Arriving in Frankfurt late morning with not a wink of sleep, under cloudy skies, and forcing my way through the gloom of southwest central Germany by car has to be one of the more trying experiences of late. All the maps in the world cannot replace the sense of fundamental confusion that fills your blood as you speed past towns called “Pfungstadt” and “Neu-Isenberg.” I had a vague sense of my route thanks to Google maps, though what was most unsettling was the awareness that any slight deviation from what little route I knew would propel me into the void of an tangled and downward spiraling knot of frustration. And this is nearly what occurred. Nothing makes you quite so tense as navigating a vehicle in uncharted territory, in a language you shall not comprehend. It’s a parallel universe, really. Things are vaguely familiar: there are stop signs and lights, there are sidewalks, but you have no sense of bearings in the slightest.
Not fifteen minutes on the A5 out of Frankfurt and the entire highway was shut down for unknown reasons. It was not a detour around a situation, it was a forced exit to nowhere: into the densely trafficked semi-urban cold war grayness of “Darmstadt.” Perhaps you’ve seen their glossy brochures?
Can you say, “Where the fuck am I?” I was suddenly in a near wild goose chase. Can I suddenly pull up a detailed GPS of my location and reorient my direction? Nope. Thank goodness I packed the enormous Michelin map of the entire country, because in the end it was all I had. One full hour passed of bumper to bumper traffic, without the slightest notion of my direction. I could have rightfully lost it, yet somehow I managed to chuckle, connect the dots, and inch my way to the parallel E451/67 via Pfungstadt, some congested clot of a something-or-other that instantly makes you recoil.
You don’t go “South.” You follow the cities.
“I’m heading towards Karlsruhe? Great. Colmar is somewhere below that.”
“I’m now still headed towards Basel? Great. Colmar is somewhere before that and west of the Rhine. I’ll take it for now.”
Since I was not really pressed for time, it actually became a somewhat enjoyable adventure. In the age of Google, paper maps evidently still work.
Rolling green hills to the east, muted under ubiquitous gray skies, spread endlessly. Corporate installations and grimy carparks gave way to pastures, clustered villages grounded by needled brown steeples which cut up into the sky. This could be good.
Eventually back on the A5, I barrel past Karlsruhe with destiny in mind. Past Ettlingen, Baden-Baden, Ottersweier, Renchen (What planet am I on?). Freiburg? Don’t want that. I missed a turn for E52 or something towards south Strasbourg, but no biggie. Just keep going south and hit the next right to cross the Rhine.
Eventually, there were signs for Colmar. The same bewildering confusion experienced leaving Frankfurt greeted me again on my approach to Colmar. A cacophony of streets splattered together. I had slightly more detailed Google printouts of how to get to la Maison Martin Jund, but the trickery of incomprehensible jibberish that assaults your brain as you enter a completely unknown foreign town cannot be understated.
Colmar has a bit more sprawl and grime than I expected, though it’s really the Centre Ville which is where the charm lay. The center cathedral is ringed by several periphery roads, and in between is an unfathomable maze of narrow, cobbled streets originally meant for perhaps a horse. Somehow, I managed to recognize a street or two, and stumbled cautiously towards the White Light – my accommodations.
Sunday is completely dormant in France, as in most of Europe, and this fact can make even a tourist trap seems like a ghost town in the evening. Streets empty of people, shops closed. Nice to finally be settled and to chart out the week. I grabbed some grub at the nearest corner bistro and had my first Choucroute Alsatianne, a typical regional dish of a pile of sauerkraut with a variety of sausages and sliced pork. And of course, my first glass of the local Pinot Gris.