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Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Prague: Paris To A New Generation

Prezanians rebel, even with victory [1993]. When dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-war democratically elected president, he deemed the presidential palace to be far too opulent a place in which to get things done.

He promptly moved the home of his emerging nation’s government to his modest apartment, surprising no one: “Bohemian” means “free spirit”, and as Prague is the natural as well as geographical capital of Bohemia, la vie boheme is the order of the day.

Prague has systematically and unabashedly established itself as the Paris of the MTV generation. The Warsaw Pact is ancient history; anybody coming to get a glimpse of an “east bloc” city is embarrassed to find himself three years too late.

These days the small cafes which dot the streets of the stare masto are teeming with tweedily shabby-dressed chain-smoking writers arguing over endless cups of espresso, world-weary American 19-year-old lit majors having philosophical discussions straight out of Woody Allen movies and scruffy-looking Marx-bearded chess players brooding over their boards.

Never was Prague’s Bohemian spirit more evident than in August, 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague. A cultural revolution was ignited by this violation, and artists and the intelligentsia burrowed deeply underground, but never stopped producing. Books were secretly distributed in manuscript form; apartments became private art galleries and theatres. This hoard of artistic artefacts was thrust forth to a culturally ravenous population after the “velvet revolution” of 1989.

When word of Prague’s renaissance began filtering through the Eurograpevine, Go East, young man became more a way of life than a slogan. This seductive city, so durable and unconquerable that it resisted the Soviets’ knee-jerk attempts at uglification, remains a fairy tale setting that is irresistible.

It is old (even the “New Town” dates to the fifteenth century), and the city is a potpourri of beautiful parks and greenery. Its Gothic masterpieces are unintimidating, and its baroque and Renaissance architecture all somehow managed to sidestep being ruined or razed during centuries of European and Communist strife.

It is no wonder then, that Prague has become home to what seems like every artist, poet, painter, writer, actor, musician, model and student whose careers have been stunned by the lingering recession of the Western world.

The city’s main drag, Vaclavske namesti, is an explosion of bustling shops, news and fast-food kiosks, mid-range (but overpriced) hotels and impromptu shows throughout the day. Whether it’s a fashion show, buskers, street magicians or just a Danish backpacker getting hassled by the police for throwing firecrackers, there’s always something happening.

The atmosphere is right out of ‘sixties American television – it’s the “good parts” version with all the music, free love, long-hairs and street-corner philosophers, while strife, generational misunderstandings and Vietnam have been tastefully left on the cutting room floor.

A walk from the Mala Strana, or “little quarter” across the fourteenth century Charles Bridge towards the Old Town on a summer evening is a “Who’s Who In Prague” tour. The bridge, one of 16 that span the Vltava River, offers spectacular views of the city and Prazsky Castle, and everybody knows it. Groups congregate amidst the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century statuary and on, around and actually in the pylons at both ends of the 603 meter span, clumped as discretely as New York City neighbourhoods: 20 metres from the architectural grad-student crowd will sit a group of hashish-smoking, guitar-playing flower children, while a nearby commercial film crew frantically sets up a shot before they lose their light.

Everywhere there is a palpable feeling of a reborn city coming in to its own. The thriving expat community didn’t come here to escape the realities of the “real world” so much as to a haven in which they could create their own.

“I’m 25,” says Amy Leanor, Program Director for a soon-to-open radio station, “I got a communications degree from U Mass at Amherst, and the best I could do at home was land a spot at Blockbuster Video. I’ve got opportunities here I could never get anywhere else and I live like a Queen for like $A400 a month. If that’s escapism, I escaped.”

But expats aren’t the only ones flourishing – they’re just loud and proud about “finding their own”. The Czechs, on the other hand, never lost it, and continue to use anything as an opportunity for entrepreneurship. The law of the land here used to be “if it’s not required, it’s forbidden”. Restructuring the law to keep up with regulating rediscovered freedom is a process lengthy enough to ensure that when an entrepreneur starts up a business, it’s legal until someone can prove it isn’t. So state-run cafes become performance art centres, apartments house language schools and night clubs, galleries and theatres open everywhere and anywhere with impunity.

