Bei Rot über die Ampel
Going by the book, abiding orders and laws—this is how the world envisions Germans. In one word: gesetzestreu. A famous Bertold Brecht quote says that any German revolutionaries would, at the latest, stop when they are told not to step on the lawn. But this is only a Halbwahrheit, half the truth. Bureaucracy is not something that Germans invented; they just perfected their peculiar version of Bürokratie. And, as anywhere else, there are always those who will interpret any laws or “do’s and don’ts” the way they want to—or just plain ignore them as they will see fit. Wie es ihnen gerade passt.
A popular anecdote that is reiterated by Anglophone expats in blogs and internet comments on how to be German goes like this: the author waits at a traffic light. No cars pass the pedestrian crossing or are in sight. S/he starts to walk across the red light (bei Rot), just to either be hissed at by an elderly German lady to wait for the Ampel to turn green or to be grabbed by an elderly German man or any other German man/woman/child who is able to verbally or physically stop the author. This is shown as proof that German take their laws seriously and will make you, the “Ausländer,” follow them as well, koste es, was es wolle—whatever it takes, regardless if it is really necessary or against all pragmatic thought.
Seriously? To be honest, I have no idea where and when such incidents might have happened. Perhaps these authors have lived in some Bavarian Alpine village (although Bavarians are, at least among Germans, known for their laid-back attitude—besides, such a village will most likely not even HAVE any traffic lights) or some other kind of god-forsaken Kuhkaff at the end of the world. Surely, these Tommies or Amis have not lived in a university town, or ANY town with a sizable population. Daily, students and other Fußgänger who are late or lacking time hasten across red lights on foot. A quick glance left and right—if they take a look at all—and if the next car is a mere twenty meters away and thereby judged to be in a “safe” distance, off they go. And if there is no car approaching whatsoever, these oh-so-law-abiding pedestrian Germans will cross the street, regardless if it is day or night time. And they will not give a hoot about any signs telling them to stop at red be an example to kids–especially WHEN there are (their own) children around. Kinder have to learn it from someone.
Even worse are cyclists. Moving about at a much higher speed than pedestrians, Radfahrer feel secure on their Drahtesel and rush across red lights like there are none at all. Many even do not feel the need to use the Fahrradwege that have been built for one purpose only—as sidewalks especially and only accomodating people riding their bikes. No, they will either use the normal pedestrian sidewalk and curse at the fact that all these Fußgänger are there (Jesses, I wonder why) or, if they ride expensive Tour de France racing bikes and the accompanying skin-tight outfit (preferably Team Telekom), take the road—preferably a narrow and winding Landstraße through rural or wooded areas—and become a nuisance to drivers of cars who have to slow down because two or even three of these wannabe Lance Armstrongs, minus the Doping, ride next to, and not behind, each other. Which is defintely against the law. And which urban cyclists on Damenräder (sorry, hipsters—the “fixie bike” has never lost its popularity in Germany!) and outdoorsy Mountainbiker do as well. And wearing a helmet for protection? That is sowieso and anyway optional. At least more cyclists could put some lights, or Fahrradlichter, on their bikes at night instead of putting themselves—and others—in danger …
But the most “Ich habe doch keine Zeit!” (I’ve got no time) are Autofahrer. Not only will they harass supposedly slower drivers. Using turn signals? One learns how to blinken to during driving school and it is the law—and makes it easier for one’s fellow motorists to react to the Straßenverkehr—but, like the eingebaute Vorfahrt, the non-use of turn signals seems to be the prerogative of a good number of German drivers. And then these traffic lights! Another nuisance that slows you down on the way to or from work, grocery shopping, picking up/dropping off the kids at school/sports/music lessons. Red light means stop, green light means go. Yellow light means “caution, red will come soon, but you still have two seconds to cross the street.” Well, maybe if you are going 50 kilometers an hour and it is just turning yellow—then it is ok to cross the street because a sudden Bremsmanöver with screeching breaks and tires would endanger those behind you and provoke an Auffahrunfall where cars bump into each other, causing lots of Blechschaden. But if you are father away, you should prepare to stop. A good number of Germans, though, will put the pedal to the metal to cross the intersection at any cost so as not to lose any time (losing one’s life? “Ach was,” no time for that!). This is why we Germans also talk about dunkelorange. Which is, if one follows Goethe’s Farbenlehre, the mixture of yellow and red. Or that phase when yellow is turning to red and you barely make it over the intersection. But even this is not good, or barely, enough for some, especially those who drive 60 when 50 is the limit (because there will be Toleranzabzug, which means that police will, by law, substract a certain percentage from your speeding over the limit anyway) and who have sowieso keine Zeit and who do not fear the dreaded Flensburger Punkte register of traffic crimes. For these Autofahrer, the first second of red is like the last second of yellow—an opportunity, no, an invitation to still make it across because it will take another one or two seconds for those cars who have been waiting to have their lights turn green … (A reasoning that is followed by pedestrians as well—if the light just turned red, there is still time to walk across before it turns green for cars. Who would have to wait anyway for the Fußgänger to have reached the opposite side of the street.)
So, my geschätzte, my dearest expats: some things you write about Germany might be right, but some are just—urban myths. Or rather, ein alter Hut, old anecdotes which have barely a connection to what is really going on today. Tschüss, because I’m off to buying Bratwurst and Sauerkraut now.