Athens, Barcelona, and the Civilization of it All

April 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm (Politics, Travel) (, , , , , , , , , , )

“Come on, they’re not gonna step on you! Zebra crossings are sacred here!”

“Absolutely not,” I retorted. Madmen. Maybe in England they don’t run you over, but a speeding Spaniard? My mad friends tugged at my unwilling hand and lo! the speeding Spaniard slowed to a perfect stop. Not a wheel over the sacred white lines. They all did so. All week! Was this because it was Easter? Which they don’t even celebrate in Catalonia anymore – I was assured of this by all of the South Americans I met – but, perhaps, an innate feeling of piety and goodwill remains nonetheless? Ha. Fat chance. The definitely un-Christian gleam in the Vueling Check-in Girl’s eyes as she demanded 16 euros because I was 2 kilos over the limit (BItchBitchBITCH! I breathing-exercised) killed that thought.

A real Greek would have brought his carefully chosen Monestir de Tallat merlot over her head, (It is our Right as the Cradle of Democracy and/or Civilization to bring as much shit from foreign lands as we can carry… often buying an extra suitcase in the process) but I am an emasculated, overly polite, faux-EuroAmerican, resigned to being conned and bullshitted and saying Thank You Very Much…

So, the only rebellion I managed was to make her repeat everything she said in English. Now, you may not think this is much, but she fumed as I (who had previously conversed pleasantly in ItaloSpanish with her) kept saying, “What? Where? What?” with an idiotic cow’s gaze. Take that, you crypto-Teutonic bitch! Retaliation came swiftly. I was punished by 3 hours of turbulence.

Angrily certain that the baggage compartment was being flooded by the litres of Iberian wine being brought over, I sulked, pushing my chair as far back in the lap of the unfortunate gentleman behind me as it would go. Leg room is not a Spanish word. Neither is belly room. No wonder there were no Americans on board. The bottles, I knew, were being broken on purpose by the pilot; he was most certainly in on it all. No doubt he is banging the small-eyed Prussian behind the check-in counter.

It is all a conspiracy at the expense of our highly developed Greek consumer culture. You came, paid handsomely for the fun our city has to offer – now really pay for having vastly superior olive oil. Sneaky little buggers. Didn’t see that one coming. I actively enjoyed hunting down the edgy boutique I knew must exist somewhere in Raval. Most victoriously did I lay down my euros when I discovered it. Funiculars, museums, and restaurants did not satisfy my lust for purse-drainage. I needed Stuff. There is Stuff everywhere in Barcelona. Traveler, you have been warned. They have lots of Stuff and they are very civilized. (Quite unlike the Parisians. Cue gnashing of teeth at the recollection of Isle S. Louis’s devil-in-a-cheese-seller’s-guise.)

I constantly marveled at how civilized the Spanish (or, Catalans, more precisely) were. They have solved their transportation problems so efficiently that they were even left with a budget surplus. And thought, what should we do with it? Put it in our pockets? Give some to our mistress for a pied a terre in the Barri Gothic? Keep it for The Party? A yacht, perhaps? (All perfectly natural ideas to a Greek.) Nope.

They did this:

Feeling like i was in Sweden, I watched, amazed, as a bus went by. It was normal, yet not quite. It had plush chairs with armrests, little tables, and large, living room lamps. It looked like a posh bar on wheels. My friends explained that it was a normal bus; you simply pay a little extra for that added comfort. Mostly used by senior citizens. Cruelly unaware of their masterplan for all tourists, (especially those blessed with better olive trees) I was enthralled, entertaining the idea that perhaps I, also, deserve to live in a civilized city. Do I not have the right to cruise Panepistimiou Avenue in an armchair?

After never being run over once, I figured it’s because they’re northern Spaniards, they must have a little more Saxon blood in them than is Mediterraneanly acceptable. I became sure of this when, in even the most underground bars, the music was abruptly shut off and every light in the place was turned on at 3am precisely. The first time this happened, I was ready to flee, certain the police were on to us. Later, I cursed the UK flashbacks (ding-dong – last drinks – please leave the premises) this caused me. I waited to join in a drunken backlash with the rest of the customers. In vain.

These indefatigable Catalans had even changed the driving persona of my friend. One year in civilization, and he was driving like your grandmother. When he gave me his car to play with he was nervy, urging me to stay on the right and to not cut people off. This, from the man who taught me to run red lights and u-turn wherever I wished!

I felt like a third-world citizen, whose friends had moved on to running water and I was still lugging buckets from the well. The day before I arrived in Barcelona , upmarket Athenian salons and restaurants were being berated by their clients for not having thought of buying a generator. Tightly-lipped maitre d’ apologized profusely instead of screaming, “How the fuck could I have imagined the (government-owned) electricity company would strike for weeks and cut our power at regular intervals??”

Panic and hate prevailed on our traffic light-less streets. Hunching forward, hand on the gears, I assumed battle pose and dexterously avoided destroying my vehicle, leaving my unlucky co-citizens to cry and sue over their own scattered debris.

We don’t have night buses or enough asphalt to fit us all with our 4 cars per family, we are destroying what is left of clean rivers and forests, our fake fast internet chucks us offline at whim, inflation, government MIA, and so on and on and so on, and “po-tee-weet!”, sings the bird in slaughter-house 5; the only news fit to print in the months of December and January were the failed suicide attempt of the portly secretary of of the Ministry of Culture and his saucy DVD.

It requires a daily column and a bottle of raki to rue the woes of this land, but still. I can drive any way I damn please, and I’ve got the best raw material in food in the world. Ok, the divine mango is to be found only in Egypt; but that is not strange at all, for they are as uncivilized as we, and more so, for their fruits are the equivalent of celestial harps playing in heaven…. but I digress. It is a proven fact that the more civilized a nation is, the less tasty is their food. The question really is: how much “civilization” am I willing to take? How much privacy and individuality shall I trade for Comfort? Can’t I have my cake and eat it, too?

But, to put some things in perspective, Miss Landmine 2008 of Angola (dream job, “anything”) surely cannot feel my fake existential angst; she has the real deal. Hopping like a lunatic on her one remaining leg, she cackles, juggling her tomatoes and watching our national obsession of obstructing pension plan reform at all and any cost.

“H gh 8a tremei, o ilios anatelei!!” is belted out by 15-year-old supporters of PaSok in the metro; a lively debate between two grannies ensues. I curse at not having my camera on me as I leave, smiling.

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