Bezirk [1] in Berlin #12:  AUGUST 19, 2011


I was in Kardstadt the other day (Berlin’s equivalent of a department store – I started to give a ‘for instance’ but realized that all the department store names that most immediately came to mind no longer exist).  For the briefest of moments I was terrified because it appeared to me that a guy was getting on the elevator with what was apparently his pet brown bear.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was merely the most enormous dog I’d ever seen.  And he had the docility you would expect from a dog as advanced in years as he was.  Huge sigh of relief!  It turns out that the Romans originally brought huge dogs to what is now Germany, apparently to strike fear into the hearts of the Huns.  Instead, these beasts instantly won the undying affection of the folks they were intended to intimidate, so today the country is full of these bear-sized (but incredibly well behaved) dogs.


As bemused as I often am by this incredible city, I have every confidence that the bemusement flows both ways – I’m not just a taker; I’m also a giver.  For example, simply the act of getting on my bicycle (much less the far greater challenge of riding it!) gives rise to more than a few smirks.  When I’m in my full regalia (which includes my back-pack), it can be at least a 10-minute show.  First, I have to unlock my bike lock.  This often involves fitting my not-so-slim self in the incredibly slim space between my bike and the other bikes with which I must share the bike rack.  If I have my helmet on, the potential for a 3-ring circus is always there, because I must bend over to reach my bike lock, offering unlimited opportunities to get my helmet caught in handle bars and even pedals, while my posterior threatens to push over any bikes behind me.  Efforts to extricate myself could have the dreaded result of a domino effect, most often depicted in movies that involve motorcycles rather than bicycles.  Then, of course, I have to go through 2 huge wooden doors to get to the sidewalk.  And, no, these doors are not activated by motion detectors.  Getting through a door without banging it on my bike (or, worse, my hands) is an objective that I do not always accomplish.

So now Mrs. West has actually left the building.   Although Berlin is certainly far more bike-friendly than any other place I’ve lived, it still offers obstacles, especially for those of us whose full attention is absorbed in simply trying not to fall.  Yes, Berlin has lots of bike lanes (and, if you’re a pedestrian, you can place yourself in harm’s way if you stray into them).  But there’s not great consistency in where the bike lanes are located:

  • A bike lane can simply be part of the sidewalk (indicated by painted lines or by a brick that’s a different color than those in the rest of the sidewalk), in which case you must be alert for pedestrians who stray into the bike lanes.  The greatest danger is posed by dogs on leashes, who impulsively head toward a spot with a particularly irresistible smell, and in so doing, pull the leash across the bike lane.  For reasons I’ve not deduced, dog leashes are not required to be day-glo lime or orange with blinking lights, and so they are not readily visible.  Small children can also be the most adorable little hazards, with or without leashes.
  • A bike lane can be in the street, along the curb, which is my own personal favorite (except that parked cars can block it).
  • A bike lane can be in the street, but not along the curb; cars are parked along the curb and the bike lane is then between the parking area and the car lane.  Bikes are quiet and can be fast.  Sometimes people open their car doors without looking, leaving the biker 3 options:  (1) go into the car lane (and hope the drivers see you); (2) crash into the door; or (3) stop, and hope that, if there’s someone behind you, they are alert to the situation and are sufficiently agile to avoid a 2-biker, 1-car smash-up.

A fourth option for a bike lane is for there to be none at all.  In this case, you have to choose between the sidewalk and the street.  The one advantage of the street is that bikes have the right-of-way, so if you get hit, it’s the car driver’s fault, whereas if you hit a pedestrian, it’s your fault.  I figure that, if you can’t avoid a crash, at least you should try to avoid the blame.

So, here I am, going at a glacial speed and trying to first figure out where the bike lane is (or isn’t), and then making adaptations en route, all while cars are whizzing past me and pedestrians and bicyclists are coming at me from all directions.  I must also be alert to the occasional soccer ball kicked into my path, or the infrequent (but no less deadly) pedestrian who may not be in the bike path, but nonetheless intrudes upon it when he points to something across the street, using his arm that’s holding a shopping bag full of God-only-knows what.  All the while, everyone is wishing that this crazy old lady would just get out of their way!

