Rules you can safely break

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The Independent Online
"When everything else fails, read directions," a folk wisdom goes. As an extremely law-abiding person, I find rules, directions, instructions and guidelines absolutely essential. Maybe this is because I spent 35 years of my life in the former Soviet Union, where your every move, word and desire was regulated by the unbending party line. Those who deviated from it were branded dissidents and were put away or put down. Nice and simple.

Living in the West, I've developed a powerful spirit of contradiction: the moment I see a forbidding sign, or a placard calling for this or that, I feel an irresistible urge to disobey. An innocuous "No Smoking" plate causes a strong craving for a cigarette. A "No Drinking or Eating on the Premises" triggers pangs of hunger and thirst. And so on. When I see a poster "Vote Tory", I feel like voting Labour. A "Vote Labour" television commercial evokes strong Conservative sympathies, and Paddy Ashdown's fiery calls to vote Liberal Democrat never fail to discourage me from voting altogether.

The other day my girlfriend took me to a friendly north London rubbish dump to dispose of bulky house waste "The public may enter the site only on purpose of depositing rubbish" read a strict sign at its entrance. Since then I have been struggling with the desire to go to the rubbish dump to play snooker, board a flight to Paris or have a Malaysian meal.

Living in this country, I find that the British loathing of "irregularities" and love of fair play doesn't stop them from occasional jaywalking, queue- jumping and belated complaining, which is quickly turning into a favourite national pastime on a par with bird-watching, train-spotting (or is it rain-spotting?) and taking laxative pills.

Here's an illustration. Dozens of commuters on a London-bound train watched a drunken couple making love, but none of them uttered a word until the mutually satisfied lovers let go of each other and lit up cigarettes. It was only then that their fellow passengers exploded with rage. Indeed, it was a non-smoking carriage.

The most law-abiding people in the world are probably the Luxemburgers. I remember well how I stopped at the pedestrian traffic lights during my first walk around Luxemburg City. There were no cars to be seen, yet the locals stood on the pavement waiting for the lights to turn green. One minute passed, two minutes. No change of light. No change of expression on my fellow pedestrians' faces. It was plain that if the green light didn't come on until the end of this century, all of them would still be standing there, without a word of complaint, apart from those who had died of old age while waiting, and even their dead bodies would not be taken across the road in breach of the rules.

Having lost my patience, I ventured to cross the road while the light was still red. Murderous looks burned through my back as I walked. They looked at me as if I were a serial killer, a child molester or a hired assassin who had just made an attempt upon the life of the Grand Duke Jean, Luxemburg's ruling monarch.

In Switzerland, making a noise after 11pm or not dumping rubbish in the specially designated green rubbish areas are criminal offences (so they say). Swiss males are required to undergo compulsory military service for several weeks a year. Another bizarre regulation obliges them to store their arms and military equipment at home in between drafts. It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that you can find a couple of mortars and machine guns, to say nothing of bullets and hand grenades, under every Swiss bed. Can there be a connection here with Switzerland's constantly declining birth rate?

What I like about Australian regulations is their accessibility and lack of coercion. The ubiquitous road safety warning "If you drink and drive you are a bloody idiot" doesn't necessarily mean that you mustn't drive while drunk. It is just an unobtrusive reminder that if you choose to be called an idiot, you are more than welcome to drink, drive and break your neck.

This is what the whole of Western freedom is about, I presume - one should be able to obey or to disobey rules, instructions and codes of conduct at one's own discretion, without running the risk of being imprisoned or shot. In either case, there is a danger of being branded an idiot, but, there again, this is strictly a matter of an individual's personal choice.

Vitali Vitaliev's next book, `Little is the Light, Nostalgic Travels in the mini States of Europe', is published by Simon & Schuster on 3 July.

Miles Kington is on holiday.