Everyday runners don’t often make headlines but recently I saw an article in the Guardian (with graphic video) that lured me in.
You probably saw it, about a man who, while jogging on a busy street in London, approached a woman who was walking. He met her head-on and violently shoved her into the oncoming traffic where she flew into the path of a bus that had to swerve quickly to avoid killing her. Fortunately she wasn’t seriously injured.
I could say that I felt repulsed and outraged and that would definitely be true. I also felt smug in the self-righteous belief that I would never ever erupt into violence like that when I was on a run.
But the scene felt eerily familiar. I could relate to the rage or frustration or whatever irrational emotion that might propel the guy’s shameful act. Don’t we all know road rage?
Living abroad is full of small, maddeningly idiosyncratic rules that hit you immediately upon arrival and that you must continually try to decode.
Many of them are traffic related: do you walk with or against it (still not sure), do you stand and wait at a crosswalk or just go on through (you go sheepishly), do you fear being bitten by unleashed dogs or trust the ordinance that requires owners to train and license them to stay alongside them in public (they do but you may still be wary).
And social manners: do you greet others with a polite “gruetzi” (hello) or avert your eyes respectfully (stay quiet unless you need medical help).
As you know, I pick things up by blundering through. But this right of way way of not making way ticked me off. I couldn’t comprehend why people coming towards me me on a trail or sidewalk wouldn’t move over as I approached. It chafed.
In the States we observe the unwritten law to yield to the one moving faster or we negotiate it reasonably, it’s like a kernel of our democracy.
Not here. I’ve arrogantly grazed shoulders and knocked elbows in annoyance at the groups of three walking abreast, blocking the trail and forcing me to stop and walk while they sauntered on by. They were rude, unfair and unsportsmanlike, I thought. Share the road, go by the rules, use common courtesy, I vented to myself.
But there’s a system here and it begins with, incredibly, the pedestrian. Yes, the walking ones are the first in line to be deferred to, then wheelchairs (unless they are competitive athlete level), then joggers/roller bladers followed by scooters, bikes and finally cars.
Basically if you are going faster than someone else you are required to yield.
The Swiss infrastructure is built around the walker. City streets and signage are all designed with the two-legged or walking-paced person’s perspective from eye-level ground zero.
Pedestrian right of way even trumps private property ownership. The wanderweg, a national system of walking paths, is brilliant, my favorite thing about Switzerland.
Marked by yellow flagged signs all throughout the city and into the Alps, it connects all corners of the country and what I like best is it cuts across all private lands too. Hikers have complete access to family farmland and meadows and any unmarked forests along the way. Now that’s democratic (ahem socialist).
In so many things in life we must bend and adjust and adapt our personal and political beliefs, whether they are Driver’s Ed rules or just the basic manners we were taught by our parents.
But none of them serve us if we can’t see that many rules are fluid, cultural, regional, philosophical. It’s may be obvious but still crucial to remember that things can and must be figured out in weirdly different ways from ours, in fact they almost always are.
In the end it’s about sharing the space, being civil, respecting someone else’s pace and perspective and remembering to bow to the home team advantage. Even when it grates against habit and reflex. Remember that the autopilot is set to American settings.
Context is the crucial thing but hard to discern because we tend to see through our own lens and we resist widening our scope. Our worldview seems the most logical, or so we’ve been taught. In reality ours is just another way to wander.
The learning goes on and I blunder forward, every day it seems like I’m doing something at odds with the Swiss ways. Yes I’m ignorant and aren’t we all.
But it’s a grand opportunity isn’t it?
And I’ve finally cottoned on to the correct sequence (yay me): walker, runner, rider, (evil) driver. Just remember to yield to the one who’s going slower than you. Good rule, because more often than not that person will be me.