Assume I actually make it to my destination without mishap.  Then I have to go through the locking process again.  Then I go into the store; I buy a few things; I put them in my backpack.  Now comes the challenge of getting the backpack on my back.  The first strap is easy, but finding and getting my other arm through the second strap is where all the fun begins.  I once had a boyfriend who liked to ‘help’ me with my coat – his idea of helping was to let me get one arm into a sleeve and then hold the other sleeve in a position well out of reach while I flailed about trying to find it.  [It’s a good thing that the weather in Beaumont, TX, rarely demanded wearing a coat—otherwise, the I doubt the relationship may not have lasted for 4 years.]  Well, putting on my backpack when it’s full of groceries is like that – but in this case I’m achieving that same objective while flying solo.  Generally, there’s very little space in the store to tend to stuff like this, so here I am, with one arm in one strap while the other one is flapping about in all directions, looking like I’m trying to get lift-off so I can take flight.  Following this part of the process, there’s all the snapping of the various straps, which is admittedly anti-climactic, but no less bemusing (or irritating) to the observers, who are hoping to get by me without an elbow cracking them in the nose.  [I’ve not yet managed to inadvertently punch someone in the face, but it’s only a matter of time.]


Given my misadventures in bicycle-dom, it might be more appropriate to call my blog “The Perils of Pauline” [].  That has a certain resonance for me, given that my father’s first wife almost always called me ‘Pauline’ rather than ‘Jaton’.  To fully appreciate the import of this persistent habit, you must know two facts:  (1) ‘Pauline’ was the name of her baby sister (for whom she harbored the most vile resentment); and (2) my father’s first wife also happened to be the one who gave me my name, so you’d kinda expect her to remember it with ease.  But if you thought that, you’d wear high-buttoned shoes and chase rabbits.

In any event, I continue to unintentionally wreak havoc upon my beloved Bezirk.  It’s good that I’m not a doctor because I’m not having a lot of success with that ‘first do no harm’ thing.  Last time I went out to terrorize the neighborhood, I got outside to discover that it was raining a bit.  Normally I would have gone back inside to get an umbrella, but I realized how utterly useless that would have been with me on my bike.  There are some folks who can ride a bike while holding an umbrella, but I’m certainly not one of them.  I take my life (and the lives of those within 500 yards of me) in my hands when I so much as try to scratch my nose while riding my bike, so I ruled out the umbrella.  My next thought was to get my rain jacket, but it was a fairly warm day (in the 70s—and, no, I’ve not gotten used to talking about temperature in Centigrade).  I could wear a rain jacket and stay dry from the rain, while getting soaked in sweat, or I could just get rained on.  Either way, I was gonna get wet.  I decided that rain-wet is better than sweat-wet, so ruled out the rain jacket, too.

Having overcome that hurdle, it was time for me to get on my bike.  This is always the most difficult part.  But the sidewalk in front of our flat is at least 10 feet wide—plenty of wobble room—and there was no one in sight.  So, I started the process of mounting my trusty steed, but then my feet slipped off the pedals and I went careening off course, just as folks in the house next door were coming out their door.  The only way I could avoid hitting them was to jump off my bike.  (Well, ‘jump’ may not be the most accurate description, since my ‘jump’ is more like a ‘controlled crash’.)  I stopped about 1 foot from them.  In a feeble attempt to explain, I said something like “Ich bin Anfanger,” which provoked the typical German reaction anytime I try to use the language (i.e., a correction).  In this case, the gentleman gave me the word I should have used—Anfangerin, the feminine form of the noun.  Oddly enough, noun gender was not my concern at the moment.  [Yikes!  I just now realized that I didn’t even remember my manners!  I should have also apologized!]  Imagine their perspective—they’re minding their own business, just coming out onto the sidewalk when this old American lady is suddenly in their faces, blathering incorrect German, without so much as an apology (for either the intrusion or the incorrect word).

After this near miss, I looked up to see a herd of pre-schoolers headed my way.  You see that a lot—the day care centers often take the little ones out for field trips.  I knew for sure that there wasn’t any point in trying to get on my bike at this juncture, so I just decided to walk my bike until I got past them.  It was then that I realized why my feet had slipped off the pedals—I still had my house shoes on!!  So, I turned around and went back home to put on my real shoes.

I truly, truly need some amulet to offer me protection when I’m on my bike.  I suppose a St. Christopher’s medal might work.  But I also need one to protect all the innocent bystanders from me!  If any of you know of the saint that protects one from inadvertently doing harm to others, please let me know.  So far, the best thing I’ve come up with is a button I saw on a clerk at the grocery store.  It says “Ich lerne noch.” [“I’m still learning.]  At least it gives them fair warning (provided, of course, they’re not looking down, fearing doggy doo more than aging kamikaze bikers).


