How I stopped traffic on El Camino Real …

El Camino Real is a long, straight, busy road that, just like Soroksári Road connecting Budapest to its southern suburbs along the Danube, links San Francisco to the towns on the Peninsula. 

But “long,” “straight,” “busy,” “road” and so many other concepts have completely different physical and cultural meanings here. So adaptation can easily eat up the first few weeks of a foreigner’s visit. A strange encounter on El Camino became a symbol of this adaptation process for me.

I had just finished jujitsu training late one night and was about to head home from campus. I was on my bike but my front and rear bike lights were comfortably sitting at home. I live half a mile from campus, so really do not need them. That is how my self-reassuring reasoning went – until I approached the pedestrian crossing at the intersection on El Camino and realized that the traffic lights were not working. Biking in the dark without lights can be fun until you have to cross eight lanes and make yourself noticed to a couple of hundred car drivers hurrying to get home from work. 

Cynicism and mistrust bred by history

In Central Europe and most of the Balkans, this challenge is mission impossible. Drivers there simply don’t stop for bikers or pedestrians, and in the highly unlikely event somebody finally stops, one cannot be sure that the car in the second lane will do the same. People usually feel safe only if there is no car in sight. They usually wave drivers to pass and dare to cross only if everything is clear. It’s good to prepare with enough food and drink for a couple of hours’ wait. 

Confidence there is low. Opinion polls show that seven of 10 Hungarians will never trust a fellow citizen. 

So, there I was on El Camino with my old European experiences. I was grabbing my phone, ready to pass the time checking emails, maybe watch video excerpts from the first presidential debate – or, tweet for help. 

But literally 10 seconds after I arrived at the intersection, the traffic simply halted. First on my left, then on my right. For me and only me. I crossed silently – grasping the significance of the moment, nodding thankfully and somewhat awkwardly to the unknown drivers. I was thinking that Moses must have felt the same way after successfully dividing the Red Sea. If I were Paulo Coelho, the famous Brazilian novelist, I would use this event as the pivotal moment of my new spiritual book. (The Californian El Camino Real originally linked missions dispersed along the Peninsula. And the most famous pilgrimage route in Spain bears the same name in popular language. )

Busted: European stereotypes of Americans 

With all due respect to everything spiritual, this incident is, for me, more significant from an earthly and human aspect: I believe traffic situations are generally reflective of a culture’s social interactions. And to me, this incident proves how European stereotypes of Americans as individualistic, egoistic and competitive are misleading. 

While this culture is, in fact, based on competition, achievement and individualism (it is enough to enter a Stanford Graduate School of Business class to see that), it is at the same time utterly cooperative and much more inclusive than one would think. Sometimes, in fact, the degree of trust is staggering in European, and especially Eastern European, eyes. 

Just another example, from Stanford, one of the most prominent universities in the world: Since its very foundation, it has maintained an honor code in which students agree not to cheat, and professors don’t monitor exams. In fact, during my first test here the professor did something unimaginable in my country: she left the classroom. And nobody cheated. 

In the society I come from, mutual mistrust is the norm. A history of revolution, occupations, changes of regimes, world wars, fascism and communism painfully taught my compatriots not to trust institutions, states, written rules, laws or anybody outside the closest family circle. Survival was literally most often guaranteed through tricks, cheating and misleading others. In this atmosphere, exams at universities are a battlefield in which students are ever perfecting their cheating weapons and professors ever developing their defense arsenal. 

Within the first two weeks of my yearlong stay here at Stanford, I saw another European view of Americans reduced to shallow and cynical. 

Europeans often describe Americans as ever happy, ever optimistic and ever smiling. Europeans believe American optimism and cheer is “fake” and “empty,” that “honest” Europeans only smile when they are “truly” happy and, of course, always in a very meaningful way. 

The difference a smile can make

What I found is that a smile and positive approach to everybody and everything is not at all empty, in the sense that it has its purpose. Encouragement nurtures creativity, and creativity fosters innovation. Now I understand why Silicon Valley is so successful. The general rule here is: Try not to say “Yes, but!” Better to say “Yes, and!” You hear it in every class from business to creative writing. 

I have never felt more Central European, cynical and incredulous than when I was again and again in several classes encouraged not to use “yes-but” sentences. I can hear my skeptical European friends saying: “That is also sooooo American!”) 

And you know what? Try to say something starting with “yes-and” instead of “yes-but,” and you will find out how much more difficult it is. Discouraging is always easier.

I can hear them grumbling that I have already been contaminated by this bug of American optimism. So here is an “old-worldly” counter to my newfound optimism. (Our American readers can skip this part.) The other day, another Knight fellow’s bike was stolen – a cruel, egotistical and very individualistic act. Only some explicitly negative words can be applied.