In the basement of Radost FX, for example, Prague’s latest “New York” style nightclub, sits former President Havel’s former bodyguard Jon Bok. Bok recently opened a literally underground art gallery – in the club’s Gent’s room. Visitors to the loo can, on alternate evenings, see or buy paintings or listen to Czech philosophers speak and rant. In the West, some might think a Gallerie Toilet a bit on the odd side, but Bok told Prognosis, Prague’s English-language paper of record, that “it doesn’t matter what people think of me. When I come home with my pockets full of money and my wife is happy, then I’m happy too.” And a lot of money is being made here, as more and more Volgas, Trabants and Wartburgs, replaced with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis attest.

A city that attracted 5.3 million visitors last year alone, though, would have to be more than just a playground for black-clad, ambitious new-age hipsters, and to young and old, Prague doesn’t disappoint. “I came here first with my father, two years ago,” says German-born Prague resident Christian Schwenk. “He did the cathedrals and the opera while I was dancing and getting trashed in the clubs. When I lived in London, he came to visit once, since I moved here he’s been over four times!”

For culture-vultures, Prague’s a treasure-trove of castles, cathedrals, museums and classical music and theatre, and if you stayed a year you’d only see half of it. World renowned for its tower-packed skylines, playfully sculpted facades and lofty spires, Prague gives the feeling of being on the set of a knights, dragons and maidens movie. The prerequisite walking tour starting at Vaclavske namesti, down through the Old Town past the Tyn Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church, across the Charles bridge and up the steep hill to the Prazky Castle is enough to instil inspiration to see it all, or intimidate into dashing for the nearest beer hall – in either case, Prague is accommodating.

Nightlife, which at least a few people have come here for, runs the gamut from classical concerts at the Dvorak Museum and Nosticky Palace to jazz in the Red Hot &Blues and Cafe Nouveau, to head-bashing heavy metal in Rock Bar Uzi (also known for its tattoo parlour) and everything in between. For pub-crawlers, Prague is a utopian free-for-all of cabarets, cafes, beer-halls and coffee houses, all abuzz about…well, everything.

Czechs make some of the world’s finest beer, and there’s a huge variety of it. More important, it sells from around $A0.40/half litre (this is not a typo). Be sure to wander into some of the older, more run down, out-of-the-way beer halls that ring the city. You walk in to a smoke-clouded room, sit at picnic-style tables and before you can say “Pivo prosim” a half-litre tankard of pilsener is thumped down on the table in front of you (if you’ve had enough, say it fast; the next round comes out with neither request nor warning!). Shunned by trendsetters, you’ll find your drinking companions in these establishments to be burly Czechs washing down several buckets of suds after a long day of thinking about it.

For homesick Americans, Brits and Aussies, stopping into the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14 is entering a bastion of English-speaking civility. Owned by a 26-year-old expat American, this used bookstore-cum-cafe has evolved into the epicentre of Prague’s expat cafe society. One California-healthy meal and several cappuccinos later, you’re braced to take on the oh-so-hip party animal crowd that swarms RC Bunkr until three am.

As you ride home through cobblestone back streets in a Volga taxi on a rainy night, it’s easy to imagine the place as the perfect backdrop (which it was until 1989) for a Ludlam thriller. The city’s rolling hills, winding roads lined with fifteenth-century buildings and entrenched cafe society were as powerful a magnet to Cold War spooks as they are to the hundred thousand or so expats and nouveau-Bohemians who now call Prague home.

If You Go …

Visas
Australian and New Zealand citizens require a visa to visit the Czech Republic, available from the Czech Embassy or your nearest consulate. Visa prices range from $A32 for a single entry 30 day stay to $A90 for a multiple entry 90 day stay; you’ll need a passport with more than six months’ validity and one passport sized photograph.

Getting There
Qantas ((02) 957 0111) offers standard economy fares from $A2,099 ex-Sydney via Fankfurt or London, count on up to $A2,800 during May-August. Student travel specialists STA Travel ((02) 281 9866) have flights to Prague via Rome and London for around $A2,200-2,400, but they’re the best bet for as-yet unpublished special discount fares.

