Matrose, Matratze. Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 27

I Say Matrose, You Say Matratze. Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.

Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 27


Getting to know the best drivers in the world. What to do when you can’t find a sailor.

The discovery that punks are but a shadow of what they used to be.


The Autobahn is a road that is open to traffic in small sections, due to repairs on the detours.

– Wolf Littmann


Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.



The Mercedes van put its nose forward and pretty soon Tiberius had us rolling towards Cologne at a sedate 140km/h. It was the first time I’d been on an autobahn, and I gripped the Jesus bar on the plastic dashboard nervously.

Is something wrong?” asked Tiberius, taking his eyes away from the road to look across at me and fiddle simultaneously with the GPS, “It is going to be OK. We can go faster again as soon as we are out of this section. It is the roadworks. What is the address in Cologne where we are going?”

This stretch of Autobahn, nowadays called the A555, was also the first bit of Germany’s Autobahn network ever built.

Once upon a time, driving the Autobahn was a source of pleasure.

Contrary to the myth, Adolf Hitler did not invent the Autobahn. The original scheme was devised during the Weimar Republic and it was Konrad Adenauer, then Lord Mayor of Cologne and later West Germany’s first post-war Chancellor (see episodes 22 and 23), who opened this stretch of road on August 6th, 1932.

The Weimar scheme was to be the inspiration for Adolf Hitler’s network of “Reichsautobahn” freeways, designed to facilitate rapid movement of men and military machinery across the country. Shortly after taking power in 1933, Hitler claimed the scheme as his own and appointed the unfortunately named Fritz Todt (Fritz Death) to head the construction project, the first phase of a massive job creation program which not only helped pull Germany out of its prolonged depression, but also ensured the growing popularity of the Nazi party. The massive international borrowing which Germany conducted during this period, both to build infrastructure and to create an army capable of world domination, was later forgiven under the Marshall Plan and forgotten by the people of Germany.

Shortly after taking power, Adolf Hitler leads an FKK-Einsatztruppe in breaking the first sod on another stretch of Autobahn.

By the end of 1936, as Germany approached full employment, some 130,000 labourers were hard at work on Hitler’s ambitious Autobahn project. Between 1935 to 1938 they added close to 1,000 km a year to the network, which by 1940 comprised nearly 4,000 km of high speed roadway. Construction began to decline as the war progressed, and came to a complete halt in 1943 as the Nazis redirected labour into more pressing spheres, like armament manufacture.

In the end the autobahns proved militarily ineffectual, as the surface was too soft for heavy tanks on their caterpillar tracks, and men and munitions were far more efficiently transported along the rails by the Reichsbahn. Hitler’s dream roads didn’t see much civilian traffic either, as fuel was strictly rationed. They were a bit of a propaganda victory though, with Western nations – especially the United States – looking on in awe and later drawing on the Autobahn example as they modernised their own road networks.

In the late 1930s the Nazis also staged some spectacular automotive speed record attempts on the straight stretch of the A5 between Frankfurt am Main and Darmstadt, just next to where the Frankfurt International Airport is nowadays.

Rudolf Caracciola, looking dapper.

Bernd Rosemeyer, Caracciola’s rival.

It all came to an end on January 28th, 1938, when the Remagen-born Grand Prix ace Rudolf Caracciola piloted a purpose built 5.5 litre V-12 Mercedes to set a record speed in excess of 432 km/h for a flying kilometer. Caracciola’s long time rival Bert Rosemeyer was killed the same afternoon trying to better Caracciola’s attempt.

A gust of wind hurled his Auto Union (the company which would become Audi) streamliner into the barrier at over 420km/h and it tumbled off into the undergrowth, tearing itself to pieces as it went. Rosemeyer was flung from the open cockpit and, although he was wearing his signature aviator’s  helmet in white leather, he never had a chance. Rosemeyer’s death put an end to the Autobahn speed trials and kept Caracciola’s record safe, but numbers of amateurs still die each year attempting to emulate that feat.

The wrecked Auto Union streamliner of Bernd Rosemeyer

Even Rosemeyer’s leather helmet couldn’t save him.

Caracciola and Rosemeyer have left their legacy in the German subconscious, even among the masses who’ve never heard of these two heroes of the track

More than a third of the Autobahn network was destroyed during the war and it was not until the late 1960s that the tally once again matched the total of Todt’s tarmac; and then slowly overtook the 1940 mileage. Since then, construction has accelerated exponentially and nowadays it’s almost impossible to drive anywhere in Germany without using the Autobahn.

Caracciola and Rosemeyer have left their legacy in the German subconscious, even among the masses who’ve never heard of these two heroes of the track, and most Germans regard unlimited speed on the autobahn as an inalienable right. Not even the alarmingly high annual road toll in speed-related crashes can deter those who cry foul and lobby vehemently against any compulsory speed limits. Even on sections where speed limit signs are posted, they are pointedly ignored. The relative leniency of German speeding fines is, to most drivers, no real incentive to slow down.

In reality, most of the time, much of the nearly 13,000 km autobahn network is at a standstill or crawling along in first gear. Interminable roadworks, horrendous accidents involving cars traveling at up to 300 km per hour and frequent massive pileups (sometimes involving hundreds of cars) mean that lengthy traffic jams are normal. Half of the rest of Germany’s roads are groaning under the load of detour traffic.

