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Friday, January 15, 2010

Road Trip

I suppose even bloggers need some time off occasionally and I certainly felt that way during the last three weeks. Now we're well into the year 2010 (happy new year to everybody, by the way) and I would like to return to blogging with a really insane story that took place last weekend.

One week ago two friends of mine, Pablo and Sophie, who are travelling Europe and earn their money by playing chess against passers-by, called me from Rome, Italy, and told me that their car got broken into and most of their stuff taken by the thieves. They had to return to Germany quickly but several things prevented them from helping themselves out of this misery.

First, the route back to Germany had to avoid Austria and Switzerland because in those countries cars are required by law to be equipped with winter tyres, whereas my friends' car only had allseasons put on. Therefore, the way to go was through France but unfortunately Pablo doesn't have a driver's licence at all while Sophie had her driver's licence blocked for two months in France because of speeding. So to cut a long story short, they asked me whether I could help them out by coming to Italy and driving the car through France. What follows is my recount of that road trip, which bore quite some similarities to a suicide mission, given the weather conditions brought to Germany by the trough Daisy.

Sunday, Jan 10th, 1am
I eventually arrive at home after a performance with my acoustic band. The bus shuttle to the Frankfurt-Hahn airport will depart the Frankfurt central station at 7am. So I turn in quickly, because it's going to be a very long day.

Sunday, Jan 10th, 9am
I'm at the Frankfurt-Hahn airport and now have to get my ticket. My friends booked the ticket in Rome and gave me an access code. In theory, I should be able to simply get the ticket printed at the Ryan Air check-in machines. In real life this procedure will cost me an additional fee of €40, which I don't have - neither in my pocket nor in my bank account. It appears that the Ryan Air clerk in Rome excelled in Doublethink when she told my friends that using the check-in machine would not be a problem at all while failing to hint at the additional fee Ryan Air would charge in that case. So with €30 in my wallet, I try to withdraw €20 from my bank account, and luckily for my desperate friends the ATM issues the cash.

Sunday, Jan 10th, 2pm
I finally arrive at Pisa, from where the road trip will begin. By now I'm really pissed off because after having bought a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee I don't have any money left at all thanks to the business philosophy of Ryan Air. The flight has been one hour late but given the weather at Frankfurt-Hahn, I'm rather one hour late than late. The weather in Pisa is fine, though. It's raining and the temperature is 5°C.

Sunday, Jan 10th, 4pm
After I met up with Pablo and Sophie we had a cup of coffee in the city centre of Pisa. Now it's time to get down to business. We'll try to reach Lyon, France, around midnight. A decision has to be made. Should we drive around the Alps along the Côte d'Azur until Aix-en-Provence and then turn northwards or is it better to try the direct route via the Fréjus Tunnel between Torino and Grenoble? Both routes have their pros and cons. The route via the Côte d'Azur is safe but approximately 400 km longer while driving through the Alps is shorter but not safe at all. Because fuel expenses, road tolls and time are also important factors, we decide to gamble and take the direct route. After all, didn't they say in the news that Daisy is passing through Europe from south to north so it should long be past the Alps, given that it's ravaging Germany right now?

Sunday, Jan 10th, 8pm
After four hours of driving we are finally past the Appenine Mountains and stop at the service area of Nichelino on the Tangenziale Sud di Torino. Sophie has been driving until now while I have been resting on the back seat. The journey between Pisa and Genova offers beautiful landscapes but it is a hell of a drive because of the innummerable tunnels. North of Genova the Appenine Mountains gradually yield to the plains of Piedmont and between Alessándria and Torino there are hardly any hills at all. At Nichelino I'm to take over the driving duty. We're now 90 km from the Fréjus Tunnel and I should get used to the car before we're entering the Alps. After just 20 minutes of driving I'm already pissed off because we missed the correct lane at the next interchange as the Italians are apparently incapable of setting up road signs that are readable well in advance. The road sign at the interchange was in fact located after the lanes forked, and when we saw it changing lanes was already impossible.

Sunday, Jan 10th, 10pm
We stop at the very next service area in France, directly after the Fréjus Tunnel. The 12 km long passage through the tunnel cost a heavy toll of €35 but we reckoned it'd be impossible to go via the Col du Fréjus where the road most likely has not been salted or even cleared. The highway offered fewer troubles. We hardly saw a snowflake and there was no ice. Now that we are in France, we're in prime Tour de France mountain stage territory. Looking from the service area to the south, the Galibier rises to approximately 2500 metres. Its mountain pass, the Col du Galibier is one of the hardest and most famous climbs in the history of the Tour de France. That is, in the summer, of course. Now the road signs show an alarmingly red fermé (closed), telling journeymen that they'd better pay the tunnel toll.

