Friday, 3 May 2013

Keeping up appearances

The onslaught of cheap airlines with direct flights to European destinations in my town has brought with it a noticeable rise in travellers among the local population. People who never travelled out of the country before are now moving about Europe, visiting places they had never even put it into their head to visit. One of my friends decided that she and her husband would like to take a little jaunt away from the island, choosing the cheapest tickets she could find (something like €40 return) with a super cheap hotel offer to match. When she came back, she told me about her three days away in -- I'll let you try to guess that:

"Well, Maria, I was surprised to see what I saw there, because I kind of expected more form a European destinaiton, if you know what I mean. It wasn't anything to write home about. But we had a nice quiet time together, walking everywhere, and seeing everyday life there, but I can tell you that there isn't much of a life there at all, or at least, it's not a life like we know it. The don't live, if you know what I mean, they just breathe. 

"The people on the road were very well dressed. You could tell that they took a lot of pride in their appearance. They wore really fashionable clothes, the kind we couldn't even find where we are. But amongst those fashionable people, you could discern a whole lot of other people who were dressed in simple clothes, and they looked rather tired. They looked like immigrants to me, and the contrast between those two groups of people was quite stark. So these people seem to be living different but parallel lives.

"We took the underground a few times and I saw people in their smart clothes, both men and women wore suits, they seemed to be riding the train for a long time to get to work, and I suppose they took it again for an equally long time to get back home. To pass the time, they were reading things and texting like mad. So life for them is all about getting up early, going to work, then going back home late. 

"We were there over the weekend, so we got to see some things that people do when they don't go to work.  The people in this city are dog-lovers in a way that we haven't seen it happening here [although I notice a rise in dog ownership here in the last two years, with people taking them to cafes with them]. Dog ownership seems to be a status symbol there. And the kind of dog you own assigns your status. I saw a man handling, at the same time, a Great Dane on one leash and a chihuahua on the other. I felt like laughing, but these people took their dog walking very seriously. 

"At the weekend, the dogs, which have been cooped up in people's homes, come out of the apartments, and their owners take them to the many large parks they have there. They take them for a walk and they play with them. They even bring the dog's toys with them! It felt surreal watching a grown man throwing a stick to a dog which then rushed to fetch it back to him, and calling that weekend entertainment! 

"Speaking of entertainment, I was appaled by the prices for street food. The pizza for example was terrible - you can get a much better pizza at a tiropitadiko here in Hania. All we saw there was thick bread-like crust with a smearing of topping as if it was painted over it. And the coffee was ridiculously expensive! People don't even sit down to have their coffee at a cafe there. They remain standing! They can't even enjoy what goes into their stomach. I also saw the weirdest coffee being served there. People would order it - I think they called it espresso - wait till it came in the tiniest cup I've ever seen, then down it in one gulp - and that was it! That's what coffee meant to them! Talk about express - that was the fastest coffee I've seen!

"I'm not going to say that I wasn't happy with my mini-break away from home. But I expected to see something that made an impression on me. What I saw ended up making me feel glad I don't have to live in such a narrow world. The whole experience made me appreciate what the much simpler life we have here. We may have less money than we ever did in the past, we may not have a high level of infrastructure, but we are living a very real life with all our senses. It may not be a highly developed world down here, but if development means living life in a straitjacket and trying to sustain the unsustainable, maybe life isn't worth living after all."

I haven't myself been to the city where my friend took her mini-break, but I saw a number of similar cities while I was travelling through Europe more than twenty years ago, as I passed through what is considered the backbone of Europe, places that are so highly urbanised that nature seems amiss in them if nature isn't herself tamed.
My Good Friday meal was made up of freezer leftovers from last years' vegetables: peppers, tomatoes, vine leaves and herbs. A fitting vegan feast of our bounty for the Easter fasting period.
What was once taken for granted is now being re-evaluated in the embarrassment that Europe has become in the eyes of the rest of the world. As Europe now stands, she is simply the keeper of tradition, while more modern, possibly more sustainable and for sure more egalitarian traditions are fast replacing the old way of life in other parts of the world. Van Rumpey stated today that the Europe's biggest problem is "credit" - he meant access to money, of course, but "credit" is closely related to "trust". Europe's decline is due to its loss of credit, ie trust, and her biggest challenge is to understand what identity to retain in the fast-paced changing world. 

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