As you my super friends probably know, I have not done a lot of driving outside of the DC metropolitan area. That trip we went on to South Carolina? Didn’t drive. Week at Rehoboth? Didn’t drive. Hilarious road trips between New York to Sasha’s wedding? You get the idea.
But I had my Virginia driver’s license converted to a German one a couple years ago. I figured it would be more practical if I ever needed to take over from someone on a road trip (I’m always fantasizing about road trips but never actually going on them). Besides, a German driver’s license is good for life, so I figured I’d do away with all those pesky visits to the DMV. If I ever actually wanted to drive long-distance in Europe, I figured I could practice on some country roads in Brandenburg, about half an hour outside of Berlin (someone else having gotten me out of the city, of course, because that’s also not my thing). The major obstacles to me getting more driving experience were not only my hesitancy to get on the Autobahn (ahhh, BMWs driving 240 km/h and so on) but also the inability to drive stick shift, which I think a lot of Americans but almost no Germans share.
Which is why, when my friend X and I were considering how we would travel to and from Brussels to visit our friend K, I considered renting a car for all of half a second, and then thought, no way, I’m too inexperienced, it would be too stressful, and X has a license but wouldn’t want to drive down a cul de sac. So I caught a ride share up to Brussels without any problems. Although this kind of organized hitchhiking often sounds strange to people outside of Germany, it’s convenient, cheap, and generally very reliable. The drivers want to save on gas money by taking a couple passengers and the passengers want to get somewhere, so it’s in everybody’s interest to show up. While I was living in Baden-Württemberg, I took at least 4 ride shares a month for over a year, and in that time, maybe one stood me up.
So even though X was nervous about taking one back to Berlin (she’d gotten the train to Brussels), I managed to talk her into it. You can pretend to sleep if you don’t want to make small talk, I told her. It’s more comfortable than a bus. There were no rides straight from Brussels to Berlin, but I found us a bus to Cologne and then a ride share from there, since it’s always easier to find rides within Germany.
Our lovely friend K packed us a bag of provisions and escorted us onto our bus, and everything was looking up. X didn’t get carsick and we arrived early in Cologne. The bus took us to Cologne Central Station, where our ride was supposed to pick us up in an hour. I figured we’d have plenty of time to get a snack, use the bathroom, and catch the ride without any stress. But it’s a huge station with several different exits, so I called about an hour before the pickup to find out exactly where we should meet the car.
No answer. Trying not to worry and to keep X calm, I continued to call intermittently until the ride should have arrived and after. The guy never even picked up his phone.
Not to worry, I told X. There are plenty of rides from Cologne to Berlin. We went to a cafe with Wi-Fi in the station and I called up one leaving at 6:30, giving us over an hour to reach it. Sure, the driver said. He had two seats left. We should wait at the back of the station near McDonalds and the parking lot for buses.
So we did. Long before he was supposed to be there, and long after. A couple of backpackers came up to us and asked if we were waiting for the ride to Berlin. We were, I said. Could we reach the driver? We couldn’t, I said. They got on a train.
The last train to Berlin leaves at 7:48 pm, X told me. She was all in favor of it. I told her I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to pay for an expensive last-minute ticket, but she said she’d pay for it and I could give her the money later. I figured we’d wait until just before that train in case the driver showed up, after all, and then catch the train. We both had to work the next morning and we’d be back late enough as it was.
We went back into the station, resigned to taking the train, and I checked the departures board to see what platform we needed. Funnily enough, it didn’t list any train to Berlin, at 7:48 or any other time. Oops, said X. I mixed it up. It was 7:28.
So we started to look at night trains. There were two: one that went straight to Berlin and one where we’d have to change twice and still arrive late to work. Both were sold out, according to the ticket machine. X thought we’d have better luck with a person so we went to the Service Center. We had to draw a number and wait ages to have a woman tell us to ask someone at the Info Center. Once we finally got to the head of the line, the man at the Info Center told us he couldn’t believe that every night train would be sold out on a Monday night, but he had no way of knowing so we’d better try at the Service Center. We went back.
