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The Autobahn (do I have to say more?)

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Growing up, I had heard about the Autobahn.  The place where fast cars got to go fast.  No speed limit.  For someone who enjoys driving fast, it sounds like a dream world.  When I learned to drive, the speed limit was only 55 mph, and that seemed slow to me (and to Sammy Hagar too!)  But a place where there isn’t a speed limit?  Sounds like somewhere I would like to go.

I got my chance while we lived in France.  Our church was a part of a convention of churches from around Europe.  Each year we would have an annual meeting somewhere.  One year it was outside Venice, Italy.

Me and Jen in Venice

One year the meeting was in Frankfurt.  Our pastor, music pastor, Jen and I drove from Paris to Frankfurt for the meetings.  While we were there, I was invited by a friend of mine to come and visit his youth group in Kaiserslautern.  This was more or less an hour drive.  I drove over by myself, following my friend.  It was raining and he didn’t drive too fast.

But after the youth group, I got to drive back to Frankfurt on my own.  Here was my opportunity.  I get to drive on the autobahn all by myself!  Oh…how excited I was.  I couldn’t wait to get my chance to drive fast!  Now, at this point you might be asking what sweet driving machine I was behind the wheel of.  If I made a list of 100 cars that I would want to drive on the autobahn, the car I was in wouldn’t have even made the list.  It was an Opel Vectra.  For those of you that aren’t familiar with Opel, it is a German company that was owned by GM until 2009.  They have been making cars since 1899.  But really, they are not exciting cars.

But this was the car that I had to drive, so I was going to see what it could do.  In the car’s defense, it was a well-built car that had been maintained very well.  So it was a safe car.  But how fast would she go?  I had no idea, but I had a goal in mind.  200 KPH (124.27 MPH for those who don’t want to convert this in their head).  If I could hit 200 kph, I would feel that I had really accomplished something.

What I needed to find a good long stretch of road that would allow my non-super car to get up to this speed.  Add in the challenge of other cars and I was going to have to pick my spot well.  When driving in Germany, you have to watch your mirrors for the faster cars coming up behind you.  If they flash their headlights  at you, you should move over very quickly.  As I was making my assault on 200 kph, I had to get over a few times to let people pass.  This slowed me down a bit, but didn’t deter me at all.

I pushed that little car and I was able to not only hit 200 kph, but go over it slightly.  My heart was thumping so loud and the adrenaline was pumping.  I was loving life.  And, to my amazement, even at 200 kph I had cars passing me!  I didn’t stay driving that fast for long.  I slowed down to 135 KPH…which is the smarter speed to drive.  While it is true that there isn’t a speed limit on the autobahn, what you don’t hear is that many insurance policies don’t cover you if you are driving over 135 KPH.  So if you get in a wreck going over 135 KPH, you are liable for any damages

I would have to say that driving on the autobahn was a blast…when I was going 200 KPH.  When I wasn’t, it really was just like driving on any other freeway…well, except for the fact that all of the signs are in German and I never did figure out where the heck Ausfahrt was.

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Can I parallel park? Bien sur!

June 8, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the most interesting things about driving in Paris is the parking.  It is hard to find places to park on the street.  You can usually find a parking garage, (“un parking” in French) but what fun is it to pay a bunch to park?  No, the challenge was to circle the block for an open spot. It is cheaper (or free) and you get to hone your parallel parking skills.

Now, here in the good old US of A, many spots are marked out for you.  Whether you have a big car or a small one, you get the same size spot.  Not so in Paris.  If you can fit your car in the spot, you can park there (one of the reasons that Smart cars are so popular…you can park them anywhere).  So, your parallel parking skills are really put to the test.  But on the flip side,  you can be aggressive in your parking.  What?  That doesn’t make sense!   Oh yes it does.  You can totally bump into the cars in front and in back of you.  So the spot only needs to be a few inches bigger than your car in order to fit into it. 

One time I had to take a friend to pay a bill at a hospital.  I saw a spot and told him I would wait for him there.  This was going to be tight, but I managed to park in a tiny spot, on a hill no less.  While I was sitting there playing games on my lame cell phone, I felt the whole car rocking and shaking.  I looked around to see what hit me when I realized that it was just a car parking behind me.  It felt like bumper cars, but that is just how they park!

