Rest areas are nothing more than emptiness with decor, wrote Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop in Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, their travelogue of a journey from Paris to Marseille. “You have to know how to fill them.” As Impfsommer gets underway, and Berliners drive out of town on vacation, we may well find ourselves reacquainted with one of the most unloved and uncelebrated features of Germany’s built environment: the autobahn rest stop.
Florian Werner’s new book. Die Raststätte: Eine Liebeserklärung (Hanser) is a loving exploration of everything to do with rest stops, from the people that staff and visit them to the hundreds of plant species that flourish in the piss-plagued concrete. Germany’s 450 rest stops draw around half a billion visitors per year. Werner’s inquiry is based in just one: unremarkable Raststätte Garbsen Nord, outside Hannover.
It’s a strange place to write a book about (especially when you don’t own a car) – and to spend several days and nights in, as Werner does, researching with dogged curiosity. He analyses bumper stickers and chats to truckers; he spots celebs in the guest book; and in a Sanifair cabin he waxes philosophical – and hilarious – on the timeless relationship between gold and shit. He also delves into rest stop history, from the Nazis through the Cold War to recent privatisation disasters. In his hands, Garbsen Nord becomes a microcosm of Germany.
Werner is not the first to tap the Raststätte for its artistic value: US authors like Jack Kerouac and Stephen King have long found inspiration in these unruly sites of social mixing. Perhaps it’s no surprise to find magic at the rest stop. Just consider the literary archetype of the trickster (Hermes, Loki, Maui). As critic Lewis Hyde has argued, these creative figures – mischievous shapeshifters whose job is to “remake the world” – are associated with a set of liminal places: the market, the crossroads, the city outskirts. So why not Garbsen Nord, which is all of these at once?
It’s in the spirit of the trickster – sly, irreverent, gossiping, and wise – that Werner’s book is written. Loitering like Hermes at the crossroads, he turns an unsung nonplace into a richly populated scene. A reminder that sometimes what counts is neither journey nor destination, but the place you stop for dreadful coffee and a wee.