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July 6, 2009

There’s a place in France…
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 12:43 PM * 143 comments

I’m writing this from a sunny terrace beside a very pleasant house in the south of France. The pool, on a slightly lower terrace, looks placid and inviting. Beyond it the hill drops off sharply, opening up a view of forested hills and fertile countryside. The wind brings me the mixed scents of chlorine and lavender.

We drove down over the weekend. I’m still a little weirded out by the fact that I can drive to France. You know, just get in the car, point its snout south, and end up here (via Belgium and Luxembourg). Both my American and my British sides find it strange1.

A few things we noticed on the way down:

  • A good 2/3 of the motor homes/motor home trailers2 we passed in France had Dutch plates; if the motor home had bikes on it, the chance that it was Dutch increased to about 75%. The Dutch have the highest rate of motor home ownership in Europe, and we were traveling on the first weekend after the first set of Dutch schools let out for the summer, but the proportions were still notable.
  • Well over half of the Dutch cars, both those towing motor home trailers and not, had roof boxes. No other nation’s cars had so many.
  • Whereas the clouds in the Netherlands look like something out of an Old Master painting, and therefore require fields full of peasants with long rakes, the clouds in France are structured to frame a holy figure.3

I also encountered, for the first time in person, the Grifter Look. We were filling up the car, and the man in the (Dutch) car using the other side of the pump fell into conversation with Martin. I was talking to the kids and didn’t listen, but I did glance over to their car. The woman in the passenger seat was giving me the coldest, most appraising look I’ve received outside of Customs and Immigration. Then the man went to pay, and they drove off as Martin was going into the shop.

He came out a few minutes later, shaking his head. Apparently, the man had asked him what kind of gas we were getting (Euro 95; we’re cheapskates at the pump). Then, when he went in to pay, he claimed that he was from our car and paid our gas. So when Martin went to pay, the attendant tried to charge him for their more expensive tank. He has enough French to clarify the situation, and we paid for our own fuel. I guess the station chain will write the difference off. The attendant will probably add it to a fund of anecdotes about the Dutch; as a driver of a car with Dutch plates, this does not thrill me.

But looking back, I know what that woman was thinking. Mark, the look said. To a grifter, the whole world is a mark, and that includes you.

  1. Next thing you know, someone is gonna point out that I could head east and end up in Russia or something. And that’s just silly.
  2. Including, for these purposes, trailers with inflatable tents as well as hard-shelled mobile homes.
  3. Except for the Art Nouveau ones, which look like the illustrations from the Oz books I had as a kid.
Comments on There's a place in France...:
#1 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 01:23 PM:

You can also almost drive to France from the US via Newfoundland and a trip on a ferry. The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, southwest of Newfoundland, are French territories.

#2 ::: Duncan J Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:07 PM:

Re: Fuel Scam

This is one reason that I liked the Agip stations in Italy. There was always someone to operate the pump for you and take your money. For only a few extra lira he wouldn't overcharge you too much.

Refreshingly dishonest, yet pleasingly consistent.

#3 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:16 PM:

Sorry to hear that this almost happened to you, Abi. This of course doesn't mean I wish it had happened.

#4 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:32 PM:

It works in the other direction, too. Some years ago some French friends of my in-laws wrote them to say that they were going to visit DC and wanted to come and visit them. My father-in-law wrote back saying that this was very nice, but did they realize that the distance from Washington to Great Falls, MT was about the same as the distance from Paris to Moscow?

The clouds in the Great Plains have a tendency to look like Zeus in a really bad mood. Good thing they're fifty miles away over there.

#5 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:39 PM:

We got hit with a variation on that it Wyoming -- between leaving the car to go pay for the gas, and paying for the gas, some opportunist grabbed the nozzle and added a few gallons to their vehicle.

#6 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:40 PM:

Abi: what a very odd story. It would never have occurred to me that someone would do such a thing. (Note to self: the answer to "What are you buying?" is "Why do you ask?")

#7 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:42 PM:

(oops, wasn't finished yet)

C. Wingate @ #4: I think I've heard someone quote this here, but it bears repeating--the difference between Americans and Europeans is that an American thinks 100 years is a long time, and a European thinks 100 miles is a long way.

#8 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:49 PM:

I noticed many NL stickers on the cars in a campground in Austria. My first reaction was
"Why is Austria so attractive to Nederlanders?"

immediately followed by

"Of course!"

#9 ::: crazysoph ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:52 PM:

oooh, and might the return trip involve proximity along a line between Brussels and Antwerpen, perhaps?

I should really just e-mail you my current cell phone number.

Crazy(alas, the e-mail listed as my own is no longer servicable, so I'll have to do the sending and hope you have access)Soph

#10 ::: JL Bryan ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:56 PM:

"The clouds in the Great Plains have a tendency to look like Zeus in a really bad mood. Good thing they're fifty miles away over there."

That sounds beautiful!

#11 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 02:59 PM:
You can also almost drive to France from the US via Newfoundland and a trip on a ferry. The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, southwest of Newfoundland, are French territories.

Nice idea, but the ferries do not carry cars.

#12 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 03:56 PM:

"Nice idea, but the ferries do not carry cars."

That's why I said "almost drive to France". You can drive to the ferry, and I'm not sure why you'd need a car on the teeny tiny islands.

#13 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 03:58 PM:

Try having California plates during the great migration from California and returning home to Colorado on vacation. Ah, the hilarity of a Coloradan trying to push our car over the cliff and down the mountainside. Fortunately, we're native Coloradans and know how to stay on the road, but still not without entertainment value.

We stopped for lunch in a small town one time and they wouldn't even approach the booth until they saw my T-shirt about Toponas and Parschall (tiny towns in Colorado, in those days having each about 10 residents.)

And the really funny thing is the Coloradans who HATE Californians moving to Colorado are usually Californians who moved here just a few years earlier.

If this is incoherent, I apologize, having a terrible Monday at work. End of break.

#14 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:00 PM:

What a strange scam.

I don't think it actually _can_ work, or at least won't work for long. At least here in the UK. The problem with it is this: when a car drives into the station to refuel, in most places now there are automatic number plate recognition systems. The ANPR records the number of the vehicle that pulls up to each pump; when you pay for the fuel, an entry is added to the database stating that the fuel that was pumped into your car has been paid for.

Net result of pulling this scam: a database entry with your car's registration number, and a note that the fuel hasn't been paid for, which will (presumably) be duly reported to the police as theft. Paying for somebody else's fuel achieves nothing, except confusing the clerk when somebody comes in and tries to pay for fuel that has already been paid for. You'd be just as likely to get away with simply driving off without paying, which is somewhat more profitable.

#15 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:03 PM:

All I can say, abi, is dat hij krijg de mazelen.

One can drive directly from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the French Republic, without going through Belgium, by the way. One has to do so on the island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, where the inhabitants, being civilised, have as their native speech, something they call English.

#16 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:04 PM:

Addendum to my previous post:

Of course, it should be noted that the driver is quite likely to get away with it anyway... there's a strange reluctance in most European countries to follow up minor crimes perpetrated by citizens of other European countries; I imagine the paperwork's too complicated, or something.

#17 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:05 PM:

Adding to Jules @14 - my first reaction was along the lines of "how did they manage to convince the clerk they were from your car?". I guess I'm used to US gas stations that have the cashier in sight of all the pumps, keeping track in their head of who's at which pump, where they would have -seen- the guy pumping gas into the other car from the other pump. (I guess I'm also thinking of digital pumps, each with a number taped on it, so the clerk gets a notice inside when pump #4 has stopped pumping, for example.)

