After landing at Ramstein, it felt so good to be off the jet and into the fresh air of Germany. Walking across the ramp to the awaiting buses, we could see our luggage strapped and netted down to the baggage pallet being unloaded.
We were one of the last families in the immigration line. A bored German military official in his short-sleeve blue shirt and epaulets sat behind a window and checked our passports. He had hardly any questions for us and stamped our passports. We sailed through immigration and went to baggage claim.
We collected our luggage and gave the posted wi-fi a quick try. I began to notice a US Customs Agent talking to departing travelers as they exited the glass enclosed “chute” out of the baggage claim and Customs facility. We’d seen this agent briskly walking across the ramp as we’d been bussed from the aircraft. As one of the last families still in the baggage area it seemed like the time was ripe for moving on. I wheeled my bag towards this exit as the agent neatly blocked our path. The breast of his shirt was emblazoned with “US Customs Agent”. He was not overly tall, but thick and wide. He appeared to be no stranger to the gym.
“About ready to go?” he pointedly asked. I answered yes and he seemed pleased to point out that Lisa did not appear ready. She was finishing zipping up her bag after getting out a device to check for wifi. He overheard her say she was going to look up the parking location of the car. Our incredibly generous friends, the Wingfields, are stationed in Germany and are loaning us their car!
“You don’t remember where you parked?” he asked, with a smile on his face.
“We didn’t park it, our friends parked it,” I said.
“Oh, so they were driving your car?” he looked to be either curious or headed towards interrogation.
“No, it’s their car and they parked it here for us.”
“Well, if it’s their car, that’s going to be a big problem for you. And, do you have an international drivers’ permit?” he still had that big smile on his face. I assured him I had the permit and tried to explain our friends had been very diligent in researching and tracking down the German rules on loaning out a German-licensed vehicle. He was quick to clarify that it was not just the German rules but that it was “our” rules also and it was likely we were not in compliance. I explained that my friends already had the paperwork in the vehicle certifying we were allowed to drive the car. He was beyond dubious and said that was not possible unless I’d already submitted copies of my international driver’s permit, ID card and passport. I assured him I had completed those tasks thanks to the Wingfield’s attention to detail. The agent seemed disappointed. The Germans really do have a rule (and it may be the US Status of Forces requirement as well) that you can only loan your car out for a maximum of 90 days and the dates must be approved beforehand.
“How long will you be here in Germany and in Europe?” was the next line of questioning. Lisa and I compared notes later and it was becoming quite clear the less information this agent had, the better. I told him we thought we’d be in Germany about five weeks total and in Europe for a few months. I had looked at the State Department website and various country pages for visa requirements before leaving. Most countries have a 3-month tourist visa entry limitation. Since we planned to be bouncing around countries, we did not plan to bump up against 90 days in any one country.
“Well, you can only be in Europe for a total of three months,” he seemed to be enjoying this conversation. I had not heard this one before and was not sure what he was talking about. I doubted this was true as I know it’s been done before. But there was a good chance he was trying to help us and about a 100% chance that he know more about this subject matter than we did. A quick vision of massive itinerary changes flashed through my mind.
“Yeah, they are all ‘Chang-gin’ countries. You can only be in them for 90 days than you have to go home. Go over that time and you are likely to be deported. You flying out of Ramstein?” he eagerly queried. I said I was not and asked what these ‘Chang-gin’ countries were. These countries comprise most of Western Europe. When I told him we’d be visiting the UK soon he got a bit confused as he wasn’t sure if the UK was one of these nations or not. Evidently, I’d be doing some research right away.
“I’ll get a German immigration official so we can get this sorted out,” and he was gone.
It did occur to me to make a run for it and flee into Germany like a wild refugee hitting the Continent on the lam. The Von Trapps ran from the Germans, right? Probably wouldn’t have worked out to well with all the Mesquits, our rolling duffels and our pesky principles. The kids were certainly getting quite the introduction to Europe!
