Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hier ist kein Fußgängerzone!

Heidelberg, Germany 
I lived in Germany for nearly 7 months before I finally invested in a bike. I was broke and intimidated at the thought of going into a used bike shop in Heidelberg. I would have to speak German. About bikes. Even after 7 months of studying Germany I didn't feel up to the task. I was still shaken from my experience in a shop during my first month. I was looking around, minding my own business, when all of a sudden a salesman showed up and asked me if I needed help finding anything. At least that's what I assumed he asked. But clearly I should have double checked because when I responded with a giant grin and a "No, but thank you," he looked confused and a little taken aback. I knew that wasn't a good sign. I quickly went over the words he had just said and realized that he had, in fact, asked me if I was finding everything okay. 

At any rate, I was broke and intimidated and kept putting off the purchase of a bike. But a friend of a friend of a friend had some military connections. And that's how I ended up with a $40 dollar bike from a U.S. Army base. As well as Dr. Pepper, cheddar cheese, tortillas and goldfish crackers. It was heaven. Cycling home laden with two grocery bags, however, was not. I had no basket, no light (illegal in Germany), no helmet (Always wear one. I'll tell you why sometime), and the bags--which I had balanced on my handlebars--kept slipping and getting caught in the spokes. In short, I was doing what I do very well. Nearly dying. Causing a spectacle. In my defense, making a spectacle of oneself is not hard to do in Germany. For example....

...I smile. A lot. At strangers walking down the street, stray cats, small children, puppies, policemen, pigeons, anything I come across. I'm just generally a happy-go-lucky person and I like smiling. It's my favorite. Until I was informed by my German friend that the act of walking down the street in Heidelberg with a giant grin on my face was causing people to question my sanity. I then asked her if that meant I should also refrain from saying "hello" to people I passed on the street. She disowned me. But not before laughing hysterically, which caused me to question her sanity. I hadn't seen her laugh that hard since the time I told her I didn't like to surf in Northern California because the water was cold and I was scared of "big fish that sometimes eat people."

 Look, I didn't know the word for "shark" (Haifisch), and technically that description is correct. They are big fish and they do sometimes eat people. Anyway, you shouldn't laugh at people trying to learn a language. It's mean. Exceptions include Germans saying "squirrel." Sorry. I'm a terrible person and I apologize to Germans everywhere. It's the bitterness from years of not being able to order my favorite drink in Germany (Radler) because I'm so self conscious about my German "r" (and my French "r" everything and my Spanish "r" and my Arabic "r". Stupid "r's")

A Radler, in case you're curious, is an incredibly delicious concoction of beer and lemonade or lemon soda. I know what you're thinking, but on a hot summer day, it's an incredibly refreshing drink. Radler means "cyclist," which brings me back to cycling and bikes and the bike that I had purchased in Germany.

Yeah, I rigged the basket but check out the sweet bell...

I was euphoric after purchasing my bike. There were bike paths everywhere and it made getting places so much faster and easier. Except. Except for when someone was walking in the bike path. This doesn't happen very frequently in Germany, but when it did...I was stuck. My preferred technique to get someone to move was to cycle slowly behind them, weaving unsteadily and giving sighs of extreme exasperation. If When this didn't work I would hop off my bike and walk quickly past the offending party while casting a passive aggressive glare. Occasionally I would try a softly-spoken "Entschuldigung Sie, bitte." That never worked either. 

One day, I was cycling in the middle of the the bike path when out of nowhere someone was at my shoulder shouting "ACHTUNG! PASS AUF!" I veered my bike off the path and directly into the bushes as a fellow cyclist sped past me. I was in awe. It inspired me to be more aggressive. I purchased a bike bell.
The next time someone was walking ahead of me on the bike path, I rang my bell.


Ding, ding.

Still nothing.

Ding, ding, ding, ding!

And then. Then I was saved by a loud "ACHTUNG! HIER IST KEIN FUßGÄNGERZONE!" (Watch out. This is not a pedestrian path). The offending pedestrians leapt out of the way with looks of guilt and remorse as a triumphant cyclist barreled through. I longed to wield that kind of power, and I was determined to use this technique. I reasoned that since I had seen at least two Germans use it, it must be socially acceptable. 

A week later I was late for class and speeding down the bike path when I saw them up ahead. Two little old ladies teetering along with their dogs and shopping bags in the bike lane. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. Now was my chance. As I came up behind them I shouted as loud as I possibly could "ACHTUNG! PASS AUF!" 

Chaos ensued. They jumped. Their dogs jumped and then immediately began barking. Groceries toppled onto the grass. Expressions of shock and horror were exchanged. I was filled with guilt, shame, and remorse as I questioned whether I would be able to continue my life with this shameful experience lingering in the corners of my mind. 

For two days I cringed whenever I remembered what had happened. The next time I found myself on the bike path with pedestrians strolling nonchalantly right in front of me, I simply veered over onto the pedestrian path so I could go around them. As soon as my front wheel touched the pedestrian path, a woman walking toward me loudly barked "DAS HIER IST KEIN FAHRRADWEG" (This is not a bike path). 

I smiled at her and went straight to the bar for a Radler. 

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