Berlin is a very green city.  Part of it is because of all its parks; if you don’t live in walking distance of at least 2 or 3 parks, then it’s only because you’re simply not ambulatory.  Some are large; others are small; many are hidden away, waiting to surprise you as you turn a corner.  The prevalence of canals also helps; Berlin has more miles of canals than Venice.  The green is not just confined to the parks or canal banks; most of the streets are lined with trees.  Germans take very good care of their trees.  For example, the trees are numbered so those charged with maintaining them can more easily tend to them.  [This is Frau West; I’d like to report that Tree #19,432 needs trimming.]

Another thing that helps the trees along the streets is the German approach to paving the sidewalks and streets.  Some streets are asphalt, but lots of them are still paved with cobble stones.  The sidewalks are also made of stones or concrete pavers.  However, there is no sealant between the stones or pavers.  This helps in two ways:  (1) whenever they need to make a repair under the street or sidewalk, they simply lift up the stones or pavers, do what they need to do, and set them back; (2) it allows the rain go into the earth rather than run off.  This also lets the trees breathe and drink, and gives their roots room to grow.  All good stuff, right?  However, now that I’m riding a bike, I more fully appreciate that these lovely green things also have a dark side.  [Don’t forget those 2 trees that killed Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono when they were out skiing!]  For example, they just grow and grow and grow.  The city does a stellar job of trimming the lower limbs, so rarely do bikers have to worry about getting thrown from their bikes by a low-hanging branch.  However, the trunks get wider and start to take up a bigger part of the limited real estate allotted for walkers and bikers.  But the worst part of it is that the roots push up the bricks (or asphalt) on the bike paths, which can make for a bumpy ride at best and can throw certain inexperienced bikers off their bikes at worst.  My son is sufficiently young and agile to just jump off his bike rather than fall with it.  However, I have such a death grip on my handlebars that I’m definitely going down with the bike.  [The medics will need something equal to the ‘jaws of life’ to detach pry the handlebars from my hands.]   Another factor comes into play, too—the omnipresent piles of puppy poop everywhere, many of which are quite impressive.  (Refer to ‘Elevator Bear’ above for a possible reason for this.)  So, as I wend my way through the bike paths of Berlin, trying to keep track of where they are, I must not only watch out for animate objects—such as people, dogs, other bikes, and cars—but must also continually dodge tree roots and doggy doo.  Oh, yeah – I also have to remember where I’m going, which ends up being the least of my worries, as it turns out.  This last challenge is particularly difficult for those of us who are severely directionally-impaired.  When I’m with Harvey, I can simply follow the guy in the day-glo orange helmet.  That doesn’t work so well when he’s not with me.


 OK, so here’s the scene.  Me, approaching a place where there’s construction that narrows the bike path significantly AND bounds both sides with a waist-high barrier.  Undoubtedly there’s enough room for a bike to pass through, with at least ½ inch on each side.  Having dared to try that earlier in the day with disastrous results (crashed into the barrier and tore my watch off my wrist), I was disinclined to try that again, so I got off my bike to walk through that piece.  Coming towards me on this significantly diminished bike path was a guy, who appeared to be alone.  Why he was in the bike path (especially when clearly there was barely room for a bike, much less a pedestrian, and I was already there), I’ve not a clue.  In any case, just as we were about to get close enough to start the little dance you do when 2 folks come face-to-face in a passageway that can accommodate only one of them, he started saying something.  Silly me!  I thought he was talking to me.  I didn’t understand what he said and so gave him my standard, “Ich habe nur ein bisschen Deutsch”  (i.e., I no speaky the language so good).  He gave me a puzzled look, so I repeated myself.  He then apparently asked me something like “Why are you telling me this” – although I have no idea what he really said.  So then I said, “Haben Sie mir etwas gesprecht?” (Did you say something to me?) He then said something that I assume was along the lines of “I wasn’t speaking to you; I was speaking to my wife” as he pointed to a woman who happened to be about 15 feet down the road.   But imagine his surprise when, for no apparent reason, the old American lady comes up to him and confesses to speaking only a little German.

 GLORY HALLELUJAH! (or however that word is spelled!)

Today my bike started paying for itself!  I took it to Steve’s instead of taking the U‑bahn.   It will take another 193 trips, however, before it becomes a cost savings over the U‑bahn.  Since I’ve averaged maybe 1.5 U‑bahn trips a week, it will take about 30 months to break even, provided, of course, I don’t kill myself in the process (in which case this mathematical calculation is more or less irrelevant).

[1] ‘Bezirk’ is German for ‘neighborhood.’