Money
The Czech currency is the Crown (Kcs), and the exchange rate hovers at around $A1=Kcs19.00. Changing money on the street is dangerous and unnecessary; rates aren’t great, ripoffs are common, and legitimate exchange offices and kiosks are practically on every corner. Note that Crowns can’t be converted anywhere outside the CR, so don’t change more than you’ll need.

Guidebooks & Information
Prognosis, Prague’s excellent English-language bi-weekly newspaper/cultural bible, is an indespensible source of up-to-the-minute practical information in this fast-changing city. Check it for reliable restaurant, cafe, club and pub listings, reviews and prices. Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe on a Shoestring is great for sights but outdated; Let’s Go: Europe has an excellent accommodation section; Frommer’s Eastern Europe is hands down best for history, culture and architecture.

Getting Around
Prague has one of the cheapest and most sensible public transportation networks in Eastern Europe. Buses, trams and the gleaming Metro (underground) run from about 05:00-midnight, and night trams take up some of the night owl slack. Tickets, currently Kcs4 ($A0.20), are available at newsstands, tobacco shops and from dispensing machines in Metro stations. Hailing a taxi in the street can be an expensive proposition, always ask that the driver uses the meter (“Zapnete taximetr, prosim”).

Where to Stay
Everyone’s going to Prague: accommodation is scarce and reservations key. CKM Agency (Zitna 12; tel. 24 91 04) has listings of available space in hostels and hotels; Cedok (Vaclacske namesti 24, tel 24 19 71) is an agency specialising in short term (from one night/$A30) placement in private apartments.

Hostels (up to about $A13/person): Estec is a huge and very popular complex (Metro Devicka and bus 217 to the Stadium then follow the crowd, tel. 52 73 44); Domov mladeze-Penzion is a good second bet (Dykova 20, tram 16 to Perunova; tel. 25 06 88); there’s also a newish, hard-to-find and comfortable hostel above the Central Train Station for Kcs175: walk out of the upstairs exit near the bus stops (follow the signs that say Cafeteria), turn left, walk to the end of the building, left again and through the small door that says “Hostel”.

Food &Drink
Czech food, a German-influenced Slavic cuisine, is heavy on the potatoes, with delicious dumplings and soups, roast beef, boar and duck, but Prague is packed with restaurants serving everything from Middle Eastern to American; Lebanese to Mexican and all points in between. U Cizku, Karlovo namesti 34, serves classic Czech cuisine in a very traditional seting; Jo’s Bar, Malostranske namesti 7, is a small and noisy, but authentic, Mexican cafe; U Sedru, Na hitich 13, entrance around the corner on Narodni Obrany, has excellent Lebanese specialties; Red Hot And Blues, a honky tonk, Tex-Mex/New Orleans creole legend also features live music on most evenings, Jakubska 12; if you’re dying for a pizza, head for Pizzeria San Pietro at Beneditska 16 for a classic Italian atmosphere and excellent thin-crusted pizzas and Italian food. For street snacks, kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including one of the world’s slickest McDonald’s) abound, and don’t miss trying a plate of something in the few remaining state-run “milk bars”, where cheap hot meals can be had for about $A2.00.

Clubs & Pubs
When these places close, new ones will take their place: consult Prognosis for club and pub listings. Rock Cafe, Narodni 22 – rock and disco, films in the afternoon; RC Bunkr, Lodecka 2. Hard drinking PIB’s, good live bands, young, hip crowd; Klub Alterna Komotovka, Seifertova 3, is like a totally groovy place to check out some disco and sway to some vegetarian minimalist relaxation pitches; AghaRTA Jazz Centrum, Krakovska 5, Prague’s answer to London’s Ronnie Scott’s: very cool jazz (nightly at 21:00), very cool-jazz-loving crowd; Radost FX, Belehradska 120, Rock Bar Uzi, Legerove 44 (Metro I.P. Pavlova), Za Porucskou Branou, Za poncskou branou 14 (metro Florenc) is the classic smoke filled woozy-patroned Czech beer-hall, but if you’re looking for some English conversation, hit the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14, or Ziznivy Pes (The Thirsty Dog) at Obecniho House, namesti Republiky.

