Possibly attributed to a sudden immersion into European life, the charm of this place is intoxicating. Even as a seasoned traveler, I’m surprised by just how much I feel that sense of wonder where everything is new and amazing. Typically, one’s expectations are tempered by a less desirable reality, but everything I hoped Germany to be is so, and more. The countryside, the architecture, the culture—even the bleakest facets have a certain appeal that I can’t quite describe.
Of course, one of the first things to delight me was the expansive network of bicycle paths. When they aren’t paralleling roadways, they run from village to village and even from one country to another. In fact, they’re so prevalent that it is easy to get lost on one, taking a left at one intersection, a right on another, and all of a sudden you’re not sure whether you’re in Germany or the Netherlands (that happened to us this past weekend) nor quite certain how to get back.
Let me rewind a bit though and set up the scene. The Mrs. and I are still staying in a guest house while we look for a home for ourselves, and that process is mostly being facilitated by her co-worker who is driving us around in her car. The helplessness of not having a means of transportation ourselves however, is only exacerbated by the large number of people who cycle by on an hourly basis, merrily rolling on to their destinations. How nice would it be if we had our bicycles to get around? Walking anywhere has never felt so painfully slow until you’re forced to, by default. I had poked around some of the local German classifieds, but hadn’t really found anything either. Then, out of the blue, our hosts here at the guesthouse offered two bicycles for us to ride for the duration of our stay. It was an unexpected, but very welcome offer to which I accepted with much gratitude.
Despite being named ‘La Strada’, these bikes were definitely not built for the open road. Much like the Fuji I had checked out in Misawa, these are aluminum hybrid bikes with large diameter wheels and front suspension. I don’t want to linger too much on their shortcomings though, as any bike is better than none, and I am very grateful to use them. And use them we did.
Geilenkirchen is situated on the western border of Germany with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg all being relatively nearby. While the NATO base here has some amenities, it does not have a commissary for buying all those American staples we can’t live without. (Actually, I think the Mrs. and I mostly wanted almond milk and sriracha chili sauce, respectively.) For that, the nearest commissary is across the Dutch border at the US Army Garrison at Schinnen, some 12 miles to the east. We decided to take our bicycles and backpacks, stock up on supplies, and pedal back on a maybe three hour round trip. Simple enough. Except it was not simple at all, and it took two tries to even get there, with miles of confusion in between.
Like most modern Americans, we rely on Google to solve all of our problems. Google Maps, in this instance, was both our champion and our downfall. We initially had written down the turn-by-turn directions from here to there, assuming the street names would correspond to the bicycle paths. Our confidence quickly dissipated as we found the bicycle paths don’t have names at all, they are numbered routes that Google does not annotate. So after making our way for about 15 minutes, we then had to return to our computers and try again.
On the second attempt, we made just a little bit further before we misinterpreted our own directions and took a completely wrong turn. (The fact that we had to dismount and walk our bikes up a hill through the woods should have been a strong indicator it was the wrong way). We rode across the Dutch border, through a few traffic circles, and… had absolutely no idea where we were. Thankfully, an ice cream parlor had WiFi available, so the Mrs. could use her iPod to figure out where we were. That, and the kind directions from the man that worked there, set us on the right track—or, at least in the correct compass heading.
Streets with names like Kneijkvileerweg, Vogelsvaldernweg, and Maastrichterweg made easy work of finding our way (I’m being sarcastic). Again, we got turned around, back tracked, and relied on the iPod’s mysterious GPS-less navigation abilities.
We did find Schinnen, eventually. It’s not a very big place, as far as military bases go, but it covered the basics, such as a commissary, post office, and bowling alley. With two backpacks and a front basket’s worth of groceries, we plotted out our return and completed the trip with much more success.
The next course of action of course is to find a bicycle map, or fahrrad karte, and a fahrrad of our own to use until our bikes make the transatlantic trip to meet us here in a couple months. I think a vintage Dutch opafiet would suit me nicely, but we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m perfectly happy just to be here.