Road Trip

Sunday - Dawn doesn't arrive in Amsterdam until around 9:00 AM and stores and museums don't open until 10:00 or 11:00. Since both M.S.O. and I are early risers, we had our Ford  Ka  rental car heading out of town as the sun would have been rising...If the sky wasn't cloud covered. The snow of yesterday blanketed the fields as we drove east to Naarden, a fortified city with walls and moats, the city formed in the 9th century. The fortifications date to the 13th century.

After a quick tour of the town, we continued east entering Germany. The only way we knew we were in Germany was that language on the exit signs changed. No stopping for passport checks. No classic lines like "Papers, please." No new stamps in my passport.  Instead, we unknowingly roared past the frontier at around 80 m.p.h. along with the other traffic. So this is the German autobahn. Well, let's see what a Ford Ka will do. Slowly I depressed the gas pedal. 120 kilometers per hour. 140. 160. Our GPS on the dashboard said we topped out at 103 m.p.h. as the lines on the road seemed to blur into one line. I considerately moved to the right when a BMW or souped-up Audi blew by me like I was in driving in reverse. I wasn't really surprised that by noon, we were in Dusseldorf and shortly after that, could see the spires of  Cologne's Dom Cathedral in the distance. We cruised through town and spying a parking place a block from the church we were thankful for our luck.

Self-guided tours of the cathedral  are available and a winding staircase provides visitors access to one of the massive spires soaring high above the town. Not having any German Deutchmarks for the small admission fee to the spire, I asked if Dutch guilders or US dollars were acceptable. "Nein, nein." was the curt response. We left the church in search of an ATM but we found our bank cards wouldn't work. Crestfallen, I realized that without German coinage, we weren't doing any climbing. Incensed, I  returned to the church with M.S.O. in tow and simply started climbing the stairs. Not hearing shouts of "Achtung! Halt!", we slowly wound our way up the narrow corkscrew staircase as people descending moved to the right as we passed. We glanced out the tall thin windows of the spire as we climbed, marveling at the ornate stonework which is a small blur from plaza level. Gargoyles crouched against the time-blackened walls, staring out over a countryside which has changed over a dozen centuries. The view of the surrounding countryside from over 500 feet up was astounding. The Rhine river stretched out before us. Laden barges slowly making their way up and down river.

The wind blowing across us was sharp and cold but oh the view made the discomfort worth it. After descending down the spire, all the while telling folks walking up that they were "almost there", I looked for a priest I'd seen earlier. Dressed in a red cassock with a wooden "offering box" around his neck, he kept an eye on the crowd of tourists, reminding men to remove their hats and that photographers refrain from using tripods. Approaching the holy man, I held up a $5 bill? "Do you accept American?" I asked. "Ja, ja. Sure," he smiled. Stuffing the bill in the box got me a "Danka schon". I figured that the transaction more than squared our debts with the church so off we went to find the car.

We strolled by musicians and entertainers who gather around the plaza and streets surrounding the cathedral; One a guitarist, another with a flute. A quartet, draped in Andes serapes hawked their CD as they entertained the passing crowds. A german beer hall caught our attention. In we went being shuffled into one of many rooms. "Do you accept VISA?" "No." "Do you accept American dollars?" I asked. "Sure" replied the maitre d'. Our waiter came by and asked, "Two beers?" I saw that the beer was served in 0.2 liter (7 ounce) glasses, I smiled and said, "Nah, bring four!" The beers, normally delicious, were even  more so in an authentic German beer hall.  While M.S.O. searched for a WC, I decided to double-check with the waiter regarding American money. "No, I only accept deutchmarks." Uh oh. Thinking quickly I respond, "In that case, two more beers!" which were promptly delivered. Upon her return, I told M.S.O. about our potential financial difficulties. She didn't know whether to be more surprised that I ordered another two beers or that the waiter brought them! Quaffed our beers as I wondered if the polizi allowed phone calls to consulates of deadbeat patrons. Our problems were solved when the original waiter went off duty and his replacement was quite happy to be paid in US greenbacks. We celebrated our non-incarceration by having two more tiny beers.

Returning to the car, we were off to our third country of the day - Belgium. Just like the Dutch-German border, we knew we had entered Belgium only when the language on the exit signs changed! Arrived in Brussels around 6 P.M. and decided that food would be a good idea. Found a wonderful restaurant - L'Esprit de Sel Brasserie on Place Jourdan Square. Friendly attentive staff who honored VISA - My kind of place since I didn't have any Belgian Francs either! I had 'le poulet' while M.S.O. dined on 'roulade de veau'. It was the kind of place I hope I get to visit again. Fully sated, we decided to tour Brussels looking for Mannequin Pis. You know, the statue of the little boy who is, well you know... We went up streets, we went down streets. Paved streets, cobblestone streets, one way streets, dead end streets. Left turn, right turn. "This street looks familiar." "Oh, there's the Palace...again." We saw a sign indicating the attraction was on the left. We turn left. We see another sign pointing back the way we came. Patience is wearing thin. I park on the sidewalk. Walking to the corner, there it was. A statue of a little boy doing something that would get Puritanical tongues clucking in the States.

We were a tad underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting something more grandiose. Why was this statue commissioned in the first place? I've heard a couple of stories. A young boy disappeared and the city residents searched and searched for the missing child. The distraught father, who happened to be mayor of Old Brussels, promised to erect a statue (if the boy was found safely) depicting whatever the lad was doing at the moment he was found. Another story claims the statue honors a quick-thinking Belgian boy who foiled the plans of an arsonist and saved the family home. Everyone should enter the labyrinth called Brussels and see this fascinating work of art.

Back into the car and we head out of town, looking for a gas station. Found one; An unattended, automatic station. Not wanting to mess with it, I confidently said we'd gas up down the road. Big mistake. Fog rolls in. The kind of fog you hear of occurring when dozens of cars collide on the highways in Europe. And the gas gauge edges ever closer to the big E. I was not my usual cheery self. "Let's get off at this exit and see what we can find." We drive and drive. The fog thickens. We slow down even more. Just as the gas needle intersects with E, we see the sign. Gas - 5 kilometers. We rolled in on fumes but had made it. Reversed course, heading north towards Amsterdam but when we arrived at the Schipol airport we couldn't find an open door to drop off the key. Cursing the rental agency, we drove to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

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