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Germans set example for crosswalks, encourage Americans to review overlooked signals

By Graham von Carlowitz, Opinion Editor

I'm scared. It's been nearly 7 months, and I am still scared. The worst part is that no one has taken action yet, and I feel like a ticking time bomb each time I cross the street.

Back in August, I returned from a yearlong sojourn in Germany. That's what I call it now - a sojourn - because it inherently elevates my intellectual status. "Oh my, a sojourn? How very mature of you," I imagine a random southern lady saying.

The true purpose of my trip was not to impress imaginary wives of Colonel Sanders with my lexical prowess, but rather to learn. Learn a new culture, a new language, a new way to stare into a stranger's eyes without looking away for fear of being discovered.

That's one of the first things you notice in Germany - on the train, standing in line at the coffee stand, you name it. Without hesitation, the Germans stare into your soul, searching for a solid 40 seconds for what I assume is a reason for my existence.

"What are you up to in our country?" I felt them asking. "You can't roll your r's. You don't belong here," they said with their eyes. It was torture for many months.

By the end, though, it had occurred to me how simply fun it is to blankly beam your eyes into another's, unabashedly staring until the recipient gives up and, in a sweat, jumps off the train at the next stop. The Germans were just having fun.

The other thing I had realized by the end of my sojourn was something you pick up on almost immediately in Germany. The crosswalks, in all their boring splendor, exist for a reason. As a foreigner, I not only gave myself away by shifting my glance on the trains when met by an eye-looker; it turns out, walking when the Ampelmännchen shows red is an immediate admission that one is not of the German ways.

Although he touts a very cute name, the Ampelmännchen (ahmple-men-kyin) figure - a glowing little man in the crosswalk box - has a serious job in holding up avid pedestrians, even when no "Auto" is visible for a few hundred meters.

The reasoning, explain the Germans, is simple: if we stand there waiting for a green figure and set a good example, the children will do the same. Monkey see, monkey wait. The only problem is that, in America, monkey refers to a more disobedient type, thus encouraging nothing similar to waiting at a stop light.

Which is where my fear comes in. As far as I am concerned, White Crosswalk Dude (no endearing names on our side of the globe) dictates a sighing, "Okay, go ahead, blah blah no one is even listening," while Red Crosswalk Dude stands motionless, saying, "You probably shouldn't go, but you probably don't care what I am saying, either."

I am not sure how much clearer these signals could be - perhaps a better solution would be employing an elephant that actually hinders all crossing, but that would do a number on any local-circus revenue.

No one in my recent memory has been trampled underfoot - or underwheels, for that matter - but it could happen any day, just like an ice cream truck visit in the summer.

People listen to the ice cream theme. There is no misunderstanding about when to go. So, should the city hire an ice cream salesman to stand at each street corner with a reward for good behavior? My initial thought insists that, while ice cream is great, the idea would creep out anyone in the area. In that sense, you're successful in that no one would be walking on "DO NOT CROSS" signals, but unsuccessful in that no one would be walking at all.

I think the only real solution here is to review the meaning of the crosswalk signals, an exercise to be repeated once every half-century, or per needed. And right now, the latter sounds necessary, at least until we start acting like German kids and obeying our bland version of the Ampelmännchen.