Driving in Europe: Experiences of Culture Shock from our Contest

Road signs in Vienna © Katerina Dmitrijewa http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennyjey/5211598423/

While we’re proponents of taking the train whenever possible (obviously), there are those moments when getting behind the wheel of a car is necessary. But with an automobile comes challenges. Rules of the road. Confusing signs. Language barriers. Getting lost. In the moment when you’re driving in circles and going completely mad, you’re probably not laughing. But when you get home, and write it all down as an entry in our Culture Shock Contest, suddenly those travel snafus are comic gold.

Sarah Foster of California went driving through Ireland, a very popular country in which to rent a car. The charming villages between green pastures and meadows make for a picturesque sojourn. Although it would help to know where you are going.

Traveling through Ireland, we put the location of our bed and breakfast in our GPS. The directions were confusing because many streets are unnamed, and the GPS literally said, “turn left on unnamed street.” We turned left at the next opportunity onto this tiny dirt and gravel road. The road led up a hill and didn’t appear to lead to anything in particular. We kept driving until the GPS said to turn left again. Looking left, all we could see was a locked gate with hills and grass behind it. On the right, two sheep stared at us seemingly as confused as we were. We turned around and eventually found our bed and breakfast, but decided not to trust our GPS to lead us down unnamed streets again.

Traffic sign in Amsterdam / the Netherlands / Europe. © Rupert Ganzer http://www.flickr.com/photos/loop_oh/4404174541/

Kat Gross of Colorado weaves quite a yarn. Take her story of traveling to Paris with her bestie. Things go awry before even getting out of the parking lot. “Where’s the car?” they asked. These two friends ended up on a wild goose chase – and it didn’t lead them to foie gras either.

Words alone will not be able to properly communicate the Parisian experience that my best friend and I had, but here goes… On the first trip to Europe for either of us, we flew into London. We had booked a 2-night fully accompanied tour from London to Paris, and after that we would be going on to Wales and Scotland. The tour company made the unfortunate decision to cancel our group tour on the very night before we were leaving for Europe. We now had a two-day gap in our plans, as well as two nights of paid hotel in Paris. Being a couple of pure idiots, we decided we would jump on the Eurostar and rent a car in Paris, all by ourselves. It sounds so easy, right? We’ve done stuff like this when we went to LA together, for example – changed plans without encountering any disaster. So we called Eurostar from our London hotel room, booked our two-night trip to Paris, and away we went.

Upon arriving at Gare du Nord, we rented a car. Since our hotel was in close proximity to the Eiffel Tower, we expected nothing less than to be momentarily sipping wine while gazing at that lovely, pointed structure. We signed all the necessary paperwork to rent the vehicle and headed to the rental car lot. We were assigned a vehicle number, and doggone, we found every number between one and a thousand in that parking lot except the number we were assigned. We weaved our way through all of the vehicles several times, and decided we were going to drag our considerable collection of luggage back into the station to ask for help with finding the vehicle when two young studs pulled up in a black car with dark windows. This was an underground garage, mind you, so not well lit. These leather-clad fellows, approximately the ages of Bonnie and my youngest sons, struck up a benign conversation with us. My friend and I were somewhat agitated by being stumped in the earliest stages of our trip, and explained to these mysterious boys that we could not find our rental car.

Oddly, they offered to help us look. We wondered what could possibly be up with these two? We all traced the same steps Bonnie and I had already taken numerous times, with the same results – duh! We could not find the car. So these young chaps offered to take Bonnie and me on a sightseeing tour of Paris. Would we like to see the Moulin Rouge? They did not understand the urgency we were now feeling to find our vehicle, and we did not understand their interest in us.

Finally we decided that I would sit on the luggage while Bonnie went in to fetch a rental car worker. After what seemed like days the two emerged, and within about three hundred seconds, the worker had located our car. We bid our first Parisian acquaintances farewell, tossed our bags in the car, and peeled out. We came to a screeching halt in approximately 100 yards when we encountered an orange and white striped arm-like device, which prohibited us from leaving the garage. We looked for all of the familiar gadgets to lift the arm, like a box we could pull a parking ticket from – things like that. The garage exit was on a sharp incline, and Bonnie was driving a stick shift for the first time in over two decades.

Another plan was formed – Bonnie would stay in the driver’s seat and keep the vehicle from rolling backwards into our exuberant would-be tour guides, and I would jump out and look for possible reasons that the arm would not lift and we could not exit the garage. To this day I have no recollection of how we finally sprung the contraption, but finally the two-toned arm lifted and we were free to roam about the city!

As I stated earlier, we were going up a steep hill to exit the garage so Bonnie was giving it some gas, and just as the nose of the car emerged into daylight – boom – just like that – a totally decked out hooker strolled in front of the car and appeared completely nonplussed that she was almost smooshed by our vehicle. I shrieked, Bonnie swore. And viola – we were on the streets of Paris! We landed immediately smack dab in the middle of a traffic jam, which in itself is a non-event. Combined with the fact that we had no idea where Avenue Duquesne (hotel) was in relation to Gare Du Nord, no idea what street we were on, had absolutely no idea how to even locate a street sign, and no forewarning that people in Paris have no problem with stepping directly in the path of a moving vehicle, we were becoming a little tense. I believe I was the most tense of the two as I had offered to be the navigator, a role I have uber-successfully taken on many times. As Bonnie is asking, now quite loudly, which way to turn, my head is turning and my eyes are darting, trying to figure out even one clue about where we should go. Fumbling with the map, I look frantically for a street that I can identify. We can fast forward the story here by about 60 minutes, as the exact same activity continued for roughly that long.

