Lessons From The Lamppost
Leaning against a lamppost in the middle of a busy Barcelona street last term, I watched a lady get mugged. She was walking down this row of shops when a male dressed in black snatched her bag and ran away down one of the many dark and narrow side streets. I remember her exact, shocked facial expression, and I can still hear her voice yelling after him in a furious English accent. What bothered me the most at the time, what kept me up thinking that night -- and what still troubles me today -- is that I did nothing to help.
On the metro a couple weeks earlier, a young man had briskly exited my subway car right as the doors were closing. It wasn't until the train was in motion that I, or the eighty-year-old woman standing next to me, realized that he had made off with her purse.
During the metro incident, I only realized what had happened after I could have been of help. The incident in the street was different. I was conscious of everything. I saw the events unfold and was able to consider their gravity in real time. The mugger was awfully slow, short and skinny -- anyone walking the street that night could have caught him -- but nobody did anything to help. Even with the memory of the first mugging still fresh, the thought that I should have helped the woman did not cross my mind until after the mugger was out of sight.
I'd like to think that, should I have watched the same situation here in Hanover, amidst a different culture, surely someone would have come to the victim's aid. I think the fact that I lost sleep thinking about what I could have done to help someone else, instead of being happy that I looked out for my own interests, speaks well of my cultural conditioning.
Americans I've met who have traveled abroad often talk about Europe as a grand collective -- in seeming opposition to America's ideal of rugged individualism. From my relatively brief time in Spain and other European countries, though, I submit that the opposite is true.
Americans are obsessed with others' business. Straight Christian couples in desolate Oklahoman towns feel moral callings to defend their idea of marriage against far-off gays in Massachusetts. Dartmouth students don't care what absolute grade they get on exams, only how they stand relative to their peers. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is a national narrative.
Prying into each other's lives helps to create a sort of homogeneity in American culture. Gossip tabloids in grocery store checkouts advertise juicy stories on the same celebrities, no matter where you are in the country. Though the image of the suburban white picket fence is extremely narrow in scope, it pervades nationalistic political rhetoric. American geographic regions may speak with particular accents, but they all speak English.
The Spanish couldn't care less about the social habits of those around them. Signs in supermarkets declare the illegality of selling alcohol to minors, but locals told me that nobody ever gets carded. The landscape is peppered with churches and yet, somehow, gays get married and life goes on. Urban neighbors live independent and dissimilar lives.
This pervasive individuality holds in matters of style as well. Fashion includes brightly colored, asymmetrical sweaters, piercings and tattoos in every form and hair partially shaven and partially in dreadlocks -- styles that anywhere else in the world would be absolutely unique, but are commonplace on any subway car in Barcelona.
What, you may ask, do the Spanish do with their originality? In America, heroic individualism is equated with the few who attain economic success. But while we scramble to secure skyscraper jobs in far-off cities, Barcelonans have a different view of the future. To me, they seemed content living at home well into their 30s, drowning in taxes and happy with what comparably little property they have.
As an American who is unsure what to do with his life, and who is pursuing arduous career options simply because everyone else is too, it is certainly tempting for me to adopt the Barcelonan way of life and stay leaning against the lamppost. Ultimately though, as much as I'd like to shun the opinions of others and blaze a unique life path for myself, I don't think I can shake my American preoccupation with the way people judge me.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to finish my corporate recruiting applications.