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The International Writers Magazine: Smart Road Trip

Klein, aber fein
A German Excursion
Amanda Quinlan
Travelling across Europe often evokes visions of backpackers hitchhiking through Southern France, holding cardboard signs announcing their destination.


For some, it calls to mind hours spent sleeping on a train bound for Prague, Budapest or any other Eastern European gem considered a “must” by college students studying abroad. Renting bicycles, closely examining maps of the metro-line or “just winging it” by foot bring travelers through European cities to find the cathedral, museum, or historical landmark of their choice. Money is usually short, morale is typically high.

After experiencing all of the above means of transportation within the beloved Schengen zone (in addition to 10 Euro flights with Ryan Air [baggage fees not included]), I have come to find one other means of transportation within Europe that is typically associated with the other side of the Atlantic. The token American “road trip” is known for its epic stories, beautiful landscapes and rugged drivers stopping off at gas stations to breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts before hitting the road. The European road trip, as I have come to find out, does not run on the same engine.

In desperate need to travel to Freiburg from Mainz to pass the oral exam of the DSH-Prüfung, a test determining my German language proficiency for acceptance at a university, I and my husband Stas from Uzbekistan began searching for an affordable solution to our transportation dilemma. I looked up prices for train tickets, calculated the probability of hitchhiking south, and cursed the fact that there was no airport in Freiburg. Stas, on the other hand, immediately pulled up the numbers of rental dealerships in Mainz—Europcar, Sixt, and Avis.

“What’s that all about?” I asked, envisioning our bank account getting smaller as I added up gas prices, rental fees and the prospect of automobile damage. We had rented a car in March to drive the 540 kilometers to Denmark to elope, but that was more of a special occasion. And our wallets were still recovering from the whiplash.
“Smart, baby,” Stas answered in the little English he knows. “Smartcar.”

Despite the fact that a day’s rental only cost 65 Euros (comparable to the price of one round-trip ticket from Deutsche Bahn) and Smart is rather well known for its fuel-efficiency, the idea of driving little more than a matchbox car found in a Happy Meal from the ‘90s on nothing less than the German Autobahn left me a little skeptical.
“But think,” Stas said, interrupting my mental comparison of a SmartCar with the single tire of a monster truck, “Freiburg is right on the French border. We could take a little field trip to Strasbourg.”

Stas knew my weakness for France and my eagerness at every opportunity to speak the language. Tarte flambée in Alsace after passing the exam with flying colors? I was convinced, and the Smartcar was as good as booked. Days later, Stas and I were on the Autobahn heading south to Freiburg, driving what we had forgotten to be the smallest car on the road. We were free of timetables, Fahrscheine and cold hitchhikers’ thumbs. And we were still being eco-friendly, embracing the German if not European way.
“And think of how easy it will be to park in the city!” Stas pointed out. “We can fit in anywhere.”

I laughed, thinking of my father’s attempts to park our Ford Taurus in a spot reserved for a compact car at the Logan airport earlier in the summer. “Anywhere,” I agreed. Only motorcycles and shopping carts could effectively compete with the Smart.
Travelling across Europe often evokes visions of backpackers hitchhiking through Southern France, holding cardboard signs announcing their destination.

Freiberg Reaching our destination in about 3-4 hours and just in time for my exam, Stas and I were exhausted and achy. With so many tractor trailers and “larger” vehicles on the road, we didn’t dare break 110 kilometers (68 miles) per hour. And, despite the fact that the Smart doesn’t seem like such a small car from the inside with its leg room and larger windshield, it isn’t quite a luxury limousine.

It is, after all, designed for city-driving, and not for the cross-country road trips typical in America.

Despite our ex-pat lifestyle in Europe, Stas and I hope to take some beat up pick-up truck from New Hampshire someday (the rustier the better) and kick up some American dust while visiting the usual sights across the country: everywhere from the former Old Man in the Mountain (may he rest in peace), Yellowstone, Four Corners, and the West Coast itself. We’ll tailgate at race tracks, eat American hot dogs on toasted buns “with the works,” and slurp down root beer floats at every A&W on the way. We’ll recreate the “on the road” experience while indulging in stereotypical American culture.

But this was our version of a road trip—Stas, a German-Russian from Uzbekistan with an Armenian father—and me, an Irish Catholic American from small town New England—headed out to conquer nothing but an oral exam and the French-German border. Our music choices? Anything ranging from German rap to Russian soft rock to the Ting-Tings and Michael Jackson. Our victuals? Cold pizza made from Ciabatta that had been baked in our toaster oven the night before, with sparkling water to wash it down. No fast food stops, toll booths, or Rt. 66. Instead, we had the cobblestone streets of the cities and pit stops where you have to pay to use the toilet. Our destination wasn’t the Grand Canyon, but the Strasbourg Cathedral. Needless to say, the size of the car wasn’t the only European characteristic of the trip.

Although a ten-person camper would have been a much more comfortable (albeit excessive) option for the 3-4 hour drive to Freiburg, driving the Smart on the infamous German Autobahn is certainly something to add to my list of European experiences. Granted, “going Smart” wasn’t necessarily the most liberating way to travel, what with the 24 hour deadline and deposit money alongside the fear of being blown off the road by a speeding SUV. But with an international couple seeking to make their way in a foreign country, it wasn’t all about the destination or even the whimsical idea of a “journey”—it was about saving gas, time, and money to get things done in the most efficient way possible. And although that may not echo with all of Europe, it certainly does for the nation responsible for the printing press, Aspirin, and the first scientific pregnancy test. It was a road trip made in Germany.
© Amanda Quinlan September 2010

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