Monday, November 3, 2014


Crossing the street.  Nothing to it, right?  Look to see that no one is driving down the road and then step on out.  I had done it successfully for years.

The first hint I had that crossing the streets in foreign countries might not be quite so easy was when the little old man grabbed me by the arm, pulled me back on the sidewalk, pointed his finger at my face, and proceeded to lecture me sternly - in Swedish.

I had been living in Bergen, Norway for several months as a foreign exchange student in the University of California Education Abroad Program.  Crossing the street in Bergen was even easier than it had been in California where I obediently waiting for the light to change to green.  Bergen in 1969 was still a small city with very little traffic.  There were a few traffic lights in town, but I followed the lead of the locals who checked for cars and then crossed when it was safe - even if the light was red.

The Swedes apparently took a different approach.  A group of us American students from Bergen took the ferry over to Lund, Sweden to visit our compatriots studying in the program there, and I had my memorable encounter with Herr Svenskacop.  Red-faced and bewildered, I turned to my American friends from the Lund program who were laughing uproariously.  In Sweden, one follows the rules!

Could crossing the road be a clue to the cultural norms of a country?  I'm not sure if it is that cut and dried, but there is no doubt that the rules of the road vary depending on where you are.  In Great Britian, of course, the greatest obstacle to safe crossing is remembering to look to your right instead of to your left to see if any cars are coming.  Happily (or is it unhappily, because so many tourists got a painful surprise?), some of the sidewalks in London have this helpful reminder.
London Sidewalk

In big cities, crossing the street is often an adventure.  European cities often have few traffic lights, relying instead on traffic circles, which keeps the traffic moving along constantly with few opportunities to leisurely stroll across the street.  

In Naples, a red light is "just a suggestion."  Young teens on Vespas zip through helter-skelter whether the light is red or green...and if they are really impatient, they just drive up on the sidewalk and scatter the crowds into the street.  In Italy, Rob and I discovered the "schooling method" of crossing the street.  We either joined a large group...and tried to stay in the middle...or we walked side by side with a lady pushing a baby carriage or a nun, as these two types got a little more respect from the drivers.

Many cities in Europe have solved the competition between pedestrians and cars by turning some of their shopping streets into pedestrian malls.  These streets are some of my favorite destinations on our travels!  I love wandering down the middle of the street or sitting in a sidewalk cafe watching the parade of tourists and locals enjoying their city.  Two of my favorite cities have taken this even a step further.  Venice, Italy and the old walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia have no cars at all!  What a joy to be able to jaywalk to my heart's content!
Markets below the Rialto Bridge, Venice

Dubrovnik Street


  1. It's funny how much freedom other cultures feel to keep each other in line. Your Swedish man felt fine telling you to follow the rules.

    We don't yell at strangers in the States, even when they're dropping trash in community areas. And that's a shame in my opinion.

    I sat down right on the curb once in Esslingen, Germany once when a teenage boy dropped his döner kebab paper in the alley. That way I could have a good seat for what I knew was coming. An older gentleman yelled at that boy in sharp German for three whole minutes on the finer points of civic responsibility. And that boy dropped his head, nodded along, and looked around at passersby sheepishly throughout the lecture. But not once did he argue back, act angry, or try to walk away.

    1. I wish I had the guts to give that same lecture to some of the people I see in our local parks! I am amazed by the amount of litter that is left around. Interesting story about your observation in Germany!

  2. Joan, your post reminded me of the street-crossing method Judy and I have adopted when in a foreign country. We grab each others' hands, look back and forth many times, and hustle our buns across. Our friend in Shanghai told us to just keep going, the drivers and pedestrians have developed a "slip-stream." We also employ what you called "schooling" if others are crossing, too. It's pretty exhausting and sure makes pedestrian malls look good. Thanks! xoA

  3. Annis, I love your description of hustling your buns across. :-) I can just see it! Isn't it funny how just crossing the street can turn into an adventure in a foreign land?

  4. I recall almost crossing H street mid-block and being ordered back by a police officer. "If you do that, I'll give you a ticket." I said, "Are you serous." And "Yes" was the stern reply. i walked to the corner and patiently waited for the light.

  5. Terry, I am always torn when I have the chance to cross against the light and no one is coming. It seems silly to wait, but I suppose it eliminates the chance of some maniac screaming down the street and catching you off guard.