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?

7 comments on “Letter From Europe 2: Do It Yourself”

  1. pheeny says:

    How many flat dwellers does it take to change a lightbulb?

  2. Brooke Lynne says:

    Be really glad you do not live in the US.
    Returning to the US after living at Oxford for over a year, I came out of the airline terminal to find a knot of well-dressed people leaning out of their Mercedes (Porshes, etc.) screaming at each other because they all wanted to park in the one illegal space near the terminal exit. Had I had any money, I would have booked the next return flight to London and stayed there.

  3. John Griffin says:

    I notice the entitlement thing whenever I am out near where I work in Sutton Coldfield. There are some very well-off people in one specific area, and their behaviour – from driving around in their monster cars to the way they treat teachers at my school – reeks of feudal lordship.

  4. John says:

    Wow, that last paragraph reminds me of nearly everyone I encounter in Chicago. The world is the same all over I guess…except in Barcelona.

    I love the picture of the woman with her hands over her ears as she walks by the guy with the trombone. Perfect example of the territorial city dweller with no common sense. Why did walk so close if she couldn’t stand the sound of the horn? Because HE was in her way, of course. The idea of avoiding him by changing her direction never occurs to that type of person. Just like the chick who can’t move a chair on her own.

  5. Fiona says:

    I lived in Spain for 3 years and what I noticed was that Madrid at that time didn’t have many other nationalities living there. The attitude towards other nationalities was not always pleasant, often very racist. They also tend towards homophobia but you probably don’t see that as much in Barcelona! They are also more sexist in attitude. Spanish girls I knew used to love English men because they said they were treated better. Spanish men were often still under the control of their mothers, a bit like Italians. The Spanish attitude is good but also very laid back to the point of being asleep. You’d often seen houses falling apart because they didn’t really “do” keeping them up in the same way we do in the UK. Although, we’re probably a little too obsessive on that front! They have a lot of corruption, less following of rules. Fine unless it goes against you and then not so fine! They don’t do queuing – more of a barging to the front. It used to be frustrating to get anything done as you had to jump through so many hoops to achieve anything. Clearly some of this is generalising but I think it’s too easy to put a gloss on another nationality and demonise your own. None is perfect and whilst they have some good approaches to life, some are not so good. We are better in some ways and less so in others. I think that outside of London the behaviour is different. In Cornwall, it’s more like Spain. If someone local had knocked over something, it would’ve been dealt with in the same way, no fuss, no bother. However, if it involved a yummy mummy from Chelsea and her brood who were visiting their holiday cottage that lies empty most of the year, you’d find a very different reaction.

  6. Fiona says:

    Oh and I used to see plenty of Spaniards getting drunk and causing trouble!

  7. Rob Morgan says:

    The trouble is that everyone wants a champagne lifestyle at prosecco prices. The sense of entitlement shown by some people in the St. James’s area of London (where I am a humble bartender) is astounding. Thankfully I’m a no-nonsense eastender and have no trouble telling people to move their own damn chair.

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