Fahren, Fahren, Fahren: Meditations on the Autobahn

Did you know that on the autobahn, the German motorway, there’s technically no speed limit? There is an “advisory” speed limit of 130kph (around 80mph), but it seems that many people are happy to ignore it. Our car wobbles slightly as middle-aged men with Audis and a point to prove fizz past us. Makes me wonder if they’re late for something or just out for the thrill. I’ve heard you can do Maastricht to Berlin in a little over 5 hours, but I’ve never needed to be anywhere that fast.

Still some hours to go on our way to Munich, and we pull over for our third stop. The service station looks exactly like the last two since they’re all operated by the same company. Still, it would be nice if they’d change things up a little, at least to diminish the déjà vu I get every time I walk into one of these places.

The service stations look like they’re designed to piss off motorists, especially ones with kids. Before you get to the things you might actually need on the road — maps, windscreen cleaner, coffee — there’s a set of shelves and a couple of rotating display stands dedicated to the sale of crappy, cheaply-made toys and trinkets. In most toy shops these things would gather dust for years and eventually be given out freely with purchases to customers who still don’t want them. But here, they are enthusiastically grabbed at by children so starved of entertainment or stimulation that they’d probably beg to be bought a roll of toilet paper if it meant having something to play with.

While my friends join the back of a long line of tired, sweaty drivers leading to the coffee counter, I peruse the shelves and find a scale model of one of the cars that passed us on the autobahn a while back. Or is it the same one? I can only assume that the driver was going so fast that the speed somehow shrunk his car to miniature size. I open the tiny doors and check for him inside, assuming that he, too, shrank to a scale-model version of himself. But he’s gone — obliterated, I suppose. I say a short prayer for him and respectfully place the car back on the shelf.

Then I check out the drinks fridges. I’ve got three ‘korte bons’ (discount coupons) worth 50 cents each that I earned from my visits to the toilet at each service station. Nursing a headache after spending all day in a stuffy car, I’m dismayed to find that my €1.50 in toilet vouchers is not even enough for a 500ml bottle of water, the cheapest of which costs €2.00. And even at that price the water has that weird slimy feel and taste, as if there’s a thin layer of vomit on it. Weirder yet, as my friend points out, is that a shot of Nescafe’s iced espresso — there to awaken and refresh weary drivers — costs more than a bottle of Corona, whose effects are somewhat the opposite. I leave the service station amazed that there aren’t more deaths on the autobahn.

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