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The politics of walking

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Two posts in one day, oh my.

Walking down the street in many places is a fraught experience. In New York, it’s a mad mix of tourists and amped-up New Yorkers, but somehow it all seems to work. In Chicago, there’s so much real estate that everyone just sort of drifts around. On college campuses there’s the school of being polite and nodding and saying hello to many people one vaguely recognizes, or not, all out of fear of looking aloof. In many European cities, there is the “straight line between two points” syndrome. When walking, pick a point off in the distance and head straight for it ignoring anything in your path: children, old ladies, small people, dogs, etc.

That this is so occurred to me years ago while living in Berlin (if not earlier), and was hilariously described just this past weekend on a German TV show about Paris, where two young Canadian women demonstrated it.

I learned to loathe this syndrome living in Berlin, because it’s very masculine and exceedingly Darwinian. If I am bigger than you, you get out of my way. Given that I am an average-sized American, I qualify as diminutive in this pituitarily active nation, so the expectation was that I yield to the larger vehicles on the sidewalk. The problem with this? Well, I played too much hockey and way too much rugby in my life to think that size has anything to do with a man’s mettle, so I made it a habit to literally walk straight into the chest of these two-meter giants, look up slightly, and ask “na, und?” Ah, making friends one at a time. If you do it right, i.e.- walk straight, never deviate, never glance left or right, even the tallest guys get the signal and dodge. It’s a neverending game of chicken.

Not that one has to walk like this every day. I think of this as my “need to get somewhere and am foul-tempered” strut. There are plenty of days where I dodge for anyone.

Which brings me to today’s episode of sidewalk fun in Germany. While returning to the building where I work, two female students approached in the opposite direction. I was “driving” right, or more or less walking straight down the right side of the sidewalk about 30 cm from the building. They were barrelling down the middle, with about 1.5 m of sidewalk to their right where they could have easily avoided me by casually drifting a mere 10-15 cm to their right. I noted at about 30 m that they were playing the straight line game, so my testosterone-addled brain kicked into straight line mode. Besides, they had 5x as much space to maneuver, and no bricks to run into.

At the last possible second, the woman nearest to me dodged her arm out of the collision path; as she did, her bag, which I had not seen, shifted slightly into my path and banged loudly on my hip. She wheels around and barks at me with that “jackass” tone in her voice, which I completely ignored (part of the straight line game rules–never show remorse). Ugh. So sorry I didn’t flatten myself on the building to dodge your train.


Written by Dale

April 21, 2009 at 8:46 am

Posted in Leipzig, life

2 Responses

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  1. I always thought it was just me that people never yielded to, but I’m beginning to think that here in St. Louis people are so put out at the idea of having to walk anywhere at all that they can’t quite muster the energy to move slightly to the right. I’m going to start picking a point on the horizon and never deviating. I like it.


    April 21, 2009 at 8:59 am

  2. As extra insurance when crossing busy streets going to class, I “draft” behind a random person in front of me and keep pace with whoever is around me by the crosswalks because I consider myself very likely to be hit by a car. Walking with someone else gives me courage.


    April 21, 2009 at 9:25 pm

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