Walking is an integral part of life in central Europe. Everybody walks. The young, the old, the healthy, and the infirm. It's enjoyable and it's good for the body and soul. But there are rules. Strict rules. Rules that apply on the tidy streets of Ljubljana, the ragged avenues of Bucharest, the precious cobblestones of Prague, and the friendly streets of Bratislava.
The rules of the central European sidewalk, like the subtle rules of language, take a lifetime to master. For the native, the rules are assimilated during childhood and honed throughout adulthood. The decision to step left or right to avoid a pile-up is made without conscious effort.
For the non-native, however, walking blindfolded through Grand Central Station in New York City at 5 pm on a Friday is easier than trying to pass a lone pedestrian on a Bratislava sidewalk.
In Grand Central Station, the rules are easy. Grip tightly whatever you're holding, walk straight, walk fast, and avoid eye contact. Follow these simple rules and you will slice effortlessly through the sea of worsted wool and briefcases. Use this strategy while walking in Bratislava's Old Town and you'll end up with a cane cracked over your head. Although the non-native can never hope to fathom the Byzantine rules of the Central European sidewalk, there are certain common pedestrian behavioral modes that if studied, can keep you upright and bruise-free.
The Weaver: Up to 70% of the Central European walkers fit into this category. The more advanced practitioners of this art can turn a Sunday stroll down the block into a day-long expedition. It's a bizarre phenomenon, perhaps caused by some gravitational anomaly or ill-fitting footwear. Whatever the reason, the Weaver is a supreme test of your patience and passing skills. When passing the Weaver from the rear move quickly and swing wide to make room for that unexpected lurch. Timing is critical, especially when other sidewalk obstacles must be avoided, such as automobiles (parked and moving), bubbled asphalt, Show Stoppers (see below), and a wicked array of sheared metal poles, spikes, and uncovered holes.
The Show Stopper: Watch out for this guy! He's dangerous. He usually strikes just when you've gotten up to a suitable cruising speed. You're in the walking zone, gliding around shoulders and handbags, and then blam! You're hugging some yahoo who decided to stop to ponder his unbearable lightness of being or, perhaps, his last meal. If you have time for evasive action, a quick spin to the left or right can avoid a nasty collision. Show Stopper tip-offs: an irregular gait, random utterances, or wrinkled clothing and unkempt hair.
The Squeezer: This woman has eyes in the back of her head. Usually, she's controlling the center of the sidewalk when you decide to make your move. As you approach her she closes the gap between her hip and some other immovable obstacle, often a metal fence, dirty škoda, or concrete wall. When squeezed, it's best to avoid injury and just stop. Admire the drama of panel-lock architecture or duck into a potraviny (grocery store) for some soap.
The Wall of Three: An impressive display of force, this trio walks shoulder to shoulder, an impenetrable line of determination and girth. God forbid you should beg for just a sliver of sidewalk to get past them. How do you contend with the Wall of Three? Brinkmanship. They only understand the body language of force. Pick your line and go to battle. Show any sign of weakness, a soft shoulder or a hesitant step, and you're off the sidewalk and dodging buses.
Tango Partner:For non-dancers an encounter with the Tango Partner can be a flustering affair. The key here is to avoid eye contact. Once your eyes lock, prepare for a sidewalk shuffle. If you establish early on who's leading, you can probably get past this guy with a few quick steps and a dip or two. If neither party takes the lead, you'll have to stay until the band quits. So if you forget and make eye contact, take the lead, throw a twirl, impress with a deep dip, and move on.
The Kamikaze: This guy is deadly. The Kamikaze's lair is the bus stop. As you edge your way through the waiting crowd he attacks, bursting forth for a bus that's not arriving, to recheck the bus schedule, or just to burst forth. As with the Show Stopper, the Kamikaze leaves you little time to react. Often you'll end up with your face buried in his shoulder or forced into the street. Other than avoiding bus stops, there's no known defense to the Kamikaze's silent sidewalk terror.
10. Apr 1997 at 0:00 | Jeffrey A. Jones