Perhaps these are 80-year-old gasoline pumps or some such?


#18 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:21 PM:

It's a big motorway gas station. Twenty or thirty cars can fill up at a time.

Assuming the clerk has a monitor, he can see that flow had stopped for two pumps, numbers 3 and 4, both of which have cars with Dutch plates at them. So when a guy who is clearly Dutch comes in and says he's from pump 4, if the clerk looks up, he sees Dutch plates. Even if there is another guy hanging around that car, it could be another passenger or something.

But the clerk probably doesn't look up, because he has a queue of drivers speaking bad French or just holding up fingers to indicate which pump they're at, plus a shop full of snacks to keep an eye on.

#19 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:30 PM:

In these parts one has to pay up first; I can't think of any place until you get way out in the boondocks where you can still pump-then-pay.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 05:40 PM:

I don't know why prepay hasn't caught on in Europe, but it really has not done so.

I've seen a requirement to pay before pumping after hours, in some very small service stations in very rural France. But the big ones on the toll roads all seem to be pump first, then pay.

#21 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 06:37 PM:

Am I the only one who keeps on humming "There's a light... over at the Frankenstein place..." when they look at the title of this post???

#22 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 07:18 PM:

That sort of penny-ante scammer depends heavily on people being too lazy to chase them down in whatever fashion.

#23 ::: Duncan J Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 07:19 PM:

xeger @ 21
"There's a light,
Burning in the fireplace."

#24 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 07:45 PM:


What an odd scam.

I guess it's too late for poppies. That was one of the best parts of driving in the French countryside for me. The beautiful red poppies, looking for all the world like a Monet painting.

It is probably sunflower season, which is special in and of itself.

#25 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 08:30 PM:

I think it might be a little after rapeseed* season, when there are huge fields of yellow everywhere.

*aka canola

#26 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 08:30 PM:

xeger: I hear hootchy-kootch music, a la David Bromberg.

Or perhaps Jane Curtin or Dan Ackroyd saying, "We are from France."

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 08:33 PM:

xeger @ 21... I'm not humming that, but you reminded me that I know a place.

#28 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 08:37 PM:

I'm tempted to recount here the many bad jokes about the so-called frugality of the Dutch which the Dutch-Americans among whom I grew up were fond of telling about themselves[1], but I suspect that what was at work here was less specifically Dutch and more the garden-variety cussedness of mankind, which can be observed the world over. (I think the people I grew up with would be both offended to be compared to grifters and offended to be told they weren't special, but human nature doesn't have to make sense.)

I am kind of curious, though -- Abi, what kinds of beliefs do the Dutch of your acquaintance have about their country, their nationality, their culture?

[1] "Do y'know was copper wire invented? Two Dutchmen were fighting over a penny."

#29 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 09:35 PM:

xeger @ 21: My reaction to the thread title is to think of Tom Lips' song "Western Lodge"; the chorus begins "There's a western lodge..." . He's an Ottawa folk singer with a couple of excellent CDs out (which I'm going to have to buy more copies of, as I seem to have loaned mine out to somebody a couple of years ago, and I don't remember who).

#30 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 10:16 PM:

Serge @ 27 ... that's just outright cruel! The audio and video are so out of sync that it makes my head hurt and my eyes cross!

#31 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 10:18 PM:

C/abi@19/20: I can't remember the last time I fueled up at a place where there was a question of when to pay; in NE US, pumps that also read credit cards and print receipts are almost universal. I suppose there's still a question for people who pay cash -- but (until recently) credit cards were so easy to get that paying in cash seems uncommon for anyone who can afford a car at all. It's an interesting tradeoff for the gas companies, as many of them now have the cashier in an attached convenience store; the swipe box at the pump means fewer customers will make impulse purchases but reduces the personnel cost.

wrt distances, I remember discussing this with someone in the British naval museum in Greenwich and came up with a handy factoid: London to Istanbul (most of the way across Europe) is a little over half the distance across the US. It's not that Europeans necessarily think 100 miles is a long distance, but they have no flyover territory for a referent.

#32 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 10:47 PM:

xeger @ 30... Cruelty was completely unintended. Really, honest. I'd have liked to find Mike Jittlov's version, without luck. That being said, I get a kick that she also sang "I Know A Place" in French.

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 10:56 PM:

CHip, there are people in the western US who think that driving even a couple of hundred miles, with or without company, is some form of cruel and unusual punishment. (I was raised with four-hundred-mile trips in a car. It's not a problem for me. And driving halfway across country is something I've done twice already.)

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 10:59 PM:

Serge, you mean Fashionation (aka Animato)?

#35 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2009, 11:09 PM:

Xopher @ 34 ... (and Serge)...
Oddly? enough, that works really well with a techno beat behind it... (neighbours...)

#36 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 12:42 AM:

It strikes me as appropriate that the people who live in a country below sea level would have mobile homes and roof boxes.

On the subject of distance, I recall how every Irish person I spoke to was flabbergasted that I was going to drive for 5 hours (about 200 miles on what Americans would consider back roads) in one day. I'll be driving longer than that just to get to Readercon this week.

#37 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:09 AM:

C. WIngate@4:

realize that the distance from Washington to Great Falls, MT was about the same as the distance from Paris to Moscow

Even Americans do this in Australia. A colleague was planning to fly into Sydney and drive up to a conference in Cairns. I have a postcard on my office door with the outlines of the USA and Australia superimposed, so I could show him that this was going to take longer than he had in mind.

I think a lot of people in the US have a mental model of Australia as being a big place, even bigger than Texas.

#38 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:17 AM:

Lila @7
...the difference between Americans and Europeans is that an American thinks 100 years is a long time, and a European thinks 100 miles is a long way.

Although after my trip to Germany/Austria last year I learned that "100 miles" is one hour away by Autobahn. That was fun, and made planning easy.

P J Evans @33
CHip, there are people in the western US who think that driving even a couple of hundred miles, with or without company, is some form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Which part of the western US? Here in California it feels like many people think nothing of trips from SF to Lake Tahoe (160 miles each way) or LA to Las Vegas (260 each way).

#39 ::: Mikael Vejdemo Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:55 AM:

As for the absence of prepay in Europe, this confused me greatly the first time I needed to refuel in the US. There was a little phone-thingy on the pump, and when I pulled the pump spigot and started to try to fill up, the clerk started telling me - through the phone - that that wasn't the way it's done.

It took me a noticeable amount of time to figure out where the sudden voice was coming from, and even more what they were saying.

#40 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 04:14 AM:

Kathryn from Sunnyvale @38 -- Although after my trip to Germany/Austria last year I learned that "100 miles" is one hour away by Autobahn. That was fun, and made planning easy.

Hahahahaha! Oops, sorry. Depends which stretch of Autobahn you mean. On a TV show about people who'd emigrated from Germany, a man who had ended up somewhere in the Southwest US said, "When I get in my RV and drive half an hour, I'm in the middle of nowhere. When I'm in Cologne and drive half an hour, I'm Cologne." Not because Cologne is so large, but because the Autobahns in the vicinity are hopelessly jammed.

