I have had my share of adventures behind the wheel. Curious folks may see how I had close encounters of the kanoon ke haath bade lambe hai variety by speeding in Belgium and stopping in Trivandrum. This is one of those adventures…
The story begins innocuously enough. I was at the fag end of one project (the middle of my internship) and champing at the bit. The next project was supposed to be in Luxembourg and I had long due weekend plans with other humans finally!
I’d asked one of my friends who was in Germany at the time if we could make plans to meet up in Cologne, which was around 200 odd km from Brussels. I shall call this friend Abhay*. He’d agreed, provided the other ‘fraud’ interns at Germany agreed but he didn’t see that would be a problem since none of them had come to Cologne. Not thinking this would be a problem, I agreed with alacrity.
In the middle, I got a phone call from Avis who informed me that they’d like to take the VW Golf Plus I had been driving around for a month and give me a Volvo C30 instead. I had visions of driving a large airbus. Time proved that these fears were indeed true.
But I am getting ahead of the story. This had been one week ago and on the Wednesday of the long awaited weekend, I eagerly asked Abhay what plans had been made.
Abhay very brightly answered, “We’re going to see the Mercedes showroom in Stuttgart. Cologne next week pakka.” (All thanks to GTalk archives)
I reproduce my exact words, “WTF? F*** You! This is my only free weekend.”
The next 5 minutes were spent cyber-yelling at each other, trying to pin the blame of wrong assumptions and stupidity. Till of course, I pulled out the greatest weapon known to womankind… guilt.
“TWO FREAKING DAYS! I HAVE BEEN ALONE IN BELGIUM FOR ONE WHOLE MONTH. Do you GET that? I was looking forward to meeting you @&$*@@& for at least two days.”
Abhay was nonplussed and totally wrong-footed, “Whoops. I know, darling,” said he, “Let me see if we can change plans or something. It’s just that there are 6 other stakeholders and I can’t make plans alone.”
I was just getting started, “Never mind. I’ll do something else. It’s not like I am wanted anyway.”
Abhay was rapidly feeling sorry for me, “What exactly were you doing all these weekends?”
“Sitting at home, walking through Brussels. What else?”
Abhay felt like a total heel, “You should have told me! Maybe we can do Stuttgart and Cologne. Can you drive till the Black Forest?”
“I said no need. I will go to Paris alone. I might even enjoy it.”
“There are wonderful places to drive.”
“Yeah. I love driving ALONE, which is why I am walking around Brussels alone. Forget it now, I have other things to do.”
“Shut up!” But curiosity got the better of Abhay, “What better things, busy Maharani Georgy?”
“I need to find something about the cosmetic industry**”
“Idiot. Company intranet. We are pah-sood.”
“So when can I get an appointment next?”
“Whattttteeevvvverrrr”, I drawled.
“Mochu, did you lose weight?”A complete change of subject.
“Yeah, I have been taking 3 km walks everyday because my *friends* don’t have time for me.”
A long silence ensued. Suddenly Abhay piped up, “Can you drive to Koln?”
“It depends, I have to adjust my schedule you know.”
“We have adjusted our schedule JUST for you”
“No thanks, I will stick to my old plans. Walks in Brussels, here I come! You go to Stuttgart or wherever, which is, incidentally 800 km away.”
Abhay was getting more and more depressed. The others had rejected his fine notions and I was being pigheaded. He couldn’t handle my depression any more than he could handle me kicking him. He was yet to figure out which was worse.
On the other hand, I was having a jolly good time guilting him out. Finally, it came to this…
“I am coming to Cologne, no matter what ANYONE says.”
I informed him I had no enthu for any more plans. And would he kindly get lost?
Abhay continued insisting and I finally told him I was doing this JUST for him. He thanked me profusely.
I was smiling the broad grin of a woman who had her way done.
A mail sent the next Monday sums up the weekend succinctly.
“Abhay nearly got me killed on the Autobahn. Drove 1100 km in 2 days. Conked off at the Hilton Luxembourg. Nice green place. Crappppy hotel.”
This is the story in excruciating detail…
That Friday, I got the keys to my Volvo C30. I spent 10 minutes (I kid you not!) searching for a place to insert the ignition key till I realised it was by the right side in the middle of the dashboard. The next 10 were spent staring at the road in front and gauging how exactly I was supposed to take the car out of parallel parking.
[Totally Unnecessary Aside: Incidentally, I found out something even more interesting about the car two weeks later when its battery was dead. It was this- Swedish cars only have three modes for the headlights- Dipped, Dim/Bright (Both of which are On while driving, Off while parked) and Park lights (Off while driving, On when parked). There was no way you could turn off the headlights without putting it on Park lights… this, of course, killed your batteries. The travails of using a Swedish car in countries with even minimal amounts of sunlight!]
The start to the weekend did not seem auspicious after all.
However, the irrepressible self bounced back and I packed in a week’s worth of clothes into my suitcase. I was planning to go to Cologne first and pick up Abhay. Go to Stuttgart with him, see the others and go to Weinheim for the night. The Sunday would be spent in lovely lovely Baden Baden with its Roman baths and prettiness before moving onto Luxembourg. (Bill Clinton’s comment is remembered here…”Baden Baden is so nice, they had to name it twice”)
This just goes to show something they keep saying about the best laid plans of mice and men…
I woke up well and early at 5:30 AM. Abhay had informed me that his train would reach Cologne 8:12 AM and I was supposed to be standing at the Hauptbahnhof (fancy German name for Station) with my arms outstretched and preferably some flowers. (He’s a romantic young man after all). I looked outside and it was raining merrily. I swallowed the last bit of the Orangina in the mini-fridge in my apartment and clattered downstairs in the rickety 2-man (or 1-man and 1 strolley) lift. After a bit of shuffling with my access card, I took the car out for its first long drive.
