Here is a list of common ways to get to work, in reverse order of misery:
- old-timey streetcar shrouded in mist that is equal parts romantic and melancholy
- bicycle (weather permitting)
- humanely functioning rapid transit
- a bus that shows up more often than every 25 cursed minutes
- the back of a cheerful Great Dane
- the back of an irate pony
- nothing, because your schlumpy ass works at home
- literally anything else
- an automobile
And yet. Here in the land of knee-jerk World War III threats, the vast majority of us working schmos commute to our jobs by car (ALONE, like very sad, lonely dumbasses), despite substantial evidence that this makes everyone who does it goddamned miserable.
Goddamned miserable. Photo: B137/Wikimedia Commons
Such an unfortunate state of affairs comes thanks to a beautiful, toxic American melange. There’s that peculiar strain of post-war automotive patriotism, and the powerful industries that grew out of it, like the tire and auto companies who ripped up the Los Angeles streetcar tracks. And then there’s our barbaric contemporary urban (or, rather, suburban) planning that centers the car, by which I mean is hostile at best (and deadly on the regular) to anyone who dares not go everywhere in a two-ton shrine to pollution, alienation and death. (Here’s a surprise: I don’t like to drive.)
Kill me. Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
The reality is that outside of a few heavily-populated urban cores with workable public transit (given Andrew Cuomo’s all-out war on the MTA, I’m not sure New York even counts anymore), the United States is a patchwork of sidewalk-bereft arterials and tragically underfunded bus routes, meaning that everything about the average American commute to work screams GO FUCK YOURSELF. If I think about it for too long, I’ll get even more depressed than I already am.
That’s why stories like this one out of Germany are a veritable soul salve. Munich resident David Benjamin both lives and works near the city’s Isar river, and after becoming disenchanted with the constant gridlock on the road that parallels it, he decided it would be both fun and efficient to jump his ass into that water and swim the two kilometers to his office.
In cold weather he wears a wetsuit, and he always carries all his stuff (including HIS LAPTOP!) in a special Swiss dry bag that doubles as a flotation device, a thingy popular in Basel with the scores of recreational Rhine swimmers, who use it to stow what I can only assume are their multiple $5000 watches and hordes of exceptional chocolate.
Look at this delightful motherfucker! The best thing about this is that David is not some fitness freak (or, to use the German, ein Fitneß-Freak) with a Juicero and a SuperSquat desk in his office. He’s rocking what I affectionately like to call the Classic Bavarian physique, and for much of his commute he doggie paddles or chills in the current on his back. He looks, frankly, like he’s having the time of his ever-loving life, and I want to be him.
I also want to be Rodgau resident Jutta Maaßen (whose passport will now display an accurate rendition of her last name!). Not only does she have the best eyeglasses ever (even for a German), but she straight-up swims across the Main river to work every day because the ferry that used to carry her (and her bicycle) stopped running early in the morning. “I can see my office from here!” she laments on the Hesse side of the river, as she gazes across at the Bavarian side. Alas, the nearest bridge is six kilometers downriver.
So, rather than endure a twelve-kilometer detour every day (remember, Germans enjoy the exercise of biking, but they’re generally doing it to get from Punkt A to Punkt B), Maaßen rides her bike to the bank, stuffs her work clothes into—you guessed it—another Wickelfisch dry bag, swims across (“It’s actually quite comfortable in here!” she assures the camera operator), changes into her work clothes, unlocks the second bike she keeps on the Bavarian side for specifically this purpose (did I mention that she is the best?), and pedals the rest of the way to work.
First of all, this blows my previous list of acceptable commute modes wide open: Judging from how much fun these two excellent Germans are clearly having—but also factoring in the cost of a Wickelfisch bag and a gazillion-millimeter wetsuit for winter—I’d say “swimming” falls below functioning rapid transit, but smokes the damn bus.
But Maaßen and David also remind me of a crucial German/American dichotomy: Namely, even though Americans claim to be happier and Germans claim to be unhappier (at least for now), I shall now advance the groundbreaking theory that Germans actually are happier than we are in their day-to-day lives.
This is primarily because Americans’ national pastimes are voting for dipshits and being “positive,” and Germans’ are being right all the time and complaining about every little tiny thing that isn’t to their precise specifications. So a German will tell you that he’s having der aller beschissenste Tag aller zeit (dayr ALL-uh buh-SHISS-un-stuh TOG ALL-uh TSITE, or “most fucked-up day ever”) because the cookies for his third daily Kaffeepause were laid out in an insufficiently festive manner, and an American will insist she’s doing “great” even though she just had to start a GoFundMe for her son’s appendectomy.
Americans’ perceived happiness (or self-delusion) is high, but our actual happiness is a festering non-Swiss bag of bullshit; Germans are grumptastic, but they actually value the little everyday joys more than we do, joys that work together to comprise a more joyous life.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, the phrase that Benjamin David uses to decry his previous automotive commute is is that it macht keine Freude (MOCKT kye-nuh FROY-duh), or “produces no joy.” Rather than just cram himself into his joyless BMW (pretty sure that’s a residency requirement for living in Munich), and try to lose himself in podcasts and beat back road rage and existential angst, he decided to take a damn swim.
Over here, our relentless worship at the automotive altar, and our bullshit housing markets that price most workers out of the neighborhoods where they work—not to mention the small fact that our major urban waterways (what few we have) are Superfund sites and/or have gonorrhea—mean that most of us won’t be swimming to work anytime soon. But I still hope that the simple knowledge of Benjamin David, Jutta Maaßen and their irrepressible German joie de vivre (A THING!) offer us all just the slightest glimmer of Freude in a miserable fucking time.