Road Trip

Trip Start Sep 01, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, October 2, 2005

The next week and a half was more or less unplanned. Brian, Erin and I returned to Rosrath to spend a few days with Andreas. October 1 is Brian's birthday and we spent it in Koln. For lunch we ate at a bar that Andreas had introduced to, Dom Goulash. It is a small, dark place that since 1948 has had only two things on the menu: beef goulash and Kolsch beer. Served either at the bar or at a small booth. No frills except that they give you one free refill of the spicy, thick broth. I thought that it was delicious. The first time that we ate there with Andreas, many people had watched us enter and sit down. There was only a small street side door and was not the most attractive place on the block. Andreas gave a little laugh and said "you will not find the normal American tourist here." We laughed and wondered just how many times would we be able to say that on this trip.
As we lounged at Andreas' we formulated a quick plan. He had offered us the use of his car, and we decided to take a quick road trip Southwestward. It would have to be quick because we only had 5 days before our flight left for Prague. Two days before we left I started looking at the maps that Andreas had given us. It seemed that if you overlapped them just right and held them towards a light you could get all of the information you needed: distances, names, major and minor roads. I also found a comprehensive legend of road signs in the back of one of them, which would for certain be useful.
It was interesting. For moths we had been looking at where we would be traveling, mostly pointing at a map of the world. Now and then we would get out the atlas and take closer looks at different regions weighing time, money and desire. As I sat looking at the maps of Germany I began to see where the stories would begin. Our perspective was shrinking from global, to regional, then to local, connecting Andreas' house with Maastricht, Holland (where Ward a friend of mine lives), back to Trier, up the Mozel river, then back to Andreas'. Soon enough we would become more familiar with the roads, the places and hopefully some of the people. We had finally moved from our perspective in outer space to the street side. I had a great feeling of finally putting it together. Nonetheless, putting it together is one thing, and pulling it off was another.
After studying the confusing maps for a while one night I offered them to the copilots. I would be driving, and they would navigate the way.
"Here are the maps. They are a bit complicated so you might want to study them before we take off," I offered.
They both looked at me and laughed.
Two days later we put $75 into the 12-gallon tank, filling it up, and took off. The maps lay unopened in the backseat. An hour later we reached the German town Aachen. We did two U-turns on the same road, then another on a second, then circled the roundabout three times buying time to look at "these damned messed up maps." I knew that we would be lost soon when Brian said "I don't see this stupid town Ausfahrt anywhere on the map!" Ausfahrt means exit in German. Another U-turn, a figure eight, a jaunt through town, and a noodle bowl later we were bound again for Maastricht via a lovely two lane road in the countryside.
We turned an 11/2 hour-long trip into a 3-hour tour, arrived in Dutch town and automatically started vying for parking. Some of the European streets and parking lots are much like Chinese finger traps. If you reconnoiter with out an exit in sight, you just may get stuck and cause some problems. Everything became much clearer to us as the street sign index was rediscovered, and 45 tense minutes later we found a good place to park. For 10 euros we could leave the car in a safe, lighted spot overnight.
We left our bags in the car and headed for the center that we had driven by. Turning the corner we saw a sign reading "Heaven 69." A short red headed Irish man stepped out of the door, asking "what are you looking for?"
"A place to relax. Finding parking around here is terrible."
"Are you hungry?
"Do you want a smoke?"
"Then come on in, you've found the place. We don't serve alcohol, but we're peeling the garlic for dinner right now." We began to like Maastricht right away. An hour later, as we headed out the door we liked it more and more.
Maastricht is a place that we didn't know much about, but we were immediately impressed with its attractiveness. It is a city of maybe 100k, with a large part of the population being college students. It straddles the Maas River and is surrounded by medieval defensive walls. On one side is old town where cobblestone pedestrian paths lead into a long plaza along the river. A couple of bridges connect it to the newer part of town where narrow streets allow small cars and bikes access to pubs, shops and the train station. That night we stayed at a lavishly renovated attic apartment. We were paying more than we would have wanted but enjoying the large homey space and the free cocktail that came with the room.
