Buying my first car in Germany and driving on the German Autobahn

My husband and I had been searching for the right car for me for weeks when we finally found one. You might wonder why it would even take weeks to find a car. It’s Germany. The Germans are known for their superior car building, right? Correct. But Germans also hate automatic transmissions, and that’s a problem since I’ve never even sat in the driver’s seat of a standard. My husband kept assuring me it would be fine and showed me endless posts of standards until I finally told him, “Honey, if we are going to look at standards, you need to know something before you teach me how to drive one… I know nothing at all, not even a little bit, nothing, nothing, nothing about standards. I know there’s something called a clutch and you operate it with your left foot but I’m really not sure why, and I know that when we speed up or slow down, you have to stop holding my hand so you can change gears, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.” He thoughtfully replied, “Hmm. I think you don’t know very much about standards.” But it did the trick. I got him to stop showing me standards and focus only on automatics. The thought of driving on the German Autobahn is enough to cause a little incontinence. I don’t need the added fear of driving with a transmission that’s brand new to me.

On his favorite car site, my German searched for all cars in Germany. 45,000

With automatic transmission. Down to 4,300 (Less than 10%, folks).

With an air-conditioner (for his spoiled American). Round about 2,000

With cruise control (for his spoiled American who has trouble maintaining her speed). About 500.

500. That’s still a decent number to choose from, right? But wait… all the cars that fall into this criteria are big American cars with big engines that require lots of fuel. At nearly 8.50€ per gallon, this is unacceptable. We’d like a diesel, please, with good gas mileage. Oh, and located no more than 200 kilometers from us. We can’t afford to drive all the way to Berlin for a car. In the end, we had about 10 cars from which to choose, but we finally found this beauty. Meet Eloise (because every car needs a name, right?)…

Car

Eloise is a 2001 Mercedes-Benz A-class with only one other owner in her life, and though she’s got some years on her, the old lady who owned her was good to her and only drove her 72,000 km (just under 45,000 miles). She’s been treated well other than the hideous stickers someone had the audacity to use as accessories on her pretty red paint job. She was perfect. She was exactly in our price range with everything we wanted plus a sunroof! And at an estimated 55 MPG, she was a steal!

We found her on a Sunday morning and quickly called the dealer in München (Munich). He said he’d be available later in the evening so around 7:00 PM we started the 2 hour drive to Munich to check her out. I was excited and terrified. I knew if we bought the car, I’d have to drive her home. My fears escalated when we hit construction not long into our drive. There were no longer 3 lanes, but 2, and instead paying attention to the white lines, there were new, bright orange lines on which to focus. The road looked like it had been painted by a toddler and the new lanes were very narrow. Directly to the left of the left lane was a barricade and the right lane no longer had a shoulder. Thank God it was a Sunday! Semis aren’t allowed to drive on the Autobahn on Sundays so at least I didn’t have that to worry about.

Let me just point out that nearly every American has heard of Munich for a reason… because it’s not the tiniest of cities, and as the GPS led us deeper and deeper into the very busy heart of downtown Munich, I was reminded more and more of New York City, and the thought of driving among the many pedestrians and bumper-to-bumper traffic had my heart racing and palms sweating.

I love to drive. I’m still just as thrilled to sit in the driver’s seat and start my car’s engine as I was when I was 16 and got my first driver’s license. The ability to drive myself around means freedom and fun and the chance to get out some aggression as I wildly weave in and out of traffic and yell at slow drivers. It’s a chance to let loose and be totally in control, but the longer I’m in Germany without driving and the more my husband teaches me about the rules and convoluted road signs, the more frightening it seems.

For example, if you’re driving on a straight road in a village in Germany and a person on one of the cross streets to your right wants on your road, you have to yield TO THEM. They have the right of way! I’m certain the car dealerships greased the hands of the German politicians to pass this asinine law in an effort to cause more accidents and sell even more cars. To add more confusion to the ridiculousness, they decided the “right before left” law wasn’t ALWAYS a good thing so on certain roads you don’t have to yield (and if you do, you’ll probably be honked at by the people behind you) so I guess I’ll just drive with my shoulders up to my neck every time I get in my car until I finally figure it out.

Needless to say, I had romanticized my first German driving experience by imagining driving very slowly through our tiny village with the windows down and the wind in my hair, and then eventually making it into slightly larger towns and villages to perhaps go grocery shopping or get delicious Italian ice cream. And maybe a few weeks later, or even a month, I’d try driving in the big ole city of Nürnberg, but only with my driving instructor husband at my side. Never would I have imagined being initiated into German driving in Munich, by myself, at 10:00 PM.

