Monday, June 18, 2018

RETROSPECTIVE: Dan & Simon Race Across Europe 2016 PART TWO

PART TWO: THE RALLY

8 July 2016
Dan & I watched as some absolutely crazy cars came rolling into the parking lot. From the green "Shrek" van with ears and decals to the functional "tiki bar" van with a whiskey-dispensing tap on the hood to the "AC/DC" car complete with full drum kit on the roof[1], we quickly figured out we were out of place. In fact, we'd later meet rally-folk who thought our car was one merely parked in the wrong spot. Everyone did an amazing job of decorating - a favorite was a car covered in gold foil with a big "missile" strapped to the top where the drivers were all dressed like dictators - and we definitely stuck out.

Luckily, we were able to register that morning. We received our instructions and the day's special tasks. We had the longest drive of the race ahead of us - from Lille, France, to Thun, Switzerland.

THE TASKS:

  • Prove you were in five countries
  • Buy something to represent these five countries
  • Take photos of cars a-la snooker, each color car being worth some number of points
  • Buy a Super Dickmann

We didn't hit the road immediately - instead we got a car wash and provisions, including a receipt and a croissant to prove and represent France as per the task list. Plus, of course, we bought more cheesy bread[2].

After France we drove through Belgium (rest-stop waffle) and stopped in Luxembourg (cheap gas / Euros) for a picnic lunch of baguettes, cured meat, and hard cheese[3]. Needing one more country before crossing the border into Switzerland, we headed to Germany and the one city both Dan and I hate: Saarbruecken[4].

While we managed to avoid Saarbruecken proper, we did stop at a hardware store in Saarland for spray-paint. We added our pre-cut stencils of a kite & key, the Liberty Bell, a pretzel, LOVE[5], William Penn's coat of arms, and the five-square plan of Philadelphia to the car and continued on our journey. Also, we picked up a beer to represent Germany.

We drove south through France and took a lunch / let the car rest at some random rest stop. We were lucky we did - while on our break, we learned of a major traffic issue heading into Switzerland (chocolate, for the record) and, for the first time this trip, Google's directions were more useful than confusing. We waved to miles of stopped traffic as we made progress on the back roads through small town after small town[6].

Entering Switzerland, we went through border control and paid the ~$44 fee for using Swiss roads[7]. It was an easy enough drive to Thun, where we parked our spray-painted jalopy outside our very fancy hotel. We finally got to chat with the other drivers at the party - while we didn't find a Super Dickmann (indeed, one of the cars ahead of us bought every one they could find along the usual route, meaning they had fifty-some of the treats to hand out at the end) and we messed up with the car snooker (despite seeing a high-value pink car[8], much to our excitement), we scored well enough for a couple idiots from America.

9 July
The next day we made our way to the starting area, passing the AC/DC car, which was talking to the Swiss police. A few minutes after parking, we heard drumming as several cop cars escorted the AC/DC car into the lot - two of the ralliers were on top of the car, one drumming and one playing guitar. As we received our task for the day (a photo bingo), we learned that the police would be escorting us out of town[9].

The day's driving was the absolute best of the whole trip. Being up in the Alps meant it was nice and cool and absolutely gorgeous. We stopped in the town of Aigle for a very expensive (and very tasty) lunch while we let the car rest for a bit[10]. Afterward we made our way up the Grand Saint Bernard Pass. I would absolutely make this drive again (though, I'd prefer a rental / not paying the Swiss tax/toll). We attempted to stop at the place on the lake at the highest point on the pass, but were thwarted by everyone else trying to do the exact same thing. Heading down, we stumbled upon a rest stop with significantly fewer people, where Dan to an absolutely fantastic photo of me in front of some flags[11].

The stop had some tasty stuff, but most importantly, it had free Alpine water[12]. We filled maybe eight liters of bottles and started a side-quest to Turin.

Drinking some of that Alpine water!
Driving on Italian highways was fine. The city of Turin was a different story. Between the streets that were inches wider than our car and motorists doing whatever they wanted (including going the wrong way on a roundabout), I was pretty well done[13].

Dan & I got "bicerin"[14] (a mixture of coffee, cocoa, and milk which was not enough of any for my taste), then we had a bit of a medical detour. As the car had no air conditioning and we're two idiots, we'd been driving around in the July sun with the windows down and the sun-roof completely open[15]. We were in dire need of aloe for the current sunburn and sunscreen to hopefully prevent the next.