That said, it's interesting the mental adjustments I've made living here. I grew up in Tampa, and went to uni in Tallahassee, a good 5 hours' drive by car. Pretty far, but not such a huge deal. Frankfurt is now half that distance from me, but feels much further.

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 06:55 AM:

Kevin @28:

I first heard that joke about two Scotsmen.

I moved from one notoriously tightfisted nation to another, so I already have a good notion of how these things look from the inside. As my husband says, "It's just about choosing your expenditures, so you have enough when you want it."

Having said that, the Dutch do put a lot of attention into how much things cost, and getting a good deal is a valued achievement. The Dutch word for "inexpensive" or "cheap" is "goedkoop"—good purchase.

A few anecdotes:

  • My Dutch teacher once spent about ten minutes discussing with us the different costs and time penalties of getting to our office. He knew how many strippen (fare units) it was on the bus, and preferred the slightly slower ferry because it was free.

  • One day at lunch, I happened to be wearing a black button-down shirt and sitting next to a colleague wearing one as well. Comments were made. He mentioned that his wasn't anything special—just a €15 shirt from a chain store. I shrugged and said mine had been €4.99 from the local supermarket. Everyone nodded their heads approvingly; that was goedkoop, and I won that round.

  • My colleagues routinely ask for, negotiate for, and get discounts when they buy furniture, TV's, or other big-ticket items, even from chain stores. It's not universal, but it's not uncommon either.

  • The Dutch play with their reputation, too. When I was just moving to the Netherlands, I asked if it was "done" to tip taxi drivers. One of my colleagues joked that it was actually traditional to try to negotiate a discount at that point in the ride.

#43 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 07:58 AM:

The remote farm in Lincolnshire might have been between New York and Boston.

(There is a certain amount of Dutch-style architecture in the Fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, and in the Isle of Axholme.)

#44 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 08:18 AM:

abi #44: Back in the 18th century Scots would study law in the Netherlands since the two countries used the same legal system. Interesting to see they have something else in common.

#45 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 08:46 AM:

Driving home from Montreal in May, I pulled off the interstate in far upstate New York to gas up. For the first time in years I was confronted by a pump that didn't have a credit card slot. I stared at it for a moment (what now?) before realizing (duh!) that I could pump my gas before going inside to pay.

And then there are the gas stations in New Jersey where by state law you aren't allowed to pump your own. The attendant may even wash your windshield. And the gas is usually cheaper than anywhere else along the way.

#46 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 10:07 AM:

I'm in the Midwest, and I had some interesting conversations with friends from California about distance. With me, it's psychological-- I grew up thinking that some towns were far away, and now my parents go frequently and I am confused. In retrospect, the trouble of driving forty-five minutes to go school shopping wasn't the forty-five minutes, nor the cornfield effect*, but having three kids along.

I know that the way I label trips is weird-- I can't possibly visit friends four hours away without serious plans, that's a long trip, but driving halfway across Pennsylvania this weekend is nothing at all. It's kind of like money.

*if you drive through cornfields, it must be further away than if not. Suburbs get to me.

#47 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 10:23 AM:

Xopher @ 34... That was indeed the one. Yay!

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 10:25 AM:

xeger @ 35... There was a time (1965?) when the hit parade would include Petula Clark and the Rolling Stones.

#49 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 10:36 AM:

re 31: A number of the cheapest places around here are pay first but do not take credit cards.

#50 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 11:43 AM:

re 31: A Sunoco (big name brand) near me has a discount for cash on top of a price that is just about equal to the independents. It is also where my grocery "loyalty" discount works. This morning's fill-up was 33¢ off for up to 20 gallons. Funny how I got exactly 20 gallons (truck plus gas can).

#51 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:13 PM:

@44, but then there's "goedkoop is duur koop", or "buying cheaply is expensive", also part of the Dutch approach..

my forebears were Dutch and Scots, so we know the value of a penny. Bang went Saxpence in fact - another one of those antediluvian Punch cartoons, a Scot complaining about the expense of London, "Mun, a had na' been the-erre abune Twa Hoours when- Bang went Saxpence!!!"

@42, yes, the autobahn speeds are not what they seem. I drove from Frankfurt to Switzerland, at 160km/h whenever legal and possible, but averaged 105km/h in cold fact. Now I can drive for half an hour and still be in the suburbs of Denver, never mind getting to downtown or actually out of town. So much for the spacious American West. It's a dream, only a dream..

#52 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:36 PM:

I met a woman from Montana when I was in Key West. She told a story on herself, that her friend in Key Largo told her she couldn't just drive up to see her: "It's a hundred miles!" To which the Montanan replied "I can drive for an hour to see you!"

The Overseas Highway is not a road in rural Montana. Driving from Key West to Key Largo takes more like four hours. There are traffic lights on the Overseas Highway.

My brother is a Michigander, like me, but he's been living in SoCal a bit too long. Some years ago he was at a conference near LaGuardia Airport, and he wanted to come visit me in Hoboken. In a blizzard. I told him he was crazy, that it would take him hours and hours to drive that. He said "it's only four miles! How long could it take?"

He arrived four hours soaking-wet sneakers.

#53 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:38 PM:

Or maybe it was seven miles. I don't know how he was measuring. I think he'd forgotten that he no longer has the ability to turn into a crow.

#54 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 01:43 PM:

Xopher @55:
I think he'd forgotten that he no longer has the ability to turn into a crow.

You really must tell us more about your family one of these days.

#55 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 02:05 PM:

We are in fact planning our trip to my in-laws, this time flying into Salt Lake and driving up to Glacier. We're taking a more leisurely pace this year and only going about 250 miles a day, about the distance from Paris to Bern. Last year we did more like 300 to 350, which is a bit much-- the kids get stir-crazy. When I was a kid we would go from Laurel, MD to Charlotte, NC in one day, which at 450 miles was an 8 1/2 hour drive without stopping.

When you get out onto the high plains, people cease to pay attention to the speed limit (even though technically they once again have them in Montana). It's common to find yourself going 80 mph on a two-lane road with no cars or buildings in sight.

#56 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 02:10 PM:

Wierd flip sides. My folks live in Los Angeles.

My step-father's mother asked why we didn't see his brothr more often.

"Mother, he lives in Eugene."

"And... it's only one state north."

Trying to convince her that making the drive would put her in Canada was pretty hard.

She never really did understand why we didn't make the trip at least once a year.

Then again, she also couldn't understand why we lived where there were earthquakes, never mind that one of her other chilcren (who also lived in SC) lost part of his house, two years running, to hurricanes.

#57 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 02:14 PM:

re speed limits: A friend of mine (back in the days of 55) was tooling along a barren stretch of Texas. He looked up to see a Texas Ranger in the mirror, lights a-flashing.

The sunglasses and hat appeared at the window.

"Son, you know you were doing 85 miles an hour? You aren't gonna get anywhere driving that slow."

And got back in his car, and disappeared over the horizon.

#58 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 02:20 PM:

abi @ 56... Maybe Xopher considers his relatives lost caws?

#59 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 02:42 PM:

Our trip here was about 1400km, call it 850 miles. We did it in one day of hard driving (7am - 6pm, with stops, covering about 825 km/510 miles) and one easier day (9am - 5pm with stops for the last 575 km/340 miles). The kids were fantastic, apart from Fiona's unexpected dislike of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The end of the first day and most of the second were on péage, the French toll freeways. They're wide, well-maintained, and have good rest stops*, but we also paid tolls amounting to about the cost of another tank of gas†.

