The rest of the story about driving in Berlin is that I got in an accident. I was waiting at a traffic light, and when the light turned green, I turned right (you can’t turn right on red in Germany). There was an empty bus lane to my right, which I thought I was supposed to avoid. As I was turning, I heard a screech of brakes and felt an impact on the rear right corner, so I pulled around the corner and stopped.
It was a taxi driver, who was going straight ahead in the bus lane. She hit my rear right bumper with her rear left bumper and did minor damage to both. On the Trabant, it broke the plastic corner piece; on the taxi, a small dent and scratched paint.
To make matters worse, she was seemingly the only person in Germany who spoke not a word of English. Under the circumstances, I could remember no German. After a lot of back and forth, she managed to convey that a) she didn’t want to involve the police any more than I did and b) she was willing to take a cash settlement of 200 euros (this after calling someone — presumably her company). Since it was pretty clearly my fault, I went to an ATM around the corner and withdrew 200 euros, for which she gave me a sort of handwritten receipt with her license number and basic information. (I had already taken a picture of her license plate, but it seemed to show good faith on her part.) As far as I could tell, no mention was made of insurance.
When I returned the car that evening, I told the guy that I had damaged the car and showed him the bumper. He said, “Just the plastic? No problem! I have a lot of those things.” So everyone was happy, except for me presumably.
Or maybe so. In 1986, Alcalde and I were cruising down Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles in my 1972 Datsun 1200 (a car in much worse condition than that Trabant) and we were sideswiped by one Herman Leavitt of Century Park East, who was driving his new SUV and did not yet have insurance. He hit us at about 5 mph and mangled the driver’s side door. We settled for $150 and did not involve any police or insurance companies. $150 in 1986 is worth about $335 today, or 285 euros, so in a way I just borrowed the money from Herman Leavitt in Los Angeles to pay a taxi driver in Berlin 31 years later. And I still have 85 euros on account.
I am Even Steven.
The Trabant was not bad. I rarely needed to go faster than about 40 kph, and the Trabi is highly maneuverable. Berlin traffic is another matter.
I paid extra to have the Trabi delivered to the hotel. The guy was a little late, and there was a very Cold War feel to waiting on the street in East Berlin to meet a man I didn’t know who was driving a Trabant. Although the Holiday Inn Express I’m staying in doesn’t quite fit the scenario.
When he arrived, he gave me a brief rundown on how to drive the car, and we went for a short drive. Then he took the U-Bahn to wherever he was going next, and I took off in the Trabi.
I found one of the two remaining portions of the Wall pretty easily — it was just across the river — but parking was impossible, so I kept going, heading toward Potsdamer Platz, with the vague goal of driving through the Tiergarten. I drove through the heart of West Berlin, past KaDeWe and other high-end stores while impatient people in high-end Mercedes sedans passed me.
After some trial and error, I made it into the Tiergarten and to the Victory Column at the center. Three euros to go to the top.
Then I used Google Maps to guide me to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It got me most of the way there, then inexplicably guided me in a loop through back streets several blocks away. I found the place easily once I turned off the mapping.
The memorial is a park with a section of the wall complex as it existed in 1989, including a guard tower and the death strip between the inner and outer walls. There’s a museum across the street.
Google Maps seems to drain the battery more quickly overseas than in the US. Three times this trip it’s died on me while I’m using it. The third time was shortly after I left the Wall. My only paper map was just a tourist map and not very detailed. Effectively, I had no map at all.
But I could see the Fernsehturm, even after dark, so I figured I could just guide myself by that. My plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity.
This was at about 4:30, and I headed straight into commute traffic. Also, roughly 90% of Berlin streets are under construction for one reason or another. Often, I could see where I wanted to go, but I couldn’t get there because I couldn’t change lanes, or because construction was in the way. I looped around Alexanderplatz three times, at one point crossing the river and getting stuck in traffic that was going to an opera. I escaped by backing down an alley.
I had to go back to the hotel, because that was the only place where I knew I could both park and charge my phone, which I needed to do so I could map where to return the car.
I made it back to the hotel at about 6:00. It had taken me 90 minutes. If I had taken a more normal route, it would have been a ten-minute trip of a little over two miles.
Berlin drivers are pretty aggressive, but mostly pretty good drivers. They remind me of Los Angeles drivers in that respect. Except for the taxi drivers. They drive like Italians.
Through all of this I was a minor celebrity. Everywhere I went, people smiled, waved, and took pictures. I should look into getting one of my own. It seems like it’s kind of a babe magnet.
Yesterday I rented a Trabant station wagon and drove all the hell over Berlin.
The Trabant was the one and only car produced by the DDR, with pretty much the same design from 1963 to 1990. It had a Duroplast body, a two-stroke engine, and a whopping 26 horsepower. I briefly had mine up to 60 kph (36 mph). I don’t think it would have gone much faster.
- You have to open the gas line before starting the car, and remember to close it again when you turn it off. If the engine is cold, you have to pull the choke.
- You can only lock the driver’s side door from the outside. You can only lock the passenger door from the inside.
- You honk the horn by pushing on the blinker lever.
- Column shift! Just like my 1963 Plymouth Valiant.
- There’s no glove compartment. Just a shelf with fuses and stuff.
The two-stroke engine made it smell like my old Vespa, but the closest experience was probably driving the 1937 Oliver tractor on my grandparents’ farm.