The encounter in the Italian pharmacy was something out of a sketch comedy. Neither Dan nor I have any grasp of the Italian language and we couldn't quite figure out the correct words, so we started showing off our boiled lobster arms and pantomiming the sun bouncing off them and the rubbing of lotion on them. After much too long of this, with random words that might have Latin roots thrown in for good measure, we finally conveyed that we needed aloe and sunscreen. To top off the experience, I was brought into a back room to pick out my sunscreen - I picked a bottle that had the highest number advertised. The pharmacist then tried to sell me a half-dozen more bottles of the same (I wasn't that burnt!).

Medical supplies acquired, we made our way to the day's destination - the former site of the Winter Olympics, Sauze d'Oulx. We had a nice time - Dan got to know some of the folks over some beers (he tells the story well, but has yet to commit it to writing)[16] and I rested and enjoyed an easy night and a beautiful view.

10 July
We awoke and made our way to the car and rally point. The Purple Rain / Prince van gave us another decoration for our car (a vinyl record we attached to the sunroof) and, after a fair bit of mingling, I discovered that my entire left flank was covered in some red stickiness[17]. It took us half a day to find out that the car was disintegrating and that rubbing / touching the wrong spot on the interior would cover one in sticky slime.

Our task that day was to make a "pet" out of whatever we had and pose it for various pictures, which led to one of the funniest parts of the trip: Dan and two men dressed as dictators trying to coax a cow into coming close to a fence so that we could get a photo with a cow and our pets[18]. For the record, our pet was a frog made out of a McDonald's burger box, straws, and tape. We got a huge kick out of everyone's reactions, as most people made dogs / cats.

From our start point / McDonald's, we were on the road to Arles, which we learned was pronounced "Arrrrl" from an Italian bartender and a surly waitress in some French town. (Sidenote: do you remember the "NPR Name" meme that was floating around, where you took a letter from your last name and put it in your first name, then took the smallest town you've been to as your new last name? I'm Simhon Tallard.) The drive was easy, albeit hot; the only notable thing along the way was the fantastic color of the lakes we passed[19].

We pulled into Arles, had dinner at a kebab shop, and met up with the other participants. I did a bit more mingling, but both Dan & I were ready for a shower and a room with air conditioning. Of note in Arles, we were both amazed that every third person had a baguette - it was a stereotype come to life!

11 July
The trip from Arles to Barcelona was about the same - our car continued to disintegrate (it was around this point that our tachometer[20] failed), we were hot, and it was just a lot of being on the road. We missed the morning briefing and we decided not to even bother with the day's tasks (we learned from another team that it was just more photo bingo). I was very disappointed that I didn't see a single windmill while driving through Spain. We'd seen scores all over by this point and I was itching to make a Don Quixote joke in the appropriate context. Our only big stop was to get some ice cream on a nice beach with some of the other drivers - we made decent time to Barcelona[21].

In Barcelona we got mixed up and turned around, but were able to find the recommended scrap dealer. My big scare of the trip came as we drove away in a taxi and I realized I'd left my documents (including passport) in the car's glove box. Luckily, my error was quickly resolved - the documents had been spotted and were waiting for me when I returned to the shop.

We got to the hotel, relaxed, and went to the finishing party (where I had too much to drink - I'm very lucky I didn't get pickpocketed or worse! I blame the EU policy of being super stingy on water, as my normal drinking habit is to have a glass of water with every beer).

Of the 60-70 cars, we placed seventeenth in points. Had we done a few things differently (indeed, had we done the last day's tasks!)[22] we could have easily placed in the top ten. All in all though, the rally was great fun and I'd gladly do it again... in a few years! If I had to do it again, the number one priority would be getting a car with working air conditioning.

PART TWO and a HALF: THE ORRERY

Dan's Commentary:

1 Remember these guys, they'll show up in an later story.

2 The cheesy bread must flow.

3 This is a meal that is both delicious and cheap, and it holds up well after a day in the car. I daresay it is the ideal lunch for the rallier.

4 It smells like old McDonald's meals left out in the sun and depression. I’ve been there twice and it was three times too many.   

5 LOVE is a well known statue in Philadelphia

6 Let me tell you, there's very little in life as satisfying as driving down beautiful roads through the French countryside, enjoying the sun and scenery while everyone else in the race is stuck in traffic.    

7 In the US we have toll roads that charge per mile, in Switzerland they decided to just charge everyone upfront coming into the country. I do have to admit they had the nicest roads we encountered, so the money is clearly being put to good use.

