One Thing at a Time

When Albert Einstein leans into a curve, you can only swim in a specific window of time, and two cars herald the future, you would be forgiven for being confused for a moment. What to do? Stick to the above advice.
Text Wladimir Kaminer
Photo David Breun

Albert Einstein didn’t have a driver’s license. Driving a car, you have to constantly concentrate on the road, keep an eye on other cars, bicycles, pedestrians, be aware of your surroundings, brake, accelerate. Einstein, however, had the habit of sinking so deeply into thought that he no longer knew where he was or what was happening around him. That’s why he didn’t dare to get behind the wheel, preferring to be driven by his friends, by his colleagues, by his wives. In this way, he would confront time mindfully. Because, as he said, only those experiences remain unforgettable in which we forget about time. The brilliant physicist often expressed himself in such cryptic and poetic terms. And when no one was around to drive him to work, he took the tram.

One day, in the spring of 1905, Albert Einstein boarded a tram in Bern to go to the train station. As always, he pondered the mystery of the universe; he had a problem with its endlessness. As the tram was passing by the Zytglogge, a landmark medieval tower with an astronomical clock, the clock tower’s chimes began to play their melody and the hands of the clock began to move. The streetcar accelerated into the curve. At that moment, Einstein imagined: If the tram were to pass the tower at the speed of light, at 300,000 km/s, then the clock hands would stop moving. And when the streetcar came to a stop, the hands would start moving again.

But as long as the tram is moving, time runs more slowly for the people on the tram than for those outside. Einstein recognized: The faster we move through space, the more slowly we move in time. The theory of relativity was born, stating that there is no such thing as time as a constant quantity. An hour is not always an hour. It can also last only a second, depending on the speed at which you move. Einstein himself and his contemporaries were very confused at the time because of this discovery. I still am.

How is it even possible that there can be no time? That’s what I thought sitting in the streetcar at eight o’clock in the morning. I had arranged to meet ramp editor-in-chief Michael Köckritz and our photographer David Breun at Berlin’s main train station. We wanted to go to Wolfsburg together, to the ZeitHaus museum at Volkswagen’s Autostadt. Supposedly, it takes only fifty-eight minutes to travel from Berlin to Wolfsburg by train, not much longer than it took Einstein to get from his office in Bern to the train station. But it’s possible that we’re simply moving faster than in Einstein’s day, so according to the theory of relativity, our hours should have become shorter, too.

I hadn’t been out and about this early in a long time. In the early morning, the railway stations look neat and tidy, the shop windows and showcases are washed clean, the conductors aren’t stressed yet, the coffee is freshly ground and the sandwiches are freshly made.

But the trip was long. It took only an hour, but sometimes even an hour takes an eternity. We sat down in the on-board restaurant. Michael wanted to get a newspaper, preferably Die Zeit. David and I, we just shook our heads. Die Zeit is the thickest newspaper in all of Germany. One lifetime is not enough to devour this format completely, you will grow old before you have read through even one issue. The conductor offered us a sweet breakfast. Don’t you have something savory, asked the blonde sitting next to us. One of those with ham and cheese? No, the conductor apologized, unfortunately he couldn’t offer a savory breakfast, it was only an hour to Wolfsburg, so the time window was too small.

It took only an hour, but sometimes even an hour takes an eternity.

The concept of the time window has always irritated me. It seems to assume that time is a building with entrances and exits, with a time cellar and a time attic, and of course with time windows. And these windows, as in the train, apparently almost never open. Windows of time have gained a particular currency during the pandemic. As if the virus had blocked all entrances and exits, we are now only allowed to visit and leave public places through this time window. I used to go to the swimming pool with my mother every week, no matter what time. All of a sudden, you had to choose a certain window of time and you were only allowed to swim in that time window. When the window closed, the lifeguards would take you out of the water like a fish and throw you out. More and more restaurants in Berlin switched to time windows. You could reserve a table for only ninety minutes. After that, you got the bill without being asked and were politely shown the way to the door.

Two fantastic cars were waiting for us in Wolfsburg, the latest ID.3 and ID.4 GTX, both electric. “The future is here. Get in!” is the advertising slogan. These vehicles are ushering in a new era of electric mobility, says Volkswagen, meaning carbon neutral, quiet and efficient. I was confused. A new era of electric mobility? Did I miss the old one? Easy, easy, said Michael. All in good time. We were at our transfer, so to speak, so we got off the train and into the cars.

The main function of time is the chronology of events. It is only thanks to this chronology that we can predict the near future with some certainty. We know, for example, that a long winter will be followed by spring and that one Sunday will not be followed by a second Sunday – which would not be at all wrong, given the permanent acceleration of time on the weekend – but by a Monday. This chronology, the repetition of events, has brought a certain stability into our lives over all these years, a sense of security about what might happen next. We have always known that no matter how dark the night, soon the sun would shine again. The fact that people established their calendars on the basis of a completely wrong theory – namely, the assumption that the sun and the stars revolve around the earth and not vice versa – this fact has not affected time in the least. Time still worked well, with a few exceptions. Monday continued to come after Sunday, spring after winter, not the other way around. And today? Although we now know for a fact that the earth revolves around the sun, our understanding of time has become more uncertain. Since the discovery of the theory of relativity, every chronology has been called into question. I have the feeling that we are stuck in some kind of window of time. It doesn’t go forward, and it doesn’t go backward. We are being overtaken by time warps and have to jump along, but where to? The present is no longer a safe harbor. We are being inundated by current events.

