October 2, 2008

What's My Lane?

Now let’s talk about traffic lanes because there seem to be some unofficial rules about which lanes you are supposed to use based on what sort of driver you are. As far as I can tell, the far right lane is primarily for Polish trucks... although, I suppose they can’t all be Polish. Having all the trucks in the right lane makes sense to the extent that it keeps the trucks out of the main traffic flow. However, when you’re trying to get on the highway you’re competing with an endless row of trucks that have right of way, which means they don’t slow down or get out of the way even if it means risking their own lives, and certainly not yours. But except for when you’re entering or exiting the freeway, and they’re trying to squash you like a bug, they’re pretty well contained off to the right. The second lane is for women in smaller cars like Golfs or Twingos and Dutch tourists in campers. Generally speaking, that’s my lane. And the far left lane is for escaped mental patients or people in the second lane who muster up enough courage to pass someone (you may only pass on the left). Sometimes there are four lanes, which allows the German housewives to split off from the Dutch tourists.

The roads themselves are also different from the wide, friendly, environmentally horrible highways we Americans feel entitled to drive on. For one thing, German highways are poorly lit by American standards, which makes it easier for maniacal Porsche drivers to dazzle you with their high beams. For another, Munich (like many European cities) is built on the concept of a ring. Traversing the city generally means following the ring, which is difficult because the street names change periodically and intersecting streets masquerading as the ring try to tempt you off of it and then you find yourself in some place like Unterhacking or Oberamergau with no clue how to get back. The highways are also somewhat challenging to navigate – although they are larger and more like what Americans are used to, you need full knowledge of European geography to get around because the sign won’t mention a direction or the town you’re trying to get to, it’ll say ‘Salzburg’. This works well if you know where Salzburg is relative to where you are now. Of course, even Ralf doesn’t know every single point on the map by heart so he carries around this complicated little book that folds out into many different versions of a map depending on where you are trying to get to. This map is virtually impossible to decipher and it was in part Ralf's mastery of this task that allowed me to identify him as an alpha male and the future father of my children. There's also no way to fold it up again so you only want to use it for real emergencies because you pretty much have to buy a new one each time.

The upside is that German drivers are in the habit of paying attention while they drive, which is good for American newcomers because they can spot (and avoid) you immediately by your failure to understand street signs, your sloppy haircut and/or relaxed posture while driving, your tendency to pass on the right and the jerky moves your car makes if you are driving a stick shift. Note that this does not apply to the truck drivers so give them plenty space and keep in mind that they won’t get into nearly as much trouble for running you off the road as they would in the US.

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