July 31st, 2003
Current Location - Innsbruck, Austria
Chillin in my hammock. Thats how I spent the majority of my time in Milan. The city is centered around an amazing castle which was once the home of Napolean Bonaparte. Behind it is this amazing park/garden. I´d take my hammock out to a shaded spot in the park, set up, get out my book and chill. On my way out there one day, I walked past a newsstand that was selling a magazine of high-end cars for sale. BMWs, Mercedes, things like that. I grabbed the copy, and proceeded to lay about in my hammock and seriously debate the idea of selling the van for pennies and picking up a nice convertible and traveling in style. In the end, I read a few things about it being difficult for any non-European to buy a car in Italy, and the idea of trying to actually sell this van to anyone just didnt appeal to me. Especially trying to do it in Italian.
I read something on line at the same website that Germany was a good place for foriegners to buy and sell cars. For starters, most Germans speak English. Secondly, the laws are just that much easier for titling. So that became my plan. Head north to Germany, avoiding Switzerland where they have that tax to dispose of a vehicle. The only question is if the van would make it.
I walked in to a bistro/cafe to grab a sandwitch one day, and upon pulling out my wallet, was given a very odd look by the lady next to me. My wallet is a woven bag from Mexico, and it shows the dirt of 11 countries pretty well. The lady next to me looked like she just walked out of a Milan salon. And maybe she did, who knows. But the look she gave me was something that conveyed "Look at your wallet - you really ARE a hippie, what are you doing in the bistro that I use??". I wanted to say that I wasnt a hippie, but then thought... I do use a woven bag for a wallet, I´m wearing leather sandals, I havent had a ´real´ shower in 3 days, and I´m currently living in my VW van. Oh my, perhaps I really am a hippie.
With that said, I walked out of the shop and took account of myself. In my headphones were playing "Beautiful Day" by U2. It was the song that was playing in my truck when I started my trip. It took me back to that day. Then I looked at me. Sandals: Amazon Jungle. Shirt: Costa Rica. Pants: Panama. Sunglasses: Italy. Undies: USA. Wow, I was a walking display of world purchases totalling somewhere in the region of $20. But it made me think of how far its been.
I armed myself with some more information on VWs and maintenance from the internet and headed for the hills. Like some cursader headed for the holy land of sellable cars and English speakers.
I didnt get 2 minutes out of Milan, and buzzers and lights in the van started flashing. I added some oil to the point where its overfull, and kept going. I´ll spare you the details of the journey, but suffice to say it was an entire day of keeping the van precariously on the brink of overheating by driving 45mph and stopping about once an hour. At one of these stops, I went in to a store and came out and found I had a flat tire. Are you kidding me???? I cursed my way to the tools then back to the tire. I tried to remove the lugs nuts, but no dice. I put some good ol´american muscle in to it. Nothing. Then a couple bystanders came to help and put some good ol´German weight behind it. These rather large guys gave it all they had. Nothing. Lugs are locked too tight. I called the "free-call" motorist assistance. The call is free, but it will be €170 to come loosen the lugs. I told them no. I went back to the tire and pulled as only a man facing a €170 fine for weakness could, and got them off. Then the jack didnt work. A truck driver lent me his, and 2 hours later I was on my way again.
All in all, just one long stressful day of driving. I got to Innsbruck at night and found the campsite ok, and after a long shower and cold beer, called it a night. I´ve been walking around this beautiful town nestled in the Alps for the morning, listening to Jazz. Innsbruck is in Austria, and they speak German here. Most people speak a little English as well, which is helpful. I still feel bad going to a country and not speaking the language, but it seems that most people realize that tourists only come for a short time, and they don´t expect you to learn the language. I don´t quite know how to describe Innsbruck, except that its very alpine. I expect to see a yodler at any minute, or the guy from the Ricola commercial in the hills above the campground, sounding the horn to wake me up. I looked at a topographical map in a store window, and we really are right in the middle of some majestic mountains. Luckily for the van, there are easy ways out. :)
I am headed north to Denmark to try to meet up with some other travelers who have a running car. Hopefully, I can find a place to sell the van on the way.