Discounts
Museums, galleries, exhibitions, plays and the opera all offer student discounts, and some hostels will accept an ISIC in lieu of a IYH Card; travellers under 26 (student or not) can also get significant reductions in European train and plane fares ex-Prague; always show the card before buying the ticket, and oftentimes you’ll be asked for your passport as well.

Trains, Buses & Car Rental
There’s frequent rail service to all European capitals; tickets are always cheaper ex-Prague than vice-versa, so it’s a great place to jump off on a European excursion; tickets are available on the ground floor of Praha hlavni nadrazi, the Central Train Station near Metro Museum. CSAD Travel at Na prikope 31 (tel. 236 5332) and Bohemia Tour, Zlatnicka 7 (tel. 232 3877) offer cheap international bus tickets. Car Rental is absolutely unnecessary unless you’re taking a day trip out of the city (and can be an expensive proposition as police, empowered to impose on-the-spot-fines, find any excuse to). Avis: Opletalova 33 (tel. 2422 9848); the cheaper ESOCAR, Husitska 58 (tel. 691 2244)

And Now, A Little Trabant Joke

TrabantThe Trabant (1949 to 1989) was the GDR’s answer to the Volkswagen. Intended to be economical, convenient and ubiquitous, it succeeded in being only the latter.

Despite production times from hell (the average Trabant owner waited nine years to get their lemon), the Trabi, as it was affectionately dubbed, is still one of the most common cars on the road in Eastern Germany.

Each Trabi took so long to build because its plastic pieces (most of the vehicle’s parts, aside from the frame, hood and other necessarily strong sections, were plastic) were molded by workers running hand-operated molding systems.

A plastic car, you say, with a two-stroke engine that you had to wait two years to own?

That reminds us of a little joke.

A Texas oil man heard that there were cars in East Germany so popular that buyers had to wait years to take delivery of one. He immediately sent a check to the Trabi factory.

The directors, sensing a propaganda coup in the making, arranged to send him the very next car off the line.

Two weeks later the oil man was in a bar, speaking with some friends.

“Ah ordered me one o’ them Trabis them folks over there in East Germany wait 12 years to get,” he drawled.

“And you know what? Them East Germans are so efficient. Wah, just last week they sent me over a little plastic model so I can know what to expect!”

 

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This (minus the graphic) appears on page 250 of Lonely Planet’s Germany travel survival kit.

Surviving Oktoberfest

Alosius, the Bavarian fairy tale goes, descended from heaven to deliver a note from God to the Bavarian government, but got so sidetracked drinking beer in the Hofbrauhaus that he never got around to making the delivery.

If Bavarian beer is reason enough for one man to give up his place in heaven, it’s no wonder that each year 6 million people from all over the world descend on Munich for the Oktoberfest – the granddaddy of beer festivals.

The festival, which runs Sept. 16 through Oct. 1, is Munich’s largest and most economically important tourist attraction. Tourists and locals will leave behind almost $750 million this year, and a lot of that will be in chunks of $5 and $7 (the prices, respectively, of a pretzel and a one-liter glass of Bavaria’s finest).

There’s not a whole lot you can do about those prices, but there are ways of cutting costs during your stay.

There are several factors working against visitors economically during this year’s Oktoberfest, not the least of which is the near-collapse of the dollar against the deutsche mark (currently about 1.4 to the dollar). Where you can cut costs is on basics – accommodations, food and transport.

Accommodations
The largest expense is accommodations, and since hotel rooms are almost completely booked, it’s a seller’s market all the way. Unless you’re the most die-hard adventurer, go for a package deal; it can save you money. Average rack rates (“off-the-street” prices) in the city’s hotels range from about $60 to $125 per night; you can cut this practically in half by booking a package well in advance.

Unfortunately for hostelers, Bavarian youth hostels leave much to be desired – service can be grumpy and at the prices they charge you may as well stay in a bed and breakfast or guest house.

If you haven’t pre-booked, a wonderful local resource is the Fremdenverkehrsamt counter at the central train station and airport, and at the central office of the Munich City Tourist Board at Sendlinger Strasse 1 near the Marienplatz.

The friendly, English-speaking staff members at these offices will do their best to match your budget and book you into a hotel, B&B or hostel for a $3.50 booking charge. They also dispense reliable tourist information and maps of the city.

