I get to Germany, and decide to go buy me a mountain bike, since I love to ride bikes. I visit my local bike shop, where the gruff but lovable Herr Wagner sells me a Specialized HardRock. He begins to screw a bicycle bell onto the handlebar.
"Oh, I won’t be needing that," I told him.
"Yes, you will."
"A bicycle bell? I haven’t had a bicycle bell on my bicycle since I was ten years old. It’ll probably fall off, anyway."
"You must have this," Herr Wagner said. "It is…necessary" he said, searching for the English word.
"But it’s a mountain bike. I don’t need a bell when I’m riding trails."
"You will not always be on trails. And it is the law. All bikes must have a bell. This is a crowded country. I give it to you free."
"Well, alright then."
So I figured that since I’ve got a bell on my bicycle, I might as well use it. When I came up behing people on the sidewalk or on a trail, I gave them a friendly little ding! In the United States, it’s considered courteous to give pedestrians a brief verbal warning when you cycle past them. I figured that in Germany, the bell was what you used to give a friendly warning.
I soon noticed that whenever I rang the bicycle bell to tell people I was approaching, people’s heads would whip around to me. Or they’d jump immediately to one side — and I mean immediately. One guy, walking alone on a fairly narrow trail near a hedge, actually jumped into the hedge and worked himself a little way in, before eyeing me in fright and resentment as I bicycled by. People walking dogs would pull little Fido’s chain so hard and so quickly that I was afraid Fido’s neck would break.
"Man, these Germans sure are high-strung," I thought to myself unheedingly. I began to secretly enjoy ringing the bell and watching the people jump as if they’d received an electric shock. It was as if I were a king or a mafia boss — everyone immediately jumped to their feet in my presence. Finally, a biker was getting the respect he deserved.
Then I went bicycleing with a few German friends. We came up to a group of people and I rang my bell. The group scattered, as always. My German friends said "what did you do that for?!" "I was just giving them a friendly warning," I said innocently. "So they knew we were coming." Then my friends explained to me: "No, no no! You only ring the bell when you absolutely have to. Otherwise, you do not need to say anything."
As I found out, bicycle etiquette is different in Germany (or at least in my part of Germany) than it is in the U.S. If you can bicycle past someone and leave a meter between you and them, you just do it without saying anything. If it’s going to be somewhat closer, you may wish to make a sound or announce "bicycle" (Fahrrad), so they know not to make any sudden movements as you ride past.
You ring the bell only when the people walking on the trail have to move in order to let you ride by. That is, you will hit them, or will have to stop, if they don’t move to the side. The people who were walking alone on the trail always reacted the most urgently to the bell. This is because they knew they weren’t blocking the path — there was plenty of room for me to cycle right past them. So when I rang the bell, the message I was sending them was "I do not have full control of my bicycle, and might run into you unless you move right now!" Understandably, they did just that.
Now, of course, I understand the rules, and often go riding for hours without ever using my bell. I’m just glad I didn’t make the same kind of cross-cultural mistake when I was riding in Texas. Because then, somebody would probably have shot me…