My Gal Greta

by Susan Kraus (2008)

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I have always loved maps. As a kid, I'd spread them out on the floor or table, and let my finger trace lightly over roads from one side to the other. For over 30 years, when traveling with my husband, I am the ‚Äėmap-reader,' the one who gives the directions. It's a big responsibility. One missed exit and a trip could "take a wrong turn." But I also then get to determine which roads we take, can choose to have us meander from town-to-town instead of the straight-line highway. As long as I have my map, can trace the little lines across the page, I feel safe. I can get us home.

Which is all very well and good when you have a partner, a driver. But try and be a map-reader, focusing on the best route, or the most scenic, and drive at the same time. Well, it's like this: you get lost. You can get very, very lost. You can get turned upside down, inside out lost. And if it is dark, and you are in a foreign country, and do not speak the language, then it may stop being an adventure and start being nerve-wracking (which is a word I have not used in a very long time.) And so you try to read the map, but can't see because the car light is so not adequate, and the flashlight you meant to have handy is buried in the bottom of one of the suitcases in the trunk and you are on a side road with ditches (at least you think they are ditches) so you can't even really pull off the road.

When GPS (Global Positioning Systems) first came out, I was a critic. GPS was for wimps, for the geographically impaired, for people who didn't want to chart their own course. I was a map-snob. Of course, living in a square state where towns tend to be laid out in neat squares, streets like a checkerboard, makes it easy to be a map-snob. It's some of the other places on the "Global" that are a real challenge. Countries where towns all blend together and downtowns grew medieval-style, twisting in concentric circles, so narrow that two cars can't pass without rubbing up a bit, where the center of a town is always pedestrian-only enclave that you don't know is pedestrian only until you've accidentally driven into the middle and realize that: 1) there are no other cars; 2) everyone is looking at you and your car is surrounded by people with baskets of produce. Not that I'm confessing, exactly, but it never would have happened if there had been a driver and I'd been able to be the map-reader instead of having to drive without a map-reader. At least I like to think so.

That's the crunch.
Traveling solo.
Trying to be a map-reader and a driver. On the autobahn. As cars whiz past at 170 kilometers an hour. Or, in towns and cities as described above, with one-way streets that interface with other one-way streets only all going in circles. Or being lost in the dark, the darkest of darkest nights, with no idea where things got turned around. Those kinds of situations.

Then I met Greta. My gal. My guide.
Greta makes so few demands as a traveling companion. She never says she has to go to the bathroom, she eats my leftover pastry crumbs, she is willing to go wherever I want whenever I want. All I do is select the destination, and Greta directs… my very own personal map-reader. We do have some differences, like when I pull off the highway because a particular nest of red-roofed houses around a Byzantine church spire called out to me to stop. "Turn right ahead," she'll then murmur politely. "Make a legal "U" turn when possible." But once I explain, she is OK with it. Great gives me courage. With Greta, I am more comfortable taking risks, following the curving roads to wherever they go. Greta knows her maps, and she never gets lost. There is no unknown, even when I haven't seen a sign in an hour. When I get totally, hopelessly lost, all I have to do is tell her I want to go home, or tell her the name of that cute B & B in on Franklinstrasse…. and she'll show me the way.

There was one night when I went in search of a little café I'd heard of in the village of Hambach that had a Thursday night schnitzel special… any schnitzel on the menu with salad and potatoes for 4,80 euro. Such a deal. Now, I don't always ask Greta to find places. I like to try on my own first. So there I was in some alley, after making a turn to avoid going into a ditch or maybe it was because the lane was too tight for the car to get through, but the road went from asphalt to gravel to dirt in way too short a time. It was pitch black. I stopped the car and rolled down the window to see what I could see. But it wasn't what I saw. It was the smell. Pigs. Eau de piggie. And heard…. the snort-snort-grunt-grunt. Not the cute little ones, but the great big-as-a-table-for-ten size pigs. I could barely make out the shadow of their enormous curving backs in the dark. They were inches from the car. And they made very clear to me what I'd always known in the abstract but had not often encountered up close and personal: pigs stink. They really, really do stink.

I turned to Greta.
"Get me out of here," I told her.
"Go straight for 50 meters, then make a left," she responded.
She didn't say, "It will be OK" or "Don't worry" or "You area very brave girl" ... but I could tell from her tone she wanted to. Nor did she say, "What the hell were you thinking? Are you trying to get us lying in a ditch? Would you just stop the "I want to do it my way" solo thing and work as a team?"
No, Greta just checked her virtual maps and softly told me how to get home.

Greta and I had quite a few such adventures. We slipped through layers and layers of fog to find the monastery at Kruezburg. We drove to Bamburg, Dachau, Stuttgart, Heidelburg, Wurzburg. She took me to my first Volksmarch in a small Bavarian village. Her very first role was to help me find the baths and spa at Bad Kissingen, and I went back so often I didn't need her help after the 3rd time. (I hope her feelings weren't hurt.)

So, I do confess, I am no longer a map-snob. I am a solo woman traveler. And with Greta as my co-pilot, I can tackle the world.

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"I think we often know things in our gut way before the synapses connect in the head."