If you’re under 26, the cheapest place too stay is at the Jugendlager am Kapuzinerholzl – it’s a giant circus tent that gives you a place on the floor with mattresses and blankets, hot showers and free tea for an incredible $5.

Last but certainly not least there’s camping, and the weather is usually good enough to make this worth your while.

Food
Here’s where they really get you at the Oktoberfest tents.

After a liter of beer or two, the reluctance to part with $20 for a glass of beer and a chicken leg tends to waver, so make sure you eat before you arrive. Munich has an international range of restaurants, but national foods that are inexpensive in the United States – Indian and Mexican, for example – carry luxury price tags here.

Doing it yourself is obviously the cheapest way. Supermarkets vary tremendously in price. Avoid shops in the central train station at all costs, where prices for staple goods are 30 to 50 percent higher than in regular shops and markets. Also tempting – but expensive – is the outdoor Viktualienmarkt near Marienplatz, which looks like a quaint European market but is actually a luxury farmers’ market for rich locals and tourists.

The cheapest places to head for supplies are Aldi or Norma supermarkets. There’s a good Norma in the center on Landwehrstrasse just west of Sonnenstrasse, about five minutes from Karlsplatz (Stachus). The store has lots of canned goods, cold cuts, prepackaged bread, sausage and very inexpensive wine – you can get a decent liter of Italian, French or South African wine for $1 to $2.50.

Grabbing a little something is easy enough. Look for Muller bakeries and Vinzenzmurr delicatessens all over the city (several in the center). Muller has small cheese rolls and pizzas for about $1.75, and Vinzenzmurr has hot buffets and salad bars (watch the price there) and snacks from about $4 to $6, and a wide selection of cheeses. Buy a loaf of Supersonne (sunflower bread) or Finnenbrot (dark, heavy, grain- and seed-filled bread) from Muller and a couple of chunks of cheese and sausage at Vinzenzmurr – two of you will be set for the day for under $10.

Another good option for cheap eats are Metzgerei (butcher shops), which sell uniquely Bavarian snacks such as Leberkas, Schinkensemmel or Salamisemmel – respectively, a pate-like substance, ham and salami served on crusty rolls with mustard. Toss in some excellent German potato salad and enormous pickles and you can usually get a filling meal for under $5.

Finally, there are many Greek and Turkish fast-food restaurants in the area around the central station that serve shish kebab, falafel and Turkish pizza for about $3 each.

Getting Around
The festival is held at the Theresienwiese – Theresa Meadows – a 10-minute walk from the central train station, and is served by its own metro station. If you’re asking directions, say “d’wies’n” (dee-veezen), the diminutive nickname, which is what everyone around here calls the place. Trams and buses heading that way, though, sport signs reading “Zur Festwiese” – to the Festival Meadow.

You don’t want to have much to do with a car during the Oktoberfest; you wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the fair anyway. Munich’s excellent public transportation system goes on overtime during the festival, and the price of a ride is about $2 with the purchase of a Streifenkarte – five-ride strip ticket.

A special single-ride ticket for any area within two U-bahn stations of the central station is about $1. The tickets are available from kiosks, bus drivers and blue vending machines marked with a ”K” all over the city.

On any mode of public transportation (U- or S-bahn, bus or tram), you need to validate your ticket yourself. The ticket strips have numbered sections from 1 to 10. You need to cancel one section for each transport zone you will cross into; most rides in the city center take two strips.

Failure to validate your ticket can result in a hefty on-the-spot fine of about $85 by the ubiquitous inspectors who pop up out of nowhere and enthusiastically prosecute scofflaws.

Munich’s comfortable (usually Mercedes-Benz) taxis can be expensive propositions, with a short ride in the center averaging $7 to $10, and a ride to the airport commanding $50. If you’re ready to part with that, you can catch a taxi at stands throughout the city, or order one by telephone.

An Autobahn Experience

With the dollar so far down against the Euro, it feels as if the only favorable exchange rate left to Americans is one of distance: you still get 1.6 kilometers for every mile.

When the crowds of the Oktoberfest have taken their toll, and you’ve just about overdosed on museums and local sights, it’s time to head out on your own.

