For most of my first year in Germany I didn’t drive. I come from a small Canadian city with no major highways, and so the thought of the autobahn seriously freaked me out. I was, and remain, very surprised at how easy it was for my husband to simply turn in his Canadian license for a German one (which appears never to expire), to be handed a company car, and to then just be on his way. Sure, GPS is a miracle for those of us who need to navigate to work that first day, or to the nearest food market for the first time, but such technology has yet to explain to me what the yellow diamond sign means, what the white squiggly line on the road means, and what I am supposed to do when someone is riding a horse in front of me. Many expats, like my husband, cope with various expat situations, like driving, by relying on observation, common sense, and hoping for the best. I offer a cautionary tale however, of common sense, and how it may not always be your most reliable guide.
After a few weeks of observation and a little practice, I felt confident enough to drive alone to the market one town over, some near-by restaurants, and to the shore of the Rhine river to walk the dogs. When my parents came for their first German visit during Christmas 2008, I had no problem offering to hop in the car and run to the store, after realizing we were missing a very key ingredient for our homemade eggnog — rum. It was Christmas Eve, the big celebratory day in Germany, and the stores were just about to close. I had to be quick, and so did everyone else. Like most stores in Germany, there was no parking lot, which meant I had to parallel park (a much-needed for skill just about everywhere in Europe). And I did, proudly. There were rushed Christmas shoppers everywhere, running around the Kaisers market with their Raclette cheeses, bottles of Gluhwein, and of course the cookies. It was chaos. And when I returned to the car with my rum, I was dizzy with the Christmas spirit. As I then cranked the wheel to drive out of my parallel spot, crack, I smacked the corner of the car parked in front of me.
In my flustered state my first instinct was to peel away and never return to that store again. But I soon remembered that right on the front door of the car was the logo of my husband’s hockey team. A young boy, no doubt a fan, stood ten feet away and had certainly seen what I had done. With that, the fact that it was Christmas Eve, and of course because I am a good person and all, I remained and proceeded to “do the right thing”. I got out of the car, walked into a nearby apotheke, and asked the cashier for a pen and paper. As Canadian-common-sense dictates, I wrote my name and (real!) phone number, along with ‘Sorry’ and ‘Merry Christmas’, and left it on the windshield. I soon learned however, that in Germany, this was not “the right thing” at all.
German law states you must wait thirty minutes for the other party to return, in order to exchange information personally. Otherwise you are required to call the police; yes, even for such minor parking lot accidents. If you don’t follow these rules, the police will come looking for you. Over Christmas I received some very angry phone calls from the car owner (who, as it turns out, was the lady from the drug store whom I had asked for the pen) and the police. My husband and I (who were not yet married at the time) began to worry that perhaps I was no longer driving legally since I was in the country in excess of the three months allowed for tourists. And so we decided it would be smart to say it was him, the guy with the job and the Visa, that had dinged the car. After paying the insurance deductible, fixing up the car, and learning a valuable lesson, we thought we were in the clear. Six months later however, we received a notice from the Polizei Dusseldorf stating that my husband was being charged with leaving the scene of an accident- a very serious offence in Germany. We also learned that fines for such charges are tabulated based on a percentage of one’s salary. In the end, my Christmas Eve fender bender cost us 6,000 Euro.
It took some time to get over the fact that “we didn’t know” was not a legitimate excuse. And though the amount seemed excessive to us foreigners, when all was paid and done, the lessons learned were priceless. Not only did I learn that leaving a note is not sufficient in Germany, more importantly I learned that culturally-created common sense can only get you so far. Driving is serious business anywhere in the world, but in a foreign country it is especially important for a new driver to learn the laws of the land. In the case of driving, ignorance is not an excuse. Taking time to learn the laws has not only helped me avoid any further expensive mistakes, but has also helped build my driving confidence. Now the autobahn (and parking lots) is just another part of my daily, expat journey.