I drove to a business meeting in Bad Tölz, near Munich today. It’s about a three hour drive when there’s not too much traffic. I quite enjoy longer drives these days because it gives me a chance to listen to podcasts*.
The great thing about driving in Germany is, of course, the Autobahn! As fast as you like! Yes… well it’s not quite like that. There are certain sections of certain Autobahns where there is still no speed limit but I would guess that about two thirds of the network isrestricted to anything between 80 and 130 km/h.
In the days when I worked in the corporate world I had a fast car and every now and then I would take it up to 250 km/h. You can’t do that very often – it is too dangerous when there’s other traffic around and it’s also really tiring. You have to be so alert. Even when there are three lanes it is quite possible that somebody will pull out into the outside lane doing, say 110 km/h. That means you are closing on them at 140 km/h (90 miles an hour). Imagine driving at 140km/h worried that at any time an almost stationary car could pull out in front of you. That’s quite tiring. I once had a ride in a Porsche which the driver took up to 300 km/h. After about 5 seconds we’d both had enough.
Germany “reunified” in 1989 and in the following decades a huge amount of investment in the East German infrastructure took place. They have some lovely Autobahns over there. At the same time, the West German network was allowed to decay somewhat. Over the past 5 or 6 years we have seen much more investment in the West. I live close to the A8 which is the main East-West Artery in the Southern half of Germany. It runs from the French border near Karlsruhe all the way past Stuttgart, Ulm and Munich down to Salzburg on the Austrian border. Things have improved now but a couple of years ago it felt like one giant building site – endless kilometers of contra-flow. And this made things very slow because when the Germans do even a minor repair, they bring the speed limit right down. You can be barrelling down the Autobahn at 200 km/h when suddenly there are speed limit signs telling you to slow down to 100, 80 and then 60 km/h. You see 5 traffic cones and a small bit of the armco barrier under repair and then it’s back up to 200 km/h. I reckon the German brake industry must have a hand in this. Some sections of Autobahn are awful – it feels like you are either braking or accelerating every few hundred metres.
In recent years, things have become even more complicated for drivers. Now there are also speed limits for noise reduction, air quality and probably just because somebody has made too many signs.
You may have noticed that I am moaning and complaining a bit. I learned how to do that in Germany. When stuff is actually really good (like the trains), Germans will complain until it gets even better. The English, at least back when I lived there, are different. They don’t complain when stuff is actually rubbish. And then wonder why stuff stays rubbish. I quite like the English way – but it does go to some way to explaining why my English friends are always amazed at how clean and efficient Germany seems compared to back home.
But I have moaned about the Autobahns for long enough. One highlight remains – when you fill up the car in a German petrol station, the little clip inside the handle on the fuel nozzle actually works! You can put the nozzle in the tank, set the clip and then put your hands in your pockets until the tank is full. In England, this is not permitted. You have to stand holding the greasy diesel handle until the tank is full. Your hand then stinks and, if it’s winter, it is cold. Of course you could use one of those plastic gloves – oh, I forgot, they have always run out. I have been filling cars for 25 years in Germany using the little clip – and I haven’t blown myself up yet. A small pleasure, but a pleasure just the same.
*I am currently working my way through “Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts” but also enjoy “Serial” and “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History”