21 April 2010

Europe recap, Day 11: Stuttgart to Paris

Only five photos from Wednesday, November 4th, 2009, as it was a long day heavy on driving and paperwork, with little downtime except for a few late afternoon hours in Stuttgart.

The morning began again at Goldswil just outside Interlaken, Switzerland, with a hearty hotel breakfast, before checking out. The cost for the two nights came out to about 200 Swiss francs - pretty nice, especially given tons of personality in that rustic cabin type building. After bidding the proprietors farewell, it was time to get moving again.

Driving back into Interlaken to check back on one particular souvenir store turned out to be tough luck; the owner probably was taking a lengthy holiday somewhere, and the store remained closed. I decided in the meantime, to pull into an unmanned Avia gas station to buy a bit extra gasoline, to ensure that I could make it to Stuttgart; unfortunately, the German-only instructions left me confounded, and the pump only issued a receipt saying that I deposited 20 francs without fueling - which indeed was the case! I decided I'd have to visit another Avia later on to redeem the credit.

My originally planned routing would have taken me from Bern toward Zurich, entering Germany on surface roads and shooting straight to Sindelfingen on Autobahn 81. But I had decided the previous night that I wanted to enjoy the Rhine and Black Forest scenery, by entering Germany from Basel and heading north on Autobahn 5. The first stretch to the Swiss capital, Bern, was the same as originally planned, heading west on Autobahn 8 and merging onto Autobahn 6 at Thun (motorway-grade roads all the way from here); from there on, I continued on Autobahn 1, which would indeed be the routing to Zurich, but upon meeting Autobahn 2 again, turned off onto it to head for Basel and connect to German Autobahn 5 there. As the high Alpine peaks faded away, the landscape was replaced by rolling hills, farms, picturesque houses, and pretty cityscapes - what little Bern I could see from the motorway, it was definitely nicer than many other cities around the world. My driving music for this stretch would've best been Swiss yodeling or classical, but actually I was rocking away to a 2-CD Michael Jackson compilation, still finding it hard to believe of his passing, followed by a Mariah Carey compilation CD that had done some heavy duty during my mad South Korean drive of 2008.

I had no luck finding an Avia gas station on the way, but just before Basel, I did pull into a rest area, to shop for extra Swiss souvenirs for my extended family. Besides, it looked like I would have enough fuel to continue well into Germany, so I drove on. I noted that Basel was forming a metropolitan area with the French city of Mulhouse and the German city of Freiburg, and that Basel's airport was actually sitting in Mulhouse.

At the German border, which was a bridge on the Rhine River, signs indicated that I still had to have my passport ready at this particular checkpoint. But just holding up a closed passport booklet was good enough for me to be waved through the checkpoint, and soon I was cruising the Rhine shore along Autobahn 5, though the trees were completely blocking my view of the river. It was rainy and wet, and a 120 km/h speed limit sign with an additional sign bei Nässe under it (with a skidding car diagram) indicated that I had to obey the limit while it was wet. Now that the Mercedes-Benz was fully broken in and I was back in Germany, I wanted to do some speeding before sending the car off to America, but the 120 wet speed limit remained on for about 30 minutes! At least I played the Haydn Emperor Hymn again - it may be a long time before I ever listen to the German national anthem while speeding on an Autobahn in a Mercedes-Benz again.

Just as I was starting to note that I was not too far from the French city of Strasbourg, and that German road signs were often insisting on the German-style spelling Straßburg to indicate that the city had once indeed been German (unusual in modern-day Europe, where the spelling locally used in the given city is always officially recognized), I could finally find an unlimited stretch, and seeing that the pavement was dry, started to speed. Previously, my mother had not thought too much of the analog speedometer readings, but now that I had told her that the analog needle was in MILES per hour, she started freaking out again as soon as she saw the needle go up toward the 90 mark. She was determined to not let me speed within Germany, but save it for a future stateside drive, but I was NOT happy about it, as the US not only has strict speed limits, but unpredictable cut-rate drivers too. And sure enough, I was enjoying the courteous, predictable German drivers, even though the best I could do this day - and the whole trip - was 147 km/h. Based on prevailing conditions, I judged that I could do 160-170 quite safely, so it was disappointing.

Before too long, I approached Karlsruhe, where I picked up Autobahn 8 heading back toward Stuttgart. The 8, again, is an older Autobahn, built early on under the Nazi rule, so many sections remain curvy and tight - so it was a bit more difficult to maintain speed, made worse by steep inclines that slowed trucks down. Sections remained wet - and as I drove on a particular empty wet section, I noted that among the three lanes, only the far right lane had dry tire tracks on it; this was proof that indeed, everyone is expected to drive as far right as possible except to pass. I also noted that with under 100 kilometers to Stuttgart, I would be making it in with fuel to spare - it's not fun shipping the car to America with a fairly full tank of overpriced European gasoline.

