We weren’t supposed to go to Paris at all. The original plan was to visit Salzburg, the beautiful Austrian town surrounded by mountains and dotted with impressive palaces.
But there is an aura that surrounds Paris. Many would not consider a visit to Europe complete if their itinerary did not include this city. So when my parents raised the topic of visiting Paris, we decided to change plans. Salzburg out, Paris in.
Wife and I had been to Paris twice, once by flight and once by train, both in winter. Memories of those trips are filled with attempts to shield ourselves from icy winds; we had preferred the warmth of the museums to the chill of a trip along the Seine.
This time we intended to drive down, and it was summer.
We have driven through a few countries in Europe; the odometer reads a little over 60,000 kilometres, which is a decent figure after three years of living next to your workplace. (Unless you are from the US, in which case you would probably cover that distance in three months of visiting the neighbouring state every weekend.) But this six-hour drive to Paris was for us the most beautiful drive through all plains we had covered so far. (Drives through mountains hold a different charm, and cannot be compared with any other terrain.)
It came as a surprise. After driving for about an hour and half in Germany we crossed into France where two things happened: the highway, patched and irregular so far, transformed into the smoothest surface I had ever set my wheels upon, and the landscape opened out to rolling meadows with fields as far as the eyes could see. It was a sunny day, with very few cars on the road. Ingredients for a perfect drive.
The Autobahns of Germany are famous for the absence of speed limits; tourist brochures and guides invite people to rent cars and drive as fast as their engines – and wives – permit. Heavy usage in high speeds and the absence of toll are the main reasons behind the poor condition of these highways. Countries like France, Austria, Spain and Switzerland – who charge a fee for using their roads, and are thus not as heavily used – offer a much smoother driving experience.
Along the way we encountered those rolled-up balls of harvested crop that stand like relics from an ancient world – some would say, an alien world – waiting to roll down at the slightest disturbance, resulting in reports of Unidentified Rolling Objects in the news-headlines next morning. But no such thing happens. They patiently wait without stirring until it is time to set them on fire.
Entering a big city with printouts of driving directions – from sites such as mapblast.com – can be tricky. (Ask Patrix, for instance.) We had intentionally chosen our hotel in the outskirts of the city, hoping that getting there would not prove too difficult even if we missed a turn or exit. But as we entered the maze of roads that circles around Paris, I knew that one miss and we would be in big, big trouble.
It was around 10pm, and nightfall was almost upon us. We had less than 10 kms to go when an exit listed in our printouts showed up before the distance that had been predicted, and we missed it. I continued driving straight, with no clue how to get back.
(My navigational skills are such that I find difficulty in reaching home from office on days Wife is not sitting next to me. She, however, more than makes up for what I lack. On one occasion we received a phone-call from a friend who had lost her way in the network of streets that surrounded her house, and the first question Wife asked her was: “On which side is the moon?” It didn’t take her long to get this friend back home, and I decided that in her childhood Wife must have swallowed a compass.)
So I drove on, awaiting further instructions. “Take the next exit and get back on this highway in the other direction”, she said. I followed, but the pattern of the roads was different and we couldn’t get back as intended. The traffic was heavy, and it was getting darker by the minute. Parents were tired after the long drive, and wanted to reach the hotel soon and rest. Things were not looking good.
As I drove I thought of alternatives. We could call up the hotel and ask them for directions, but that would be of little use (we had failed to follow clearly written directions, so how could rough guidelines help? Further, we did not have a city map). We could also hire a taxi and follow him to the hotel, as a last resort.
Our only lead was A3 – the highway on which we had missed the exit – and we used that as our guide. Taking prohibited U turns, reversing in private parking zones, sudden shifts between lanes – acts I would never commit on a normal day – were part of our exercise towards getting back. Once on A3, the tall buildings we had crossed earlier served as landmarks and we located the point where we had missed the exit. From that point on, things were easy.
The whole detour cost us around 45 minutes. Mother joked that we had already given them a tour of Paris. For me, it was a miracle, sheer good luck; I do not know if we could manage it a second time. Father, who had been asked not to interrupt the communication between Wife and me during this phase, looked very relieved. He thought Wife was the only reason we had managed to find our way back. That dosage of compliment was perhaps a little in excess, but I anyway told him about the “where is the moon” incident.
“Looking at the moon to find the way?” he said. “Columbus must have been one of your ancestors, then!”
“If Columbus were my ancestor, ” replied Wife, “he would have reached India and not the West-Indies.”
The way out of the maze – after the weekend in the city – was easier. And the drive back was lovely again, until we reached the German border.