An expat survival guide to crossing the road in Germany

An expat survival guide to crossing the road in Germany

If you live in Germany, there are three cardinal sins that you should never commit: 

  1. Talk about the war in a social context.
  2. Tell inappropriate jokes at work.
  3. Cross the traffic lights on red.

In this particular article, we shall devote our attention to the third option.

Thou shalt not cross the red light

In a rule-obsessed country like Germany, breaking the rules in private is embarrassing enough, but doing it in public is akin to committing murder on a busy street in broad daylight.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that, in the German translation of the Bible, another sentence has been added to the list of ten commandments - “Thou shall not cross the red light [lest ye shall be banished to hell for all eternity].” That’s how serious this is.

For example, if you've ever been to the centre of Hamburg, you'll have seen the street with the shortest crossing in the world. It’s located opposite the Alex cafe on Jungfernstieg. It only takes three large steps to get from one side to the other, and yet, you’ll find that there are traffic lights on both sides of the crossing.

If you’re in town on a Saturday daytime, you will undoubtedly witness the most bizarre spectacle of all, one that epitomises the German rule-abiding culture as good as anything else: crowds of people patiently waiting for the green light on both sides of the crossing. It is hardly relevant if there are any cars passing or not - those are the rules, so you must follow them.

If you dare to step off the "curb" and defy centuries of rule-making, you will immediately feel a sharp burning sensation at the back of your head. This, as it turns out, is the accumulated effect of hundreds of eyes burning a hole in your body; a Molotov cocktail consisting of disbelief, coupled with embarrassment on your behalf, and sheer shock at your actions, which ultimately results in the onlooker despising your very existence.

The walk of shame

The Germans have a term for this; it’s called Fremdschämen - being embarrassed for somebody else. And one sure way of experiencing this is to jaywalk. If you want to elevate your status to the "Enemy of the state" - then you could try crossing on red while there are kids present.

If you plan on doing this, make sure you’re prepared for the onslaught of abuse shouted in your direction along the lines of "ES IST ROT!!!” (“IT'S RED!") or something along the lines of "what kind of an example are you setting to the children, you antisocial so and so."

For a long time - I have to admit - I was doing it purely out of my conviction: if there are no cars, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to cross. But that was a long time ago.

Nowadays, I find myself doing this with a lot more purpose; a certain feeling of defiance - to separate myself from the masses, to wave my proverbial British flag, and to stick my middle finger up in a “Flip you, I’m British!’’ kind of manner. I'm not saying I’m proud of myself.

A guilty conscience

More recently, I’ve been able to understand that even the Germans themselves have certain issues with the "Red man". Particularly the younger generation - those who have travelled abroad and seen the reality of the "red light" rule in those countries. Or, to put it bluntly - the complete disregard for it.

Every now and then, you see a couple of Germans here and there, sneak across the pedestrian crossing on red. However, you will always sense the guilty sentiment that they carry with them.

There is a German meme about this. It goes like this: two men stand next to each other at a pedestrian crossing. It’s red, there are no cars, and it’s midnight. A speech bubble appears above their heads. The text is identical, and it reads, “If only the other guy wasn’t here right now”.

Quick comparison of traffic logic between countries

Here’s a quick comparison of different logic when it comes to traffic rules: 

British logic:

  • Q: Is it green?
  • If yes, then look right, walk to the middle, look left.
  • If not, then check if there are any cars on the right. If not, you’re good to go.
  • Q: What if a car runs through a red light?
  • Answer: Well, they do that anyway, so you’ve got to watch out all the time.

German logic:

  • Q: Is it green?
  • If yes, you’re free to walk. 
  • If not, then you must wait for green!
  • Q: What if a car runs through a red light?
  • Answer: If a car runs through red and hits me, then I will be in the right, and the driver will be in the wrong, which means I will win the insurance claim.

Italian logic:

  • Is it green? What traffic light?!
fadi gaziri


fadi gaziri

Fadi moved to Germany in 2007 from the UK to live in Hamburg. He works as a music composer, musician, producer, educator and a translator. He has just published his...

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