, because we are travelling abroad, we bring out passports, our French titre de sejour, and various other documents establishing our identity, relationships, indeed our very existence. I email copies of these documents to one of my web based email accounts, just in case it all goes missing and I need copies.
On the road again
The kids had two weeks off for the Toussaint Holiday, All Saints, the last two weeks of October. Our trip was planned to last from Thursday to the following Friday, returning in time to use the Saturday and Sunday before school resumed to unpack, to prepare for the return to school, and to unwind from the vacation.
Our departure Thursday morning was delayed for a few hours. Because of the narrow streets around our house, we must park our car in a lot, usually several hundred yards away. When there is loading and unloading to do, e.g. a grocery store run or putting suitcases in for a trip, you just drive to your house, park in front of it, and do whatever you need to. This blocks the road, but people here are used to it, and as long as you don’t take more than ten minutes, no one minds.
Thursday morning I drove the car up our street, shut it off, loaded everything and everyone, and made sure we had all headphones, splitters, tissues, maps, books, coloring pencils, change for the toll booths, and power adapters to charge devices while driving. I then went to start the car, but it wouldn’t start. At that very moment a La Garde city service truck, which must be specially built for our narrow streets, pulled up behind us. I continued to try to get the car going, but nothing worked. Annie ran down to the garage where we had bought the car to get the mechanic, Steve, to come up and take a look (the car has a six month warranty). Fortunately the garage is just at the bottom of our hill. Steve wasn’t there but the assistant mechanic was. He drove up the hill with a portable battery jumper pack, and got us started.
In the meantime a few more cars had driven down our road and were now stuck – it is very hard to back out of our narrow, winding streets. I sent Andre up the street to redirect any further traffic to an alternate route through the old village.
It seemed like a long time, but we probably blocked the road for only twenty minutes. In the meantime the neighbors were leaning our their windows and talking about all the commotion. After Steve’s assistant got the motor going, we drove to the garage, got a new battery, and were finally on our way.
We left La Garde and drove west, around Toulon, towards Aix-en-Provence, past Avignon, then turned north towards Lyon, paralleling the Rhone River. Past Lyon and south of Dijon we turned northeast, and drove through the French Regions of the Rhone Alps and the Franche-Comte. The department of the Jura in the Franche-Comte, with rolling hills, woods, and long vistas (it was a clear, cool perfect Fall day), was especially beautiful. A geographic and administrative note: France is divided into one hundred and one departments within twenty-seven regions. Our home of La Garde is in the department of Var, in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur; our previous home of Marseille was in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, also in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
Somewhere east of the German border we passed a sign that indicated we were leaving the Rhone River network, where all rainfall flows into the Mediterranean, and entering the Rhine (Rhein in German, Rhin in French) River network, where all rainfall flows into the North Sea. Around sunset we crossed into Germany, then turned straight north, this time paralleling the Rhine River, driving past Freiburg im Breisgau (or Scheisgau, as some friends used to say), Baden-Baden, and Karlsuhe. As is customary on the highways there, the occasional German Mad Max appeared blowing along at 200 kph, high beams flashing at some three cylinder vehicle from Spain that was in the fast lane.
Finally, over nine hours after we left, we were wonderfully, happily, in Heidelberg.
Change and progress
The Elders first discovered Heidelberg when my father was stationed at the Nuclear Weapons Office of the Headquarters of the United States Army in 1958. My family lived on the Army base, at Patrick Henry Village, and Heidelberg became one of my mother’s favorite postings in her career as Army wife, easily beating out Kansas (Fort Leavenworth), Oklahoma (Fort Sill) and Washington (Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane). One of the many outcomes of living in Germany was that my sister Courtenay is the only one of the Elder children who can eat pickled herring. I can eat many things, often raw, as can my brother, but neither of us will ever buy, let alone eat, a jar of pickled herring. My family remained in Heidelberg until 1960.
In 1983 my college career looked to be coming to an end in the next year (due to graduation, not expulsion, which I had narrowly avoided a couple years earlier). At that time I was ruminating on some legitimate way to delay the inevitable, and one night as I sat in the German library/lounge, I spoke with a senior, I think her name was Karen, who told me about her previous year in Germany, at the university in Tübingen. She had some pictures along (a picture is a .jpeg image that has been printed on special, glossy paper), and as she showed me the pictures and told me about what fun she had had in Germany, within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hearing about all this, I knew what I was going to be doing next year. It’s curious how many important decision are often made as quickly as they are conceived, when seconds before that entire path before you was unknown and unimagined.
I studied (I use that word loosely) in Heidelberg from August of 1983 until late July, 1984. I was extremely lucky because the G.I. Bill which financed my college education also, somehow, magically, applied to study abroad. Having missed the first time the Elders went to Heidelberg, I made it there some twenty years after my family had left. Since I left in the late summer of 1984, Heidelberg has never been far from my thoughts and memories, and few days go by when I don’t think about the town and the people I knew there and my experiences. Now, thirty years and two months later, I was back, with another generation of Elders along.
