Wednesday, December 26, 2012

You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?

It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's's just, there it's a little different. - Vincent Vega

1) The Pedestrian is King (or Queen)! The pavements (sidewalks, I suppose, for Americans?) are in many places wider than what the vehicles have to play with. And they are strictly for pedestrians. No driver looks upon that vast acreage of unoccupied space and thinks, "Gosh, wouldn't that be a nice place to leave my car while I pop in for just 5 minutes to take care of this grocery list here?" And for the most part, you can walk on them without worrying too much about disappearing into a manhole or tripping over a pipe. This is a huge reason for why I enjoyed the place so much. If you can't walk around a city unencumbered, how on earth are you going to get to know it?

2) Half the time I spent in Francesc's car was with him driving around in circles looking for a parking spot. And then there's their obsession with the letter of the law, contrasted with our bohemian, enlightened attitude that regards traffic rules not as dogma but as open-ended suggestions that mean different things to different people:

"Where are you going? That's the hotel there on the left!"
"What?! Is unbroken white line! Can't you see? No cutting across them here. This is not India. We go to jail for that. I think there's a roundabout in the next town - we should be back here in half an hour."

3) Zebra crossings. These there are not merely decorative patterns thrown in for the sake of visual variety, but the holy grail of all Indian pedestrians: a spot where you can cross the road without worrying about being spread out on it like jam on bread. I still remember the time in Granada when this girl stepped on one, blithely ignoring a bus coming toward us. In India, we would be picking pieces of her off the tarmac for days afterward, but the bus merely slowed gracefully down and even waited for me to recover from my open-mouthed shock and cross the road myself, before it went on its way.

4) Breakfasts. I always thought the awesome "continental breakfasts" we get to order here in the pricier restaurants - the ones with ham and eggs and bacon and toast and orange juice and what not - were European. Well, if it is, it's not from the part of Europe that Spain occupies. They just grab a croissant and a coffee (sometimes even a beer: how the hell can anyone have beer for breakfast?) and push off to work.

5) Bidets. Rarely seen in India but common enough in Spain in the higher-priced hotels. I spent many a week wondering what on earth it was. I was fairly sure it wasn't to pee in. Maybe it's to wash the face in, I then ventured... but it did seem altogether the wrong height for that. Despite much puzzlement, I had a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't do to take a picture and ask the receptionist. So I finally asked Francesc and he told me all about them. Only, I now wish I hadn't. He meant well and was only trying to make me understand - but English isn't his first language or even his second and it takes him a great deal of effort to talk in it. So his explanations were vivider and got down to brass tacks rather more than I would've preferred.

6) A sense of history. Take the museums I was dragged to as a child. Most of them amounted to nothing more than a collection of pots, spears and sarees, all probably put together by a chap with a beard who hadn't laughed in 8 years: of course the best way to inculcate inquisitiveness in a child regarding his history and his culture. In Spain, though, there are museums about bandits, about chocolates, about toys, about cinema, and all of them blessed with a sense of fun and pride at what they house.

7) The other thing I really liked is, you can't just purchase any old house and go, "This pile is over two hundred years old. How cool would it be to bring it down and build a proper four-storey monstrosity in its place?" You may own the house, but its appearance belongs to everyone. (Technically, I suppose this is true here, too.) Almost every city I went to had neighbourhoods that seemed untouched by the centuries. Not only is it illegal to modify the buildings but in some places you actually get money to tastefully do up the balconies and stuff. And no, I have no links to prove this last. This was told me during a walking tour of the Albayzín. Refer disclaimer.

8) The people are friendlier. And very much live and let live. There isn't so much of judgmental staring at strangers, if you know what I mean.

And get a load of this. I had to go to the bus depot to buy a ticket. The line to the counter was rather long, so I opted to use the machines they'd placed for the purpose. You type in the from and the to and it displays the amount you'd have to pay, and then you nod your head (it checks that you do this) and insert your credit card into the slot with the green light. And out pops the ticket. Rather a simple thing to use. Except the bloody thing wouldn't take my card. I tried and I tried and in the meanwhile the line behind me grew. The last time I did this, I got so flustered that I inserted the card into the ticket slot. Yes that's right, I inserted it into a slot from which stuff was supposed to come out of. The sort of thing that, if attempted in the bedroom, would've got me a stiff prison sentence (well, up till a couple years back).

