19 March 2022
Germans are easy to spot on vacation in the U.S.: they’re the ones in white socks and sandals. They come equipped with two or three travel guides and multiple maps for walking, touring and public transport. Thanks to scrupulous planning, they can walk straight into popular museums and got those coveted theater tickets months ago.
It’s easy to be mesmerized by all this planning and get hoodwinked into thinking that Germans are sensible in all areas, driven as they are by statistics and all manner of data.
So I was understandably surprised at the itinerary my German in-laws were planning for their U.S. vacation. They would fly into JFK and depart from there three weeks later. Sounds reasonable enough. But in between, they were going to drive to Miami, Florida – and back. With stops at the beach, Kitty Hawk and Disneyworld along the way. All in three weeks’ time.
I must admit: I was secretly pleased to hear of this outrageous scheme. It gets a little tiring talking to people whose heads are full of exchange rates, gross national products and the average mean temperatures for all countries in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s hard to have any kind of meaningful discussion if people always stick to the facts. How delightful to hear them talk about traveling a total of 2,754 miles – about 4,400 kilometers – and expect to have fun! They said all this with a straight face. It was too good to be true, especially coming from people who never get caught in the rain without an umbrella, are rarely late for an appointment and never forget to water the plants.
This wasn’t the last time I heard about overambitious travel plans to the States from Germans. They can’t wrap their heads around the fact that Germany is the size of Montana. They can’t fathom that when maps of Europe and the U.S. are laid side by side the scale is off. Way off.
It’s sort of like sitting down at the dinner table expecting a single chicken nugget and instead, being served an entire turkey. You just don’t know where to begin, and you also know that by the time you finish, you’re not going to be feeling very good.
One might think – how silly! A glance at the map legend will tell you how to convert the distance on the map to reality. It may be four centimeters from Munich to Hamburg – about an eight-hour drive – but that doesn’t necessarily convert to the same distance on a U.S. map. And who in their right mind drives from New York to Florida, a 19-hour drive? Even if you did, you wouldn’t have time for sightseeing. Or for chicken nugget stops – or turkeys, for that matter.
I managed to maintain an even keel of smugness for several years as an American transplanted to Europe. Here in Germany, I marveled at the short distances between – well, just about everything! If you drive south of Munich, in two hours you’re in Austria and in another two you’re in Italy. If you go north, it takes a few hours more, but before you know it you’ve breezed through Hamburg and are in danger of landing in the North Sea – or the Baltic, if you take a right.
When I was growing up and we drove to Illinois to visit family, we would look out for different state license plates and quiz each other on their capitals for hours to pass the time – and we’d still be in Ohio! Here, if you doze off in the back seat you’ll wake up in another country.
For years, I maintained an internal sneer, ready to bare it at any hapless European who told me of their plans to drive clear across America on Route 66.
This worked fine, up until I started planning a visit to a conference in Oregon a few years ago.
Great, I thought. First, I’ll visit my college roommate in Denver and then an old friend in Las Vegas along the way. They’re all out West, after all. There might be a few states in between, but they’re still close to each other.
I googled the cost for a combined flight – Munich-Denver-Portland-Vegas-Denver-Munich. It came to €3,450.
That may have been naïve of me, but it was about to get a lot worse.
I like to enjoy the countryside when I travel, so I often take the train. To Berlin, for example. I look out the window and watch the landscape change from the Bavarian pine forests to the central mountains. Every time a city goes by – Erfurt, Halle, Wittenberg –– I mull over their history: Martin Luther lived in Wittenberg, how cool is that! In between cities, I read, write or get coffee and cake from the restaurant car. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
The American West is even more picturesque than Germany. Why not take a train? And see the Rockies from the window! Abandoned silver mines, ghost towns, fir trees clinging to slopes. Heck, with a bit of luck I might even see a mountain lion! I recalled gruesome reports of these big cats ambushing unsuspecting mountain bikers laboring up an incline.
Then reality struck in the form of the Amtrak website. A train?! I wanted to take a train from Colorado to Oregon? What was I thinking? There is no train!
The U.S. has a lousy passenger rail system, unless you live on the East Coast between Boston and Washington. Out West, I would have to take a bus, just like the Greyhound bus I took when I was a starving student. The trip from Washington to Cleveland required changing buses at 3:00 am in Pittsburgh. Slow, but cheap.
This bus ride would take 1 day, 6 hours, and 19 minutes. Non-stop. Chicken nuggets not included.
I finally had to face the facts: I had completely lost touch with the realities of American geography. Europe had warped my mind into thinking in terms of trains, buses and quick scenic hops.
I broke down and booked individual flights. No gazing out the window at fir trees, mountains, and definitely no wildcats – just clouds. At least I would spend three weeks with friends rather than bumping along in a bus. I’ll leave that to the Germans.
My in-laws finished their vacation with a flourish by parking their rental car in a No Parking Zone in Philadelphia. Returning exhausted from a long day of sightseeing, they discovered their car had been towed. With the help of a dictionary in those pre-internet days, they eventually figured out what had happened and several hundred dollars later, recovered their car. Ah yes, the joys of travel!
With the latest release of American Geography 2.0 newly installed in my brain, I could once again realistically assess how to get from point A to point B: rarely in a train, sometimes in a car and out West always by plane. And just for the record, you can never, ever walk to the grocery store.
So now when an overenthusiastic German gushes about their overambitious American vacation plans, I just smile and indulge them. After all, it can happen to anyone.