In an eatery in the Berlin central railway station an older American couple were carrying their trays of food and searching for somewhere to sit. They put their trays down on the table next to mine on the opposite side and drop a hat onto the place directly beside me. I’m sitting at the end of a long table next to the wall made out of glass.
“Now we’ve claimed our places.” The older woman declares with some sense of achievement.
However they remain standing appearing still unsure of themselves until their third member comes along. As he does so, the two Germans who were sitting further along at the middle of the table get up and leave.
The Americans take this as an opportunity to move their trays up to the middle of the table, where the Germans had been, the older man’s pack still at the end of the table opposite me.
“Great, now we can spread out and not have to sit one atop the other” the older man chirps happily.
Bag on the end, clearly claiming the seat opposite mine. The table beside me with its two facing chairs are empty, except for the small bag the younger man has placed on the one that sits beside me. The hat that had been beside me as well as various other handheld items have now been placed on the other side of the couple, spread out over the places at the free end of the table.
I am appalled. This table seats 10 people. They were trying to occupy it all, except for the one half-table that I was sitting at. Should consider myself fortunate that they didn’t try to drape a shopping bag over me and my food all the same…
The older lady then talks about how she and the older man were musing earlier on whether it’s because of their plentiful public transport that Europeans don’t mind being close to each other.
I’d not considered too much the cultural influences at work here, but there’s not much chance of me finding more meaning to this than basic poor manners. Actually, their behaviour doesn’t reflect even that; it’s a straightforward flouncing of the mere concept of manners. I’m sure the USA has restaurants and food halls too. This place was busy, it was popular. They too had experienced the stress and self-consciousness that comes from searching for somewhere to sit when you’re already carrying your food and the task seems a difficult one. In this situation I don’t attribute their behaviour to a uniquely American preference, no, I call downright rudeness.
I’ve been privy to a lot of grabby, rude behaviour carried out by Europeans furthermore. People have tried to cut in front of me in queues, have pushed me from behind to apparently facilitate their movement along a path. An old woman has stolen a taxi right from under my nose when I found myself in a city I was unfamiliar with at the end of a long day of pack carrying. A middle-aged woman propelled her ass into the one free seat at the train station when she saw me catch sight of it. Of course, half of the seats were empty but for the jackets lounging over them.
Gotta love western civilisation’s ingrained respect for personal property, claiming rights and ownership.
There is no question that city-dwelling Europeans (and probably also in general too, because Europeans having a longer history are more accustomed to not being alone) are much more used to closeness and to sharing space, in the sense of packing a lot of people and objects into a small area. But this in itself is not a synonym for being considerate.
It appears then that the implications of not enough space are:
People are grabby
People claim an excess, rather than only that which they need
People carry with them what they need to make their own
People veer away from what is provided
They’re both forms of selfishness. I’d rather subscribe to the second form. I like sitting on my pack. I’m notoriously rough with my things so it doesn’t bother me that it picks up floor dirt. If I didn’t have my pack to sit on then I would probably sit on the ground in some locations. I’ve also always personally felt that people who travel in their own vans are the smartest.
What I find very interesting in thinking about this general sense of encroachment of others and the need to “reclaim” space, is that there is still so much space in the world. Of course, like the floor of a train station, we might not consider it desirable space.
But what stands out in my mind more than the crush of city life is that I been able to walk free and alone (or pretty damn close to it) in so many beautiful places throughout my trip. Cirque de Gavarnie, around Lake Lugano, Swiss National Park, around the lake in Biarritz, in central city in Amsterdam, further down along the Rhine. I must confess too that even in Bologna my walking earlier on in the day ,which left me with some of my more striking photos, was done in relative solitude and quiet. I couldn’t understand why that part was almost void of tourists and natives. Well, probably partly because it is August and so many of the proprietors of that area would have been on holiday.
But this is what reminds me that it is crazy. We feel the pressure of each other and of civilisation primarily because we are stuck in one rhythm and one stage set of life. But what would the world look like if we didn’t all go to the same place at the same time? And would we feel and react to our environment differently? If our time was flexible and even partially ours, and we shared this new understanding of time with our imaginations.
I don’t know. Lucky for me I have the option to go my own way at this point in time. Memories of these moments when I’ve felt really close to the land reassure me that there is no shame in being such an aimless slacker this year. Or in general, as a matter of fact.
The Europe section of The Guardian, Friday August 10 2007 ran a story about how Italians were being fined for beach hogging. In one resort people have been fined 1,032 euros (each) for gobbling up beach space by spreading out a large number of beach towels around them. They’re usually not doing this simply to claim space, they are saving it for family members. But they get up at the crack of dawn to lay down these towels which might not be sat upon for hours more to come.
Inevitable huh? What’s interesting to me is watching for how bad things have to get before we actually try to make changes. But not really personally so interesting because… I could never go to a beach that sounds as in demand as this one! Another implication of not enough space, I suppose.
Final note: As befits this post I’ve had a mother of a time trying to get the spacing between paragraphs to work out. It hasn’t. I’m sorry it is sooo spacious, what can you do, a nymph somewhere is playing a trick on me.