With only 20 kilometers remaining, however, I ran into a severe traffic jam, the worst I had seen anywhere in the world. I had no idea what was going on - had no way of getting the info short of radio traffic reports, and even then, I wouldn't be able to understand the face-paced German-language traffic updates. At this point, I had to remember the traffic jam rules on the Autobahn: make a gap between lanes 1 and 2 to allow emergency vehicles through, and I may also pass on the right assuming that I am going no faster than 60 km/h. With Leonberg and Stuttgart not too far away, I decided to ride the traffic jam out, especially since it was only after 1 in the afternoon, and the shipping company would remain open until 4. While stuck in traffic, I also noted a white US-market S-class cruising alongside me, with export plates expiring 3 days after mine.

But the traffic was so horrendous, it was well past 2 already, and I had to take an exit right after the northbound Autobahn 81 junction. My intention was to follow clearly posted official detour routes (indicated by the letter U followed by a number) toward the southbound Autobahn 81 turnoff. But just as I started driving on the official detour, I noticed a yellow sign pointing me off of it toward Sindelfingen - it was a shortcut I had not been aware of! I started driving on the shortcut, which indeed brought me into the older section of Sindelfingen, and back to the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant, in no time.

Not sure of my bearings, I made an almost full counterclockwise circle around the assembly plant. My mother noted that returning to Sindelfingen after a week on the road was kind of like coming back to an old hometown; I replied that for the car, it was indeed homecoming - a return to the birthplace it will never see again. After making the circle, I located the Kundencenter, where I had taken delivery of the vehicle - and made a further short drive, crossing the railroad tracks that take finished cars to ports in northern Germany for shipment worldwide, before ending up on an alley, flanked by a Muslim mosque on the left and an office of Simovic Car Service on the right. Simovic would be the agent for E. H. Harms, the company responsible for shipment of the car to North America.

Now I have arrived at Simovic. I am about to head into the office to start the paperwork for shipping the Mercedes-Benz.

And a nice sight of an old, yet charming, Citroën 2CV. It more than stands its ground in a lot full of North America-bound luxury cars.

Upon entering the office - adorned with, among other things, a map of the United States - the lady inside let me know that it was a 600-liter gasoline spill that had caused the massive backup on Autobahn 8. That explained everything! The paperwork proceeded. I had to fill out a US EPA form certifying that the vehicle fully meets applicable US emissions standards, sign a shipping contract that stated that the car is to be delivered to Mercedes-Benz's Vehicle Preparation Center in Long Beach, California with the cost prepaid, a US power of attorney authorizing E. H. Harms to customs-clear the car on my behalf, and an inspection form indicating that no damage to the car was done, aside from leaves stuck on the doors due to the rain, during the European drive. (That relieved my mother of her biggest worry.)

At this point, I had to empty everything that was NOT listed as part of the car's factory equipment - all personal belongings, the manuals, the registration papers, and even a sample CD provided with the car for testing the Harman-Kardon Logic7 sound system. I made sure to remove all the CDs from the CD changer as well. Copies of registration papers were made to indicate to the US Customs that this car was being imported as privately owned, while I got to keep the originals.

Soon, the white S-class came in as well. Turned out that it was driven by an elderly Cuban emigré couple sending the car to Miami. The gentleman who had been driving asked me how I beat him - and I told him about the shortcut I took, which he had not been aware of. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Los Angeles, we did an instant comparison between Miami's Little Havana and Los Angeles's Koreatown. Two very similar ethnic communities indeed, with the strongest common link being McCarthyism, though there was no need for me to disclose my severe displeasure toward Little Havana and Koreatown to him. The Cuban-American couple was about to miss the flight to Paris due to the traffic jam; on the other hand, my mother and I still had ample time left over for the train hop to Paris.

My final look at the car before shipment, surrounded by a number of other export Mercedes-Benz vehicles. There is also a BMW 7-series in the lot, though not pictured - E. H. Harms is the designated European Delivery shipper for all European automakers that offer the program to Americans.

As it would turn out, the car would be taken by train to Bremerhaven in northern Germany on Saturday the 7th, and put on an NYK Lines ship on the 14th. The ship would arrive in Long Beach on December 10th, and the car customs-cleared by the 16th, though due to the Christmas holidays, Vehicle Preparation Center wouldn't add the iPod connector and US-spec First Aid Kit and deliver the car to the dealership until January 5th. The dealership refueled, detailed, and re-delivered the car to me the following day.

