On culture, colonialism, and budding in line
As I stroll over the charming cobble-stoned streets of our Colonial Overlords, I find myself ruminating about the subtle differences and similarities between our (North American) culture and the one whose murderous quest for world domination spawned us. In the larger context of world travelling, going to Europe as a North American is kind of like going to a nice restaurant and ordering a burger. You feel kind of haughty and snobby as though it’s a “special occasion,” and the place looks truly beautiful, but it’s still just a burger. That is to say, it’s no cultural stretch.
I’m in a curious position, having been born in Europe myself. Until the age of seven, when my family moved to Canada, I enjoyed reasonably-sized meal portions, tomatoes without white centres, and relatively inexpensive and mind-blowingly delicious mineral water. Nowadays, in Toronto, I feel nauseous after forcing myself to finish a standard-issue restaurant meal, and all I can get is a three-dollar bottle of Perrier (not enough bubbles). Blech.
This summer, I found myself dwelling in the sleepy and historically rich town of Weimar (pop. 65,000), in the German state of Thuringia (bratwurst, sauerkraut). I was here for four months, two of which had already passed when I wrote this, on a research scholarship. I spent my days reading, writing, eating ice cream, and strolling through the lovely Park an der Ilm, a riverside meadow that boasts the well-kept quaint garden house of 18th-century polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“No one would talk much in society if they knew how often they misunderstood others,” he wisely warned). All of the pleasures I remember from my European childhood remain here: the aforementioned food size, tomato colour, and mineral water quality, as well as much smaller cars (they’re cute, efficient, and easy to park). Europe is everything you’d expect it to be: a more architecturally picturesque and reasonably-sized version of its vapid and bloated New World colonies. And yet, I can’t come to terms with a particularly disturbing thing (besides, you know, colonialism): Europeans bud in front of you in line.
On this particular European sojourn, it happened to me three times: once in the Prague airport, once in the Belgrade airport, and once at a bar here in Weimar. In past travels to Spain, Italy, France, and Hungary, I’ve been similarly victimized. Now, I know what you’re thinking: airports and bars are busy places! You may have mistaken a messy line-up for an intentional bud! Let me assure you: the airport buds were thoroughly intentional, and the bar was not busy at all. I was basically the only person standing at the bar, waiting for acknowledgment from the bartender, when a self-righteous couple swooped right in front of me as though I was incidental at best and ordered their beers with swift confidence.
At the Prague airport, while I waited in line to pass through security, a small man with greying hair and an electric blue sweater walked right through the whole line-up (of 15 people) and decided to anoint himself Next to Pass Through the Metal Detectors. I watched curiously as Woman Who Truly Was Next told him to get lost, after which he crawled back to the end of the line. But, it wasn’t quite the end. You see, I was the last person in line. He glanced at me. He parked himself right next to me, not behind, and not quite in front of me. As the line moved forward, he greasily and slowly interjected himself in front of me. It was so smooth, I tell you, that I hardly noticed. That is, until it was too late. He was standing fully and completely in front of me, and I didn’t have the guts to say anything about it (my reluctance further complicated by the fact that I didn’t know which language he might understand). I fumed! I was livid! But I endured my rage with Canadian stoic silence.
Upon extensive rumination on this particular cultural idiosyncrasy, I believe I have discovered its rationale, and consequently, a manner in which I can successfully deal with it. You see, in Canada, it is customary to provide a greater degree of space to strangers in public than it is in Europe. A good Canadian does not get close enough to a stranger to be able to smell that stranger’s hair. In Europe, you better be sniffing the shampoo or you’re not getting anywhere. Seriously: nudge yourself up as close as possible to the person in front of you. If you don’t, your distance will be interpreted as a legitimate space into which a stranger may insert him or herself. You see, Europeans don’t even consider it budding! If a large enough space between you and a person in front of you in line exists, that’s considered fair game.
So, allow me to offer a few words of advice about traveling to Europe that you may not find in your average travel advice book or website. I’ve made it rhyme so that you won’t forget it.
If the space is there, you better start smelling hair.