STRASBOURG, France -- It's been a grueling, exhausting and all-together thrilling day, and frankly, the last thing I feel like doing at 11 p.m., from the world's smallest hotel room, is writing this blog.
But I said I would, and I'd be remiss if I didn't record some of today's excitement for posterity.
Let's begin where I left off, last night in Munich. Even though a surly talkbacker chided me for not eating sausage for lunch, rest assured, I had an authentic Bavarian dinner at the Hacker-Pschorr beer garden. I was still nauseous and exhausted from that marathon day that began in Milwaukee, but I ordered a sauerbraten and two pints of their excellent beer.
The beer garden is across the street from the site of Oktoberfest, and it's a weird scene, since during the off-season, it's just a gigantic parking lot. The buildings they erect must be temporary, because the space is at least 100 acres. At first, I thought it was a lake, but smack dab in the middle of the city, it's a huge, empty lot. It's sort of like the Summerfest grounds, actually.
After dinner, we navigated the subway back to the HofbrĂ¤uhaus. It's one of the more touristy beer gardens, but it's also one of the more lively ones. By this point in the night, still subsisting on three hours of sleep, I felt like the walking dead, but I sucked down a liter of bock beer before we cabbed it home. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow and slept straight through to 7:30 a.m.
This morning, we hopped on the subway again to the BMW Welt, which is a new building designed around the European Delivery Program. The place is a German design marvel -- clean, curved lines, ample windows, stainless steel throughout. It's across from the BMW headquarters, and this company has its PR down pat.
Instantly, a smartly-dressed attendant greeted us and processed our paperwork. Our delivery, I thought, was set for 10:50 a.m., but we got there by 9 a.m., expecting to eat some breakfast and peruse the gift shop. Like everyone else, the attendant spoke exquisite English. She led us to another office, where an associate explained the process and obtained the necessary paperwork.
In turns out that 10:50 a.m. was our check-in time, not our delivery time, so we were on pace for a 12:45 p.m. delivery. That would've thrown a major kink in our day's plans, but one phone call from the attendant changed the delivery time to 9:20.
We met our personal BMW expert, Hanss, and we were underway. Speaking as a person who has worked in public relations and communications, what transpired was a work of art. Hanss, who spoke better English than most Americans I know, led us through a customized program about the design heritage, history, safety features and the uniqueness of his brand. He then put me on a driving simulator and demonstrated all the car's features, from its all-wheel drive to its traction control.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, Hanss led us to a viewing area, where he set the sparkling car in motion on a slowly rotating turntable. Before we even opened the doors, a photographer stepped in a snapped a couple of pictures of my wife and me in front of our new car. Hanss then explained every last feature of the coupe, going into more detail than any car dealer has ever done.
Finally, Hanss handed us the keys, and asked us to drive a "victory lap" around the showroom floor circle. We shook hands, thanked him and left (only to park in the garage to grab a tasty breakfast and some souvenirs before we officially hit the road).
The next six and a half hours proved to be a combination of boring, thrilling, harrowing and stressful driving. What should've been a three-hour jaunt to Strasbourg, took much, much longer than anticipated.
We hit the Autobahn, and the first several hours morphed into a combination of traffic, construction and generally low speeds. In fact, as we passed Stuttgart, we found ourselves stuck in a hour-long traffic jam that involved a whole lot of sitting idle. It turned out that five cars collided, including a couple of BMWs and a Porsche. With rain falling most of the time, it served as a warning for what happens when people drive way too fast for conditions.
That said, I had barely cracked 80 miles per hour up to this point, and we were getting close to France. After the traffic jam, the rain stopped and the congestion cleared. I saw many cars flying down the left lane, and I knew that I hadn't come this far not to open it up. After a few kilolmeters at 100 miles per hour, I got up the gumption to punch it. I wound up the BMW to 130 miles per hour, just five shy of its electronically-limited maximum. I would've maxxed it out, but I could see cars in the distance. That, and my wife (and truthfully, I, too) was getting scared. Driving that fast gets one's blood pumping, and I felt OK coasting back to 95 for the next 50 miles.
When we entered France, traffic slowed down again, and the remaining 25 miles took about an hour. When we got into Strasbourg, our Google Maps really let us down. Of course we got lost, and I used my very rusty French to ask directions to our hotel. The guy at the gas station didn't know where we were heading, but sent us back in the other direction.
We started getting close, but in the city center of Strasbourg, I encountered the most insane driving conditions I've ever seen outside of a video game. In addition to narrow, curvy, one-way streets, trams running all over the place, the roads teemed with bicyclists, pedestrians and mopeds. They darted in front of us in every direction, but finally we found the hotel and then a parking garage. I fear this is what I can expect when we drive to Paris tomorrow, and I got out of the car sweating profusely.
Only after checking in to the smallest hotel room in Europe did my jangled nerves settle down. I turned on the TV, and wouldn't you know it, a dubbed "Happy Days" became my first experience of French television. That's Milwaukee rearing its stereotypical head again.
We had dinner at a great old Strasbourg restaurant called Le Tete de Lard (I think that means "fat head.") I ordered dinner in French, and while I thought I was bastardizing the language, a wonderful Parisian woman and her teenage daughter affirmed that I was actually speaking semi-coherent French. We spoke for a while in both English and French, and she actually offered to entertain us when we get to Paris. We just might take her up on her offer.
After dinner, we walked around the town square and finally settled in at a cafĂ©, where we enjoyed a little dessert. Since we have a five-hour drive ahead of us tomorrow to Paris, we got back to the hotel, where I'm composing this blog. We hope to get up bright and early tomorrow, walk around the city a bit, and hit the road to Paris around 8 a.m. We'll see if that happens.
A few random observations before I sign off:
Not all of Munich smells like an old man. That scent is mostly in the subway, airport and older buildings. The rest of the city is clean and reminds me quite a bit of Washington, D.C.
The Welt experience is amazing. I simply can't believe that not only was it free, it also knocked almost $4,000 off the price of the car. Every carmaker in the world should take this tour and copy it to a tee.
The Autobahn isn't the uber-highway I expected. Most of it is just like any other highway, but with two lanes. The occasional three-lane sections are where people really open it up. Just like Munich, every single car is European, and we didn't see a single beater on the road.
As soon as we entered France, the BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Volkswagens were replaced with Citroens and Renaults. No matter what people say, Europeans remain nationalistic, at least with respect to the their cars.
Finally, smoking is banned in restaurants and bars in both Munich and Strasbourg. No one loves to smoke like Europeans. If this can fly in Germany and France, then it can surely work in Milwaukee.
Indeed, when in Rome so to speak. So while you are in France, you must sneer at a person of Morrocan/Algerian descent, walk a poodle, have an affair and laugh at comedy genius of Monsiuer Jerry Loo-eee!
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