August 12th, 2003
German is a funny language. A lot of the words sound and look a lot like english being spoken by someone who is trying to act a little silly. For instance, a parking space which you are not allowed tp park in is labled "Privatparkplatz", and the German word for oil pump (as in the sentence, "I have a dead oil pump in my VW camper") sounds pretty much like "Oolie Peumpen". I even kind of figured out a rough guide on how to speak German, and am now thinking of writing a book on how to speak just about any language. To wit:
Italian: Add an "i" to the end of each word.
German: String words together in sets of 3, and add an "en" to the end of each 3-word group, ocassionally throwing in an "ofher" at the end.
French: Dont bother, they dont want to listen unless you're fluent.
To illustrate how easy and well this works:
I havi a deadi oili pumpi in my VW camperi
I haven deadoilpumpen inmen VWcamperofhen
Je ne parle pas Francais
But I digress.... as I often do. I had plans on leaving Innsbruck Friday morning last, and coming North to Münich, powering my way towards Denmark. The VW camper had other ideas. It would start, but wouldnt build ANY oil pressure, which means it couldnt be driven. I wasnt really surprised or dissapointed. When I set out from Pisa, I knew there was a good chance that it might not make it. Its a chance I took willingly. So when it died, I told the owner of the campground I'd need to pay for a couple extra days to figure out what I was going to do. I then set off from the campground to Innsbruck city and searched the internet for resources which might help me diagnose my problem. I really wasnt able to find much, except a few newsgroups which told me it could be about 5 different things from the symptoms, all of which include taking apart the motor to diagnose it. Yikes.
We got to the party and it was the most amazing house overlooking the entire city of Innsbruck (located by the yellow arrow in the photo below - taken the next day). Nils and all of his friends are semi-pro snowboarders. Most are working odd jobs until the next snow comes. A lot of them know their rank in the world according to some contest or other. One of the guys was the number 13th ranked freeboarder in the world, the others I forget. But these guys were really all about their snowboarding. Its one of those sports where you get in to it pretty seriously. Most of them have made some sort of profession of it, either by getting sponsors and riding pro, or organizing events, writing for (or starting) magazines, or like Nils, being a professional camerman/photographer for snowboarders. Yeah, a real fun bunch of people to hang out with. Most I told my plight to with the campervan, and some said they'd be able to help in some capacity or other. Nils said he'd take me around to shops to see what we could do.
We headed out to the mechanics place, but the mechanics had left for the day and they said we'd have to come back Monday. We decided to check a couple other shops, to see if they could be a little more helpful from the symptoms, or if perhaps they'd want to come to the campground to look at it. But they were all closed so we'd have to wait until Monday. This was fine by me. I'd found a great group of people, and forgetting about the camper for a couple days was just fine.
Nils and some friends had plans in the afternoon to work a moving job. It paid €10/hr and they said I was free to join. Sounded fine, I decided to go along. We arrived at the house where we were going to load up the items, I put one box in the truck and suddenly had a stomach ache. I had to sit down for the rest of the move it was so bad. It might have been something in Nils' mothers cooking, but I think it was more just the fact that work now makes me ill. Its been so long, perhaps my system just doesnt know how to handle it. :)
After the move, we headed out to the gangs favorite bar. It didnt have a name, and it was on the second floor of a building, and no sign below to indicate it was there. A place you'd otherwise never find. I love that! I refused to take my share of the payment for my moving of one box, despite the offer. The other guys each got €20, and in the few hours we spent at the bar, I think it was all spent by the time we left.
After the bar, Nils and I went over to a park to find some of his freinds who decided to jump in the main fountain of the city. Innsbruck is a rather conservative town. A lot of older tourists come in the summertime, and its a pretty classy place. Not the kind of town that likes a bunch of college aged people jumping in the fountain I'd suppose, but it wasnt illegal either. So that was the plan. This group of about 25 people were meeting in the park, having a few beers, then going en-masse to go jump in the fountain. Well, the meeting in the park was too much fun, and no one ever got the energy to go make the jump. It was fun all the same to meet a new bunch of people and just hang out and throw the frisbee and football. I actually threw the football around much more than I normally would for some reason. Its not a very Rick thing to do. But I was playing with an Aussie and an Italian, and we were wandering home through the streets of Innsbruck passing the ball over and between cars, sometimes throwing US-football style, and sometimes Aussie rules, oddly enough, both of which I remembered.
The crowd at the park was a very international one, so English was being spoken a lot. Nils' other friends all spoke English, but as Austrians they all spoke German to each other. This made entering a conversation impossible, but individual conversations easy.