The shipping office lady informed me that the car would be shipped to the US as is, complete with the toll stickers and German export plates. I did know that the car would have to be washed in the US for the USDA agricultural inspection, but expected the car to show up as is otherwise. But I was later told that the Vehicle Preparation Center removed all stickers (I didn't care for the toll stickers, but wanted to keep the emissions and German nationality stickers), and the car came to the dealership with only the German export plates, plus the window sticker that's normally given to new cars imported for sale but not to privately owned European Delivery cars like this. Bummer. The export plates were removed by the dealership, replaced with dealer insignia, but the saleswoman made sure to give the removed export plates to me as souvenirs - my mother still has them.

Now it was time to move on. I had the shipping office call a local cab company, so that my mother and I could head for the nearest S-Bahn station at Böblingen to get into Stuttgart. I was again finding it frustrating that my mother was leaving all logistics up to me, and not even bothering to know what an S-Bahn was, despite having spent days in Munich and Stuttgart at the beginning of this trip. At the station, we lucked out - the next train to Stuttgart was actually a nonstop Regio train, which I could still ride with the S-Bahn fare. As the train approached Stuttgart, I was glad to see the rolling hills with vineyards again, as well as charming residential neighborhoods. I also noted a blue French TGV bullet train in the yard as the Regio train approached the station - I knew that would be my ride to Paris.

Back in Stuttgart. I arrived around 3:50ish thanks to the fast nonstop Regio train. With the Paris train leaving at 6:52, I had three hours available. Just like back in Munich, all bags were put away in a station locker, and I am back on Königstraße one final time.

Glad to see the vibrancy from the people and in the air. Again, I was feeling that Stuttgart region was not merely the hometown of the Mercedes-Benz that I have just sent to America - it was becoming a hometown of sorts for me too.

Having an early, light dinner. My vantage point is the outdoors terrace of the sixth floor café at Karstadt department store. (Of course, I'm eating inside, it's too cold out here especially after the rain, I'm out only for photo ops.)

Looking north toward the train station. I definitely remember that old church clock tower from the previous week.

And looking east toward a newer clock tower, with the hills and an observation tower in the distance.

Karstadt turned out to be more than a meal stop. Shopping continued - though this time, my mother was shopping for Christmas ornaments for her new home, in the form of three porcelain angels with glitter wings. And in any case, window-shopping an upscale German department store is never a bad thing - especially when I am walking around in the toy section and finding that not all stuffed animals have to come from Chinese sweatshops.

I also made my own purchase - Mariah Carey's newest album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, which features a lovely cover of a 1980s Foreigner hit, "I Want to Know What Love Is." I had been in Las Vegas in mid-September to see a special Mariah Carey concert and enjoy that particular song (though admittedly, this concert was a dud, and I had to make up for it with another, far superior, Mariah concert in Los Angeles in February). My original plan had been to buy the CD before starting the drive to listen while driving, but that didn't quite turn out - but better than never. This also meant that I was buying my Mariah Carey CDs from four different markets - US, UK, South Korea, and now Germany.

(But as it would turn out, I wouldn't open the CD packaging until arriving in the US - only to find that it had a manufacturing defect, packaging with no CD inside. Too late to ask for a refund without a lot of costly hassles.)

We returned to Hauptbahnhof about an hour before departure, saying our final farewells to Stuttgart, now an adopted hometown and certainly the most pleasant surprise during this trip. After grabbing some ice cream and retrieving our bags, we finally found the TGV boarding - though disappointed to see that our seats faced backward. I made sure to remind my mother of the previous year's train trip together - Seoul to Busan on South Korea's KTX bullet train - and also remind her that this train was exactly the same model, except for crummier passenger cabin and slightly newer locomotives.

The train departed with mostly German commuters on board, disembarking at the first stop of Karlsruhe. All announcements were in German, French, then English - and from Strasbourg on, French coming before German. The train crewmembers had both Deutsche Bahn and SNCF pins on their uniforms. As the train entered Strasbourg, I clearly saw the German phone signals fade away, and manually switched to French phone carriers and French-language dates and times. Dead tired by now, both of us slept soundly through the high-speed run, waking up barely in time for the arrival at Paris' Gare de l'Est around 10:30 at night. The hotel I booked, a Best Western "in the Marais district" - actually the very northern fringes of the Marais, not really Marais at all - was two longish blocks away, and the walk went through unexpectedly seedy neighborhoods. We were knocked out by the time we entered our corner double room, though glad that we wouldn't have to hop around hotels again, this Best Western being our final European hotel.