Germans have a lot of paid holidays--more than twice as many as most Americans enjoy. October 3rd is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country that had been divided for two generations by the cold war. Just think of the feeling we would have if some conqueror decreed that hostile factions would control the US east and west of the Mississippi. Families were separated simply by geography. Contact between them was minimal for nearly fifty years while West Germany grew rich and prosperous and East Germany's economy atrophied.
I was in Berlin a few days before the fall of the wall and saw a few lucky East Berliners coming back from rarely authorized shopping trips to the west, carrying big sacks of bananas! This was a political system that spent its wealth on the military and its athletes, to sustain an image to the rest of the world that they were economically competitive with first world countries.
Of course they were competitive in the areas they featured. Some of my best friends now were among those world-class athletes. They are honest, intelligent, modest, frugal and honorable people who paid a tremendous price for failing to prevent a shameful solution to their economic problems.
After WW1, the Allies imposed such harsh measures on Germany that their economy was not able to sustain growth. Inflation spiraled. It was reported that the price of bread rose to a million Marks. Hitler acceded to power because he was able to restore the economy and the pride of the German people.
Of course I do not condone his crimes against humanity, but he was effective in restoring the economy. It was very difficult for Germans to look too closely at his methods when he had brought the entire country back from the brink of poverty and despair. He led the building of the autobahns and the creation of a car that the average person could hope to afford--the Volkswagen--literally, the "People's Car".
Before the rest of us are too quick to judge, we should try to imagine ourselves in this situation. Would we have done better? Would we have thrown the scoundrel out of power so we could go back to starving? By the time he began the atrocities, his power which had been built by the good he had done, was solidified. It was too late. Sometimes the cure is worse than the illness, but there is seldom a point at which a consensus can be achieved.
Ok. Enough homemade history and moralizing. It's just that it seems easier to see more sides to the question, living here and getting to know the people up close.
At any rate, October 3rd is sort of their 4th of July. It is a national holiday and since it fell on Thursday this year, most businesses took Friday off, too, so I headed for the south of France.
Doesn't that have a nice ring to it? "The south of France"? It should. It's a magical place. Even the sunlight has a different texture there. If someone who knows this area were to be taken, blindfolded, from somewhere else in the world and dropped anywhere in this area, he would know he was in the south of France just by seeing the way the sun is filtered by the local atmosphere.
I rented a car in Freiburg at what I considered to be an extremely good rate. I have rented cars in many places and have seldom, if ever, gotten a lower rate. Including all taxes and insurance, it was only something like $27 per day. You can pay almost that much for the tax and insurance, alone, in San Jose.
I knew that gas was around $4 a gallon, so I asked for the smallest car they had for the 1100 mile round trip, to save gas. The Ford Ka they gave me wasn't on my list of choices, but it was the only thing they had and I thought that at least it should get good economy. It was very light and underpowered. Real cars kept blowing past me, pushing me out of the way. When I stopped for the first tank full, I was mortified to learn that it got about the same mileage as my VW Passat, and was not in the same league with regard to comfort or power. I could have had a real car for a few dollars more. Next time.
That was part of what this trip was about--a shakedown test. A test to see what the area I was headed for was like, and to determine if renting a car was sufficiently better than other options to do it again.
I'm glad I did it once, but may never again. By the time I added up the car rental plus 1100 miles at $4/gal, plus over $100 in highway tolls, my total expenditure for transportation was over $530 for a weekend trip! After returning home, I learned that I could have taken the train, in just about the same travel time, for $60. Makes the decision pretty easy next time, doesn't it? If several people were traveling together and took the two-lane roads, the price per person might compete with the train, but I had a long way to go and wanted to get there early enough to find a room, so I paid the tolls and flew along at about the maximum speed I was comfortable with--around 85. The speed limit on the turnpikes in France is 80, but the BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, Renaults and Peugeots were flying past me like I was backing up.
I live right on the German side of the Rhine, so I was into France as soon as the first bridge came up, and as it turned out, it was good that I hurried as much as possible. I got to my destination just in time to get a nice place to stay and was well settled in, with plenty time to take pictures of a glorious sunset. This was quite a relief because the weather in Germany the week before I left had already been heading fiercely into winter and I had no way to know if the same would be true at the coast. Cold, rainy, overcast days with the temperature in the 30s and the earliest snow in 50 years was lying on the mountains of the Black Forest behind my house. (After living near the Sierras and the Rockies and now only an hour from the Alps, it's always hard for me to call 4000 foot hills, "mountains".)
One of the really neat things about French superhighways is that they mix up the gasoline brands at the turnpike filling stations. As you approach each service station, there is a large sign telling you what brand of gas is sold there, the price for each grade sold, and the distance to the next station of the competing brands, with the price of regular at those station, to allow you to decide whether you want to stop.
Since I could see that there appeared to be a station about every ten miles, I didn't watch my gas that carefully until I noticed that it was already on the empty mark. The car was new to me and there was no way to know how accurate the gauge was, so I got to the first level of panic after driving for at least ten miles without seeing any signs indicating the location of the next station.
Just as I passed a big truck, I saw an exit with lanes that looked at first glance like a service station. By the time I realized it was a toll exit, I had already cut off the tractor trailer and decided not to make any sudden moves back in front of him. He might not be too inclined to let me off.
Of course it was an exit-only exit. There was no way back onto the turnpike in that direction and it was in the middle of nowhere. I tried following my nose for five or ten miles without seeing any evidence that I was either approaching a town where there might be gas for sale, or a road that led back to the turnpike in the same direction. The needle was buried under the left end of the gas gauge. I held my breath to lighten the load on the car so the gas would last longer.
In my younger days, I would have been fuming and screaming about the rotten luck. As time has worn down a few of my rough edges, it has become more of a game for me when things don't go according to plan. In the first place, there was an old farm house with flowers in the front and the sunlight was just right. It was begging to have its picture taken, so I wasted a few fumes of gas while I shot it, then bit the bullet and headed back to the turnpike to takes my lumps and go back the way I had come, which was the only choice available.
Paying another dollar in toll to return along the road I had just left wasn't fun, but I decided to get off the turnpike until I found gas. There was a good sized town about five miles down the two-lane, so I headed for it. After a bit of wandering, I managed to get filled up and back on my way. You haven't lived until you put $35 worth of gas into a subcompact. (Please note that this was written in 2002.)