Monday, Jan 11th, 1am
We have arrived at Lyon safely around midnight and are now sitting in a shisha bar in the city centre. The Tunisian guy who runs the bar doesn't speak English so I use my rotten French. As I already have experienced quite often in France, this immediately breaks the spell. After I had a game of chess with Pablo, I end up playing two games of checkers with the French guys and in the end we don't have to pay our drinks - they are à la maison. Around 3am we finally leave the bar and park the car in the back yard of some company in the suburb Limonest. Time to get some sleep.

Monday, Jan 11th, 8am
My cell phone alarm wakes me up and I notice a snowplough clearing the parking area of snow. While I'm smoking my breakfast cigarette, the overseer asks me when we'd be about to leave. I say we'd be gone in 10 minutes and that's OK with him. He just explains that the guy in the snowplough is at work and needs to clear the lot where we're parking. Just imagine this had happened in Germany. I'm sure I would have got a decent earful about law and order and how could I dare to park here and so on.

Monday, Jan 11th, 11am
After buying food in a supermarket, we have driven to downtown Lyon again because Sophie needs to pick up a watch that was supposed to be repaired by the juweller who sold it. It turns out, though, that the shop has a rather dubious touch. Three different employees tell us three different stories about the whereabouts of the watch. In the end they talk about the warranty being void because of a fault of Sophie's and the thought dawns that she's never going to see her watch again. We finally head off, our mood having hit rock bottom.

Monday, Jan 11th, 4pm
We stop at a service area around Besançon in the Jura Mountains. The weather is very good as the sun is shining and there isn't any fog at all. We're now within 150 km of the German border and hope that the weather will be the same across the Rhine. Pablo's and my mood has become better again. He had been seriously pissed off about the fast increasing amount of money that was being gobbled up by the Péage and I had been pissed off about his being pissed off, basically. Seeing the sun and a clear sky was a good cure, though, and we continued our journey in confidence.

Monday, Jan 11th, 6pm
While we were descending from the Jura mountains into the Alsatian plains, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. Now we're around Mulhouse and it's all foggy and raining. Road signs warn about ice and it doesn't get better. As we cross the Rhine bridge between the French Mulhouse and the German Neuenburg, snow begins to fall heavily. Bad thoughts creep up on me. Daisy is still here, and we come to realise that the Alps had been nothing compared to the final 400 km that lie in front of us. Somewhere around Freiburg, Sophie takes over the car, because I'm quite exhausted by now.

Monday, Jan 11th, 9pm
We've been making an average of only 80 km an hour and now we even get stuck in a huge traffic jam at the notorious Karlsruhe-Durlach. As if this had not been enough, after we're out of the traffic jam the road suddenly becomes icy and Sophie loses control of the car. We slide and silently pray that no other vehicle is going to smash into us. Luckily for us we manage to reach the emergency lane and slowly crawl on to the next parking area, which fortunately is just 500 metres in front of us. I get out of the car and smoke five cigarettes in row. Some other cars stop here right after us. Most of them have been behind us and seen us slide. They got frightened and decided to stop, too. One of them gives us valuable advice on how to drive on ice. Tonight, temperatures will reportedly drop to
-12°C and after half an hour of agonising over the choice between freezing to death and risking to drive on for the last 100 km, another car stops and we ask the driver if he's noticed any ice on the road. He tells us the road was alright, which means that the winter service vehicles must have strewn enough salt by now. The show must go on.

Monday, Jan 11th, 11pm
Finally we made it back to Frankfurt. The first thing we do after getting off the highway is stop at a gas station and buy alcohol. After I'm back at home, I immediately down the small bottle of liquor I just bought at the gas station. The following two bottles of beer could now be consumed in a more tranquilised state of mind - phew!


  1. Oh my! You've got talent to slip into such things. Send greetings to Pablo and Sophie from me!...

    Be sure, in just a few weeks you will remember that as a funny and remarkably time. ;-)

  2. Being in such a situation it's quite understandable to feel pissed off - but as Lather said you will remind it as one of your great adventures in your lifetime!
    Everything' ok, guy, so it's no pity at all

  3. Duh... well, that's what I would call a suicide commando, fair enough.