The really slow bit was the last 100km, which took an hour and a half. That was mostly one-lane highway through hilly country. Thank goodness for travel sickness pills‡!

* Well, apart from the two where I had to teach Fiona the art of using a squat toilet.
† €60ish
‡ Fiona, like me at her age, is a barfer.

#60 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:02 PM:

Re driving at 100 mph on a German autobahn- you do know that even on stretches where it's legal, it's not covered by insurance, do you?

#61 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:27 PM:

Janet @47:

New Jersey has the lowest fuel tax in the country (or close to it), so the gas is cheap. The price you pay, however, is the wear-and-tear on your car over Jersey roads, or the extra fuel you burn circling around because New Jersey can't pay for good signage.

I don't know what Pennsylvania's excuse is, though. Same crappy roads, same poor signage, but our gas is 10-15 cents higher.

I have come to love NJ since I moved to PA, though. I have to drive home (to NYC) regularly enough that I refill my tank on cheap gas about half the time, and I don't have to pump it myself.

#62 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:38 PM:

Next thing you know, someone is gonna point out that I could head east and end up in Russia or something. And that’s just silly.


...was about the same as the distance from Paris to Moscow?

I remember arriving at (I think) the Gare du Nord as a small child and seeing that you could get on a train to Moscow. And then my Dad told me about the Trans-Siberian railway which can take you from Moscow to China.

I hadn't realised that these were places you could buy a ticket and just go to*.

Some years later my brother rode the Trans-Siberian Railway and the agent gave him a bootleg CD of train-related music for something to listen to if the scenery got a bit monotonous, as well as a list of things to look out for with the kilometre marker nearest it.

* This being the 80s, you couldn't as getting a visa etc. was difficult and slow. But still.

#63 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:42 PM:

Neil Willcox: My grandmother took the train* from Germany to China in 1930.

*probably several trains

#64 ::: Bjorn ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 03:53 PM:

Being able to drive to another country has always seemed like a dream from up here. Since last October the thought sounds like the purest fantasy possibly.

#65 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 04:22 PM:

I have a friend who worked for a Canadian company in Germany, and was given an all-expenses-paid company BMW.

He discovered that driving the autobahn faster that about 180 km/h (112 mph) actually increased his total travel time, due to the decreased fuel efficiency and the increased frequency of fueling stops.

#66 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 04:56 PM:

Here's one end of US 50, leaving Ocean City, MD
And here's the other end, in Sacramento, CA

BTW, that's about the same distance as driving Madrid to Tehran, or Amsterdam to Toshkent, Uzbekistan.

#67 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 05:04 PM:

re 66: Well, if you live in Kansas City it's 630 miles to the closest foreign country. And if you're driving from Miami, it's 1200 miles to the closest country-- Canada.*

*Yes, Cuba is much closer, but unless you have a DUKW, you aren't driving there.

#68 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 05:27 PM:

Once, during a business trip to Germany, the weekend before business started, my husband and I drove 1000 km through Bavaria in one day. We were young(er), somewhat stupid (you can drive as fast as you want on the Autobahn!), and although we enjoyed it, it is generally not recommended. "Bavaria without leiderhosen" has become a cautionary byword in our family for any trip involving far too much planned driving (or other activities) crammed into too small an amount of time.

An C. Wingate -- We passed the Sacramento sign this summer on the beginning of our vacation. It always amuses the kids, and always makes me want to actually drive it, albeit not on I-80.

#69 ::: Mashell ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 06:57 PM:

I have been told that the reason our gas in New Jersey is so cheap (compared to other states that is) is due to low taxes and that we have LOTS of refineries (you can easily spot them when flying into Newark airport from the South) so the shipping cost is less.
As for not pumping your own gas...I am embarrased to say that on more than one out-of-state trip I have sat patiently waiting for the attendant to come pump my gas before finally remembering - 'Hello! you aren't in Jersey anymore!'

#70 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 07:19 PM:

As far as I know, Oregon is the only state other than Joisy that doesn't let you pump your own gas.

There's some kind of loophole for "key card" gas stations. These are entirely unstaffed, and used by fleet vehicles (delivery services, police departments).

#71 ::: Sharon M ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 09:44 PM:

C. Wingate @ 57: My sister and brother-in-law live in West Glacier in the summer (say hi to Bill if you see him working in the grocery or the souvenir shop).

It's beautiful there - I haven't been up for a few years now, but you're going at a great time of year.

Anyone else considering a National Park in that vicinity, Glacier is really magnificent. (Try the Going-to-the-Sun road - my sister still laughs at me for making her drive that stretch.)

#72 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 10:03 PM:

C. Wingate #69: Congratulations! You've managed to wipe a country even closer than Cuba to Florida right off the map.

#73 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 11:15 PM:

re 74: Fine. I'll meet you at my aunt's house in Hollywood and YOU can drive to Bimini.

#74 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2009, 11:30 PM:

#31, from CHip: wrt to distances...London to Istanbul (most of the way across Europe) is a little over half the distance across the US.

(Like just about everyone else here), I had that same conversation with some German engineers who came to visit GE's Schenectady works.

They figured, that as long as they were already IN upstate New York, they should run over to see Niagara Falls and check it off their life-lists. I had to break it to them that the Falls were still a good ten-hour roundtrip.

We got to talking, and I pointed out to them that "NY-to-LA" was comparable to "London-to-Tehran".

#75 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 01:21 AM:

I'd love to be able to drive to another country. Sadly, though, the nearest I can get is driving north to the Hutt River Principality (which maintains it isn't part of Australia). It's about two days journey to the nearest state border for me. Then again, I'm living in a state which has a land mass which could comfortably swallow Texas twice and still have enough room over for the British Isles. I'm also living in a state capital which is the most isolated capital city in the world - I'm not sure, but the next nearest capital to us is either Johannesburg (capital of South Africa) or Adelaide (capital of South Australia).

#76 ::: KévinT ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 03:53 AM:

Hey Abi,

Welcome to France! I hope you'll have a pleasant stay. Fortunately you avoided the heat wave from last week but I'm afraid they are forecasting a new one.

"Beyond it the hill drops off sharply, opening up a view of forested hills and fertile countryside. The wind brings me the mixed scents of chlorine and lavender."
Hmm...let me guess: Lubéron? Ardèche?

Ah, the plague of the Dutch camping-cars and caravanes. I have to drive 50km on the highway every day to go to work and they've been plaguing me since beginning of June.
To top it off, we had the Tour de France and a certain Mr. Armstrong in town yesterday. Commuting to Amsterdam would have been faster...

Fun fact: there was an American band playing in the Roman arenas yesterday and we could hear the crowd singing SEEK AAAANNND, SEEK AND DESTROY!!! from 10km away.

#77 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 05:09 AM:

KévinT @78:
Fortunately you avoided the heat wave from last week but I'm afraid they are forecasting a new one.

I'm a caldovore. I'm glad to hear there's a heat wave forecast. Although the clouds are picturesque and all that, I want to be baked senseless until I go in the pool.

Hmm...let me guess: Lubéron? Ardèche?

Lubéron is closer. The nearest thing of any size is Mazamet. Which puts us in striking distance of Carcasonne, among other delights.

they've been plaguing me since beginning of June.

