Ritual dance of the compact cars

A post from the German archives, with a few updates.


My oldest daughter and her husband live in a sturdy red brick apartment building, one of dozens that were built in this neighborhood of Kiel in the 1930s, when not many people owned cars. The sidewalks are wide and the streets are narrow. I paced off the width of their street, and my highly scientific measurements (calibrated with a sheet of A4 paper) put that distance of six paces at roughly four meters (about 13 feet).



In contrast to 1930s Kiel, these days lots of people own cars, and though these cars are generally smallish, even the Smart cars are substantially bigger than a breadbox. When Kiel-dwellers come home, they pull up onto the sidewalk as far as they can on either side of the road, but that still leaves what might be called a straight and narrow path (not to be confused with the biblical version; this one just leads in the direction of the playground with the zipline). It’s a two-way street, but there’s clearly only room for going one way at a time.



And so we come to the ritual dance of the compact cars. As you thread your way between sidewalks of parked cars, you can consider yourself “good to go” until another car begins heading your way. At this point, there is an etiquette prescribed.

My daughter has explained the different protocols that apply in various situations, but the main procedure is straightforward. It involves scoping out empty parking spaces on either side. The car that can slip over into a spot proceeds to slip, so the other car can slide past, after which the first car pulls back out and continues until the next car comes along. If there are no parking spaces or wide bits or other options, somebody has to back up until one is found.



As with many ritual dances, there are probably complex hierarchies involved, though they may not be discernible to outsiders. For all I know, there may be an automotive equivalent of the alpha male,* either bigger or more expensive, in the face of which others must back down. I didn’t ever witness a dominance display: no chest pounding or puffing, no guttural growl—not even any honking. Everyone just politely pulled over for one another.


Jason Corriveau, Wikimedia Commons


It may be that we’ve all got our instincts well in hand and are too advanced for such displays. On the other hand, perhaps the thought of really getting up in someone’s grill, and all the paperwork and subsequent insurance rate increases that would surely follow, is enough to guarantee relative peace in the ritual dance of the compact cars.


*I’m still not sure about that, but I’ve learned a relevant German term: eingebaute Vorfahrt, or built-in right of way. We saw this demonstrated yesterday near the maternity clinic when a flashy sports car proceeded to slip into the parking spot we had been patiently hoping for. We’ll be generous and assume the driver couldn’t see that Liebling is 9.2 months pregnant.


[Images: Rozmiar Pierwotny at Wikimedia Commons, Yours Truly x 2, flickr.com, Jason Corriveau at Wikimedia Commons]


2 thoughts on “Ritual dance of the compact cars

  1. Similar issues when driving on the very narrow roads in Wales with hedges on either side…pull into the hedge if you can and if not, whoever is closest to the entry point of said road should back up. I found it very nerve-racking!!

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