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The autobahn... and snow
While our timeshare apartment in La Défense gave us a place to spend Christmas week, we would need further accommodations until we could return to our house in Crest on January 7th. Several events combined to tell us where our next destination should be. First: Jayne, a very good friend of ours from the United States (she used to take Martial Arts from Russell), let us know that she is now working for the United Nations in Bonn, Germany. Second: Russell's sister Joanne was able to find us a second timeshare outside of Bonn for New Year's week. Thus, on December 26th we packed our bags (again), left Paris, and headed for Germany.
The hardest part was getting out of Paris -- we took a wrong turn trying to get onto the bande péripherique (ring road) and almost drove through the Arc de Triomphe onto the Champs-Élysées. Luckily, we got ourselves turned around the right way, and onto the autoroute. We drove north through Lille and then east into Belgium. After crossing the Belgian border (which was practically non-existent), we were pleased to discover that the autoroutes no longer charged a péage (toll). After a couple of hours in Belgium passing by Bruxelles, we crossed an even more transparent border into Germany near Aachen. This gave Gail and Russell a chance to begin immediately speaking to each other with silly German accents and mispronouncing road signs.
A last look at the Arc de Triomphe... but closer than we'd like to see through our front windshield
Before we had left Paris, we learned from the news that Germany is currently experiencing its coldest weather in a hundred years (we read about motorists in Berlin being trapped in their cars for up to 19 hours). Today's weather forecast was for rain in France, sleet in Belgium, and snow in Germany. There was a stretch in Belgium where the snow was enough to make the roads tenuous, but once we crossed the border into Germany, the roads were suddenly immaculately plowed. The entire drive took us about five uneventful hours: the boys played the new Game Boy games they had received from Santa Claus; Gail and Russell listened to some of the CDs we had digitized onto our Nomad Jukebox (Russell's Christmas present to Gail was an audio program of NPR's "Car Talk" -- her favorite radio show, and something she hadn't heard in five months).
We don't check into our timeshare until December 29th, so Jayne offered to put us up for our first three nights in Germany. Her own apartment would not be suitable due to a combination of her two dogs and the boys' allergies, but Jayne has an American neighbor who is out of town for the holidays. Jayne herself was spending Christmas in Spain and wouldn't be back for another night, so we were on our own to get ourselves settled.
A combination of new technology and old-fashioned intrigue did the trick. Jayne had emailed a map and directions to Bad Gödesburg, the suburb of Bonn where she lives. Our first stop was the UN Building, where a package had been left for "Russell and Gail Lee" (ooh... we felt like spies). Inside were further instructions and a key to Jayne's apartment. Upon entering Jayne's apartment (it was a slight trick finding the correct apartment building), we found even more instructions and a key to Jayne's friend's apartment across the hall. We were unpacked and settled in time for dinner.
Unfortunately the grocery stores were all closed, so after wandering aimlessly around downtown Bad Gödesburg in the dark and freezing cold, we resigned ourselves to the local McDonald's. Gail was impressed enough when Russell figured out how to make the German ATM give us some Deutchmarks, but even more impressed when he ordered our dinner in German (of course, when the cashier asked him a question back in German, he was completely dumbfounded).
At dinnertime, Cameron warned us that he had a sore throat; and sure enough, Russell and Gail both woke up in the middle of the night with sore throats. By the morning of the 27th, all of us were in some stage of catching a cold. Russell and Gail let the boys stay inside while they drove a few blocks downtown again, this time to buy groceries. Yesterday's snow had all but melted in today's rain, but it was still freezing cold.
We had a particularly amusing time navigating our way through the grocery store. For the most part, we were able to pull things off of the shelf and study the packages long enough to figure out what they were, but to order hackfleisch (ground beef) we would have to talk to an actual German person. The butcher was very patient -- after he couldn't understand our incomprehensible attempts to speak German, we finally showed him the chili mix package and he figured out what we wanted. Our second big challenge came when we had rung up all of our groceries, and the cashier informed us after-the-fact that they don't accept credit cards -- aside from cash, the only thing you can use is an EC (electronic cash) card. While Gail stuffed our purchases into the cloth bags we had brought (don't forget, this is Germany), Russell went running around outside until he found another ATM machine.
We stayed inside for the rest of the day (Russell, whose cold was farther along than Gail's, took two naps). Jayne was not due to arrive back in town until late that evening, so we left a note taped to her door that we had arrived safely, and we turned in for the night.
The next morning on December 28th, we waited around in the apartment for most of the morning for Jayne to come calling. By late morning nothing had happened, so we finally walked over to her apartment. There, we found a new note taped to her door telling us that Jayne had also caught a cold. After knocking and getting no answer, we decided that she must be asleep. We left a note under her door saying that we were going out exploring for the day, and would be back in a few hours.
When we returned in the late afternoon, we found a new note taped to our door telling us that Jayne had been out picking up her dogs earlier and was now home again. We went back over to her apartment, and were amazed when Jayne actually answered our knock opened the door. There were hugs and tears all around. It was wonderful for all of us to see each other again (the last time we had seen Jayne, she was babysitting a toddler Cameron and an infant Joss). We also met her German friend Stefan, whose English was much better than our German.
Cameron and Joss helped Jayne walk her two dogs, Wiley (15 years old) and Buster (12 years old). For dinner, we ordered take-out Chinese food, with Stefan helping to interpret the German-language menu (it was the first time he had ever had Chinese food). Because all of us already had colds we had no fears of infecting each other, and we spent the evening talking, joking, and catching up on old times. Tomorrow we will leave Bad Gödesburg and check into our timeshare, but we plan to return in a few days to celebrate the New Year in the best possible way... with an old and very dear friend.
Joss and Cameron with Buster and Wiley
Gail and Russell with Jayne and Stefan
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