Clippings: Driving to survive in das fast lane

<p>We recently returned from a week in Germany and I am still kicking myself for not bringing back the perfect souvenir — a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “I survived the autobahn.”</p><p>Germany kind of picked us as a vacation destination, truth be told. The airplane fare to Frankfurt proved within our means. Our daughter Diane had briefly taken German in high school, while our son Mark has always been interested in the nation’s history. Some of my family roots can be traced to Stuttgart, and Dottie was game for any travel challenge. And there was the clincher — German beer is pretty darned tough to beat.</p><p>But before booking, we strategized on how to minimize our expenses, particularly in light of the Euro’s dominance over the dollar. We would seek out rooming houses, or “pensions,” over hotels; we would get our food from bakeries or supermarkets when possible, rather than exclusively from restaurants; and we would rent a vehicle instead of booking a cross country tour.</p><p>I was particularly intrigued by the latter choice, having heard many stories about the high-octane autobahn. But I was confident I would be up to the task. After all, I had in my 30 years of driving survived conditions ranging from the daily demo derby of Manila, Philippines, to the rural roads of Addison County, where you sometimes have to be more vigilant for deer than other vehicles.</p><p>How bad could the driving get in Germany?</p><p>We found out pretty quickly — approximately three hours after renting our vehicle at the Frankfurt Airport. It was around 8 a.m. and the high-class British lass voicing our GPS had expertly guided us to a parking spot in front of our lodgings. Our rooms weren’t ready, so we decided to rest our jet-lagged eyes for a while within our rented four-cylinder Opel micro-van. We were jolted to our senses around an hour later when a motor scooter skidded off some slick metal tram tracks and into our parked vehicle. Fortunately, he was fine (and insured). But he made a nice little dent in the driver-side door of a vehicle I had only driven around 12 miles at this point. With hundreds of miles (sorry, kilometers) left to travel to Munich and back, along with places in between, I wondered how much worse it could get.</p><p>As it turned out, we would avoid further collisions, but my knuckles are still white from clenching the steering wheel.</p><p>The “fun” began just trying to get on the autobahn that would take us through the middle Rhine Valley from Frankfurt to Munich. On U.S. highways, most folks (outside of Massachusetts) will at least make a token effort to pull into the left lane to allow for merging traffic. And while we found German folks to be among the most polite we have ever met, etiquette apparently goes out the window when it comes to driving. At one point I spent around three minutes parked on an on-ramp median attempting to merge into autobahn traffic. The four cylinders under the hood of our Opel simply would not perform to a point where I could dart into one of the few right-lane openings. When I finally tried to make a break for it, an oncoming trucker kept me in my place with a blast from his horn and a salute that transcends the international language barrier.</p><p>After changing my shorts and selling a moderately used kidney for half a tank of gas (1.4 Euros per liter — more than $7 per gallon), we successfully negotiated 87 rotaries to get back onto the autobahn.</p><p>At the outset, I promised to take what I thought was a safe strategy: Stay, if at all possible, in the middle lane. That way you don’t mess with the speeders in the left lane nor affect those merging into the right lane.</p><p>It’s a strategy that seemed to work, and my initial impressions of the autobahn were positive — an almost pristine surface bisecting a verdant, rolling countryside interspersed with farm fields, compact historic villages, ancient castles and the imposing alps in the background.</p><p>Wish I could have taken it all in; I was focused on the asphalt ahead of us, making sure we weren’t Bavarian-creamed. After my first four minutes on the autobahn, I began getting a taste of its reputation.</p><p>Whoosh!</p><p>A high-performance Audi zipped by our vehicle fast enough to take a layer of paint with it.</p><p>I looked at my speedometer. I was traveling the “recommended” limit of 130 kilometers per hour (around 80 miles per hour).</p><p>Whoosh! Whoosh!</p><p>A BMW and Mercedes screamed by as if we were standing still. Two thoughts rushed through my mind — what is the survival rate on the autobahn, and how can people afford to drive that fast?</p><p>As I limped (comparatively speaking) along, I noticed other potential pitfalls along this paradoxically beautiful-but-deadly public racetrack: No traffic police, nor any median gaps that would allow them to promptly respond to accidents; the absence, along long stretches, of any breakdown lane; and tall grass growing in the traffic median, obscuring visibility around curves. Our autobahn driving was one of fits and starts — life in the fast lane that would at any time grind to a virtual halt as a result of just one disabled car with no available break-down lane.</p><p>In the interest of full disclosure, I did dip my toe into the left lane once or twice. With few other vehicles around, I brought our rented kitten up to 100 miles per hour for a few minutes — and still, other vehicles roared past us with impunity. How we traveled for five days without seeing a fatal accident, I do not know.</p><p>But I do know this — Germany offered magical (Bavaria) and heart wrenching (Dachau) sights that we will want to revisit someday. Next time, though, we’ll probably bite the bullet and leave the driving to someone else.</p>

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