At the outset, I should point out that this is my first column about living as an American expat in Germany. Actually, it’s my first column ever, which will serve as the explanation should this also be my last. So your expectations aren’t too low, however, I should say that I have been published before: When I was at the University of Massachusetts, a few of my poems were deemed print-worthy by the Arts program. In fact, when I was reading one of them at the campus coffee house to a room full of students and faculty who clearly had nothing better to do, one of them yelled, “Speak up! We can’t hear you”! Take that, Dear Abby.Among the long list of glaring discrepancies between living in the U.S. and Germany that I could write about, and really only because I was just browsing antique convertibles online, I am compelled to illustrate the nuances of driving in Deutschland, as…an American (cue ominous music).
Most of you may expect a column mostly about the Autobahn. Though it is famous the world over for having no speed limit, it is not all that interesting because of that: Once you see the unlimited sign, you stomp on the gas pedal, adopt a rigid “Oh my god, I’m going to die!” posture, and hold on for dear life. This position, at least for Americans who are not used to them, is also applicable when driving on the incredibly narrow secondary roads as another car, piloted at mach 5 by a nonchalant German, approaches. I assume that the slim width of these roads is because Germany just paved over the dirt pathways that long ago only had to accommodate the breadth of a single horse and buggy. A plus is that there are little pull-offs here and there, complete with little benches. Many use these to pull over and enjoy the scenery. After passing another car, I use them for changing my shorts and recovering from cardiac arrest.
Driving for the first time in Germany as a new expat is no small feat for a variety of reasons which I will highlight momentarily. I must first, however, point out that my license from Colorado transferred seamlessly to Germany. There was no required driving test or even a written test. Since Colorado is a conservative state, it seems that the reigning conservative CDU party thinks that their U.S. counterpart must be similar and so views the fact that if one can drive on I-25 through Denver, then one can surely navigate the roads here. They are, of course, sorely mistaken. Not just because German and U.S. conservatives are as different in their views as Charlie Brown and Charlie Manson, but for the same reasons that I said I would get to in a moment. Have patience, dear reader. It will serve you well. Not only will you need a surplus of it to drive in Germany, it will also help you from tearing the hair from your scalp as you wait for me to arrive at my point. Now…where was I?
I remember my first driving experience here well. The day was March 18th, 2013. I had arrived in Germany roughly ten days prior and so my jet-lag had equalized enough so that I would no longer awaken at 3:00 AM, my bladder excruciatingly full, and run face-first into a wall where the bathroom door was just a week and a half ago. This amount of lapsed time seemed perfectly adequate for me to be able to drive our new (used) car around town, all by myself. Oh, how I was wrong.
Once safely buckled in, I started the car and, because I could barely walk to the OMV gas station next door and back without getting lost, I turned on the navigation system and entered my destination – one of the local grocery stores. What I was greeted with was a female voice shouting an unexpected series of indecipherable words. Being that it was a BMW and that German cars are technologically lightyears ahead of what I was used to driving, I immediately assumed that BMW had stricken a devils-deal with the future and the voice was speaking Klingon. It was only after I heard “Bitte” (one of the few words that I knew then) that I realized that I was listening to German.
Undaunted, I decided to just hope for the best, stepped on the gas,…and then immediately stopped. Having been populated for thousands of years before America, Germany has far more roads and intersecting pathways and so has an infinite number of crosswalks. As you are sitting at a crosswalk, the light will eventually turn green…just as you see, in your periphery, a sweet gray-haired old lady ambling toward you. Do not be fooled. Having judged them to be a safe enough distance away, you will accelerate and they, like a crouching tiger, hidden grandma, will leap in front of your car with unexpected speed but then trudge their way across at the pace of an injured turtle. See? There’s that patience I mentioned.