I met Nils the next day at the campsite, and we headed out for another day of touring Innsbruck on the trusty moped. We headed in to the hills and saw some of Nils' other friends, including Harry, who had built this cool tiny organic farm in the countryside. Staying with him were these really cool Romanian guys, also snowboarders, ironically stranded in Innsbruck with a dead VW campervan. We hung out for a while and then Nils and I headed for a lake up in the hills to grab a beer. On the way we passed a small town called Natters who was having their annual beer fest. I'd say there was only 30-40 people in attendance, but it was cute.
The next morning was Monday, the day that we were supposed to get the car issues worked out. Instead, it was such a nice day that everyone decided it would be better to go to the lake. The Romanians were in a similar boat with the dead car, so who was I to say no to the plans and go do car stuff. We'd do it later in the day. The day was awesome. Beautiful clear lake on a hot (very hot) Austrian summer day. Pretty much just chilled out there for almost the whole day.
That night, Vince had some business to take care of. He is an artist, and creates various art pieces using plexi-glass. Some are hung against a wall, others transformed in to a lamp. He had a freind coming over to look at buying one of the lamps. He wanted to get a bottle of wine to entertain his possible client, but was low on cash. I offered to buy the wine as a thank you for the offer of letting me stay in his place. Deal. Well, the client came, they talked, then went out to a bar. I felt a little akward going along, and mentioned this to Nils, but they assured me it was business between friends, so it was ok that we were along. Even though I dont speak German, I could tell the sale was not happening. Then as the beers went down, things started getting tense.
The next day the plan to tow the van fell through, as we couldnt get the truck. Hmm, perhaps its being borrowed by someone who is less than 4-times removed of the owner. Nils then called some other people and found someone who might be interested in buying it. The guy came over, said his cousin might be interested, and that he'd come by the next day. It always seemed like our plans were for "the next day".
I decided to head back in to town to the internet cafe to see if I could find anything more on the internet about fixing it. I decided to take one of the 2 bikes that came free with the van. There was a beat up black mens bike with one pedal, or a good condition girls bike.
The next morning, after a good breakfast with some cool Italian motorbike travelers I met in the campground, I waited for the prospective van buyer to come by. When they didnt show, I headed out to find a mechanic without the help of Nils. It was tough, as he would normally translate for me when we went to mechanics, but he had things to do, and as much as he was able to help, I need to make sure I had some sort of plan soon. I now had plans to meet people in Zürich on the weekend, and needed to get the van moved tomorrow at the latest. I found a shop that said I could bring it there, and they'd look at it in a week. Perfect. It was 4 blocks away, with no hills. I had a 50% chance of making it there under my own power, but I'd get Nils to follow me in his brothers tiny car, and we'd pull it the rest of the way if I didn't make it.
The next day when we tried to drive it over to the mechanic, I got about 2 blocks, the buzzers started going off, lights started flashing, then miraculously, the oil pressure returned. It was fixed. It had done this in Lugano, too. I seriously contemplated driving it to Zürich right then and there. I was pretty sure it would make it. But heres the thing. It has a problem. Unless I fix it, one of these days the miracle returning of the oil pressure isnt going to happen and I WILL be seriously stranded. Rather than risk that, I decided to park it at a public parking spot in front of one of Nils' freinds' house. At least here I have friends, contacts, and possible buyers. And its safe, and I dont need it towed. If I ended up in some strange city somewhere and it died, who knows what towing, repair or disposal fees I would be facing. In Innsbruck, I have people I can give it to for free if it comes to that. So there it sits. I had someone come look at it who is willing to buy it for very little money, but that all depends on them able to title it in Austria. We'll see.
After we dropped off the van, I felt such a sense of relief, that I cant describe it. I have come to grips with the idea of writing it off totally as just a bad accident. Sometimes things go bad ,and thats just the way of it. I rode around Innsbruck with Nils in his brothers car for the rest of the night visiting people. The song "Bad" by U2 came on and the line "Let it go, just let it fade away, let it go", just sort of summed it all up. We stopped by a freinds house and watch a pro-snowboarding movie that had Harry in it. Then we went over to Harrys place and he had a pro-snowboarder magazine that had a picture of Yuri in it, from the other night after the park. I guess I was hanging out with some pretty serious snowboarders. Although the best comment of the night came from Nils. He had a pack of cigarettes on the dashboard before we went to his friends place. I thought I saw him put them in his pocket, but later on the way to Harrys, we had to stop so he could get another pack. I told him, "I just saw you with a full pack." "Yeah, I know, but I forgot them somewhere." "Thats impossible, it was just 15 minutes ago." "Yeah, and the worst part is that I forgot where I forgot them." That just cracked me up. It was a completely serious comment and just defined Nils. A really fun guy to hang with for my week in Innsbruck. I can honestly say that my week in Innsbruck would have been boring had I not met him and all of his freinds. Instead I got to hang out with a great bunch of people, have some awesome food, and get to see just about every part of Innsbruck.
