Rites de passage, Austrian style

It was when the police officer on the corner started looking angry and walked towards me with her hand held out in the universal gesture of “stop” that I realised I’d done something wrong.

I was on the way to school one morning last week to drop off my daughter. The usual tram had been delayed for no very clear reason beyond an announcement on the tram that “We will wait here for 15 minutes” so to avoid being late (school here starts at 8, which my dears is frankly inhumane) we had to reroute and walk a different route to our usual one from the tram stop to school. There were a lot of kids on the way to school – some with adults accompanying them, others not, and the street was busy.

“What on earth are you doing? Didn’t you learn about that at primary school? See, the children all stop! They know to stop! Why don’t you?” she rattled off furiously. My German is pretty good but people being cross at me in the Viennese dialect takes a few seconds to parse, so I stared at her for a few seconds before the magnitude of my crime became clear to me. This only seemed to make her more annoyed as I stumbled around in my early-morning brain trying to get a suitable reply together. Being a white middle-aged male I’d never had a police officer be quite this rude to me before, so the whole thing was very disorienting. Had I accidentally murdered someone without noticing?

It didn’t take long to figure out what the problem was. At the crossroads where we just crossed the road there were zebra stripes in each direction so we would have normally had priority when crossing – but there was also a policeman directing traffic in the middle of the crossroads for some reason. I had misinterpreted the fact that the pedestrians crossing at right-angles to us were allowed to cross as meaning that all pedestrians were allowed to cross, and thus…

I had not only jaywalked, I had jaywalked:

  • Blatantly
  • Egregiously
  • While escorting a child
  • Against the signals of a police officer directing traffic
  • Right under the nose of a second police officer who had been looking directly at me.

This made me not just a criminal, but a wanton criminal. It didn’t matter that the road was at most 3 metres wide and no cars were coming, I had committed an offence under §76(3) of the Strassenverkehrsordnung*. And from my confused response it was clear to them that not only was I a wanton criminal, I was a foreign scofflaw criminal who thought the rules didn’t apply to him and was teaching his child to walk straight out into traffic and who should probably be deported.

I’m so sorry, I said once my brain’s language centre caught up with the barrage of remonstration it was having to process. I didn’t realise that.. “Why didn’t you wait? All the other children are waiting! Didn’t you learn this in primary school?” Well, actually when I was at primary school it was in the UK where the road rules are different (in general, if one set of pedestrians is clear to cross everyone is clear to cross) so no, I didn’t actually learn that – but explaining that would have only changed the lecture to “Well, that may be how they do it in England but this is Austria and (etc)”. Maybe I should explain that every country I’ve lived in has completely different ways for police to direct traffic? The Swiss, for instance, almost make a ballet of it, while here it’s much less clear what they mean and..

“AUSWEIS!”

Pardon? “Ausweis!” she repeated. Oh, yeah. ID. I fished out the right card from my wallet and handed it over. She started copying the details into her notebook while continuing to tell me, in case I had missed it the first four times, that I should have learned about this stuff in primary school, that five year olds know to stop, and that I was clearly a terrible person. Finally she shut her notebook and handed my ID back, dismissing me with a terse “Rechnung kommt per Post” – the bill will come in the post. In other words, I could expect a fine of an as yet undetermined amount depending on how serious my offending was considered to be.

I was initially annoyed by the whole thing partly because I knew exactly where I’d gone wrong, it was the result of confusion on my part and really there wasn’t any need to have been quite so relentlessly rude to me. But then I realised that I’d passed the final rite de passage for living in the German-speaking world.

Crossing the road in such a disorderly manner – such a reckless, untidy and above all unordentlich manner – is against the law in all three of the main German-speaking countries. The Internet is full of outraged complaints from visitors from the UK or US who marched proudly across the road against the red man and then worked out why everyone else was waiting when a policeman appeared out of nowhere like Mr Benn’s costumier and reached for their pad of tickets while passers-by tutted and whispered.

So after 11 years my essential Britishness had finally caught up with me. I’m generally scrupulous about knowing what the local laws are and being a well-behaved foreigner everywhere I go, but my jaywalking ticket will always remind me that however German-speaking I am, however much I call cream “Obers” and get excited about Tafelspitz, and however competent I am at navigating the local bureaucracy and generally being a local, deep down I am always going to be that British person who takes a crafty look left and right before nipping across the road against the red man when nothing’s coming. The only difference is that these days I join in the chorus of tutting when someone does it while there are small children waiting to cross because everyone enjoys the chance to feel self-righteous.

It’s now been a week and a half and the ticket hasn’t appeared yet. My research has found that there is no fixed fine for the crime of jaywalking, but €70 seems to be the going rate with the maximum available under the law being a rather surprising €726 – the same range as for jumping a red light in your car, unbelievably, and substantially more than is available for lesser offences including jumping from a moving vehicle and illegally practising winter sports on the road. I have a feeling they’ll whack up the fine from the minimum because it was such an unforgivably blatant act of lawbreaking that if repeated could threaten to tear the very fabric of Austrian society asunder, but we’ll see.

Incidentally, in an attempt to avoid further misunderstandings I turned around a few paces after being dismissed, went back and asked her what the hand signals were that I should look for from police directing traffic to be sure I could cross safely. The reply was that I should have learned that in primary school.