Most Friday nights, my wife and I would drive in from the suburbs to our pastor’s apartment a few blocks from Trocadero for a Bible study.  This is when the fun would begin.  We drove two different station wagons while we were in France, first an Opel Brake and then a Volvo V40.  Both of them were small by American standards, but in Paris, they felt like trying to park a Humvee!   Our plan was to circle the block (or about four of them) and find a spot to park.  Then the fun ensued!

I would determine that our car would fit into the spot, then I would begin my 15 point parking process.  Now, if you have plenty of room, you can parallel park with a three point process (which would have been nice to be able to do on my driving test, but that is a completely different story).  But when you are trying to get in a spot with much less than a foot on either side, you can’t do it in a few moves.  In order to maximize every inch, it is acceptable to touch the bumpers on the cars on either side.  This allows you to get into much smaller spaces than you could ever imagine.  It is a fun challenge!

I came back with the ability to parallel park like a pro.  But, often I lament to Jen that I really miss my bumper car parallel parking.  But I try to be good and not touch anyone’s bumper.  Look at me, not being aggressive.  (If you haven’t read my blog about driving in Paris, check it out here.)

It is possible to be too aggressive.  Here is not how you park in Paris (at the end, listen to the people who are watching yell at the guy).

D-Day and Pointe du Hoc

June 6, 2011 Leave a comment

A roundabout near where we lived outside Paris. Flags pictured from left to right: France, Great Britain, USA, Canada.

I am writing this on June 6.  This is an important day in history.  Unfortunately, for many Americans, we have forgotten why this day is so important.  I wanted to spend a few moments talking about one important battle that happened on D-day in 1944.

When I lived in France, one of the highlights for me was when friends and family came to visit.  If they were staying long enough, my wife and I would try and take our guests to Normandy.  We would go to the wonderful little town of Bayeux, to the American Cemetery from WWII, and to Pointe du Hoc.

Now, I understand that many of you are not familiar with Pointe du Hoc, and that is okay.  I am going to give you a quick snapshot of why the battle that happened there is so incredible, but I won’t be able to give this story due justice.  There is so much to tell, that I can’t cover everything in this blog, but I will highlight some of the great points about this story.

Pointe du Hoc is a small point that overlooks both the Utah and Omaha beaches.  The Germans had captured many guns from the French including the six long range guns (155 mm) that were placed at Pointe du Hoc.  These guns had a range of up to 12 miles!  So from this overlooking point, the Germans could hit the incoming troops at both beaches.  In order for D-day to succeed, these guns had to be taken out.  The point has cliffs that are 100 feet tall and the Germans considered the cliffs to be unassailable.  So, their fortifications were all set up for forces coming from the land, not the sea.

Medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force striking Pointe du Hoc on June 4, 1944, the beginning of two days of intense bombardment and naval shelling leading up to the assault on D-Day. U.S. Air Force/National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion was given the job of taking the point and destroying the guns so that the boats bringing the troops to the beaches would be safe from these long range guns. The Rangers had quite a time even getting to the point.  Their navigator mistakenly headed for a point (Pointe de la Percee) that was between their target and Omaha beach.  They were able to correct, but it cost them important time.  The boats that carried the Rangers had been refitted with extra protection.  But this caused the boats to take on water.  The Rangers were actually bailing water with their helmets to keep the boats afloat.  One of the boats sank and only eleven of the soldiers survived the two hours in the cold water.

One of the remaining bunkers at Point du Hoc

225 US Army Rangers landed and scaled the cliffs amid gunfire.    Because of the navigation error, the Rangers were late getting to the point.  They were supposed to hit a window of thirty minutes that had bombing raids on either side of it.  They missed the window and the Germans were actively defending the top of the cliffs.  Because of the firefight, the rangers were not able to signal their reinforcements that they had arrived.  So, the reinforcements went to their secondary target at Omaha beach. (An interesting side point that was crucial to the Allies taking Omaha beach was the arrival of the the redirected rangers on the west side of the battle allowed them to flank the Germans and they truly turned the tide in that battle. Omaha beach may not have been taken without these men coming in.)