Another point of concern for American drivers is that German navigation systems use meters instead of feet. Being unfamiliar with the metric system, and since my eyesight is far too poor to actually see the road signs that Ms. Star Trek was warning me about, I translated said meters into feet and kept turning well before I was supposed to. I had intended to buy some ingredients for dinner but after so many wrong turns, I gave up, looked at the sign on the building in front of me and thought, “I hope Eve (my then girlfriend, now wife) can make something from…Fressnapf”. It turned out that she could not, though our dogs were pleased: Fressnapf is a German pet store franchise. Being perpetually hungry, I ate anyway, and my coat had never been shinier.
As I just mentioned not being able to see the small road signs, one sign that you probably will see while driving here are little orange rectangles posted on the roadside that declare the name of the town you are about to enter. Aside from the Autobahn, the normal speed while driving on a regular road is 100 kph, unless otherwise posted. In addition to telling you the names of towns, these orange signs also serve as speed limit signs: Every town in Germany has a speed limit of 50 kph. You, naturally, won’t know this…until you are blinded by an impossibly bright white flash. No, you did not just have a stroke; your photo was just taken by a stationary traffic camera and you will receive your ticket (and accompanying photo) in the mail. I hope that you weren’t picking your nose.
In addition to the stationary cameras, another unfair practice that Germany has is that they have civilian cars parked on the side of the road with radar cameras inside, pointed at your unsuspecting car as it speeds toward it. We are all familiar with stationary traffic cameras, now including the ones in Germany. They even have smartphone apps and GPS systems to tell you where they are. The ability to recognize the black and white (blue and white here) of a parked cop car is, at this point, imprinted in our DNA. Like a zebra’s innate ability to recognize the shape of a crouching lion and flee, we have evolved the means to pick out a police cruiser parked on the side of the road, and learn – through trial and error – where the fixed cameras are so that we can slow down in time. The unfair tactic of using unmarked and parked Mercedes and Peugeots to do their dirty work is akin to a lion painting stripes on itself, strolling nonchalantly into a herd, and taking a bite out of the ass of a zebra before it even knows something is amiss.
Since signage is a big part of the driving challenge here, I would recommend that anyone moving here first study the different German road signs and their meanings. This small amount of foresight will probably be the only thing that saves you from several collisions during your test-flight, and a huge increase on your Autoversicherung (car insurance) afterward, as it did for me. Most signs here in Germany are confusing, to say the least. I can only imagine that this is why there are so many bicyclists in this country; they do not have to obey street signs, even one-way signs.
One of the most important is the diamond-shaped sign with a white border and yellow diamond inside of it. It looks like a square fried egg but it means that you are on a priority road and other traffic must yield to you. This may seem strange to you and that is because it is. In America, we only stop or yield unless there is a sign telling us to do so. Here in Germany, however, if that sign is not present at an intersection, you must yield to the car on your right. In the states we have the “first come, first serve” policy which, when parked at an intersection, is the driving equivalent to taking turns on the playground. This concept, as far as I have seen, is unheard of here (you will also discover this when you are repeatedly cut off in the bakery line, probably by the same old lady who made you miss that green light). Even if you arrived at an intersection a full 10 seconds ahead of a vehicle approaching from your right, you must stop and wait for them to pass. That does not mean for just one car either. If there is another car behind it, or fifty, you must wait until they all pass before you can proceed. Now apply this to a four-way intersection and you now know, presumably, why so many people here just ride there lawless bicycles. Once again, patience.
Because Germany is a relatively popular destination for Americans, many will be driving rental cars. Due to this fact, the important road signs here – Stop signs, Do Not enter signs, etc. – are the same as in the States: Unlike in renegade countries like Italy and France where everyone drives like a kamikaze pilot on meth, the orderly Germans don’t want Americans careening through intersections or down one-way streets. Okay, “careening” is a bit of a stretch. Since we Americans are so in awe of any building constructed before the 1800’s, much less a medieval castle, many of us drive around at 2 kph with our heads out the window. Just because you are in a foreign country, the challenges aren’t always foreign in nature. Sometimes the patience necessary to drive here is required for your fellow Americans. If you are stuck behind someone driving like this, simply honk. I will pull over, I promise.