After going through infinite roundabouts, negotiating malevolent Kamikaze pedestrians, driving down slummy looking streets and up sparkling tree-lined avenues, we spotted it – the Eiffel Tower!! People that have not been to Paris do not believe that you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from every square inch of the city; I did not believe that before I experienced it first hand. Perhaps we had even gone the opposite way from the Eiffel Tower and completely left the city limits of Paris during that wretched hour we still have no idea where we had been. Along the way, we had finally discovered that names of streets were located on actual buildings, although we still couldn’t match any streets we encountered in person with their counterparts on the map. With the Eiffel Tower in sight, we parked the car.

Frankly we were nervous about approaching Parisians with us speaking only English and admitting we were lost. Nonetheless, that is exactly what we did. We met many helpful and kind people that day, even though as we followed everyone’s directions, we became lost while walking!!! By nature I am a nervous person so this is approximately when I began to cry. Bonnie, a lover of adventure, was baffled by my reaction. We stated to bicker but we’ve been best friends since the 1970s so we got back to the business of finding our misplaced, parked vehicle!!

Finally we found the car along with a police officer who drew us a map to Avenue Duquesne. Both very weary by this time, we walked into the hotel. I startled our hotel clerk with a fresh batch of hard-earned sobs. At this point everything instantaneously becomes enchanting. We had a few drinks and walked to the Eiffel tower, then argued about which way to go to get back to the hotel. We went left and we went then right, and walked around the beautiful city of lights that night. I lived every Parisian dream I had ever known. Our hotel was clean and comfy and the next day we went to Disneyland Paris. We rode exactly three rides and then got food poisoning from a meal that cost us a small fortune. Ooh, we were so sick and that permeating nausea just would not leave us.

Finally it was time to head back to London on the Eurostar, and continue to our other appointed locations. We trekked to Gare du Nord and could not figure out how to get that same dumb orange and white arm to lift so we could this time enter the parking garage. We are now seasoned pros at dealing with monumental irritation, so merely parked the rental car in a parking place on a surrounding public street. We returned the keys to the rental car desk and prepared to board the train. A Eurostar employee then pointed out that our return date on the tickets was for TOMORROW! I am going to end this story right here because after the brouhaha over the ticketing issue, the remainder of the trip was fairly serene and completely lovely. Thank you for sharing my European adventure.

Nora Fitzgerald in Dripping Springs LOVES to drive. So giving up the freedom of the road was a struggle. But she knew that when in Europe, many locals take the train, and so she was determined to fit in, relinquish control, and enjoy the ride.

My motto is. “I’ll drive.” I live in a place with very little public transportation so, the motto suits the situation. When it came time to plan my family’s vacation, transportation was a major issue. I can drive on the left side of the road; I can drive on the right side, too. The question was, can I let someone else drive?

In an effort to expand my experiences, my horizons, my comfort zone, I ordered tickets for Rail Europe, London to Paris. Then I prayed. I think it was the Serenity Prayer, things about wisdom, courage, and acceptance – especially courage.

My heart was pounding as we watched the Euro Disney train leave St Pancras. Actually, I was very thankful that all those kids and grandparents were going elsewhere. We left next, found our seats and off we went. We were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the seats, wide aisles and legroom. The breakfast was very good and served professionally. Rail Europe is a very civilized way to travel. The airlines could take some pointers from Rail Europe.

Thank you for a wonderful ride. We will be seeing you in the future.

Linda Wechsler of Pennsylvania does her research. Guidebook in hand, she read the rules of the road prior to embarking on a nearly month-long trip through Europe. Her husband wasn’t too interested in listening. But he did stop to listen to the Austrian police officer…

We rented a car and traveled for 28 days through Europe. We were traveling from Germany going into Austria. I kept telling my husband that we had to get a sticker to put on our car to enter into Austria that you can buy at any gas station for around 9 euro. He kept saying next stop I will get one. Of course he didn’t get the sticker like I told him to do. I also opened our Rick Steves travel guide and told him, “Rick said to get one cause it could be a hefty fine if we were caught without one.” Also we were traveling thru long tunnels thru the Alps that in each lane had different speed limits. There were also video cameras in the tunnels that told you they were there video taping you before you entered. Of course this was so different from our country of United States. When we got at the end of one of these tunnels there was an Austrian Cop flagging us to pull over. He was very nice and polite. He said we were going over the speed limit by changing into the different lanes. The first thing he noticed was that we didn’t have our Austrian sticker. He said he would let the speed limit fine go but we would have to pay for not having the Austrian sticker on our windshield. Much to our surprise he wanted us to pay the fine right there. Thank Goodness we had the 150 Euro on us to pay for the 9 Euro sticker that MY HUSBAND kept forgetting to get. As we were driving away I pointed to Rick Steves book with the biggest smile that I could put on my face! He knew he was in for a bunch of I told you so’s!

Be sure to enter your own European Culture Shock Experience for a chance to win a Eurail Select Pass!


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