It's red light for Germans, green light for their dogs

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 29, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- It takes a visit back to the United States to remind an expatriate of the pedestrian freedoms left behind for the sake of life in Germany, the land of rules and obedience.

Consider jaywalking.

In Baltimore, jaywalking is, of course, a natural right sanctioned by generations of practice and precedence. Obeying a red light is seen as an affront to ideals of freedom, justice and equality. Darting through the thickest traffic, say on Orleans Street, has developed into high art at least the equal of modern dance.

But in Berlin and in most of Germany, people do not jaywalk. Crossing against the light is not so much a crime as a conscious-wrenching mortal sin, an offense against the national order.

Pedestrians here stop for red lights at 4 o'clock in the morning at obscure intersections where no car has passed for days.

Berliners, who can be amazingly raucous, not to mention riotous, after tanking up at a soccer game, humbly obey the red light at the intersection. Streetwalkers pause for red during their nightly patrols on Kurfuerstendamm, Berlin's slick main drag known as the "Koo-damm."

You can sunbathe virtually naked on public lawns in the big central park called the Tiergarten, but don't try to cross in the middle of the block.

If an itchy expatriate American steps off the curb, old ladies stare with the revulsion reserved in the States for mass murderers. Old men cry "Achtung! Halt!" Small boys snicker at the outlandish auslander. Little girls faint. All lecture you on your lack of public morality.

You pull back immediately, ashamed of your indecent act and your inability to conform to the customs of the country. But, too late, you have become an object of scorn and derision, and, of course, a terrible example for German children.

Dogs are freer. They reign supreme here and, like ancient sovereigns, they attend to their bodily functions with regal disdain for the merely human.

Berliners are said to live with at least 150,000 dogs. One dog, that is, for every 23 inhabitants.

Dogs are not so much owned as adopted into the family. A typical family of four here consists of mom, pop, baby and the dog. And they all go out to dinner together.

It's a bit disconcerting for an innocent American abroad who is eating at a well-known restaurant to look over his shoulder into the soulful eyes of a Pekingese with a permanent wave.

No one has ever seen a stray dog in Berlin. A dog that has somehow slipped away from its family is sought with far more vigor than a missing wife or husband. All-point bulletins are issued, vast searches inititiated, enormous awards offered.

And all these dogs eventually take a walk with their mommies and daddies.

A well-known guide book claims Berliners are conscientious about clearing their dog's "business" off the street.

This has not been the experience or observation of this correspondent. One must be extremely careful in walking along the sidewalks of Berlin, especially in rainy weather.

The same proper burghers who never cross except on green watch with benign tolerance as their dogs leave messes in the middle of the sidewalk, then walk off without so much as a glance back.

Humans are not so lucky. There are some free public comfort stations in Berlin. But, generally speaking, going to the toilet requires money.

Most Berlin WC's are carefully watched by attendants whose chief duty is to extract payment. Even McDonald's in downtown Berlin has a toilet toll collector.

What a dog may do for free in the street, a human usually must pay 30 pfennige, about 20 cents.

So, it's not hard to miss America -- that home of the brave jaywalker, that land of the free toilet.

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