A couple days ago I was basically a dog sticking its head out the window, clenching the side of a rental car and letting the hair whip around my face. Before heading to Trier, Germany for my five-week program through Georgetown, my family and I decided to take a week to explore France. My father, being the typical, suburban dad that he is, was determined to “do it all himself” and organize a road trip.
We began our time in Strasbourg, the archetypical border city. It’s an eclectic mix of architecture that reflects a complicated past of switching German and French hands. In the old city center, you find yourself surrounded by Germanic timber frame buildings, which contrast the rustic, French country style. Nearly every window is complete with a matching set of window boxes filled to the hilt with multi-colored geraniums popping out at you.
While it is excessively beautiful and makes you feel like you are a Disney character walking out of a book and waiting to hop on Prince Charming’s horse, the best way to experience the area is to go beyond the tourist traps. Alsace, the region where Strasbourg lies, is widely known for its wineries and sprawling small towns nestled between mountain ranges. Renting a car is your best bet for truly getting a taste of authentic, French countryside.
Too early on a weekday morning we ended up wrenching ourselves out of bed and venturing out from the typical Strasbourg tourist scene. As we moved out into the concentric circles of the city, it immediately began to feel more real. Instead of being transported back to the 1600s of the inner town, we felt ourselves coming into the modern European present. Tudor style was replaced with modern lines and street art. We ended up at a Hertz car rental, a familiar taste of America.
Upon entry, my parents’ accent-riddled “bonjours” gave enough indication to merit an immediate switch from French to English. My father, filled with forethought, planned everything ahead of time and had specifically requested an automatic car. Pro-tip for going on road trips abroad: always explain whether you want an automatic or a manual transmission car. While it is typical for Americans to expect automatic cars, it is not so common in Europe. In fact, we ended up receiving the only automatic car on the consolidated lot. Within 20 minutes we found ourselves pulling out of the lot, hitting the road.
Suddenly we became acutely aware of how the previously charming, narrow streets became finicky deathtraps. Everyone seemed to be driving so quickly. “Did they always drive this quickly?” my dad questioned from the wheel with just a little bit of panic. My mom was the shot-gun navigator helping us dodge one-way streets and avoid running pedestrians over, and in the back, my cousin and I were absentmindedly enamored with the flip-down tray tables on the back of my parents’ seats.
Finally, we made it to the familiarity of the highway (thank you, autobahn, for sharing your ubiquitous format throughout the world) and while the stress was, well stressful, it is what made the trip all the more enjoyable. After nearly an hour-long drive, we found ourselves on top of a restored castle, overlooking the scenery and enjoying a glass of wine, proud that we accomplished something. If there is anything to learn from this experience, it’s that while it may be a little intimidating, you should not be afraid to get off the beaten path, stop clenching your guidebooks and google maps, and just go.