Monday, May 20, 2024

European indifference is a beautiful thing

Six years ago, I lost my youngest boy, Julian, in Italy’s Lake Como. Don’t worry – I found him right away.

After a few seconds of morbid panic, Julian bobbed to the surface, soaking wet, gasping for air, and gripping the cobblestone slope that had proved too slippery for his Velcro sneakers and sent him bumping into the water. While local vacationers looked on, sipping cappuccinos, and appearing to be bored to death by my nine-year-old’s near-drowning, I scurried my way down the cobblestones while silently thanking Jesus for the fortitude to ignore Julian’s protests and drag him to swimming lessons.

I pulled him out. He dripped. The restaurant we had spent the last half-hour walking to, and the closest one to our AirBnB, was a few metres from where we stood. As if letting my child fall into an Italian lake wasn’t bad parenting enough, I was now rationalizing that in this 42C heat, this had been a refreshing dunk for the child, and his clothes would be dry in no time.

“Do you want to go back and change?” I asked, silently cheering when he answered, “No.”  Off we went to the restaurant.

The first order of business was to ask the server if she had a towel for Julian’s chair because, and my words shocked me, “He fell into the lake.”

The waitress looked Julian up and down with as much interest as exhibited by the Italian cappuccino-sippers. She waved her pencil toward the cobblestone slope.

“He fell in there?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking she would now share my shock and rail at the town for dragging their feet on the necessary caution signs, ropes, and plexiglass.

Instead, she flicked the pencil-toting hand towards the floor, made a little “plop” sound, and gave a short snort of amusement.

“Is normal,” she shrugged. “Every year, the kids fall in.”

I didn’t know what to say. She licked her pencil, held it to her notepad, and no longer amused asked impatiently. “Now, you want to order?”

I just got back from Greece, and not a lot has changed in this department … and by department, I mean the European live-and-let-live-or-maybe-die-it’s-really-up-to-you department. You can stand on a cliff’s edge on Santorini and watch the Mediterranean crash into rocks a thousand feet below without a railing in sight. You can steer your five-speed stick shift Peugeot around Crete’s mountainous hairpin turns with nothing but a prickly pear cactus to stop you and your terrified passenger from sailing into the valley below. And anywhere I went in Greece, you can tailgate the car in front of you on a two-way traffic road until it pulls into the shoulder to let you pass on the double solid line while the oncoming cars do the exact same thing.

It’s all shocking. It is also freeing.

Here at home, “Be safe” used to be a parting wish uttered as you set off on whatever personal adventure, in the hope that you would possess the awareness, common sense, and physical ability to keep yourself safe. Now, after years of governments treating us like drooling toddlers who can’t cross a playground without a harness, leash, and list of rules, it sounds more like a warning from Mom or Dad to “listen to me, or else!”

And it has extended beyond threats of physical danger. A sign at my doctor’s office warns there is “No excuse for abuse”, listing all the ways I could be deemed abusive and warrant a call to the police. Jeez, I just came in to get my ears flushed! A rare visit to the landfill had me first reading not a sign indicating where I should dump the things I needed to dump, but a warning that “Staff will not tolerate rude, disrespectful, or abusive behaviour.” I asked the guys if they really get abuse while people dump their garbage, and they said they do. Similarly, the receptionist at my doctor’s office confirmed that she has experienced a level of violence that made her cry.

“And I’m not a crier,” she emphasized.

If she’s not making this up, and why would she, there is a chicken or egg question here. Does the sign leave people feeling accused before they have opened their mouths, perchance leading to more rudeness and abuse? Or, has a spike in rudeness and abuse made the sign necessary? Maybe it is not the chicken or the egg. Maybe our tolerance for disagreement, curtness, and occasional gruffness is so waning that soon anything other than smiling, unquestioning complacency will have us bursting into tears.

The Greeks prefer to warn people about things like what is on the menu and where a desperate soul can find the toilet. Throwing caution about rude and abusive behaviour to the wind, the Greeks mostly greet you with a smile. And most people smile back. Even in the busiest of places under the worst of circumstances. If there is going to be rude and abusive behaviour on holiday in Greece, it will be while joining the cattle crush of four thousand tourists, all pulling roller bags and speaking different languages, as you try to board the fume-filled belly of a ferry in 34C sweat. I boarded three such ferries. No signs. No abuse. Lots of smiles.

But over here, warnings are not enough. We now declare entire spaces to be rid of any physical or emotional upset. My local mall decorates every hallway with an announcement that it is a “Welcoming and safe space” and flanks this with a pride flag. Does this mean the Canadian Tire next door, which displays no such sign, isn’t welcoming and safe? Should I be afraid at Canadian Tire? Or does the flag imply that only LGBTQ are safe at the mall, and I should be afraid at the mall? Or should LGBTQ be afraid at Canadian Tire?

If so, this means a radical and alarming change in how retail outlets conduct themselves. I can’t recall a time running in to Canadian Tire to grab ice skates and toilet paper in which I was grilled about my sexual identity so they can determine if I am to be terrorized, ejected, or allowed to head over to Sporting Goods.

Greeks, from what I could tell, do no such signalling of welcoming and safe. In 10 days in Athens and on three of the islands, I did not see a pride flag. They weren’t painted into the asphalt. They weren’t stuck to shop windows. They weren’t decorating streets. They weren’t the frill around posters.

I did see something in Greece, however. I saw male couples, strolling the streets, sitting at cafes, and lounging on beaches, smiling, and laughing while they enjoyed the food, the sun, and the scenery. Some held hands. I watched two ladies stroll through an old town on Crete, brushing fingers while they read the menu outside a potential dinner spot.

Just to be sure, I looked it up when I got home, and it would seem from blogs and travel sites I visited that Greece is a favourite destination for the LGBTQ community. All this alleged safety, kindness, and good times without warnings, announcements, and plexiglass? It seems unfathomable. But I was there. Most people are having a good time in Greece, regardless of who they are.

I hope the Europeans don’t lose their live-and-let-live-or-maybe-die-it’s-really-up-to-you attitude. I like the thrill of the hairpin turns. I like the assumption that most of the time people will be good and kind to each other. And I like the added assumption that if they are not, most of us will have the forbearance and emotional maturity to handle it with dignity.

I hope we don’t put up so many rules, warnings, and announcements that we never get the chance to slip on the cobblestones and fall in a lake. Because when we drag ourselves out and let the sting of hardship air-dry off us, we are stronger for it. That is a life worth living. The Greeks know this, the Italians know this, and I think, deep down, we know this. It could be because, in the words of a wise server on the banks of Lake Como, it “is normal.”

Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.

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