I'm a city girl. Driving isn't my fortÃ©. I've been in more fender-benders than I care to count, and two stupendous smash-ups, the last one involving a car carrying the Goo Goo Dolls. (Fortunately, no one was hurt). Several years ago, I decided to buy a car. I spent $8,000 on a 1970 Mercedes-Benz coupe, only to have it die on our first road trip, right at the entrance of the Midtown Tunnel. I love cars, but, as my mechanic once said, we just don't get along so good.
Obviously, then, I didn't agree with my friend Heidi Hartwig when she told me the best thing about living in Berlin (she moved there from New York a year ago) is driving on the autobahns. It was a brisk June morning. I had just arrived in the city, and we were strolling around Mitte, the cool part of town. She crazy? Certainly, the best thing about living in Berlin is having the highly conceptual and overwhelmingly awesome clothing shop Strange Fruit at your disposal, or that you can get a humongous one-bedroom for $900, or that the landscape all around you looks like the East Village circa the '70s. Autobahns are just scary.
That said, I'm no puss. So when the opportunity arose to race a car
down Deutchland's speed-limit-free super-highways, I kept mum about my
dubious car skills. Adventure was calling. No one needed to know that my
French Bulldog is probably a better driver than me. If my USAA agent is
reading this, just kidding.
As it turned out -- I believe by the grace of God -- my ride wasn't a suped-up Italian sportscar with bucket seats and racing stripes (although that would have been hot) but a Volkswagen hatchback. And a new one at that: An R32, hot off the production line, with a top speed of 130 mph. Apparently, for those who are less chicken shit than I, going 130 mph is kids' stuff. I was then told by the man leading the expedition that we wouldn't be driving alone, but would be doing it in pairs. For the rest of the day, I heard Wayne Newton in my head: Danke Schoen, darling. Danke Shoen.
At 7:30 the following morning, I found myself staring bleary-eyed at my driving partner, a George Plimpton-type named Mike Guy. He'd boated down the Amazon, driven a motorcycle along the coast of Vietnam. I had no doubt that he could safely push pedal to the metal on four hours of sleep. (Apparently, he had been up all night watching a mini-marathon of Rome). But, as I was nestling into the passenger seat with three pages of directions for an hour-and-a-half drive out to the countryside in my hand, I became wholly convinced we were going to get lost. "I hope I don't get us lost," I told Mike. "Impossible," he assured, pointing to the GPS. I lowered my seat back, and we took off.
Autobahns, as it turned out, aren't all shiny and black, and filled with Lamborghinis racing like bats out of hell. They look like regular highways with squat Euro-ish cars mostly going 80. Mike wasn't gonna be one of them. He gunned our ride, and we were doing 130 in 10 seconds. Guns 'n' Roses was playing on the radio; I felt light-headed and exhilarated -- it was like eighth grade all over again. I asked Mike how the car felt. He said "solid," and I agreed, though my heart skipped several beats when he took a 90 degree turn off the autobahn going somewhere around 70.
We found ourselves cruising through some immensely bleak East German villages. Aside from an old hausfrau standing on the street looking annoyed, there was no one around. This was where the directions ended, at an old cafÃ© called Schlosse Wiesenberg, where we stopped and ate rolls with homemade jam, and where it suddenly occurred to me that the autobahns were kinda awesome. Though not as awesome as Strange Fruit.