X – ‘Xcuse Me, Can We Speak Franc-ly?

In the 1990s, I was in the Air Force, stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  For some reason, and I don’t know quite why, the Air Force decided to send me to Germany, to back fill, or do Manning Assistance at the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.  I think I was sent because of my Pediatric experience.  All the people based in the Landstuhl hospital had been deployed to Croatia, and so we were sent to fill in during their absence.

I spent 3 months over in Germany, working Pediatrics.  During that time, I met two other nurses, both of whom had been plucked from their military hospitals in Colorado and brought to Germany to work.  These two nurse became my traveling buddies.  We would work a series of nights and then have four or five days off to travel.  And boy did we travel. We did road trips to all over Europe.  Back then the per diem rate was about $50/day and we used every penny to sight-see and go on little adventures. Like my dear old Dad said – Your tax dollars were hard at work!

On one particular long weekend, we had gone down to Baden-Baden to swim in the pools.  There was on facility we loved to go to, because they had pools of varying temperatures.  They also had saunas upstairs, but clothing was optional – and to us, being rather prudish Americans, that was a little more than we could handle (that’s a whole other story, for another post).  After luxuriating in the purported rejuvenating mineral waters, we went off to spa treatments, where we were scolded by a very proper German lady about the disastrous condition of our facial pores.  Having undergone our facial treatments, and now with pristine pores, we had an entire weekend before us, and what better to do, than a road trip. And where did we decide to go? Venice, of course.

Completely unprepared, we set off from Baden-Baden in the Black Forest of Germany to the canals and gondolas of Venice, Italy. We were so unprepared, we didn’t even have our passports – again, that’s another story of how we convinced the Italians to let us cross the border without passports. To get where we needed to go, we had to travel on the Autobahn. We calculated the trip to be about 10 hours – this was back before GPS, back when people had to unfold maps, look at them, figure out where they were and how to get to where they needed to go, and then refold the map.  No easy task.

map to venice

Having wanted to be a race car driver as a kid, driving on the Autobahn was like a dream coming true for me, although the speeds were a bit intimidating.  And because of the extreme speeds, the Autobahn has several rules that must be followed, or else enormous fines would be imposed upon those who violated them.  If one runs out of gas, there is an enormous fine.  During our time in Europe, it was a 1000 Deutschmarks.  The exchange rate back then was a 1.5 US dollar to every Deutschmark. You do the math.  It’s a hefty fine!

But nevertheless, being young and infallible (or so we thought), we headed out on our road trip to Venice.  Things were going swimmingly well, at first.  We made it through Germany and into Switzerland and managed not to leave a trail of devastation in our wake.  Night had fallen and we were still driving like maniacs, until we realized we were almost out of gas, and on the Autobahn.  Panic set in.  Frantically, we pulled off at the next exit, and felt great relief when we espied a gas station.  After we pulled into the station, we all happily jumped out to fill the tank, and get back on the road.  But wait!!! What was this?  The gas station only accepted Swiss Francs.We only had Deutschmarks!  By this time, it was about 2AM.  The gas station was unmanned (where are the 7-Elevens when you need them – we heard there was one in Barcelona – again, another story, for later post), and the only way to pay for gas, was to insert the bills into the machine (this was before debit cards, when everyone functioned with checks and cash). To insert the Swiss Francs into the machine – not the Deutschmarks.  Apparently, we were in quite a pickle. We were in a strange country (not that Switzerland is strange, but it was to us – being Americans and all), with no gas, stranded, in the middle of the night.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of going to the nearest Rest Stop and trying to convince people to trade their Swiss Francs for our Deutschmarks. We had seen the sign for the Rest Stop, right before we exited the Autobahn, so we knew it wasn’t far. Off we went, to the Rest Stop.  And surprisingly, the Rest Stop was quite busy at that time of night.  People were milling about, dashing to the toilets, chatting with one another, having a smoke.  People from different countries, speaking different languages.  We approached each group, waving our Deutschmarks, and asking in whatever language (or an Americanized version of the language we thought they spoke) – “Swiss Francs bitte, for Deutschmarks? Swiss Francs, s’il vous plaît, for Deutschmarks?”  And everyone just shook their heads.  In retrospect, we probably looked like three crazy Americans, begging for money – two crazy redheads, and an even crazier blond – butchering any language we could, waving Deutschmarks around.  It probably explains why people ran from us, jumped into their cars and squealed out of the Rest Stop as fast as they could go.

Dejected, and with no solid plan, we left the Rest Stop, driving on fumes, and with absolutely no idea of how we were going to get gas.  Did we eventually figure out a way to fill up our gas tank?  Yes, but only after we stumbled across a Honky Tonk bar, where Swiss type people were wandering around in cowboy boots, and large cowboy hats, listening to country music. It was a bit unnerving, and felt like a scene from a Bergman film, sans the fog.  The bartender very kindly gave us directions to a gas station just down the street that accepted credit cards. Luckily, one of us had a credit card.  We did make it to the gas station – barely, and eventually arrived in Mestre, right outside of Venice, just as the sun was coming up.



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