A Tramp Abroad: Observations of a Former Expat and Frequent Traveler in German-speaking Europe

As I find myself rediscovering many aspects of daily life in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, I can’t help but think of Mark Twain, who wrote so masterfully about his travels in Germany and Europe in A Tramp Abroad (1880, translated into German as “Bummel durch Europa,” including his essay on “The Awful German Language”). As I was zooming along the autobahn in my leased Peugeot the other day, the same thoughts entered my mind that occur to me when I motor across the vast deserts of the American West: How did people do this before there were cars, trains, planes, and the Internet?

Mark Twain’s mode of travel was certainly much slower, giving him a lot of time to contemplate the culture and sights he was experiencing. Mr. Clemens wrote with paper and pen. I’m writing on my laptop. He exaggerated and invented things at times. I may also exaggerate for effect, but I’ll try not to invent. Like me, Twain in A Tramp Abroad is no longer seeing Europe for the first time. “[A Tramp Abroad] has not the fresh frolicsomeness of the Innocents Abroad; it is Europe revisited, and seen through eyes saddened by much experience of tables d’hôte, old masters, and traveling Americans…” – William Dean Howells in The Atlantic.

That said, here are some of my own observations and rediscoveries, colored by long experience. Continue reading

The Streets of Berlin: Cyclists versus pedestrians

Sign 1

This sign means the sidewalk is shared by pedestrians and cyclists. It screams: “Pedestrians, watch out for your lives!” Photo: Hyde Flippo.

I don’t think there’s a German over the age of five or six who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. Seeing an 80-year-old German lady zipping along on her bike is nothing unusual in Germany.

I have witnessed rush hour in the small town of Burghausen, Bavaria, which means swarms of bicycles, not cars, going to and from the Wacker chemical plant. In much larger Berlin and other German cities, the bike is also a popular mode of transportation. An estimated 400,000 bikes stream across Berlin on an average day. If we compare the USA and Germany, travel to work or school makes up only 11% of all bike trips in the US, compared to 28% in Germany. Shopping trips account for only 5% of all bike trips in the US, versus 20% in Germany. (McGill Univ. (TRAM) – “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany”)

So you might think that cyclists have a special place in the hearts and minds of most Germans. Well, they do, but it’s usually a negative place. The average German motorist despises cyclists (and vice versa). Although Germans often maintain that most people are both motorists and cyclists who should not hate each other, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Once a cyclist gets in a car, a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation takes place as the driver grasps the steering wheel and heads out to do battle with people on bicycles. And there are a lot of them in the average German municipality, large or small.

But that’s a topic we’ll save for another day. Continue reading