8 Never have two people been so excited to see a pink VW bug. We were literally shouting with joy at this, since pink was the most valuable color for car snooker.

9 We later learned that there's a decent chance most of our cars were not considered roadworthy by Swiss standards. This escort may have been less to keep the road clear for the rally and more to be on hand for the inevitable breakdown of one of the rally cars.

10 We had found that when we drove the car for too long the oil light would come on and a hideous siren would go off. After putting up with it for a few hours on our way to the race start in Lille, we learned to take a few breaks throughout the day to keep our ears safe.

11 Simon has left out what I consider one of the key vignettes of this part of the race. We had to acquire a photo of a St. Bernard dog. While we were taking one of our stops to keep the car in good condition, a gentleman came by walking a St. Bernard. We quickly asked if we could get a photo with the dog, named Kimbo, and his owner agreed. We then had a good two minutes of the owner trying to get Kimbo to care enough to look at the camera while we noted we didn't need a particularly good photo. Kimbo, who was hot in all that fur, had no shits to give about us or our photos and just wanted to relax.

12 It is a common complaint among Americans that Europe doesn't have free water. It is a baffling bit of local culture when considering the quality of the water there is excellent. The free water at this alpine rest stop was, therefor, one of our favorite sites at the time. Such is the American love for free water it may still be one of my favorite sites in all Europe. Sorry art museums, cities with centuries of culture, you can’t compare to all you can drink water from a mountain spring.

13 There's a quote somewhere I cannot remember which, to roughly paraphrase, says that Germans honk when there's a problem, Americans honk at problems or when they're angry, and Italians honk their horns to tell the world how delightful it is to be alive. This is fairly accurate. They also run red lights all the time. It makes for very exciting city driving.

14 Recommended to us by my father.

15 Our theory was that heat rises, so by opening the sun roof all the hot air would just float out of the car. We somehow managed to forget that opening the sun roof also means the sun shines directly on you. Somehow it took an entire day to figure this out. From then on, we learned to crack it slightly open to let hot air out but not allow much sun in.

16 Not committed until now that is. While Simon was tired and sun-burnt, I was tired, sun-burnt, and desirous of another drink or two. So when he went to bed, I went down to the hotel bar to get a drink. I chatted with the bartender briefly and got a cool beer while I watched the hotel lobby. Shortly thereafter a young Italian gentleman came in to take a seat. We struck up a conversation and it turned out he was touring across Italy by motorcycle. I admitted this was my first time to Italy and he insisted I have a wine from his hometown. Being a charitable sort, and the sort who never turns down a free drink, I enjoyed a delightful red. Then he offered to buy me a glass from his father's hometown. After that glass the bartender, who was from southern Italy, said we should have a wine from his hometown. Well after this generosity I couldn't help but reciprocate so I got us all a round of American whiskey to sample. The AC/DC car drivers showed up sometime into our liquid tour of Italy and American and joined us for a round or two. It turned out that there was a good deal of musical talent in this little group, except me, and so a series of piano covers of AC/DC songs were played by our new Italian friend. I contributed some truly terrible singing, but everyone was thankfully tipsy enough to mistake it for being halfway decent. Finally the hotel bar was closing up, thankfully it closed early so this didn't go on too long, and I went to join Simon for a good night's sleep.

17 I'd have said it was a rusty orange color personally. Simon also left out that on our way out almost the entire town turned out for a little parade of our cars as we made our way out of Sauze d'Oulx. It turns out the rally comes during their slow season (summer) and is one of the more notable things to happen around that time so people like to make an event of it. It honestly was a great way to life all the ralliers’ spirits as we got to show off our cars and wave to the crowds. Every single person in Sauze d'Oulx was delightful. I recommend visiting it.

18 Imagine If you will,someone dressed as Kim Jong Un, Muammar Gaddafi, and a frazzled looking fellow in jeans and a tee-shirt at the edge of a field waving grass to try and lure a cow over. The “fence” was a bit of string about knee-high so we could easily lean over. When the local bull looked our way and twitched his legs we all beat a hasty retreat.

19 We learned that the lakes were highly seasonal, when the meltwater from the nearby mountains came during the spring or summer the lakes would get twice as large for the season before retreating to their smaller size during the cooler months.    

20 Sadly this does NOT measure tachyons as I had hoped. Star Trek is a poor guide to automotive maintenance.    

21 Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a feature that was mentioned every single time any official document used the name Barcelona.    

22 Or known the rules to snooker.

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