Public transportation is a wonderful thing. We haven’t driven a car for over four months, and we’ve rarely missed it. In our town of 100,000, we can get anywhere we need to go quickly enough by bus or on foot. We leave home 35 minutes before church meetings start, little earlier than last year when we drove every week.
Rarely missing our car is not the same as never missing it, however. I much prefer the train for long-distance travel, but there are a few places I’d like to see closer to home that public transportation doesn’t serve. There are ward members outside of town for whom there is no practical way for us to visit them if we needed to. It’s actually some of the shorter trips that make me miss our minivan the most. Right now, we carry home all our groceries on our backs. Mostly my back. I can carry a lot of food in a backpack and two cloth shopping bags, but that doesn’t amount to much more food than we consume in a couple days. Sometimes it would be nice to pick up ten liters of milk all at once, but it’s not going to happen soon. And building up a cushion of groceries for emergencies? Forget about it.
On the other hand, driving a car offers very limited options for self-representation. The make and model of a car send a clear message about the driver’s wealth and status, or ambitions to such, but not much else. For many people whose mobility is tied to the automobile, the only chance to see and be seen frequently comes during shopping, a family-unfriendly activity whose semiotic possibilities are also strongly coded according to degree of affluence. Riding on the bus or walking about town offer a broader spectrum of self-representation strategies, however. With our last move from the US to Germany, we jumped overnight from merely doubling the national average number of children per family to tripling it. When we usher four kids dressed in their Sunday-go-to-church clothes and chattering in two languages onto the bus, it makes a statement to the captive audience of fellow passengers. People notice. As my wife points out, sometimes the reactions couldn’t be more pronounced if we were all dressed in Lederhosen and Dirndls while singing folk songs. Or, as one woman asked us last Sunday, “Youâ€™re Mormons on the way home from church, aren’t you?” Nobody ever asked us that when we drove.