Berlin streets are exhilarating on a bike. As a pedestrian I thought I’d never want to ride one in this city. That could be because we saw a bike accident within our first hour of arriving in our neighborhood in August. Not so much an accident as a slow-motion collision between auto and bike, the car backing up into the bike, the cyclist shouting at the driver, a mom with a small child strapped to a rear seat just a few feet away. The dad was still upright but getting dragged backwards as the car backed up. The driver quickly realized his error, threw it in drive and sped off, and the biking family was rattled but intact. A little unnerved, we continued our orientation walk in which I was planting all kinds of misinformation in my brain, mainly which direction was north and which was south, along with a renewed fear of riding a bicycle in traffic. I’m still trying to undo the faulty messages I received on that walk.
It happened to me, or I should say, to my friend, on a visit to Germany a full 20 years ago. My friend was in school in Heidelberg to work on her already-good language skills and figure out what came next for her.
I’d come with my boyfriend to visit her and tour the lovely old city. She met us at the train station and took us around town for the afternoon. We rode the quaint local trolleys through the city, and I recall her handing us small paper tickets that we were supposed to punch in some ancient contraption in the rear of the car.
To make the tickets last longer, she said, we don’t have to punch them; it’s an honor system here, and they rarely check.
I am exceedingly grateful that we do not have a car in Berlin. There are many reasons we have one in the states (two, actually) and none in Berlin. Here we have: No commute. A walkable neighborhood. Grocery stores in every direction. Great subway system, and buses too, though we haven’t tried those yet. Friends with cars.
There are advantages to not having a car: The cost of buying/renting one. Insurance. Where to park it. Relearn manual driving. The cost of petrol. The need for an international driver’s license.
There are also disadvantages to not having a car: Going to Ikea on the subway, stocking up on housewares, then schlepping the heavy bags on a walk in the rain and two trains. (Note to self: Next time, ask a friend with a car). And having to walk the pitch-black, deserted streets from the rowing club up to the S-bahn station after an evening practice. (Sometimes I get a ride, but many of them bike to the lake).
But more than any of this, I realize that one of the reasons I am so slow in grasping the layout of the city is because I haven’t seen it by car.