Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Driving in Boston, Netherlands, Poland and Belgrade

Branko Bridge at midnight - Belgrade, Serbia
 Looking at how people behave in their cars is an excellent way to estimate how people are when they’re not in their cars. I’ve driven all over the world but taking the car into any metropolis remains a daunting enterprise.

In Boston, for instance, driving means partaking in a collective panic attack. The flow of traffic is largely organic, meaning that drivers don’t typically stay in their lanes but go wherever the traffic pushes them to go. Honking the horn is ultimately ineffective in congested traffic but Bostonians lean in on that thing like there’s no tomorrow. Leaning out the window and diverting blame is also an integral part of Bostonian automotion. Meet a Bostonian out of his car and he’ll seem to apogee of chivalry. But beneath that composed exterior shudders the heart of a chicken.

In the Netherlands people drive with calculated precision. They also drive 120 kilometer per hour, stay at a safe distance from the next guy and rarely honk their horns. Once there was a fire in a tunnel. Folks that drove into the tunnel brought their cars slowly to a standstill, waited until the cars behind them were stopped too, put the car in reverse and slowly backed the whole herd out of the tunnel. No one was hurt. No car was damaged.

Driving in Poland is like driving in Boston during a Martian invasion. It’s not unusual to see five cars side by side going in three directions on a two-lane road full of holes. Poles will honk at each other for stopping, accelerating, overtaking or refraining from doing those things. Poles loath foreigners, loath Poles and loath themselves, and make that known by turning driving into a perpetual assassination-slash-suicide attempt. Speed limits mean nothing in Poland. Stripes on the road mean even less. Fans of demolition derbies should all move to Poland and let it rip.

Much to my surprise, driving in Belgrade is much more like driving in the Netherlands than driving in Poland. Even though Belgrade is fantastically congested, Belgradians are courteous, cautious and precise. They’ll let you in, give you right of way and only honk at you when you really deserve it. Drivers in Belgrade all seem to share the knowledge that cars are expensive and lives are easily destroyed. As in any big city, drivers in Belgrade will suffer an occasional ‘Flojd moment,’ but in general the going is slow and easy.

I have a theory about that.

When the iron curtain fell, only very few people in Poland owned a car. In the early nineties especially young people went abroad to earn money, and when they came back (if they came back) they would buy cars. That means that the collective driving tradition in Poland is very young and upheld largely by impetuous and discontented kids.

In Serbia, owning a car was very common during the Tito years. When the economy collapsed, salaries decimated but the cars that people had stayed those same cars. Somebody with a car that once set him back an annual salary suddenly owned a car that was worth ten years of labor. When the gas prices went up, people drove less and very careful when they did.

Nowadays salaries in Serbia are about 10% of what they are in the West, but the traffic seems quite equal to that of the West. There are very few shitty-olds and many well-maintained small sedans. Occasionally the stray Mercedes or BMW will zip by, but cars in Belgrade are mostly 10 year old hand downs from Germany and Italy. And they’re driven with the same grace and hospitality the Serbs will show when they’re not driving.

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