Armed with the ViaMichelin maps for Brussels-Cologne-Stuttgart-Weinheim -Baden Baden-Luxembourg, I felt reasonably happy about life. After all, what more could an intern want? Again, if fate had her way, loud bells would have been heralding the beginning of my foolishness.
The journey onwards was not too bad. It started raining heavily, but I sped forwards at crazy speeds that would have made the folks back home ground me for an entire year. At 8, I’d reached Cologne. Abhay called.
“Dude, so where is the Bahnhof?”
“It’s near the cathedral .”
“Where’s the cathedral?”
“Near the river. The whole town IS the cathedral. You can see it from the road.”
And I could. A huge Gothic monstrosity- the facade had turned black in the pollution. And somehow it was strangely moving.
I parked the car in an underground parking and ran up the stairs looking for the bahnof. And there, in an ugly concrete square, set right next to the biggest structure in Cologne, was the Bahnhof.
After some more phone calls, Abhay was found. After 90 minutes spent in the Cathedral, a walk along the Rhine (and over the opera house) and the Starbucks on the Cathedral square, we rushed into the car to ostensibly leave to Stuttgart.
All the way through the autobahn, life was fine. Abhay was having the time of his life, ribbing me about driving in Europe and scaring the locals. His words? “If you can do it, a wonderful driver like me can do so well. It’s like child’s play. Pshaw.”
Little towns whizzed past, we bid adieu to large cities, till on one of the exits we saw written- Koblenz.
On a whim, we took the exit out into the quaint little university town and fell in love with its prettiness.
We parked the car (mini-bus) along the lots near the river and paid for the parking. Abhay kept the chit in the pocket and walked away, feeling smug. I called him back, amidst laughter and pointed to him the advantages of leaving the receipt tagged to the windshield. It had been a lesson learnt the hard way after all. Abhay puffed off, a mass of hurt dignity which could only be soothed by free Indian food!
After lunch at a Pakistani restaurant (paid by me, that cheapster), the usual checking out of the local church and ramble along the Rhine, we took the car out of the parking place and drove off to find Stuttgart. But now, we suddenly realised that the ViaMichelin directions were useless.
No matter, the soldiers strove on bravely. The roads became weirder, we followed the course of the river for around 30 minutes till we figured out that we were heading in the wrong direction. After backtracking, we went on the highway and found ourselves on the way to Frankfurt AM and after over-correcting back to Cologne. Things were going weird FAST. We were completely lost.
At around 3 PM, I felt tired. It had been around 500 km later and I was rubbing my eyes. I parked on a shoulder off the autobahn and after filling some fuel at a Shell station, turned to Abhay, “Dude, can you drive? I am really tired. It’s actually quite simple, only that’s it’s a left hand drive.”
Abhay nodded his head eagerly and sat in the driver’s seat, pushing it back (I am quite short!) I collapsed on the passenger’s seat, wholly prepared to enjoy life.
The rest of the story is vividly etched in my mind… Abhay took the car by fits and starts onto the road. He was averaging around 30 kmph on the friggin’ German autobahn, where Mercs, BMWs and even Peugeots whizzed by at average speeds of 180 and the lowest legal speed was 70. Mentally I was groaning, this was a switch- getting caught for slowing on the highway must be a first.
Abhay felt confused, his machismo had evaporated and I was yelling at the top of my voice, “ABHAY, DRIVE FASTER. I DON’T WANT TO DIE.”
The car shook a little as a car zoomed past at 200 kmph. “ABHAY, TAKE THE EXIT NOW. NOW. NOWWWWWWWWWW.”
Abhay was confused, “Which one?”
He took it onto the railing.
I started screaming as if I was on a roller coaster, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”
Abhay joined me in screaming.
“PUT ON THE INDICATOR.”
Abhay obliged, unfortunately for left hand drives, the levers were interchanged and the wipers started moving. He’d found his way onto the exit back to Koblenz by now.
“AHHHH. ABHAY STOP THE CAR NOW!!!”
And he did. Right on the Autobahn, he stopped the Volvo C30.
There was pin drop silence for one second. A whole line of automobiles piled up behind us, blowing on their horns as if to ask, “Which kind of MORONS stop on the autobahn?”
I started yelling again, “TAKE… AHHHH… THE… AHHHHHHHHHHHH… CAR… OUT OF THIS MESS.”
Abhay obliged and we went to a Burger King next to a fuel station. I took a deep breath and wiped my clammy hands on my jeans.
“Maybe I ought to teach you the basics. You know you nearly killed us on the autobahn?”
Abhay shook his head silently, bravado suddenly coming to the fore again, “Maybe you ought to have TAUGHT me.”
“Maybe, but you said you knew and it was easy.”
There was another silence.
“You don’t have to thank me for this. Since on the positive side, Abhay, I am sure no girl will ever scream this way for you ever again in your life.”
PS: We finally got out of Koblenz at 4 PM and had no time to go to Stuttgart, so found our way after 90 km of wrong turns at the beautiful university town of Heidelberg. Abhay regaled our classmates with stories of how he saved my car from destruction from women drivers. And of course, he drive 10 km in Baden Baden with the hand brake on.
He’s still a good friend 😉
*Name unchanged. Abhay never needs privacy.
** Industry name changed to protect privacy.