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Jan 14, 2013

A Tale of Two Crosswalks

In the early autumn of 1981 I arrived in the Saarland, a state of Germany which for a while after the failure of the Fascist fantasies was under French control and even had a chance, however slight, of real independence before its people chose to come Heim ins Reich. It was a good year studying at the Universität des Saarlandes, the only German university I know of which was actually founded by the French in their optimistic effort to educate the locals. Napoleon had the chance – plenty of chances, really – but I think he squandered them all dreaming of Moskovskiye Vechera. Somebody probably told him the Russians had the best morozhenoye.

That year I was privileged to study with many distinguished scholars to whom I owe daily deepening debts for all they taught me of linguistics, rhetoric, art history and more: the quiet Swiss polyglot Max Mangold; the thundering giant Rolf Hachmann who, I am told, still left 20 year old students panting in his wake as he, at four times their age, charged up yet another hill of relics to excavate (after Stalingrad everything is easy); and my favorite, the brilliant Johannes Boese, who taught me the basics of Sumerian and who, after assigning me to lecture on the temple inventories from Qatna , upon discovering that I could not actually read a single word of French (nearly all the excavation reports of Comte du Mesnil du Buisson were written in that language and never translated), looked at me quizzically and said That’s what dictionaries are for!

A good year that was, an indescribable feast for the intellect which left me so satisfied that I overlooked or forgave the shortcoming of the culture, such as the odd practice among Mercedes drivers of killing pedestrians in crosswalks – or trying to.

It was explained to me, a naïve boy of 19 at the time, that these drivers had a Roten Schein which permitted to do most anything they chose to do, and if that included risking damage to their precious bumpers as they send my worthless carcass somersaulting through space, well then I must simply accept this as Ze Nachurall Order Off Tinks. And zo I did, because order is everything, you know.

Early one day in Dudweiler I was on my way to university when I brashly crossed the Zebrastreifen, interfering with ze rite off vey for a red license holder. He shaved close, brushing the dirt off my jeans to reclaim that bit of Lebensraum for his car. I forgot myself briefly, raised my arm and shook my umbrella at him.

And then it happened. Several years of East Asian esoterica had left me with too much snap in my wrists for party tricks like punching out candles, breaking boards and decorating stone walls with the blood of my knuckles, and the umbrella parted company cleanly from its handle and sailed after the speeding vehicle like the avenging hammer of Thor. And struck. I was horrified. That damned umbrella had cost me 5 Deutsche Mark and buying a new one now meant five fewer greasy sausages in my budget that month.

But there was a greater transgression than having wasted that money. I had sinned against the Gods of Mercedes, and they are not forgiving.

Their Messenger debarked from his Chariot of Fire to hurl lightning bolts of invective at me, striking me with words that would trigger night emissions in first year high school German students. Inspired by all I was learning, I lustily joined in the exchange of this spontaneous streetside language lesson and gave as well as I could in gratitude for what I got, and when he drew back his fist in anger to show me the True Hammer of Thor, I placed the point of my broken accessory in the space between his eyes and spoke sweet invitation machen Sie mal!, inspiring even greater instructional fervor on in my new teacher, to which I responded with all honest effort until at last, alas, my late adolescent German learner’s vocabulary ran out. All I was left with was a pathetic and spontaneous Mediterranean curse, scatana fas!

Verdammter Zigeuner he muttered, spat, then climbed back in his car and drove off to the next Zebrastreifen to improve his score for the day.

I have thought of that long-ago teacher, who is surely now pissing down on me from Valhalla, as I suppose he was at least seventy back then, thought often of him these past few days as I have sunned and sinned in Prodigal Portugal.

Two Portuguese drivers stop 20 meters before the crosswalk after hearing
rumors that a pedestrian might be using it in the course of the afternoon.
Meatloaf Merkel and an army of bankers, tourists and other ambassadors of goodwill have done their damnedest to educate the simpletons of this land, teach them a bit of Kultur and Anstand not only in great matters of finance but in ordinary matters of daily courtesy as well, such as how to drive in traffic and how to process pedestrians hogging the crosswalks.

Portugal and Greece are often mentioned in the same sentence in discussions of the current state of affairs, but this is deeply unfair to the Greeks, who are far more clever and lernfähig. Especially in matters of crosswalks. The Portuguese are simply hopeless.

The very night of my arrival in Lisbon, the magnitude of the problem was clear and frightening. Speeding cars would come to a stop whenever I crossed at a place marked for doing so. And not just slam on the brakes and skillfully slide to a screeching stop centimeters from my shaking knees as one must do to educate the Fussvolk in the ways of the road and Ze Gut Life.

No, these olive-oil-soaked stupidos anticipate that someone might cross, and they begin braking gently at some distance, coming to a soft, respectful stop before the crosswalk even starts. Das geht doch net!

But it’s worse than that. As a scientist, I believe in and am adept at investigating the limits of a system through structured experimentation. I have conducted a series of trials in a multivariate experimental design in which the Portuguese have regressed ever further in their offensive courtesy. The Hammer, as my German friends would say, really dropped on my head when I stood facing away from the crosswalk and glanced briefly over my shoulder, then looked away again. My next backward glance fell upon the shocking sight of traffic on both sides of the road at a standstill as six drivers waited patiently for me to turn, close the gap of twenty meters to the road and cross.

All good people have their limits, even the best, and the patient teachers from the frigid north have rightly reached theirs long ago. But fortunately, they have applied their considerable business acumen, that same savvy that built and maintained the well-greased machine of the Holy Roman Empire so long ago, and these overmortgaged upstarts will soon find that all the shipments of vinho verde they have to offer in their donkey carts cannot prevent foreclosure and restructuring as Deutschland AG calls in the delinquent debts of these prodigals. Gott sei Dank!

1 comment:

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