One never really contemplates how traffic is routed in various countries, until one starts to travel. I am therefore rather blasé when it comes to crossing the road, assuming that I will be fine. Surely sticking to the right hand side of the road is or will be easy? I don’t intend driving in Münster as public transport is easily accessible and mostly on time. So I can’t foresee a problem.

Until I walk. Bicycles fly past me, zoom, zoom as I try to navigate the distinct pedestrian path noted in muted, grey tones under foot. Münster is a bicycle city and so it has demarcated bicycle paths that are paved, maroon pathways. And everyone, from young to old, seems to use it, whether in the morning, midday or in the evening.

In the first five days here, I am confused when I walk as I want to pass oncoming pedestrian traffic on the left. But they will not budge, sticking to the right side of the walkway. Cyclists do the same. So I am forced to go right, right, right. And it feels wrong. At times I am so frustrated that I want to scream. A conversation with someone is broken when I consciously have to adjust to walking on the right hand side. My mind feels constipated, sluggish, on a go-slow. Why is it so difficult to adjust to walking on the right-hand side?

Contemplating this response over a period of days, I can’t help but feel discomforted by a sinister thought – like a sheep; I feel I am being routed in a particular way as part of a grandiose plan to control the citizenry. Like a lone sheep that goes off from the mob, I am seen and quickly corralled back into step with the others. Here, I am being socialised, perhaps even brainwashed, into a particular way of being; and I am conscious of it. In South Africa we drive on the left hand side of the road, yes. But South Africans walk all over the road, jiving and moving across the pavement ignoring routes, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. We jaywalk. I am constantly warned not to do the same in Germany, to wait and pay heed to the traffic lights, or otherwise I might find myself on the wrong side of the law. And so I feel confined here. Straightjacketed. Right? As a hint of my rebellion I dance at the traffic lights, while I wait for them to change. I use my body to speak of my unease as I sight the shoulders back, neck elongated, spine ramrod straight Germans. Everything seems so regimented.

In contravention of the many warnings not to jaywalk, I alight from the bus, and rather than walk the 50m to the pedestrian crossing, I skip across the road. Oh crap!! Polizei!! They are meant to drive past. Drive past. Crap. The blue and white cruiser stops and the young police-man admonishes me for crossing the road in German. Aware that he is holding up traffic by talking to me, I blurt out defensively, yet coyly “I am English!” What I really meant to say was I speak English, but my usual “guilt” at being caught makes me a blubbering idiot. Without skipping a beat he speaks English and advises me to use the pedestrian crossing for my own safety.

Slowly, slowly I merge into the right stream, looking first right then left, not left and then right. I also get rather irritated when pedestrians don’t hold to the right “rule” or more so when cyclists don’t hold to it – stay right, pass left, damn it. Their misalignment disorients me perpetually, keeping me unsettled in this land overseas. Am I orientating to the wrong way? Or is it the right way? Whatever it is, this new way of routing and orientating myself, has unbalanced me spatially as I am compelled to be more aware of pedestrians and cyclists. I am also more aware of how my body takes up space. Every step is awareness, as the trill of a bicycle bell either says hullo (I imagine!!), or encourages me to move out of the way. The freedom that comes with having no vehicle, and having accessible public transport slows my thinking as every step takes me somewhere – to the shops, to work, to the Asee.

I start to feel comfortable in this makeshift order, despite the gnawing suspicion that I am being streamlined into a way of being that I am not sure I want, or like. The order, however man-made, allows my mind the freedom to roam. To dream again. To be still. To finally hear myself … more. Who would have thought that Germany could offer that?



  • An anthropologist by training, Dr Joy Owen is the current head of department of anthropology at Rhodes University, where she has enjoyed intellectual and pedagogical stimulation since 2003. She remains adamant though that everyone should refer to her as "Just Joy". And so most people do!


Joy Owen

An anthropologist by training, Dr Joy Owen is the current head of department of anthropology at Rhodes University, where she has enjoyed intellectual and pedagogical stimulation since 2003. She remains...

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