As I watched my husband wait until he had less than 1 km to make the next turn before squeezing between cars in the other lane, I said with a shaky voice, “Sweetie, if we buy the car, you can’t wait until the last second to change lanes if we need to turn. You have to drive nicely. Please don’t be so aggressive.” And of course my very patient, protective, and understanding husband replied, “Certainly, my love. It will be ok.”

My husband has bought and sold many cars in his life so after a test drive and pushing every button, opening each door, looking at the engine, and checking the oil, we made the deal for 300€ less than asking price. If I could’ve cut myself into two pieces, one half would’ve done cartwheels while the other would have gotten on her knees and prayed for driving mercies. My guy handed me the keys, and as I prepared to follow him back home, I felt like my terrified 14-year-old self with my brand new learner’s permit on the day that I pulled the car over with tears in my eyes and begged my parents not to make me drive to church. He’s always gentle, but he must have seen the fear in my eyes because he tenderly kissed me and said “It’ll be ok, honey. If you need me just flash your lights at me. You’re going to do just fine.” Then he started to walk away, turned around, came back, and kissed me again. And that guy drove like a grandpa all the way home. I knew he hated every minute of it, but was thankful for his patience with me.

We did, however, encounter some slow cars on the Autobahn that not even my patient husband could tolerate. It was late and there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but I was still frightened to be in a new car on an unfamiliar road with driving laws I haven’t yet grasped, and trying to pass slow cars in order to keep up with my hubby. He often gripes about middle-lane drivers. He says, “Yeah, yeah… the right lane is only for trucks and busses. Go ahead and drive slowly in the middle lane. I’ll go around. It’s ok.” He went from the right lane, to the middle, to the left, and then back to the far right again all to pass a car in the middle lane. In America I would’ve blazed right past that middle-lane, good-fur-nothin’ driver while I was in the right lane, but that’s illegal in Germany. You can ONLY pass in the left lane so you have to make a long trek around someone in the middle lane if you want to pass them.

We’d passed several cars and I did fine. I checked every mirror twice and looked over my shoulders before switching lanes. I would never have been so scared in my Toyota on familiar American roads, but this was different. This was all foreign to me. The last time he passed someone, I waited a bit before following his lead. Finally I moved to the middle lane. I looked in every mirror and behind my shoulder and started cautiously into the left lane. As soon as I was almost completely in the lane, I saw lights and realized a car was nearly on my bumper. I swerved hard back into the middle lane to avoid an accident. My heart was in my throat and I wished with all my might that my husband hadn’t seen my foolish mistake.

You see, in America on a big highway, the speed limit is 70-75 MPH. Most people will drive between 5 and 10 MPH faster with only the occasional crazy driver going 15-20 over the limit, but that’s it. This makes it fairly easy to gauge how much time you have to get around someone. On the Autobahn, though, people frequently fly past us at my husband’s estimated speed of around 150 MPH. He often drives around 110 MPH and we’re regularly passed at a speed so fast that our car is moved by the rush of wind as if we’ve been passed by a large semi. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I shouldn’t have been surprised how quickly that car way far back in the left lane approached me. Thankfully, my lesson wasn’t hard-learned, and no accident was caused by my foolishness.

If you’re ever driving on the German Autobahn and want to pass someone by way of the left lane, but you see headlights way back in the distance, don’t be fooled by the amount of time you have to pass the car in front of you. Stay in your lane until the car on the left passes you. Odds are, it’ll only take another 2-3 seconds before they blow past you at speeds that make me a little nauseated.

Finally we made it home around midnight. I had a bit of a tension headache and my knees felt a little weak, but I’d done it. I had successfully navigated the mean streets of Munich and the wildness of the Autobahn, and avoided encountering any deer on the country roads leading up to our village.

And by the way, Eloise only has 90 horsepower with a top speed of about 170 km/h (105 mph). The fastest I drove that night was 95 mph. She’s a slow car, but she’s all mine and I’m thrilled to have her. I don’t need to drive more than 95 mph anyway. My stomach can’t handle it.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jimena says:

    Great name! Eloise 🙂

    1. Thank you, thank you! 🙂 I searched for German girl names and made a list of my favorites. Because of course she had to have a German name.

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