Monday, November 28, 2005

Automath for dummies: American Driver + European Car = ?

I've always enjoyed driving, ever since i first sat behind the 16 of course. The freedom and the feeling of being able to get in a car, pick a direction and just go has always been something I've valued.

My first car, much to the dismay of my mother, was a 69 Camaro. 302 V8, Muncie M21...3:73's...perfect. At the time, i could think of nothing better than owning this car. As you may imagine though, the Camaro was not very practical for any journey longer than 100 miles or so, or driving in anything other than perfect weather. As the time came for more practical full time transportation, my grandma stepped in and hooked me up with a Crown Vic. (don't worry, i kept the Camaro)

The silver slug....the grey ghost...4.6l's of Ford...uh, power. This car was about 1 mile long, a half mile wide and as much as i complained about it at the time, it was a pretty good car. It was perfectly suited for hauling me and all my worldly possessions between Tennessee, NY and Michigan. And i could squeeze at least 7 of my closest friends in it, not that I ever tried.
The time eventually came when the Crown Vic had to go and i stepped up to a 2 dr blazer. 4.3V6, 4wd...this was a fun truck. Whether in the snow, mud or the urban jungle, this thing was pretty tough and stood up to many years of my use and abuse.
(Don't worry...I'm going somewhere with this. )

When i hired on at my current company i was fortunate enough to be given a company car. It started out as a Sebring, which was followed shortly after by a Taurus, then eventually back to another Sebring. The cars weren't really my style or something i particularly liked, but I'm not gonna complain about a free car.

So to summarize...I went from a 69 Camaro, the quintessential American muscle-car, to a Crown Vic, the quintessential grandma car (sorry grandma!), to my blazer, to a Sebring, to a Taurus and back to a Sebring. And then came Europe.

The Europeans don't have the same sort of relationship with their cars (as a general rule). Sure there are some gear-heads, but the culture and the government put more value on fuel conservation, recyclability, and crash worthiness (wait for it) for their to be a real car culture as there is in America. I realized this the first day i arrived when i picked up my fancy new.....VW Polo.

4 cylinder, 5 spd, 4 door... And the trend continues. No CD player, no power locks, i couldn't even find a cup-holder! So much for drinking and driving (soda of course). But my little Polo and i were not meant to be. I had this car for only a week before the check engine light came one. I didn't do it i swear.

So back to the rental company with the Polo i went, by the end of the day i had received the keys to a shiny new, you guessed it, Smart Forfour. Little more than a gokart on wheels.
Pulling away from the lot, I was not to excited to be driving this plastic shrouded go-kart. To be honest though, it grew on me. Like a fungus. It had power locks, CD player, 6500RPM redline, at least that's what the needle says. I never tried.

It really wasn't so bad after all, and with the price of gas in Europe, i was very content with a car that got the sort of mileage this little thing did.

My little plastic car and i became quite a pair. I drove around quite a bit, Corrigan style, and it took every bit of it. That is, until saturday.

In the words of Paul Harvey “And now...the rest of the story“.

I left with the best of intentions, i really did. I was going out to a camera store to find a new digital camera so i could post new pictures here. So it's really the weblog's fault you see. I was scanning the street signs and straining to find my way to the street where the shop was when, out of nowhere, a blue focus appeared in front of me. You can guess what little plastic car and i let him know who was hitting him.

I just about sh*t my pants. I immediately had visions of ankle chains, handcuffs, cut up passports, deportation, Siberian labor camps.....come on, we've all heard the stories. You know, “that guy” who got in a car accident and spent the next 10 yrs breaking rocks in Poland. For a moment, i considered banging reverse and getting the hell out of there before anyone could react. But in the end, my cooler side prevailed and i got out to begin the arduous task of explaining to this Swiss kid why i had smashed his car.

“No i don't have anything against Switzerland. Yes i like your chocolate, even your cheese. No i don't like wheat beer, but that doesn't make you a bad country. “

The police showed up and, as expected, I could hardly communicate with them. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, i think this was a good thing. All of my other run-in's with the law have only been made worse by my mouth, and my hand gestures. But that's another story.

So the swiss spoke back and forth....i shook my head....they spoke some more...i said “ja ja” and shook my some more and eventually, we all parted ways with a mutual understanding of what happened. I have no idea what that mutual understanding is...but i do have a 2 page record of German.

So I'm on my third rental car in 1 month, I'm never going to live this down at work. But in the interest of helping others....a few words of advise for anyone planning on driving in Europe.

-Roundabouts: don't slow down...just approach and squeeze your car into traffic. Failure to comply will result in dirty looks and perhaps a horn or two.

-Don't ever leave your car running while at a drive-through, ATM, driv......Actually a good rule of thumb is that a red light is the only acceptable time for your engine to be running while your wheels aren't turning. Nothing makes people here angrier than the idling, non moving automobile.

-Navigation is done by destinations...not direction. Want to go north? You better know which city is to the north.

-In Switzerland, blue signs are local, green signs are for the highway. In's the opposite.

-don't speed....ever. They have these little hidden grey radar boxes that will shoot you with radar, take your picture and automatically mail you a ticket. I know this because i've gotten 2 already, and i never even saw it coming.

-Lastly, parking isn't free. Ever. I don't care what the sign or meter shows...someone has to be paid. If in doubt, leave 10 francs on your windshield.

Learn it...know it. This information just might save your life someday.

Pic of the valley

From my lower elevations you couldn't see the sun. but once you got above the clouds, this was the view.