The zebra crossing conundrum

When you live in a different country for a couple of years, you unavoidably will adopt certain local habits and cultural aspects. I cheer for the Slovak national ice hockey team, I love the national dish “bryndzové halušky so slaninkou”, and I automatically take my shoes off when I enter someone else’s home. However, there is one thing I have a very hard time adopting, which always brings up one simple question in me:

“What is your problem with zebra crossings?!”

Apparently, somewhere down the line of the history of Slovak traffic rules, zebra crossings (unless guarded by traffic lights) have been reduced from a contribution to the safety of pedestrians, to nothing more than a bunch of painted lines on the road, with no particular meaning whatsoever. In fact, if it should have a meaning, it would be one of the “world upside down” kind.

In most countries, when a pedestrian arrives at a zebra crossing, car drivers stop, let the people pass the road, and continue their journey afterwards. In Slovakia, however, it works the complete opposite way: Pedestrians are simply expected to patiently wait at a zebra crossing for all the cars to have passed, before they are allowed to cross the road.

More than once have I almost come face-to-face with the front grill of a car or the large window of a city bus, because the driver simply ignored the fact that I used the zebra crossing for what it is painted on the road for. Surprisingly, however, I have never experienced or witnessed an accident on a zebra crossing. Slovak drivers somehow got incredibly well skilled in avoiding such potentially fatal situations. It was not long ago that I was on my way to the supermarket, when I came upon an unavoidable non-guarded zebra crossing. As a well-trained pedestrian, I looked to my right, looked to my left, saw a car coming in the seemingly far distance, but thought nothing of it. I arrived at a zebra crossing, after all. I had already taken two or three steps onto the crossing, when I started to realize that the car driver (that car approached faster than I imagined) wasn’t planning on breaking. But, he himself probably realizing I wasn’t planning on breaking either, “elegantly” swirled around me and continued his journey as if nothing happened, leaving me to continue my own, heart beating in my throat and thinking I could have died just now.

I guess it is a road-hierarchy kind of thing that no one informed us (non-Slovaks) about. Surprisingly, however, Slovaks don’t even seem to be much bothered with this. Or, maybe they just simply made their peace with it. Now, living here for more than 3 years, I have tried to make my peace with it as well. You don’t have a choice, really. It has become part of life. In fact, against my better judgement, when I was visiting the Netherlands a while back, I found myself stopping at zebra crossings to wait for the cars to pass. Try to picture this (This is based on a true story): Here we are, in a country where zebra crossings are fully functional and respected. A car driver arrives at a zebra crossing, noticing a tall guy waiting.  As he obviously has passed his driving exam, he stops his car to let the guy cross the road. The tall guy, however, doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to cross said road. The car driver starts to get impatient. Why does the guy not cross the damn road? There is a zebra crossing, for God’s sake! He hits the honk and gestures to the guy to get a bloody move on and cross the road already – we all have better things to do than try and win a staring contest. The tall guy notices that it indeed is ridiculous that he is waiting at a zebra crossing, instead of simply crossing it. He apologizes to the driver and crosses the road, feeling utterly stupid.

After that experience, I decided that it is enough. I started to slowly test the drivers in Bratislava by simply crossing the road. This resulted in a lot of hilarious moments, some frightening, some outright disrespectful (like the moment when a bus driver gave me the middle finger for crossing without letting him pass first…). Many drivers all of a sudden were forced to hit the breaks and stared at me like I was the idiot on the road, while I was staring back, simply pointing to the zebra crossing to make my point. Some start honking and make gestures. Some show a twisted sense of politeness by waving their hand, as if they allow (!!) me to cross. And some?…Some drivers will always remain eternal “swirlers” and should by all means be considered a lost cause.