That will have to be the childless, or the parents of preschoolers. Northern Dutch schools only let out last Friday. The middle of the country starts the summer vacations this coming Friday, and southern schools will release their kids the Friday after. And the schools are extremely strict about taking kids out of class outside of the official vacation times.

Commuting to Amsterdam would have been faster...

You underestimate our local traffic jams. Like cheese, we keep the best at home and only export the lesser versions.

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 05:48 AM:

abi @ 79... I'm a caldovore

In that case, you should have come to FiestaCon/WesterCon this last weekend. Tempe, Arizona, was an oven haven for the likes of you.

#79 ::: KévinT ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 05:53 AM:

Abi @79:
I'm a caldovore. I'm glad to hear there's a heat wave forecast. Although the clouds are picturesque and all that, I want to be baked senseless until I go in the pool.
My girlfriend is like you. The hotter the better. For my part, I'm originally from Normandy and I dread the coming summer, here in the hottest French city.

The nearest thing of any size is Mazamet
I See. Wonderful region, mixing the charm of the Mediterranean South and the lushness of Auvergne. Good food can be had.

If you have the time (and if you like this kind of things), do try to visit some of the cathares castles. They are mostly in a bad condition but the scenery is fantastic and you can just breathe the depth and marvels (and, well, horrors) of history.

#80 ::: dave ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 06:07 AM:

Caldovore? You eat heat? How does that work, exactly? Personally, I find caldophiles hard enough to understand...

#81 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 06:29 AM:

Meg Thornton @77, I think if you go northwest, north, northeast or east, there's a lot of Southeast Asian and Oceanian capitals that are closer to you than any place in South Africa.

#82 ::: Christian Severin ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 08:29 AM:

Oh, do visit Carcassonne -- preferably in bad weather when there are fewer tourists in sight to break that medieval illusion...

dave @82:
While we're picking nits, shouldn't those be thermophiles?

Aaaaand back to work.

#83 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 09:45 AM:

C. Wingate #75: You have a DUKW?

#84 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 09:49 AM:

Meg Thornton #77: Johannesburg isn't the capital of South Africa last I checked. My youngest brother, btw, likes your city.

#85 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 09:50 AM:

abi #79: ¿A ti te gusta el caldo gallego?

#86 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 10:24 AM:

Dutch clouds sound like Suffolk clouds. Or perhaps East of England clouds in general. Must be the North Sea.

Further west in Britain we have Atlantic clouds which come over in big flat layers for half the time and puffy little fluffinesses the other half.

A few months ago I noticed the number of cars with foreign numberplates parked in the streets round where I live. (South-East London) So, in an act of true geekishness, I have been keeping an occasional notebook with counts of vehicles with foreign plates. So far France is winning, hardly surprisingly, but the Netherlands are not far behind.

But I think there are proportionatly more buses from France and more lorries (trucks) from NL. I don't think I've seen any caravans/mobile homes yet. Proper analysis with Chi squared on my blog when & if I can be bothered :)

#87 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 10:50 AM:

KévinT @81:
I shall have to research Cathares castles, find one near us, and go see.

dave @82:
Have you never noticed how you're less hungry when it's really hot? Some people say it's just that the heat kills their appetite, but I don't believe it.

Christian @84:
We've been to Carcassonne once already, on an autumn day when the tourist load was quite light but the weather good. We know that it'll be crowded, going back during the summer. But it's so neat.

Fragano @87:
Nee, pittige eten doen mij pijn.

#88 ::: KévinT ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 11:05 AM:

Abi @89:

Here you go:

cathars/cathares == albigensians.

As Carcassonne, some of them might be crowded.

#89 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 11:07 AM:

re 85: No, I do not. Perhaps you* could borrow one.

*Note the pronoun.

#90 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 12:35 PM:

abi #89: Galician food isn't particularly spicy.

#91 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 12:39 PM:

C. Wingate #91: Hmm. I shall think about it. It is a bit of a walk to Bimini.

#92 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 01:18 PM:

Carcassonne is fun, but the one time I was there I kept having my perspective jump around between the original structure, the reconstructed/re-engineered sections, and the general theme-park surroundings. It was a little dizzying.

(Of course the shops sold the game Carcassonne. I was a little surprised that they missed the marketing opportunity to have a special "really purchased at Carcassonne" edition produced.)

Our favorite site during our visit to the area a couple of years ago was Peyrepertuse. It's a beautiful (ruin of a) Cathar castle, and in surprisingly good shape all things considered -- probably because it's a pain to get to, on a steep pinnacle, so less tempting for people to mine for ready-cut stone. A lot of the defensive features are still very clear, and we had a ball wandering around the different levels of the structure.

Peyrepertuse is a bit further south than Carcassonne -- whether a lot or a little brings us back to the earlier discussions of distance. According to Google, it's about 150km on the A roads, or 85km as the crow staggers from town to town on local roads.

#93 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 01:54 PM:

Carcassonne is wonderful indeed.

But I have to say that the Northern/Norman turret roofs installed by Viollet-le-Duc are jarring, to say the least. And I'm a fan of Viollet-le-Duc!

#94 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Abi - have you noticed that (some? most?) continental Europeans don't understand what we (Brits, Americans) find weird about being able to just drive to another country? I tried to explain it to a colleague once and he seemed unable to grasp why I should find it strange or why it gave a different perspective.

#95 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 04:15 PM:

Well, I am an continental European and still find it amazing that I am able to go to another country by local bus transit: I go on the bus (same kind as those that go to other suburbs) in Germany, fifteen minutes later I'm in the Netherlands. Astonishing. (Driving the car is of course an option, too.)

#96 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 04:22 PM:

re 54: Last year in Montana we tried to visit the ghost town of Marysville (not too far from Helena). So there we were, in the middle of nowhere, driving down a gravel road, when all of a sudden there was a traffic light, and it was red. There was no cross road or anything, just the road we're on, and a traffic light. We sat there for a while, and the light didn't change. And we found out that it might not change for twenty minutes or more. So we abandoned that and headed back. It turned out that they were blasting a new road.

#97 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 04:38 PM:

dcb @96:
My colleagues were certainly baffled by my bemusement on our ski trip last year, when all of us left the Amsterdam office in a minivan at midmorning and ended up in Austria by bedtime.

Jörg @97:
The cross-border transit cooperation that permanently blew my circuits was that the airport for Aachen (in Germany) is actually in Maastricht (in the Netherlands).

But things have turned round, somewhere in my brain, to the extent that finding out that Luxembourg still maintains its customs sheds on the freeway was strange. I've become used to the borders between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, where the crossing is noted by a couple of signs and a change in road markings.

#98 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 04:54 PM:

[wanders around singing Fun fun fun on the autobahn…]

I've been racking my brain and can't think of a single time I've actually seen or heard of a gasoline-related scam here. It's always thinly-disguised begging, which I guess might be considered a scam, but there's no real trick to it. It's just a sob story about being out of gas (sometimes holding a gas can for greater effect) and could you give me $5, repeated to every new arrival.

I did have one fellow try something that I really didn't understand. He said he wasn't asking for money, but his truck was out of gas and his friend up at [cross-street about a mile up the road, close enough to walk if it were really that much of an emergency] would give him money, and could I give him a ride there?

I said no, because giving strange men a ride when you're alone in the car at night is a bad choice, but I still haven't managed to figure out his game. He had no followup when I said no, just sighed and backed off. Was it an attempt to get me in position for robbery/carjacking, or was I supposed to come up with the brilliant idea of just giving him some money on my own?