He returned efficiently with not one, but two, German officials in their uniforms. They confirmed I could spend only 90 days in ‘Chang-gin’ countries. When I asked which those were, they produced a list of 26 nations. I asked how to reset those 90 days and he answered that after the 90 days I should go home for six months. Once I explained our rough travel itinerary they were extremely helpful. One of them intimated I should just spend time in France as they don’t really keep track of the time requirement. He nearly winked at me, smiled and turned on his heel. The Customs agent suddenly became quite supportive of our cause. Perhaps we did not fit into the usual ‘box’ he expected to categorize Ramstein travelers into. I didn’t even want to get into our full background story since he seemed to get very excited about any information he was given. When he asked where we were going after Europe, I mentioned “Israel, if the situation allows.” His attitude softened more, and he said there shouldn’t be a problem, especially if we were flying there from Greece. With that ringing in our ears, we nearly ran out of those sliding doors. It felt like ‘their’ eyes were watching.
The parking garage and car were exactly as the Wingfields had described. In the deserted parking garage, I got to find the hidden key on the vehicle and felt a bit like Jason Bourne. Just without the amnesia or training or the good looks or the death threats. But I was in Europe with my deadly fists…
We ran through the KMCC (the enormous Kaiserslautern Military Community Center) for a few quick errands. We bought a European SIM card for Lisa’s iPhone and grabbed a Subway lunch since we were tired and hungry. Ran through the KMCC mall amazed at the gigantic Base Exchange shopping center and the Outdoor Recreation shop with its cavernous climbing walls. We grabbed two coffees and hit the road.
We had a 5.5 hour drive ahead of us south to Bavaria. Our reservations started that night in the town of Oberaudorf so the timing was great. We were just tired from the poor sleep in the aircraft seats. Thank God for those fast German roads, especially the Autobahn. The speed limit is often 120 km/hr or 130 km/hr. That’s about 75 to 82 mph. I did that speed or better but cars still came flying by us. If you aren’t speeding you feel like you’re letting down the drivers around you. It is certainly true that if you are in the left lane of the Autobahn you’d better be watching your rear-view mirror. They came up fast and furious behind you. It wasn’t just the Mercedes, Audis and BMWs. A few VWs, Hondas and even the rare Hyundai sped by. German drivers apparently will not or are not allowed to pass on the right so they will stay on the tail of whoever is parked in the left lane. I would estimate some of the drivers passed us at upwards of 120-130 mph. In the frequent construction zones, all clearly marked, the three lanes in your direction of travel were taken down to two. The lanes were incredibly tight and it was hard to imagine such close quarters being tolerated on US roads. Or for many of our large vehicles to fit in such tight lanes.
The gas station sold fuel for approximately 9 dollars a gallon. Ouch. The bathrooms were not free but had a turnstile that blocked you from entering. You put in 0.70 Euro for entry and received a 0.50 Euro voucher for use in the restaurant/coffee shop.
At our next rest stop/petrol station we took in a meal. Well-maintained picnic tables near the parking lot helped out families like ours traveling on a budget. Nearby were large compost bins for your food scraps. Dogs enjoyed complimentary food and water. Two people behind the buffet line served spaetzle noodles with sauces of your choice, salads, wurst, brats and plenty of coffee. It was a far cry from the greasy Roy Rogers or such that one would expect along the Jersey Turnpike.
We followed the GPS, were awestruck at the approaching Alps, and arrived about eight o’clock. The lodge proprietors are a family we’d emailed to set up the reservation. They checked us in, gave us our keys and thoroughly showed us the place. An underground parking garage keeps your car snow-free similar to a Colorado ski place. We walked through the ping-pong table area and kiddy play room, the small swimming pool room, the grilling room, the laundry room and she explained the various doors and requisite keys. Bread from the local bakery would be available each morning near the little office after eight in the morning. All the books on the loaner shelf were in German.
We only unpacked a few things and hit the sack. I did have a second to try out a few electrical adapters and tripped the circuit breaker a couple of times. We slept hard after a good travel day. Not deported yet!