I have been slow to converting from maps to a navigation system. I have always liked maps and been able to read the most-detailed, even before the Army taught me how.
But, if one has ever attempted to drive through Paris using a paper map, one will easily understand the benefit of a nice lady telling you when and which direction to turn. Paris traffic, like that of all southern European cities is relentless and unforgiving of doubt, timidity, or confusion. Northern European cities show signs of irritation, but can be forgiving of out-of-town license plates.
Despite the benefits of having a nice lady tell me where to go, I still consult a map before leaving. I do not trust anyone else, when I am responsible for reaching a destination. Although I recalled the lesson from flight training, which told us to “always trust the instruments”, I will suspect a pre-recorded message. Enough mishaps make headlines about some driver ending up in some unlikely and unwanted location after blindly and foolishly fooling instructions. That could not happen to me
Often, I shun major highways and seek the path less taken. The following photo of the car's navigation system reveals this rather well. Someone might think that we were lost in the middle of nowhere.
We were driving from Disentis, indicated by the checkered flag, to Lugano in Switzerland, off the map to the right. Our location is shown by the red circle and triangle, in an area unknown to the makers of the navigation system. The blue lines are major highways. This lower one is the most heavily traveled north-south, transalpine route, which runs through the Gotthard Tunnel miles under solid rock.
I prefer a less well-known--for most even unknown--pass or to drive over the Gotthard Pass. One sees interesting landscape, rural life, and interesting sights. What do you see in a tunnel or even speeding along a highway?
Traffic is not a problem, but one might become stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle (even better to view the sights), a cycling team, or a crossing herd of cattle.
Traveling sought from Frankfurt to a Swiss village was like downshifting gears.
The aggressive pace of a German Autobahn forces one to hurry. No one likes to admit either advancing age or inferior automobile, so speed is mandatory.
Once safely across the border into Switzerland, the 120 Km/h speed limit and strict enforcement reduces pressure and compels a slower pace. Swiss police have been known to impound cars of speeders. Still, the divided highways permits rapid progressive across this tiny country.
This pace slows--and often grinds to a halt--once one turns onto secondary roads in mountain valleys. (Switzerland has little flat land, especially in the east and south.) To reach the remote mountain village we want to visit, we must maneuver along a narrow, winding road behind slow-moving trucks, campers, cars, and the odd tractor.
Construction sites are frequent, because winter road damage must be repaired each summer. Of course, this helps to ensure full employment, because ski instructors and lift operators have something to keep them busy during the off-season.
So, although the pace of the last leg of the journey might be slower, frustration has increased. After six hours behind the wheel, one wants to reach the destination, any destination.
My wife and I agree on most things, but we do not agree on driving. Not the actual manipulation of the car, but the route. It is rarely an automobile journey that does not include criticism of the choice of route.
To understand this conflict, one must understand the difference between us. She takes the way she knows; I take the route that has the least hindrances. There is a saying in German that translates into “shorter does not mean quicker”. I will avoid traffic jams, traffic lights, construction, and anything else that keeps me from moving forward. She does not mind sitting at a standstill, as long as the car is pointed in the direction that she has chosen.
She is highly intelligent, but has zero sense of direction and limited (a polite way of saying none) understanding and knowledge of geography. I may not be as smart, but I do know maps and orientation. I can judge direction by the sun and stars. I know how cities are related to one another in terms of direction and distance. If I have been someplace once, I can always find it again. I might forget my last thought just after I turn around, but I can recall everywhere that I have been. I can travel through most of Europe without a map.
A good metaphor for my route selection process is water: it always seeks the path of least resistance and always finds a way. If that works for water, then it should work for me.
There is something to be said about the forced indolence of a beach vacation. As long as the weather is fine, an umbrella provides shade, neighbors are not too obnoxious, and I have something to read, lounging on a beach—with an occasional foray into the water—can be a rather pleasant way to spend a day.
I have avoided the tyranny of auto ownership (ie. rental), which removes the urge to drive somewhere, anywhere. When wondering what to do next, some reflex forces you to grab the keys and drive somewhere. You know that there must be some mall or shop that needs to be inspected. It happens every time we travel to the US. We have been saved the need to satisfy the urge in Miami and Miami Beach. Of course, we could not avoid a stroll or two down Lincoln Road (mall). Surprisingly (or not) there were few signs for a Sale, which tend to be plastered on real malls.
Freedom will come to an end tomorrow, because we will rent a car for the trip north to a rented condominium. On the way, we must make a low pass through the outlet mall in Ft. Lauderdale and a short visit to the more up-market mall in Boca Raton, before traveling to the less-developed territory to the north. We will be on an island off the coast, which does not offer much shopping. That means that the urge to drive will require a trip to the mainland in search of franchises.
Germany is renowned for Autobahns without speed limit and fast cars. Most people living outside Germany cannot imagine driving at unrestricted speed, but have seen photos of massive pile-ups. There is a touch of myth in both.
First of all, Germany does not have the highest level of highway fatalities in Europe. Despite the number of spectacular crashes, the statistics prove Germans to be better-than-average drivers. This has something to do with strict driver education requirements, (fabled) German discipline, good roads, and safe cars. It is also aided by the truth behind the other semi-myth.
It is true that large stretches of the Autobahn network do not have a speed limit. As with every aspect of German life, everything is permitted that is not specifically not allowed. (There are a lot of rules regulating human behavior.) Back to the Autobahns: many stretches do have speed limits, but there are enough kilometers to allow fun, speed, and recklessness.
In reality, there are three speeds on German Autobahns: ridiculously fast, standard traffic, and parked.
I have owned Porsches, Mercedes, and BMWs. This is not bragging, because these are standard cars in this country. Most taxis are Mercedes, and BMWs are rather middle class. That said, all are very fast. My preferred driving speed on the Autobahn is 180 kilometers per hour (about 112 miles per hour for fans of an English king's foot), which I found safe and swift enough. The biggest danger was other drivers, who had no comprehension of speed. A fast car on a good road was often a pleasure to drive, but it has become an increasingly rare pleasure.
The most common speed on Autobahns is 100 kilometers per hour (about 60), because of the increasing amount of cars on the road. Heavy, bumper-to-bumper traffic often moves at this speed. One is happy to be moving, but it can be frustrating on a highway without a speed limit. The days of open roads and cheap gas are long gone. German industrial prosperity has put automobiles into too many hands, but makes driving speeds similar to those of most countries.
The third speed, common during rush hour and vacation times, is required when traffic increases to fill the highways or there has been an accident. The Autobahn turns into a long, linear parking lot. Traffic jams have been known to extend up to 75 kilometers and take hours to dissipate. This is beyond frustrating, especially for anyone captured in a Porsche. News footage or photographs show people standing beside their cars staring at a packed Autobahn, surely dreaming of a different speed.
Autobahn driving in Germany is a case of "hope for the best and expect the worst"...
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.