I did consider that the whole thing was some kind of distraction so that an accomplice could rob my car, but there was nothing in there. Maybe they tried but were disappointed?

C. Wingate and pat greene, we ritually pass the sign for Barstow, CA when we head home from vacation on the coast and get on I-40 at its eastern terminus. I kind of would like to do that drive.

#99 ::: arwel ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 06:25 PM:

abi @99
That's not unique - the airport for Basel, Switzerland, is near Mulhouse, France.

Railways can be fun too - I remember entering the station at Buchs SG, after getting off the postbus from Liechtenstein, and seeing two ticket windows - one operated by the Swiss Federal Railways, and one by the Austrian Federal Railways. Going back to Basel, when you travel from Germany the first station you call at is Basel Badische Bahnhof, which is operated by Deutsche Bahn and you pay for your tickets in euro, and if you stay on for a couple of km you arrive at Basel SBB which is the main Schweizerische Bundesbahnen station (logically enough) but at least before Switzerland joined Schengen you had to go through French customs and immigration before you were allowed onto the SNCF platforms.

#100 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 08:52 PM:

Wingate@68: On one of my first visits to Seattle, I deliberately went a few miles out of my way so I could drive on the \other/ end of I-90. (I don't get all the way to the east end as much now that it has been extended from downtown Boston under the harbor to the airport.)

wrt US 50, were you around when they were building the second Chesapeake Bay bridge? Not as good for closeups as the second Delaware Bay bridge (I was going between DC and midstate NY a few times a year during that construction) but still enlightening.

Ken@88: flat-or-puffy sounds like bog-standard clouds, not just Atlantic. OTOH, where the North Sea and the Atlantic are close can be interesting; I remember some very strange shapes (lenticular stacked into a thunderhead, but no ridge to form them) when I drove down the A9 to Perth

#101 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 09:51 PM:

There was a time when my home and my brother's home were 6 turns away. Me in Cambridge MA, and he in Seattle WA.

#102 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 10:01 PM:

I can somewhat remember them building the second span; we didn't go that way much in those days. I found a fabulous art photo print of one of the tall ships (not sure which one maybe the Dar Pomorza?) sailing under the then incomplete Key Bridge on the 1976 tall ship visit. At $99, though, it was a bit beyond my budget.

#103 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 10:03 PM:

#99 and #101 remind me of simpler days when we took a taxi from Detroit Metro to Windsor Airport to catch a flight home. The original flight from Detroit had been cancelled. Three passengers, the cabbie, and the border guard asked precisely one question, "All Canadians?" and reminded the cabbie that his radar detector had to be unplugged in Canada.

Those days are gone, my friend!

#104 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 10:43 PM:

There is a place in Southern France
They call the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many a resident of the Netherlands
And Lord, Abi knows she's one.

#105 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 11:12 PM:

Is there an upper bound to how many turns away you can be? A known maximum?

#106 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 11:18 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 107 ...
"To everything: turn, turn, turn... "

I guess that means the upper bound to how many turns away you can be is three... ;)

#107 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2009, 11:58 PM:

There's traffic lights on US70 at Holloman AFB/White Sands. They're red when they're shooting missiles on the range. Take a book with you ....

#108 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 03:25 AM:

Here in the states we do get the long stretches of open flat road with nobody on it, and I've more than once tried to see just how fast my car could go on one of them, when it seemed safe. Every car I've tried this with, driving faster than 85mph was really seriously unpleasant -- noise, vibration, and steering wobble all dramatically increased at that speed.

What's different about the autobahns that mean you can sustain 100+? Or is it the cars?

#109 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 07:31 AM:

Erik Nelson #107:

Mathematically, I think not. Space-filling curves and all. Empirically in the US?
That's some rathole you pointed me at. Seeing the distribution might be interesting, but figuring it all out less so. The raw data exists in map databases, but the underlying data is perversely strange. Roads that change names, intersections with more than one vertex, what counts as a road vs. driveway with multiple houses. The Interstate planning would have been based on distance-to-interstate with both maximum distance and population density taken into account.
I'll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

#110 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 10:30 AM:

Zack @110 said: Here in the states we do get the long stretches of open flat road with nobody on it, and I've more than once tried to see just how fast my car could go on one of them, when it seemed safe. Every car I've tried this with, driving faster than 85mph was really seriously unpleasant -- noise, vibration, and steering wobble all dramatically increased at that speed.

What's different about the autobahns that mean you can sustain 100+? Or is it the cars?

I don't know, but the first vehicle* I owned -- on which I learned to drive** -- was a 1983 Chevy Suburban. You could always tell when you hit 72mph, because it suddenly started to buck, shimmy, and try to swerve, as if you'd just turned onto a nasty washboarded gravel road at that speed.

At 76mph, though, it got smooth again. Very effective at fighting road-sleepies, if you're into that kind of endurance driving: slow down a bit through loosening your foot on the gass, pass through the shimmy threshold, and lo and behold, no longer sleepy.

* My husband won't allow me to refer to it as 'a car,' and he shudders when I nostalgically call it 'my twuckie' ...
** I learned to drive in 2003, at the age of 27. Yes, I know that's not the usual way. Gave me some interesting perspective on the process, though.

#111 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 10:50 AM:

Zack @ 110 -

Most shops balance the wheels only up to a certain speed. I think a car should be able to travel up to at least 100 mph* on a smooth road without noticeable shake, rattle, and roll. If it doesn't there's a balance issue.

* I don't make a habit of this. Every year I drive 500 miles out to the Texas Star Party, and there are long stretches where the speed limit is 80, and my Toyota minivan handles that and higher with ease. I've had it up to 95 when passing without any problems.

#112 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 11:17 AM:

When I drive from New Mexico to California on I-40, I'll look at the dashboard and realize that I'm now going faster than 90mph. That's easy to do with the straight road and the sparse landscape between Gallup and Flagstaff, past the Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater. (By the way, someone took the concrete dinosaurs away.)

#113 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 11:59 AM:

I always figured 70 mph was the resonant frequency of my car. I learned to drive on a Nissan sedan and it would shake and shimmy at 70, but calm down just a couple of mph faster. I was in AP Physics at the time and had just learned about Tacoma Narrows, so I had resonance on the mind.

My current car doesn't do that. At least not at 70. No speed limits are higher than 70 around here, so it's entirely possible it does it at 85 or 100 and I will never know.

#114 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 01:45 PM:

Some cars these days have nannybots that void your warranty if you exceed a certain speed limit.

#115 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 01:51 PM:

I could believe California mechanics, whether consciously or not, think nobody oughta be doing more than 85 on our crowded highways, and don't bother tuning the wheels for anything faster.

#116 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 02:48 PM:

Sure it's not a Seecret Gummint Conspiracy to keep us all in line?

#117 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 04:15 PM:

When I was a student at the UofA in Tucson I used to go up I-10 to Phoenix once every two months or so; we used to call the stretch between Marana and Casa Grande the longest speed trap in the country. It was that straight.

#118 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 08:12 PM:

Elliott Mason, #112, I have a 1989 Chevy Astro minivan and at 70, it has a little shimmy. I have to drive above or below that.

#119 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 09:12 PM:

My car's a 2008, and has no discernible shimmy before 90mph. Haven't taken it ABOVE 90mph -- that's the speed where I notice that I'm going enough faster than the flow of traffic on the Mass Pike that I should slow down to the 75 or 80 that the other cars are doing.

