Driving in Europe – Siri to the Rescue

The GPS sat proudly in the middle of the console of our Volvo sedan that we had reserved through Euro Car, but alas there was no instruction book and all of the options on the unit were in French, using words that didn’t exist when Bill studied French fifty-five years ago. In our haste to get on our way, we did not try to program it or get help before leaving the rental car lot at the airport – after all, Chris had painstakingly documented all of the driving instructions from the Michelin website and she was ready with the first set.

We exited the lot, but couldn’t figure out how to leave the airport – and ended up circling Terminal 2 a couple of times before we finally got in the correct lane to exit. Having landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the early morning, we quickly joined the throngs of commuters on the highway. While there was a lot of traffic, we were moving too fast to be able to read the signs quickly enough. While this is difficult at any airport in the United States, it is even more difficult when all of the information is in another language – in this case French.

Our first destination was Beauvais, which is north of the Paris area. We missed the off ramp heading north and found ourselves driving south towards Paris. The first opportunity we had to exit was St. Denis, where there were no shoulders to pull off and study the map. All of the streets in the town appeared to be one-way – a pattern that would challenge us over and over. As Bill drove, Chris studied her map in the back seat and I tried to work the GPS with no luck.

Freeway sign leaving Paris

Freeway sign leaving Paris

The one benefit to Chris’s pre-trip research was her familiarity with the names of towns and freeway numbers. As we passed off ramps, she called out instructions and finally got us headed north again.

Even though the GPS was not programmed, we could see the number of the highway we were driving on and the names and numbers of the upcoming exits. Periodically, an upbeat voice would come from the unit in French that left us puzzling – was it an upcoming traffic or road problem, or was it an advertisement.

After visiting the cathedrals in Beauvais and Amiens, we headed to Arras where we had reserved lodging for the night. From the confirmation information, we knew that the small hotel was near the center of town and looked for Centrum on street signs. As we approached the centrum, there was another sign – a red circle with an H and an arrow indicating where the hotels were congregated. Soon there was a list of hotels, but no Ibis Hotel where we were staying. Since the streets were narrow and one-way, we tried to get as close to the town square as possible.

At the point we seemed stymied, I volunteered to ask directions and Bill pulled over next to a shop that was still open – a hair salon, which did not sound promising for English-speakers. I went in and inquired “English?”  The beauticians had panicked looks on their faces. A patron, with some English, offered to assist and gave me very good instructions. She apologized for her English, to which I replied “it is much better than my French!”

Her directions took us to an area of the town square where there was parking; however, we could not see the hotel.

Arras Town Square

Arras Town Square

Bill, resurrecting his decades-old immersion experience, was able to ask further directions, and then he and I walked to the block to the hotel. The clerk told us that we could keep our car parked where it was or drive to the underground parking. We opted to try and locate the underground parking, which involved circling the centrum several times with no success. We parked in a different square and pulled our suitcases over the cobblestone street to the hotel.

Our destination the next day was Rotterdam. At the round-about in Douai, we exited too soon and made our first of many tours through the winding, one-way streets of a ‘housing estate.’ We coined the phrase ‘wandering aimlessly,’ which would become a trademark for the trip.

Housing Estate (this one is in Netherlands)

Housing Estate (this one is in Netherlands)

Once we entered Belgium, the upbeat messages on the GPS changed to Flemish and the signs leading towards Antwerpen became very confusing. That evening when we relayed our driving adventures to our cousin, we were told “Everyone takes a wrong turn at Antwerp.”

And, as we crossed into the Netherlands, the upbeat messages switched to Dutch.

On our first full day in the Rotterdam area, our cousin planned a day in the countryside to show us several points of interest. Since she doesn’t drive, she rode with us.

“I never pay attention to signs,” Kam explained; “therefore, Peter wrote everything down for me.” She sat in the front seat to be the navigator.

While we successfully got to Kinderdyke, the UNESCO windmills site, the directions from that point proved to be as useful as the Michelin instructions.



“Peter said that we just follow the dyke,” Kam said. Bill masterfully dealt with on-coming vehicles on the one-lane roads, while Chris and I admired thatched-roofed farm houses from the back seat.

Our next stop was a village she had discovered online where I could see storks nesting – one of my trip goals. She twice stopped to make sure we were headed in the right direction, and each inquiry resulted in conflicting information.

When it was clear that we had ‘wandered aimlessly’ too long, I dug out my cell phone, turned on the data, found our location on the map app, plugged in the name of the area near the stork village, programmed the route, turned on the oral directions and handed the phone to Kam. While she laughed at the pronunciation of Dutch names, Siri successfully guided us back to the village – which we had driven by an hour earlier.

A clerk where we stopped for lunch provided the final necessary directions – “turn just past the house with the llamas, then go past the cemetery…”

After enjoying the storks, we traveled a short distance to take a car ferry over the river Lek to Schoonhoven.

Car Ferry across River Lek

Car Ferry across River Lek

Our next stop was Gouda. After circling the town a couple of times, we found a parking spot a few blocks from the square – even with a spot marked for handicapped parking. Chris hung her placard from the mirror and off we went.

Gouda City Hall

Gouda City Hall

We returned to find a parking ticket – 61 Euros!

The following day as we were following Kam and Peter in their car, the ‘check engine light’ came on – not a good sign on a trip. Despite a two hour delay in leaving Rotterdam while the Volvo dealer checked the engine, the silver lining was learning how program the GPS and be able to set it in English. The driving instructions – “turn at the 2nd exit on the roundabout,” were given by a very polite voice with a British accent. We dubbed her UK Jane. If we decided to deviate to get something to eat, she would instruct us to “make a U-turn.” When we didn’t comply, she would instruct us to “Please make a U-turn” in an ever more urgent voice.

UK Jane successfully guided us through the countryside in northwest France as we traced the route of our grandfather’s WWI battalion, which wound in and out of France and Belgium, and got us back to our hotel in Bethune in the dark after visiting the memorial at Ypres.

War Memorial Gate - Ypres, Belgium

War Memorial Gate – Ypres, Belgium

And the next day, UK Jane guided us finally back to Charles de Gaulle to return the car.

While we had a very pleasant and efficient taxi ride from the airport to our apartment in Paris, the return taxi experience was a comedy or horrors where the meter was ticking as the cab was loaded, the driver’s junk was moved from the front seat to the trunk to accommodate Bill, and as he programmed his GPS. He couldn’t read the GPS and didn’t have the sound turned up, so drove erratically as he held a piece of paper over the screen to cut the glare.

On our final day, we rented another car for the day to visit Meaux. Trying to be smarter this time, we attempted to program it before we left the car rental lot. We successfully switched it to English and put in our destination, but were not able to turn on the oral directions. The rental car attendant was no help. Since we had to follow the blue line on the device, we dubbed this GPS unit “Silent Sally.’ The blue line had us ‘wandering aimlessly’ again and at one point suggested we take the next exit – a dirt path across a pasture. Rather than following an obvious bad suggestion, we stayed on the road and found ourselves heading back to Charles de Gaulle.

I dug out my phone again and Siri came to the rescue, successfully guiding us to Meaux.

Meaux, France - Memorial from U.S.

Meaux, France – Memorial from U.S.

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