The Red Dictator Crossing the Strasse

In foreign countries, everything seems different. Even something simple like crossing the street. In Germany, you have to contend with the little red dictator.

Time: 3:00 a.m. Location: a four-way intersection in the alternative neighborhood of Friedrichshain in Berlin. The area is something of a punk hangout during the summer -- one gets the impression that those trying to avoid the bourgeois life from all over Germany congregate here or in neighboring Kreuzberg. Across the street, is a flock of punkers -- brightly colored plumage beautifully arranged in spiky Mohawks.

There's not a car in sight, and the punkers -- complete with belts made out of stolen Mercedes emblems -- are patiently waiting for the light to change.

Whereas in places like New York or London, crossing lights are treated as little more than street-side decorations, the little red man in Germany is a miniature dictator and his subjects often obey unconditionally. Things are changing, though, and increasing numbers of Germans are throwing aside their own genetics and risking the illegal cross. But visitors beware! It's not as straightforward or as easy as the few rebellious Germans make it look.

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.

But worse fates await. An errant step off the curb in violation of the little red man and you may lose your leg. While drivers in Germany all think they are Michael Schumacher, a number of city cyclists bombing down the bike paths do a pretty good impression of home-grown cycling star Jan Ullrich. Force them to brake at your peril.

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.

Finally, should you ever happen across a crosswalk not lorded over by the little red man, ignore all of the above. Step blithely into the zebra stripe confident in the belief that 999 out of 1,000 German drivers will slam on the brakes well in advance. After all, the law is on your side. Should a driver come a bit to close for comfort, feel free to throw a fist-shaking fit.

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