I spent the night at Vinces, and he told me he had found himself a job that will allow him to pay his bills and still give him the time to work on his art. I'm happy for him.
I took the train to Zürich, Switzerland to meet my freinds Shelia and Rene. Sheila is a good friend of mine from Washington DC. She had been traveling for a year between moving from the US back to her home country of England. She now has a little more time before starting her job, and decided to come travel with me for a couple weeks as we're actually on the same continent for a change. Rene is a good friend whom I traveled with in Guatemala. He lives in Zürich, and emailed me about a festival there that weekend, so Shelia and I decided to meet there, then head north through Germany.
I got to Zürich first, and looked up a hotel. I found the cheapest place in the book, and they still had a room. However, this hotel was a college dormotory that they rented rooms out in for the summertime. The dorm was in the most exclusive and expensive area in Zürich, and we had the best room on the top floor with the corner view overlooking the whole city. I think I can honestly say that we had the nicest room in all of Zürich.
The next day was Sunday and we planned to head out to the lake with all of Renes friends. On the way there, we got a call from one of his newer friends saying that he was going to a different lake to go water-skiing and wanted to know if we wanted to join. Well, if you're going to twist my arm. So, an hour later, we're lazing around on Marcs boat on a lake in the middle of the Swiss Alps and Rene is asking me if I'd like some champagne. Someone call Robin Leach, please. We spent the rest of the day water-skiing and then BBQing at Marcs place and swapping travel stories. Marc was also a pretty well seasoned traveler, who liked to travel to go catch rare snakes for his collection.
Shelia and I decided to get a move on to Germany. We made it over the border yesterday - country number 20 for this trip now. However, we took a train that transferred in Stuttgart. Our connecting train was listed as "more than 40 minutes late". At 40 minutes past the scheduled departure time, we went to the track, a train arrived, and we got on. Well, it wasnt our train, ours was coming after that, and despite the fact that the conductor checked our tickets, we didnt figure it out until we were past the time we thought we'd arrive in Münich with the delay. Arragh. So we spent an entire day of traveling for what should have been a 4 hour drive.
So Sheila and I did a bit of math with the train ticket prices, gas prices, logistics planning and decided for what we wanted to see and when, it really would be easier and about the same cost to rent a car. So thats what we did. We'll be heading to pick up the rental car an about an hour, then travel north through Germany.
And thats that, and my hands are tired of typing.
Hope all is well,
August 19th, 2003
Subject: Adventures in an Opel
Here are the keys, enjoy your trip. No hunting around for insurance providers who will insure an American driving a UK registered car in the European Union, no registration hassles, no worring about passing a MOT saftey inspection.. heck I dont even have to worry if I break down. I just call a number and someone brings me a new car. After dealing with the VW for just about a month, the idea of walking in to an office and walking out with the keys to a new rental car 20 minutes later was the most refreshing thing ever. Not to mention I was on the Autobahn, the holy land of speed addicts such as myself, with a VW that would not go more than 90kph (55mph) downhill with the wind behind me. So getting a little Opel Corsa that goes 180kph (110mph) is a welcome change. And even at those speeds, there are people blowing by at what must be 140mph+.
After picking up the trusty and ever so hassle-free Opel, we headed to Karlsrhue to visit some freinds of Sheilas from NYC. Martina and Claudio were freinds of hers when she lived there, but have both since moved back here to Germany. They were quite excited to have the visitors, as most of their friends from NYC have never made it out to their hometown. They gave us a tour of the city, which is shaped like a fan spreading out in all directions and a castle in the center. Very nice and quaint city with a lot of Bier Gartens all around. Bier Gartens are outdoor beer drinking areas that are only open in the summertime. However, in Karlsrhue they close at 11pm due to the local laws. As it was rather late, we all headed to the park near Martinas house and drank wine and watched the meteor shower that was going on that night.
