What is the Rule?
It has long been my policy that of all the days of the week, Sundays should not be a day of strenuous activity. Thankfully Germany is mostly in agreement with my personal philosophy and for that reason we have got along very well over the last six years. However, my wife does not agree with my sanctioned day of laziness, for reasons too diverse and complex to list here. Claims of horrific hangovers, temporary blindness or a non-specific sense of imminent foreboding have in the past fallen on deaf ears and as a result I frequently find myself wandering the market stalls of a Flohmarkt (Flea Market) or ambling through the countryside on a Sunday afternoon, instead of being splayed out on the couch mindlessly watching another Adam Sandler vehicle on Netflix. In many ways she is saving me from myself.
This Sunday was no different, although in this instance I refrained from pulling a face and arguing that Golden Raspberry nominated The Cobbler was a better use of my time. There was one stumbling block to us leaving though, one that I actually had no responsibility for. Since 08.00 that morning a constant stream of marathon runners had been jogging past my flat, to a sporadic soundtrack of Enrique Iglesias, Pink and U2. My street had been converted into a water stop for these committed sports persons and what had started in the early hours as a trickle had grown into a flood of brightly attired runners, all sinewy legs and chaffed nipples. Since my car was now parked on what had become a main thoroughfare of the marathon, we were slightly confused about how we might actually go anywhere.
The question we faced was a quintessential aspect of living in Germany; what is the rule? Germany prides itself on organisation and as part of that, Germany has a lot of rules. Sometimes those rules are obvious and are marked clearly by a warning sign or explained in terrifying levels of detail by a 236 page handbook. In this instance, there was no clear rule to follow. My wife mused that the rules were more than likely announced in the local paper at some point in the last week, but since we have not read the local paper at any point in the last four years of living in our flat, the point was academic.
Our next best option was to ask someone who looked like they might be official. A firm bureaucracy is another indication of the German desire for an organised life. When the rules are not clear in Germany, people can rely on the fact that there will be someone employed to ensure the rules are being followed, although that does not always guarantee they will know why or what to do when an exception occurs. Anyone moving to or simply visiting Germany must get used to the phrase “It is against the law” which is stock answer that can mean anything from “This is just a general rule we have in the office” to “I have no idea”. Since the world of German jurisprudence is harder to navigate than an M.C. Escher painting, it is safer to simply assume there is a law for or against something than to actually investigate whether it exists.
Finding a young man in a hi-vis vest, my wife asked what we should do if we wanted to move the car. He suggested that we turn the car around and take the side street, which seemed a sensible conclusion. The only problem was, we live on a one way street, a rule clearly indicated by the bright blue “Einbahnstraße” sign only meters away. Were we allowed to simply ignore it, given the extenuating circumstances? What was the rule? We might not have known if it was “against the law” in this instance, but I was certain that there would be no chance we would willingly break the law without written permission, signed in triplicate and clearly stamped by an official. The laws might be confusing at times, but one thing Germans will not stand for is wilful breaking of laws, no matter how small.
It is well known that Germans will stand patiently at a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the lights to change to green, even when there is no traffic in the vicinity. This is only one example of rule following that some might think is a step too far, but for Germans is a way of life. Breaking the rules is the path to chaos and self policing is rife within Germany. People have few qualms about correcting rule breakers, either to simply help newcomers or to ensure respect for the system. Rules were not created magically, they did not spring forth from a bureaucratic wand. Rules and laws have been developed over years, decades and centuries, by experts with a clear understanding of the problems that society needed fixing. Those laws have been optimised and reviewed, corrected when faulty through civic action and by public discussion with the government. The British cynicism of pointless “red tape” has led us to some dark places recently and at this point I am willing to give the Germans the benefit of the doubt before I start just ignoring rules as I do when I go back to the UK.
In any event, our young advisor was mistaken as the side road he had directed us to was blocked by a large red plastic barrier. Our next stop was to ask another, older looking hi-vis wearing official person, who said that the most obvious thing to do would be to simply drive the wrong way up the street and then take a right. Although uncomfortable, my wife agreed it was the only option we had. She put the car into reverse and worked her way backwards up the street. This is an example of the German answer to rule breaking; when in doubt, slightly damage the rule, kick it a little or trip it up, but try not to break it.
As she reached the older official, she thanked him for his help through the open car window.
He looked at my wife quizzically and asked “Why did you reverse? You could have just driven up the street normally”.
“It’s a one way street, better to reverse up it than break the law”, My wife nonchalantly replied.
“Interesting” he replied sarcastically “I’ll need to have a good think about that rule”.