The next day I contacted Ward and we planned to rendezvous with him for a cup of cappuccino I call Ward my friend, though we had only met once. In 2001 we were both staying in a small Vietnamese town Lao Cai at the same time. I had just returned from a walk through a near village and decided to stop for a drink before I returned to my guesthouse. When I walked up the stairs at the restaurant I heard English being spoken and as I looked around the corner I saw a group of travelers enjoying themselves. I asked if I could join them, and they welcomed me. Towards the evening Ward asked if anyone wanted to join him for dinner. I think that he and I were the only ones in the group that were traveling alone, which I suppose is a little indicative of who we each are.
At that time I remember telling people about the trip that I was planning: 21/2 months roaming around Southeast Asia. Setting my mother was worried that I would be doing it alone, but the trip itself was something that I wanted to do on my own, finally having paid off my school loans and yearning to explore. When I told my girlfriend at the time that I wanted to take a solo tour of Asia, her reply was "but, what about us?" I told her that it would be a quick trip, just a few months at most. "But, what about us, what about our future? I mean, don't you want to get married sometime?" To me, her response was a complete non-sequitor, and I guess that she could read the confusion on my face. Later she told me that I was looking at her like she had eight heads. My response doomed that relationship, but I could only tell the truth. A week later she broke up with me, then a month after that I took off. Maybe Ward was on the same wavelength.
Ward and I had dinner together twice having great conversations. The second night I ordered venison and he had a heaping pile of steamed frogs legs. You have to respect someone who can clean those many river tasting bones. We exchanged email addresses and since then have kept in touch with randomly sent notes talking about where we were and what we were doing. Over the years we had extended open invitations to visit the other. When we met I Maastricht it would technically be the third time that we had seen each other.
Meeting did seem a little strange, but there was no real awkwardness. We recognized each other right away, his hair was shorter, but taller. Mine was shorter, almost gone. I introduced the group and after we had some espresso he invited us to stay at his apartment, and we thankfully accepted.
After the drinks he took us for a tour through the town, finishing at a bike rental shop. We left Ward there so that he could return home and get some rest after working a night shift at the hospital. After a short way we found ourselves heading out of town, following a path along the river. The weather was still beautiful, sunny and cool. We spied what looked like the tallest hill in the area and we headed for it. An hour later we were at its apex looking out over Holland into Germany on one side, and further into Belgium on the other. Riding back we realized that we had ridden into Belgium soon after leaving the city.
Ward made us a homestyle dinner that night and introduced us to his "new love" Veronique. We dined on white fish baked with lemon and herbs, steamed vegetables and spinach fettuccini tossed in olive oil. Over appetizers, wine and ice cream we continues conversation that we had begun in Lao Cai.
Following dinner Ward left us in his apartment to stay with Veronique. They are both doctors and often work different shifts at different hospitals, so long lost friend or not, he was to see his girl. We couldn't blame him, and as we sat around preparing for bed we talked about his kindness. I thought about the magic of good energy in good people. Striking similar frequencies and making harmony.
The next day we met again, having a croissant and a cappuccino before we said goodbye and left for Trier. That morning was the first time that the weather did not cooperate with us. In older days that could have stopped a traveler, but in an automobile we pressed on. The drive there was nice, but not wonderful by any means. I am sure that without the fog, the German hill country would have been beautiful. The windy roads mixed with the ups and downs of the hills churned the cappuccino in Erin somewhat fragile stomach and soon made her motion sick. Brian read the maps, and I second guessed the whole way, but we made it easily, stopping in Belgium once again for lunch.
As a city, I cannot say that Trier is disappointing. There are some fairly complete Roman ruins including a grand gateway and a coliseum. There are pretty plazas and interesting plaster and wood architecture characteristically German. Perhaps it was the way that we arrived, Erin's upset stomach ("autocronk"), the inability to find a hotel, the one-way streets, or having a hotel manager yell at us to leave his lobby after we had returned from comparing prices. Maybe it was spending expensive European gas to leave Maastricht where gourmet meals were followed by gourmet grass and people that you don't know too well give you their apartment. All in all we felt that maybe we had wasted a day driving and had maybe made a mistake in showing up. Leaving the next day we were glad to have made the trip and placed another feather in the cap. A quick drive back to Rosrath, then the next day we would fly to Prague.
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