Archive for October, 2011

In the rough and tumble world of the USA, where 44 million people don’t have health insurance and a presidential candidate brags about jogging with a loaded gun, Europe can seem like a cradle-to-grave nanny state where coddled citizens enjoy a lifetime free of risk or worry.

It may be true that everyone here must have health insurance, those who can’t afford it are given assistance, and workers have more rights than in the US, although those rights have been diluted in recent years. However, I have been surprised and sometimes alarmed by the seeming nonchalance Berliners have about their own and their children’s safety. In everything from dangerous playgrounds, bike riding without helmets, smoking, dogs and unmarked intersections, Berliners live on the wild side.


A recent NYT article, titled Can a Playground be too Safe? asked whether children’s playgrounds in the US have become too safe. Clearly, playground designers in Berlin have set aside extreme concerns for safety first and are more in agreement with Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Norway, who stated, “Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground.”

Here, children mob the local playgrounds with parents nearby but not hovering. Barefoot and determined, the kids shinny up poles, climb rough-hewn wooden structures, and climb up webbed ropes to the top of pirate ships.

Are those women drinking beer?

That's a tall slide!

They also jump on small trampolenes, ride bikes over hilly steeple-chase type courses, and slide down 20 foot slides.

Steeple chase

Merry-go-rounds like we had when I was a kid are plentiful, as are new-fangled spinning discs, harnessing centrifugal force with absolutely nothing to hang on to. Looks like a blast!

Spinning disk

Parents seem relaxed and unconcerned, picking up discarded shoes and socks and providing reassurance. The kids are thrilled and ready for adventure.

Special events, such as the open house at the Kanzleramt (Angela Merkel’s executive offices), include entertainment for older children such as the hamster ball in the swimming pool. Older children and young adults step inside a deflated plastic ball, the ball is zipped up, inflated, and pushed into the swimming pool. The young hamsters try to stay upright in the plastic balls, which is clearly impossible. Nowhere did I see anyone signing a release form.

Can you imagine something like this at the White House?

A recent poetry festival featured one of those bull-riding machines. The kids loved it! A fall festival offered children a chance to try their hand at black smithing.

Learning to be a black smith


Berliners are very nonchalant about helmet use while cycling. I’ve noticed that children are more likely to be wearing helmets, but not always. Parents and children regularly go to and from school or kita (day care/nursery school) via bike, and children too small to ride on their own are often perched on the rear of the parent’s bike, in a little wagon pulled at the back,

Lots of kids to get home.

or, my favorite, sitting in a box built into the front of the bike.

Don't lean over too far!

Sometimes their little noggins are protected with a helmet, sometimes not.

Helmet wearers

Maybe we Americans are pessimistic and think about the worst case scenario too much. Maybe Germans are more optimistic. Or perhaps they are more careless.

Watching the Berlin Marathon


Herman Cain has caught a lot of grief over his strange campaign ad, featuring his chief of staff taking a drag on a cigarette. Europeans used to be notorious for their tobacco-stained teeth and smoky pubs. Today, smoking is banned in restaurants and most bars, except for smoking bars. Nonetheless, young people here seem to smoke a lot, taking cigarette breaks outside or deliberately sitting at outside tables in spite of the cold, in order to smoke. Smoking is definitely still ‘cool’ here.

Thumbs up!

Drinking beer on the metro

While riding the metro, it is not at all unusual to see people drinking a bottle of beer. I’m talking normal-looking, suit-wearing, iPhone using professionals, in addition to the punk rocking, hoodie-wearing, skateboarding youngsta’s. Little shops in the subway stations sell sandwiches, coffee to go, and beer!

Recently, a few 3:00 am alcohol-induced incidents in the metro stations where drunken idiots have tried to bash an innocent bystander’s brains, there has been a call for making it illegal to drink alcohol in the metro system. It’s actually already illegal to both eat and drink on the metro—but the rules are not enforced. Old-time Berliners in my conversation group assure me that drinking on the metro is relatively new to Berlin—in the past 10 years. We shall see how things evolve. Hamburg is reportedly beginning a campaign to strictly enforce the no alcohol laws on their public transit system. We’ll see if Berlin follows suit.

This guy may not be drinking a beer, but he has a cool hairstyle.

Dogs Everywhere

I love dogs and I remembered from being a student in 1974 in Regensburg that the Germans love their dogs, too. Things haven’t changed and here in Berlin dogs are welcome on the public transit system, restaurants, shopping centers, and many stores. Dogs are not allowed in supermarkets, although I’m not sure why.

Relaxing on the S-Bahn

Berliner dogs are mostly very well-behaved. A few weeks ago we enjoyed Schnitzel Night at one of our local restaurants. Of the 10 tables outside, 3 had a dog quietly lying beneath the table, all the while everyone was enjoying their delicious, aromatic schnitzel. Two of the three dogs were medium to largish—not just little dachshunds. I cannot imagine our dog Jack in this setting. Or, yes I can. He would have been growling at the other dogs, jumping on top of the tables and gulping down schnitzel.

Who Goes First?

Berlin is a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. Although many people walk, ride public transit or ride a bike, many cars, taxis and trucks also  navigate their way through the city streets. Major thoroughfares are well-regulated with traditional stoplights for every category of transport—pedestrian, cars, bikes and trams all have their own stoplights. You might have to wait a while, but eventually you will get your turn.

At less busy intersections, where in the US we might see stop signs or at least yield signs, Berlin has no signs or crosswalks. The idea is that everyone slows down while approaching the intersection, and there is a bit of a dance that occurs as cars, bicyclists and pedestrians weave their way through. Somehow it works.

Stay alert!

I’ve read about the shizen-inspired high-traffic intersections in the Netherlands that have been redesigned to be void of traffic controls.  “When you come to such an intersection, you have no choice but to slow down, have some human interaction, and use your intelligence,” says Matthew May in a recent article on Zen and Design Simplicity.  Using your intelligence—I like that.



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