Everything was still sold out. The same woman offered us a worse connection. X told her she had to be in her office by 9:00. The woman showed us a connection via Frankfurt where we’d have to run from one station to the other in the middle of the night. I said we wanted to think about it and reminded X of a bus we’d seen listed on the ride share website. X hates long bus rides, but even she saw that it would be better to avoid a transfer and just get straight to Berlin. Neither of us would be able to sleep in the overnight bus, but at least we’d get to Berlin in time for a shower before work.
At this point, we’d already been trying to get out of Cologne for over four hours. It’s a big city with a lot of transportation options, so you wouldn’t think it would be that hard. We decided to regroup at Starbucks (we felt that we’d already used up our Wi-Fi rights at Coffee Fellows) and have a hot chocolate to fortify ourselves.
X started up her laptop and clicked on the link for the bus. And every bus from Cologne to Berlin. They were all sold out. Even the ones that said they were still available just led to error messages saying the bus was full. We decided to take the Frankfurt route the woman at the Service Center had suggested, but that was sold out, too.
We were both starting to panic. How could we have so much bad luck in one evening? What about Cologne-Bonn airport, I said. X said something about not wanting to get on a plane when our luck was this bad, but she opened the website. Nothing more was flying that night, and all the flights in the morning were too late to get us to Berlin on time. I began to wonder whether we should just check into a cheap hotel and try again in the morning, but we were too afraid that the Cologne-Blair Witch Project effect would continue on into the next day.
To hell with it, I said. I’ll drive us there. It was already after nine pm, but I left X in the Starbucks and did a lap of the station. There had to be a car rental somewhere. Finally, just as I was about to give up, I saw one right next to Starbucks, in the opposite direction I’d walked off from.
There were too rival counters, so I went with the one where the man greeted me instead of giving me a blase glare as his colleague from the other desk did. The place was closing in less than an hour.
Could I rent a car and give it back in Berlin? I asked. The man gave a very popular German response: “Theoretically, yes”. He wanted to know whether I was old enough to rent a car (i.e. over 25) and said that it would be expensive. I nodded and he started to fill out the paperwork.
There’s just one more thing, I interrupted him. I need an automatic gearshift.
He looked a little like I’d just asked him for a private jet. Theoretically the car rental did have automatic cars, of course, but they were all spoken for. I couldn’t just take one to Berlin. It must have been pretty obvious how desperate I was though, because he decided to check one last time, and, lo and behold, there was just one last automatic Opel left. Great! I said. Let me just get my friend.
When I got back to Starbucks, X was close to tears on the phone with her mom. I made frantic gestures to indicate that she was needed outside the coffee shop. She made a vague remark about me driving and hung up.
Just as she was getting out her bank card next door, I remembered the other thing I’d wanted to ask about: Could we rent a GPS?
Theoretically, yes. But there were none left.
We can use your smartphone, though, right? I looked at X. Of course we could, she said. The man told us where the car was parked. We signed a few papers and he gave us the key.
We didn’t even stop to use the bathroom. We could do that at a rest stop. For the moment, all we wanted was to finally, after six hours of trying, get the hell out of Cologne.
I was nervous at first and gave X a stern lecture about how she must not nod off or lose concentration for an instant because she was the navigator. I was just driving. She put Berlin Alexanderplatz into Google and we set off. A few minutes later, we were exiting for the Autobahn. I was still a little scared, but also kind of excited. Mostly, we were relieved to get out of the city.
Everything was going really well, and I even felt good driving on the Autobahn. I’ll just stay in the slow lane at first, I told X. Get a feel for things. We’d have a relaxed trip, I said. Take a lot of breaks, keep awake, have fun. And then, just outside of Wuppertal, while all the exits still led back to Cologne, her phone died.
Not to worry, she said. She had a USB with her and could just connect it to her laptop, which was in the back of the car. I took the next exit for Wuppertal and stopped at a rest stop.
The gas station was closed. We used the bathroom at an industrial looking Chinese restaurant with no guests and stopped in the only place that really looked open, a KFC, so I could buy a latte. Then we went back to the car to regroup. We hadn’t had dinner but we’d bought a couple pretzels in the station. Things were looking fine.