The next day, we decided to take back roads to our destination, which was Köln. Man, I love having a car (that runs). Köln would have only been a few hours away, so we decided to take it slowly and go backroads through the wine country and castle country. We saw quite a few castles but only tried to stop at one which appeared to be closed. The rest seemed to be a little bit of a hike, and we were enjoying the serenity of the drive and decided just to admire them from afar. The one that we really did want to go see was Hiedelburg castle, which because we arrived at it after 5:30 was closed anyway. The towns streets were tricky to navigate and we werent even able to get a closer look at it than from the freeway. Part of the reason we didnt try harder is that I wanted to see Darmstadt in the daylight.
Yes, Darmstadt. Caspar Rickert was born in Darmstadt in the late 1700's. His son John Rickert was born there as well in 1822. In 1851 John set out for the new land of America on a ship voyage that took 3 months. 2 years later his family made the trip as well, including his son George, my great-great-grandfather. The rest of the Rickert boys were, as Bruce Springsteen would say, born in the USA. First Adam, then Howard, then Donald, then Me. As far as I know, I am the first Rickert to return to Darmstadt since 1853. Kind of a strange feeling. There were quite a lot of buildings built in the 1700s, and walking through them knowing that John probably walked through them too was neat. I thought about his journey and how much scarrier (and maybe more exciting too) his journey must have been, setting out for lands unknown on a voyage few people had ever taken and very few ever would know in that time. Unfortunately, Darmstadt has grown to be a rather large city. Like a lot of other cities in Germany, it has built itself around its historical center keeping it intact, so that history isnt lost. But I had pictured it as a small quiant little town in the hills where I could ask the local shopkeeper if there were any Rickerts living in town, and go knock on the cottage door and see if the person who answered looked anything like me. No such luck. I couldnt even go look in a phone book, as the phones were all computerized with digital directories built in to them and a non-German speaker couldnt make heads or tails of the darned thing. Amazing. When my ancestors left here, phones werent even invented yet, and by the time I have returned, we are now in the age where paper phonebooks have become obsolete. It felt very Back to the Future-ish.
We had trouble finding a parking spot for the Opel, as we couldnt figure out what the signs meant by the parking spots. The lady at the hotel said that most spots are safe until 10am or so. However, our spot had no times indicated as most others did, and didnt have a sign with a red X over a blue circle as most others did, it only had a sign with a red slash over a blue circle. From what I could gather that didnt mean no parking, as it was quite clear that the red X meant no parking. Well, coming out to the car in the morning, an officer was writing me a ticket. I ran over to her flailing my arms telling her I didnt understand that it was a no parking zone. I asked her what the red slash meant. She replied "no parking". Ok, then what does the red X mean? She replied "Absolutely no parking". No lie, that is what she said. I didnt understand, and trying to get clarification was futile. I wasnt allowed to park there, and thats all I needed to know. She pointed to the French registration on my car and said that being French I should know this as it was the same in France. We said we were from the UK and US, had rented the car here in Germany and had no idea. She grumbled a bit and crumpled up the ticket in her hand and told us to be more careful next time.
Then we headed up to the festival, which was way up in Northern Germany. It was called the Lovefield festival. It was a 3 day camping techno/trance/goa festival. I used to get in to that type of music a lot. I havent been in to it in years, but sometimes it really just fits the mood perfectly, and this was one of those times. However, there were a lot of top-name DJs there that most people seemed to know and were excited to hear. I've been out of the loop for so long that I didnt really know any of them.
The festival was a whole lot of fun. It was an outdoor festival which is always nice. In addition to that, they have a camping area which you can use for free, included in the price of the ticket for the weekend. There were 5 stages with DJs going around the clock for 3 days straight. It was some of the better trance music I have heard in a long time.
For more info on the festival, check out http://www.lovefield.de/index-en.html
We have now arrived in Bremen and are staying with Uwe for a couple of nights. Bremen is a pretty cool little place that reminds me a lot of the Haight-Ashbury area of San Fransisco. Hip shops and wild people hanging out on the street all day long.
We're heading to Berlin tomorrow then back this way to return the car next weekend.
I'm trying to get photos up in the next couple of days, but it always seems like I'm moving a bit too fast to ever get them done. Hopefully soon, as I am behind a bit on them.