Cultural differences abound, and we’ve likely all heard somewhere or other that open-handed waving in Greece and a thumbs-up in Italy can get us into trouble. But even culture shock can be something to look forward to-a means of escaping one’s own preconceived notions about the world and having a few mind-bending moments trying to understand how potato skins could possibly be dangerously poisonous (they’re not) or whether sitting next to an open window can make you sick (it can’t). I recognize that I was talking about cultural differences and then just negated interpretations that aren’t my own. I negated them because they have no basis in science, but I probably should have given some other examples as well, like how some Russians believe that whistling will make you lose money and that shutting the door to your room in Germany is not equivalent to ‘I want to be alone for a while’. Better?
These are all things that we can prepare for, for the most part, but the fun of traveling is that there’s always the unexpected. There are going to be things that we did not realize were so unusual, but when confronted with the open-mouthed stares of those around us, we must concede that they are at least perceived as truly strange. Today I would like to share a couple of these with you, which I have personally observed during my stay in Slovenia. For the lover of attention or those who simply wish to shake things up, here are a couple of fool-proof ways to get your weird on. As more come to mind, I may post them as well.
The first of these is reading in public. Yes, you read that right, and it’s as scandalous as it sounds, by which I mean not at all. Let me clarify: reading in the park seems to be okay. Now before you get snooty and point out that parks are public, I will remind you not to be a smart ass until you’ve finished reading. Then you can be whatever kind of ass you want. So reading in parks is normal, as far as I can tell, but reading on the bus is downright unseemly. Even reading at the bus stop appears frowned upon. Near as I can figure, the difference seems to be in your choice of activity. If you go to a park to read, no problem. That’s what you’re doing. You’re reading. But if you’re waiting for a bus, or worse, on the bus, well, you’re just taking things too far, aren’t you? That’s two activities there, bucko! You’re waiting and reading (or traveling and reading, as the case may be), and I’m afraid that’s not allowed. Only one activity at a time, please!
By contrast, Russian’s read all the time and everywhere they go. On the bus, on the tram, on the escalators going into/out of the metro…and most of all on the metro. Squeezed into those aluminum tubes and shot through the Swiss cheese bowels of Moscow, it doesn’t matter if they’re standing or sitting, nearly everyone’s got a book in their nose. I tell you, it’s a beautiful sight! But here in Slovenia it’s a completely different story, and I think it really must come down to this division of labour. One activity at a time, no exceptions. I’m convinced, in fact, that there is a special branch of the police department, which I have decided must be called the Activities Unit, that goes up to people reading in the park and confirms that their only intention is to read.
‘Ma’am, I see you’re reading a book, there. Any chance you’re also waiting for someone?’
‘As you were, then. Can’t have people doing both.’
‘Of course not. That would be utterly bizarre. Nope, I’m just reading my book and enjoying the breeze and the sunlight on this beautiful day!’
‘Alright, ma’am, I count three things. Now I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.’
I have yet to document this, but I plan on devoting myself to this research more fully in the coming months.
Now, for those of you who truly want to go the extra mile on this one, I recommend you tweak your provocations a bit. Do what I did all winter and walk and read. Eh? Eh? Oh, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is that it is dangerous, but it’s also a lot of fun, which I’ll get to in a minute. My bike was out of commission for a while, and walking from place to place was getting boring and taking too long, so I started reading as I went. I’m not sure when I ever got such looks, some of them downright judgmental, as if to say that my behaviour was entirely inappropriate. Head-shaking, jaw-dropping looks. It was uncomfortable, and I might have given it up under this intense and silent pressure, had it not been for the number of smiles I noticed myself getting from girls who seemed to find it cute (this is what I tell myself they were thinking, and no one can take that away from me).
