Sunday, March 19, 2006

Beware the little red crosswalk man

My husband found this article this evening. It's like deja vu all over again!

A little background: For a little over 5 months (late February to early August) of 1993, I was an exchange student at Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany. It was a wonderful time. Marburg (another page of links here) is a lovely little German university town. It's full of students during the term, so there's plenty of things to do - movies, theatre, nightclubs, shopping... but it's also not a huge city, so it's not overwhelming. It's surrounded by hills, so there's fresh air and trees (dare I even say.. woods?) to hike around in. The Lahn River runs through the town, and there's a bike path that follows the river. You can even rent boats and paddle around. It also has a good amount of traditional German charm. There's a 13th century gothic church, a fully functioning and delightful Altstadt, complete with a picturesque Schloß, Rathaus (city hall) and more than a couple Kneipen (taverns). I heartily recommend Der Hinkelstein, in the Altstadt.

But I digress. Back to the article. I swear to you, this is the God's Honest Truth. Whatever you do, don't cross the street against the light, especially if there's a small child nearby. To quote the fourth paragraph of the above-linked article:

First, never ever cross against red in front of an impressionable child. At best, you'll get a nasty look from most of the adults present -- visually incriminating you for tempting little Heidi or little Franz into certain violent death next time he or she attempts to cross the street alone. An apparently uninvolved bystander may take it upon him or herself to launch into an indignant tirade at your expense. At worst, you could even get a stern talking to from a morally superior five-year-old.

People, I have witnessed this. Standing at a street corner in Marburg on a Saturday afternoon: myself, a youngish woman (mother?) with a small child, a middle-age woman (who did not appear to be with the young woman & child), and a male in his late teens or early 20s. Not a car in sight. The young man looks both ways and quickly sprints across the street against the decree of the little red crosswalk man -- and damned if the middle-age woman didn't immediately start loudly yelling out at him, "Oh, aren't you a good example to the child! You should know better!" (a rough translation). She continued her tirade until he was surely out of earshot.

Luckily for me, I was never the recepient of this kind of public embarassment. I was warned by a new friend (the American student who lived across the hall from me) shortly after my arrival in Marburg to not tempt the Germans to disobey the little red crosswalk man.

Ah, fond memories. Like Monty Python films and Star Trek: TNG dubbed into German. And celebrating 4th of July with 3 Brits. And introducing non-Americans to our dizzying variety of Girl Scout cookies. And the effect of hitting an umlaut key on a German keyboard when you're using a Telnet application. But those are other stories.


pattiblaine said...

When I was in Ghent with a group of students, one of us (not me--another New Yorkah) crossed against the little red man--we three with her crossed too, like sheep we were. She was "pulled over" by a patrolman on a Vespa, iirc. She got off with a warning after saying, "we don't have little red men in Brooklyn."

In her defense, New Yorkers take pride in crossing against the light whenever possible. It's part of the constant fight here between pedestrians and vehicles for ownership of the streets... and a habit I'm soon going to have to shed!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm a German from Stuttgart and yesterday in the evening this happened to me, as described in the article mentioned above:

Then there are the cars. It may seem as though that approaching BMW is a long way off -- allowing plenty of time to reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk. But German drivers view a law-breaking pedestrian in the middle of the street as a challenge. And BMWs accelerate quickly. The driver's goal in this unequal game of chicken, is to come as close as possible to the offending pedestrian and honk loud and long while swerving past. If you listen closely, you can hear the driver cackling.

It happened exactly as described. The BMW accelerated and obviously exceeded the speed limit just to demonstrate me that it's dangerous to illegaly cross the street against the red light. The driver honked in order to show his claim of ownership over the street.

jakob said...

Thanks for that article, it just opens us the eyes on our strange every day behaviour. I am 22 from Berlin.

All your explanations are correct, however I guess there is another way to look at this. I am sure you've noticed what traffic is like in germany. Thats the german wild west, everyone is fighting for his freedom of movement every single second of the trip. So everyone else going on the same street is a potentional limitation of the personal freedom. And for sure, only oneself is the good father of the road, and thus have to enforce onselfs right.

Thats pretty much how I see the situation on "our" streets here in germany. The typical self overassessment of the own driving skills will do its part as well.

Thats why I am asking, wouldn't it be crazy for a anxious mother to allow here child to cross the roads on the own estimation?

I guess so. But for sure..., in its late teenage the child will make its own decisions, as I and every of my friens learned to cross the street on own estimation.

Anonymous said...

Yeah! I'm fighting the red light! Every day, all day! Me too from Berlin. I am a bike gangster and I only care for myself out on the streets. Me NEVER brake. I always manage to cross big crossroads, if possible diagonally, during the red phase in between the two green phases of the cars.
And there is one notmentioned phenomenon: People, who would like to say **** *** to the little red man, but don't dare. They just need a trigger. I happily encumber that job. Cross assertively a red light, and you will inspire those dreadful beings to do just so.
They truely are are to be pitied, these law-abiding german creatures.
Me, I am one myself. Well.
Pity me.

hihp said...

I'm a German living in Germany, too - and my girlfriend is an American living in New York. And I tell you: the traffic there lets Berlin traffic seem like nighttime traffic in typical Kleinkleckersdorf.

The traffic in Berlin didn't seem to be too bad to me whenever I was there, btw...