Passage from "Berlin Love Story"
Martin Duffy on the Autobahn
The Autobahn is not for the faint hearted. Possibly also not for the
sane. The principle is that you drive as fast as you can - aside
from occasional speed limits in case of rain or roadworks. There are
three lanes: normal, fast, and I didn't think cars could go that fast.
I have driven on it twice so far, and each time I thought I was about
The first time, we were travelling down to Stuttgart to Claudia`s
parents. I had wanted to rent a nice car for the weekend - renting a
car for a long journey is far cheaper than the train fare for a few
people - but Claudia insisted that her groaning old bully van was fit
for the journey. Under extreme but futile protest, I accepted her
choice. So on the road we went. And before even leaving the centre of
Berlin, the van gave us a reminder of its nature when the back door
hatch popped open and our bags nearly spilled out onto the road.
But on we went.
The Autobahn, like highways in the USA, has resting points every thirty
kilometres or so. Some are just lay-bys, others are petrol stations
with cafes. So Claudia and I could take turns driving for an hour or
two. I had rarely driven a high van, I had not driven very often on the
other side of the road, and I had never driven in a speed free-for-all.
But just being on the road and driving on what felt like a conveyor
belt was pretty low risk so I took my turn driving.
I had been behind the wheel maybe an hour or so when it started to rain
- no problem. I just put on the wipers. I was, at this stage, in the
middle lane. The inner lane was being mostly used by trucks. The outer
lane being solely used by lunatics. The rain became dramatically
heavier and in the near distance there were lightning flashes over a
forest. I flicked the wipers to a
higher speed so I could still see. And then the wipers stopped
So there's me, Claudia, and Marlene. I am driving in the centre lane of
the Autobahn with cars behind me, trucks to the right of me, and cars
passing me out on the left. I am travelling at maybe a hundred
kilometres an hour and can see absolutely nothing out the front window.
I put on the hazard lights and slow down. Cars behind me start passing
me out on the left and beeping.
Claudia has her head out the right side window, getting soaked, telling
me where the road is and waiting for a gap in between the trucks now
passing me out on the right side. That gap finally comes and now
we are at least on the inside lane. But now Claudia is shouting as I
weave towards the edge of the road. I have slowed down to maybe sixty
kilometres an hour and the truck behind me is blaring its horn at me.
The only chance we have is to get to a hard shoulder or a lay-by so we
can pull in. If this were happening in a film it might all be very
exciting. In reality I am there feeling numb but focused. We could get
hit, I could clip a passing car, or we could slide off the road into
forest. It's a matter of staying somehow on course until a chance to
get off the road safely comes along.
One finally does come along and I pull in - still not actually able to
see and being guided only by Claudia`s shouted directions - and we come
to a halt a couple of metres away from the end of the hard shoulder.We
sit there, rain pouring down, thunder booming, and lightning flashing
overhead, for about ten minutes while having what might be described as
an intense disagreement over the wisdom of using the van. I feel kind
of nauseous, but somehow still protected from the full horror of what
happened. I check the fuse box and discover it has been hot-wired and
bypassed several times over the life of the van. Claudia phones an
emergency number and is told that help will come in about an hour or
so. Half an hour later, when the storm had passed, I did my own bit of
tinkering with the fuse box and the wipers started moving again. By
then, the rain had stopped and we had agreed that I would not drive the
van if so much as a damp mist touched the window between there and
On that trip, just as we arrived into the outskirts of Stuttgart, the
van's exhaust pipe gave up the ghost. Ultimately, we hired a car to
drive back from Stuttgart as the repairs needed could not be carried
out in time and we needed to be back in Berlin. Claudia made a
subsequent train trip to collect the van, and was barely outside
Stuttgart when it died. Eventually, the van was
towed back to Berlin by friends of Claudia.
The second near fatal experience was had in the comfort of a rented
I did what I had been doing for decades when overtaking: indicate,
check rear view mirror, check right wing mirror, look over right
shoulder. Then - doing maybe a hundred and sixty kilometres an hour - I
pulled out into the third lane. It was all very smooth and civilised. I
then glanced in the rear view mirror and saw four sets of incredulous
eyes staring at me. I hadn't
looked over my LEFT shoulder and had pulled out - with at most inches
to spare - in front of this unsuspecting German family. Judging by how
close they were and how amazed they were, I must have just swung out
directly in front of them.
I reckon that the slightest difference - in their speed, my speed, the
moment when I swung out - would have resulted in carnage.
Even now I see those eyes.
I pulled back into the middle lane, slowed down, and waited for the car
to pass so that I could signal an apology. They, however, had also
slowed down - perhaps believing that I was waiting to pull out in front
of them again. When they eventually gathered the courage to overtake,
the four sets of eyes were on me again. I indicated an apology, putting
my hand to my heart, but they just stared at me blank faced as they
glided slowly past. I did no more overtaking, and Claudia took over
from me at the next rest stop.
I also managed to cause trouble to a stationary vehicle while not
driving. We were in a rented car, and it was Claudia's shift to drive
so I have taken a nap. Noam needed to use the bathroom and so Claudia
had pulled into a rest area. Waking up in our halted car, I sleepily
opened the door to get out. The door hadn't opened enough, so I pushed
it a bit further open. But a stupid
spring-loaded device in the door jerked it out to its next setting, and
the edge of our car door tapped against the door of a bright little red
car parked beside us. I got out, still a bit dozy, as a stunned young
Belgian walked towards me looking like I had just shot his mother
before his very eyes.
“This is your car?” I asked.
He couldn't speak - in any language - from shock. I looked at the side
of his door and definitely there was a chip out of it perhaps the size
of half a nail clipping.
“Kein problem, okay,” I was saying. I wanted Claudia to help out but
she was busy taking care of Noam.
“My mistake, my fault, we have insurance.”
The man seemed to get agitated rather than calmed by my reassurances.
Finally - just about when the young man's face was near the colour of
his dinky little car - Claudia joined us and I explained, yawning, what
had happened and that it was my fault. We examined the minute damage,
and I looked for my camera to take a picture of it for fear this guy
would go off and throw a few rocks at it to enhance the claim. Next
thing I knew, the guy was in his car and driving away.
Claudia explained that the car was brand new and this was his maiden
voyage holiday drive in Germany. The man's problem was that I was being
so nonchalant about the whole thing instead of being abjectly sorry. So
tie me down and beat me with a whip for taking a tea leaf sized chip
out of the side of a Belgian's new car.
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