“Ok, we can book our trip to Europe now!” I said hollering down the hall to my husband. “I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript. I need to authenticate the details.”
Moments later, he appeared in the kitchen doorway. My tiny office space shares the expanse of our kitchen.
“When?” he said.
The question provoked a discussion of dates and availability and eventually a telephone conversation with a booking agent. Using our points guaranteed us business class seats from Vancouver to Dresden with one transfer in Frankfurt.
We arranged our trip to follow the journey of the characters in my novel. Dresden, Germany to Legnica, Poland, then north to the Baltic Sea following the Oder River as closely as we could – at least as far as Szeczin – then south to Brno, Czechoslovakia, onward to Prague, ending in Bayreuth, Germany, where I hoped to conduct some interviews.
My husband, Robert, diligently investigated every destination, every train route and any possible point of interest. We would be researching my story together, looking for new sources of material that would add flesh to it.
As our departure date loomed, we decided that we might have more flexibility if we rented a vehicle instead of trying to find trains that would accommodate our needs and destinations. Another flurry of activity followed as I telephoned a few rental agencies and gathered additional information.
That spring, we had been researching new vehicles, and the Mercedes GLC was at the top of our list. We thought that it would be a great opportunity to test drive one on the Autobahn. Alas, that was not to be. Our internet search suggested that German car rental companies would not rent any Mercedes for travel into Poland. Too many parts went missing between the pick-up and the return. Conversations with agents of the various car rental companies confirmed our findings.
In the end, we were offered a Ford Mondeo or a Ford Kuga. We booked the Kuga because it was more in line with our new-car thinking. We were also offered GPS for an additional cost. Rob declined.
“I’ll just use my Apple iPhone” he said confidently.
Three days later, we nestled into our business class seats and slept as our Lufthansa pilot and crew chauffeured us to Frankfurt. Hours later, we arrived in Dresden, where we spent four days sourcing material that would enrich my manuscript. On the last day, we collected our bags, paid the hotel account, and took a taxi to the car rental outlet where we had arranged to pick up the Kuga.
Being the overcautious individuals that we are, we purchased the super insurance package, just in case any vehicle parts disappeared while in Poland and listed both of us as drivers.
When the agent retrieved our rental vehicle from the garage and parked it in front of the outlet, it was neither a Mondeo nor a Kuga. It was an Opel station wagon. We looked at each other and shrugged.
“I guess we’ll have a different experience,” I said, hoping I sounded positive.
We were given the key and encouraged to inspect the vehicle for any damage that was not already noted on the rental contract.
I asked whether the agency had any folding city maps that we could use to get out of the city and onto the Autobahn. The agent advised that the outlet had no maps but that the vehicle came with GPS at no extra charge. Again, we looked at each other and shrugged. Another different experience, we agreed.
Having GPS readily available proved to be a good thing in the long run. Robert drove the entire way, eliminating any opportunity to use his iPhone.
Failing to identify any unreported damage to the Opel, we loaded our luggage, adjusted our seats and introduced ourselves to the GPS system. Silently, it charted a course for us, out of Dresden and onto the Autobahn. In short order, we were on the street and following along with the GPS directions.
The first instruction provided by the GPS was to prepare to bear right. The system seemed unaware of a quiet little side street that accommodated a premature right turn. However, it adjusted to our enthusiasm and promptly provided revised directions.
We followed along with the directions provided for quite sometime, with me checking regularly to ensure that the route Rob drove matched the GPS route. He was confident that we were headed in the correct direction, having studied the route on his iPhone the evening before. I began to doubt Rob’s route, however, as the GPS system no longer reflected his choices.
Keen to ensure that the GPS and Robert were in agreement, I re-entered our destination. The system sprang into action revising its route and guiding us forward once again, now in sync with Robert’s choices. By that time, he was gallantly negotiating the ins and outs of the Autobahn. I tried to be discrete, keeping my nail-biting to a minimum, and encouraging his clever efforts.
As Robert negotiated the Opel along the Autobahn, he pointed out a small white sticker next to the steering wheel. On it, the number 210 appeared inside a red circle.
“Do you see this?” he said pointing to the sticker. “It means we shouldn’t exceed 210 kilometers.”
“Wow!” I said, “Do you have plans to drive that fast?”
“Pffff,” he replied. In other words, not bloody likely.
Sometime later – we cannot recall whether it was hours or days – after keying the next leg of our route into the GPS, I observed the need to select the start button, which I had not noticed earlier. We were both startled to receive our next navigation instructions from a friendly female voice that encouraged Rob to continue driving along the recommended route ‘for 198 kilometers and prepare to turn right’.
Days passed as we navigated our way through Poland, changing our preferred route, eliminating our tour through Czechoslovakia, and abbreviating our travels through Poland. I found a substitute for the material that we hoped to source in Brno, and replaced it with a location in Tarnow, Poland. Instead of a long drive south, we now had a shorter drive east.