* Just so you know: (3) An Stellen, wo der Verkehr für Fußgänger durch besondere Lichtzeichen (§ 38 Abs. 8) geregelt ist, dürfen Fußgänger nur bei grünem Licht die Fahrbahn zum Überqueren betreten. An Stellen, wo der Verkehr sonst durch Arm- oder Lichtzeichen geregelt ist, dürfen Fußgänger die Fahrbahn nur überqueren, wenn für den Fahrzeugverkehr auf dieser Fahrbahn das Zeichen „Halt“ (§§ 37 Abs. 3 und 38 Abs. 5) gilt. Hält ein Verkehrsposten einen Arm senkrecht nach oben oder leuchtet gelbes, nicht blinkendes Licht, so dürfen Fußgänger die Fahrbahn nicht betreten. Wenn Fußgänger die Fahrbahn in Übereinstimmung mit den angeführten Arm- oder Lichtzeichen betreten haben, sich diese Zeichen jedoch ändern, während sich die Fußgänger auf der Fahrbahn befinden, so dürfen sie die Überquerung der Fahrbahn fortsetzen, bei Vorhandensein einer Schutzinsel jedoch nur bis zu dieser.

Depression in Tech

I wrote this on the internal Google+ (remember?) instance when I was still employed at Google, after years of undiagnosed low-level depression suddenly became totally debilitating high-level depression as a result of.. well, let’s just say “management practices”. I’m sharing it a few years later as my slightly belated contribution to World Mental Health Day.

I still believe, especially as a result of the conversations this post started and from the numbers of people I know to have sought help from Google’s internal counselling service,, that depression and anxiety remain an epidemic in the high-pressure tech world. They will remain so at least until the constant pressure on even the most skilled workers to perform better, launch, overperform, “exceed expectations”, get promoted, work silly hours and so on from management who measure their own success solely in the form of numbers on a spreadsheet is removed. –mpk

I had to think for a while about whether this was something I should write about openly. In the end I decided that yes, I should, because it’s an important subject and it’s something that is likely to affect others. So here we go:

I spent just over three months at the beginning of this year on medical leave – half of it completely signed off from work, the other half working 50%. I was off because I was being treated for depression. Long-standing depressive tendencies going back quite a number of years, which finally got to a crisis point in January when I simply couldn’t face going into work one morning. The next day I saw the doctor, who signed me off and started me on escitalopram (an SSRI, if you’re interested in these things). It took several weeks, some temporary side effects to work through, and a doubling of the dose to take full effect. Once it did, things started to slowly get better, and with the doctor’s help and some support from my management I eventually went back to full time working a couple of weeks ago.

Since this whole thing started multiple conversations have made it clear to me that depression (often exacerbated by stress or by burnout) is more widespread in the tech world than I’d believed possible. There are probably quite a number of people at Google who are suffering unnecessarily. So here are some things you need to know:

Firstly, depression is not necessarily something that appears from nowhere and whacks you upside the head one day. It can also be something insidious that works its way into your brain over months or years, impacting your mood, your self-esteem and your relations with family, friends and colleagues. It makes it harder to enjoy things you previously enjoyed while simultaneously magnifying any setbacks or pitfalls out of all proportion. This situation can persist for years before something (stress, personal troubles, family issues, burnout..) finally triggers the crisis which pushes you into a hole deep enough that you aren’t going to get out of it without professional help.

Secondly, depression is just another illness. There has been a stigma around mental health for too long that has led people to deny to themselves and others that they have a mental health problem that needs help. In reality, more people than you might imagine (and among them some of the best, most creative, smartest people in history) have fought the same fight as you. It is not a sign of weakness or something you should be ashamed about. If you sprained your ankle you wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. Why treat your brain any differently?

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is help available. But to get that help you have to be prepared to be honest. If you go to see the doctor or to a therapist and try to downplay your symptoms it makes their life harder. Be open and describe how you have been feeling in as much detail as you can and it will help them to help you. I know it’s embarrassing to admit this stuff, but if you disguise it as, say, “I’m feeling exhausted” or “I can’t sleep properly” it will take longer to get to the point where you can be properly diagnosed and treated. I learned this to my cost – had I gone to the doctor earlier and been more open and honest about what was happening it’s quite likely that I could have avoided having three months out of the office.

Yes, it can be difficult to tell people truthfully and clinically that, say, you’ve found yourself thinking about suicide, but there is no shame in doing so. By describing your problems honestly you’re taking the first step towards making yourself better, and that is not weakness, that’s bravery and strength.

If you’re having problems coping, if you’re under stress that you’re not managing well, if you detect that shitty little imp of depression sitting on your shoulder whispering insults in your ear, talk to a professional sooner rather than later.

If you’re one of the others who is struggling with depression or who has struggled in the past, I wish you strength.

Iceland 1:1 Argentina

I’ve never been a great fan of football. I mostly think of it as existing in two forms, neither of which are really very attractive.

The first form is the game we were forced to play at school on freezing days, where I would inevitably be the last to be picked for a team (for the perfectly valid reason that I was rubbish at football) and then left in goal out of harm’s way. The rest of the team assumed we would win 12-0 because we had that kid on our team who had boots with proper screw-in studs and his own shinpads. We would almost always go on to lose 12-0. Shinpad Kid would blame me for this defeat, which I didn’t really mind as I cared a lot less than the other kids assumed I would.

The second form is the top-level European game, which turns football into a sport contaminated with rotten money and entitlement. A sport where a routine part of the match is the team manager hurling abuse at the referee from the safety of a press conference when calls go against them, where the primary purpose of sport is to enhance shareholder value, where the expectation of victory is absolute and lagered-up bully boys go on the rampage because their team lost. There are plenty of people who aren’t lagered-up bully boys who can somehow tune all this out and enjoy it with a passion regardless, but I’m not one of them.

Occasionally, though, the stars align and a third form of football finds its way into my consciousness. When this happens the clouds briefly clear and I find myself understanding just a little of what it is that makes football exert such a pull on its fans. When determination and spirit come to the fore, when hope actually can be a strategy, and when a team goes into a match having not paid any attention to the expected narrative that they will fight bravely but ultimately capitulate to the far stronger side it’s possible to see wonders happen, and that makes me happy.