We stayed at the Hotel Anlage, right near the Altstadt (old town), so we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere. My sister and mother had stayed here during a visit at Christmas in 1983. After we checked in we walked two block to the Hauptstrasse, a large pedestrian area in the old town, in search of dinner. It was a cold Thursday night in October, but the town was busy.
Then and now comparisons are inevitable, and that night and for the rest of our time there, I observed, sorted and sifted through it all. The old town of 2013 was more commercialized than that of 1983, and now there is a Hard Rock Cafe, a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut, and a Swatch store. There was a Kathie Wolfhart store, too (this revered Christmas store used to be located only in Rothenburg ob der Tauber). The Woolworths on Bismarck Platz was gone, and now there was a MacDonald’s there. A favorite restaurant, Weinkruger, was gone and another, Sudpfanne, was boarded up, but Zum Roten Ochsen was still there. Outside a few student bars were chalk boards advertising happy hour specials, and shots of the day.
There were many tourists, as always, but there seemed to be more students, too. My favorite bookstore, Ziehank on Universitätsplatz, was gone, but I saw at four other books store in the old city, which seemed to more than make up for the loss. The restaurant selection looked better than it had been: more restaurants and the new restaurants certainly offered a broader spectrum of cuisine than was available before. Unlike last time, the currency we used in France could be used in Germany.
Most important, time has not changed the essential elements of Heidelberg, the qualities that make it such a wonderful place: the Alte Brucke over the Neckar River, the massive Heiliggeistkirche dominating the old town, the squares of Universitätsplatz, Fischmarkt, Marktplatz, Karlsplatz, and Kornmarkt, the pleasing layout of the buildings and street, all under the gaze of that romantic castle set on the edge of the hills in the Odenwald. Like any good university town, there’s a lot going on in a small, human scale setting, and yet you’re not far from rural areas. There were posters advertising jazz concerts and baroque chamber music, and there were notices about an upcoming hike or Wandern (also called a Volksmarch – long hikes that function like a methadone program to counteract the invasion tendency).
We toured the castle, rode the molkenkur train up the mountain above the castle, and took a boat ride on the Neckar. The breakfast at the Hotel Anlage was welcome because of the rolls (not too sweet, which is a problem of a lot of French breads) and perfectly done soft boiled eggs. We bought a few things that were hard to find in France, drank that wonderful German beer, and ate heavily, a bone-in pork shoulder and schnitzel one time, another time the obligatory afternoon Kafe und Kuchen, coffee and cake.
We left Heidelberg Monday morning and drove west towards Paris.
Names on the land
It was, and remains, a bit startling to see a highway exit sign for Geneva or Grenoble or Barcelona or Bordeaux, all of which we saw on our trip. Perhaps it is because I think of these places as being accessible only by plane or train, and not places to drive to. More curious and unexpected was that throughout the trip I saw names on road signs, names that mostly I knew from studies at the university or readings, but now instead of being printed in a text book, they were white reflective letters on a large green signs, simply exits off the highway, exits that often lead to that old abbey or castle. A few that I remember:
- Cluny – Benedictine Abbey leading abbey. From the days studying history at the university.
- Cixteaux – home abbey of the Cistercian Order, also known of the Trappists. Again, from university days.
- Bar-le-Duc – a small town where I spent the night with two American students in the Fall of 1983. We had visited Metz and Nancy, then somehow got on the wrong train, and instead of travelling East we were westbound towards Paris. The conductor put us off a the next town, Bar-le-Duc, a quiet town, not welcoming tourists. It was too late to get another train anywhere. For lodging we found a room over a gas station and the only place to eat was at the restaurant at the fancy hotel in town, whose staff clearly did not like serving shabbily dressed American college students (the food portions could be measured at the molecular level)
- Vezelay – the main character in Anton Myror’s Once An Eagle falls in love with a young woman who claims to be the countess of Vezelay, although she is not. I always wondered where this village was.
- Courtenay – I once heard, and believe to be true, that my sister is named after a small town in France. The spelling of her name matches the town in France, and every other Courtenay I’ve seen is not spelled this way.
The drive to Paris was uneventful, although traffic in the city was wretched.
Paris, Pierrefond, the Parc, and Southbound
We stayed in a lovely AirBnB apartment in the Vicennes area east of Paris, where the neighborhood around us was perfect. Tuesday we visited the castle Pierrefond in the region of Picardy. According to Annie this castle is part of the set for a British television series called Merlin. Indeed, while we there we saw a number of cars that were from Great Britian, and heard an unusual amount of English.
Wednesday and Thursday we visited Disney Paris, the first day at Walt Disney Studio Park, and the second day at Disneyland Park. Our luck held with the weather for both days were clear if somewhat cold.
Friday was rainy and we spent the entire day driving back to La Garde.