I walked to the bakery this morning to pick up some fresh rolls and pretzels. Nearly everything is closed in Germany on Sundays, but bakeries are considered essential and so allowed to open. Picking up bread every day is a pleasant ritual. We eat less bread than we used to and we also have friendly neighbours who often get there before us and leave a bag with fresh rolls hanging on our front door handle. All this means is that my daily bakery walk has become more like a weekly pilgrimage.
This morning I woke up thinking of a specific song (Hometown Blues by Steve Earle if you’re interested) and decided to wear my ear-pods and listen to the song on my way to collect our breakfast rolls. I usually disapprove of people with headphones on and casually crossing the road while looking at their phone, but today I joined the masses. To be honest, I am getting a bit bored with the crisp blue skies and joyous birdsong every morning so a bit of vaguely depressing music was a welcome change. I arrived at the bakery and was surprised to see a queue of 6 people stretching out to the road, all stood calmly at least 3 metres apart. I positioned myself at the back of the queue which put me on a parking slot next to the road. I listened to my music. After a while I sensed something behind me and turned around – startled to see a car waiting patiently to drive into the parking slot. The driver was a bald grumpy-looking character who probably hadn’t beeped is horn only because of the frail looking old lady stood in front of me. He was undoubtedly thinking – “look at that idiot standing in the road with headphones on and no idea what’s going on around him”. I know this because that is what I often think when I’m driving. It didn’t help that the bloke looked quite like me too. I made an exaggerated “silly-me” forehead slapping movement and swiftly vacated the parking spot. I took out my ear pods and stood quietly in line trying not to make any more eye-contact with Mr Grumpy.
Now that I had no music, I had time to think. And I got to thinking about how far apart we were spaced. And then I got to thinking about childhood car-journeys when we went on holiday. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Back in the 70s and early 80s, we went on quite a few holidays which started with a long drive. This may have been us heading down to the ferry to get to France or Germany – or it may have just been a few days away to visit our Aunt or Grandmother in Littlehampton. Our parents would load up the car. Mum would make sandwiches for a picnic on the way (I think Windsor Park was a common stop). My brother, Rob, and I would jump excitedly into the back seat. School was over for a few days or perhaps weeks, the sun was shining and adventures beckoned. The first 100 miles of the journey were pleasant enough. First we’d be fine just looking out of the window. After a while, Mum would detect us getting a bit bored and suggest a game of “I Spy”. This kept us occupied for a while but also had a shelf-life of about 20 minutes before that became boring. We would then have no choice but to entertain ourselves. One “game” was known as Divider Line. I would use my forearm to mark exactly where Rob’s half of the seat finished and beyond which no part of his body must ever stray. My arm would go up and down with me repeating the words “divider line, divider line” incessantly. It must have been extremely annoying for those in the front seats.
Rob would, of course, quickly sneak a hand across the line when the arm was up and whip it back when my forearm came down on the line. Inevitably, I would eventually catch his arm. This would lead to minor scuffling which would end up with us writhing about on the back seat while pushing our knees into the back of the front seats. The vinyl seats were not as robust as they are today so our parents could actually feel the exact profile of our knees and feet bashing into their backs. By this stage it is highly likely that one of us was complaining loudly that the other wasn’t being fair. Eventually (usually somewhere near Leicester Forest Service Station) Dad would have had enough and shout at us to be quiet and sit still. If this didn’t work his hand would come back to push us apart. With hindsight, our parents showed remarkable restraint – having 2 hyped-up boys in the back whingeing and kicking the drivers seat while trying to navigate using the RAC road atlas is bad enough. But also knowing that you were only at the start of the journey must have made things worse. Mum would usually instruct us to sit on our hands and be quiet for a while to let Dad concentrate on driving. This would last a minute or so before Rob’s finger strayed across the divider line, and we went through a quieter, more giggly version of the cycle again.
I was thinking about this as I queued for bread rolls, because Germany is at about the same stage as Rob and I were when we started playing Divider Line. 4 weeks ago at the start of the lockdown, everyone was quite excited about the prospect of staying at home and were more than willing to stick to the rules. A cheesy song (Victoriam) was hastily composed and went straight to number one as the country pulled together in support of “the heroes on the front line”. We waited eagerly for Angela Merkel to address the nation, and we all did exactly as were told. Now we are starting to see that people are getting bored. The press is no longer talking with a single voice. Lots of commentators are asking whether all the measures are really necessary. After all, they say, the Swedes seem to be getting along fine – and they don’t really have a lockdown. For every voice saying we need to loosen up, there is another saying that we’d be crazy to do so. These are the people who already had face-masks on a week ago and give me a withering look when I navigate the supermarket aisles without one. I think that the “super-carefuls” were in the majority outside the bakery this morning. We were stood a good 3 metres apart at least. And because this distance seemed to have been set, nobody dared to go as close as the state-recommended distance of 1.5 metres. Which was a shame, because if they had done so, then I would have been safely stood on the pavement and spared an embarrassing moment.
I spoke to my wife, Ariane, about the emerging tribes of “super-carefuls” versus the “let’s-loosen-ups”. I predicted that, just as with Rob and I in the back of the car, there will be more and more bad-tempered arguing as we get tired of the restrictions. She had also noticed this phenomenon – but had a different take on it. She is currently preparing to do her motorcycle licence and is therefore very knowledgeable about traffic rules and regulations. Apparently, drivers should always give cyclists, scooter or moped riders at least 1.5 metres of space when overtaking. She found it strange that the residents of Schönaich were quite happy to stand 3 metres apart in the fresh air while waiting to buy bread, but only leave about 30 cm when they overtake our daughter on her scooter or us on our bicycles. I suppose we are a town full of people with double-standards. I don’t like double standards and I want to make a stand against them. So I have resolved to give cyclists, scooters and mopeds no less than the allotted 1.5 metres and the super-careful shoppers no more than the 1.5 meters. Consistency, that’s what we need in these uncertain times.