#120 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2009, 10:39 AM:

I drove from Cambridge, MA to Seattle, WA last year, and will be doing the return drive in two weeks (although I plan to go up to Vancouver and go through Canada, which will add an extra day - those Great Lakes are big!).

When I was a very little kid, my mental model of the world was that all the countries were stacked vertically, separated by clouds. This was actually kind of plausible if you were the child of immigrants in the jet age, since it explained why you had to get on a plane to go between places, as you needed to go up or down.

So last year, I arrive by car in Chicago for the first time - a place I had been many times, always flying in - and it was surreal and surprising. I realized that at some deep level I hadn't really registered that there was, in fact, a ribbon of road that led there, and still thought Chicago was floating on its own cloud.

#121 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2009, 11:33 PM:

abi @44:

Returning very very late to the conversation, I'm glad to know that the Dutch-Americans I grew up around came by that habit honestly.

I often find pleasure in micro-optimizing my routes, which, when I miscalculate, sometimes leads me to take a much longer path than I intended, but I find some interesting places that way and learn routes I can use *next* time I try to optimize. (I'm an engineer; it shows some times more than others.)

#122 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:21 AM:

Kevin Riggle @123 said: I often find pleasure in micro-optimizing my routes, which, when I miscalculate, sometimes leads me to take a much longer path than I intended, but I find some interesting places that way and learn routes I can use *next* time I try to optimize. (I'm an engineer; it shows some times more than others.)

I got a GPS unit* last Giftmas, and I love it. Just recently, we happened to be driving back to Chicago from Valparaiso, IN, and were somewhat puzzled to discover the GPS suggesting we take what seemed to us (in our 'look at the map and figure out a route' mindset) a rather strange way to go ... since we had no particular deadline, we decided to try it, and it was lovely. Quite fast, mostly on those kinds of country roads that are long stretches of uninterrupted two-lane blacktop between farm fields, until it eventually got us back on the highway we'd figured we were going to take all the way. We think there's a coding error in the map, such that the software agent didn't know there was an on-ramp where we'd first intended to get on, but it certainly wasn't any slower of a route to take, and it was entertaining.

We now often let her lead us places we wouldn't otherwise go, though she does have a distressing (to us) tendency to want us to get on the highway for two exits or so because 'it's faster,' when the amount it's faster BY is trivial and the mental agita involved in merging onto and off of the highway is NOT. Also, the map data doesn't know that certain streets that are all coded as whatever the map draws as wide yellow lines are faster than others of the same nominal coding: for example, Chicago has a system of boulevards which are relatively limited-access, very wide, and quite fast, with fairly few streetlights compared to the regular streets ... but you have to know that yourself, because the GPS will route you onto the congested standard arterial nearby street that it thinks is equally as good.

* a Garmin 760. We prefer the 'Australian Female -- Karen' voice. She does amusing things to some of our street names (Mannheim Road is 'man-EEEM', plus coding weirdnesses like 95th Street being 'Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Highway.')

Not for the reasons some other people I know love theirs. For me, turn-by-turn voice directions are a nice feature but wouldn't by itself have been worth the purchase**; for me, the two killer apps are that (a) it gives me a detailed book of maps WITH A YOU-ARE-HERE MARKER that updates in realtime, and (b) looking at it can tell me what the name of that next street up there is long before I can read the street sign. Assuming there IS a street sign.

Turn-by-turn is nice, though. Especially when I've missed my turn and it recalculates so I don't have to take a weird terrified detour through the backsides of three malls, finding out as I go that this street, that one, and the other, don't go through to anywhere useful ... true story, alas. About a month before I got the Garmin, as it happens, so it was fresh in my mind for me to be grateful about.

** The one I didn't expect to find as useful as I do is what I call 'Google Maps in my pocket' -- being able to be out and about somewhere and ask suddenly, "I wonder where the nearest Michaels/gas station/baby store is?" and be able to get an answer. Well, be able to once I've waited for the Garmin to boot†† and figured out how to get the info I want out of their database, which is sometimes rather annoyingly incomplete, incorrect, or simply complex.

†† MAN does it take forever. No, seriously. Between booting and waiting for it to find a satellite‡‡, you can BE there before you have a chance to get the thing to tell you how it thinks you should go.

‡‡ Which takes a lot longer when you're in the car and moving. Over half an hour, sometimes.

#123 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:54 AM:

Elliot, #124: We had our first serious experience with a GPS on the trip out west. It's less reliable out in the backcountry -- kept trying to route us across BIA roads that might or might not have been passable, and could have gotten us unwelcome notice from the reservation security forces. But for driving between major cities, it does have a lot of good features. Not least is the one you note -- being able to quickly find the nearest acceptable fast-food, the nearest auto-parts store, the nearest hotel of a certain chain along your projected path.

We've now decided that getting one of our own will be a high-priority purchase when finances permit. My partner wants a Tom-Tom, though, because he can get the Portal GlaDOS voice with it. I said that was fine if I could get William Daniels (John Adams, or KITT) to use on my trips. :-)

#124 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:58 AM:

I've heard one of the GPS systems has a John Cleese voice (available for purchase), and that if you ignore its routing enough times in a row (Recalculating ...) it taunts you.

#125 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 03:31 AM:

We have a TomTom.

Cycling through the default installed voices, we settled on the Irish one as noticeably but not jarringly Not Us. We call it Sean*.

Sean hasn't had a map update in a year or two, and he finds himself occasionally confused by the hotbed of infrastructure change that is rural France. When he finds himself plotting our course through what are, to him, empty fields, his "Turn around when possible" instructions sound rather cute‡.

The problem we find with Sean is that he has taken over our navigation, and he doesn't do everything we need him to. He's good with the close-in stuff ("After 80 meters, turn left, then take the next right.") But he doesn't give us the big sweep of our navigation, and we noticed that we tended not to fall back to lap maps. We're doing more lap-mapping again now, because the big picture matters, psychologically.

* As in, "I've got the keys and the barf kit†. Have you got Sean?"
† Even with travel sickness pills, we still travel with two large bottles of water, a roll of paper towels, a real towel, some plastic bags and a change of clothes for the 5 year old.
‡ It is important not too have too much pity for the machines that run our lives. They will use that pity to control us, and one day all GPS units will then herd us into Skynet's target zones.

#126 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 04:17 AM:

Katie and I borrowed my mom's Garmin for our trips to Houston, including the long cross-country drive. We now have a later model that can be loaded with public transit info. We also like the female British English voice, and have also noticed that it does some weird things to the street names. The newer model at least now knows to say "HYU-ston" rather than "HOW-ston".

Texas has a number of roads that are designated as "Farm-to-Market" and a number; this shows up on maps as FM 791 or 958 or whatever. As we made our final driving approach to Houston on I-10 coming from the west, we needed to get off the freeway at FM 1093. (AKA Westheimer Road.) At the usual just-under-a-mile distance, the Garmin unit in the voice of British Karen decorously informed us: "In point-eight miles, take exit 46B, Federated States of Micronesia 1093."

I have not had the chance to find out whether the newer model does the same thing.

#127 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 08:00 AM:

David Goldfarb #128:
Micronesia, eh? Ya shoulda taken that left turn in Albuquerque.

