So Mr. Driver's Seat decided the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat finally deserved a real honeymoon after 27 years together, and off to Europe they went.
She wanted to see Venice or Paris, while he saw cheap flights to Barcelona. "No problemo," I said in my best, passable Spanishish, "I'll test drive some cars." Bienvenue, Señor, Monsieur, and Signore Driver's Seat!
And every veteran European traveler has reacted with the same astonished look when I mentioned this 1.500-mile, three-country journey. But what some consider moronic, I consider a learning experience, and the next four weeks will feature more about driving across the pond.
If you're considering driving in Europe while traveling, here are the tips I've gleaned from two weeks abroad through the easy parts of Spain and France. (Italy and the French Riviera come later, and they're to be avoided.)
Learn the signs: On the plus side, the European Union standardized signs for speed limits (and other signs) from country to country. It took me only a few moments after leaving Barcelona airport to realize that the circular sign with the 80 in the middle meant that was the speed limit (in kilometers per hour).
I knew from a trip to Canada as a young boy that 80 was roughly 45 mph, and I wept when I thought about the slowness of it all. But out on the open road, the 100 and 120 (and in France, 110 and then 130) signs brightened my outlook significantly.
(Footnote: Sauf Riverains means "except residents," but a better translation would be "expect to back out of here embarrassedly." At least the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat gave me props: "You should get paid to drive people around these towns.")
Speed is key: In the French countryside, though, roads that are narrower than our two-lanes and lack a centerline are often marked for 90 kmh (about 55 mph). The locals don't care if you are nervous about it, so get moving, Yankee. Watch for trucks and buses, and be prepared to push off to the side for them, because they aren't going to do it for you.
Slow down in towns: Traffic-calming devices — speed bumps, raised crosswalks, speed hills, dividers, roundabouts in all sizes — make sure that when the French want you to go 30 kmh, you'll go 30 kmh.
As if the town's narrow streets alone wouldn't be enough to slow you down. Picture Elfreth's Alley as a two-way street. This is no exaggeration in some places.
Construction comes up fast: The reduced-lane signs feature pencil-thin arrows and can be hard to recognize (especially when you've joined the Mercedes-BMW-Audi brigade traveling in the 140-to-150 range on the left), so keep your eye out for this. The two- and three-mile advance warnings we're accustomed to in the U.S. just aren't there.
Tolls are expensive: At least they take credit cards, and the machines work fast. But the 36 euro I parted with for a single Alpine tunnel made me weepy.
Fuel is expensive: But fuel economy is superb. Our diesel Nissan Qashqai (think Rogue Sport) averaged 6.3 liters/ kilometer, which is 36 mpg, and we ran it close to 150 kmh (95 mph) on the highways.
Learn your kilometers: And kilograms, euros, Celsius, and military time. It's not that hard.
Tailgating: Don't tap your brakes. The car behind is too close to give warning to.
Merging in Barcelona is hell: I've spent 15 years fighting traffic in the Philadelphia suburbs. I've driven in the Washington, D.C., environs a great deal. Heck, I've even driven through Manhattan more than once, and fought my way into the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.
But nothing prepared me for trying to cross four lanes of stopped Barcelona traffic to get to my exit — something the road required me to do, not simply because I flaked out.
Otherwise, things were mostly not bad: Spain and France are very orderly. Drivers seem quite aware of who's behind them and get out of the way quickly.
A good GPS is a must, but don't be a slave to it: I couldn't find any special settings on our Nissan, but I wanted to rely on my phone while the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat was hoping to use the car's system. When we put them to the test, my phone had a five-hour route while the Nissan's was eight. (It took us about 4½, plus stops.)
But carry some maps as a backup, and park and use your brain to actually figure out getting from place to place. The GPS told us more than once to turn on roads that didn't exist, so pulling over and deciphering how to get from here to there became essential.
Later, the GPS told me to get off the A8 in Nice, even though while peering at the map it appeared the A8 would do me well. The GPS then told me to make a U-turn and get back on the A8 in the same direction I was headed.
I'd never given my GPS the finger before.