My hangover had been lurking quietly in the back of my skull, but now it was right at the front of my brain cavity trying to hammer its way to freedom through my eye-sockets.

All of the bad driving practices which people demonstrated in their everyday tootling around town at 50 km per hour were just as happily employed here, but now at speeds exceeding 150 km per hour. People changed lanes willy-nilly, without blinking and without thinking. If their selected exit was approaching and they were in the far left lane, they would simply cross three lanes of traffic to join the exit ramp.

This practice alone caused us to have several heart-stopping near misses as we headed for Cologne. Tiberius seemed not to notice, as he telephoned to reserve the best table in Bonn’s best pizza restaurant for that evening, and arranged to have his dry-cleaning delivered and flowers from his own market garden sent to his mother. My knuckles were white as I gripped the doorhandle and the dash.

Another endearing custom was to pull out to overtake at a speed significantly lower than that prevailing in the next lane of traffic – again, without checking the mirror or indicating.

The driver of a 1980s diesel Golf, in the right-hand lane – the slow lane – doing about 100 km per hour got as close he could up the arse of a truck doing 90, then wrenched the wheel over and pulled out in front of us. The fact that we were doing 150 and gaining fast seemed to make no difference to him. He didn’t even accelerate slightly before pulling out, just whipped his Golf into our path, then got nervous and tapped the brakes. Tiberius slammed the anchors on. If the van hadn’t had anti-lock brakes we would have been sideways all over the road.

At this point the Golf driver evidently awoke from his slumbers, planted his foot to the boards and accelerated away from us. At least he would have accelerated had he been driving something other than a 1980s diesel Golf. Instead, a cloud of black diesel funk burst from his tailpipe and he hunched even more intently over the wheel, as he spent the next ten minutes revving his motor to oblivion, before pulling back in front of the semi-trailer with just inches to spare.

Tiberius noticed the look of horror on Ben’s face and my own slack jaw and popping eyes – and just said casually

“Don’t worry, the German drivers are the best drivers in the world”, before blindly crossing in front of a truck hauling milk or toxic waste on our right-hand side and up an exit ramp.

My hangover had been lurking quietly in the back of my skull, but now it was right at the front of my brain cavity trying to hammer its way to freedom through my eye-sockets.

The night before I had hit the least awful of Bonn’s three nightclubs. The evening had involved a fair few litres of Bavarian Weissenbier, or wheat bear. I was feeling the consequences this morning. My head pounded and my mouth felt like a troupe of cigarette-smoking monkeys had used it as a latrine.

At some point before the evening had degenerated into a swirling mass of smudged and disconnected images and noises I had been talking to a girl, and thought I had been doing all right. Then I told her I had been sleeping on the floor at my place for the last month, because I didn’t have any furniture, but that I was glad because I was going to Cologne tomorrow to pick up a mattress. At least, with my rudimentary German, that’s what I thought I said.

As we brought the stuff down from Jonathan’s flat, somebody asked me if I could grab the end of the Matratze.

The what?”

The Matratze.”

Oh,” I said, “is that the German word for mattress?”

Yes,” they said, “what did you think it was?”

Matrose”, I said.

A matress is for sleeping on.

A “Matrose” is not for sleeping on.

It was five minutes before the laughter subsided enough for me to ask what Matrose meant; and the answer is “sailor”. When I explained what had happened with the girl in the nightclub, there was more hysterical laughter, but this time it took a lot longer to die down. It appears things had fallen flat the moment I told her we couldn’t go back to my place because I had to go to Cologne tomorrow and see if I could pick up a sailor. I had been here four weeks and still hadn’t found a sailor to sleep with.

Later that evening after the van was returned there was pizza in the Altstadt and more beers and suddenly it was approaching midnight. I hurried down to the Hauptbahnhof to catch the last tram to Dransdorf. Actually, sort of staggered down to the Hauptbahnhof, dragging an assortment of furnishings and other bits behind me would be closer to the truth. There was a fair bit of stuff in the end which had no home to go to, and I ended up with it. I wasn’t complaining, I could certainly use it all, but it was a tad difficult trying to drag it across town. I made it with ten minutes to spare and sat down on the old wooden chair which was amongst my newly acquired possessions. I breathed and ate a slice of now cold pizza.

Two punks who had been horsing around on the escalator down to the subway platform, shouting and kicking the metal panels on the side to see which ones made the most noise, had finished their game with no apparent winner and were now approaching me.

I sat on the subway platform on an old wooden chair, a gigantic IKEA bag full of coat-hangers, socket boards and extension cords at my feet, a 1960s standard lamp, a desk lamp and a box of pizza.

They spoke under their breath as they approached, just loud enough for phrases like “glaubst du dder Typ hat Geld?” (do you think that guy has any money?) and “was für ein Spasti” (what a spazz) to be heard over the rest of their mumbled conversation. They were looking straight at me and still approaching. When they were four or five paces away, I stood up and suddenly they realised I was taller than either of them, and broader across the shoulders.

Was?!” (What?!) I shouted at them at the top of my voice, showing all my teeth. They slowed down, made a wide detour around me and took up a seat at the other end of the platform.

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