Letter From Europe 2: Do It Yourself
Last week I was in a European shop when a child toppled a huge crystal statue. It exploded, badly cutting the counter girl’s leg. Mortified, the mother offered to pay. The child was upset and burst into tears. The counter girl bandaged her leg and swept up, telling the family not to worry. It was treated as a misfortune and everyone behaved decently. I couldn’t help feeling that if this had happened in London or LA there would have been opportunistic threats of law suits and bitter recriminations all round…
The hardest lesson to learn about living between two very different countries is not to compare them. But sometimes it’s hard not to. Throughout my adult life I’ve been split-shifting like this, and fighting off a nagging awareness of the differences.
This week I talked to a government worker in Barcelona about things that bother me, from the Kafkaesque paperwork systems you find in many European countries (go to post office, get form stamped, take it to bank, get another stamp, take it back to post office) to the chaotic police system (four different forces) and the strange lenience toward street vendors selling everything from grass to mojitos.
Slowly I realised that the difference is to do with taking personal responsibility for your behaviour. Having seen the flurry of emails from my London neighbour complaining that she demands someone should change a lightbulb, I think I prefer the Direct Action approach. Here’s a palimpsest of some of the government worker’s rather quirky answers;
Q. People are very noisy in the streets. Is that a problem for you?
A. No. In the day they are being happy. If they do it at night below the window, we throw a bucket of water over them.
Q. I’m always seeing tiny children marching down the street with drums, or carrying immense fireworks. Do you think this is a good idea?
A. Children have energy they need to burn off. They march in bands when very young, and learn how to handle fireworks responsibly. Would you prefer we put them on Ritalin?
Q. Families throw huge parties in parks…
A. Flats are too small, too hot. Better not to bother neighbours and to do everything in the park – that’s what it is for.
Q. Children in restaurants at midnight?
A. Eat well, sleep well.
Q. Homeless people…
A. Let them sleep in the street when it is warm, then tidy everything away in the morning. Treat them with respect.
Q. There aren’t many convenience stores in my part of town. Why is that?
A. The government says every barrio must have a fresh food market for better health. Why have you not turned your London Smithfield into a fresh market? Because you want money instead of health.
Q. Why is it only the tourists who get drunk and cause problems?
A. Locals drink too. But we start drinking small wine with meals when young, and we learn from this.
Q. How come so many young children play outside without supervision?
A. It is natural to play. Watching a computer screen is like work. Plenty of time for that later.
Q. But what about accidents?
A. An accident makes you learn.
Q. And if they’re bad?
A. Punish them. Then feed them.
Q. Considering the amount of fried food you eat, why are we the ones who are fatter?
A. You eat too much, too fast. Go for a walk instead of a drink, it will not kill you.
Q. The economic crisis is ending. What has changed?
A. More people remember the old ways; something goes wrong, fix it yourself.
Q. What if you can’t?
A. Make a friend who can help you.
Q. How do you do that?
A. Talk to people. This is what parks are for.
Well, it was hard to argue with much of that, but I did try.
The other day I watched a young English woman in a bar deciding it would be nicer to sit in a sunnier spot no more than two or three feet from where she currently sat. There were several chairs near her, she just didn’t want to have to pick one up and move it that far. So she turned to the waiter and said; ‘Do you have one of these chairs but over there?’ Her sense of entitlement astounded me so much that I nearly said, ‘Do it yourself, you lazy cow.’
My problem is this; who’s going to tell my London neighbour to change her own lightbulb?