No Limits

Americans have a lot of myths and misconceptions about Germany.  We think that all Germans wear lederhosen and dirndls– they don’t; that’s just in the South of Germany.  We think that all Germans love beer and pretzels- ok, that part is actually mostly true.

Before I moved to Germany, I had a weird misconception that the Autobahn was a single world-famous stretch of roadway.  I stupidly didn’t register that “Autobahn” is really just the name for Germany’s entire system of highways until I was already here and seeing the separate segments of the highway.  I now know that Regensburg sits at the intersection of the A3 and the A93, and both of those roads are considered “The Autobahn.”

We think that the entire Autobahn has no speed limit.

nolimitsIt only takes one time on the highways here to see that this isn’t entirely true.  There are places on Germany’s roadways with no posted speed limits, designated by the circle and slashes seen to the right of this paragraph.  One ADAC estimate says that roughly half of the Autobahn  does indeed have a posted speed limit.  I can attest to this, since I drove on the Autobahn last week for the first time.

I don’t usually have a car here- when I moved over, I sold my beloved Honda Civic in favor of using the bus and train to get around.  I didn’t want to deal with the expense of parking, of getting gasoline, of insuring a car- and I really don’t need one here.    I drive when I’m in the United States, but not here.

When several of us went to Zürich for business last week and I had the opportunity to sign on as a second driver for the rental car, I didn’t have to think too long before signing up.  As a result, I got to drive a bit in both Germany and Austria.  I have a few thoughts on the experience:

  1. The places that do have speed limits here are somewhat infuriating because the speed limit changes rapidly and often.  In a five-minute span, you can find yourself seeing multiple speed limit changes.  It’s usually somewhat logical-  120 kilometers per hour to 100 to 80 as you approach a tunnel, for example.  Sometimes, though, it can be downright schizophrenic:  120 kilometers per hour to 80 to 100 to 60 to 120 and then, suddenly, no limits again.  In the US, highway speed limits tend to be one speed for much longer stretches of roadway.
  2. Even on the sections of the Autobahn that don’t have posted speed limits, there is still a recommended speed.  The Richtgeschwindigkeit, or recommended speed, is 130 km/h.  I can say from my new experience that 130-140 is actually a very comfortable speed.  This is perfectly logical, since this is roughly equivalent to 80-87 miles per hour.
  3. Our rental car was a Volkswagen Touran, which is basically the minivan version of a VW Golf.  This car isn’t really built for speed-  at one point on a straightaway, I took the car up to 180 km/h (112 mph) just to see what it felt like.  It felt terrifying.  At that speed, the entire vehicle felt like it was catching an updraft.  There was no sense of real control of the vehicle, and I was concerned that any good gust of wind would completely crash us.  I leveled it back down to a more relaxed speed very quickly, and didn’t break a three digit mph speed again for the rest of the trip.  I saw plenty of people doing 200-220 km/h on the Autobahn, but you really have to have the right car to do it without spontaneous outbreaks of sudden and horrible death.

Would I rent a fast car some time and drive fast on the Autobahn again?  Probably, it was kind of fun despite the terror.  Maybe next time I just need a faster car…

Have you been on the Autobahn?  What’s the fastest speed you’ve ever driven?



Cars Go Zoom!

When I got to Germany back in November, I had a ride from the Munich airport to my hotel here in Regensburg. Along the way, though, I got to see the Autobahn for the first time, and I got to see the German countryside for the first time.

Neither was even remotely what I expected.

The countryside was decidedly more rural than I thought it would be. I didn’t realize before coming here just how much agricultural business goes on in Germany. Outside of the main city areas, it’s pretty much all farmland or forest, with the occasional village in between. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense: How else could a country brew this much beer if they weren’t also farming a metric buttload of hops for the brewing process?

This post isn’t about agriculture though, it’s about cars. While I was on the road between Munich and Regensburg, my eyes were practically glued to the window looking at cars and road signs.

Editor’s Note: One of my favorite jokes about German roadways is one that is only really funny to people who don’t speak German natively: “Where the heck is this town called Ausfahrt?” The reason this is funny is because Ausfahrt means “Exit.” I figured that out by the fourth time I saw it, but I’ve since learned that you can get this gag on a t-shirt over at the Army base. Even the Urban Dictionary riffs on this one:

Biggest city in Germany. Almost every Autobahn exit directs to it.
– Damn, I missed the exit.
– Don’t worry. The next one will be to “Ausfahrt” as well.

It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who thinks like that. Then again, I spent more than two months trying to figure out what the “Einbahnstrasse” signs were all pointing to before my friend Jenny explained, without laughing at me too much, that it means “one way street.”

I think I may have seen too many James Bond chase sequences to have a realistic idea of what the Autobahn would look like, though. I expected it to be wide and flat and fast. I didn’t see stretches of the Autobahn that really matched that description until much later, as it turns out. As I hurtled down the Autobahn in the airport liner van on that first day, I watched the cars that were going past us, and the cars we passed. Some things were completely as expected: Lots of BMW and Volkswagen, Mercedes and Audi. Also present, in smaller numbers, were expected vehicles like Fords and Minis, Suzukis and Hondas, Mitsubishis and Toyotas. And one Lamborghini, just to be contrary. I’ve since seen a Tesla Roadster, but that’s not at all common.

There were also some breeds of car that I’d seen in the past in the US, but not recently, like Renault, Fiat, and Peugeot. But there were also a lot of cars that I’ve never seen in the United States. I’ve learned their names now, of course. Citroen. Skoda. Opel. These three are very, very common here. (And some of the new Citroens are just adorable!)

After observing for a while, I noticed something interesting- nobody here has a huge car. Space is at a premium in all things. Parking lots are small. I haven’t seen anything like a Hummer or a Ford Explorer. I’m sure that larger vehicles might be in use on farms, but not in the cities. With gas prices currently running at the equivalent of eight and a half US Dollars per gallon even for the cheap stuff, this isn’t really a surprise. It’s priced per liter here, but after you convert liters to gallons, and Euros to dollars, it’s not cheap. I saw a Pontiac Trans Am purring down the street last week, and I thought I was hallucinating.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been building up a little collection of pictures of official vehicles, because they fascinate me. In the US, most of the official vehicles are common American brands, and that’s to be expected. Here, though, there is an entry level Mercedes that looks like it’s roughly the right class to compete with the Honda Fit. In the US, Mercedes is a luxury car. Here, all of the taxis are Mercedes.

The same thing applies to emergency vehicles. Ambulances and fire trucks are pretty much what you’d expect- a van is a van is a van- the smaller emergency vehicles, however, are pretty snazzy looking. the fire department’s smaller vehicle? BMW.

Emergency medical service? This one is an Audi. The 112 inscribed on the side door is because the emergency call number here is 112, not 911 as it is back in the US. This is also a good example of the German language trying to confuse me. Arzt is “doctor.” The vehicle says notarzt. Which means “emergency doctor,” even though my EnglishBrain keeps screaming “but it says it’s NOT a doctor!”

Last, but certaintly not least, are the Polizei. (And bonus, it’s next to a Skoda in traffic, so you can see one of those as well.) Our frendly neighborhood cops drive BMWs accented with green. I’ve been told by several people that the police are shifting gradually over to blue instead of green to match large portions of the rest of the world, but I haven’t seen any blue on the cars or uniforms yet around town. I happen to think these little hatchback polizei cars are pretty good looking, though.

I wanted an Audi before I moved to Germany. I wonder if I’ll still want one as badly when I get back to the US.