And I didn't just put the tip in, mind you. I noted, with mild annoyance, that there was quite a lot of resistance, so I gave it an almighty shove. And in it went. And in it stayed. A switch flipped somewhere and my brain started functioning again. I cupped my face in my hands and let loose a cry of anguish, "What the fuck did I just do?!"

But here's the thing. The people behind me didn't tut-tut or waggle their fingers at me. The atmosphere, if anything, was one of sympathy. But they all had places to be and loved ones to be with, so they just quietly moved over to the lines for the other two machines. One or two stayed behind to help me. Help me, you understand; not to point and laugh, or to take their cellphones out so they could click a picture of the dumb-ass who got his card stuck in the ticket machine. They didn't call their friends over to take a gander at me or ask me to move over a little so that they could get both me and the machine in the shot. Instead, a woman rooted about in her purse for something that could be used to pull the card out. There wasn't anything. So, she instead went and found a security guard for me - and muscular chap twice my size - who opened the machine and got my card out. And not a word of reproach had he to offer, either.

Can you imagine what would've happened to me if I'd done this in the local RTO? (Not that they'd have anything as convenient as an automatic machine.) My head would now be stuck outside the main gate on a pike - and that would've been considered an easy let-off, too.

9) A sense of society. I don't know whether this phrase makes any sense, but it's a combination of #6, #7 and #8 and a whole lot more than I cannot really express in words. It's the opposite of "anything goes." It's do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We talk disparagingly here of the individualistic Western lifestyle, but as far as I could see, they are less "me, me, me" than us and have a much stronger code of respecting the strangers they share their public spaces with. Every time I ask myself what I dislike most about what's around me, the picture that comes into my head is traffic. Not because I spend a lot of time driving, which I don't, but because it puts our attitudes in a nutshell. That no rule is sacrosanct, that small courtesies are ridiculed and met with impatience, and that saving 30 seconds of our time justifies any amount of rudeness.

10) All that said, let me dive into cliche land to acknowledge that familiarity breeds contempt and that the grass is greener on the other side and yadda yadda yadda. It can't be just coincidence that, if feasible, Francesc and I would swap places in a heartbeat.

11) My friends who've been to the US tell me in hushed, awed tones of a land where it's all vehicles and no people and how the city lights, taken in by way of a stroll, can be a lonely and occasionally scary experience. And I'd wonder, "How's that any different from here for nocturnal creatures like me?" After, say, 11-ish, no sane man would head out for a stroll... not unless he wanted to get into tiffs with dogs. And the women would hear that and snort, "Hah! If only a rabies shot were the worst that we had to worry about..." During my holiday, I don't think I ever had dinner before 11 and many times, I found myself walking back to my hotel well after 1 in the morning. Apart from the fact that there is nothing particularly intimidating about Spaniards, there was always someone up and about, no matter how late I ventured out: a couple canoodling on a bench or friends gathered underneath a lamppost. The only time I remember seeing the place completely dead was when I had to catch a 6:40 AM train out of Valencia. Didn't see a soul about then.

12) The churches. Cavernous and intimidating and generally unsettling enough that I only went inside three: twice to accompany a friend and once because I was tired.

13) The cinemas. Rather a mixed experience, this one.

14) The national sport. I don't really love any particular sport anymore - just the occasional sportsman. And that definitely applies to my new-found interest in football, too. I can say this, though, that it's a sport a world away from the sane and civilized one I was brought up on (and its storm-in-a-teacup controversies). You want Controversy? How about the coach of the most successful team in history sneaking up behind his opposite number's assistant and poking him in the eye? How about pigs' heads thrown at turncoats? The drama! The hate! The passion! The delirium! It's a delicious cocktail to sip from - definitely war minus the shooting. But maybe Orwell meant that in a good way.

The Trip


chicu said...

ha! couldn't agree more. Esp about the walking at night. It's a cosier, more human-scaled place, no?
And read Bryson's 'neither here nor there'?

Rohan said...

True. Most places, I took a room somewhere near the city centre and walked to practically all the sights.

No, haven't read the book, but having read the description, it's in my wishlist now!

Anonymous said...

Well captured the essence of a place without talking down on anyone country... Made me feel like I was walking with you there ... Good post :)