Sunday, November 13, 2005

So, most towns and cities in Europe have what is called (in German, at least) the "Altstadt," or "old town." This city center typically consists of the "historic district"--that is, the oldest buildings, or alternatively, the oldest buildings which were reconstructed after one of the world wars. The historic centers are usually conveniently placed somewhat near the local train station (but not so close that train station undesirables get in the way of the tourists) and paved with cobblestones, thus giving the impression that the city must date back to at least the age of Charlemagne. In many cases, the Altstadt is closed to everything but foot traffic and bicycles--no buses, cars, trams or trains allowed.

Mainz has a really lovely Altstadt that has been well preserved, despite having been basically obliterated in the Second World War by American bombs. It is perhaps a bit ironic that neighboring town Wiesbaden, which was left mostly untouched by air raids, is now home to a large American military base. Local legend has it that the Americans in fact purposefully decided to leave Wiesbaden alone so that they would have a nice place to occupy after the war. One of the curiousities about the Mainz Altstadt, however, is that only some parts of it are "pedestrian only." In general, when walking around downtown, you have to keep a sharp eye out; you may believe you are strolling along what appears to be an ancient and deserted thoroughfare, admiring the soaring architecture and soaking up the culture, when in fact you are actually blocking traffic and infuriating bus drivers. To help you all to experience this vicariously, you can play a fun game called "Street or Sidewalk?" We'll start with an easy one:

Ha! you scoff! d, what are talking about? There are people milling all over the place! A man walks with his infant child enconsed in a large stroller. That woman in the black coat, with her daughter, strolls along with no intention of moving to a "curb." Why, if this were a street, would those large tents be placed along the edge of it, thus forcing passers-by into the "street" and congesting traffic? Besides, you might say, this is enlightened Europe, where people walk all the time--no city would place a major street so close to its historic district and central church, the lofty Dom in the background.

Actually, you'd be wrong. Careful observers will note the whitish concrete band that clearly demarcates street from sidewalk. Yes, folks, this is a street. If that woman in black had stayed in the middle of it for much longer, she'd have been side-swiped by the five buses that zoomed passed minutes later. In fact, this is such a busy street that J! and I had to stand there for about 10 minutes before we could get a photo of it without buses. Don't believe me?

Notice the pair of guys crossing the street, regardless of the fact that they are about to get squished between two enormous buses? This is another fun game you can play in European cities--Chicken. I always lose--the bus drivers here are by and large friendly and helpful, but it only takes one who has been driving all day in a bad mood to reduce me to a small American spot on a street/sidewalk. Besides, being hit by a bus would get my white coat all dirty.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

K here. I'm remembering the way to cross the street in Italy. Chicken is not even the word. You can wait years for traffic to slow down enough to cross, and never see a gap in the flow. I finally realized that you have to just close your eyes and start walking. Cars will stop. But only if you're directly in front of them...

10:48 PM


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