Germany in Summer: Traffic Jams and Austrian Soft Drinks
“Have you packed everything?” my wife said staring at me the way I imagine she stares at particularly unruly children in her classroom.
“Yes, of course I have, why do you always ask me that?” I knew exactly why she asked me that; numerous forgotten toothbrushes and return journeys to hotels to pick up mislaid headphones had ensured that I am no longer trusted to pack my bags without her listing off every conceivable item I could easily forget. I understand that, although I would never admit it, to her face at least. Even if I had forgotten something, we wouldn’t be away long enough for it to be a problem. We were about to embark on the annual weekend family trip to Austria, in order to climb mountains and in my wife’s case play Rummikub or Die Siedler von Catan against her brother with a ferocity only people with siblings can ever understand. I would not be playing. In these situations I prefer to remain neutral, like Switzerland, for fear of being mistaken as an enemy combatant. However, before we could even think about board games we first had to make our way to Austria from Nürnberg.
Mountain climbing is not just my German families annual tradition, it is actually one that many Germans partake in. Bavaria is often credited with being the mountain climbing state of Germany, but as we sat in unending, mind-numbing traffic it was clear from the license plates that every part of Germany was represented. Sitting in traffic is actually one of the many little traditions that Germans “enjoy” during the summer months. Every year thousands sit staring at the brake lights of cars from as far away as Berlin, wishing they could just simply teleport to their final destination. Until the time that human teleportation becomes a reality, most Germans will instead opt for finding ingenious, and infuriating, ways of circumventing traffic jams: Driving straight through rest stops, dramatically swerving into different lanes or undertaking on the hard shoulder are some ways that German drivers choose to speed up the process of traffic.
In fairness, much of the traffic frustration comes from drivers from outside Germany. There is a common belief in the UK that the worst drivers in the world are Italian, due to anecdotal tales of Italians performing hair raising manoeuvres or experiences gleaned from a two week holiday in Tuscany. In Germany, the belief is that the Dutch are the worst cause of road congestion, thanks to their weakness for driving slow moving caravans. In my experience, it is any driver from outside Germany driving on the Autobahn that will cause the worst problems.
Take as an example the British driver, for the sake of not appearing xenophobic and because they exhibit many of the common faults of the non-German driver. The British are easily identified either by the small “GB” on their license plates or their much larger “GB” sticker emblazoned on the back of their cars. The British have heard exciting tales of the German Autobahn, such as the lack of speed limits, and have been fed a steady diet of inaccuracies thanks to TV shows like Top Gear. They often arrive in Germany with their own cars, which have the obvious issue of having the driver’s side in the wrong position. They quickly become intoxicated with the freedom afforded to drivers on the Autobahn and will attempt to replicate the Germans by driving far too close to cars in front and flashing their lights at anyone with the gumption to be in front of them. However, unlike the Germans, once they have crossed the barrier of 70mph (the British speed limit) they begin to lose their confidence. The faster they go, the less confidence they have, until they reach the heady heights of 100mph. At this point, the house of cards collapses and they panic, breaking heavily and causing anyone behind them to do the same. Extend this rudimentary explanation to the many nations on German roads in the summer and the result is tail backs as far as the eye can see.
Obviously I am a British driver in Germany, but I had the benefit of a German driving instructor, a man who instilled in me the understanding that driving on the Autobahn was a privilege not a right and if it was up to him, I wouldn’t be allowed a bicycle, let alone a car. This stern, but fair assessment of my abilities made me more conscientious and more willing to listen to his expert opinions. It was his skill, not mine, that allowed me to pass my test. Due to his tutelage, I am more inclined to give way and trundle along in the slower right lane, behind the lorries and Dutch caravans.
Once we finally crossed the Austrian border, the traffic was again under speed limit restrictions (120kmph) and we were free to enjoy the amazing scenery as well as the next small German summer tradition of buying as much Almdudler as can be carried. Coming only second in sales to Coca Cola, Almdudler is Austria’s home-grown soft drink made from herbal extracts. My first introduction to the drink was my brother-in-law demanding we stop the car at the nearest service station after the border, rushing into the shop and emerging with a case of the stuff. I might not have any statistical proof, but I imagine Almdudler’s profit margins go through the roof once the German summer holidays begin.
The journey to the Alps may be fraught at times, but once you hit the mountains, it becomes one of the most enjoyable trips regardless of traffic or heart burn from drinking too many herb based carbonated drinks. Half the battle is not stopping at every vista to take photos or causing a major pile up because you were ogling a castle atop a mountain. Once we arrived at our destination, we went through the arduous but necessary process of unpacking the car and I am still impressed with my German families ability to pack every conceivable item required for a weekend away into such confined a space as the back of a car. It is no surprise they are so effective, given their continuing obsession with playing Tetris on every car journey. My wife currently holds the record for highest score, although no doubt that will be broken by her brother next time we take a road trip.
Over the weekend we climbed, we traversed, we drank beer and we barbecued, which covers most of the important German holiday activities. We did not take the traditional trip to the Austrian cheese shop to buy kilos of Bergkäse, but you can’t have everything I suppose. As we packed to leave and once again enter the return traffic over the Austrian border, my wife cycled through all my possessions in reverse order and much to her surprise I had not managed to lose anything. “I think I’m getting better at this” I said cheerily. My wife simply gave me another look, one that I know means I still have a long way to go.