Now I’m not on the make these days (I’m pretty sure no one has been ‘on the make’ since 1967), but it does feel nice to be noticed, and this fact got me past the self-conscious stage and into the ‘reading and walking is super awesome’ stage. Let me tell you just why this is. Not only do you get where you’re going and enjoy a nice story, the city around you also begins to transform itself into a living landscape of the book. It’s like when you smell E.T. cereal in the subway and are transported back to 1984, or whenever it was that E.T. cereal was a thing (and it was delicious, let me just tell you! It is a double-edged sword every time I get an inexplicable whiff of that luscious essence because as happy as it makes me, the realization that there will be no actual E.T. cereal forthcoming is almost too grim to bear). The city around you that you look at as you’re reading begins to meld with the book, and if you walk the same path a lot, you dig a literary groove into those city streets that will replay its magic long after the book is finished.
As spring has arrived and with it more colours and fresher feelings, I have started walking sans book, and this has been a revelation. I find the stories that I read before are now locked in certain locations. Pieces of them, the parts I read and moments I encountered along a certain stretch of road, are still there, waiting for me as I pass. Crossing the street near the university, I find Lolita and Humbert Humbert finally indulging in what he had been sickly-secretly longing for. Up a bit from the Dragon Bridge (yup, Dragon Bridge), little Danny Torrance is finally discovering just what Red Rum really means. The Hotel New Hampshire has a new bear, and incest is still on the table, as I near the medical center not far from my apartment. And on the path to my local market, Ray Garraty is still walking down 99 other boys, and he won’t stop even after he’s done. Walking and reading brought these books to life in a way that I had never experienced before, and I’m discovering now just how alive they really are.
Now I’m not advocating a caution-to-the-wind approach to your spiritual and intellectual nourishment, and I would warn you that, even if the ‘Walk’ sign is on, it’s better to put that book down while crossing the street. If your goal is to attract strange looks, however, you needn’t take your life into your hands. There are other ways to attract attention, even if it doesn’t come with the joy of hearing people actually call after you that you’re crazy (fortunately, these comments came around the time the weather turned nicer, so I’ve told myself that they had no effect on my decision). A less offensive strategy that you might employ, although nevertheless not for the faint of heart, is wearing sandals in the city. Basically anytime is enough to draw a few looks, but to pull the really puzzled faces, try wearing them when there is even one cloud in the sky, even a wispy little cirrus one.
Chaco’s are a part of my life. This is not a plug for them (but if you see this, Chaco people, feel free to send money), I simply really enjoy wearing them. The first day that spring began to poke her wee head out to test the air, I slapped those rubber and canvas heel-huggers right on my feet. It was not sandal weather (not even for Berkeley, where you are issued sandals and a copy of city ordinance 521-b, paragraph q, which states that they are to be worn, rain or shine, as long as the temperature remains above 55 degrees Fahrenheit), and I got a lot of stares and comments from all of my friends. Ask me how much I cared. Go on, you’ll never guess! The answer is: only a very little bit. After all, I am trying to blend in a little bit over here.
Since then there have been very few days when I left the house in anything else, and this has warranted a fair amount of attention, I can tell you. Mostly from older people, who will walk past me, notice my feet, and proceed to prove that your head really can do a slow, 180 degree turn as your body goes forward but you swivel at the neck to keep the eyes locked in place. I always smile. And recently a group of bachelor party fellows announced that Jesus had returned. Was it the long hair and the stubbly beard? Nah, I think it was the sandals.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a word about blending in. Who says I don’t have something for everyone here, eh? If you would like to be cool and fit in with the hip Slovene kids these days, the big trend seems to be suspenders. But lest you look like a real nidgit and actually use them to hold up your pants, think again, young heart. If you don’t want to stand out, you have to wear them hanging down so that they’re not suspending anything, but instead being suspended. I have seen this all over, and every time I do I think of German. The German word for ‘suspenders’ is Hosenträger, or ‘the things that carry your pants’. I can only imagine that this word has changed to Hosengetragene, ‘the things carried by your pants’, in affected regions of neighbouring German-speaking countries, for they have ceased to be suspenders and have become suspendeds. And, yes, that’s what the cool kids are wearing.
PS-I saw a kid walking and reading the other day. I’m claiming personal influence and look forward to a bright future of Slovenian word-walkers, even as I pray for this not to result in an increase in car accidents…