From Tarnow, we retraced our path west. As we neared Wrocław, Robert began complaining of muscle spasms in his back. I suspected that the stress of driving at high speeds on the Autobahn, and having to sit rigid for hours on end, were contributing to his discomfort.
“I know you enjoy long road trips,” I said, “but this driving is a far cry from what we usually do in Vancouver. “I’m sure it doesn’t help either that you worry about Audis and BMWs closing in behind us when you’re in the passing lane.
“Why don’t we skip the drive to Szeczin and spend a few days in Wrocław?”
Fortunately, in Wrocław, I found everything that I had hoped to discover on the tour north. As an added bonus, Robert’s back spasms subsided by the time we resumed our journey on the Autobahn.
Each time we changed our mind, Miss GPS guided us through revised routes, helped us back on the highway when we deviated to purchase fuel, and corrected us repeatedly whenever Rob decided to explore something that piqued his curiosity.
Early into our second week of driving, we grudgingly concluded that Miss Bossy Pants was persistent and intolerant for the most part, and only encouraging when we followed her guidance. Her constant nattering of ‘turn left in five hundred meters’, ‘turn right in two kilometers’, ‘veer left in fifty meters’, ‘turn right now’, reminded us who wore the badge of Ultimate Navigator.
Two days into the third week, we arrived in Bayreuth at the home of a long-time friend, where we parked the car and silenced our audio guide. We unloaded our luggage into the guest room, laundered our accumulation of soiled laundry, and embraced to the hospitality of our hosts.
“Your driving was great today,” I said to Robert later.
My words fell on deaf ears. It was not that my praise had become repetitive. He had packed his hearing aids in their carrying case, which was still safely stowed in our luggage. I changed tact.
“I think we’ve sourced some great material for my manuscript! I’m excited to get home and start writing again.”
For this comment, I was rewarded with a warm smile.
“That’s what we came for,” he said, stepping forward with a supportive hug.
On the evening of the third and last day of our visit with our hosts, my friend’s wife shared a recent incident that had occurred during a short journey to visit her sister who lived a few hours’ drive from Bayreuth. It had begun to rain, so she switched on the wind-shield wipers, but they failed to respond. She pulled off the road to investigate. The wiring and hoses connected to the wiper system had been chewed through.
My friend’s wife then went on to explain that, in Germany marders have been classified as an endangered species, and that a family of marders resided in the bushes across the street from their home.
“Mother marders,” she informed us, “like to source material for their nests from under the hoods of available motor vehicles. Further, they like to gnaw on electrical wires and rubber hosing; hence, the damage to my car.”
Uh … what’s a marder?” I said.
“I believe they’re called weasels or martens in North America,” my friend replied.
My friend’s prized Audi sedan is always parked in the one-car-only garage when he is at home. His wife and daughter have no such luxury. Their vehicles are parked in outdoor stalls, inconveniently near the bushes across the street.
Rob and I looked at each other – horrified. For the past three days, our rented vehicle had been parked on the street opposite those same bushes, conveniently closer than the vehicles of my friend’s wife and daughter!
“And, as it turns out,” my friend’s wife said, concluding her story, “for some reason, these mother marders really like Opel cars.”
Opels! Now, she really had our attention. Robert and I shared another horrified exchange.
“Oh, no! Our rental car is an Opel!” we said together.
Comments made by my friend about car insurance and marders fell on ears deafened by worries that our rental car may have been vandalized.
As we finished our packing and readied for bed, I wondered out loud why our hostess had told us this story on the last day of our visit and not the first.
“Maybe we could have parked somewhere else,” I said.
“She probably didn’t want to spoil our visit,” Robert said charitably. “We would have fussed for three days, instead of one night.”
The next morning, we lugged our suitcases out to the Opel and loaded them into the back. No longer able to deny the inevitable moment, we opened the hood under the watchful eyes of my friend and his wife. Nothing! No chewed wires and no chewed hoses. As we collectively sighed in relief, I looked up.
“Oh, no!” I said, looking at the underside of the hood.
A mass of insulation approximately twenty-three centimeters in diameter was missing. It was then that we noticed small tufts of insulation floating about the motor. Invasion of the mother weasel was confirmed upon closer examination. Tiny, dusty paw prints betrayed her nightly forays over the hood and the roof of the car.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying to calm my friend’s fussing wife. “We have super insurance coverage!”
Minutes later, Miss Natter seemed thrilled to receive details of our next destination and swiftly charted the course. We said goodbye to our friends and allowed the chatter to guide us onto the Autobahn, with a side trip across Bavaria, heading toward Frankfurt. Several hours later, we neared the airport, keeping watch for the car rental outlet where we would return the Opel.
“We need to stop for gas,” Robert said.
“There’s always gas stations near an airport.” I replied confidently. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
The airport drew nearer but we had yet to spy one gas station.
“We have lots of time,” I said. “Let’s just drive around until we find one.”