And then X noticed 1) that her laptop was barely charged itself and 2) that it wasn’t charging her smartphone at all.
I was sort of over disasters at that point. Go back to KFC and plug in your phone charger, I told her. I didn’t want to stay at the rest stop too long because I was afraid of getting tired. I figured she could charge it a bit and we’d have it for navigational emergencies. While she was gone, I called my friend L and said, you’ve got to help us get back from this parking lot in Wuppertal, I’ll explain later. She said, I’m asleep, can’t you call J? So I did. Just the Autobahn numbers and the directions, I told him. Anything else would be too complicated to write down for the entire trip. I noted the directions on a piece of paper and thanked J. Just then, X scared the hell out of me by trying to open the passenger-side door with no warning.
None of the outlets worked, she said. I had the directions though so we set off with some confidence for the direction of Dortmund Airport. It was a long time before that was listed and we were terrified of landing in Cologne again until that finally disappeared from the exit signs. I drove around 80 at first, afraid of leaving the slow lane, but I felt more and more comfortable as we continued. X intermittently told me which exits were coming up and when we needed to get in the right lane. Once she saw that I wasn’t going to flip out for a while, she mentioned that a bathroom break would be a good thing.
No problem, I said. We’d go to a less sketchy rest stop, this time, fill up the gas tank, get some chocolate to keep us going and charge her phone. We got off somewhere outside of Kassel, wove through a labyrinth of parked trucks and ditched the Opel. Funnily enough, the outlets at the station shop didn’t work, either. X began to realize that it was her phone. Maybe it was that bottle of water you spilled in your purse earlier, I suggested. But whatever it is, you can worry about it later.
We took our snacks and drinks out to the car, pumped gas for the first time (in Germany, for me, and at all, for X) and set out again. Finally, things seemed to be working. I drove a little faster, thinking we might get in to Berlin in time to sleep a couple hours. Berlin is about 600 km from Cologne, but the Autobahn was practically empty since it was the middle of Monday night.
What was that next Autobahn we needed? I asked X.
She didn’t answer right away. Darn, she finally said. She’d put that paper with the directions on the handle of her door so she wouldn’t lose it. Well, keep looking, I said. It was too late to call anyone else now. It took us a long time to admit that it might have blown out of the car at the gas station.
We couldn’t remember any of the Autobahn numbers but we recited the order of cities to cheer ourselves up: Braunschweig, Magdeburg, Berlin. We could do this. People, I kept reminding X, had also driven places before GPS. Of course, they usually had a map or some idea of where they were going. We could barely even guess the position of these cities relative to Berlin, let alone to our current location. But what else could we do? I kept driving.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sky started to lighten up and the number of trucks on the road increased by about a thousand times. I started to spend a lot more time in the passing lane, and a lot more time cussing out other drivers. X had a fit of hysterical, sleepless giggles that lasted ’til long after Braunschweig, but she managed to keep watching the highway signs and handing me my apple spritzer or a piece of chocolate on command. Sometimes I had to declare martial law and remind her that I might crash the car if she neglected these duties.
It was still a hell of a long drive after we saw the first sign for Berlin, but at least we finally knew we were really going the right way. My lower back ached and I was soaked with sweat because X couldn’t really figure out the air-conditioner. Even my right leg was sore from driving for so long. Once we reached the city limits, we still had a long way ahead of us through all those parts of the city you don’t go to because you’ve heard that people there are a little too far to the right, and because they’re so far from the center you’d never wind up there by accident.
At the beginning of the trip, when we still had a GPS, it had said we’d be in Berlin by 5 or 6 am. We filled the gas tank again sometime around 9. When I checked my phone, there were quite a few messages from J and L asking where we were and begging us to respond. Everyone was a little worried. But also curious about how we’d ended up somewhere as obscure as Wuppertal on an ordinary Monday night.
We dropped the car and could hardly believe that was it. X was late to work but said she’d explain when she got there. I still had half an hour thanks to flextime. We gave each other a high five before we caught the U-Bahn in different directions: We made it! And each of us had learned something. X, that she could hold it together when she really needed to, and me, that driving on the Autobahn wasn’t all that bad. With a GPS, it might even be fun.