Driving in Germany. On the one hand, I was looking forward to it. In Thailand I didn’t drive, and after the long, hot school run I would fantasise about having my own little car and not having to wade through flood waters or flag down taxis. It somehow doesn’t seem real to me now, but here is my blog about the school run, Thai style to prove it.
But on the other hand, I hadn’t driven for three years. And there was the small issue of driving on the right – and by that I mean the wrong – side of the road. Like us Brits, the Thais drive on the left so it was just what I was used to.
My first attempt at driving in Germany was not so good. I went out in the car with my husband and kids. Let’s just say it’s not for nothing that my husband isn’t a teacher. Five minutes in we swapped seats and drove back to the apartment. In silence. I decided I’d be better on my own. Hmm… ‘better’? Well, there was definitely less shouting. And only one scream (my own, I hasten to add) as I realised I was driving the wrong way down a main road. Lucky that I went out early on Sunday morning and there were no other drivers around.
I felt rather pathetic about how nervous I was in the car. When I had to drive with the girls the thirty minutes to our new house to move our cases over, I think we all pretty much held our breath the whole way. Several wrong turns and a slightly dented wing mirror later we made it. And it may just have been the sheer relief of getting out of the car that made them hug me and tell me I had done a good job. If nothing else, they’ve learned that we reward effort in this house rather than results…
But when I got talking to other parents at school I realised that I was not alone in this. The Americans, who I figured would be fine – because they also drive on the wrong side, hated the tiny narrow streets – the dinky parking spaces and having to parallel park. I was told a woman the previous year had burst into tears in the playground because she was so scared of driving. Others avoided the autobahn at all costs, because the no-speed-limit zones freaked them out, the sound of cars screeching past them gave them heart failure.
Another friend had no problems driving here whatsoever. But what she did have a problem with was discovering she had to take her driving test again. (Some states in the US do not have reciprocal agreement with Germany, check here for more information). And the German test is not easy. Fortunately she sailed (or should that be motored?) right on through. Other people I know were not so successful and had to have their partners taxi them around until they managed to pass. Not a recipe for marital harmony…
Fortunately as Brits we didn’t have to take the test, because I’m pretty sure I would have failed. I never had a problem with exams, but I did manage to fail my driving test a rather spectacular three – yes three! – times. My husband took the driving test in Thailand, which is one I think I could pass. It involved sitting in what was essentially a static go-kart and proving you could put your foot on the pedal to do an emergency stop…and that was pretty much it!
So why did I find driving so hard? I guess for those few weeks, the way I felt in the car was an amplification of how I felt generally. I was back in Europe and the cars, the streets, the countryside – it all looked like what I was used to. But it wasn’t quite right. I was on the wrong side of everything. I was having to do something that I had been competent at before, but do it differently. And that took time and some adjustments.
Going anywhere in the car was hard because I’d never been to any of these places before – I didn’t know the street names, or the relative distance between towns. I was having to build a mental map from scratch and, when you’re already navigationally challenged, that’s tough.
The other thing that was different was the rules of the road. Not the actual rules (although I have something to say about those too) but the way of driving. Bangkok may have the second worst traffic in the world, but you rarely hear anyone beeping their horn. Karma is king and you can make the biggest driving error and people let it pass. And if you happened to get stopped by the police? Nothing a handful of baht won’t solve. But in Germany YOU GET BEEPED AT FOR THE SLIGHTEST HESITATION. And I write that in capitals because that’s what it feels like – like you are being shouted at all the time. However, if you want to park your car right outside a bakery, obstructing the street and basically being a massive hazard, that’s ok. Because bread is really important here.
Like most of the other things that stressed me out when we got here, it got better and now it’s no problem. But it helped knowing it wasn’t just me that struggled with this. There were other people in the same boat. Or car. And as it happens, I actually like the autobahn now. However, those fabled ‘no speed limit’ zones are sandwiched between varying speed limits which mean that it’s very easy to get a ticket. My husband’s collected a fair few. I have only the one (touch wood). I don’t know whether I got it because I was going 35 in a 30kmph zone or, as the photo showed, because I had my eyes shut. It was like I was showing off – neh neh, I’ve got so used to this driving lark I can do it with my eyes closed…
Driving in Germany – Top 5 Tips
Choose your car wisely
Let me preface this by saying I have no interest in cars whatsoever. As long as it gets me where I want to go (ok, I guess that depends on me more than the car), has a comfy seat and, ideally, a cup holder I’m happy.
But I am so pleased that we decided to get an automatic. If I’d have had to fiddle around with gears as well as concentrating on making sure I didn’t drive into oncoming traffic – it wouldn’t have been good. Top Gear contestant I am not. Friends who have more than two kids have said that cars with sliding doors have made getting in and out of parking spots a lot easier. And no, I’m not talking Lamborghini. I’m talking VW Sharan…
A Sat Nav will save your sanity
You know how I mentioned building that mental map? Well my sat nav helped to stop me from actually going mental as I was trying to build it.
Read up on road signs
When you’re driving in Germany not everything is the same. It was a while before I found out that you always give way to your right. The exception is when there’s a yellow diamond sign. I panicked at the thought of how many near-misses I might have had, thinking I was totally in the right. And on the right. (hopefully). If you are coming from the UK, here is more information, and here is a guide by the US military which is also useful.
Mind your manners
Now I know I’ve mentioned the beeping (which I hate) but take a tip from the Thais and don’t react. Abusive behaviour in the car could get you a fine, so better to count to ten and think of karma.
I have done this once – gesticulated, I mean, not counted to ten. Apparently I was too slow at an intersection. The woman behind me jumped out of her car and, screaming at me, tried to open my door. Luckily I was with my German friend who was as shocked as I was. Even luckier, a gap in the traffic appeared and off I went. I flicked her the V’s as we sped off (within the speed limit of course). As my friend said, ‘That’s a very British gesture, she probably thought you were doing the ‘Peace’ sign’. So, in a nutshell – try to be calm, doing the Peace sign may help, and remember there are nutters everywhere…
Winter tyres are a requirement when you are driving in Germany. I had thought that you had to have them on by a certain date, but this is not the case – the requirement is weather dependent. However, sometimes snow comes early. In that case it may be hard to get an appointment to get them fitted. So my advice is to get them booked in early and off your to-do list. For more information click here.