I was riding my bicycle. The summer morning in Berlin was sunny but still cool. Early in the day before the emergence of those cyclists who just take their sweet time, it’s often smooth, swift riding.
A driver in an old Opel, all his windows rolled down even at this early hour, slowed at a crosswalk along the Spree River where the street narrowed to one lane on each side, with an island between the crosswalk stripes. A slim greying woman wearing sneakers hesitated, then scurried across the street, smiling with a touch of embarrassment, “Sorry to have inconvenienced you drivers, pardon me.”
He seemed annoyed at the woman’s unclear signals; I could practically hear him thinking: “Lady, are you on the white stripes or not?”
In a split second I knew that the morning walker was an American visitor to the German capital, probably educated and well-off. It was the sneakers at her age, the trim T-shirt – but most of all her facial expression of embarrassed politeness. She apparently felt a bit guilty that the driver had had to take his foot off the gas pedal. “I made it safely across yet another German street!” she said to herself. Her smile was to say: thanks for making that possible!
The German would have preferred she stay on the middle island. When a German is behind the wheel, what he wants is for others to simply follow the rules. If others do what they’ve signaled they’re going to do, the driver can get where he’s going speedily and smoothly. Once she put her foot on the crosswalk she could take as long as she needed – you can be old and infirm here – and then as soon as both her feet were back on the sidewalk, he wanted to zoom the heck out of there. “OK, now it’s smooth going ’til that red light. Cool, by the time I’m there, it’s gonna be green,” he will have said to himself, continuing down the road in his slightly dented four-door gray Opel sedan.
As an American living in Europe, I felt with both of them: the German’s impatience to get moving (that was me on the bike, as well), and the American’s need for mutual acknowledgment.
The American version: a little human interchange sweetens the deal.
The German version: let’s all just do what we’re supposed to do: that’ll reduce to a minimum the necessity for contact with strangers!
published 3 August 2013