So many of my posts in the last month have been fairly restricted to “we went here and did this, then we went there and did that”. Whilst the big sights were obviously often the highlights, I think it’s quite useful for me to not forget many of the little things that made our trip what it was: the funny moments, the ways in which the places operated that I liked, things that were annoying, things that took you by surprise, things that you’d NEVER see in New Zealand and so on.
Well I guess overall…. WOW HOLY FUCKING SHIT EUROPE ROCKS! OK, now I’ve got that out of my system. Every place we visited I think we were pleasantly surprised by, even though for which I had enormously high expectations – such as Paris & Venice in particular. I think I am only truly starting to realise how much amazingly special stuff we saw, how it’s not every day you can go to an art gallery and see six Picasso paintings in the same room, how it’s not just normal to stumble across a 2000 year old Roman ruin and so on. Obviously I knew that before leaving, but after a few weeks of seeing amazing stuff each and every day, you almost begin to think that it’s normal for you to be surrounded by buildings hundreds of years old, and for an art gallery to be filled with names that even I (the most art uneducated person in the world) recognised. But yeah, while the museums and art galleries were definitely most impressive, and I do feel like I learned a lot, there were many other things that I probably found more impressive and interesting.
Like the architecture! And by architecture I don’t just mean the fantastic churches and temples, or the ruins of Rome or Pompeii. I think generally I mean the density of it all, the typical 4-6 level building in either London, Paris, Barcelona or Rome that seems to line almost every street. While one might think the homogeneity of the buildings would eventually become boring, two never did quite seem the same, and where you found longer lines of the same sort of architecture – such as Regent Street in London or many Parisian boulevards, the vista that it created was awesome. I have found that height of building just seems to work really well: it doesn’t tower above you in an impersonal way like a skyscraper can (although there were some truly impressive skyscrapers in La Defense and Canary Wharf in particular), but still has the density to create a vibrancy that is just impossible in a place like Auckland, still obsessed with 1 and 2 level buildings. With those kinds of buildings, you always knew the street level would probably be retail, providing an array of shops that is just totally impossible in New Zealand, while the number of people living in the building would mean someone’s always coming or going, someone else is hanging washing out the window, and yet another person is arguing loudly with their family member inside (although in Italy I think everyone just talks like they’re passionately arguing, even when they’re just asking what’s for breakfast).
Funnily enough, when I think about the density of these cities, it isn’t London, Paris or Rome that immediately comes to mind, but rather Barcelona. Although it didn’t have the size of a London or Paris, and didn’t have the chaos of a Naples or the “city sized museumness” of a Rome, I really do think that Barcelona felt the most vibrant of all the places we visited. Not only in the central “Gothic Quarter”, where the narrow alleyways seemed constantly full of people, even at 11pm on a Wednesday night; but also throughout the wider L’Eixample, the newer parts of Barcelona. L’Eixample rather fascinated me actually, as a method of having a heck of a lot of people living in a fairly constrained space, but still having nice areas of private open space (through the use of inner courtyards) and also ensuring through those same courtyards that most parts of the building get a decent amount of sun. While the Gaudi designed “La Pedrera” that we walked through, is probably not quite indicative of the whole area, I do think that it’s pretty common for buildings in L’Eixample to be designed in this manner. The density of the place meant people were always around, the metro system could be fantastic and the vibrancy was unbelievable.
The whole “European” way of life was also quite interesting to us. Seeing the variations in culture between countries became more and more obvious as the trip went on: ideas that Parisians had more similarities to Londoners than we might have thought, that Barcelona was kinda similar to southern and central Italy, which itself was similar, but also quite different, to the more northern towns of Florence and Venice. It was interesting to see the whole “siesta” culture, and given the heat of mid-afternoon in Spain and southern Italy, Leila and I began to embrace the idea of taking a break in the afternoon and heading back to our hotel, before emerging at around 8pm (or even later for the locals) to get dinner and see a bit more of the city. The European attitude to alcohol was also particularly interesting, with wine, beer and spirits seemingly available for sale everywhere. There’s surely no liquor licensing of the kind we have in NZ, when a typical tourist van sells beer for the same price as a bottle of coke. At the supermarkets in Paris we could find bottles of wine for under 2 Euros as well… yet it just didn’t seem like we ever came across particularly drunken behaviour at all. Perhaps the only time we did was on a bus back from Venice late at night when I think we coincided with some “after-ball” celebration and the noisiest bunch of teenage Italians I’ve ever seen. But apart from that it seems like the Europeans knew how to handle their alcohol without the “nannying” that we see in NZ all the time. Perhaps the fact that it’s always been so available and relatively cheap means that Europeans don’t get the whole “gotta get smashed tonight” mentality that NZers (and the English) have. 6pm closing time for pubs has a lot to answer for!
I guess in so many ways I really found my outlook on life often matching up a lot with how Europe seems to work. Being able to live without a car for 4 weeks quite easily was great, being able to catch trains all over the place and in many places having so much within walking distance (even in a big city like Rome) made life so easy – and must be truly awesome for those living in these places. I’ll get back there…. some day.