Me poking my head out of a bunker at Pointe du Hoc

Despite all of these setbacks, the Rangers were able to fight their way to the gun placements, only to find that the guns had been moved farther inland.  Two separate groups of Rangers worked their way back to where the guns were removed to destroy the guns and extra ammunition that they found.  For two days, the Rangers held the point against the superior numbers of the German forces until reinforcements came.  Out of the 225 Rangers that attacked, only about 90  were able to still fight.

The land has been deeded to the United States in honor of the men who fought there and secured this important victory.  It has not been restored, and so you can see the deep craters (10 feet deep or more) and the remains of the gun placements and bunkers.  It is truly a moving site to visit and makes me so proud that the US Rangers fought so hard to secure this important victory in the war to liberate France and Europe.

There is much more about this battle to learn about, and I encourage you to do an internet search and see more about what happened in the pivotal battle.  Even better would be a visit to the Normandy region for yourself.  And if you are willing to pay for us, my wife and I will come along as your own personal tour guides (did I mention that she speaks fluent French?)!

The French are extremely grateful for what the Allied forces did for them.  Overlooking Paris, not far from where I worked, is an American cemetery.  It is mostly soldiers from WWI but there are 24 soldiers from WWII.  This cemetery is next to a place where French resistance fighters were shot by the Germans.  The street that runs in front of the cemetery is called Blvd Washington and on specific holidays, they fly the French and American flags.  Let us Americans never think that the French have forgotten our sacrifices for them.

The French and American flags fly proudly in Suresnes overlooking Paris.

Drive defensively? No way!

June 2, 2011 2 comments

When I took drivers ed in 1985, one of the big things that they teach you is to drive defensively.  Now, for a teenage boy, this goes against your very nature.  I couldn’t wait to get my license so that I could drive our Chevelle, and drive it fast.  It is a wonder that I didn’t get into serious accidents or even get a ticket, but I didn’t.  Over the years, I have had to learn to slow down and look for all the bad drivers that tend to want to cut me off or run into me.  Driving defensively is a smart way to drive…in the USA.

But, in Paris?  No way.  You let your inner NASCAR driver out and go nuts! (Which is one of the reasons that Jen didn’t want to drive in France.)  If you wanted to get anywhere, you have to learn to drive super aggressively.  Case in point, I was the first youth pastor at our church that didn’t total a car while driving in France.  I will have to be honest, I absolutely loved driving this way.  You cut people off, honk your horn (a lot!), and look for the smallest opening to fly into.

One of my favorite things that I loved to do in Paris was drive through the Etoile. Everyone knows l’Arc de Triomphe.  The roundabout that encircles it is called l’Etoile.  Here, twelve (yes 12!) roads come into one giant circle…that has NO LANES!

A bit of crazy traffic in the Etoile.

When we first moved to Paris and drove around, we would often end up places where we weren’t quite sure how to get back to the western suburbs where we lived.  But, in Paris, finding the Etoile was easy.  I could find my way home from the Etoile, so for a long time, every time we went into Paris, we would drive through the Etoile.

Now, there are two basic rules to these big roundabouts.  Use your horn as much as you can and whoever is to your right has priority.  So, the people coming into these big roundabouts can cut you off and you can’t do anything but honk.  So, I loved entering the roundabouts…fly in and they have to avoid you.  But, the tricky thing is getting out of them.  Those darn drivers coming in have the right of way, so you have to figure out a way around them.  That is where you channel your inner Frogger and try not to die.  But, if you are aggressive enough, you won’t get stuck in the roundabout for too long.

Whenever we had friends come and visit us, I would try to drive through the Etoile with them right at the start of their visit.  Once they saw that we could survive that craziness, they relaxed on the rest of their trip.  The rest of the crazy driving that they saw didn’t seem to bother them as much.  They were often amazed that 1) I would be even willing to try and drive around in it, and 2) that I loved it so much.  Plus there was the added bonus of a bigger, more confusing roundabout just down from the Etoile that we would drive through and after going through the Etoile we would get to drive down the Champs Elysees.

