Zebra Crossings and Jimmy Conway

At one end of our street is a rather intricate road intersection. It isn’t but your average Viennese driver knows no better. This includes a couple of zebra crossings where, every morning, Monday to Friday, stands a police officer. Their task is to ensure children can negotiate the crossing safely on their way to the local schools and kindergarten (German for kindergarten is kindergarten), to keep traffic moving and generally get on the nerves of drivers. Their presence is nothing special in a city-by-city sense and back home in Blighty we had something called “lollipop” men and women doing much the same job, although I have no idea if they still exist and haven’t succumbed to a juggernaut of cuts in local government spending.

One thing I learned this last year, though, is that in Vienna there is a special traffic regulation during the school “rush hour” whereby the police, known locally as Kieberer, can stop pedestrians at crossings (effectively to bunch small kids and their parents together) to allow vehicles to pass and keep the traffic flowing. Which is fair enough you may think. But my training as a pedestrian, which began all those years ago on the mean streets of Plumstead in south London, had always led me to believe that those on foot have an unconditional “right of way” at a zebra crossing. I know this is not a universal truth, I have been to Italy. But this being Vienna (tourist board slogan: Wien ist anders) things are, as I have learned over the years, equally confusing.

I know there is a law because on those first few mornings on the way to school with my son last autumn I broke it, only to be taken aside by an exasperated, pink-cheeked traffic cop, displaying the less intellectual side of law enforcement, and scolded like a naughty child. I have enormous respect for the police and to quote a much used axiom they are, like English trainers, doing a hard job in difficult circumstances. And when I once enquired about the state of a police officer’s trousers outside my flat – called by a neighbour because we were playing music too loud – I almost certainly deserved the fine (not for the music, but for my cheekiness). But given a genetic weakness for challenging authority, I saw it as my destiny and duty to engage him at length (in my best German) about my small social indiscretion (although standing in the middle of a road whilst doing so probably did nothing for the safety of the other parents and children).

British expat getting arrested by Vienna police for being cheeky in a public place before 9pm.
British expat getting arrested by Vienna police for being cheeky in a public place before 9pm.

I can summarise the incisive thrust of my argument as thus: children (and some parents who persist in still acting like children) are getting mixed messages about road management and regulations. On the one hand, they are told a car must give way, but on the other it is at the discretion of a person in a blue uniform. Sometimes he/she waves cars through, other times not. This is no way to communicate with children who need unequivocal messages of purpose (either that, bribery or a good slap).

Of course, you argue, the driver always knows but I am not convinced especially as the standard of driving here, stuck as we are at the eastern rim of old Europe on route to the Balkans, can be generously described as unpredictable. I share my thoughts with many people I meet and it is clear to me that in spite of these numerous discussions, there is a unsettling level of confusion. One lady told me that pedestrians must stop just before the crossing and then signal to the driver that you want to cross. What signal, I never found out. Another told me that a pedestrian had to show intent. Intent? What does that mean? Send a text message? In any case, why would I stop at a street corner with a zebra crossing and gesture to drivers? I’ve got nice legs but still, they might get the wrong idea.

Surely, I muse, the law compels cars drivers to slow down, exercise extreme caution and stop irrespective of the situation, especially when children are involved. No, I am informed, children are to blame, the inconsiderate little tykes having the impudence to force a car to brake. And thus, not untypically when faced by the baying car obsessed, contrary mob my counter arguments about the rights of pedestrians (and cyclists) are droned out by petrol-headed banality. Inwardly I shake my head at such archaic sentiments and grudgingly concede that even in the number one city, I am reminded of the idiotic, the feckless and socially inept at every juncture (and junction).

The police officers are a friendly bunch, most of the time. Even when an icy wind is whipping faster and more callously than a dominatrix running late, they give you a muted Gruss Gott as you hurry on your way. Some of them are clearly rookies (you know this because a) their uniforms are pristine; and b) their approach to directing traffic is almost poetically robotic and precise (they are young and not prone to cynicism and unfulfilled hope). But there is one police officer who I admire tremendously, one who inspires great affection and enduring respect: the notebook carrier.

Fastidious is a good word, voracious is another. She wastes no opportunity to harangue drivers who infringe the laws. Not stopping for the pedestrians, jumping red lights (this is commonplace here), looking like a git, in the book goes the number of the vehicle. She reminds me of a mix between Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas and Carr in Cool Hand Luke (voice over from Henry Hill): Too late for work, huh? in the book. Your boss breaking your balls, huh? in the book. Speaking on your mobile phone, huh? In the f-u-c-k-i-n-g book. She is the epitome of a public servant: relentless yet consistent, tough but fair, protecting the wider public from, what word would Orwell choose? Wankers. Yes, wankers.

Jimmy Conway

Which leads me, in my next instalment, to driving, drivers, changing my wheels and another near miss on my bicycle. But before that, and with the grace of God, in the week that Britain went Thatcher crazy (she will, like the Belgrano, go down in history for all the wrong reasons) a guest article on the 10 best ways to get to Vienna. Maybe 7. At worst, 5.

I, of course, came on a one-way ticket with less clothes but more hair. And with a serious need to start smoking. But that is another Geschichte

© R. J. Barrat 2013

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