#129 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 09:17 AM:

On our last trip to southern France (mentioned earlier in this same thread) we rented a car with a navigation system. Two memories stuck with us:

  1. We didn't get a choice of voices, but we did get a choice of languages, each of which came with a distinct female voice. The English was very crisp and almost schoolmarmish. The French was much softer -- seductive by comparison. All place names were in the French voice, however, so we constantly heard an alternation between the two: "You are now approaching...Carcassonne..." We kept intending to try the German, but never did.

  2. For the most part the directions worked, although they did have a tendency to prefer going through every village center rather than the motorways. Once, though, they clearly disagreed with the road signs for whatever site we were aiming for. The first time through we followed the road signs, which were correct. The second time we were in that area we had a "what the heck" moment and decided to see where the GPS would have taken us. The answer, after a series of increasingly narrow and twisty roads was: straight into someone's vineyard. Not even onto a trail through a vineyard, but pointing straight at a row of vines. We were, at least, pointed in the direction of the site. I still wonder whether there used to be a road through there or not.
A third navigation memory from that trip was really a vocabulary lesson. We started our trip in Lyon, where I learned that my restaurant French isn't nearly as good as I though it was. In Lyon we learned that the word bouchon* refers to a small restaurant. Once we got on the motorways, though, we started seeing electronic signs warning us of upcoming bouchons. It was hard to imagine any restaurant bad enough that it would get an electronic warning posted on the motorway, but we were in France after all...

* literally, "cork", I believe.

#130 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 09:59 AM:

GPS units: I find it interesting that at least two of you are using gendered pronouns for your units. My Mom (with a Magellan) does the same -- she calls hers "the Lady", while my stepfather dubbed it "She Who Must Be Obeyed".

And yes, definitely imperfect -- I've seen it try to lead us through a house (a road had been split by a not-so-new addition), and it regularly gets utterly confused. Particular trouble areas were the NYC bridges (admittedly, those have distinct roads which run above one another), and the huge malls/parking lots here in Charlottesville. Also, it sometimes gets the idea that we're on a nearby, parallel, road, which yields seriously messed-up instructions.

#131 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 10:06 AM:

David Goldfarb #128: Well, it could have been "Frequency Modulation..."

#132 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 10:07 AM:

David Wald @131: Bouchon means cork, a type of Lyonnais (and only Lyonnais) restaurant, and traffic jam.

GPS units are really useful for longer drives, but the one we have doesn't handle city streets very well. It often tells me to turn left at a street I passed 10 meters ago.

#133 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 10:15 AM:

We have a TomTom.

Cycling through the default installed voices, we settled on the Irish one

"Sure, if I was going there, I wouldn't start from here."

And as for airports: low-cost carriers in Europe fly to "Vienna Bratislava" - ie the airport is nominally in Vienna, but is in fact in the capital of an entirely different country. The record for Ryanair IIRC is an airport 120 miles from the city it supposedly served.

#134 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 10:54 AM:

David Harmon @132 said: GPS units: I find it interesting that at least two of you are using gendered pronouns for your units. My Mom (with a Magellan) does the same -- she calls hers "the Lady", while my stepfather dubbed it "She Who Must Be Obeyed".

Mine does come off as kind of imperious when we're ignoring her route for cause ... I use a female voice because when the same script was recited male, it made me feel inadequate and awful. Also, both the 'American' voices were snotty and know-it-all sounding.

Fairly regularly, and for no reason we can discern, the voice track starts stuttering and breaking up. It gets progressively worse until it's utterly unusable. Luckily (and strangely, from a QA pov), if you switch to a different voice, that voice isn't break-uppy, and if you then later go back to the original, it's fixed itself. Because of this, we switched to 'Australian Male: Lee' while on a family trip. My mother-in-law had been incredibly annoyed by Karen's voice-prompts, and also insisted on parallel lap-mapping from the back seat and telling us all the details of the route SHE thought we should be taking. Interestingly, after we switched to Lee, she found him to not only be less annoying, but more accurate! That's gender-stereotyping for you.

To David Goldfarb #128, in re 'Farm-to-Market' unpacking as 'Frequency Modulation': some of the codings around Chicago cause '(streetname) Dr' to be recited as '(streetname) Doctor'. Also, all Illinois state routes are 'Eye Ell Numbernumber,' whereas when we were in California, a subset (not all) of theirs, though still 'CA ##' on the screen, were 'California numbernumber' when recited.

#135 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:08 PM:

re mis-routing.... we got... lost isn't right, in Baghdad when Capt. Wellein trusted some old maps. The GPS got us where we were plotted, but the roads got narrower, (and the walls got taller), before we were on a dike, between grapefield and tomato fields.

Backing the humvee up, was not fun.

#136 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:18 PM:

I've used a GPS once or twice -- my roommate has a TomTom, and leaves the voice setting on "Mandy," so Mandy TomTom is her proper name. While I was very grateful for the "recalculate" feature when we had difficulty finding our hotel, and the "find businesses near" led to a very acceptable bagel place, I really really HATED the turn-by-turn directions. Especially where it told you what lane to get into. I would talk back to it, going, "I heard you! Quit nagging me! There's a CAR there, I can't get over yet! We've got time! Geez!"

I greatly prefer a GoogleMaps printout and a human to read the directions off to me. If I'm driving alone, I'd STILL rather sneak looks at a printout than deal with a mechanical nagger. Maybe I'd feel differently if the voice were able to sound more like Majel Barrett.

#137 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:25 PM:

Honestly, Rikibeth. She came and she gave without taking, and you sent her away.

#138 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:35 PM:

Xopher, you evil, evil earwormer!

#139 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:41 PM:

Hey, YOU named her! You could have called her Barbara Ann. Bar bar bar, bar Barbara Ann.

#140 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:48 PM:

Or Barbara Allen...

Oh driver, dear driver, take this next right
Make it both wide and sweeping.
And then go left at the traffic light
While to the limit keeping.

#141 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2009, 12:51 PM:

I didn't name her! The people at TomTom gave the voice settings names! If I'd had to pick a name, it probably would have been Minerva for formal occasions, to back up the usual moniker of Little Nag.

#142 ::: VCarlson ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 04:43 PM:

Re: GPS: A friend of mine has a Garmin, which told her to turn off at "William Pennsylvania Highway."

I like mine (a Magellan Dad named Mabel) because it tells me what street I'm on. I can't tell you how many times, pre-GPS, I've been driving around, have wanted to know what street I was on so I could see where I was on a map, and *never* see a street sign for the street I was on. Cross streets, yes, but apparently "everyone knows" the name of the (presumably) local major road. Saves money on street signs, too.

Yeah, I used to like to drive aimlessly around, especially when stressed. Gotta be genetic. Dad, when he was living in OH in the early '60s, once found himself watching the sun rise over DC after a particularly stressful time.

#143 ::: jame ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2009, 04:53 PM:

Better late than never, eh?

This is from Rick Steves' website comments on favorite travel scams in Europe.

You can also find it listed here:

Do you want my extra petrol scam.

We were refueling at a lonely petrol station along the highway between Sienna and Florence. A "nice" man in the van in front of us said he had filled his car, but still had petrol left in the pump that we could use. How nice of him we thought. We gave him 10 euro, but we only got about 1 euro of petrol. He got 9 euro from us. Not bad, but don't go for the "do you want my extra petrol?" scam. We were pretty naive for sure.

Candyce Roberts
Pleasanton, CA USA 06/05/2009

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