The famous autobahns, the freeways that make up Germany’s wonderful highway system, and the country’s compact size mean that within a half-hour of Munich’s center you can be driving through rolling green hills with the Alps practically at your feet.

And when you consider that Chiemsee, Salzburg, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Strasbourg are all within day-trip reach, the proposition gets even more attractive.

But while Americans are among the world’s most dynamic drivers, covering incredible distances each year by car, many here find themselves facing a whole new set of baffling rules and practices that amount to an entirely different driving culture.

Passed At 110
“I was going about 110 mph – fast enough to be dragged away in handcuffs at home,” said Mark Walsh, a Chicago native living in Munich, “and I got passed by a guy on a motorcycle with a passenger!”

An American driving on the autobahn is very likely to have just that sort of disconcerting experience 10 or even 15 times during an hour’s drive. On U.S. highways, getting from Point A to Point B may be the primary objective, but in Germany, it’s not just getting there, but how fast you can possibly do it.

Here’s How It Can Be
A black Mercedes appears in my rear-view mirror. It wasn’t there when I looked a second ago, and now it’s bearing down on me with great vigor. An angry flash of headlights – it’s almost on my rear bumper! I swerve frantically into the right lane and the black beast accelerates past me as if I were standing still, leaving swirling exhaust fumes and a turbo whine in the air. I glance at my speedometer: It reads 180 km/h – 113 miles per hour.

“Every German driver is convinced of two things,” says Munich native Oliver Bengl. “First, that they are an excellent driver, and second, that everyone else on the road is an execrable one.”

Bengl is exceptionally qualified to comment – he’s been a professional driver on Germany’s roads and autobahns for 10 years, in everything from Munich taxis to long-distance freight trucks, from film company vans to one of Bavaria’s most beloved vehicles, beer delivery trucks.

Wind in the Hair
Bengl suspects that Germans, who behave extremely conservatively in everyday life and business, simply need the release of high speed and feeling the wind in their hair – even if that wind is just the light puff of their car’s air conditioner.

“The average German,” he says, “spends his day in close contact with very conservative people. When he gets into his big car at the end of the day, he reverts to a Stone Age hunter mentality – he’s King of the Road.”

This assertive on-road demeanor has resulted in gesticulation (at best) and sometimes even physical fights at the roadside. It is for that reason that it is now a misdemeanor in Germany to “gesture obscenely or shout insults” at other drivers, punishable by a large fine.

Speed aside, driving on the autobahn is a very enjoyable mode of transport that can even be cheaper than public transportation if you’re traveling with someone. And contrary to public belief, there are speed limits on about 85 percent of the autobahns.

Speed limit signs are red-ringed circles containing a number. On autobahns it will usually be 110 or 120 kilometers an hour (70-75 mph). Speed traps occur rarely, but they do happen. If you don’t see a sign, there’s probably no speed limit.

All other road signs are international symbols and almost always instantly understandable.

One key exception is the puzzling circle containing a striped black slash over a blank white background.

This means, basically, “Any sign telling you not to do something before you saw this one is now overruled.” For example, the “slash” sign can end a no-passing zone.

The Kreuz
The Kreuz – the German version of a cloverleaf interchange – can be very confusing, too, even to veteran German drivers.

Modeled after, it would seem, Los Angeles’ most confusing transfer points, a Kreuz connects several highways. Signs are not what they could be, and it’s best to slow down and pay attention: Exits come up fast, and if you miss yours, it’s usually a long drive to get to where you can turn around and try again. The best strategy is to stay in the middle lane until you can figure out which way is off, then get there fast.

And Bengl adds one warning: “No matter how fast you go, someone’s going to be faster; no matter how clear your rear-view mirror is, check again… . There’ll be someone there.”

While traffic is outwardly more orderly than in the States, there’s vicious competition for passing lanes, usually from taxis.

The best bet for inexperienced drivers is to stick to defensive tactics, staying slow and safe and letting the taxis do what they wish.

There will be a far higher number of bicyclists on the streets than you may be used to, and while they usually have a separate lane, be on alert. Motorcycles and scooters are also more popular than in the States, and it’s considered very bad form indeed to sideswipe any of them.

Finally, remember that there is no right on red law in Germany.