The ultimate legal machine - stunt-kids on bikes make drivers pay

Bonn Diary
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The Independent Online
A FRIEND'S six-year-old daughter was run over by a bicycle. Her arm was fractured in three places; the operation has left a long scar. My friend is aggrieved - by the suffering of his child, as well as by the legal complications that have ensued. The cyclist, though unhurt, is claiming to have sustained grave financial injury and is suing for DM350 - just under pounds 120.

You may think he is callous, but Germans can react quite irrationally to their vehicles - however rudimentary - being damaged. I was once at the receiving end of a verbal assault by a normally mild neighbour who claimed our cat had scratched the bonnet of his BMW. Another friend had an unpleasant encounter with a driver who had just run over his eight- year old son. The irate motorist thought it only fair that the parent should pick up the tab for the bump on his bumper.

How nice to see the tables turned on litigious German drivers. The latest scheme by Bosnian refugees reverses the plot, sending children on bikes into the path of expensive cars.

These stunt-kids are masters of feigning injury without suffering a knock. The driver knows that in the court-room any dispute is settled in accordance with the "two wheels good, four wheels bad" principle. The motorists pay the Bosnians without a murmur, usually on the spot.

The ferries that ply their trade across the Rhine display their "house rule" proudly, like all German institutions. They run to three crowded pages. Ignore them at your peril.

On a windy Saturday evening we took the boat across, sheltering in the small passenger compartment. To keep warm, we took to tap-dancing - as one does on the Rhine ferry - much to the amusement of a young couple driven inside by the gales. It was just them and us, and, we discovered, the official watching us on camera. He did not interrupt, but we do not think he approved because of what followed. Our downfall was our daughter Sarah, who had apparently failed to adopt the regulation posture while dosing in a corner. "Foot off the bench!" bellowed the anonymous watchman through the loudspeaker. We are now educating Sarah on the etiquette of crossing the river, and mugging up on Fred & Ginger movies for our next trip.

For a company town about to lose its main employer, Bonn is awfully cheerful. A year from now, the "federal city" will be deserted by politicians and their expense accounts.One might expect the local economy to be depressed, but apart from anecdotal evidence, Bonn still seems the closest you can get to a German boom town. Bad Godesberg, the posh suburb where most diplomats live in style, has recently acquired a huge multiplex cinema. Work has resumed on the concrete hulk by the Rhine, originally designed as a Bundestag annex but subsequently orphaned by history. As with most other public buildings, the government has found new tenants. And don't think any road projects drawn up before German reunification have been abandoned. The enormous tunnel built to speed motorcades along the so-called "diplomats' race-track" is beginning to emerge from the rubble. It will be ready on schedule, in the middle of 1999.

We are off to the "property exchange", a sort of real estate milk round. Every few months, Berlin developers take over the town hall for a weekend to show off their wares. We visited them the last time, collected dozens of business cards but have yet to get a quote. We do not seem to be the type of customer they are looking for. They are after the bureaucrats who want to buy, rather than rent. For them, idyllic water-front settings have been landscaped: a touch of rural bliss in the middle or on the fringes of the urban jungle. Billions of deutschmark have been ventured, and all to no avail. The government is offering incredible packages to entice its employees to Berlin. As well as relocation grants, pay rises and compensation for the higher prices in the new capital, it has agreed even to foot the bill for moving civil servants' horses and yachts.