“I’m tired,” Rob said with a sigh. “I’ve been driving for hours. “I’ll pay the extra cost for returning the car without a full tank.”
I agreed. I could hear exhaustion in his voice. We pulled into the rental outlet, waved ahead by a team of young men ready to relieve of us of the vehicle.
“Good afternoon, sir,” one young man said, greeting Rob as he lowered his side window. “My name is Christian. Are you returning your vehicle today?”
Robert nodded, and the young man keyed the license plate number into his hand-held computer.
“Sir, your contract says that you are to return the car with a full tank,” Christian said after reviewing the contract. “Is the tank full?”
“No,” Rob said. “It’s not full, but I don’t care. I’ll pay the extra cost for you to fill it. It’s only down a quarter of a tank of diesel. How much can it be?”
“You contract says that you should pay four euros and twenty cents for every litre that we add,” Christian said. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to fill it yourself?”
I quickly calculated euros to Canadian dollars.
“That’ll be way over one hundred Canadian dollars,” I said hissing my words.
Remarkably, although he was not wearing his hearing aids, Rob heard me clearly.
“Never mind,” he said hastily to the young man. “Where’s the nearest gas station?”
I was otherwise distracted and did not hear the instructions, which meant that I could not engage the assistance of Miss Bossy Pants. I had to trust that my husband could find his own way.
Out onto the road, he drove up a ramp, over a bridge, down another ramp, and made a left turn, advising me that he was doing as instructed. Then things became a little muddled and, before we knew it, we were right back where we started, driving into the rental outlet.
“I thought you knew where the gas station was!” I said.
“I did too,” he said, awed by our circumstance. “The guy’s instructions weren’t clear, but I know where I have to go now. I saw the gas station when I turned left. I should have taken the second left.”
As we entered the outlet’s drop-off bays, we realized that several vehicles had populated the lanes in the few minutes it took us to travel our boomerang route. Far to our right, a fellow stood madly waving his arms like a windmill, as if to attract our attention. When Robert veered to the left and drove through the drop-off zone, the fellow jammed his hands in the air in exasperation, likely thinking that we had never returned a rental car before.
Back out on the street again, Rob drove up the ramp, across the bridge and down the other ramp. This time, he turned left at the second corner and pulled into the gas station, stopping next to a pump.
I hopped out of the car, read my way through the instructions written in German, and topped up the tank with diesel. Total cost – seventeen euros or twenty-six Canadian dollars. I hopped back into the car and advised Robert of our savings. Happy to know that we had saved over seventy-five Canadian dollars, he drove back to the rental outlet once again.
On our second return, the bays were empty, and we parked in the same spot we occupied on the first drive-through. Christian greeted us once again with the necessary paperwork in hand.
“You are an amazing driver!” I said, before engaging the young man in conversation again.
Robert’s expression conveyed a hope that he would not have to hear my declaration of praise again, at least not for some time.
We removed our belongings and watched as the young man scrutinized the vehicle for damage. He retrieved a mechanic’s lamp and shone the light on the vehicle from a multitude of angles looking for fresh dents and scratches. We held our breath. We had been to Poland after all. However, knowing that we had super insurance coverage gave us comfort that we would not have to pay for any damage, but half the challenge is not-having-to-pay. Is it not?
Although rain and snow that we encountered during our drive from Bayreuth to Frankfurt had long since washed away the tiny telltale paw prints of the mother marder, we knew that damage existed under the hood. We waited, anticipating a great reveal.
The young man returned the lamp to its resting place, collected the paperwork and walked towards me.
“Sign here, please,” he said.
“Everything is fine,” he said. “You may go.”
I looked at Robert. ‘He didn’t check under the hood’, his eyes exclaimed.
‘I know’, mine responded.
I asked Christian whether it was difficult to reach the airport hotel from the outlet. He directed us to an elevator a few meters away, around a corner. Quietly, we towed our luggage to the elevator and stepped inside when the doors slid opened.
“Phew!” we said simultaneously as the elevator doors closed.
“I can’t believe he didn’t check under the hood!” I said smiling.
“Me neither,” Robert said grinning back.
When the doors opened again, we walked toward the hotel, relieved that the hood was never raised and that we were not required to explain how a mother marten had sourced a chunk of Opel insulation as material for her nest, not that it would have mattered, we had purchased the super insurance package, after all.
A few weeks after our return to Canada, my Bavarian friend telephoned. During our conversation, I explained our experience when we dropped the car at the airport, and how relieved we had been not to have to explain the marder damage.
“Ya, but I told you not to worry,” my friend said. “The marder is considered an endangered species in Germany. Therefore, you cannot be charged for any damage it might cause. That’s the law in Germany!”
As he spoke, I recalled his efforts to explain just that on the evening prior to our departure.
When I shared the reminder with Robert a short while later, we both had a good laugh, realizing that we had fussed for nothing.
“On reflection,” I said, “I suppose the mother marten was just as successful at sourcing material for her project as I was for mine!”