Obwohl wir inzwischen wissen, dass sich die Erde um die Sonne dreht, ist unser Umgang mit der Zeit unsicherer geworden.

We spend a lot of time in the past and like to drive around in the future with the car of tomorrow. We see the past as our actual life and are constantly working on our future. What are we doing later, where do we want to go and what will we achieve if we do this and that? We plan for the future and draw from history, leaving no time at all for the present. The present disappears, is crushed between two tectonic plates of time: between what was and what will be. The simple course of life, the chronology of events, is lost to us. Easy does it, Einstein told us, one thing at a time, let’s not drive ourselves crazy, even if we know that time does not exist. We have simply always been too fast or too slow.

You can’t rely on the future. The realization of a dream immediately transforms it into a troublesome affair. At the same moment that the dream moves from the future into the present, it is no longer recognizable as a future. Doctor Faust failed at it, and Cinderella also cried when her magnificent carriage turned into a pumpkin, oh God, did she cry!

You can’t make dreams come true, you can’t turn the future into the present. You can warm your heart on the past, but what is past is past. “You can’t turn a hamburger back into a cow,” as an ancient Chinese proverb says. And the ancient Chinese were always right.

Museum exhibits teach us a more relaxed approach to time: the future can wait.

Every trip during the pandemic is an adventure, a mixture of Mardi Gras and panicked flight. People wearing masks, looking suspiciously at each other, wondering who’s been boosted and who hasn’t, do they already have their test results on their smartphone? Autostadt was shrouded in fog, everyone who came in was tested, no matter how many vaccinations they already had. I felt safe in Wolfsburg. From my previous visits, I knew that the main inhabitants of this city are cars, and cars can’t transmit viruses, at least not if they’ve been washed and are as clean as they are here. Most people in Wolfsburg are service personnel, responsible for installing, operating, equipping, maintaining, cleaning and repairing cars. There’s also a teeny-tiny group of people responsible for the maintenance and repair of other people, like doctors, cooks and hairdressers, but they are a vanishing minority here. Thick, gray fog settled over the snowless city, blue sky had not been seen for weeks, here and there a few decorated fir trees, garlands and shuttered mulled wine stands could be seen in the fog. A snow machine was spreading artificial snow on an artificial hill, the Christmas preparations were dragging on as if no one knew if Christmas would even be coming this year, given the tense global situation. The chronology of events was additionally damaged by the pandemic.

With our cars of the future, we made a few rounds through the city, fog outside, fog in our heads. In a fog, images tend to be distorted, small things suddenly appear supernaturally large, large things disappear.

The new cars drove well, just like the old ones, only better. Driving in Wolfsburg is especially fun. After all, people live here to build cars, not the other way around. They don’t build cars to live here. True Wolfsburg natives have four wheels. Accordingly, the police here are polite, you can turn and accelerate when driving a test car, just don’t rush it, or you’ll get a ticket.

Our ID.3 and ID.4 GTX electric cars exuded comfort and safety. The only thing that drove me crazy was the fact that the range indicator kept changing every second.

Long trips with electric cars have caused me to develop a certain automotive hypochondria, an obsessive behavior, a constant fear that I will run out of electricity. Instead of driving, I try to save electricity, I am constantly looking at the range indicator, I want to know how my battery is doing, because the future will only work as long as the battery is full. If the battery is empty, the future is over, car and time stand still. The new VWs have a power saving option, where the car starts braking on its own if the driver doesn’t step on the gas, converting the kinetic braking energy into electricity to charge the battery. Good for the future, and good for those people who crossed the street at red rushing to get to Volkswagen, spurred on by the idea of getting a new car. Bad for me, because according to the theory of relativity, the slower I drive, the faster my time passes. Fortunately, the earth doesn’t just stop spinning. On the contrary, it feels like it’s spinning faster and faster. “Give me a point to stand on (a long enough lever) and I will move the earth,” said Archimedes. Meanwhile, the earth is spinning so fast, you need a point to hold on to, so you don’t fly away.

After a few hours of driving through the city, we ended up at Volkswagen’s ZeitHaus, a museum that tells the history of transportation through time with its unique exhibits. The Germans invented the zeitgeist, so it is no coincidence that most of the visionary carmakers were also Germans.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 1, a creation of Carl Benz in 1885, was the first small car in the world. Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, August Wilhelm Maybach, they were all ahead of their time. According to the theory of relativity, they could slow down time, they drove faster than their contemporaries, so time ran slower for them. This circumstance gave them the opportunity to work on their models efficiently and long enough

The first and the last Beetle stand side by side in the ZeitHaus, the shape hardly changed, a sign of permanence, but the sixty-five years between them did not pass in vain.

Many of the cars in the collection reveal what people in the past thought the future would look like. Their future was cooler than what really came, their vehicles reminiscent of the UFOs from American science fiction movies, glowing tubes with built-in disco balls instead of headlights, rockets with sawed-off wings and protruding tails, spaceships from the past that did not survive their landing in the present and have now become museum exhibits. They teach us a more relaxed approach to time: the future can wait, we ourselves are the future. Reason has triumphed. We are used to thinking straight. That’s why we keep asking ourselves if it’s possible to change the past and predict the future. We are enslaved by this idea of time. We have clocks to control time and to measure it, though in truth we invented time ourselves. Our own time is bumpy, it sometimes comes to a halt – and sometimes it runs away from us. The new quickly becomes old and the old becomes new again. The universe, however, demands punctuality and consistency from us. All in good time.

We have clocks to control time and to measure it, though in truth we invented time ourselves.

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