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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The time I drove an old broken-down car around Berlin

When we first arrived in Berlin, we saw a convoy of little old cars puttering around the city. It was Trabi Safari - a tour where you rent an old East German car and drive around following a guide, who gives you a tour through the radio. The Trabi or Trabant is an East German icon - a (relatively) affordable, compact car to rival West Germany's VW Beetle.

At first I thought it sounded all too scary - I haven't driven a manual car (or stick shift) in years, I've never driven in another country and Berlin's streets are pretty busy! But, as we spent more time in Berlin, I started to feel more relaxed, more like a local, and I felt like we needed an adventure.

So we turned up, chose our car (giraffe print, please!) and got a little introduction to the guide, the tour and the cars. Then we were told to get in. I figured this was the part where we'd do a bit of training - practice starting the car, drive around the carpark a bit, you know - no-one had even looked at my licence so surely they'd have to at least see if we could drive!

I got in the car and girl from Trabi Safari leaned in my window. "There's the gear shift. That diagram shows where the gears are. Do you want to practice?" I managed to move the stick through the gears, struggling a bit with reverse. "It's ok, you'll get used to it. Turn that key to start" I turned the key. The noisy engine spluttered to life, sounding like a lawnmower - which makes sense, because the Trabi uses a two-cylinder engine almost identical to that of a lawnmower. "Ok, have fun!" She grinned and moved on to the next car.

I sat there with James doing that nervous laugh that says 'isn't-this-fun-i'm-actually-terrified'. It's okay, I told myself. We'll start out on quiet streets so everyone can get the hang of it. The British and Australians are used to driving on the other side of the road, so they'll have to give us a bit of time to get used to that. The cheery voice of our Brazilian guide crackled through the radio.

"Okay everybody! Let's go! Follow me, we're turning right onto Friedrichstrasse... this is one of the most famous streets in Berlin..."
Yep, also one of the busiest. After stalling three times before I got out of the carpark (when was the last time I drove a manual?), I was out and in the traffic. Thankfully it was moving slowly and I made the decision to only use second gear, because changing from second to third was too scary for me. Yes, really...

Once we got to some quieter roads (I'd intentionally booked a Sunday morning tour so that there wouldn't be much traffic), I bravely attempted the second-to-third shift and didn't completely crash the gear box (except once) and started moving at an almost-decent pace.

I even got to see some sights!

This is my "I think I'm having fun but I can't tell because I'm too scared to think about anything else but driving this stupid car" face.

Had a little bit of roadwork to negotiate...

...and a little bit more...

At one point, the last car in the tour got lost. We pulled into a side street to wait while the guide car drove around looking for them. We took the opportunity to take some photos. I was in a great mood! I'd finally mastered the gears and all I could think was "I'm SO glad it's not me that's holding up everyone else... how embarrassing!"

I may have spoken too soon. When we set off again, I noticed my car was going slower and slower. Even in fourth gear (yep! I got brave enough to use ALL FOUR gears!) with my foot to the floor, it was struggling. As the second car in the convoy, I kept holding people up at every traffic light because it was so hard to get going.

This bridge is about the steepest 'hill' we encountered (Berlin is a city settled on a swamp so it's very flat). Our little giraffe car almost didn't make it - I kept picturing us rolling backwards and causing a Trabi pile-up at the bottom of the bridge!

Almost... there...

I was getting increasingly stressed and, very wisely, James decided it would be a good idea to stop taking photos and concentrate on calming me down. It eventually got to a point where we were pretty sure we were actually just rolling around Berlin, not driving. We waved madly at the guide car and everyone pulled over while he looked at our car.

Turns out one of the two cylinders in the engine had failed (is that the right word?) and I had been driving around the city with a mighty 13 horsepower. I don't know how much horsepower normal, modern cars use, but I think it's more than that. The guide offered to swap cars with us and led everyone back to the lot very, very, slowly. I'm sure I was really popular with everyone by this point.

So this is the little beige hero car that saved the day and got us home. It was much easier to drive than the giraffe car, so here's the lesson folks: never choose a car based on its paint job alone.

My drawings from that day's travel diary entry.

Relieved to have survived the adventure. My legs and hands were shaking!

James knows me well, and when he saw a waffle place across the street, he knew where to take me to recover. That's my souvenir DDR driver's licence next to my plate.

Once I'd got over the stress and decided that the experience was kind of fun in the end (I had said we needed an adventure!), I got a souvenir Trabi as a sort of trophy to remember the time I managed to drive an old broken-down car around Berlin.