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..


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.