One of the hardest things about moving back to the US was toning down my driving.  I once again had to go back to driving defensively.  Jen had to remind me often that I couldn’t use my horn so much.  I had to learn again how to not purposefully cut people off. And I also don’t have any big huge roundabouts to have fun in.

Categories: Driving, Paris Tags: , , , ,

Our first day in France

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Traveling from the west coast of the US to France is no short trip.  Jen and I had to be up early for the drive to the airport.  After flying across the US and catching our second flight, we didn’t arrive in Paris until the next morning.  I am always envious of people who can sleep on a plane, but I rarely get anything more than a few fitful minutes of rest.

After being picked up at the airport and taken to our apartment in the western suburbs of Paris, we went with some of the staff from the church for lunch at a local cafe.  At this point, I am pretty tired and my goal is just to stay awake.   But a nice lunch sounds good, so we as we walk through our town I am just happy that I am going to get to eat.

After sitting down at our table, I look down at my menu.  I was fairly confident that I would find something on there that I will recognize and like to eat, even though I didn’t really know any French at this point.  It was mostly sandwiches, so I thought I could figure it out.  Boy was I wrong.  I looked over the menu multiple times to try and figure out something to eat.  But there was not one thing that I could recognize.  There wasn’t a word on there that made any sense to my tired brain.

One thing you should know about Jen is that she loves to take her time poring over a menu to decide what she is going to eat.  So, as much as I needed help, she was concentrating on figuring out what she wanted to eat.  The other people at lunch with us were in a conversation and didn’t notice my plight.  So here I am, tired and hungry, at a cafe, and I think I might starve.

Eventually I pester Jen enough for her to decide to help me out and we find something that I will eat.  As I am sitting there, I come to the realization how much I like to eat, especially at restaurants.   On the walk home, I tell Jen that the French lessons need to start soon and I want to learn every food related term that I can.  I am happy to report that in a short time I could not only figure out a menu, but I could order (in my horribly accented French) for myself.  If nothing else, I wouldn’t starve while we lived in France, which was good for me.

Categories: Paris Tags: , , , , ,

Paris? Really? You really want to move to France now?

May 28, 2011 Leave a comment

It is 2003.  The United States has declared war on Iraq.  France has declined to help.  French Fries?  No way…they are Freedom Fries!  Nobody seems to like the French.  So, when Jen and I tell our friends and family that we are talking with a church in Paris, they think we are crazy.

And yes…maybe we were crazy.  I had been teaching at a Christian school, but was not enjoying the experience.  Most of my students weren’t opening up to me the way that I was used to.  Maybe they were too afraid of getting into trouble with the administration if they shared what they were dealing with me.  I knew that I couldn’t stay.

Jen and I had interviewed at two different churches.  When one said no, we were really down.  It seemed like such a great church and opportunity.  When the second said no, we were relieved.   The interview that we had with them was one of the strangest experiences that I had gone through.  (read the blog here)

Jen had a job as a receptionist and had permission to surf the web during down times.  I asked her to search for any schools, seminaries or other websites that listed ministry positions.  She came across a guy’s website where he listed international youth ministry positions.  She found a position in Paris at a church that had the same name as the church we were attending.  She emailed it to me so we could laugh that there was a church in Paris with the same name as our church.

To her surprise, I said that we should send them my résumé and see what they say.  Now, you must know that my Jen has a French degree, studied in France, and absolutely loves Paris and France.  (A note to all those guys out there…score some major points with your wife and move them to their dream city.  They will love you even more!)  After some emails and calls, we ended up packing up our stuff, storing most of it in our good friends’ garage, and moving to Paris.

Our friends and family did think that we were crazy.  But, it was the best, and hardest, three years of our lives.  Interestingly enough, many of the French people we met wondered why Americans weren’t visiting Paris like they used to.  When we told them that it was because France didn’t support the war, they were confused.  They didn’t see why that would keep people away from Paris.  ”Don’t they still love Paris?”  A definite difference in how Americans and the French approach life.